2014/03/31

Mangiamo!

When Sweetie and I go out to eat, we rarely choose Italian. I make pretty good pasta dishes at home, and I've learned to make good polenta. I make my own pesto genovese. Going out for Italian never seemed to be that much of a treat.

That is likely to change, but only if we can find restaurants that do it right.

It's rather silly to talk about "Italian food," or even "northern" and "southern." Those categories are just too general, or else they indicate that the restaurant is serving a broad variety of more-or-less Italian dishes. I always knew that Italia is a country of distinct regions. It was unified only 140 years ago. Now I know even more that regional Italian cooking is about a lot more than north and south.

Toscano

Wherever we stayed, we sought out restaurants that served cucina tipica of the region or even of the province. In Firenze that meant food of Toscano or even specifically of Firenze. We never did try Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which is a huge mass of rare T-bone steak (way too much for us), but we partook of as much other Tuscan food as we could.

One place that our concierge had recommended was Osteria Santo Spirito in the piazza of the same name. We went there for lunch on our first full day in the city. And it was there that I made a very pleasant discovery: ribollita. A soffrito base, bread, canellini, "black cabbage" (Lacinto kale)—this was so my kind of soup! Some might dismiss it as peasant food, but for me that's a plus. It means simple ingredients and lots of flavour that is very satisfying. Osteria Santo Spirito served a lovely ribollita. That and some house wine were enough for lunch for me.

Perseus had also been recommended. They featured Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but instead I went for a fillet steak that was beautiful, tender, and probably the most flavourful steak I've ever had. The seasoning was superb! And beef always needs some generous seasoning because, unlike pork, it doesn't have a lot of flavour. I enjoyed that steak very much, and there was enough to share with Sweetie.

The best food we had in Firenze came from another "stumble upon," like the Museo Galileo. We were walking on a narrow street on our way to the synagogue when we noticed a restaurant called Acquacotta with lots of Trip Advisor recommendations and a very interesting menu. We went there for dinner. As we often did, we shared dishes so we wouldn't end up with too much food. We had their version of ribollita, which was even more flavourful than the one at Osteria Santa Spirito. We followed that with wild boar in a sauce with porcini mushrooms with polenta, a beautifully flavourful dish. We loved Acquacotta so much that we went back on our last night in Firenze.

We also had lunch in San Gimignano at La Mandragola. This was a fairly high-end, gourmet kind of place, but quite affordable at lunch. They served "elevated" Tuscan food done very well. Truffles were involved.

Liguria

Toscano has become so popular over the last number of years that by now most people are probably at least somewhat familiar with Tuscan cuisine and not just the "red sauce" form of Italian cooking. But how many people know the cuisine of Liguria? Or even that Liguria exists?

Liguria is a narrow province in the north of Italia bounded by mountains and the sea. This is the Italian Riviera, but away from resorts and the capital city of Genova it's quite a rustic area of fishing and terrace farming. The cuisine features seafood as well as boar and other meats. It also features one bit of Ligurian cuisine that most people probably are familiar with: pesto genovese made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil.

Our first night in Levanto, we walked into L'Articiocca like drowned rats, having walked down the wrong street in the pouring rain for quite a way before realizing it was the wrong street. Clara, who I think is the owner, made us very welcome. We had chosen L'Articiocca from Trip Advisor because it featured fresh, local, and organic ingredients when possible, which sounded great. We started that evening with a typical Ligurian appetizer, gattafin, triangular ravioli stuffed with a vegetable-herb mixture, deep fried, and topped with a boar sauce. We were hooked already! Then came one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. We had ordered pasta with pesto, and the menu promised that it was made fresh in a mortar and pestle. What we didn't know was that Clara was going to make it right before our eyes. It was a pesto making ritual, and it sent shivers of delight through my body and throughout my olfactory system. Glorious! And the taste was even better. It was served in the traditional way with a small eggless pasta mixed with boiled potatoes and flat green beans. You might think we couldn't follow that with anything, but the rabbit sausage in saffron sauce was equal to the task.

We had to go back again. After our day in the Cinque Terre, we were ready to warm up with comforting Ligurian food. I thought it was kind of dangerous. When you've had an awesome experience, it's tempting to try to make it happen again, and often disappointing because it was a one-time thing. But if anything, L'Articiocca upped the ante. When we walked in, Clara greeted us like old friends with an embrace and kisses on both cheeks. She then brought us glasses of Prosecco. The best champagne is usually wasted on me, but I've grown fond of Prosecco. This time, we started with crozetti, a disk-shaped pasta served with basil and pine nuts (a sort of deconstructed pesto), followed by the catch of the day, which was a whole John Dory. Clara brought us the fish when it was finished and then was kind enough to take it back to the kitchen to separate meat from skin and bone and return us the fillets. It was a beautiful mild fish in an orange and wine sauce. As if that weren't enough, we asked what the vegetable was that day. First beautiful asparagus of the season!

We're now on the hunt for Ligurian food here in Vancouver. I found one place. I hope it's any good!

Lazio

The cuisine of Roma and the surrounding region of Lazio is quite different than either Tuscan or Ligurian food. When we say "Mediterranean diet," we mean something more like those last two—light, with olive oil, not too much pasta, and lots of veggies. The food in Lazio has richer flavours, more meat fat and stock. Probably less virtuous! We had three great meals in Roma.

The first was at Da Vito e Dina, a family-run osteria in our neighbourhood. Sweetie and I shared a primo of fettuccini with mushrooms. I had expected a tomato-based sauce but instead this was a rich sauce that seemed to be mushroom-based with perhaps some meat stock. Our secundo was Saltimbocca, a dish of veal and prosciutto that couldn't be more typically Roman. It was delicious! We finished with a panna cotta that was smooth and lovely.

The second great meal was a simple lunch the next day after our exhausting tour of the Vatican. Panino Divino is a tiny, very popular place also in our neighbourhood. We were fortunate to get there during a slight lull. They make panini—great panini. I was drawn there by the promise of porchetta, simple and bursting with flavour. Sweetie had a panino with prosciutto, cheese, and a chili jam that was also amazing. If we had a place like this nearby, I'd eat at least one panino a day. I would love to work my way through the dozen or so varieties they serve. And at €5 for a panino and a pop, it was one of the bargains of the trip.

We finished our stay in Roma with a meal at Osteria Delle Commari, an elevated version of local food. It's a lot like places we go to here: fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, including wines sourced in the surrounding region. We started with our new favourite Prosecco. We decided to order two primi instead of a primo and a secundo. We split a house special, gnocchetti with clams and shaved truffles, as well as an order of rigatoni alla carbonara, a very typical regional dish. The gnocchetti dish was beautiful and subtly flavoured, while the carbonara was bold and satisfying. The last time I made carbonara, it didn't come out well, so I'm going to have to work on that. We paired it with a bottle Viognier, not exactly a typical Italian grape, but I saw it on the list, and it came from a winery in Lazio just to the south. It was excellent! We finished the meal with a torta made with ricotta and cherries.

Nature's perfect food

Did we have pizza as well? Oh yes we did. Of the new pizza places in Vancouver, we have been only to Pizzeria Barbarella, which makes thin(ish)-crust pizzas with great toppings—a bit more New York than Napoli, and very delicious. After this trip, I have a feeling we're going to be able to go only to places like that and Via Tevere. What usually passes for pizza in these parts just isn't going to cut it, unless I can mentally call it something else.

Edi House was just a few blocks from where we were staying in Firenze, and we went twice. They make all kinds of food, but their pizza is really good. Very thin crust, great toppings, although don't pile on too many (the Savonarella, named after the mad monk, tended to get a bit soggy). We also hit a place for lunch in the Oltrarno. We can't remember its name, but we do remember that the pizza was yummy. We had one pizza lunch in Levanto at La Piscea, the number one Levanto restaurant on Trip Advisor. They made only pizza, and it was excellent. A slightly thicker crust than in Firenze, with very creative toppings. Ours had pesto on it, of course.

There actually was some pizza more like we get at home, as well as some Sicilian pizza. These were at in the little "bars" that sold pizza by the slice, so it couldn't be the thin crust stuff that has to be eaten right away. I suppose I should have tried some just for research, but I never did. I imagine it was decent at least, but now I'm kind of hooked on Neapolitan style. Might a trip to Napoli be in our future?

Panem et circenses

A quick note on bread. I had already known that you don't butter bread in Italia. You dip it in a good olive oil, possibly with balsamic vinegar as well. In Italian restaurants, we would usually be brought not just bread but condiments as well.

The bread in Toscano was, without exception, curiously bland, as in no salt. In fact, I saw people put not just olive oil but salt as well on the bread, and we took to doing the same. They make bread with no salt! I mean, it works, but it seems weird.

The bread in Liguria was more as we expected. They also make brown bread. It was all quite good! We would dip it in olive oil, but it didn't need salt. Some of it didn't need oil! The bread in Roma was also quite good, and there was more than one variety.

Vino divino

One more note, on wine. With the exception of the bottle at Osteria Delle Commari and a glass at a mediocre Roman restaurant that shall remain nameless, we drank house wine. In this country, that implies an inferior wine. Not so in Italia, where the house wine is something they are proud of. And yet it's relatively inexpensive. We'd get a half litre of red or white for about €6 at most, and it would be really good.

Cincin!

1 comment:

Coline said...

Can I come with you next time?