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Posts posted by tupac17616

  1. I took a devastating right cross to the chin tonight when David Kinch got passed up on the Beard Award. Then a left hook going down as Jeremy Fox got passed also.

    I know what you mean. Nothing against Chef Keane -- I've still not been to Cyrus -- but I was disappointed to see that result.

  2. Seriously, 7 months of silence on this thread is not okay. Where is the love, people?

    I've gone to Ubuntu twice in the past two months, having finally made the opportunity to return nearly a year and a half after my first great meal there back in October 2007 prompted me to start this thread.

    The fact that minor details -- like my lack of a car, and more recently, the theft of my driver's license -- had kept me from returning sooner is no good. This is a special place, and next time, I don't care if I have to walk there from the east bay...

    A lazy Sunday lunch in early March with several friends allowed us to the "The Cycle", that is, share the entire menu among us. I was without a camera that day, but my friend Joan took pictures of all the dishes and put them on her blog HERE.

    If I squint really hard, sometimes I wonder whether Jeremy Fox might somehow be Italian. His miso "bagna cauda" is a scarily similar play on the real thing, and if blindfolded, frankly I'm not sure I could tell the difference. Last month that came as a condiment in a salad including artichoke, miner's lettuce and parmesan. With black olive caramel and macadamia nuts, too, I thought this dish was great. This time, a new incarnation topped with basil was still wonderful.

    On my more recent visit, his borage gnudi blew me away. Brown butter and sage is a simple condiment, but I've seen it screwed up plenty of times (butter not hazelnut-colored yet, butter no longer "brown" but burnt, too much sage, too little sage). This was right on the money, though, and among the shoots and seed pods of hon tsai tai (a red Chinese brassica), some flowers, and the crunchy pieces of nuts (almonds, if I remember right), the combination was just killer.

    Carolyn already talked upthread about the peas served in a consommé of their shells, but just LOOK at it, for god's sake. This dish is marvelous.


    So he makes a so-similar-it's-almost-wrong-to-put-it-in-quotation-marks bagna cauda, tender gnudi, wonderful pizzas, let's see, how else can he outdo the Italians at their own game? Oh yeah, his carta di musica. Topped with delicious salad and a truffled pecorino that -- I'll be damned! -- actually tasted like truffles. Delicious.


    I have nothing bad to say about either of these meals, if you're waiting for that. One more bit of food porn and then I'm out. Roscoe's asparagus, "virtual" egg infused with saffron, black trumpet and brioche terrine, sylvetta arugula and preserved lemon. Tasted as beautiful as it looks..


    Honestly, I can hardly imagine a better quality-price ratio. I'm going back as soon as I possibly can. Anybody willing to give me a ride, just say the word. :raz:

  3. Just tried for a reservation at Le Reve first week end in June--they are closed to open a new Italian venture in the old Pearl Beer Brewery--no reservations, but maybe an adventure --the chef is incredable--Le Reve will re open--he will now have three in San Antonio.

    Good to hear that place's (Il Sogno, I think it's going to be called) opening is not far off.

    Even his burger joint is quite good, in my opinion.

  4. Thought for sure I wrote many reviews of places I liked, to say nothing of the very extended colloquy a few years ago on this site about restaurants of the 80s and 90s (many of which are still around and serving great food). In fact I have written extensively on places I enjoy and below are just a few (the search function is poor and there are many more).

    My criticisms have been about places which Ptipois described so well on the French board:  "Self-centered chef cooking, narcissistic cooking, cooking aimed at the chef's self-expression rather than feeding the customers in a generous, sensuous, unselfish way, what is referred to in French as "faire à manger".

    ...cuisine narcissique" is an inward movement, a reality that is often blurred by the admirers of the chef who value "innovation" and "creativity" over taste, and maintain the illusion that they are really satisfied for sensorial reasons, when in fact it is more a matter of being part of a cultural elite." wow, did he hit it on the head. Just perfect.

    There are many of these places in Italy. Most won't last in the way that they are cooking. They'll go out of business or change. As I said recently, one very big name is in a lot of financial trouble because very few Italians want to go to his restaurant more than once and not enough non Italians want to go their either.

    Probably my mistake for spending too much time in the France forum and in this one. The points you've made that resonate the most in my head over time are (1) that (Cracco / Pierangelini / Alajmo / Cedroni / Uliassi) is a disgrace and that (2) the food guides in Italy are crap, except for Gambero Rosso's Tre Gamberi.

    Looking through the reviews you've transcribed here, I realize I've actually read most if not all of them. My problem for letting the negative ones outweigh the positive.

  5. Back to my German exchange student, yesterday she told me that she gained 5 lbs before coming to Japan, just in case she didn't like the food here (so she'd have a bit of cushion).  One month later, those 5 lbs are gone, and she doesn't have much more than she can safely lose.

    It's going to be a long year, not to mention that I have very little patience regarding picky eaters (but I never have to eat with her, so it's not so bad).

    Now if there's a Japanese student staying with this German student's family in Germany, did he/she do the same? Somehow I think not.

    I'll do my best to make up for what this girl did not eat the next time I'm able to go to Japan. :wink:

  6. tupac,

    We often disagree on the Italian food we enjoy.

    Most of these dishes sound less than enjoyable to me, but that's my problem.

    What I'd to know is why this guy has things on the menu that are not seasonal?

    Is that too much to ask?

    Indeed, we do. Certainly no harm in a disagreement every now and again.

    Although I have to say, I've read many more comments about the Italian food you don't enjoy than I have about that which you do. If you praised or at least mentioned by name the places you like with the same sort of fervor you display when talking about the places you don't, then I think all the readers of this forum would benefit from it greatly.

    Re: seasonality, you live a lot closer to the Piemonte than most readers of this forum, so you likely know the climate there better than we do. What items seem conspicuously out of season here to you? Intuition tells me strawberry, corn, maybe the pumpkin/squash (although here in California, we've got pumpkin-like squash growing [and tasting quite good] through the warmer months as well)...

  7. I just moved into the San Antonio area right outside of Randolph AFB in Converse, and I was wondering if there were any suggestions of where to eat aorund this area.  I would appreciate any recommendation anybody had.

    You can get to Lockhart in just over an hour or Luling in even less time. BBQ awaits.

  8. Thank you.  I made a reservation per your recommendation.
    I think Antica Corona Reale "da Renzo" in Cervere deserves a look for traditional cuisine of the region.  I believe they have a Michelin star as well.

    I had probably the best veal tartare I've ever had there, and an exceptional egg/white truffle dish I won't tempt you with since you're going in June!

    You're quite welcome. Enjoy!

  9. Sounds extraordinary. In fact, was it too much? And, are you still alive after all that food!

    I saw your pictures -- these did not look like "small" plates.

    Thanks for the writeup. Very nicely done. I'm in Asti in mid-June, and we now usually head to the more down-home places these days. But this sure sounds fantastic for a complete blowout (blow up?) meal. Maybe I will have to reconsider. Grazie.

    Still alive. But I learned my lesson: ampio is a dangerous word in Italian. :wink:

    Seriously, though, the only dish I remember noting as significantly larger than the others was the pigeon. That one seemed to almost regenerate itself on the plate while I was eating it.

    But it was the cheese that broke the camel's back, er, um, belt for my friends.

    At the end I felt fine, but definitely not hungry...

  10. I had a very fine meal at Piazza Duomo in Alba last month that I've just gotten around to writing about. The full report is below, while all the pictures (and a couple of videos) can be seen HERE, if you're curious. Enjoy!...

    I see some similarities between food writing and sports commentary. One of the most famous and least insightful commentators when I was growing up was a portly fellow by the name of John Madden. He had a remarkable gift for pointing out the blatantly obvious (”When you’re talkin’ about 4th down situations, this is what you’re talkin’ about”) and spitting out catch phrases like “Boom!” when a simple comma, period, or question mark would have done the trick. Food writers undoubtedly fall into similar traps, and I’m not going to lie — I’ve done it myself time and again. How many soufflés have I had that were “light and airy”, how many foie gras dishes that were “rich” or “delicious”?

    It’s not just about expanding one’s vocabulary or avoiding clichés. Our immediate reaction to food is visceral, and when you first set pen to pad or fingertips to keyboard, these unfiltered thoughts are often what come out. Food is a basic comfort mechanism, and comfort is good. But I wonder why it’s so easy to have too much of a good thing, why it’s so easy to find restaurants that feed you to the point of submission and smile while doing it. Precious few in the world of fine dining don’t coddle or cuddle. Fewer still have real finesse and achieve a sense of luxury without largesse.

    Piazza Duomo in Alba was, I’m happy to say, one such place. Enrico Crippa’s dishes were graceful and balanced, never overwrought or overwhelming. And to think, the whole experience started in a pink dining room with a piece of toast.

    The pink dining room I’ve chosen to wipe from my memory. Let us never speak of it again. The toast, on the other hand, had rabbit liver paté on top, and it was one of about 10 Canapés. The small mound of coarsely ground liver was plopped unglamorously on one side of the toast and dusted in a small flurry of salt. It tasted of iron and sweetness, and it made friends quickly with the Aubry 2002 Ivoire et ébène Brut Champagne we were drinking. A puffed-up little croquette was filled with a local cheese called Testun. It had the shape of a fluffed pillow but the texture of Indian papadum, thin and brittle. The nearly-liquid filling flooded my mouth once I cracked the shell. There was a disconcertingly hollow, crispy baguette wrapped in lardo and dabbed with honey; a fried wonton sheet crinkled like a candy wrapper around an herbaceous purée; and countless other fried, dried, creamy and crumbly bites.

    Filling out the table were long grissini and three types of bread — white, multi-grain and olive — of which the first was dry but the last surprisingly good. It quickly earned my loyalty and I stuck with olive for the rest of the meal.

    My friend asked for an ample tasting menu, and that’s exactly what we got. Ample as in seventeen courses, the first of which was Asparagi viola d’Albenga e tartufo “Nero Piemonte”. Knobs of purple asparagus from a little town in Liguria stood like Easter Island statues getting rained on by a black truffle sauce and julienne strips of Madernassa pear. The sweet pears vied with the earthy (but not particularly aromatic) sauce for the taste buds’ attention, while their slightly mealy crunch jostled with the fork-tenderness of the asparagus. Meanwhile the first bottle of champagne mysteriously disappeared, so we got another. This time, some Delamotte NV Brut Rosé.

    The Uovo di quaglia e zucchine in carpione brought a runny poached quail egg that oozed down over boiled, dried, and then marinated slices of courgette. In carpione meant the squash had been marinated in a mixture of vinegar and wine, but it seemed to me to have gotten a bit too comfortable in there. I understand the dish’s intent — for the rich yolk to balance out the tangy vegetable beneath — but the end result left me less than enthusiastic.

    I was quite enthusiastic, however, about the Insalata 21, 31, 41…. I’ve since considered erecting a small sculpture of it in my home, or perhaps naming my future children 21, 31, and 41, respectively. Between all the different herbs, flowers, seeds and leaves, sesame was the most pervasive flavor. But the wide range of taste stimuli treated the tongue like a pinball machine, lighting up different parts of the tongue and making new sound effects with every bite.

    My only specific request (at first) was the Gambero di Sanremo al naturale… zucca… arachidi e spuma di gingerino Recoaro. I’ve not been to the Italian Riviera myself, but I’ve always tried to do my part to boost the local economy by eating as many of its shrimp as I can. These translucent little lovelies were served raw on a streak of pumpkin cream and doused in a light peanut cream and a foam of Gingerino, a slightly bitter non-alcoholic aperitivo. A few pumpkin seeds interrupted the creamy and smooth with a bit of crunch, while an intense lobster reduction gave the dish unexpected depth. It was a game of contrasting flavors and textures, all dancing around the exceptionally tender and naturally sweet shrimp.

    Merluzzo… broccoli e mozzarella was a simply titled dish that turned out to be the most successful, and ultimately representative, dish of the meal. It’s the reason I want to go back this instant. Fresh cod was put under salt for half an hour, sliced like sashimi, and flanked by skinny branches of broccolini and little globs of a mozzarella so soft and milky we couldn’t believe it wasn’t burrata. Four rigatoni were scattered on the plate, making pasta merely an ingredient of this dish rather than its focus. Underneath all this ran colorful streams of broccolini cream, olive sauce and raisin sauce. Each element of this dish either challenged or enhanced each of the others. Everything was there for a reason. Crippa had created a precisely calibrated range of flavors, temperatures, and textures.

    Come un “tonno” di coniglio… toni di colore was less exciting. A 12-hour sous vide bath at 60 °C yielded rabbit shoulder with a texture like tuna for this classic Piemontese dish. The beet sauce, pumpkin gelatin, and olive sauce were perhaps not such classic accompaniments. But I admired the chef’s ability to make a beet sauce with only a subtle earthiness. And like many of his dishes, this was vibrant and pleasing to the eye. My disappointment was in finding the meat relatively flavorless, perhaps simply lacking salt.

    I don’t want to write about the Crema di patate d’Alta Langa… uovo di quaglia alla “coque”… affumicato al Lapsang Souchong. I just want to eat it again. And no, I won’t share. Hiding in a sea of potato purée was a quail egg, and on top was a line of smoked tea. It sounds simple, and it was. But the potatoes absolutely smashed Robuchon’s. Were they liquid? Were they solid? Were human hands even responsible for such heavenly work? Was the subtle smoke, rich creaminess, and spoon-coating sexiness of this dish really necessary? Definitely not.

    For me, that was a tough act to follow. But the Gnocchi di patate… seirass del fen held their own. These plump pillows were bursting with nearly liquefied cheese, and topped with courgette slices and a few green leaves of chard. Adam commented that the gnocchi were too soft, which to me was a testament of how well-made they were.

    The Tempura di rossetti, salsa di agrumi was a school of tiny deep-fried fish that seemed to swim across the plate. Holding the fish in place were little dots of a slightly gelled citrus sauce. Tiny cubes of bottarga and an orange and fennel powder provided sharp intermittent hits of salt and citrus. The flavors were clear and precise; the plating, minimalistic and beautiful.

    They poured a glass of Bricco Asili 1999 Barbaresco Bernadot from the Ceretto family estate when the Piccione di Sante arrosto, spinaci novelli e mais arrived. The man responsible for providing Crippa and a few other lucky Italian chefs with some of the tastiest pigeon in the country is Sante Marcantoni, a farmer who believes in playing classical music to his birds to improve their texture. Mozart must have done his magic, too, because this was meaty. The spinach leaves, spinach purée and corn sauce were all nice, but the pigeon and its wonderful jus were the center of attention here, and rightfully so.

    I’m essentially unable to leave any restaurant in the Piemonte serving veal tartare without trying it, so I asked for the Carne cruda… fragole e cagliata even though it was a bit out of the program. Then again, maybe it wasn’t so out of place, because it functioned beautifully as a transition between meats and sweets. Somehow the clean, subtle flavor of the raw veal wasn’t lost among the sweet strawberry coulis and tangy, creamy goat curd. I’ll be the first to point out that this sounded like a ghastly combination, but also the first to argue that it was a resounding success.

    Our pre-dessert, or rather pre-cheese, course was the Croccante di semi di zucca… malghesino… lamponi disidratati. Two thin caramelized pumpkin seed tuiles sandwiched little pellets of a mild and creamy gorgonzola made near Lodi. Also hiding on the inside were dehydrated raspberries, which to me had an almost effervescent feel on the tongue like Pop Rocks. Maybe that tingling was just the natural sourness of raspberries, but whatever the case, the crunchy (perhaps freeze-dried?) bits of fruit were a great addition.

    I got some stares when I asked to take a look at the cheese cart after so many courses. Oddly, the stares came from the people sitting at my table. I saw nothing wrong with a Selezione di formaggi piemontesi at this point. I just wanted a little bit of everything. The castelmagno, testun, and testun alle vinacce were all well-chosen but the last was particularly remarkable. Rubbed with grape pomace, it had a sweet-tart crunch that was addictive if perhaps mildly dangerous for the teeth. A complex Piemontese condiment called cugnà also kept these cheeses company.

    My only complaint about the Minestrone di frutta e verdura… adesso is that our photos don’t do it an ounce of justice. This chunky soup of fruits and vegetables in a clear broth was so cool and refreshing and sweet and sour and earthy and I don’t even know what else, that I just did not want to stop eating it. Adesso means now, confirming that this was a dish not just of the season, but of the moment. And a very happy moment it was.

    Two of us got the minestrone while the other two got the Sorbetto al cioccolato… salsa verde and the inferiority complex that came with it. The chocolate sorbet and the parsley sauce on the plate stood about as close as boys and girls at a middle school dance, and I can see why. That flavor combination didn’t make me want to do the Macarena either. (Granted, I don’t think anything could.) The little salad of herbs and edible flowers on top of the parsley sauce was pretty, at least.

    I think I jumped slightly when I saw Una spugna al gusto di nocciola… gelato alla nocciola. Jumped for joy, that is. They can call it a hazelnut “sponge” all they want, but I know Sicilian briosce con gelato when I see it. That fateful meeting of buttery, eggy bread and creamy gelato always feels so right that it can’t possibly be wrong. I chose to forsake the fork, lifting the “sponge” with my hands to discover, happily, a mound of hazelnut gelato buried below. Everything on this plate, save the thick smear of coffee marmalade, had the unmistakable flavor of the tonda gentile hazelnut grown in this area, which is to say it was damn good.

    Il muro alla violetta, the “violet wall”, recalled how the beautiful little flowers burst spontaneously through the stone walls in this region in the springtime. Brittle blocks of violet-flavored meringue made the bricks and a thick icing-like cream, the mortar. The violet ice cream playing Humpty-Dumpty was stupendous. The concept, the dish, and the taste were beautiful.

    I won’t even get into the Piccola pasticceria, or petits fours, except to tell you that there were white chocolate-dipped pork rinds, and yes, they were quite tasty. We killed off the rest of the treats and downed a demitasse of Jamaica Blue Mountain espresso. We had apparently killed off the rest of the diners as well, because it was now 6:30pm. Time to go home. And you know what’s funny? During the car ride back home, our post-game wrap-up included the same word over and over again — equilibrium. Maybe if this whole food writing thing doesn’t work out, I’ve got a future in television.

  11. Really simple tonight, and more of an evening snack than a proper meal, I suppose, but...

    Roasted fennel with marinara sauce, piave vecchio, and fried bread crumbs


  12. @tupac17616: We want to go to Osteria Francescana as well, especially after reading your report... Could you tell me about their prices? I figure that the tasting menus are quite expensive, but usually italian restaurants have very reasonable wine prices...

    Is it true what I read somewhere, in a  blog, that they don't serve wine by the bottle??

    Do they have a dress code?

    And some people (italians especially) complain about the place being very "stiff" with the waiters hardly cracking a smile. Is that so? Because such an atmosphere would be a reason for us not to go - that is not what I need on my vacation

    Italy seems to be a bit behind in that regard - everywhere else the staff at top restaurants loosens up more an more, giving the whole thing a relaxed atmosphere. But in italian michelin-starred-restaurants (or wannabes) they still walk around in bow-ties with buster-keaton-like stone-faces...

    At least that is my experience.



    When I went (summer 2007), I paid 110euro for the tasting menu and 40euro total for 3 glasses of wine. A friend of mine went a month or two ago and paid 140euro for a carte blanche tasting menu, not sure how much for wine.

    I would be truly shocked if they don't serve wine by the bottle. That would not make any sense to me.

    I wouldn't worry about the dress code, I'm sure you'll be fine.

    I found the service just fine there, and so did my friend recently. Once they know you're serious about your food/wine, also, I'd imagine they'll lighten up even more so once they sense your enthusiasm.

    Hope you have a great meal!

  13. If you're at all thinking about pizza for this trip also, then I'll throw Sforno into the hat.  Its location may not be the best (near Cinecitta), but it's well worth the trip, in my opinion.  It's certainly the best pizza I've had in Rome, and for that matter, probably the best I've had outisde Napoli.

    Pizzarium was pretty good as well, but a completely different style.

    I am skeptical, in that I hardly believe any pizza is worth leaving my neighborhood for, or, better, that leaving one's neighborhood (or that of the friend you go with, or of the movie you have just seen) defeats the purpose. However, tell us if it's a reasonable walk from the Cinecittà metro station. If so, there's a chance I'll try it. And what do you mean "best outside Napoli"? Roman pizza is different, and you are condeming the whole genre.

    The different style of Pizzarium's pizza (as I know you know) is pizza al taglio, which is a native Roman pizza type, yeasty and baked in a pan. I think Pizzarium's is seriously fabulous, as do most people who have ever tasted it, and their pizza con patate, with potatoes from Avezzano, is a revelation. It is very near the Cipro metro station.

    Sforno is not Roman-style pizza. It's Neapolitan. So I should clarify that it might be the best Neapolitan-style pizza I've had outside Naples. Or, well, outside Campania in general. No way in hell would I condemn the entire genre of Roman-style pizza. That's a different conversation altogether.

    It's not an easy walk from Cinecittà (I was given bad directions, and this is where we were told to get off), but it is an easy walk from Subaugusta. Besides their pizza, their various fried things (suppli, arancini, etc, etc) are quite good. Arancino filled with trippa alla romana was great.

    Like you, I really enjoyed Pizzarium, and found Gabriele Bonci to be an exceptionally nice guy.

  14. Underdone pizza is also due to dough that's too thick. I regularly order my pizzas well done for the reasons Steven describes above, but they often still have a layer of raw -- not merely underdone -- dough due to poor technique or insufficiently pliable dough.

    This brought memory of Zachary's Pizza in Oakland/Berkeley. For some reason their 'stuffed pizza' is very popular. They put an extra layer of dough on top, plus more tomatoes and cheese. Problem is, the extra dough doesn't cook enough in the middle of all those tomatoes, so you end up with a pile of canned tomatoes and wet dough. Ugh.

    I live in Berkeley and have friends who've criticized my choice never to go to Zachary's. Thank you for justifying that choice. :smile:

  15. If you're at all thinking about pizza for this trip also, then I'll throw Sforno into the hat. Its location may not be the best (near Cinecitta), but it's well worth the trip, in my opinion. It's certainly the best pizza I've had in Rome, and for that matter, probably the best I've had outisde Napoli.

    Pizzarium was pretty good as well, but a completely different style.

  16. Last month I went with a couple of friends of mine to Romano in the seaside town of Viareggio, in Tuscany. I found the quality of the seafood they get to be quite good. And aside from a couple of problems with the primi, this was a solid meal. My report is below and the pictures, if you care to check them out, are here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/italy...

    We splurged on a very drinkable bottle of Billecart-Salmon 1996 Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart Brut Champagne and the scampi were still twitching on the plate they were so fresh. I think those two bits of information basically sum up our evening at Romano. My work here is done…

    What, you want details? Well, it was a meal full of bubbles. Perhaps every night in Viareggio is full of bubbles. I have insufficient data to either confirm or deny that. But no sooner had we sat down than a smiling gentleman began pouring Philipponnat NV Royale Réserve Brut champagne into our glasses. He posed a deep philosophical question — what good is a drink without food? — half to himself and half to us, before vowing to come right back with a snack.

    Soon before each of us he set a piccolo fritto, a little mixture of this fried fish and that. I didn’t have much of a clue what we were eating, but my friend is like a friggin’ marine biologist when he’s at the dinner table, particularly when he’s hungry. So while I knew there was a head-on gambero (shrimp), tiny moscardini (baby octopus), and an anchovy, he pointed out the nasellino (hake) as the freshest and most flavorful thing on the plate. I didn’t question him. The thin, crispy batter was addictively salty and not at all oily. But even more importantly, you could taste the freshness of everything.

    I hadn’t even seen the menu yet but I was smiling, thinking that if this kind of a welcome was indicative of Italian hospitality in general, international diplomacy in this country must be incredibly effective. The maître d’ gave us a minute to peruse the menu and then gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse — he offered to put together a tasting for us. We popped the cork on the Billecart-Salmon and the games began. First was the fantasia di pesce crudo secondo il pescato, literally meaning a plate of sashimi the fantasy of raw fish according to the catch of the day. Working clockwise from the oyster, there were slices of ombrina (shi drum), dentice (dentex), and gallinella (tub gurnard). No, I didn’t make up those fish names in English. How dare you imply such a thing! Fortunately now I know the scampi were the ones trembling when I put them on my tongue and closed my eyes to better concentrate on their amazing sweetness. Meanwhile, the sparnocchi, the Tuscan name for another type of shrimp, were also just as fresh as they could be.

    The fantasia was not over. A second round of raw seafood came laid out among six spoons. This time, there were sogliola (sole), triglia (red mullet), two each of the sparnocchi and scampi, and a cicala di mare (mantis shrimp). Did I mention these guys (and Franca Checchi, the matriarch who heads the kitchen) go to the docks to buy fish twice a day? We could tell. Unlike the previous round of crudo, a couple of these fish came with friends. The sole, for example, came with basil and the red mullet with radicchio. The drops of olive oil on each spoon were flavorful but not distracting. So far, so very, very good.

    I almost wanted to say “domo arigato” to the Japanese guy who must’ve been hiding in the kitchen and move on to the sushi portion of the meal; but then I remembered that we were in Italy. I could’ve guessed as much from one look at the Filetti di triglia, olive, pomodoro, basilico ed olio extravergine d’oliva. Red mullet fillets were covered by a small diced tomatoes and even smaller diced black olives, and the whole lot was given a drizzle of a very fine olive oil made in the nearby town of Lucca from a combination of Leccino, Frantoio, and Moraiolo cultivars. The fish was fresh and tender, the flakes of flesh breaking apart anytime I so much as looked its direction. If there were ever a time to fare la scarpetta (that is, clean one’s plate with bread) this was it.

    Another reminder that we were in Tuscany was the Sparnocchi con fagioli “schiaccioni” di Pietrasanta, featuring local shrimp and fat white and green beans grown in the nearby town of Pietrasanta. Despite the name of the dish on the menu, they also snuck scampi, cicale, and moscardini (tiny octopuses that, like the babies of many animal species, are delicious) on the plate here, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. Even cooked, the shellfish had a tenderness and sweetness that suggested they hadn’t been out of the water much longer than we had been in the restaurant. This was a dead simple dish: just shellfish, beans, and more of that delightfully fruity olive oil. But again, we couldn’t help but be happy.

    Romano is a family business and the Calamaretti ripieni di verdure e crostacei is a recipe that’s been in their arsenal for years. I tasted it and quietly wondered if there were any daughters in the family I had not been introduced to that might be of a suitable marrying age. Here baby calamari are stuffed with vegetables and shrimp. This was so frustrating to eat — the taste was incredibly good, the recipe incredibly easy, and the raw ingredients, I realized, completely unattainable anywhere else on the planet. But these are precisely the moments I hope for as a diner: transient flashes of irreproducible flavor. This dish was a mouthful of Viareggio.

    The last of the appetizers (yep, we were still on the appetizers) was Sparnocchi, lardo di Colonnata e farinata di cavolo nero. A single head-on shrimp was wrapped in a blanket of one of the finest cured pork fats in Italy (the other great one, in my opinion, is lardo d’Arnad). Hard to complain about that combo. Beneath it was a thin puck of a Tuscan’s take on farinata, the Ligurian chickpea flour pancake. Here instead of chickpeas, they utilized bread and cavolo nero (black cabbage) to create a sort of condensed version of ribollita soup with a texture not unlike a latke. Quite flavorful, surprisingly, and much crisper than I had expected.

    We had unfortunately killed off the last drops of the Billecart-Salmon, so we broke open a bottle of André Beaufort Brut Grand Cru Rosé to get us through the rest of the meal. Drinking this immediately following the previous champagne made the bubbly rosé seem more like, well, a wine. It was a nice change of pace. The Billecart-Salmon had been a lovely match for the more subtle flavors we had seen so far, and the Beaufort rosé would prove to keep up very nicely as we transitioned to more assertively flavored dishes.

    The primi began with the Risotto alla Pescatora, con gamberi e molluschi, the “fisherman’s” risotto with shrimp and molluscs. This was assertive, alright. But unfortunately in the sense that it tasted too strongly of pepper. The broth used was dull and watery. On the positive side, the rice was cooked to the right degree, and I liked that the risotto was served a little loose (this is a neither “right” nor “wrong”, just a preference thing). There were, however, several small shards of broken clam shell hiding in a few places that nearly left us looking like Michael Strahan. I’m a forgiving guy; but that mistake is, to put it mildly, not okay.

    A plate of Paccheri di Gragnano alla marinara con pesce di fondale, gamberi e calamari also fell victim to an irreversible error: the pasta itself was good, very good in fact. But the tomato and seafood sauce was just too bloody salty. I wanted to save the shrimp, and those innocent little calamari. I really did. But alas, the whole dish was assaulted by the sodium chloride reign of terror. Our plates went back to the kitchen looking much the same as when they had come out.

    There was one dish in particular I just had to have: the Sparnocchi al miele di castagno. The local shrimp we now knew and loved were bathing here in bittersweet chestnut honey. The sauce was heady and complex, and the shrimp, exceptional. Adam distracted me for a second with an asinine comment about the restaurant’s decor; and when I looked down, a shrimp was missing. He found the sauce a little too sweet, perhaps even under-salted. But for me, the bitterness of the honey really accented the natural sweetness of the sparnocchi. The fact that there were very good fried artichokes on the plate was a mere bonus, the Italian kiss on the other cheek, if you will.

    Adam, meanwhile, had the Scampi e sparnocchi al guazzetto. Guazzetto is a colorful Italian word that literally means “splashed” but usually refers, as it did here, to a thin stew of either fish or meat. These two types of shrimp were splashed with a very flavorful white wine butter sauce redolent of fresh herbs. Adam found the sauce excessively rich. I disagreed; if anything, it was excessively French. Meanwhile he continued learning the Italian language by doing — or rather, eating — when our friend taught him the phrase fare puccetta: to dip a chunk of bread into a broth or soup. These are the kind of life lessons he will never forget. Clearly there is an Italian phrase for every food-related activity in the world.

    Our friend showed signs of slowing down (can you really blame him considering what we’d already eaten?), so he pushed much of his Triglie con salsa al vino rosso over to me and Adam. The same red mullet we had eaten way back near the beginning was painted this time with a much more assertive brush. The red wine sauce worked quite well, I thought. Our friend wasn’t as fond of the tangled mound of thick-cut potato chips that shared the plate with the fish. To him, it felt like filler. To me, I just wish it had been a touch more crispy on the inside. The fish itself and the delicacy with which it had been cooked were, again, hard to fault.

    Our champagne was gone (notice the use of the passive voice to imply that it disappeared on its own), and so, it seemed, were the savories. This is always a sad time in the meal, but the maître d’ must have seen our long faces, since he brought a glass of Braida 2008 Vigna Senza Nome Moscato d’Asti DOCG. This was to keep us company while we munched on the Piccola pasticceria in anticipation (or, in Adam’s case, dread) of dessert. The various cookies, mini creme caramels, and cream puffs were all good, but the cantuccini (Tuscan almond biscotti) were exceptional.

    Adam passed on dessert, and by that I mean he chose not to take years off his life to pursue further gluttony like I was doing. Our friend, ever level-headed, chose to keep things liight with the Sorbetti di agrumi, citrus sorbets. Merely for discussion’s sake, I tasted each and every sorbet. Twice. How else could I be sure that the four flavors — lemon, grapefruit, orange, and tarocco blood orange — were really as fantastic as they seemed the first time around? Tasting purely of fruit, they left a clean and tart taste lingering in my mouth.

    That is, until the vin santo arrived. I had ordered the Semifreddo ai cantuccini Toscani con salsa al Vin Santo for dessert, which meant that it was my duty, nay, my honor, to enjoy a glass of Tenute Marchese Antinori 2004 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico DOC with it. Semifreddo is often more like a semi-frozen custard or mousse than it is like gelato, and that was the case here. Showered with crunchy bits of cantuccini and spiked with vin santo sauce, this dessert was fabulous. The vin santo itself didn’t hurt, either. It was assertive up front but had a really smooth finish.

    So did the meal, come to think of it. As I sipped my caffè (Indian Mysore Plantation A, if you’re curious), I considered that the beginning and end of the meal had both been very strong, and the only dip was with the two primi. Even then it wasn’t the ingredients that could be faulted; it was the cooking. There is a two-fold challenge in any cuisine, and especially so in one as technically simple as Italian, and that is: (1) find the very best ingredients, and (2) don’t screw them up. Certainly the first part had been satisfied throughout. Frankly, I think you could count the number of places in Italy with seafood of this quality on both hands, maybe even on one. But when the cook occasionally stumbles (and everyone does), it reminds you that sometimes food is best left unadorned or even raw on the plate. Maybe with a drop or two of olive oil for good measure.

  17. Just finished Jay Rayner's "The Man Who Ate The World", which I quite enjoyed.

    Now going more old school with MFK Fisher's "Serve It Forth".

    Have you read Simon Majumdar's "Eat My Globe" yet? It's on my list, but I can't buy books this year, so it'll have to wait until next year!

    I had forgotten about that one. My friend told me it was in the works a while back. That one is now next in the queue. Thanks! :smile:

  18. Without some more specific information, it's going to be very difficult to help, but for now I'll play the word association game:

    bistro -- whole foie gras for 2 at Chez l'Ami Jean

    Michelin starred place -- lunch at Arpege

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