Before and After: Some culinary observations and inspirations

It is a balsamic party!

A few times on our trip, I felt like balsamic was practically on everything, especially vegetables and fish. I am quite a balsamic lover, but also a believer in appropriate and judicious usage of balsamic. I must admit that some of those applications made me go, “What the hell?”

However, one of the many, many pleasant memories of this trip involved being left alone for a good 45 minutes with a very nice 12-year old aged balsamic at Donna Rosa. It was fun putting it on all sorts of things for the sake of experimentation.

Pickling, etc.

Italy certainly reignited my interest in pickling and other ways of preserving food.  I knew right way that I wished to explore the sott’olio technique for making preserved vegetables hands-on. My current guinea pigs are the Thai and Japanese eggplant from the farmer’s market, which I am planning on slicing very thinly, blanching for a few seconds, and then preserving in a mixture of olive oil, vinegar, and spices.

Celery

Before the trip I had never really thought of celery as an herb and a condiment. In the US, you typically see very mature stalks being served as crudite with ranch dressing (I detest both). Now, here it was offered alongside prosciutto on our very first day at L’Angolo Divino wine bar in Rome. It was delicate and aromatic, and it had an incredible synergy with the silky, savory meat. Later on, we had it a number of times in some fantastic pastas, especially orecchiette in Puglia (such as the rare black orecchiette with swordfish, tomatoes and celery at L’Arco del Porto in Monopoli).

 Licorice

In the US one’s experience with licorice (if any) is limited to the licorice candy. In Italy it is a much, much more staple flavor; for example, there was licorice-flavored gelato at every artisanal shop we visited. Who knew? We also very much appreciated an introduction to a fabulous digestif, – liquirizia.

Pink peppercorns

I just placed an order with an online retailer the Spice House, containing some nice tellicherries, and pink and Szechuan peppercorns. Technically speaking, pink peppercorns are not peppers but fruity and delicate rose baises; they belong to the piper nigrum family.  I am looking forward to experimenting with those sassy berries:

 Wine glasses

Salivating over dramatic, angular bowled wine glasses at several Roman enotecas resulted in an online purchase of Luigi Bormioli “Atelier”pinot glasses. I don’t know if they were afraid I would change my mind, but the glasses arrived in the mail a day and a half later, despite the regular free shipping designation. They were promptly christened upon their arrival on Friday night. I love them (and by the way, they were only around $35 for a set of 4).

 Everyday wines

I think it is fair to say that a significant focus of the trip was on humble, everyday wines. I have been involved with wine, in one capacity or another, for almost 10 years (now as a drinker).  I will admit that over the years, I have tasted some pretty incredible wines; interestingly enough, this has also afforded me a perspective for appreciating less pedigreed wines. I am a firm believer in the appropriateness of wine choices: more modest everyday fare should be accompanied by inexpensive bottles, whereas inspired haute cuisine commands more complex and striking wines.

What I look for in an everyday bottle is balance, acidity, aromatics, and light-to-medium body. I personally prefer not to drink reds over 13.5% or even 13% with my food; I feel like a lot of nuance is lost in the higher alcohol food-and-wine combination, and I don’t particularly enjoy the sensation of numbed taste buds. With whites, I really like lots and lots of acidity and minerality. I like to feel my mouth water asking for more wine, then more food, then more wine….you get the picture.

Here are just two examples of wines under $15 (that we drank over the weekend with several meals) that fit this bill:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beans

I have always had a strange relationship with beans. I have always wanted to be the kind of person who makes these fabulous rustic bean soups, but because of my lack of patience, it never materialized.

Last weekend, inspired by the zuppa di fagioli com pomodori e rosmarino (cannellini bean soup with tomatoes and rosemary) at Donna Rosa in Montepertuso on the Amalfi coast, I was determined to succeed. At Donna Rosa, as I was stealing some soup from Jeff’s bowl, I made a brash statement, “oh, I could probably try to make something like this”.

I am not so foolish as to believe I could actually make a bean soup on par with Donna Rosa’s chef, or try to steal the recipe (as I don’t use recipes anyway). All I did was steal some small ideas, such as using whole sprigs of rosemary and thyme to perfume the soup (which, by the way, is sheer genius as getting the little bitty thyme leaves off the sprig and chopping them is a pain in the ass and is totally unnecessary). Another detail is using tomatoes to add acidity (critical, in my opinion, for a soup like that), and some nice fennel and celery as my base, along with onions and garlic (which I don’t typically do). Mountain oregano from Amalfi, bay leaves, basil, parsley and mint push the aromatics just a bit further.

So, after 5.5 hours of pre-soaking and 3 hours of cooking time, this is what it looked like:

Random Awards – Part 3

Shortest Reservation Reply Award

is hereby presented  to Parco di Castro masseria/restaurant in Speziale, Puglia; the email reply in question was:

ok.

 That’s right, not even an exclamation mark…

The Italian “ok” (very different from the American “ok”) merits a discussion of its own. I have found it to be a more enthusiastic expression, almost equivalent to “great!” Still, upon receiving the email, I was taken slightly aback. I am not going to provide an excerpt of my reservation request, but rest assured that, in my, admittedly less than perfect, Italian, I did try to express all the giddiness we felt about the prospect of eating at their most excellent restaurant. Also, I could not help but compare/contrast it with the elaborate, very thoughtful and professional reply from another high-profile, slow-foodish azienda/restaurant Il Frantoio, just a few kilometers away.

Parco di Castro

Ironically enough, Il Frantoio ended up cancelling our confirmed azienda tour (in all fairness, they did email me the day before but we did not have access to email in Italy, nor could we change our travel plans at such a short notice). The meals were pretty fantastic (and similar in quality) at both places (except that the bill at il Frantoio was twice as high).

http://www.masseriailfrantoio.it/cuisine.htm

 Best Drinks Award:

  Is to be shared among the aforementioned Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso “Guardiola” 2007 at Antico Arco in Rome;

Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo “Vigna Cicogna” 2009 (listed for 18 euros!!!) at il Ritrovo, Montepertuso (Amalfi coast);

Padre Peppe nocino (bitter walnut liquer) at L’Arco del Porto, Monopoli (Puglia), much needed after an unspeakable amount of seafood consumed :-);

House-made finocchietto (wild fennel liquer) at il Ritrovo, Montepertuso; and

Grappa at Le Botteghe, Matera (brought to us by the owner despite my protestations, since we could not follow up our fantastic lunch with a siesta). Unfortunately, I did not get the name of the producer, as I was too overwhelmed by the aromatics :-).

By the way, the key to surviving multiple courses in Italy is digestivi , – various liquers and other alcoholic beverages taken after the meal, such as grappa, amaro, rosolio (herb- and fruit-infused concoctions, often house-made), limoncello, finocchietto, brandy, etc.).

Rosoli at Il Frantoio

On the same note, the

Most Overpriced Wine List Award

without a doubt, goes to Ristorante Donna Rosa in Montepertuso (Amalfi coast). One of the revelations of the trip was the availability and choice of very enjoyable bottles of wine in the 15-25 euro range (and 3-6 euros by the glass) at all the restaurants and enotecas visited. Donna Rosa was the only exception of the trip (which almost makes it a national champion :-), with 10 euros/glass pricing and an expensive bottle selection (most bottles starting from 30 euros and up and up and up). Of course, it should come as no surprise that the check stated that “service is not included”…

We Are Back!

Notwithstanding my job requirements (I am a credit analyst), my mind is still pretty jumbled from the trip, so I thought I would start our account of Italian adventures with some random awards:

 Hi-Lo Award (Top Casual Eating and Haute Cuisine Experiences)

Lo: Like two pigs  Like two hyenas, we tore into our full-size pizzas with our bare hands, sauce and cheese dripping, crouched with two pizza boxes under a small awning in an alley in the pouring rain, at 10 o’clock in the morning in Naples, via dei Tribunali. It took us somewhere around 5 minutes (which admittedly, does not compare favorably with the eating speed of Pepe, our Amalfi-coast born driver from the day before who asserts he can eat a full-size pizza in 2 minutes flat). Then again, he probably did it sitting down properly, and using utensils…

The mutilated and consumed pizzas were marinara and margherita from Pizzeria Di Matteo, and they turned out to be, just like Pugliese chef Laura Giordano had promised, “the best pizza your mouth has ever had”. Totally basic and truly amazing…

 

 

 

 

 

Hi: Prior to our departure, we had made a decision that no Michelin-starred restaurant will be visited on this trip. Luckily, there are many, many chowworthy choices in the non-Michelin continuum. For my birthday, we had made a reservation at Antico Arco, a fine dining establishment on top of the Janiculum hill overlooking Rome. Looking all spiffy (check out a picture of Jeff, looking positively Italian :-)), we had a nice passeggiata (evening walk) before the meal, as the sun was setting over the Eternal City:

All in all, I second the opinion of many others that it is a must for any serious foodie eating their way through Rome. My amberjack tartar and bottarga spaghetti with seabass carpaccio, as well as Jeff’s poached egg, asparagus, yogurt, ricotta and black truffle appetizer and cacio e pepe with zucchini flowers were all exquisite:

Incidentally, this meal also featured the best red of the trip (Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso “Guardiola” 2007), a profound and elegant, Burgundian-style Nerello Mascalese from Mount Etna, Sicily).

Countdown to Italy

Many of you know that this blog was started in anticipation of our upcoming Italian trip. The time has come to say good-bye for the next 3 weeks, as we eat and drink our way through Rome, Amalfi coast, Napoli, Matera (Basilicata), and Puglia.

It is important to mention that I am seriously indebted to the following individuals for their help in shaping this food itinerary: fellow Chowhounders, Michael Housewright and Antonello Losito of Southern Visions, and Katie Parla.

Trips are most often defined by cultural and architectural landmarks; ours, to a great extent, by food & wine experiences we seek. Of course, our travels will include some very renowned museums and fabulous ruins, “Pathway of the Gods” hiking trail, three UNESCO heritage sights, and an outside classical music concert at Villa Rufolo, Ravello (just to name a few).

When we return at the end of September, expect detailed accounts of:

  • Rome’s “holy trinity” (of traditional Roman pastas – carbonara, amatriciana, and cacio e pepe)
  • Artisanal bakeries
  • Farmer’s market trips for picnic fare
  • Daily perfect tastes of gelato
  • Artisanal food culture off the beaten path in little mountain villages of Montepertuso, Atrani, and Nocelle
  • Quest for the world’s best pizza in Napoli
  • Adventures in the sea urchin country (Savelletri, Puglia)
  • Humble and amazing cucina povera in Puglia (one of the best places in the world to be vegetarian)
  • How burrata, mozzarella, scamorza, etc. are made
  • Centuries-old olive trees and olive oil press in action
  • Surviving multiple appetizer courses and still managing to eat at least a pasta and a dessert (by the way, I have NO idea how that is going to work)
  • Results of the wine revolution in Campania, Lazio, Basilicata, and Puglia
  • Southern Italian pastry eating contest

And many, many others!

Ciao,

Jeff & Natasha