Oh là là!

While planning our monthly NYC weekend, I was very proud of myself for willing to look ahead (to our Southern France trip in May), as opposed to being hopelessly stuck in the past, in my beloved Italian cuisine :-). As a result, the eating itinerary combined a chic French Saturday with the casual Italian Sunday…thank God for the hard-working American spirit which makes it possible to eat at virtually any restaurant in the US on Sunday, – not so in Rome, for example!)I still remember the horrors of neglecting to make a lunch reservation on Sunday (our second day in Rome) for any of the few open worthwhile restaurants, and walking in the heat for hours around Fori and Circo Massimo, without a semblance of a plan… only to be saved by the unexpected appearance of Cristalli di Zucchero and their delicious miniature artisanal savory and sweet pastries (and fresh apricot and blood orange juices)…but I digress.

Un (I).

Jeff and I had fond memories of having tea and macarons at a premier pastry shop Maison Laduree in Paris,


Maison Laduree, 21 Rue Bonaparte, Paris

and I was pleased to discover that their newest location opened in Manhattan (Upper East Side) just a couple of months ago. I cringed at the prospect of standing in line for an hour (or more realistically, at the prospect of Jeff refusing to stand in line for an hour, and therefore, at the prospect of not eating macarons on our short trip); but thankfully, it all worked out “for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Some thirty minutes later, we were already tasting the fabulous macarons in lemon, pistachio, coffee, rose petal, orange blossom, and the ultimate treat, sea salt caramel.

it is not blurry...it is impressionistic... ok, maybe Jeff's hands were shaking a little with anticipation...

Deux (II).

Our evening plans involved a SoHo French-Vietnamese fusion place called Rouge et Blanc (which I kept calling “Rouge et Noir” throughout the night, till I figured out that I needed to think “rouge” and “blanc” wine, as opposed to Stendhal’s mysterious color scheme). I had heard of the place before, and had vague interest, but never acted upon it, till last week, my friend Alex told me that the food there was “exquisite”. Now, you have to understand that the highest epithet Alex typically uses to describe food is “decent” (by the way, he is a dedicated and experienced foodie) So, needless to say, when I heard that kind of language from him, five minutes later, I was already making the Open Table reservation for Saturday night dinner.

And it did not disappoint. Moreover, I was lavishing praise all night: the bone marrow  & charred baby octopus and en papillote forest mushrooms small plates; fall vegetables in green curry with monkey bread; caramelized fois gras dessert were all pretty amazing, as well as the Domaine Charles Joguet Chinon Les Varennes du Grand Clos Franc de Pied 2006.

The interesting thing about the pairing is that typically, a Cab Franc would be too heavy for vegetables, especially given their method of preparation (Cab Franc and green curry???)  But, at 12.5% alcohol, this low-yield Chinon is both rich and elegant & earthy. Also, the higher level of acidity of that particular cuvee makes that marriage even stronger. As for the food, the common theme for this chef seems to be subtlety and earthiness.

I was looking forward to sharing pictures of the dishes we ate (which I diligently took), but they turned out to be disappointing, due to my utter lack of skill and low lighting. The presentation of the bone marrow small plate was especially dramatic, with a very impressively sized bone across the plate, and the baby octopus piled on top of the bone marrow… I will leave you only with a somewhat interesting, if totally unrealistic, picture of our curried vegetables entrée:

the wonders of flash...


Our Favorite Dishes of the Trip

Best gelato:
-Herb-based offerings from Gelateria del Teatro in Rome (sage & raspberry; wild fennel & caramelized almonds, and lavender & white peach.

-Fig gelato from Fior di Latte in Trastevere, Rome managed to capture the essence of seasonal small figs called “settembrini”.

-Crema della Nonna (custard-flavored gelato) from Natale, Lecce.

Best seafood dish:
-Grano con cozze: grano with mussels in a simple tomato base at L’Arco del Porto, Monopoli, Puglia. Grano is one of those fascinating ancient whole grains: http://www.sunnylandmills.com/grano_ancient_grain.shtml

NB: Grano was one of the very few food items we brought home from Italy.

Best fish dish:
Tuna steak (and I don’t even really like tuna and never order it!) as part of the 10-item appetizer course (antipasti della casa) brought to us at L’Arco del Porto in Monopoli, Puglia. It was seared on the outside (with a slight balsamic glaze), pretty rare on the inside, and was unlike any tuna I have ever had. I was already full, but I still wolfed it down with pink peppercorns and red onions from another appetizer. It was as big as my head.

Best pasta dish: We ate MANY pastas on this trip, so I think it is fair to include several:
-Cacio e pepe with fried zucchini flowers at Antico Arco in Rome (pasta with pecorino romano and freshly ground pepper). Jeff also wanted to make sure I gave a shoutout to Roscioli’s version because of its amazing texture :-):

cacio e pepe at Roscioli

-Orecchiette integrale con broccoli e capocollo at Il Ritrovo degli Amici, Martina Franca (whole-grain pasta with broccoli and grated local cheese). It is impossible to describe the complexity and texture of this dish, so I am not even going to try.
-Fusilli mollica e crusco (if you thought the previous pasta was not basic enough, here is a pasta with breadcrumbs and crushed red Senise peppers, a Lucan specialty). The ultimate embodiment of cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine), this dish does not feature any fresh vegetables, fish or meat. The owner of Le Botteghe quizzed me about the translation of “crusco” before I was allowed to order it (I passed); quite understandable, since it sounds like some very rare and delicious crustacean.
-Ceci e tria at il Frantoio in Puglia: a ribbon-shaped pasta with a sauce of whole and pureed chickpeas.
-Bottarga spaghetti at Antico Arco featuring mullet’s roe from Cetara on the Amalfi coast. It was topped with the most amazing seabass carpaccio (actually, “carpaccio” was their description; the pieces of fish were actually pretty substantial, much to my joy.

What all these pastas have in common: absence of fancy ingredients and complex sauces.

Best appetizer:
-Very lightly marinated zucchini with mint (part of the 14-course appetizer offering at Parco di Castro, Puglia). Zucchini were in season, and during the course of the trip, we had them on pizza (at Forno del Campo dei Fiori in Rome, – it was incidentally the most inspired by the slice, or rather, “by the chunk” pizza we had);

zucchini pizza at Forno Campo de' Fiori, Rome

as a carpaccio in a salad, and in a number of pastas.
-Bruschetta at A’Paranza, Atrani, Amalfi coast (crusty country bread, tomatoes and olive oil). Brilliantly simple, it was our favorite rendition of the ubiquitous classic.
-Caponata at Al Vino Al Vino, Rome. This delectable Sicilian dish is made fresh every day by the Sicilian mother of the wine bar’s owner. I am fascinated by the sweet-and-sour combinations, especially by something that is as incredibly balanced as this version.
-Lampascione and other preserved vegetables (verdure sott’olio) at Il Cucco, Cisternino, Puglia.

Best cheese:
-Burrata with semi-dried pugliese tomatoes at Roscioli in Rome
-Different types of ricotta, scamorza, mozzarella, all eaten within 10 seconds of being made (and the smoked and aged stuff – straight in the cheese aging room) at Caseificio Crovace, Puglia:

Best contorno (side dish):
A plate of porcinis with parsley at Cumpa Cosima, Ravello.

Best fruit:
-Moscato grapes from the neighborhood market in Rome on via Montebello.
-A fig from the orchard at b&b Casa Cuccaro, Nocelle

Best dessert:
Miniature cannolo from Cristalli di Zucchero in Rome
Best soup:
Zuppa di fagioli (bean soup with tomatoes and rosemary) at Donna Rosa, Montepertuso, Amalfi coast.
Best pizza:
Di Matteo
I Decumani

(both in Naples…)

Best pastry:
Warm frolla from Sfogliatelle Mary, Naples (more on that later).
Pasticciotto con pignoli from Avio, Lecce, Puglia (Leccese specialty pastry with a custard filling and in this case, pine nuts).

Best sign:

sign in front of a shop in Ravello