Ristorante Nuova Isola, Varenna, Lago di Como

Ristorante Nuova Isola, just a quick stroll past Varenna's harbor into the back streets.
Via del Prato, 6, Varenna,

My second course was a Lavareno (lake fish) with Porcini mushrooms with its skin gently crisped. Exquisite.

My primo was Ravioli with Ricotta and Pear, dusted with cinnamon and flecks of orange zest, floating happily in a brown butter sauce. The ravioli were rather delicate and rich at the same time, and my only quibble was with the presentation. I would have put them on a plate rather than a bowl, where they were riding piggy back on one another, like lobsters in a tank.

Varenna is an hour north of Milan by train, on the eastern shore of Lake Como, just above Bellagio and Lecco. It's touristy, but not too much, and there is a minimum of tacky waterfront bar/art studio/gelateria signage that plagues a lot of lakefront towns.


Hot Sausage, Cherry Tomato and Zucchini Ragu

Fusilli is best, veggie and meat bits stick on the outside, unlike penne or rigatoni, where they get trapped inside. Now scram and let me eat.

Let simmer. Medium heat. Please.

Any decent hot sausage will do, good cherry tomatoes, zucchini (ideally finely minced but I was in the mood for something chunkier), small white/red/yellow onion, at least 5 cloves of roughly chopped garlic. Any less garlic and you're a big fat WUSS. Oh, and the juice of 1/2 lemon and at least 1 cup of red wine (I used Nebbiolo delle Langhe).


Quimet y Quimet tapas bar, Barca

Roasted red pepper, marinated in olive oil, topped with Stilton, sweet pickles and aged balsamic, paired w/a Cava Rosado. OMG.

Joint's almost 100 yrs's on a bland street in a bland part of Barcelona

A great wine selection...had a wonderful Priorat and a Cava Rosado

In addition to tapas, Quimet y Quimet sells all kinds of canned delicacies


Locanda Dii e Mès in Milano

When on a stroll in the Navigli District, Milan's version of SoHo, skip the overpriced trattorie with canal side seating. Head instead for Locanda Dii e Mès, which has unbeatable lunch specials and great food. I had the Mezze Maniche (half rigatoni, literally "short sleeves") with zucchini, saffron, and a small dose of cream. My second course was a grilled steak drenched in aged balsamic, with a large mixed salad, all on the same plate. Meat juices and balsamic bled over to the salad side, which I didn't mind at all. All for 15 euro, including a small bottle of water.

Locanda Dii e Mès, Ripa di Porta Ticenese 21, Milano,


Trattoria Monti: a slice of Le Marche on Rome's Collina Esquilino

Trattoria Monti is a busy and welcoming spot, about a 15 minute walk from Termini Station, in the up and coming Esquilino-Monti neighborhood. Monti specializes in the cuisine of the central east region of Le Marche, a food culture that pits the salumi/maiale/lamb triptych mountains versus the offerings of the Adriatic coast, most famously represented by Ancona's rich and savory brodetto. 

It's a bit of a critical and now a tourist darling, in an obscure location, and it's not uncommon to see even Italians clutching city maps as they enter. Monti seems to turn away a lot of walk-ins so it's important to reserve, otherwise it's just going on a walk. 

I really wanted to like Monti, but I realized it was more the idea of Monti than what I actually ate. The insalata mista was just some chopped vegetables (radicchio, fennel, carrots, cherry tomatoes) arrayed on a flat plate. Something about eating a colorful salad in a bowl, with the ingredients pushed up by the contours of the bowl, makes it special. Maybe. Also, the antipasto was a fritto misto of Olive Ascolane, breaded and deep fried and stuffed with veal, prosciutto, egg and breadcrumbs. Those were nice but the advertised fiori di zucca were merely zucchini fried in a tempura style batter. Traditionally, fiori di zucca are the zucchini flowers/squash blossoms stuffed with cow's milk or buffalo milk mozzarella. On the antipasto plate was ciausculo sausage, a soft and savory salami typical of Umbria and Le Marche. The pasta was quite good, mezze maniche (half rigatoni) with grated pecorino di fossa, crumbled house made sausage, and black pepper. The 2006 Rosso di Conerò from Umani Ronchi, a top Marchigiano producer, paired nicely with the meal. 

Service was warm and professional, and that distracted from the culinary shortcomings. That does not negate a return to Monti, but for sure I won't be ordering the salad and the antipasto plate. The red onion and gorgonzola tart is cited in almost every review, but was not on the menu the night I went. Next time.

Trattoria Monti, Via San Vito 13, Roma 00185, 06-446-6573


Matricianella- the perfect Roman trattoria

Nestled just off the pizza slice shaped piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, which is the place in the Centro Storico for an aperitivo, is Matricianella. Not too much needs to be said about this trattoria: it's in virtually every guidebook's best of, The Grey Lady's Mimi Sheraton wrote a gusher of an article about Matricianella back in 2006, and if I recall correctly The Light Brunitastic loved it too. Matricianella is not the "cucina creativa" of Fabio Baldassare or Carlo Cracco of Cracco-Peck. It's Roman classics on each menu page and a little caramelized pancetta and a generous helping of pecorino romano never hurt anyone.

These guys can deep fry to an almost unbearable tempura-esque lightness. The fiore di zucca is stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and served piping hot on a small plate with a paper sheet and a lemon wedge. Unreal. The carciofo alla giudea is a classic must have on a trip to Rome, on par with a tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. It's a smallish purple artichoke flattened and fanned out, pan fried with a generous amount of sea salt and has a most unsubtle crunchiness.

Pasta is the thing to order here...all the classic sauces are done just right and the portion is correct, not too much that you don't have room for a meat course. Bombolini alla Gricia are fat half rigatoni in a white wine, butter, pecorino and pancetta sauce; Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe is almost too rich and overbearing here, each bite tasting the same. Delicious but slightly dull. The Bucatini Amatriciana here is a jaw puncher and served with a choice of rigatoni or bucatini. Just curl up under the table after finishing this dish and go to sleep, it's all right. The Spaghetti Carbonara is excellent and gives this much maligned classic a rebirth. Not too eggy, not too peppery or porky, but all three in harmony. Matricianella uses pancetta in its Carbonara (as well as the Gricia and Amatriciana). No guanciale, as Italian foodie arrivistes proclaim authoritatively is the proper pig meat for these classic Roman pastas. There is some way Matricianella draws out the smoky salty notes in the pancetta to an irresistible and crispy crescendo.

Matricianella also does the "quinto quarto" dishes. I was a little wary of the Rigatoni alla Pajata and I lack the courage of Jeremy Parzen who put a garish closeup image of a forkful of this offal dish from the restaurant Perilli a Testaccio on his Do Bianchi blog Pajata are baby lamb intestines with the mother's milk still inside, and the milk curdles to a cheese like consistency when sauteed. Take that, PETA.

Of the secondi, I only tried the Agnello Scottadito, which are broiled lamb riblets served so hot you burn your fingers (scottadito) when clutching them ravenously. There is also a deep fried lamb cutlet, called agnello dorado. They do a decent steak, so I've heard, and I noticed a couple of tables ordered roasted chicken and potatoes.

A nice touch at Matricianella is the daily changing wines by the glass. Staying within the confines of Lazio, I had the Cesanese del Piglio from Casale della Iolia 2006. Cesanese is generally medium bodied with a bold pepperiness, not too tannic. This particular producer seemed to make an "international" Cesanese: I felt it was a bit fruit forward and a tad oaky, but not overwhelming. I can imagine this wine selling well at good price points at wine bars Stateside. The other Cesanese that I tried, my bad for not writing down the producer and year, was a bit more restrained and traditional. The wine snob in me wanted to like it more than the Casale della Iolia, but the latter is more drinkable and less angular, versatile with the lusty offerings at Matricianella, but equally enjoyable without food.

Because of its notoriety, Matricianella is always packed and a Stallone clone stands outside with a clip board checking rezzies, like he was in MePa in the NYC. Matricianella is quite a mix: a 20 something Japanese guy lost in thought over a bowl of carbonara and a glass of Cesanese, an upper crusty Roman foursome on a double date, a mom and her two teenage daughters, who while being slim, ate everything in sight. And yes, don't worry about the clichè of ordering tiramisù. It is outstanding.

Buon appetito e buona bevuta!

Marriage Genovese style...oh my the pesto!

Two dear friends of mine, Michele Secco d'Aragona and Teresa Fioretti, married in Genova on September 20th. They were classmates of mine at the Slow Food U. in Parma and didn't, um, hook up until mid-way through the program. The ceremony was intensely Catholic, as befitting the religiosity of Michele and in contrast to the more secular Teresa. OK, enough marital subtext. How was the food at the reception?

There was Culatello di Zibello, the king of Italian cured meats, sliced Jamon Iberico style with a long knife; Strolghino di Culatello, which is a soft sausage version; cheeses included the crumbly and sharp Castelmagno from Piemonte and aged Gorgonzola and Parmigiano-Reggiano; crudi of salmon and tuna, basically Italian sushi; a river of Italian spumante--prosecco, Franciacorta Brut, and some artisan French champagne as befits a Slow Food wedding; and the Slowest food of them all, pesto by hand with mortar and pesto. And check out the klutz pitching in with the pesto making: yours truly. I was told by the helpful Genovese guests to use more olio di gomito, which is italian for "elbow grease".

The best part was the class reunion and sitting in a circle eating, drinking and trading stories. Missing from the festivities was my one of a kind Japanese flatmate, Akihiro Sawai, perhaps the most popular in the class due to his utility as comic relief. I live kind of a solitary life back in the USA and every time I come to Italy, I feel like I am part of something more than myself for once.