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Tuesday

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 http://dobianchi.com/tag/perilli/. 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.


Saturday

Osteria del Treno in Milano







This lovely osteria is wildly popular with nattily dressed Milanese office workers and unsuspecting tourists--I'm not one of the latter because I sought this place out. It is a true osteria, not a ristorante filching the osteria moniker for restaurant marketing purposes. Slow Food Italy endorses locales that are traditional and serve typical products of the region. Osteria del Treno isn't slavishly devoted to Milanese cuisine: I saw no mondeghili (breaded meatballs), casseoula (sausage, cabbage and bean stew) nor Milan's most famous dish, Risotto alla Milanese. Yet Osteria del Treno is given a good review in the Slow Food guide and has the telltale Slow Food snail sticker on the front door. It's a daily changing menu, with antipasti, three pasta choices, secondi or meat course, and an amazing cheese plate. I ordered the cheese plate as my second course and it featured aged gorgonzola, a gorgonzola made from goat's milk which blew my mind and had a creamier mouthfeel than the aged gorgonzola, a small nib of goat cheese marinated in EVOO and juniper berries, served in a small ramekin--essence of the forest more than the pasture due to the juniper. Then a rich and rindless Toma from Piemonte and a goat's milk cheese called Pan di Pane.


The pasta could have been better, the gnocchetti were overcooked but the sauce was lovely: mild sausage crumbles, chard, fresh herbs and cherry tomatoes, which created its own soupy broth. The pasta seems to be pre-made in large batches and not to order. At Osteria del Treno, you order directly to the chef through the kitchen pass and she scoops out the pasta into a bowl, and you, the customer/waiter, carry it to your table perplexed about why you came to a restaurant to be an unpaid worker. That was my initial reaction being a newbie here, the Slow Food guide never mentioned slavery. Anyway, being a photographer, I got a little snap happy with the menu and the food as you see above, which ran afoul of the proprietor's unwritten rule, called Ask Me First. I got an irritated earful from him, and then some, and then oddly, an apology for his reaction. It's all part of the experience I suppose


Osteria del Treno
Via San Gregorio 46, Milan
About a 10 minute walk from Milan's Stazione Centrale

Thursday

Parmigiano gets in bed with the Antichrist



So the self-proclaimed King of Cheeses is reduced to being a condiment for a McDonald's sandwich? Aside from the economics, why would the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium want to cheapen their image? 

Monday

Grom gelato












On Via Ventidue Luglio, in the middle of the historic center of Parma (and several cities in Italy, plus two locations in New York City), sits  Gelateria Grom. Contrary to the meaning of the cliché, it is your grandfather’s gelateria because they make gelato “come una volta”, as it used to be made. 

Similar to some delicatessens, Grom announces its flavors on a sandwich board and easel placed on the sidewalk and inside near the cash register.  At first glance, Grom has the same flavors as any gelateria, from stracciatella to caffe, to limone and gianduja. Their spin however, is that every flavor contains all natural ingredients, no food colorings, syrups, and all ingredients purchased directly from the producer, not through a broker or some warehouse. Grom only sells gelato with seasonal ingredients and the conceit of this gelateria is that it gives a pedigree to the ingredients, much like fine dining restaurants around the world do. And wouldn’t you know it, the little Slow Food snail is trotted out by Grom to signify that an ingredient from a Slow Food presidio is being used, such as the Café de Huehuetenango. Not only the name of the presidio is used, but Grom thinks it is important for its clientele to know that the exact coffee bean used from this Guatemalan presidio is the wood-toasted Cru San Pedro. For the Slow Food obsessive, that kind of tidbit is manna but for the average cone licker, it means zip. The young scooper whom I interviewed told me that Grom is taking the quest for the freshest ingredients to another level: the company goal is to have a producer grow or produce ingredients especially for Grom. The bottom line for all this freshness is that the average cup or cone at Grom is at least fifty cents higher than at other gelaterias around town.

The inside of the store is quite spare, very clean but chic, and with a wide lateral space for the clientele to order and then consume gelato. Those who like to linger can enjoy matching yellow pastel table tops (three in all) and chairs that are shaped like spoons. The counter has the usual array of cup sizes and a bin for plastic spoons, with cones kept behind the counter. Grom serves the gelato out of bins that the customer can’t see into, which is ironic because gelaterias of lesser quality often stuff mountains of gelato behind a big glass counter. There is an old-fashioned butcher’s scale on the far left of the counter for those buying gelato by the kilo, often it’s not for personal but family consumption. Floors are dark hardwood that contrasts nicely with all the pastels. Grom maintains a sedate ambience whether empty or full, which stands in contrasts to many food places that equate loud music and harsh acoustics with building a buzz. The only sounds are the clanking of the scoopers, the hum of the cash register, and the happy chatter of customers excited to take possession of a frozen treat. The temperature inside the store is neutral to cool due to the machine and air conditioning. It’s never too warm or cold inside of Grom.

On average, the scooper shift is seven hours standing up and scurrying about, stirring the canisters of gelato to keep them from getting too hard and maintaining the trademark smooth texture. Before opening in the late morning, the scooper is actually a gelato creator and busily mixes ingredients, following a set recipe made day in and day out, and checks all the canisters to make sure they are full with fresh product. It is an intensely social job because once the ice cream is made and stored, it’s about interacting with the customers and following their prescription on the ideal marriage of gelato flavors. A waiter in a restaurant may reel off a list of specials or recommend a good bottle of red to pair with the order, but scoopers have zero input into customer decision making. 

There are only two material functions in a Grom gelateria, making and storing gelato and granita and serving it to customers. One can ask what is the function of consuming a gelato? Is it about sustenance and energy for the work day or is it about pleasure? Gelato is a sweet and contains sugar and can provide a momentary but not a sustainable energy boost. It’s consumed for no reason in particular other than being delicious and sweet, and for a lot of people, children especially, sweet equals pleasure. It is reasonable to posit that giving pleasure is a core material function of a gelateria and serves a vital social function: that if 200 Grom customers a day are given pleasure, there are 200 more happier people in Parma than the day before.

Ventidue Luglio is not a touristy thoroughfare and the clientele tends to be from Parma and most heavily those who work and live in the historic center. On my perhaps too frequent visits, I’ve noticed some people pop in to Grom for a quick chat, some just to scan the menu to see what’s the flavor of the month, which alternates between a cream gelato and a fruit gelato.

What Grom stands for is a quality product made with the freshest ingredients, that gives pleasure to the gola but also to the body and mind. Because the flavors are delicious, the gola is happy; the body is pleased because the are are no additives or preservatives, or anything artificial; the mind is pleased because Grom is not industrial, it contributes to sustainability by buying from small producers of quality products, producers who respect the environment and their workers (so I would imagine the latter).

 Gelato consumption means pleasure and gustatory memory. For a child the pleasure is palpable and immediate and the nostalgia is being created on the spot, and when a child who loves gelato passes his favorite gelateria, the child desires immediate satisfaction. The adult who enjoys gelato has more mature flavor receptors in that they are able, by the benefit of having lived some years, to have family or friend memories intertwined with each taste of gelato. Gelato is comfort and succor, and Grom is painted pastel in order to evoke a haze of nostalgia and memories of childhood visits with mom and dad and perhaps siblings to the neighborhood gelateria. Nostalgia triggered by gelato consumption equals familiarity and tradition, of families staying together and eating together.

Tuesday

Italy preview














I will be going on a two and a half week food, wine, matrimonial (not mine) and Coldplay concert viewing romp in La Bella Italia, starting next Tuesday 9/16. 

What to expect? A love letter to Matricianella, the quintessential Roman trattoria; a rare wine from Cinqueterre called Sciacchetrà; nectarous olive oil from the shores of Lago di Garda; a great story about a Kansas City surgeon turned gentleman farmer, innkeeper and wine maker in the Le Marche region; food and wine of Le Marche, with a spotlight on olive ascolane (fried stuffed olives); perhaps some amateur haiku on the most noble of italian cured meats, Culatello di Zibello; the terroir of Prosecco--a companion piece to my lambrusco article; the wine bars of Venezia and Verona; restaurant reviews of Parma/Modena/Bologna; and a recap of the wedding of two of my "Slow Food U." classmates and the gastronomic debauchery from the class reunion, and a review of Coldplay's Milan gig. And a few bushels of tortellini and gelato to top off.


The Terroir and Diversity of Lambrusco


*Recently I penned an essay on Lambrusco for the Tablehopper newsletter, published by the inimitable Marcia Gagliardi. Go to Tablehopper.com and click the link to subscribe to what is termed an "e-column" on food news and events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here is the article below in its entirety*




Lambrusco, despite its au courant-ness with salumi hounds and food blogs looking for the newest new new thing, is not a fine wine in the same league as compatriots Barolo, Taurasi, Amarone, Sagrantino, et al. The old paradigm was lambrusco as a cheap picnic quaff made in large quantities and mass marketed, but with the efforts of importers such as NYC’s Lambrusco Imports and Oakland’s Oliver McCrum, and Bay Area restaurants Oliveto and Perbacco, artisan lambrusco’s reputation as the go-to cured meat and lusty pasta sauce pairing wine is being established.

It still takes some getting used to: a red wine that not only must be chilled, but also lightly sparkling or frizzante. Lambrusco is from Emilia Romagna, which not coincidentally produces some of the most prized cured meats in Italy, especially Prosciutto di Parma and its more upscale counterpart, Culatello di Zibello. The secret to lambrusco, and a good lot of Italian wine, is that it is first and foremost a food wine, meant to pair with the autochthonous products of the region where the wine is produced.

Lambrusco is found all over Emilia Romagna, from a kitchen table in a humble apartment, to the four table dining room of a 400 year old Michelin starred salumeria in Modena’s center, Hostaria Giusti. I taught English as a Foreign Language in Modena, lambrusco’s home base, back in 2002-2003, and one of my students would pay me in lambrusco, in lieu of cash. He wasn’t a rich man, but as Modena’s overseer of agricultural production at the Camera di Commercio or Chamber of Commerce, he was the connection to find a great lambrusco. Before the teaching gig, my only lambrusco experience was at a drunken college party in Florence ten years earlier. That vile bargain aisle tipple was sweet and syrupy, with an alarming corona of violet foam dancing on the edge of my plastic cup. That lambrusco was Italy’s answer to hobo juice like Mad Dog 20/20 or a non vintage Thunderbird.

For many years, Riunite’s marketing muscle ensured the low quality lambrusco spigot wouldn’t shut off easily, and artisan producers struggled to sell their product. Only the most savvy winos and intrepid chowhounds knew of lambrusco’s true bounty and variety. In fact, there are four main types of lambrusco: Sorbara, Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Salamino Santa Croce, and Reggiano.

A proper lambrusco tasting would start with the elegant, austere and crisp Sorbara, named after the growing area that is slightly to the northeast of Modena’s centre. It pairs wonderfully with cooked salumi such as Mortadella di Bologna and the typical deep fried with a splash of lard bread puffs of Modena/Reggio Emilia/Parma, known as gnocco fritto (or torta fritta in Parma). Often served along with gnocco fritto are the small baked bread discs known as tigelle, that have a texture similar to piadina, the signature flatbread of Romagna, which is the area stretching from Bologna to Fellini’s hometown of Rimini on the Adriatic. Another Modenese specialty that works beautifully with a Sorbara lambrusco is borlengo, a super thin flatbread similar to a papadam but rubbed with cured lard, rosemary, pancetta and parmigiano. Sorbara lambrusco is also enjoyable on its own without food, as an aperitivo. It tends to be closer to a spumante (more sparkling) than frizzante, and whets the appetite for an unctuous supper.

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro is from the southwest of Modena, toward Maranello aka Ferrariland, and shares a similar flavor profile to another type of lambrusco, Salamino di Santa Croce. The latter is named after the grape bunches that resemble a whole salami and is grown on the opposite side of Modena, north of the town center going towards Carpi and Mantova. A lovely version of Grasparossa is made by a producer called Barbolini, and is more often than not the only lambrusco being sold in stores and restaurants in the Bay Area. The upside is that it is one of the finest examples of the Grasparossa typology, the downside is that Barbolini’s excellence and ubiquity (thanks to a successful importer) makes artisan lambrusco seem monolithic, which it is not.

With Grasparossa and Salamino, there is a lingering spiciness and smoke on the palate, and in particular with Grasparossa, a bracing acidity at the finish that cuts sharply through the richness of prosciutto and salumi. Salame di Felino is a beautiful match, slightly garlicky and named after the town of Felino near Parma, not your whiskered companion. Though pricey, seek out Culatello di Zibello, which is similar to prosciutto but cured in wine, spice mixture and sea salt and aged in the temperature extremes of the Parma lowlands. Culatello, meaning “little ass”, is made from the hind quarter of the the free ranging Mora Romagnola breed, not the non-native “large white” pigs used for Prosciutto di Parma. Mario Batali’s dad Armandino makes a domestic culatello at his store in Seattle, but there is no substitute for bringing contraband from the low country near Parma (don’t tell anyone about my secret plan for my trip to Parma next month). A more adventurous pairing outside the bounds of terroir would be Speck from Alto Adige, a smoked prosciutto that harmonizes with the spice and smoke of Castelvetro and Salamino.

Last, to finish with a touch of sweet fruit and spices, and less acidic, is old school nasty Lambrusco’s grown up version, Lambrusco Reggiano, named after Reggio Emilia. Where old and nasty punches you in the jaw with sugary berries and too much purple froth, Reggiano is liltingly sweet and finishes with a slight tang in contrast to Grasparossa’s striking acidity. It is a flavor match for Prosciutto San Daniele’s salty/sweet split personality, which shows that lambrusco can stray beyond its farmstead origins in Emilia Romagna and reward a curious and adventurous palate.


Lambrusco links:

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro “Barbolini”
Oliver McCrum Wines, omwines.com
Paul Marcus Wines, paulmarcuswines.com
Biondivino Wine Boutique, biondivino.com
Wine Expo, Santa Monica...really unique selections and website a must read http://www.wineexpo.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=326&Itemid=237

Most Whole Foods sell it, as does Berkeley Bowl Marketplace

Terre Verdiane by Cantine Ceci is another nice example of the Grasparossa di Castelvetro typology, and uses Verdi’s mug affixed to a sleek beveled bottle.

“Ermete Medici” is a top producer of Lambrusco Reggiano, and is imported by JK Imports in CA and Omniwines in NY. Their "Concerto" single vineyard lambrusco was one of the first artisan lambruschi imported to the U.S.

By far the best selection in the country is from Lambrusco Imports in NYC and its sister restaurant, Via Emilia, on 21st near Park Ave. South in the Flatiron District. William Mattiello and his wife Tomoe import the wine and run a wonderful restaurant focusing not just on the cuisine of Emilia Romagna, but of Modena in particular. The wine is exclusively from Emilia Romagna, and there are about ten different producers of lambrusco on the list, representing the four main typologies.

Viaemilianyc.net

Last but not least, your culatello connection. Indulge in the olfactory bliss of the aging cellar at Antica Corte Pallavicina in Polesine Parmense near Parma and dine at the restaurant, Al Cavallino Bianco, with both the culatello making and restaurant being owned and operated by Massimo Spigaroli. He is the great grandson of a sharecropper who worked on Giuseppe Verdi’s farm, now the site of Antica Corte Pallavicina.

Acpallavicina.com

Cin Cin, buona bevuta e buon appetito!

The Real OG: an Olive Garden opens in Sioux City, Iowa


From the immortal pages of the Sioux City Journal, there is word of an Olive Garden opening. Read the article and I guarantee a good belly laugh. Following the link is my letter to the article's author, John Quinlan. I eagerly await his reply.






Dear Mr. Quinlan

As I read in horror about the opening of the Olive Garden in Sioux City, it should be noted that the signature Olive Garden dishes mentioned in the article have zero to do with Tuscany. For example, Fettucine Alfredo was created in Rome (a version of it can be found and is called Fettucine burro parmigiano ), Shrimp Primavera did not originate in Italy: Primavera was created at Le Cirque restaurant in New York City, during the 1970s, albeit by the Tuscan-born restauranteur Sirio Maccioni. Spaghetti and meatballs is an Italian American creation, perhaps inspired by polpettone, a meatball dish served in Southern Italy without pasta. Same with Chicken Parmigiana, an Italian American dish. Lobster spaghetti is a specialty of the Amalfi Coast south of Naples in the Campania region, not Tuscany. The pork filettino with the rosemary and potatoes in EVOO is the closest thing to Tuscany that is served. Rosemary grows all over Tuscany and Tuscany is famous for its EVOO.

OG is clever because they use Tuscany as a marketing motif because most Americans consider it the quintessential Italian region, yet serve Southern Italian/Italian American inspired fare that has been stereotyped as the representative of Italian cuisine. If OG really were to serve Tuscan cuisine, it would be too rustic and simple for most people's palates. But that's why OG is successful...they've got a formula.

Sincerely,
Adrian Reynolds

Thursday

ORSON has landed


Orson is Chef Elizabeth Falkner and partner/designer Sabrina Riddle’s project that aims to put back sexy into the San Francisco dining scene. A stone’s throw from a freeway off ramp and on a block with two other culinary luminaries, Orson is dramatic in both its interior aesthetics and progressive in its cuisine and cocktail program. The room is dominated by an oval shaped bar, with star mixologist Jackie Patterson devising an unusual cocktail list. While she puts forth a different breed of grog like a celery gimlet, she also took time to taste a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc with me while I waited for my table.

Once you get past the splashy art and modish surroundings, chef de cuisine Ryan Farr’s plates both wow and push the envelope of good taste. I had to pass on the Parmigiano pudding, with piquillo pepper jam and cocoa nibs. As a former resident of Parma and a Parmigiano traditionalist, reducing the King of Cheeses to a chocolatey pudding was a bit outré. More successful was the pork bun, which stealthily contained bits of trotter, pork belly, soy and jalapeño, and the twenty four hour sous vide short ribs, rubbed with espresso grounds and accompanied with a teardrop of a crème fraîche béarnaise.

Service was informed, eager and enthused, and it was great to see Chef Falkner make the rounds to all the tables to greet and get first impressions from the diners. Orson’s charm and personal touch makes for a great evening out and a welcome addition to an emerging neighborhood.
*******
P.S., I'd like to credit Frankie Frankeny, FrankenyImages.com for the image above.

Wednesday

Bar Jules


Up the block from the dive bars, grungy delis and tuna belly emporiums of the Hayes Valley neighborhood lies Bar Jules, a glowing and ingredient driven forty eight seat bistro run by owner and chef Jessica Boncutter. Calling it a bar implies rusticity and conviviality, a bit of restaurant marketing that is not evil. Jules is Jessica’s basset hound, which ups the charm ante considerably in a city where canines seem to outnumber humans.

Jessica’s culinary pedigree includes London’s River Café, San Francisco icon Zuni Cafe, a side exploration of nouvelle Vietnamese at the Slanted Door, and then as executive chef at Hog Island Oyster Co., in the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. Her cooking style is Cal-Med farm to table and the daily changing menu, which is mostly pescatarian, has the obligatory in San Francisco organic-sustainable produce, meat and fish mantra. It is handwritten and posted in the window and in chalk above the bar with only a starter or two and three mains at dinner, and fewer choices at lunch. Plating style is spare and unfussy, without foams, emulsions or artsy gastrique flourishes.

For dinner, we had the sunchoke and fingerling potato soup with green garlic puree, and at lunch a few days later celery root subbed for potatoes. The dollop of crème fraiche added texture and a lactic mouthfeel. The wood fired skirt steak was notable for its bed of garlicky white beans, rapini and oregano jus, but what made it memorable was how the meat juices bled into the accompaniment, morphing the dish into a savory meat stew. At lunch the steak appears in the guise of a sandwich, paired with avocado between slices of rustic grilled bread. The preserved tuna sandwich was a delightful mess, done pan bagnat style with grilled bread coated in a slick of extra virgin olive oil. Desserts are simple and sometimes use seasonal ingredients, as with the blood orange cake. Butterscotch pudding added a candy store patina of nostalgia, and the River Café chocolate “nemesis” evoked nothing except the desire for a cold glass of milk

Tuesday

Luminous Liguria: a quick getaway on Italy’s Riviera di Levante



Leaving the smog of Milano , I was thrilled by the prospect of returning to Liguria after an eight year absence. Liguria is famous for pesto, world-class resort towns and a warm and welcoming populace. The region stretches from Ventimiglia on the French-Italian border to La Spezia on the southeast extreme, and skirts the regional borders of Toscana, Emilia-Romagna, and Piemonte. The seaside portion of Liguria is divided into two separate rivieras-the Fiore and the Levante. The Fiore starts north of Genova and finishes at Ventimiglia, but the more celebrated is the Levante, starting south of Genova and ending at the border of Toscana. The Levante is a string of impossibly gorgeous towns and villages hugging an undulating coastline full of hairpin turns and unbroken vistas. While urban Italy is a frenetic milieu of Vespa smoke, screaming telefonini and alta moda, the Riviera di Levante is a welcome break from quotidian stress.

Camogli (literally, “wives houses”) is the first stop, a town whose principal industries are fishing and tourism. Perched precipitously on the Meditteranean, her grand façades of crumbling peach –colored palazzi and labyrinthian alleys just below give a sense of a faded satellite town, whose prosperity peaked when a local boy named Cristoforo Colombo was learning how to sail.

The best time to visit Camogli is mid-May, when a festival known as the Sagra del Pesce takes place. A cast iron skillet twenty feet in diameter is set in a waterfront piazza, and piles of freshly caught fish are fried to oblivion. The Sagra lasts one week and is about maintaining the old seafaring culture that made Liguria famous. This way of life, of rising at dawn, casting nets in the hopes of corralling a catch of ultra fresh swordfish, is rapidly disappearing. The LegaAmbiente Nord, an environmental activist group, has contributed to the decline of the Ligurian fishing industry by winning a ban on the use of nets to catch fish. The ban is enforced with a lax manana approach, so some fisherman are still able to eke out a living. On the bright side, the LegaAmbiente rates the sea in the Riviera di Levante as among the cleanest in Italy.

The seaside promenade, Via Garibaldi, is where a visitor to Camogli will spend most of the day. The beach is wide and sandy, free of charge and consequently choc-a-bloc in Bain du Soleil- slathered torsos. Skip the beach and indulge your gastronomic urges at the many bakeries and sandwich shops lining Via Garibaldi. Step into La Focacceria for an authentic version of the oft-bastardized cousin of pizza. No fewer than twenty varieties of focaccia are sold here, with toppings ranging from tomato and basil to porcini mushroom and white truffle shavings. Coffee cognoscenti flock to Bar Primula, whose barista Renato is reputed by one food critic to make the best cappuccino in Italy. Now that your blood type is E for espresso, wander the long staircases between the seaside palazzi that leads to Via Piero Schiaffino, to Trattoria al Lama. Order the trofie al pesto, garnished with potatoes and haricots verts. It’s a great dining experience, if you can get a table. Reservations are essential at dinner. After dinner, take in the sunset from the promontory near the restaurant and make your way back to Via Garibaldi for the customary passegiatta, the traditional after-dinner stroll that passes for nightlife in most small Italian towns.

Lodging in Camogli can be quite scarce during the spring and summer as there are about a dozen hotels in town. Book a few weeks in advance and try not to get stuck with the hotel next to the train tracks.

Twenty minutes by train from Camogli, Santa Margherita Ligure is the ideal base for a short trip to the Riviera di Levante. The lone concession to tourists are the pizzerie and trattorie lining the waterfront, otherwise Santa Margherita goes about its business quietly. The facades of the buildings lining the Piazza del Duomo have painted on faux windows and clotheslines, a surreal Disney-esque touch. The best lodging deal is the Hotel Fasce, in a residential area seven minutes by foot from the waterfront promenade. Run in a brisk manner by British expat Jane Fasce and her husband Alberto, it has large, bright and cheery rooms for around $90 a night for a single. My room looked over a lush garden, and the voyeur in me couldn’t help but enjoy the sight of local families gathering on their patios for supper.

The best dinner spot in Santa Margherita is Trattoria Pezzi, one block from Piazza Duomo towards Hotel Fasce. For 5 euro, enjoy the trenette al pesto and a glass of schiacchetra, a dry local white wine. The pesto cannot get any better: freshly picked and pungent basil, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, pecorino and pine nuts in perfect proportion.

From Santa Margherita, hike 2.5 miles along the flat coastal road to Portofino. Portofino is a stunningly beautiful town with a jewel of a harbor, filled with luxury yachts and the odd fishing boat. The waterfront piazza pays tribute to the mighty tourist dollar/euro/yen, and is filled with overpriced bars serving warm beer. Skip this area and wander some of the scenic back streets. A must see is the nearby village of San Fruttuoso, famous for its submerged statue of Jesus known as Christ of the Depths. The statue has its arms raised towards the surface, welcoming scuba divers paying 60 euro a pop for a fifteen minute dive.

A nice half day can be spent in Rapallo, Santa Margherita’s next door neighbor to the southeast, towards Cinque Terre. It has a palm tree lined promenade, a charming town center filled with artisanal food shops and craft stores, and noticeably few tourists. However, it was mobbed by bicycle racing enthusiasts cheering on the Italian riders of the Giro d’Italia, lending the town a carnival-like atmosphere.

With only a day to spare on the Riviera, I popped into Vernazza, the most picturesque of the Cinque Terre. I was enjoying a leisurely dinner when I remembered an item I heard on the morning news, that a twenty- four hour train strike was scheduled. I could not recall if it began that night at 9 p.m., while I was in Vernazza, or the next morning at 9 a.m. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong and was stuck in Vernazza and could not hike back to the main Cinque Terre town of Monterosso where I booked a hotel, because the footpaths are not lit at night. My only option was to find someone in Vernazza, a fisherman perhaps, who could take me back by boat. After a half hour search, I found someone who owned a rickety old rowboat and was more than happy to charge me 50 euro for a fifteen minute boat ride back to Monterosso. I forgot how much I was being extorted as soon as we left Vernazza’s harbor: surrounded by sheer cliffs and the indigo sea and its salt breezes, the magic of Liguria’s Riviera di Levante had cast its spell.

Chef Q&A with Dan Barber of Blue Hill


Located in Pocantico Hills, New York, in the heart of the fertile Hudson Valley, less than one hour from the center of Manhattan, Stone Barns is a sustainable farm, restaurant (Blue Hill) and agricultural education center set on an estate once owned by David Rockefeller. The creative director of Stone Barns is the young chef and gentleman farmer, Dan Barber, who is also the Executive Chef and Proprietor of Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York City, and I had the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with him via e-mail. It is worth mentioning that Dan was a featured guest at a cooking demonstration at Terra Madre in Torino last October, and was visited by Carlo Petrini and ended up in the pages of “Buono, Pulito, Giusto”. Before I spoke with Dan, I decided to pay a visit to a gorgeous slice of Westchester County ruralia- Stone Barns.

My host at Stone Barns was livestock manager Craig Haney, who gave me a personal tour and description of how the hogs, chickens, sheep and cows are raised. All animals are fed grass or organic feed with no GMOs, and have free-range of the pasture for most months of the year, but in the winter months, hogs and chickens in particular have their own enclosed yet spacious pens to keep warm and facilitate breeding. Cows and sheeps, the ruminants, help keep Stone Barns sustainable by spreading their own manure around the pastures and fertilizing the soil. Too much animal waste in one spot makes the soil acidic and has deleterious effects on growing fruits and vegetables. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the on-site restaurant, takes leftover food scrap and kitchen waste and makes compost in order to add further nutrients to the already rich soil at Stone Barns.


Q&A with Dan Barber


1. Is a carrot just a carrot or can it be transformed?I’m not trying to transform the carrot, but sometimes the experience of reconnecting to the true taste of an ingredient (not the antiseptic supermarket alternative) can be transformative in and of itself. My goal is to make the carrot to taste more “carroty” – to show off itsversatility while still respecting its inherent essence.2a. Do New York diners care about the provenance of ingredients and do they read and consider sourcing before they dine out?

I think that the good news is that people everywhere, but particularly in New York, are becoming more demanding in their dining choices. They are challenging the conventions of the general food industry by asking where their food came from; how it was grown; how it got to them.2b. Are your diners at Blue Hill (NYC or Stone Barns) obsessed with all the facets of sustainability or do they just want a delicious meal and not think too much about it?

I don’t want to force the tenets of sustainability down people’s throats. I try to provide our diners with a tasty meal and a story of where their food comes from. Even if it’s on an unconscious level, I hope that everyone eating at Blue Hill makes the connection between the food on their plates and the places and processes behind it. That in turn makes people more aware of the issues underlying the meal, and it makes the food more delicious.3. Is the level of composting the same at Blue Hill in New York City as at Stone Barns, i.e., do you compost at your city restaurant and haul it back to Stone Barns? I am guessing more compost comes from your Stone Barns restaurant than New York City.

For the most part, it’s just as rigorous in the city—I drive compost fromthe city up to Stone Barns twice a week.4. In a figurative way, what did you bring to the table at Salone del Gusto/Terra Madre? How was your demonstration received and what types of discussions/workshops did you attend?

It’s great to be able to draw on the experience of raising animals and vegetables both at Stone Barns and at Blue Hill Farm. The same precision and technology that someone like Ferran Adria applies to the plate I want to apply to farming – to the ingredients themselves.5. What type of role, if any, will you have at the Slow Food Nation conference taking place in San Francisco in May 2008? Do you plan to attend?Not sure if I will attend.6. Your two cents on the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini, chances of Slow Food expanding beyond a cluster of concerned foodies and into the mainstream?

One of the reasons that Slow Food is so successful and has such apromising future is that it starts with a selfish or hedonistic desire for great food. It’s about reintroducing people to the joys of cooking and eating with the seasons – which I think is fundamental to all of us.

Ok, enough about sustainability and wholesome goodness, how is the food at Blue Hill?

Blue Hill's Greenwich Village outpost is set in a 19th century former carriage house and has a womb-like intimacy. Immediately I was transported back to the restaurant culture of my home town, San Francisco, where food and a warm ambience and a personal touch come first. Everything about Blue Hill is first class, from the flower arrangements, to the warm and solicitous maitre d', to the server who brought me an extra serving of sliced Berkshire pork on the house after noting the smallness of the meat in the otherwise Flintstone-esque pork chop. The front room filled with the happy purr of sated diners and I looked forward to sitting in the center of the action. Instead, my aunt and I were led to a near private alcove in the back, euphemistically known as the "Garden Room". I was not thrilled initially but conversation ended up taking center stage and the quiet hust of the back room worked out perfectly. Amuse bouche shots of green apple juice and delicata squash soup, paired with bruschetta topped simply with olive oil and celery provided the appetite catalyst, not that the prosecco was working its magic already. My two servings of Berkshire pork were succulent and earthy, my aunt’s leg of lamb was, well, lamb-y and barnyard. While the food was delicous, healthy and very sustainable, I was not crazy about our seating location in Siberia, yet we were treated well and given copious amounts of personal attention, and it’s hard to fault any meal chased with a glass of Grappa di Moscato. Next time, I will do a drop in and sit at the bar…Blue Hill is truly a neighborhood place and shouldn’t be treated as a splurge despite entrees hovering in the $30 range.

The Risotto Gulag



As we marched in one by one into the vast rectangular courtyard of the Antica Tenuta Colombara rice growing estate, a mirage of a sign bearing the inscription “arbeit macht frei” flew over my head, an understandable hallucination in the eighty degree ten a.m. heat. The main building on the estate, with its vastness, in the middle of a rice field, and the country chic farm implements and tractors dotting the front yard, reeked of gulag. We were not visiting the estate to lift heavy equipment and harvest rice, but the oppressive layout and searing heat and humidity made me fear the worst. A fun and luxurious visit seemed out of reach.The day began with an interminable, Fidel Castro-style chat by Piero Rondalino, the proprietor of the estate, on the history of rice farming. We sat at a horseshoe shaped table in a musty, large and airless attic, with vaulted wood beamed ceilings and sparrows flying around, for an added Hitchcock effect. Even the most stalwart students had their mettle tested by the prattle of the Dear Rice Leader, nodding off and looking forward to a late afternoon snooze in the farm house at the front of the property. Before we reached the promised land of our spartan cots, young Rinaldo took us on a jaunt around his playground -- the rice paddy. Previous to this visit, the only rice paddies I’d seen were in Life Magazine photos from the Vietnam War and Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”. The real life rice paddy on the estate isn’t as evocative and romantic as the celluloid version – no peasants squatting here and there in concave hats. Yet despite the inauspicious beginning to the visit, the faint smell of butter, stock and white wine wafted across the courtyard and found its way somehow into the airless attic. A tasting of risotto and a well-deserved lunch break beckoned.Our first lunch was not quite sustenance, just a tasting meant to examine differences between four grades of rice: par-boiled, basmati, Arborio, and Carnaroli. Initially, I was impressed with Piero’s teaching ability, instructing us how to do a visual exam to determine variance in rice grades, and then blind tests. The first blind test consisted of a small ball of par-boiled commercial rice, better quality than Uncle Ben’s but less delicious and more brittle than the average supermarket basmati. A ball of Acquerello carnaroli rice, the brand sold by Tenuta Colombara, was placed next to the par-boiled. The par boiled was not seasoned at all, and was simply a filling starch, and no distinguishable organoleptic features. The carnaroli was prepared as a simple white wine, stock and butter risotto, and was notable for its nuttiness, grain separation, and ability to subtly absorb liquid. This raises the question of fair play during a tasting visit to a producer. It is a given that Rondolino thinks Acquerello is superior to all the other rice types present at the tasting, but why would he place the carnaroli, trumpeted as superior in its ability to absorb flavor, next to a mediocre commercial par-boiled, and then serve the latter basically unseasoned? A fairer fight would have been to place Acquerello next to a competitor’s carnaroli or perhaps a competitor’s vialone nano rice, a type of rotund, pearl like rice from the Veneto that is higher in starch content and absorbs more water per grain than carnaroli, while still maintaining flavor. This debate swirled in my head as I indifferently tasted an Arborio risotto next to a boiled and unseasoned commercial basmati, and perhaps due in part to its tasty preparation, the Arborio was the winner. Overall, I would agree that if prepared without seasoning, the Acquerello is superior but the way the tasting was conducted was biased and pre-determined at least my own judgment.

Is Panarea the new Capri?


Formed by volcanic eruption, the Aeolian archipelago, made up of seven islands, shimmers like black pearls in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Greeks arrived around 580 B.C. and gave the islands, off the north east coast of Sicily, the name Aeolus, after a mythical demigod who kept wind bottled in a cave. Homer writes that Odysseus sailed by the islands, and Aeolus gave Odysseus favorable wind for his voyage home.


The two westernmost and thus remote islands in the archipelago are Alicudi and Filicudi, both sparsely populated with little indigenous industry other than what the sea provides. Previously undeveloped, Filicudi has seen a sprouting of luxury hotels in the last decade.

Lipari, the largest and most tourist-friendly island in the archipelago, offers a wide range of hotels and lively nightlife. It also boasts one of the best archaeological museums in all of Europe. Houses painted in charming pastels and white sand beaches make Lipari a popular place to stay. It's also a good starting point from which to visit the other islands.


Vulcano, is noted for its thermal springs, mud baths and volcanic black sand beaches. Day-long hikes up the side of a dormant volcano are a popular activity on the island. Salina is outrageously lush, and dotted with remote villages, such as Pollara, where the phrase “absolutely nothing to do” takes on new meaning. The popular film, Il Postino, (The Postman) was shot on here. Stromboli is famous for its active volcano that appears to rise up out of the sea. The hamlet of Ginostra on the northeast flank of the volcano now has electricity for the first time.

Panarea is perhaps the most dramatically beautiful of all the islands. Its crystal clear water, abundant sea-life and fantastic flora have made it a popular destination for Italy's elegant, fashionably dressed, but understated elite.There is little to do on Panarea except relax at the hotel pool with a book, take a passegiatta (stroll), and sample exquisite Aeolian cuisine. Sicilian specialties rule the island: dishes like Penne alla Norma, in a sauce of fresh tomato, garlic, eggplant, basil and ricotta salata, and freshly caught tuna can be found on every menu in town, without care or concern about sustainability or mercury levels. Capers grown on nearby Salina have a subtle sweetness and are oblong, unlike the salt preserved nuggets that pass for capers on mainland Italian menus.
There are fewer than one thousand year-round inhabitants on Panarea, although the summertime population swells to around seven thousand, which takes into account summer renters, hotel guests, day trippers and the rich and beautiful who seem content to have discovered what might be Italy's last true paradise. I spent my first day on Panarea enjoying the spectacular panorama from the terrace of my room at the seaside Hotel Cincotta. The Cincotta is stylishly Mediterranean: lemon trees, bougainvillea spilling over white stucco walls, Balinese wood beams, decorative tile from Caltagirone in southeastern Sicily, and fragrant herbs wafting in from the kitchen.

Later that evening, I took a stroll to Calcara beach pausing to chat with shopkeepers and to sample a blood orange granita paired with a miniature cannoli. From Calcara, I watched plumes of smoke rising from Stromboli's volcano crater, followed by lava, but the volcano puts on its best show at nightfall when it spews streams of molten-red lava that flow into the sea.

The perfect way to experience Panarea's spectacular natural beauty is a hike to Punta Milazzese in the a.m., after the obligatory granita inside a brioche Sicilian breakfast and before the heat leaves your skin crispy and seared. Ten minutes into the walk, the sanctuary of San Pietrino stands out like a yellow wedding cake. The interior is kitschy and can be skipped, but the view from the terrace of the distinctively shaped rock outcroppings Basiluzzo, Dattilo and Liscia Bianca is well-worth a pause. The Milazzese trail is the most scenic on the island, with sweeping vistas of neighboring Salina and a silhouetted Lipari. Punta Milazzese covered with stone ringlets that were once the huts of Stone Age settlers, is breathtaking. More experienced hikers can descend a rocky footpath to the cove pictured below. On the other side of the promontory is a more accessible beach where families can relax, skip stones, or have a picnic.

Staying and dining on Panarea

The Cincotta is the best deal on the island. The price for a spacious single room with an ocean view terrace is around 80 euro per night. The hotel restaurant is airy and relaxing, a destination for locals and hotel guests. Try the pesce azzurro con capperi di Salina, a freshly caught bluefish with capers harvested from nearby Salina. The best choice for pasta is the penne bianca, in a “white” sauce of olive oil, garlic, zucchini, and ricotta infornata, an aged, oven-baked and finely-grated ricotta cheese. Entrée prices range from 10 to 22 euro. Hotel Cincotta http://www.netnet.it/cincotta/

Hotel RayaThis is the swankiest hotel on Panarea, with thirty rooms each offering an ocean view terrace, hybrid Mediterranean-Balinese decor, antique carpets and lush bedspreads, with the requisite high-thread count. The maincompound where guests stay is a fifteen minute walk from the port, along Via San Pietro. The Raya also has the only nightclub on the island, a spectacular open air discotheque overlooking the sea. The nightclub is open only in July and August, when Panarea is jam-packed with Northern Italians showing off there fabulous tans. The restaurant, connected to the nightclub, makes a lovely grilled tuna steak (16 euro), rubbed with sea salt, crushed mint and garlic. If you are on a budget, order a prosecco and sample the complimentary antipasti in the hotel bar. Pretend you are a guest and share a couch with the hotel’s chatty and elegant proprietor, who enjoys making the scene. Hotel Raya Via S.Pietro98050 Panarea(011) 39-090-983013 phone (011) 39-090-983103 fax
info@hotelraya.it http://www.raya.it/Rates: 92-278 euro

Budget hotel options

Liscia Bianca(011) 39-090-983004


Tesoriero(011) 39-090-983098


Getting to Sicily

There are direct flights from New York JFK to Palermo, but there are more choices and better prices if transferring from Milan, Rome or Naples. All major mainland Italy airports fly to Palermo, Catania, and Reggio Calabria. Alitalia, AirOne, and Meridiana have the most frequent flights and best rates.

Getting to PanareaFrom the mainland of Sicily, aliscafi (hydrofoils) and traghetti (ferries) leave from the port of Milazzo several times daily to the Aeolians, even in low season. In high season, there are three departures daily from Palermo, which takes about three hours. Private helicopter rides are available from the mainland port of Reggio Calabria. Prices vary but average about 60 euros each way during low season, and 80 to 100 euro each way during high season.

From the port of Reggio Calabria, there are three hydrofoils daily to Panarea during the high season, and one per day during low season. It makes stops at the other islands first, making Panarea the second to last stop before Stromboli. The journey takes about two hours. Traghetti take at least an hour longer. Be warned that during low season, there is only one aliscafo per day from Reggio Calabria. If you literally miss that boat as I did, Reggio Calabria merits a visit to the Museo Nazionale della Magna Graecia for a peak at the famous Riace bronzes, two statues dating back to the 5th century B.C. and fished out of the Ionian sea in 1972.

Thursday

Bella Campania


Campania was a continuous, moveable feast, from Ragù Napoletano, to buffalo mozzarella, to limoncello. The highlights were Caserta, in the hinterlands north of Napoli and Napoli itself.

I was lucky enough to stay at a friend's plantation-esque estate in Caserta, replete with lush gardens and pomegranite trees groaning with the weight of low hanging ripe fruit. We arrived at midnight after an eight hour drive from Parma, and after being introduced to the family, we ambled down to the basement of the main house for a decadent midnight repast. Caserta is famous for its mozzarella di bufala (buffalo milk mozzarella) but in the States, generally we receive the "mass produced" mozzarella while the best product stays not only within Campania, but often within the confines of Caserta province. It is not a cheese that travels well and is best eaten within twenty four hours after being made, three days at the most. Talk about locavores...anyway. The mozzarella that lay glistening in braided form at the center of the table resembled a Porterhouse, and each slice was two inches thick. To complete the buffalo feast, the mozzarella was paired with large coins of buffalo salame from the southern Campania area known as Cilento. Prosecco di Valdobbiadene worked well with the meal because the wine's scrubbing bubbles cut the unctuousness of the mozzarella and salame. To finish, homemade nocino or walnut liqeur, a local specialty, was served. Our welcome feast finished at two in the morning: we were exhausted, yet our appetites were sated and we slept with smiles on our faces.

Caserta's famous landmark is the magnificent palace of Maria Carolina Hapsburg, known as La Reggia di Caserta, also a location for the first Star Wars installment with Natalie Portman/Queen Amidala. After the palace, the next famous landmark is Enoteca La Botte, which we visited the morning after we arrived. It won an award in 1999 as Best Enoteca in Italy, and deservedly so I might add. There are wines available from all over Italy, but the specialty is Campanian wines, which after our tasting, I would say can compete with some of the best Piemontese nebbiolo. La Botte even rents out cellar space to customers to store prized bottles of wine. The space is sprawling, with the main wine sales area near the entrance, a salumeria and cheese shop, and then a large and beautiful tasting room where one can do a flight of Campanian reds paired with rare local cheese and salumi. We were able to sample Taurasi DOCG, Greco di Tufo, Fiano, Falanghina, and Asprinia di Aversa, a rare bianco that is currently made by a single producer in Campania. The salumi pairings were pleasant but not memorable like those of Emilia Romagna, but the Mozzarella fior di latte (cow's milk) di Agerola was succulent.

Dazed and full, the next stop on this whirlwind visit was to Napoli centro to do a tasting of the ultimate street food, pizza. Our goal was to compare as many different pizzas from different pizzerias as our stomachs would allow. Da Michele is as spartan as a pizzeria can get, with only margherita (tomato and mozzarella) and marinara (no cheese, just tomato and garlic, sometimes with anchovy) as the choices. Because cheese topping is as sparse as the interior décor, I ordered the margherita with doppio mozzarella and it was magnificent, except that the “crust” was gummy and couldn’t support the rest of the ingredients, a disaster when eating folded up like a street food. The next stop, and sadly the last one for me because I broke my belt and split my pants from my earlier consumption, was Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro. This was the best overall: crust still soft like traditional Napoletana pizza but sturdy enough to eat standing up without the ingredients sliding off the slice, and chopped tomatoes instead of passata like the one Da Michele uses on its pizza. Other stops included Di Matteo, famed for President Clinton’s 1994 G7 visit, and Pizzeria del Presidente, a spin off pizzeria founded by an alum of Di Matteo.

The highlight of the weekend was the marathon feast presided over by Maria Adele, mother of my colleague host, and a little known star of Campana cucina casareccia (home cooking). The night before the lunch, she started to prepare the voluptuous Ragù Napoletano, in essence a sauce of stewed tomato, soffrito (onion, garlic, carrot, celery), and pieces of veal, pork, and sausage that are removed so it flavors the sauce just enough. The setting was storybook, on a lovely garden terrace covered by a pergola, sixteen people sat around a long table, laughing, making jokes, and sharing some of the best, most genuine food in all of Italy. Here is the menu in full:


Aperitivo

Pesca in Frascati (my preparation...peaches from the peach tree in the garden soaked in Frascati wine)
Caciocavallo di Montagna

Antipasto

Treccia (braided form) di Mozzarella di Bufala Campana D.O.P.

Primo

Rigatoni al Ragù Napoletano. The sauce is "meatless" but infused with meat stock and tons of flavor.

Taurasi DOCG Radici 2001, Mastroberardino

Secondi

Ragù Napoletano: veal and pork. The meat from the meat sauce served as a main course.

Oven roasted thigh of lamb with rosemary garlic potatoes

Caper and breadcrumb stuffed peppers

Dolce

Baba al Rhum, a fried rum and cream filled pastry, a specialty of Campania
Honeydew melon
Gelati: fior di latte and amarena cherry, all made in house.

The closest we came to a home cooked meal at a Napoli restaurant was La Fila restaurant, run by the unforgettable Elvira, who regaled us with her savage wit and deft hand in the kitchen. The Ragù Genovese was the best I’ve ever had, and ironically, the first time I’ve sampled this dish. Why is it called Genovese when we are in Napoli, and where is the pesto? I guess it suffers from the Eggplant Parmigiana syndrome, which has nothing to do with the city of Parma except for the Parmigiano dusted on top. Anyway, Ragù Genovese is basically a primavera sauce, using a soffrito of onion, carrot, celery and basil, and a faint hint of beef broth. I could tell La Fila used a canned commercial broth because the real thing is unmistakeable. The rest of the meal was entirely forgettable, with little fried doughballs and deep fried cheese and an antipasto of potato croquette masquerading as sustenance. The zuppa di fagioli was also quite nice and sadly I only got a spoonful from my neighbor’s bowl.