Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Siena: The markets

A lot of travel guides recommend picnics as a great way to economize while traveling through Italy. While this may be the case, it's not really the only reason to do so. Cheeses, cured meats, olives, artichokes and a whole host of other great foods are really best enjoyed when you go to the market and buy the ingredients yourself. The shopping is part of the experience, and the fact that its cheaper than if you ordered food at a restaurant is sort of a pleasant bonus.

Siena must be the wild boar capitol of Italy, and, as such, sampling the various wild boar salamis, or salame di cinghiale, to use the local parlance, makes a great lunch. I can't remember the name of the place, but there is a great market in Siena off one of the main pedestrian streets that has a whole assortment of boar salami, pictured in this post.
Unfortunately, this stuff doesn't travel too well. Fat, begins to melt at a pretty low temperature, and the salami goes bad soon after, so it never would have survived the rest of the vacation. Otherwise, I would have had to buy another suitcase to fit everything I would have bought here. I was especially intrigued by the lardo, below. This stuff looked sooo good.
At the market we went to, a company called Il Borgo produced all of the salumi. I don't know if they shop to the U.S., but if they do, someone please let me know.

The market also carried a nice variety of tuscan olive oil (In my opinion, the best olive oil comes from Tuscany), balsamic vinegar, local wines (chianti), and some pickled and oil cured seafood items.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Siena: La Sosta Di Violante Osteria

For the record, I love Siena. We decided to work this place into our trip a day or so before we left. I didn't know anything about it, but our friend, Katy, reported that this was one of our favorite places. I'm glad we followed her suggestion. While Rome is an amazing place, I would not call it relaxing. Siena moves at a much slower pace, and it is beautifully quiet. Few cars venture into the old city center, allowing you to wander around the narrow, twisted streets and take in the sounds of an old, old city, without the constant buzz of cars and scooters drowning everything out. The food here is excellent as well.

Since this was a last minute addition to our itinerary, we didn't have time to research restaurants here. We checked into our hotel around lunch time and asked the guy working at the front desk where he liked to eat lunch. He pointed us to La Sosta Di Violante Osteria, which was just a short walk from the hotel. This place was awesome. We ordered three dishes here.

Risotto al chianti e pecorino di Pienza (risotto with chianti and pecorino): I had seen this recipe in cookbooks before, but I had never actually tasted it. The chianti lends a really nice flavor to the risotto, and it pecorino balanced the chianti quite nicely. The risotto was perfectly al dente.
Pici con ragu di maiale alla vecchia maniera (handmade pasta with pork ragu): I've had pork ragu several times. In fact, it's one of my favorite sauces to make. I really like how they made it here, though. I usually shred the pork into smaller pieces, but they left it in larger chunks. The pork had probably been stewing all morning, and broke apart really easily with the side of the fork. The pici was the perfect pasta for this. It had a really nice texture to it. It's a round pasta, but thicker than spaghetti, so its had a nice chewiness to it. I'm a big fan.
Ceci al rigatino e ramerino (chickpeas with Tuscan bacon and rosemary): Yet another fine dish. The Tuscan bacon and rosemary added nice, savory elements to the chickpeas.
All in all, a great meal. If you are in Siena and need a spot for lunch. Give this place a shot.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rome: Taverna dei Fori Imperiali

We were steered towards this restaurant by one of the Frank Bruni articles I linked to in the previous post. In it, he lavishes praise on this low key, family run restaurant. To be sure, this is a very quaint place. Located on a quite side street in an otherwise busy part of Rome's touristy center, Taverna dei Fori Imperiali's serves it's patrons in a cozy, brightly lit dining room filled with tables covered in the somewhat cliched red and white checkered table cloths.
My take on this place? It was good, but inconsistent. If you happen to be staying near this restaurant (as we were), this makes a nice place for a casual diner. I wouldn't trek across town for it, though. I'm not saying this place was bad, I just don't quite understand why this, of all the restaurants in Rome, received so much praise on the "Diner's Journal" blog. I would not rank this as one of the more memorable meals we had on our trip to Italy.
We started out with carciofi alla Romana (Roman style artichokes) and a plate of prosciutto and mozzarella. The artichokes were good, better than the carciofi alla giudia we had for lunch the day before, but nowhere close to Volpetti's artichokes. Than again, I will never again have an artichoke that compares to those. The prosciutto and mozzarella also just gets an "OK." I thought they were a bit stingy with the cheese, and the prosciutto was cut too thick. This dish is also best when served with a bit of olive oil, which they failed to do.
Next, we ordered two pastas. One was a ravioli in a red sauce with salt cod. It sounded good on the menu, but it wasn't as great on the plate for a couple reasons. First, the flavor of the fish was a bit lost in the red sauce, and, second, the pasta used to make the ravioli was just too thick.
The other pasta dish we ordered, papparedelle carbonara was truly a standout dish. While I thoroughly enjoyed the carbonara from Alfredo's this one was notably better. It included a better portion of guanciale as well as a healthy dose of black pepper, which I'm always a fan of. This dish is a must have if you dine here.
We still had a bit of room after the pastas, so we ordered their provaleta. This was one of our favorite things to order when we visited Buenos Aires, so, perhaps out of nostalgia, we jumped at the chance to order this. Provaleta is basically just a big, cooked, piece of cheese. Not much you can do wrong with that. The key to this dish, though, is to get a cheese that will not melt completely when you cook it. In Argentina, they often cook the cheese over the grill, but here, they cooked it "a la plancha" to get a nice, golden crust. They also added a bit of truffle oil to the cheese. I wouldn't say this is the best dish ever, but if you're a fan of big hunks of melted cheese (and who isn't?) , it's a solid choice for an appetizer.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rome: Lunch at Da Giggetto in Rome's Jewish Ghetto

We wanted to eat at one of the restaurants in the Jewish Ghetto while we were in Rome since we thought that would be the best place to try a Roman specialty, carciofi alla giudia (Jewish style artichokes). For this preparation, they simply deep fry the artichoke.
The place that we really wanted to try out was closed for the month of August, so we ended up settling for Da Giggetto. We rounded out our lunch with a few other typical Roman dishes.

Fried squash blossoms stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy
Bucatini all' Amatraciana
and tripa alla romana
The squash blossoms were the best dish of the meal. The bucatini was OK, but, ultimately, forgettable. The sauce was a bit too thin for my taste and the pasta was slightly over-sauced. I prefer my own version. They used the same sauce for the tripe, so the same complaint holds. The only other time we had this dish was at Babbo, where they slice the tripe into much thinner strips. I thought that way of preparing it was much better.

In spite of the nit-picking, this was a fine place for lunch. The food wasn't amazing, but it was world's better than any of the tourist restaurants you might run into lining any of Rome's major piazzas. It's about a 15 minute walk from the Colosseum and the Jewish quarter is a very quiet, pretty area to walk through, so it might make a natural stop for lunch.

Rome: Dinner at Pierluigi

I just finished raving about the "Slow Food" recommendations, basically saying that you just need to pick up a copy of that book and end your research there, but if you are heading to Rome, the New York Times entries by Frank Bruni and Mimi Sheraton here, here, and here are useful reads.

Pierluigi was one of the restaurants that we learned about from these articles. As with just about every other restaurant in the city, Pierluigi was closed the night before (a Monday on August), so we came back on Tuesday and it more than made up for our bad eating experience the night before.

This was actually one of the nicer restaurants that we went to, in the sense that it had white table cloths, nice table settings, a high wait staff to customer ratio, and price tags to match. All of the food here was very well executed and I would say that it is a fine example of what good Italian food can be.

Pierluigi is located in a small piazza near the Campo de Fiori, and when the weather is nice, the restaurants seating expands to fill much of the small piazza. As a nice bonus, it sounded like a conservatory of some sort was located in one of the buildings adjacent to the plaza, and the music from practicing students was a nice accompaniment to the beginning of our meal.

We started with soppressata di pulpo (an octopus carpacio) and bresaola di Valtellina (a salad of brasaola topped with arugula and pecorino.

The octopus was a really cool looking dish and it was quite a novel preparation. The braseola salad was a really great, simple dish that I'll definitely be repeating at home.
For our primi, I ordered orecchiette with wild broccoli and Abby ordered the taglioline with porcini mushroom.

The orrechiette was perfectly cooked and the sauce was nice and light, bringing out the flavor of the broccoli without overpowering the pasta. I didn't try Abby's dish, but she said it was really good. I'll take her word for it.For secondi, we ordered scaloppini al pepe rossa (veal scaloppini with a pink peppercorn sauce) and zuppa di vongole veraci.
The scaloppine (above), certainly wasn't very picturesque, but it tasted great. The veal itself doesn't have a really powerful flavor, so this was all about the sauce. The pink peppercorns were, for the most part, left whole. These are much mellower than black peppercorns and they had a nice piquant flavor that lingers for a while.
The clam soup included fresh tomatoes and a bunch of small climbs, sort of like cockles, in a white wine broth along with a bunch of croutons that were perfect for soaking up the sauce. This was a really nice, clean dish.

All in all, this was a successful meal and I would second the NYTimes recommendation for this place.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Our worst meal in Italy and learning how to eat well

As with much of our vacation, our first day in Italy was spent wandering around in search of good places to eat. I had spent a lot of time combing through the New York Times food review archives, message boards on Chow Hound and other foodie forums, and other websites to compile a list of places to eat in Italy and, from this long list of options, I was sure that the only problem we would run into would be a good problem. Of all the fine restaurants to choose from, where would we eat? This may have been the case if we were looking around on a Friday night in June, but it was a Monday night in August. It turns out most of the good restaurants shut down for the month (or at leas the last two weeks) of August, and those that remained open don't operate on Mondays. What we were left with, then, were the tourist restaurants. And, in fact, while these places do claim to serve food, I hesitate to call them restaurants. The place we ended up eating at was really just an embarassment to the country of Italy and to the whole concept of restaurants in general. The food made Olive Garden look good, and the sad thing was, this place had some of the better looking food of all the places we went to. The most tragic thing about all of this is that this is the type of crap that many tourists to Italy end up eating when they visit the country. Every tourist venue is surrounded with these restaurants that have menus in fifty languages, are packed with tourists, and serve up poorly prepared versions of Italian classics that use only the worst ingredients that money can buy. I suppose this makes sense, though. Serving a tourist is a single period game. Restaurants that are well located can catch all sorts of stray tourists, and they know that these tourists will never come back. The type of tourist that typically eats at these restaurants isn't going to go off and write a scathing online review, and they certainly aren't going to be reading such reviews even if they did exist. Locals wouldn't be caught dead eating at these places, so there is absolutely no incentive to produce food that is good enough to bring customers back. All you want to do is make food as cheaply and quickly as possible so you can rake in that tourist money. And, all the while, the customers are sitting there thinking "Hey! I'm in Italy eating real Italian food. This is just like the Olive Garden. I love that place!" Ugghh.

So, the lessons learned from all of this are: 1) If you expect to eat well on a Monday evening in late August, plan ahead and make sure your place is open, 2) don't eat near tourist attractions. In general, there is an inverse relationship between food quality and tourist density.

The most important lesson was not learned until a few days later, but, this is important and really all you need to know to eat well in Italy. FOLLOW THE SNAILS.
There is an organization, founded by a group of foodies in Italy, called Slow Food, that is dedicated to the preservation of traditional ways of cooking. While it started in Italy, it has become a global presence in the food world. Among other things, this organization reviews restaurants and if the editors believe that a restaurant does an exemplary job preparing and presenting regional Italian food, they will include it in an annual publication. If you are planning a trip to Italy, buy this book. It will be one of the best investments you'll make.* Restaurants that receive the Slow Food stamp of approval display a sticker in their window with a little snail on it. If you follow these snails, you will never ever eat a bad meal. It is worth noting that if you want super fancy modern cuisine, you probably won't find it in the Slow Food guide. This is the resource for simpler, traditional fare. But isn't that what you want on a vacation to Italy? If you want high end, consult the Michelin guide.

Once we started following the snails and eating at Slow Food approved restaurants, the quality of our eating picked up considerably. While you can get some great recommendations from food critics and fellow travelers on websites and message boards, that's time consuming and the quality control is questionable. Sure, someone may have written a review of a great restaurant they went to in Rome, but how do you are they know how it compares? A tourist can only eat at so many restaurants, so if they say, "This place is the best," they are really saying "Of the thousands of restaurants in Rome, I ate at five and this was the best of those five." The Slow Food editors have a bit more perspective. They eat at more restaurants and they have a better sense of the history of the food in a region. Just as important, though, is the fact that you can just get this book and be done with it. You don't have to spend hours collecting random recommendations from strangers. Instead, when you get hungry, just open up the book and see whats nearby.

*In addition to the Slow Food book, I would recommend that any iPhone users purchase the international data plan when they travel to Italy. The streets here are poorly marked, rarely straight, and always confusing. The iPhone map and compass are awesome for navigating cities like this. Want to find out how to get somewhere? Open up the iPhone map, search for your destination, and it will plot out your course. In the middle of a piazza and don't know which way to start walking? Just turn on the compass function and it will set you in the right direction. It really is an amazing travel tool.

**The picture at the top is not of the horrible restaurant we ate at...I just need a picture of neon restaurant signs.

Rome: Volpetti

Volpetti is one of those names that comes up a lot when you are searching for the hot food spots in Rome. In the Lonely Planet guide book, there are actually two places called Volpetti. One of them is in the heart of the city where you would most likely find yourself as a tourist. This is not the one you want to go to. The Volpetti that gets rave reviews from all the foodies on various internet chat boards is located in Testaccio, just beyond the area of Rome that most tourists inhabit. For those of you familiar with Boston, I would describe this place as the Formaggio of Rome. Or, perhaps, it's the other way around.
It's not a sit down restaurant (although they do have a cafe that is open for lunch. I'll get to that below). It is, instead, a purveyor of high quality cured meats, cheeses, breads, olives, and other assorted goods.
While this place certainly sees its fair share of tourists, they make there living off of local patronage, and everything they carry is of the highest quality.
We spent a bit of time trying out bites of various things and attempting to communicate in English (which the man behind the counter didn't really know), Italian (which we didn't know), and Spanish (which turned out to be our happy common ground).

We went in to the shop hoping to get supplies for a little picnic, and the friendly man behind the counter (below) did a fantastic job upselling us on just about everything. We're glad we went with his suggestions, though, because everything was fantastic.
We were able to try several different types of prosciutto that blow away anything that you can get back here in the states. Sample there various cured meat if you stop by here. If you happen to be vegetarian, I would still recommend coming here. The single best thing that we tried here was from their artichoke bar. No place does artichokes better than Rome, and this place may just have the best artichokes in Rome. There are a number of different types of artichoke to choose from. Our man at Volpetti recommend what he described as the strongest ones. I have no idea how they were prepared, but they were, without a doubt, the best artichokes I have ever tried.
As I mentioned above, Volpetti also has a cafeteria that many locals favor for lunch. We ordered a plate of pasta
and an assortment of fried things.
The food here was nothing special, so I would save your appetite and your money for the products they sell out front.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rome: Gelataria del Teatro

We had a lot of good food in Italy. Some of it was amazing. A lot of it, while good, was familiar. But a few things we had were truly revelatory. The gelato at Gelateria del Teatro was one of them. It is not the most famous of the Roman gelaterias, but it was recommended in the Lonely Planet, so we decided to give it a shot. This was hands down the best gelato of our trip.
This small place, tucked away in an easy to miss corner boasts an array of interesting flavors. Each one successfully distills the essence of its key flavor component into an intense, icy form that is out of this world. The lemon gelato was the perfect refresher on a hot August day, and the strawberry gelato tasted like freshly picked strawberries at the height of their season. It was the less pedestrian flavors, however, that made this place special. We tried a ginger gelato that was so full of that spicy ginger kick that you could only take small bits of it...but you had to keep eating it because it was so darn good. We also tried a sage gelato. Words cannot describe how good this was. Sage is such a great complement to sweeter flavors, but to have it in ice cream form was a revelation. We often associate mint with "coolness," and when I had that sage gelato, I realized that sage could have the same effect. That gelato was quite simply the best non-savory food that I have ever tasted.

Rome: Our first meal in Italy, Lunch @ Alfredo

The last few weeks of our life have been full of traveling, moving, and adjusting to our new life in Chicago. We've finally settled back down to a somewhat normal routine that will give us some time to catch up on the blog, so expect a heavy does of Italy over the next few days.

Prior to our trip, we had spent a bit of time scouring the New York Times food page, Chow Hound, and a few other similar places for restaurant recommendations, but our first meal ended up being a somewhat random stop. We were trying to find a place called Volpetti, but weren't having much luck. Our flight into Rome was an overnight flight, in which we couldn't really sleep much (tip to travelers: avoid Alitalia like the plague. The Alitalia plane we flew on was hands down the crappiest plane I have ever been on.) and the night before our flight we only had about 3 hours of sleep. Needless to say, we were hungry, exhausted, hot, and in need of food. When we decided to throw in the towel for our search for Volpetti, we were right next to a restaurant called Alfredo of "Fettucine Alfredo" fame. We didn't order this dish, and I wasn't expecting much. I thought that it might be the kind of place that was a total tourist trap. The food turned out to be pretty good. We ordered the spaghetti carbonara and tagliolini with speck, squash blossom, and asparagus.

The carbonara looked a lot different than the version that I make, and it had a nice bright yellow color to it that I assume came from the yolks of some good eggs. They were much yellower than any non-farmers market eggs that you get in the states. They also used guanciale instead of pancetta or bacon, which are often used back here in the states. Guanciale is a far superior choice for this dish as it has a much less dominant flavor and does a better job blending in with the other ingredients of the dish.
While the carbonara is a mainstay of Roman cuisine, the tagliolini tasted much more like a seasonal specialty.
There are hundreds of great restaurants in Rome, so I don't know if this merits a dinner stop if you are traveling through, but it was a good place for lunch. The pasta was pretty good, and it is located in the midst of a number of the main tourist attractions in Rome, so it might make a natural lunch stop.