Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Now For Something Completely Different

Ok, enough ranting about food and wet towels.

Here is some fantastic samba I videoed in Rio in October. There is more like it on my YouTube channel.

This is Nei Lopes, a fantastically talented man who started out as a lawyer and is now Rio's principal advocate and chronicler of Afro Brazilian culture: music, language and other aspects. He is also a talented writer of creative fiction. And one of the best sambistas of the last 40 years, having written a string of hits that have mostly been popularized by other perfomers.

This is one of those:

What Is A Foodie? Not Me!!!! Puhleeeze!

If you've read some of my older posts, well, with the rather exaggerated focus on food matters, one might surmise that, to use the colloquial term, I am a foodie.

Let me assure you that I am not.

I would never, ever refer to myself in that way, and cringe with others choose to do so.

"But you seem to love food so much, how could you NOT be one of those?"

Hmmmm. Here it's gonna get sticky, and I'm gonna end up sounding even more screwy and snobbish than any foodie could possibly be. So what's the difference?

Well, in my humble opinion, a foodie is someone who wants people to think they know a lot about food, that they care about food, that food plays a big role in their lives. However, it's been my experience that folks who accept this label usually don't really know all that much about food, their true passion is making themselves appear puffed up and knowledgeable among their friends, and anyone within audible conversation distance at restaurants, markets and so on. Gag me with a spoon.

The website chowhound.com which I frequent, or used to, when looking for what is going on in cities I am about to visit, or even those in which I have lived, has an interesting way of delineating true chowhounds. (Portland, Oregon has about the worst local chowhound.com forum I have seen, which is amusing to me since the city is constantly lauded as being the new mecca for food and dining in the USA. If chowhound is any sort of indicator, I'd have to say that Portland is more like a food cesspool. But I digress...)

Chowhound, as defined by the website, is one who lives to eat, as opposed to those who eat to live. A chowhound will travel hundreds of miles to sample some esoteric food, or the best fried chicken. You see, even lowly fried chicken can be 'hound-worthy. But will a foodie get a virtual hard-on over some amazing yardbird?  Not likely. For the foodie, the chicken must be prepared in a far more sophisticated manner. You pick. But fried? Not a chance. No balsamic involved, no kiwi, no exotic peppers.

Here is a great example of a foodie in action.

My House in Providence
About ten years ago I moved to Providence, Rhode Island where I bought a nice old home built in 1890. First thing I did was re-do the kitchen to make it functional—in 110 years, no previous owner bothered installing kitchen cabinets or counters. After the work was done, and it didn't take long because the kitchen was so small, the neighbor from across the street came over to introduce herself. When she saw the kitchen, she said, "Oh, you need to meet my husband, he loves to cook and has remodeled our kitchen like this, only bigger!"

So she dragged me immediately across the street to meet her man.
My Providence Kitchen
When I saw his kitchen—decked out with an eight-burner commercial range and a ten-foot long stainless steel dish washing "station" that had no business being in this smallish kitchen. I mentally slapped my forehead, and then again when he finally started on his tour around the place. This guy was totally full of himself and his own shit. The kitchen also featured a rather useless "commercial" refrigerator, meaning it had no freezer and, being only about twelve inches deep, was incapable of hold anything of any size. His freezer was a couple of rooms away. The dog and pony show ended with a glass of iced tea, sweetened with, not sugar, but with his specially prepared simple syrup...which is what? Sugar dissolved in water. Gimmie a break.

As we talked about HIS cooking, at some point he said, "Why don't you come over sometime when I'm cooking. You can be my sous chef." WTF?!?!?!?!?!!?!?   Are you kidding, you pretentious motherfucker?  But I let that slide. Then he said, "What do you cook? Like a bunch of one-dish meals?" WTF Number Two!!!?!?!?!?!??????  I let that slide too, but I was mentally honing my knives for future use in his kitchen....

During my time in Providence, I routinely hosted dinner parties for the handful of great friends I had there, and often included Mr Chef and his poor, sad, suffering wife (can you imagine living with an asshole like this???).

One evening, I made some of my well-regarded fresh tortelli (ravioli in Tuscan lingo) which I served  with my equally well-regarded tomato sauce. After everyone had nibbled a bit on the tortelli, Brandon the Food God said, "Mike, this sauce is great. What's in it?" I quickly and deftly responded with this: "Brandon, YOU are the food expert, why don't you tell us what you think is in it?"

So this foodie asshole took another bite and began his proposed ingredient litany: "Let's see. Onion. Garlic. Oregano. Basil. Olive oil. Rosemary....How'm I doing?"

With a giant smile, I said, "Wrong. Wrong. Wrong." Oh God, that felt good.

"It is simply tomato, with fresh, uncooked butter and a few basil leaves. Salt, pepper. Done."

(The recipe comes from my Italian food guru, Giuliano Bugiali's book, The Art of Italian Cooking, perhaps the best single book on Italian cooking. See it here. Sorry, Marcella.)

His need to over-complicate everything he, or anyone else, cooks is part of his foodie creed. American "chefs" suffer from this same syndrome, and it is why most Italian restaurants in this country are awful. They just can't leave stuff alone. Italian food is all about a few prime ingredients combined in an artful way to create an amazing dish. American chefs don't understand this, and have to, like a dog pissing on a fire hydrant, mark the dish as their own.

Never mind the fact that, for example, so many classic Italian dishes are the result of centuries of honing technique and recipe. But that isn't good enough for the American foodie and macho chef. Oh no. "I'm gonna make it better, you just watch."  Bobby The Asshole Flay is a great example of this on his Food Network "Throwdown" show...throw up is more like it. He is so cocky, he knows he can make any time-tested recipe better by adding all sorts of needless, but oh so trendy, ingredients that really have no business going into the dishes at hand. What self-indulgent, ignorant arrogance.

And that, my friends, is what makes self-proclaimed "foodies" tick. Self-indulgent, ignorant arrogance.

I may be stupid, and I may be ignorant, but I will admit to all of these delightful qualities. I usually admit to what I don't know. But, in the long run, I truly respect food and tradition. Foodies do not. They want to wear balsamic vinegar on their sleeves and on their ultra trendy salads, even though they have probably never actually had REAL balsamic vinegar, and don't know that it exists. Foodie-ism is a badge, like driving a Lexus.

My 2003 Honda
I'll stick with my rather modest Honda, thank you very much. It will get me the 500 miles cheaper in that quest for great BBQ than any Lexus...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

If The Shoe Fits...

I am a true numbskull.

I have been wearing New Balance shoes for several years, and always more or less the same style, now called the "409" if I am not mistaken. Size eleven and a half.
New Balance 409s

Right before I left for Italy three weeks ago today, I bought a brand new pair of these to give my feet more support and comfort than the six-month-old pair I've been wearing lately. Great, easy purchase. Even wore them for a day or two before leaving to help start the break-in process.

After a day or two in Italy, I noticed my feet were in slight pain, and that the shoes were feeling a bit tight. Ok, a few more days of break-in and all will be fine.

Well, after those days, the pain didn't go away. And the shoes continued to feel too tight, as if they were about a half size too small. And instead of getting better, my feet just hurt more and more with each passing day.

I know that there is not always total size continuity from batch to batch of shoes like this, so I figured this eleven and a half was not true to the last few pairs I've had.

Walking around Florence, Bologna, Montlacino, Alba, New York never got easier, and in fact, was often very painful. Buying a new pair of shoes once I got home was tops on my list of things to do once back in Portland.

So, today, after getting home and unpacking a bit, I got ready to go out to get a nice hot bowl of Chinese soup. As I poked around for my shoes, I saw my new pair of New Balance resting in the hallway. But I wanted to wear my old pair since the shoes I wore on my trip were headed to the Goodwill pile.

But wait, these new New Balance shoes looked strange. They were darker, with more blue stripes all of a sudden.

And then it hit me. They were NOT the shoes I took to Italy! I was in such a hurry to get out the door on time when I left three weeks ago, I didn't notice I put on an old pair of shoes I bought last year, Adidas, that were, in fact, about half a size too small.

What an idiot!  My feet suffered for three weeks of walking eight hours a day or more because I wore shoes that were too fucking small to begin with!

So, my New Balance are absolutely brand new, unworn, and un-Italianated. I really screwed up big time on this one.

And I've been apologizing to my feet profusely for the last few hours. Please forgive me, feets!

If the shoe fits...but if it doesn't, well, get rid of them as soon as possible so you don't do what I just did!

What a lame mo'fo!!!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Montalcino Redux (What does 'redux' mean?)

Click on the photos to make ’em larger...

I'm gonna cheat here. I wanted to write more about Montalcino, but can't do better than this piece I wrote in about 1997 or so for the Austin American-Statesman (which now as a rather useless travel section, unfortunately...). It pretty well sums up my feelings about the place, or at least, if you read between the lines (or some of them), you should get a decent feel for my love of this town.

I may sneak a few more recent thoughts into my previous post about the food, but not sure what they might be that could better the following, of which, I am very proud....


Please don’t read this.
Montalcino from below

If you insist on continuing, please don't tell anyone about our little secret. When word gets out, the peaceful tranquillity of one of Tuscany's finest hilltop jewels will certainly be shattered. And Montalcino will never be the same. Please let me discourage you from visiting.

Montalcino is located, geographically speaking, in the Italian province of Siena, an hour south of Florence and three hours north of Rome. But in every other sense it is truly in another world.
The world's most photographed cypresses, near Montalcino
In Montalcino the concept of time disappears. The crowding, noise and bustle of other Italian cities vanish. Sorry, no Campari neon, no flashing Odeon theaters, no Benetton billboards. Not even a single taxi: the 10-minute walk across town makes them superfluous, and besides, there is only one street that runs Montalcino's full length. Sounds horrible, right?

Streets of Montalcino
In Montalcino you'll have to make do with a well-preserved example of a sixteenth century Italian città (city) where life adapts a different pose, not unlike a visit to the past.
Beyond the fact that the architecture has changed little in four hundred years – massive rough hewn stone walls of every building in this town of five thousand citizens, the classic Tuscan bell tower of the city hall, the imposing castle-like ramparts of La Fortezza (the Fortress)–the basic rhythm of daily living is not a particularly modern one.

When the day begins, the ancient bakery does its best to pollute.

The hot, sweet smell of bread and cookies baking wafts through the otherwise crisp, clean mountain air. And the chop chop chopping clatter of the biscotti-cutting machine echoes relentlessly along the cobblestones as another wicker basket fills with Tuscany’s unwitting contribution to the trendy accouterment of the caffè latte-obsessed in the United States.

Sant'Antimo Abbey, Montalcino
The morning also offers one of the best ways to melt into the timelessness of Montalcino. Five minutes down the road is the abbey church of Sant'Antimo where, at nine o’clock sharp, the six or seven Cistercian monks celebrate Mass sung in Gregorian chant. The building itself is sufficient for time transport, constructed of travertine in classic Romanesque style and adorned with whimsical animals carved from local alabaster.

But add the element of ancient music and ceremony and the atmosphere changes sufficiently to move even the most skeptical.

Interior, Sant'Antimo

This church was founded in 781 by Charlemagne as thanks for his troops being spared that year's raging plague. It was enlarged to its present state in the twelfth century when it was the center of one of Italy's richest and most influential monasteries.
Interior, Sant'Antimo, Montalcino

Stick around after Mass and, for a small tip, the caretaker will show you some of the church's highlights. If you increase the pay a bit, and you just come out and ask, he might let you go into the otherwise forbidden upstairs level that, on one side, was the Sienese bishop's home-away-from-home and, on the other, was the women's gallery; of course they were not allowed in the church proper.
From the sacristy fresco, Sant'Antimo
On the way up, pause to admire the original Carolingian chapel that now serves as the sacristy, and notice the fresco depicting the bucolic farm life of the old abbey, including a pair of copulating pigs.
From the sacristy fresco, Sant'Antimo

By all means, buy yourself the hypnotic recording of chants recorded in this awesome structure.

In the early afternoon, forget about making any stock market trades. The entire town shuts down for a three-hour lunch break.Walk through the twisting, cobbled lanes. They're deserted, almost spooky. Quiet is everywhere. Even the few cars allowed within the town walls are still. Maybe the silence makes you uneasy. Maybe you really miss the honking, belching traffic of the city.

Trattoria il Pozzo, San Angelo in Colle (Montalcino)
The best way to escape such quiet is to avoid it. Find a family-run trattoria and do as the Montalcinesi do. Linger a couple of hours over some of the area’s rustic cuisine and world-famous wines (more on which later). Chances are, you'll stumble into conversation with a fellow traveler, or with one of the friendly locals. And, in no time, you've wasted an entire afternoon, wasted it savoring good food and good company, the way mealtime used to be in the United States, a long, long time ago, before advanced technology gave us so much extra leisure time.

By the time lunch is over, the city will have sprung back to life.

But be careful back on the street. In Montalcino, strangers sometimes approach visitors on the street. They approach, and then—and then—they say hello! Buona sera, indeed. The nerve! So,go forewarned: This will happen to you in Montalcino.

On the afternoon stroll, forget the local museum. It's closed for renovation. But do admire some of the backyard gardens full of grapes, olive trees and artichokes. Compared to Florence or Siena, Montalcino offers little in the way of grand displays of Renaissance art anyway (actually, all of Montalcino is a living monument to the Renaissance).

Sputnik image, San Pietro Church, Montalcino
But there are some gems if you look. For something completely different, visit the church of San Pietro, just a short walk from the main drag. Inside this charming edifice is one of the most amazing paintings in all of Italy. It features the usual iconography of the period with one exception. At the feet of Christ is what appears to be a metal sphere, and the metal sphere appears to have several antennae sprouting from it. This is not an object we normally associate with the Italy of the year 1600, when this work was painted. No wonder some refer to this place as the Church of the Holy Sputnik.
Town Hall, Montalcino

The late afternoon sun, except during summer, casts long shadows down Montalcino's steep, narrow streets. (Referring to the web of medieval alleys and stairways that connect the various sections and levels of this mountain-perched town as "streets" might be stretching the truth; but their meandering design keeps the auto population under control.) Anyway, those shadows signal a time to sit down at a caffè on the main square, the Piazza del Popolo, and have an espresso, a bottle of mineral water, or another glass of the area's world-famous wines (more on which later).

The sun's last rays always paint the Tuscan sky as majestically as the finest fresco in nearby Florence, and that purple-pink cloak sweeps an even greater calm over the city. A quick walk through town offers a glimpse of the last few market transactions of the day: a wedge of local sheep's cheese, some brilliantly colored long-stemmed artichokes, a basket full of wild mushrooms. Then the night takes over.
Sundown, Montalcino

Dinner mirrors lunch, and by ten the city buttons up tight once more, tucking you in for the best night's sleep you've ever had. If you like that sort of thing.


Like the valley below on many early mornings, the origins of Montalcino are obscured by a fog. Though Etruscan and Roman artifacts have been found in the area, the site of the current city was probably not established until the ninth or tenth century. But once underway, the growth was fast and furious, so much so that Montalcino has grown little since the 1300s.
Montalcino as seen from La Fortezza

Its strategic position on a hilltop overlooking the all-important route between Rome and Paris, the Via Francigena, placed Montalcino in the middle of much intrigue and warfare involving at one time or another Siena, Florence, several popes, the Medici, Spain and others. Finally, in the 1550s, the town surrendered to the powerful Medici of Florence and disappeared into that ubiquitous fog of time once again.

But the soil and climate of this fortuitous spot have provided another renaissance for Montalcino, a rebirth brought about by the international discovery of Montalcino's legendary ruby gold: the wine known as Brunello di Montalcino.
Brunello vines in Fall, Montalcino

Hailed as one of the world's best reds and quickly becoming one of the most expensive, Brunello is bringing new wealth to this formerly sleepy hamlet. By law, Brunello can only be produced within a very small region surrounding the town, thus controlling the quality and the price. In Montalcino the price for a bottle is roughly half that in the U.S.A., so if you enjoy wine, stock up. It will last. Brunello from 1888 is still being consumed, though not often!
Brunello on display, Montalcino

Also try the “baby Brunello”, Rosso di Montalcino, made from the same grapes, but without the four years of aging required for its big brother. For a wine redolent of flowers and honeysuckle, try the other wine exclusive to Montalcino, Moscadello. It comes in two varieties: a slightly frizzy young treat enjoyed before dinner, and a slightly more "tangy" dessert-style wine (termed licoroso).

La Fortezza, Montalcino
La Fortezza, Montalcino

Honey on display, Montalcino
A good place to sample these is in the enoteca of the Fortezza. This incredible structure was built to protect the populace during times of siege, and the walls make for a great morning of sightseeing.On a clear day you can see much of Tuscany. Siena, thirty miles to the north, is that reddish smudge on the horizon. The friendly staff will allow you to sample the wines they have open, and will be happy to answer questions about the wine, pecorino cheese, olive oil and other local products they sell.

With these samples as an appetizer, head straight to one of the fine local restaurants for some delicious country cooking. This area is well known for its cured meats, its sheep's milk pecorino, the hand-rolled rustic spaghetti known as pinci, and dishes made from wild boar and other game, as well as a heavenly, hearty soup made from beans and local produce and drizzled with some of Italy's best olive oil.

Some other goodies to look out for are local specialties from the bakery including biscotti (called cantucci) and the crisp meringue almond cookie, ossi di morto (dead man's bones!). Dip either in a glass of Moscadello after dinner for a traditional and delightful dessert.

Honey is another of the area's principal products, and every store in town features at least 10 varieties, each flavored by a specific type of blossom; the beekeepers move their hives from place to place to capture the essence of particular flowers for these honeys. Don't forget to grab some ceramics, olive oil and dried porcini mushrooms before you pack your bags!

Clearly, the problem with a visit to Montalcino is the tendency to eat too much, sleep too much, relax too much, walk too much,breathe too much clean air. Obviously, this is not a vacation.Vacations are supposed to provide a difficult and tense week or two so that returning to work will be a relief. Why on earth would anyone want to spend any time in such a place as Montalcino?

If you go:

Tourist Information: Montalcino Tourist Office: 011-39 (577) 849 331

Arriving: Because Montalcino is not well served by public transportation, the best way to see the area is to rent a car in any major city: Rome (three hours), Florence (one hour) or Siena (30 minutes) are some logical choices. There is much to see within a short driving distance of the city, and a car allows for such side trips. Otherwise, there are regular buses from Siena, an hour's bus ride away.

Lodging: Reservations are a good idea, especially in the summer. Lodging in Montalcino is wonderfully comfortable and homey. The Tourist Office can send a complete list.

Here are a few choices:

Hotel Il Giglio [011 39 (577) 848 167] is run by members of a friendly family who restored this 13-room gem; they also rent rooms in a private residence which are immaculate, replete with fresh flowers and a complementary bottle of local wine.

Food: In town there are many options. These are just a few: Osteria di Porta al Cassero (Via Libertà, 9) offers great home-style cooking and stays open late.

Taverna dei Barbi (Part of the Barbi Winery, four kilometers south of Montalcino on the road to Sant’ Antimo) features some of the most traditional food around, including hand-rolled pinci; the manager, Giovanni is a hoot.
Trattoria il Pozzo, San Angelo in Colle
Trattoria Il Pozzo (10 minutes away in the small town of San Angelo in Colle) offers a changing menu of unusual but traditional dishes, and the respected winery Il Poggione is next door, so try their wines at bargain prices.

When to go:

Any time is a good time because the weather is always nice. Winter offers few tourists, cool temperatures and clear skies, lots of mushrooms, truffles, new olive oil and other fall/winter delights. Summer temperatures are mild, the sky is hazy and the tourist load is heavy, but the hills are straight out of the Mona Lisa. The Festival of the Thrush featuring Renaissance costumes, music, spectacle and an archery contest is celebrated during the last weekend of October.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Home Sweet Home—500 Years Later

Click on the photos to make ’em larger...
Montalcino, Southern Tuscany


Friday after class, my pal Cosimo and his spouse Rebecca, picked me up for the two hour or so drive to Montalcino which is located about an hour south of Florence. That little bit of distance changes the cuisine completely. It changes from Florence to Montalcino, but not as drastically as from, say, Bologna to Florence. Cows in the former, sheep and olive trees in the later. So, of course, the cooking fat changes. And the emphasis on slightly richer dishes moves to a cuisine created by a more austere existence.

I've glummed onto Tuscan cooking precisely because it is so spare, simple, and still fantastically delicious. With a carrot, an onion, a stalk of celery ( called a gamba, or leg, in Italy!), a bit of tomato paste, a couple ounces of pancetta and a pound of beans, I can make an amazing Tuscan bean soup. Add some kale, some stale bread and smash it all together and you get a totally different thing. But in any case, remember to top each with a very generous thread of great olive oil. Yum.

We arrived in Montalcino after dark because of some terrible traffic between Bologna and Florence. But it felt so good to be home. The wonderful folks at the hotel popped open a bottle of nice bubbly from northern Italy (I've known these people for at least 15 years) and we just let the highway tensions fall away.

Montalcino is a funny place. It is a small town, about 5,000 people, which sits on a very high hill, ok, a short mountain (the name means hill of the oaks), and is surrounded by very productive agricultural land, mostly olives and grapes. The grapes are grown primarily for the town's namesake wine, one of Italy's top two or three reds, Brunello di Montalcino, a very solid red with lots and lots of body. So the region's food has evolved to match the wines. In the past thirty years or so, Brunello making has matured such that these days, many formerly poor farmers are fabulously wealthy. Buy a bottle of Brunello in the USA—a decent one—and the price will be at least fifty or sixty bucks, and since this wine gets much better with age, a more desirable twenty-year-old bottle will run in the hundreds. It's good stuff.

Pancetta al Forno, Il Giglio, Montalcino
For my last several visits, I've managed to have Anna, the brains behind the hotel, and an amazing cook, prepare a special local dish which is hard to find in area restaurants (though I was lucky enough to have it many years back in a little place you'll read about below) called pancetta al forno. It is a large slab of pork belly seasoned with salt, pepper, a bit of garlic, a hint of rosemary and maybe a tad of lemon zest, which is rolled up like a jelly roll and slow roasted in the oven until much of the fat renders out, and the outside becomes a crispy golden brown. Holy moly, this is one of the best things I have ever eaten, and Anna is gracious enough to cook it up for me whenever I arrive. I think the pancetta she did on this visit was the best ever: it was perfectly juicy, tender inside and wonderfully crispy brown on the outside. And, yep, it goes great with Brunello, so Mario, Anna's husband, picked out a great one for us to share.

There is very little auto traffic within Montalcino, the central historic portion is off limits except for residents, and so, it is easy to allow yourself to float back to another time—most of the towns buildings date to 1500 or earlier, some a bit later. After dinner and a walk around town, I sat on a bench in front of the hotel on the street that is barely ten feet wide, if that, and answered email, took in the smell of burning pine from a few hundred chimneys, and just sort of zoned out until after midnight. Though I was sitting right on the street, it was incredibly peaceful, even a bit awe inspiring. I was in heaven.

The first time I visited here in early December of 1995, I fell in love with it. No, actually, something clicked inside me which said, "I've been here before." I'm not totally sure what that was about, though I have a few ideas. Whatever the source, the magnetic attraction was immediate and everlasting. I still feel that way. Guess I always will. It just feels like home. Comfortable. Easy. Mostly. I made a vain attempt after that first visit to buy a restaurant in the town so I would have a reason to move to Montalcino with my son. Obviously not meant to be, as they say, but I've returned many times, written about Montalcino for the Austin paper (back when they had a real travel section) and preach about it to anyone who will listen. Guess that now includes you!

Next morning it was off to the fairy tale restored abbey of Sant'Antimo, about six or seven miles south of town. It has been brought back to life by a group of French monks who are nurturing it back to health.
Abbey of Sant'Antimo, near Montalcino
They celebrate mass every morning in Gregorian Chant, they grow olives, grapes and other staples, they pray, what?, eight times a day?, they even record gorgeous CDs of their chant in the church which they package in elaborate books complete with wonderful photos of the place, all produced on the abbey's Macintosh desktop system!  On one of my first trips, I befriended the Chilean custodian who showed me some of the normal off-limits parts of the church like the former bishop's quarters, the women's gallery (it is a sort of second story to the church around one edge…women were not allowed on the main floor!), and the sacristy which was built in the late 700s and was at some point adorned with a bucolic fresco which has a hilarious depiction of two pigs screwing in the barnyard. I love it.

Lunch! This was at my favorite place to eat in the area, the very homey Trattoria il Pozzo in the little town of Sant'Angelo in Colle, a few miles from the church. It is sort of like a miniature version of Montalcino, also built on a hill—providing it with gorgeous vistas of classic Tuscan landscapes—remember all those beautiful Renaissance paintings? These are the backgrounds. Sant'Angelo has no traffic: just narrow lanes, 500-year old houses, and only about four or five active business, three of which are food-oriented.

Pinci al olio, aglio e peperoncino, Il Pozzo, Sant'Angelo in Colle
The dish I crave at il Pozzo. Wait, il Pozzo was the first place I had the above-touted pancetta al forno when it was run by Laura, a great cook I had a great crush on whenever I was in the area.

Ok, the dish I love at il Pozzo is called pinci al olio, aglio e peperoncini. Pinci are the local version of "spaghetti", but they are hand rolled in the way we used to roll out snakes with clay in kindergarten. So the sign of a true handmade version is the irregularity of the rolling. One four or five inch snake will be thick, thin, thicker again, then thin. And they are a bit chewy, but not hard like al dente pasta, just chewy. They are a foil for a wonderful olive oil dressing which is spiked with lots of garlic and a little hot pepper. Absolutely perfect dish, and il Pozzo's version of the pasta is the best I've had. Anna's is good, but still comes in second!

Well, because il Pozzo also does other kinds of pinci, I had to go back for dinner.
Cingiale on polenta, Il Pazzo, Sant'Angelo in Colle
 This time it was pinci al ragù, a heartier version of meat sauce than Bologna's, but just as delicious. We also tried another local dish which was a wild boar (cinghiale) stew on top of some soft polenta. It was wonderful, but I just couldn't eat much of it. Recommended nonetheless.
Landscape from Sant'Angelo in Colle

Espresso closed the meal, and it was served in some nice cups which were decorated with images of Siena, another place I love dearly. Since I knew the cups were provided free to the restaurant by the coffee company whose logo adorned them, I didn't feel bad about asking the genial owner if I could have one to take home. She immediately wrapped one up and handed it to me. Wonderfully generous. Now, if they would just get free WiFi, this would be the perfect restaurant! Wait, it really is the perfect restaurant. Forget the WiFi!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bologna Chow, Part Two


Ok, back to food. We're gonna skate fast through this so as not to be even more boring than usual. I had written most of the Bologna food report yesterday, then, in one brilliant keystroke, I lost it all...I am certain it was Pulitzer-winning stuff, and had to start over.

So here is more, maybe all, of what I have to say about food in Bologna.

After my first pasta class, I headed directly to one of the only two places I'd eaten at in Bologna before this trip, a place simply called Serghei where I'd had a nice lunch back in 1997 or '98 when I jumped off the train to Florence just to have that one lunch in Bologna.

Trattoria Serghei, Bologna
Serghei is the consummate family run trattoria with sister in the kitchen, brother running the front and someone's mother in the kitchen to help from time to time. They don't do fru fru, but stick with the standards of Bolognese cuisine. The sister is skinny and cute, Silvanio, the brother, is a frustrated electric guitarist whose replica of a Fender amp from the early '60s resides in the hall to the bathroom.

I had a pleasant lunch that Monday, so much that I reserved a spot for that very night for a return visit...he told me they were having one of my favorite dishes, maiale al latte—pork roasted in milk—which is something you don't see often in restaurants and I wanted to see how theirs compared to mine.
Gramigna al Sugo di Salsiccia, Serghei, Bologna

So here is the rundown of the dishes I sampled on those two visits. First, I had a yummy pasta, gramigna al sugo di salsiccia (gramigna=bermuda grass, salsciccia=sausage)—the pasta is slightly thick and chewy, but not too much, and the sugo, or sauce was the perfect condiment, somewhat hearty on both counts. And as such, a bit counter to the idea of Bologna's food that I had in my head, but this is why I wanted to spend more than a couple of hours eating in the foodie (whatever that is) paradise.

That night I opted for two pastas (!) and a meat course. I had to try their tortellini in brodo so that, by the end of the trip, I would have at least three or four versions of this classic under by belt—oh, so literally that!

Tortellini In Brodo, Serghei, Bologna
The tortellini—which are typically stuffed with a finely ground mixture of pork, mortadella, maybe some prosciutto, eggs, cheese and nutmeg—were tasty and the broth, or brodo, was great, though it didn't quite match that depth achieved by Trattoria Anna Maria the night before. Still, a solid "A" rating.

My next choice—again, this is all for science you understand—was Serghei's version of tagliatelli al ragù, that anchor of Bolognese cooking. I enjoyed this dish very much, but, again, compared to Anna Maria's incredibly thin and light pasta, this one paled just a tad. The pasta was only slightly heavier, and if I had never had the other, this would be a standard by which to judge. So, if in Bologna, definitely put Serghei on your short list.
Tagliatelle al Ragù, Serghei, Bologna

I enjoyed Serghei especially for its family-run feeling, lack of pretense and honesty of the cooking and the presentation. No frills, just like me!

To top off these light starters!!!! I ordered the coveted maiale al latte. Coveted? No, greatly desired...is that the same. Anyway, Yum! it was delicious. The idea is to slow-roast the loin, shoulder, or whatever in about a liter of milk to keep the meat moist, and to add some flavor. As the milk cooks and reduces, what is left is an absolute treat. The solids, very full of sugar, caramelize into clumpy curds which are imbued with porky goodness.

I've made this dish many times, but have always wondered how mine compared to the home office's version. Well, I think I do pretty well. The pork in the USA is leaner, more flavorless and just more blah, so it's hard to exactly reach the same heights, but lately I've been using shoulder or butt, both of which have more fat than loin, and thus more flavor, and more moisture in the meat.
Maiale al Latte, Pork Roasted in Milk, Serghei, Bologna
I wish we had better pork more readily available. I will say that lately I've been using a nice pork in Portland from a small producer who finishes off the pigs with a diet of hazelnuts—NO, they don't choke them with nuts—which gives the meat more flavor, and, the breed they use is much fattier than supermarket pork. I'm sold even though it considerably more expensive. Once in a while, it is worth it. I know there are similar producers near Austin, just don't know who they are.

The next day I was on a hunt for a good version of the classic Bologna veal chop called cotoletta bolognese, and a couple of books directed me to the All'Osteria Bottega. So I trucked over after class and plunked my tired ass down in a chair in this comfy, but a tad "stuffy", place not far from my hotel. But I could tell they did things correctly and my mouth began watering as soon as I licked some stains on the menu. Wait, I didn't actually do that, except in my head!

One of the disappearing treasures of the Emilia (Bologna, Parma, Modena, etc) kitchen is called culatello, which literally translates as "little ass".  What it actually is, well, it's the prime ass cheek of these wonderful, whey-fed piggies. It's the "filet" of the prosciutto, the very best part, and it's expensive as hell because to "harvest" one, you destroy a whole prosciutto, or ham. Plus, to make it the traditional way, you have to cure it in a moldy, earthy room full of the right bacteria which provide the taste of a true culatello. Well, the assholes who are trying to make Europe a perfect ONE, have decided that all meats must be cured in rooms with white tiles which can be washed down periodically with a hose and water. Screw the culatello, they say! (Well, someone should screw THEM in their little asses, in my opinion.)  Well, somehow these diamonds of porkiness are still being produced, and they are still quite good if you search out the artisanal producers.

Tagliatelle al Culatello, All'Osteria Bottega, Bologna
All this is leading up to the pasta choice I made at Bottega: talgliatelle al culatello, basically delicate fettuccine (tagliatelle) topped with a healthy portion of lightly sauteed, perfect pig's ass, culatello. No secret blend of herbs or spices, just culatello, some butter or olive oil, and nothing else to get in the way of the pure taste of the perfectly cured pork...an absolute delight, for sure. Can't get this at home!

And I will want more soon! What to do???

Well, the focus of this day's meal was the cotoletta, veal chop, and I was in for a celebration of animal fats without really knowing it.  The thin chop, bone attached, was lightly sauteed in butter, then topped with a few thin slices of prosciutto, then "broiled" with a generous amount of Parmigiano on top, and then left to swim in butter. Crapola! It was great, but so, so, so, so, so rich.

Cotoletta Bolognese, All'Osteria Bottega, Bologn
You can see the pool of butter in this photo. Click to enlarge it for a better look at what will surely add greatly to my risk of death by heart failure.

Somehow, that same day, I was able to eat again. This time at the other place I'd been to for one of those "express" lunches, this one was in 2007. Trattoria Giginia is another of the stalwarts of true Cucina Bolognese, and I was very impressed on my first visit. So, along with my friend Cosimo and his always-attached wet towel, I went back to sample even more goodies from their menu. 

Trattoria Giginia, Bologna
I had to have passatelli again, and was interested to see if Giginia's brodo could meet the standard set by Anna Maria. Well, the answer is no. But it was close, and, again, if you never had the very, very best, then this one would have possibly earned that title. But not now. I've been spoiled.
Passatelli In Brodo, Trattoria Giginia, Bologna

Spuma di Mortadella, Baloney Mousse, Trat. Giginia, Bologna
Oh, wait, we had some appetizers too, including spuma di mortadella which I call "baloney mousse" which is more or less what it is. Puree some mortadella, add some finely minced sauteed onion, a bit of reduced broth since mortadella, about 40% fat, isn't already rich enough, then a sizable amount of whipped cream, again, because forty percent just isn't rich enough, then chill in a mold, and serve with bread or toast points. Really good, this stuff, and Giginia's version is quite luxurious, but then, anything with this high a fat content could only be so.

Well, the next day after my pasta class I decided to try out a place I'd heard prepared a good tortelloni alla zucca—pasta stuffed with winter squash—and that the best way to have it was not with the more common butter and sage, but with ragù. So I headed toward the stangely named Trattoria dal Biassonot which was about two doors down from Serghei. Apparently Biassonot is some symbol of night spirits in Bologna and takes the form of a black cat.

Trattoria dal Biassonot, Bologna
I walked in just before lunch was over and grabbed a table. Since I was by then on a quest to try every version of tortellini in brodo, guess what I ordered?  I knew that the chef/owner was a master pasta maker, having won a Matterello d'Oro a few years ago, I was certain that Biassonot's offering would be among the best. And it certainly was. Flavorful stuffing with hints of the individual components, yet still blending into a unique, unified entity into itself. And, of course, the pasta wrapping on these tiny packages was properly transparent and light. I was impressed. As usual, the broth was excellent, but still didn't reach the heights of Anna Maria's. But didn't I say it was excellent on its own?
Tortellini In Brodo, Trattoria dal Biassonot, Bologna

So, for my next course, I sampled the recommended tortelloni alla zucca with the standard ragù bolognese. They were fine, but I like my version a tad better. I grind amaretti cookies into the filling, and overall, the flavor of the stuffing of mine is more pronounced. But my version comes from a different place, a few miles up the road, and the folks in Bologna would snicker at mine. Oh well.

Tortelloni alla Zucca, Trattoria dal Biassonot, Bologna
After the meal was finished, the owner came out and spoke with me. She knew about my pasta course because I had mentioned it in an emailed reservation request I'd sent the night before. She knew it was me when she saw me. Guess it's the brother/sisterhood of sfoglini (bolognese pasta makers) that allowed her to recognize me???!!!  We spoke for a while about my classes, her pastas, and food in Bologna in general. She even pulled out her great, great grandmother's mattarello which she held carefully and proudly while mentioning that she almost never uses it because she doesn't want to damage it!

After we traded food secrets, I asked if she knew where I could get some great parmigiano reggiano, and of course she did, right around the corner. (I bought two kilos of 3-year old cheese there!) And then one more request, this time for a source for one of my favorite after dinner drinks, and a specialty of Emilia Romagna, nocino, which is an infusion in alcohol of green walnuts picked in late June on St. John's day, the 24th. After a few months, probably in October, the walnuts are removed and a simple sugar syrup is added and then the stuff is left to age until about Christmas. The taste is strong and an acquired on for sure...most people don't like it, but for some reason I find it delicious.
Nocino, Green Walnut Liqueur, Trattoria dal Biassonot, Bologna

Well, she replied that she could sell me a bottle of artisanally produced nocino, and she offered me a generous sample. Needless to say, I bought a bottle.

I guess it was that night, or the night after, I tried another joint that came highly recommended. Trattoria Gianni. It was fine, the food good, but somehow the vibe bothered me. I had a nice tagliattele, but this time with a lamb ragù instead of the beef/pork version. Good.
Stinco di Maiale, Pig Shank, Trattoria Gianni, Bologna
For my second course, I had something I'd been looking for since Florence, an oven roasted pork shank, the stinco di maiale. It was very well done, nicely browned outside, and very moist inside. But it was so rich, I could not finish it. Maybe because I had an appetizer, Gianni's nice version of spuma di mortadella. Well done.
Spuma di Mortadella, Trattoria Gianni, Bologna

Lasagne Bolognese, Trattoria dal Biassonot, Bologna

And at that point, I was about to pop!

Let's see, I tried to go back to Serghei for my last lunch in Bologna, but somehow got there too late. So, instead, I went next door to Biassonot for another hit of pasta. Duh.

Since I had already had her past in broth, and I had yet to try the quintessential Bolognese baked pasta, the famous lasagne. Ok, time to break another stereotype, this time of lasagne being a heavy dish laden with lots of cheese and meat and al dente pasta. Well, the primary source of Italian-American recipes is southern Italy (and we will mistakenly include Sicily in this geographic chunk) where the food does tend to be a bit heavier than in the north. Lasagne there is often, maybe normally made with a semolina-based dried pasta, the same you can buy at any American supermarket. The result, combined with the more southern fillings of ricotta, mozzarella, etcetera is a globby, heavy mess, and the kind I grew up with.

In Bologna, things are different. The dish is made with fresh egg pasta, never dried semolina pasta. And the pasta most often employed is made with spinach, thus the lasagne (lasagne is plural, lasagna is singular…one rarely eats ONE lasagna; just trying to keep things straight here!)—thus, the sfoglia used to make the lasagna is green, verde. And instead of ricotta as a filler, a very light schmear of white sauce (béchamel) is utilized to help bind the casserole (god, i hate to use that word here, but it fits, I suppose) together. A tiny among of ragù is used for substance between the layers, and a dusting of parmagiano reggiano completes each stratum. The first time I made lasagne in this way, I was shocked at how light and delicious it was. So different from my mother's, or any I had ever had at any American Italian place. It almost seemed like meeting an old friend, and I can't say why that is, but it immediately became my lasagne standard, though I still gobbled plenty of the other style when I visited the folks.
Trattoria dal Biassonot, Bologna

Biassonot's  lasagne was exemplary (damn, this is confusing...the actual dish is plural, but talking about A dish in the plural seems odd, so sorry for any inconsistencies. Almost airy in its lightness, a few nuggets of ground meat showed up here and there, and the sum total of all the parts made me a very happy, ballooning gastronome (not sure I really qualify for that, I might want to stick with chowhound).

Zucchini Ripieni, Stuffed Zucchini, Trattoria dal Biassonot, Bologna

For my "main" course, as if anything could take the spotlight off that serving of lasagna, I opted for another traditional dish, stuffed (ripieni) zucchini. The squash is hollowed out and filled with a meat mixture that is basically used for meatballs as well. In fact, the plate was dotted with a few tiny meatballs, a nice little touch, and the whole thing was bathed in tasty, light tomato sauce. I was very pleased with this home-style dish which I understand is now rarely served in restaurants. Lucky me to find a place that still does. (Actually, so does Serghei, and I wanted to try theirs during this lunch, but that was not to be, so it was cool Biassonot served it as well.)

[As I write this, I am on a train heading from Alba to Milan, the first stage of my journey back home. I'll overnight in Milan, then up early for the flight Sunday morning to JFK. I'll hang out in NYC for a few days visiting pals and eating lots of great Chinese food. Stay tuned for that!]
Tortellini In Brodo, Trattoria Anna Maria, Bologna

Ok, before we all explode, let's return to where we started, to Trattoria Anna Maria. Like I said, I'd been jonesin' for that broth all week and just had to get back for one more hit. This time, I went with the tortellini, my, what, fourth of the week? Third? I've lost count. As expected, the brodo was exceptional and managed to easily maintain its place as number one in my book. The tortellini themselves, at this point, were almost secondary, but were sensational as well. I'm so glad I decided to return.

For a change of pace, my other pasta on this visit was still her hand-rolled stuff, but this time cut a bit thicker into what are called pappardelle, not as wide as in Tuscany, but definitely wider than the tagliatelle. I was chided in my pasta class, when I was learning to cut tagliatelle with a knife, for cutting them about an eighth of an inch too wide. "Those are papparedelle! Not tagliatelle!" Ok, so now I know. The condiment consisted of sauteed mushrooms, but I am not sure what kind. Porcini were out of season by this time, but whatever they were, they were perfect.

Pappardelle ai Funghi, Noodles with Mushrooms, Trattoria Anna Maria, Bologna
Try it at home: get a variety of mushrooms—crimini, white, shitake, whatever you can find—chop them very coarsely, then, heat a bit of oil in a pan, not too hot, and had a tiny bit of chopped garlic, then the mushrooms…low heat, please…maybe splash in a half cup or so of dry white wine and let it evaporate. Then maybe a tiny bit of chicken stock or broth and let the pan cook on very low heat until the mushrooms are very soft and tender. Check for salt and pepper, add a bit of freshly chopped Italian parsley (with 3-4 mint leaves if you have them). You will add this to your cooked pasta. If the sauce seems too dry, add at least one-quarter cup of olive oil…more if you can deal with it. Serve with generous sprinklings of parmagiano reggiano…freshly grated, please!!!!

Ok, with that little "regalo", I'm gonna close out this hot-winded account of my eating adventures in Bologna.

Hungry yet?

Next stop, Montalcino in southern Tuscany. My personal paradise and where my will stipulates that my ashes are to be scattered when that becomes necessary. Yes, I love the place.