Monday, February 18, 2013

Italy Food Journal

I say it often, that something somewhere is better than anywhere else. For example, any pub in Dublin is better than every pub anywhere else. Perhaps I use my fair share of hyperbole, maybe I'm just always right. Either way, what I say is soundly rooted in personal experience.

With food in Italy, however, those types of statements are undeniable, universal and just plain fact. I'll put it this way: on my second evening in Rome, I had a subpar meal. But after finishing it, I thought to myself, wait a minute, this was still better than any pasta dish I've ever had anywhere else. The previous 24 hours had spoiled me.

You can't reconstruct an authentic Italian meal with words and not include a hearty amount of hand gestures. So as you're reading this, just imagine my hands are flailing and pointing and waving at exactly the right moment to provide emphasis. I am going to try my best to pull one meal from each day I'm here in this glorious country, which will hopefully highlight the breadth, depth and diversity of its culinary expertise.

So check out my Italy Food Journal below, and return daily for updates as I eay my way from Rome to Bologna to Milan.


Saturday: Rigatoni Carbonara
Dinner: L'Enoteca Antica, Rome - near the Spanish Steps

This old pub-like Italin bar was enjoyable as much for its atmosphere and ambiance as for its delicious food. Hundreds of wines available, and an ancient interior launch you back to a time forgotten, except for the whizzing Vespas outside and the not-so-distant hum on the Spanish Steps. A glass of Chianti and a bowl of Carbonara made with homemade rigatoni brought my first night in Rome to a perfect close. The dish wasn't too heavy or overly creamy, as Carbonara can sometimes be when done incorrectly. Pieces of pancetta added a meaty, salty touch and perfectly complimented the silken sauce.

Runner up: The cafe atop the Victor Emmanuel monument, Rome.
Excellent capuccino but come here more for the view and outdoor setting overlooking the Forum. Relax sipping a cup in their comfy patio lounge.

Sunday: Fried Artichokes
Dinner: Ristorante Antonio's, Rome - Pantheon neighborhood

When a meal begins by the old proprietor silently coming to your tiny corner table, scooping up the empty wine glasses, walking outside the front door to a wooden keg on a table on the street, filling the glasses with house white wine and returning them to your eager open fingers - without saying anything other than "buona sera," - you know it is going to be an interesting gastronomic experience. Whereas Antonio's main dishes weren't as flavorful or hearty (or good, for that matter - in fact I'd go as far to say they were disappointing) as one would hope, the free surprise wine and primi piatti we ordered more than made up for any latter downturns.

Simple yet exquisite, we ordered the fried artichoke special thinking we'd get hearts dipped in batter then tossed in the fryolater. Oh how wrong we were. Out came a massive ovular plate on which say two full artichokes, stems and all. No batter, just an artichoke stalk cleaned properal so the form and shingles remained, then tossed in the fry oil to crisp up, plated and drizzled with local olive oil and salt. The leaves, typically discarded on artichokes, were like chips and the stalks were devoid of bitterness, housing the sweetness fo the oil. It really was truly an amazing dish in just how basic it was, but how memorable it tasted.

Monday: Proscuitto, Mozzarella, Tomato panini
Lunch: Duccento Gradi, Rome - near the Vatican
After walking the Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica, the feet need a time out and the stomach needs a work out. We hopped outside the Catholic city-state's walls, over to a creative and eclectic sandwich shop called Duccento Gradi. The name had popped up in several books and online searches, but yet was not filled with tourists and service was prompt and courteous. I chose the Venetian Panini, a combo of two types of Prosciutto, mozzarella, tomato and an artichoke spread, all covered in olive oil, slapped on two fresh pieces of bread and pressed. The result was exactly how it sounds. A mix of salty, tangy and well, cheesy, it beat out any of the other lunch options we had opted for since being in Roma. Sure a quick grab at a kiosk or pizzeria is good, but when the proprietor adds just that little extra effort, fresh ingredients and a desire to serve up something just a little better, you are left with a sandwich most other sandwiches envy.

Tuesday: The greatest sandwich I've ever had & Florentine steak
Lunch & Dinner in Florence

Firenza’s fine food required me to not choose which meal to post because for the little over 24 hours we spent in this Renaissance center, everything we ate was of divine creation. I ate lunch at the Number 1 restaurant, the Number 3 restaurant (we tried #2 but it was booked solid), and a quiet trattoria that I chose because there were two must-haves right there visible in the window: a giant slab of fresh beef and an old, grizzled Italian man slicing off heaving Florentine steaks and grilling them with lemon. Each meal warrants a mention here, as I couldn’t choose one a day. Florence’s food is as exquisite an artform as anything in the Uffizi.

Lunch: All’Antico Vinaio
The number one rated restaurant in Florence (according to Trip Advisor and mist every other guide in-the-know), is a tiny sandwich shop down a back alley. Naturally. And the number one restaurant in Florence did absolutely nothing spectacular. Of course. And the number one restaurant in Florence wasn’t jam-packed. Bonus for us. But the number one restaurant in Florence was the number one restaurant in Florence.

We gorged on the benefits of off-season travel several times in Firenza, but none more satisfying than the culinary ones. The line typically stretches out the door of this tiny counter space, and down the cobbled sidewalk. But today, a sunny February Tuesday afternoon, we strolled right in and were hit by wave after wave of familiar yet exquisite aroma. The whole Prosciutto di Parma sat on the counter top, next to a still steaming roast beef, still bleeding from the slice taken off for the previous customer. Next to that rested a massive porcetta (roast poark), crispy skin and all. In the deli case were rows upon rows of tapanades, spreads, olives, tomatoes (fresh and sun-dried), cheeses, meats and who knows what else. I knew what I wanted immediately.

“Panini, porcetta e mozzarella e olivo, per favore.”

I don’t know if that was proper Italian grammar, but it got the point across because what I got in return for my 5 Euro – let me repeat, 5 Euro for the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten – was a load of sliced pork roast, crispy skin and all, literally stuffed into two slices of focaccia along with mozzarella and olive spread.

My wife got a proscuitto and mozzarella with olive spread, artichoke spread and sun-dried tomatoes. When I tell you these were the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, I’m not exaggerating. The sandwiches in Rome were great, but overall Firenze wiped the trattoria floor with Roma when it came to gastronomy.

Everything was fresh, sliced right in front of our eyes. The bowl of sun-dried tomatoes was even brought in from the market across the way as we were standing there ordering. Easy to see, and taste, why they’re number one.

Dinner: Antico Fattore
I was drawn in to  Antico Fattore by the massive beef in the window and the old man butchering it. We stayed because the waiter was jolly and joked with us in Italian because my wife couldn’t make up her mind on water with or without gas. He called her a “plumb,” trying to get me to understand his meaning by dropping an imaginary plum line on the wall and swinging it back and forth. The English word he was looking for was “pendulum,” to symbolize my wife’s swaying choices. I told him he was going to get me in trouble, to which he apologized nervously but broke out into laughter when I told him I was just joking.

Thankfully, we had made friends enough for him to warn me when I tried to order the steak Florentine – a giant porterhouse simply grilled in the local style. It was 2 ½ lbs of meat. We saw it being brought to another table. It would have taken three of me, plus my dog to finish it. Instead, he promised to bring me something just as good, in a more manageable one-person portion.

I feasted on a perfectly cooked steak, ribeye cut without the bone, covered in sautéed porcini mushrooms that exploded with flavor but didn’t overwhelm or really even imbue the meat. Rather, tasted together in the same bite, provided the perfect earthy complement to the hearty beef.

Just goes to show you, when the city’s #2 restaurant is all booked up (we had tried to get in), go with your gut and put your faith in the waiter, as long as he doesn’t have a personality like a “plumb.”

Wednesday: Braccioli e Salsa (Beef) and whatever else they serve
Lunch: Trattoria Mario's, Florence
You wait. You sit. You introduce yourself to the strangers you squeeze in next to. You look up at the board with the menu of the day. You pick a few things and you sit back and enjoy. You say, "Si, vino." And you sit back and soak in Italy swarming around you in all its chaotic culinary glory.

Mario's is a hole in the wall off a piazza, with stickers and papers covering the windows and doors. But those aren't just any stickers and papers. They're reviews - hundreds of them and all overwhelmingly positive. For good reason. The menu changes daily but I'd believe that any day you walked through their doors, you'd be in for a special treat you can't find anywhere this side of an Italian grandmother's kitchen. Their specialty is the massive Florentine steak, with its porterhouse shape and Italian appetite size. I opted for white been soup, which tasted unlike white beans or any soup I've ever had. The waitress drizzled a message on top in deep green olive oil, which I believe spelled the word, "mangia." I didn't wait long enough to ask her, but rather dove in spoon first. It was creamy and hearty, perfect for a chilly Florentine afternoon. The olive oil mixed with the pureed beans and a hint of salt and pepper made for an exquisitely un-busy dish. In fact, nothing I saw on my table or the others around me looked particularly complex. But the flavors were. Fresh ingredients, and letting them do the talking with any overdressing, is a style of cooking that more should aspire to.

But at Mario's they're already doing it just right. My beef braccioli was as simple as the bean soup and I wouldn't want it any other way. Pounded thin, breaded, pan fried, rolled and swimming in tomato sauce. The meat was so tender I never picked up a knife. The sauce was so tangy, sweet and perfect, I had to get more bread just to sop up every last bit.

By meal's end, when the waitress brought by a glass of sweet wine and biscotti, I was wrapping up one of the top three or four meals I've ever eaten. It was that good. And with an authentic ambiance like the buzzing but somehow relaxing Mario's, it made for one of the top three or four dining experiences I've ever had as well.

Simplicity. Don't overthink it, Mario's doesn't. So go there.

Thursday: Traditional Balsamic vineger
Picci’s - Outside Parma

The most memorable thing I ate on this trip wasn’t a meal, or even a dish for that matter. Outside Parma, Italy, a man named Marco toured us around three floors of his villa, on which he makes some of the country’s best traditional Balsamic vinegar. This isn’t your liquefied, toss with salad Balsamic. When the tour ended and Marco offered up tasting spoons, it took a good 15 – 20 seconds for him to fill each one, and only after a vigorous amount of shaking. Traditional Balsamic oozes from the nozzle like syrup. The 25 year aged version was sweet as caramel, but with an underlying grape tartness that makes it distinctively Balsamic. We also tried a 12 year, which had the same consistency and a slightly less sweet, oak flavor (having been in the wooden barrels half the time). I could eat a few drops of this on ice cream, berries, a good cheese, a plastic spoon, my fingertip or the floor and be content.

There is no condiment in the world that compares here. Marco used to sell his Traditional Balsamic to William Sonoma, who in turn sold it in their stores for over $125 a tiny bottle. But their expectations and his small operation couldn’t mesh for long and now the only places he sells to are Canada and a small restaurant in Aspen, Colorado owner and operated by a former chef Marco’s restaurant (located right next door to his villa). I had nothing but respect for the process, especially after learning that the only ingredient in Traditional Balsamic is grapes. To be precise, the discarded “most,” that is leftover from winemaking. It’s cooked down for days, then through a painstaking process of barrel rotating, evaporation and a dozen other steps Marco described. Other, lesser “Traditional” Balsamics with larger operations add coloring, caramels, sweeteners, etc., and can pump out bottles in two years, two months or two hours. Posers, all of them. Marco spends the majority of his job waiting – as in, his first batch that he started on his own in 2000 should be ready this year (he and his father have been doing it together for decades). But something this good is clearly worth waiting for.

Runner up: Ristorante Gallo d’Oro, Parma

Parma’s food all around was incredible. Gallo d’Oro, recommended by multiple people, served up a basic tortellini in broth, that warmed up my chilled body. I also ate some of the most delicious pork ribs, roasted and covered in thyme, honey and Tradtional Balsamic.

Friday: Fish salad and pasta with crab
Ostaria a la Campana - Venice

Venice makes you hungry. After the walking, the people, the markets, even the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square start to look appetizing. Unfortunately, around every corner is a restaurant. I say unfortunately because all of them are serving the same limp pizza (not something traditional to this region at all), cold, lifeless paninis and anything else they expect hungry tourists want to eat. There are great restaurants in Venice, you just have to find them. And like finding anything in this eclectic city, it’s damn near impossible. So the times I’ve been here I’ve employed a simple practice when my stomach starts rumbling: get lost. Find someone that looks like a local, follow them down some walkways, near the canal, away from the canal, it doesn’t matter. Stop at a few trattorias you see, check the menu, avoid exorbitant prices (which I’ve found to mean you’re close to the busiest tourist areas), and go with your gut. After all, it’s the reason you’re in this position in the first place. Another caveat, if it looks and sounds like Italians are eating there, put it up a notch on your list.

When we strolled by Ostaria a la Campana, I did all of the above. It was the menu that drew me in, actually, advertising a few dishes of the day, not a full menu. The waiter inside mentioned they had seafood risotto, pasta with pomodoro and crab, fired calamari and shrimp and a fish salad. We took one of each and tucked into a seafood feast inside this tight but comfortable spot. Each dish was tasty, not overly fishy and the fried calamari was some of the best I’ve ever had. The fish salad had large, perfectly cooked hunks of octopus smothered in olive oil and lemon. It was a great find and somewhere that I’d probably have a hard time finding again – although I’d absolutely try.


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