Tuesday, October 25, 2011

eating italy part 3: bologna

I've been holding out on you. I've been neglecting to gush about the endless cups of gelato I inhaled throughout our Italy adventure. This is partially because I ate so much of it that it is a bit of a sugar blur, but mostly it's just because I didn't take pictures. Gelato was almost always eaten while strolling, when both hands were occupied and the late summer heat was threatening frozen integrity. But I got this shot, triumphantly!

Yes, it's true, that is a gelato sandwich. Upon arrival in Bologna, I promptly found Cremeria Funivia, a beautiful, sleek, and modern gelateria on Piazza Cavour in the heart of the city known for innovative flavors and supremely exacting standards. I had them stuff three flavors of gelato into this "focaccia". This is nothing like the salty, oily focaccia that we know, this was like a soft brioche bun with a bit of sugar on top. That might just look like vanilla, but there's more to the story in there. The first flavor was one of their specials, the San Luca, a white chocolate gelato with "riso soffiato croccante", essentially Rice Krispies. How the crispies managed to still be so crispy even when sitting in the gelato is magical to me. The second flavor was a fior di panna, essentially a pure cream gelato. Perhaps it sounds simple, but when made with exceptionally delicious cream it is one of my favorite flavors, especially when paired with fruity sorbetti or strong chocolates. Finally, my third flavor was another special, Leonardo, a toasted pine nut unlike any other gelato I've ever had. For three essentially white gelatos, the variation of flavor was stunning, and the texture surpassed any of the countless other gelatos I had on the trip. Paired with the soft, slightly sweet bread, this was the mother of all ice cream sandwiches, and far less messy than I anticipated. J-Cat chose two very different gelatos. The first was Amarenata Croccante, which we chose blindly and happily discovered to be a local preserved sour cherry with the same crispy rice. This was paired perfectly with ciccolata e rhum, an amazing balance of liquor flavor in a pure, smooth, deep chocolate. I would return to Bologna just for that gelato.

Emilia-Romagna is known as the food capital of Italy, and though everywhere I've been in Italy is entirely obsessed with great food, there was a true level of mania in Bologna that I hadn't seen elsewhere. My tattoo was a big thing there, as if this mark of a similarly food-obsessed person automatically made me one of their own. Roberto and Agostino, our hosts at our incredible B&B (Antica Residenza D'Azeglio), were so excited to discover how food-focused we were that Agostino actually walked us to the restaurant that he recommended for dinner, insisting on introducing us to Stefano, the owner of the delightful Osteria al 15. This tiny, homey restaurant hidden on a quiet side street is apparently one of the few true osterias left, a small, casual, affordable place with a simple, concise menu that usually changes with the seasons and the days.

Seated in a cozy corner we watched the empty restaurant fill to the brim in the course of our meal. Which was intense. Intense and awesome. We started with a little treat of canellini crostata, so flavorful and comforting on an actually chilly night.

Next up, for our antipasti, we chose a Bolognese classic - crescentine e tighelle. Crescentine are these magical fried bread pillows that you eat with a wide variety of antipasti. The tighelle are dense, almost biscuit-like rounds of bread. The crescentine were of greater interest to me, so much so that I forgot we had pasta and a secondi on the way...

The breads were served with cheeses and meats, including ricotta all’ aceto balsamico caramellato, a slab of fresh ricotta with a sweet mixture of balsamic vinegar, honey, and caramel.

The meat plate (already half depleted when I took the picture) was a classic variety of prosciutto, mortadella, bresaola, sopressata, capicolla, and a delightful radicchio cup filled with a tangy fresh cheese that I never identified. Think cottage cheese if cottage cheese was irresistibly scrumptious.

Next came our primis, and I'll be honest, we were already kind of full at this point. The tighelle and crescentine and all of the meats and cheeses - there was a lot and it was so good that we did not bother to restrain ourselves. But pasta. You know that pasta is my primary reason for being. So I was going to make room and pray that our secondi would be small. Of course, my pasta was insanely rich. I had to get tortelloni in Bologna, and this was filled with creamy cheese, tossed with artichokes and slathered in a delicious cream sauce.

J-Cat also went classic with a tagliatelle al ragu. And actually, he had had that same dish earlier that day at the fantastic Trattoria Trebbi, but I failed to get photos of that. Very sad I didn't document that because he loved it so much he ordered the same thing twice in one day! The tagliatelle at Osteria al 15 was just enough different than the one at Trebbi, though, as every family and restaurant has their variation on such a homestyle dish.

Thankfully, our secondi was relatively small, though rich, and unfortunately I forgot what it is called. It was essentially a bowl of melted cheese, mostly fontina, but there was probably something else mixed it. Laid atop the sea of cheese were slices of prosciutto and a handful of arugula to cut the richness. Had I had any room left for bread it would have been ideal to scoop this up.

So yes, my Bologna post only includes some gelato and one meal, but that's because what would happen the next day would take us out to Modena on an epic food adventure that deserves a post of it's own. Stay tuned for part 4!

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

eating italy part 2: firenze

After some truly exceptional meals in Rome, the question on our minds was: Could we possibly top that in Florence? We certainly intended to try. But before we get to the food, we should really do some more chatting about coffee.

J-Cat and I really love our coffee. It is serious business for us. We are picky about beans, we grind it fresh in our burr grinder every morning, we're all about the french press. But now we were in espresso country, which admittedly we're less knowledgeable about. Would this satisfy? The answer is that since we got home, J-Cat has been talking about espresso makers. So yes, it definitely satisfied. First stop in Florence: Chiarascuro for their Nocciolino, a delicious, lightly sweetened hazlenut-infused espresso drink. I HATE flavored coffee, but this is the exception I would be willing to make on a daily basis if I had the choice. Chiarascuro also features a nice spread of point-and-choose plates like pastas, salads, and antipasti for a light lunch or midday snack.

So back to the food. Steak. Florence is known for steak, specifically their giant T-bone steaks, which they serve quite rare and simply seasoned with just salt and pepper. Our first dinner was at Centro Poveri, a modern little osteria/pizzeria in Santa Maria Novella. I'd heard some solid things about their Bistecca Fiorentina, which was not only tasty, but a very fair price for a giant hunk of steak. It wasn't drop dead fantastic, in fact, we would have a far better steak a couple nights later (I'll get to that), but as a whole meal it more than satisfied. The Bistecca Menu was almost outrageously affordable for three courses plus wine, starting with a great salumi and cheese plate.

Followed by the enormous, well seasoned, but somewhat gristly steak. It was cooked perfectly, but the strip side of the bone was not as tender as it could be. The ribeye side was heavenly. It was served with a little side of sliced, roasted potatoes.

The meal rounded out with a perfect little coffee-flavored budino, which was actually one of the only proper desserts we ate in Italy. This is purely because we ate gelato every single day.

The next day, after climbing all the way up the Duomo, we rewarded ourselves with a visit to my favorite place in Florence, the Mercato Centrale. This is my wonderland of food. Next time I go to Florence I have to stay in an apartment with a kitchen, because the market is chock full of great ingredients. The stunning dried kiwi slices above, or the "polli nostrali" ("our own chickens") below, everything I saw made me itch to cook.

Cases of tripe and lampredotto.

Dozens of different nuts and dried fruits.

The highlight - not only of the market, or even Florence, but possibly of the whole trip - was this:

The bollito sandwich at Nerbone, a food stand at the back of the market where you have to aggressively fight your way onto the line to first pay, then order from the no-nonsense guy with the cleaver chopping up meat that he fishes out of a magical vat of broth. You're not going to successfully beat out the working guys who sidle up to the side of the meat man's counter and surreptitiously grab sandwiches, but if you go on the early side of the lunch rush there are enough lulls to shout out your order. Juicey boiled beef is sliced thin and piled onto a rosette roll, which you must order "bagnato", or bathed, so that he dunks the roll into the vat of meaty broth. Ask for "tutte le salse" and he'll slap on the fresh green chimichurri-like sauce, plus the spicy red pepper sauce. This is a sandwich that you continue to dream about for days and weeks after you eat it. This is the sandwich that we've tried to replicate twice since we've been home. We've actually come pretty close but there is still some untouchable magic about that meat man at Nerbone.

It could have been all downhill from there. I could have eaten the frozen lasagna out of this automat that we found in the Oltrarno.

But there was actually a lot more tastiness to be found, including a cool enoteca in Santa Croce called Baldovino.

Baldovino is a trattoria on one side of the alley and an enoteca on the other. Pretty good pizzas and pastas, I was happy to find this pappardelle with vegetables because as strong as my stomach is, eating meat at every meal for a week doesn't feel fantastic. I loved that the celery, carrot, and onion were sauteed just enough to lose their raw bite, but still maintain their refreshing crispness.

We sat on the enoteca side, where they have a very cool wine dispensing system that gives you the opportunity to sample a variety of wines instead of having to order a full bottle. You can put however much money you like on a wine card, then help yourself to half or full glasses of over 40 different varieties. We slept well that night.

The next day we found ourselves back at the Mercato Centrale. J-Cat plead his case to just go back in and get more bollito sandwiches, but I had to try Trattoria Mario. A cramped little hole in the wall behind the market, Mario is only open for lunch, and by 12:01 every seat in the place was full. The no-nonsense hostess/waitress points you to one of the long communal tables and gives you about 10 seconds to decide on what you want off of the handwritten menu on the wall. The pastas and soups change daily, the meats - such as bistecca fiorentina, vitello arrosto, and bollito misto - are pretty much always available. To the sounds of the grinning chefs in the long and skinny kitchen chop chop chopping up the meat, we chowed down on a maccheroni al ragu, the bollito misto, outrageously good french fries, and a magical green salad that consisted only of lettuce with a sprinkle of olive oil and vinegar, yet tasted like a work of art. The pasta was freaking amazing.

The bollito misto was quite good; although the brisket was a little drier than our bollito sandwiches from Nerbone, the tongue was incredibly tender and juicy. The salsa verde had a nice fresh bite. Mario is a must-eat for lunch in Florence.

Later that day, we allowed ourselves a very indulgent touristy moment and took a table outside at Rivoire, a beautiful and historical caffe and artisanal chocolatier on the Piazza della Signoria. It is one of those classic Italian caffes where you would be wise to stand at the bar to drink your coffee and save a ton of money, but perhaps it's worth the table fee to sit across from the Palazzo Vecchio and the copy of the David and relax for a while. We went for the sweets - J-Cat opted for a coffee granita with whipped cream, while I went with what Rivoire is really known for, the chocolate. The hot chocolate is only lightly sweet so you can really taste the cocoa, although of course you get sugar packets if you want to go crazy. I think we paid more for two drinks and some water than we did for the entire enormous lunch at Mario, but it really is some lovely atmosphere.

Okay back to the meat again, this time at all' Antico Ristoro Di' Cambi in the Oltrarno, where the only thing any diner is eating is the Bistecca Fiorentina, because it's THAT GOOD. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, let's first talk about how I managed to have a brain fart and think I was ordering fennel (finocchia) and artichokes for an appetizer, but I had misread the menu and it actually said fennel sausage (finocchiona). And not that I don't love fennel sausage, but we were about to eat a giant steak and I didn't really need a meat appetizer to warm up for it. We ate the whole thing, though.

But the steak was really the star of the show, and this was truly a star. This steak was perfection - cooked perfectly rare, but not raw-tasting, seasoned just the right amount, butter tender from beginning to end, and a profoundly beefy flavor - it is everything you want when you commit to a giant steak at a restaurant. This, to me, was Florence, and the perfect way to wrap up our stay.

Next up, if you thought Rome and Florence were food destinations, you've never been to Emilia-Romagna.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

eating italy part 1: roma

This was our version of a pilgrimage. Our long belated honeymoon came almost exactly one year after we actually got married, and it was well worth the wait. This is my favorite country, my favorite food, and is now my favorite trip ever. J-Cat had never been to Italy and I had a feeling he would love it as much as I do. I was right.

First stop: Rome. I'll spare you the gazillion photos of the Vatican and the Colosseum and the Pantheon and the fifty thousand beautiful fountains. I know we've all seen that before. And in any case, the most important sights were the foods. Within a couple of hours of stepping off the plane, we were already eating what would probably be my favorite plate of pasta of the whole trip, the Spaghetti Carbonara at Ristorante Roscioli near Campo de Fiori. An offshoot of their famously fantastic bakery Antico Forno Roscioli, this salumeria/vineria/trattoria was just a couple blocks from our hotel and getting a lot of talk amongst the Roman food community for their impeccable versions of simple Roman classics made with meticulously sourced ingredients. We lucked out by arriving on the late side for lunch when there was no wait for one of the tiny tables tucked in the back of the little salumi shop, surrounded by walls of wine bottles. The carbonara was absolute perfection - rich, smooth, incredibly flavorful, with homemade spaghetti and crisp chunks of guanciale. This was the best carbonara I've ever had and I do not say that lightly seeing as how I worship Michael White and still dream about his carbonara from the sadly departed Convivio.

J-Cat chose another Roman classic, Cacio e Pepe. Like the carbonara, the homemade spaghetti was cooked to perfection and it was bursting with flavor, though we did find the intense amount of additional pecorino on top made it a touch saltier than it should be. I missed getting pictures of our antipasti (sooo hungry right off the plane) but we got a simple plate of salumi and cheese. The salumi was all unbelievable, not surprising since that is the specialty of the shop. The cheese was mostly good, but I must admit we were faced with one hunk of particularly stinky cheese which did us in. Now, both J-Cat and I love our cheese and it takes a lot to best us in the stinky/funky category, so that should be an indication that whatever this cheese was, it was supremely stinky and funky. I should have asked what it was called, but I was still in a plane daze and my limited Italian skills were not cooperating just yet.

Despite the funk, this was an unbelievable meal, and a perfect way to start our trip. Next time we are in Rome, Roscioli will be a must eat.

I of course managed to forget to take pictures of many of our meals, because I was usually too distracted by the food to stop and pull out my camera. So here's what I missed: Gelato. I was terrible about taking photos of gelato. Probably because it was hot out and I wanted to eat it before it melted. Day one was easily the best gelato I had in Rome, at Il Gelato di San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain. Known for supremely natural gelato, the owners use no unnatural flavorings or short cuts, from the fresh fruits to the excellent nut flavors. I started my daily gelato treats with my favorite - pistachio, matched with a fior di latte. The afternoon also included the best coffee we would have in Rome at Caffe Sant' Eustachio near Piazza Navona.

For our first dinner, we were not particularly hungry because we were still so satisfied from our pasta lunch at Roscioli. We decided to seek out something light and less carby, so we wandered over to the old Jewish Ghetto neighborhood and took a table at La Taverna del Ghetto. And we did indeed not eat any pasta or other intense carbs, however, light would not describe our meal. Taverna del Ghetto is known for the their fried appetizers, especially the classic Carciofi alla Guidia. The deep fried artichoke is crispy and delicate, not as greasy as you might think. We also tried a battered and fried fish, perfectly fried. The highlight, though, was the fried stuffed zucchini blossom. Because Taverna del Ghetto is Kosher they do not serve dairy on their meat-focused menu, so rather than the classic ricotta stuffing, the zucchini blossom was stuffed with a delicate finger of fish. I don't know what kind of fish it was, but it was very mild and creamy. It so perfectly stood in for cheese that I was confused when I first bit into it.

I also missed taking photos at our dinner the following night, at Da Olindo in Trastevere. A small family-run Osteria tucked on a quiet street away from the racous Friday night Trastevere crowds, we had a simple, delicious meal of antipasti and pasta. My Cacio e Pepe and J-Cat's Bucatini all' Amatriciana were both solid versions, especially considering they were just a few euro per dish. The mixed vegetable antipasti were the highlight of the meal, though, particularly a dish of marinated canellini beans that I could have eaten a huge bowl of and called it a night.

Day three was our Ancient Rome day, so we started it off early at the Colosseum, then the Forum and Palatine Hill. Then we thought our feet would fall off, so thankfully we only had a short walk to Bar Benito, a small, no-frills luncheonette. They serve lunch in the style of a Tavola Calda, or hot table. A small menu that rotates through the week, I took my chances on the Pasta del Giorno having no idea what it would be. I was rewarded with a truly delicious plate of Amatriciana (above), done with rigatoni instead of the classic bucatini. This plate was all of 5 Euro and it was a perfect lunch. Despite calling it a Tavola Calda, the pasta was clearly cooked to order and not kept hot or rewarmed. J-Cat tried a plate of sausage with spicy cabbage, which seemed Germanic in inspiration and was a nice, tasty surprise. In all, we didn't even spend 15 Euro on a really great meal.

And finally, our last night in Rome. We saved our last night for the restaurant that David Downie, author of "Food, Wine, Rome", calls the one trattoria in Rome that you must go to, Da Gino. We loved this place. We arrived promptly at 8PM for our reservation, early by Italian standards but not for Gino, because it was packed to the gills - with Italians - by 7:57. This tiny, bustling trattoria sits on a little alleyway across from the Parliament building, with walls painted with what you might call "cheesy" Italian countryside murals, tables squeezed in NYC-style, convivial waiters who spoke not a word of English but who managed to tease us when we hit both a food and wine wall late in the meal. This was an entirely enjoyable dinner.

J-Cat, craving some spice, went with a Penne all' Arrabiata (above), while I decided on the house specialty Tonarelli alla Ciociara (below). This pasta dish - featuring homemade tonarelli, guanciale, fresh peas, and mushrooms - is said to have been invented at Gino and has become so popular that it is not uncommon to find it on menus at other restaurants. It is fast becoming another Roman classic, for very good reason.

By the time we got to the secondi, the Osso Bucco, I was fading fast. To be fair, we had also had an antipasto plate, quite a bit of wine, and I ate every bite of that pasta dish. Our waiter mimed to me that I had to eat more meat. I did my best.

In the end, Rome was perfection from beginning to end. We saw all the important sights, and aside from a quick snack of "pizza" at the Vatican Museum cafe (we had 20 minutes until the Scavi tour and hadn't eaten in hours, give us a break!), everything we ate was truly fantastic. Could we top this portion of the trip when we moved on to Florence? Well, we were definitely up for it.

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