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Eating the Boot: A Grand Tour of Italy


tupac17616
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Okay, I give up. I must have accidentally thrown away the notes from this dinner, and I stupidly forgot to ask for a menu to take home, so this will have to rely on memory, but here goes...

Osteria La Francescana

Via Stella 22, Modena, 059/210118

I first ran across a recommendation for this place in Frank Bruni's NYT article from sometime last year, I think, comparing Emilia-Romagna and Piemonte to see which region is the bigger culinary gem of Italy. The chef, Marco Bottura, is certainly well-known not only in his own region, but seemingly all across Italy, as other chefs throughout my journey have had good things to say about him. Walking around in Bologna one day, I decided to call and see if I might book a spot there several days later. I'm sorry, sir, but we're closing after tomorrow evening's dinner service for ferie (vacation). When presented with such a limited time frame in which to check out this restaurant, it became clear that the next evening, I'd better make my way to Modena, which I did, just in time for my 8:30 reservation. I arrived to a restaurant empty, save for one gentleman just finishing his last few courses. Had I immediately outed myself as American by eating at the early-bird hour of 8:30, or was this just a slow night? I may never know, but, hell, what did I care? I had come hungry, and with high expectations. I was ready to be impressed.

The menu choice was, as usual, an easy one. Degustazione, please. In this case, "I Classici", the classics, priced with the always annoying specification of "da €100" (from €100). I've always hated this pricing scheme, so common in Japanese omakase, for example, but I suppose it does make for more flexibility in crafting the particular kind of meal you feel like eating that evening. They asked how hungry I was, and I jokingly replied something to the affect of, Trust me, you don't want to know. Heheh. Even in my crappy Italian, they got the point. I was hungry. Keeping in mind what I'd read about the chef, I asked them to weave in a little of his wonderful creativity here and there, while maintaining a focus on the traditional cuisine of the area, as this was my first time in Modena. Not a problem, they said, and we were off.

Two types of warm bread were brought out. One white, one darker. The first taste of the evening would be their olive oil, from an estate the chef had selected himself in Tuscany, near Arezzo, if I remember right. Just the slightest bit of spice at the finish, it was just smooth enough to dab in liberally with the bread, while just spicy enough at the finish to let you know it could be a bit more aggressive, too. Nice. After tasting the oil, more warm bread was brought out, this time 5 or 6 different types of rolls -- ciabatta, rosmarino, sourdough, etc, along with some grissini, the crispy breadsticks. All pretty tasty, though some of the crustier ones verged on being too chewy. I think my favorites were still the larger slices of the first two breads they'd brought out. I figured I should conserve a bit, though, as who knew how many courses would be coming out. There would likely be plenty of sauces to sop up later on.

The amuse-bouche was fantastic. Spuma di mortadella con gnocco salato farcito di ciccioli di maiale. Mortadella "foam", a light-as-air puree of the delicious local meat elsewhere bastardized as bologna, with the consistency of a savory whipped cream. Served alongside a fat cube of fried bread filled with a thin, crispy layer of fried pork rind. Ah, and a little dusting of pistachio pieces on the plate for a little more texture and flavor. This was as ridiculously good as it sounds. Such a nice start.

First actual course was Caesar salad preparata a Modena in chiave aromatica. Wild greens and herbs, carefully piled alongside two long croutons stood on end, anchored to the plate by an anchovy aioli-like dressing. The finishing touch was a tableside shaving of vibrant orange embryonic eggs, only the second time I'd ever seen these (the first was a meal at Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York in the spring). This was a very well balanced dish, I thought, both texturally and flavor-wise. The greens were quite flavorful, and, for me, needed little to no adornment whatsoever, but the salty, crunchy, creamy accompaniments certainly didn't hurt. I've got to agree with a fellow reviewer who called this dish "the finest of expression of nature and its glorious fields – exceptional in its wild spirit". I'm not quite that much of a poet perhaps, but I, too, thought it was tasty.

Next was the Tortino di porri, cipollotti e tartufi, a wonderfully aromatic mound of creamed leaks and onions with fresh black truffles shaved on top. I hate to use the cliche, but the leeks and onions just melted in your mouth. This dish was phenomenal, and I can only imagine it with the more potent winter truffles. Yet I think I might actually prefer it with the more gentle summer truffles, as their earthiness provided a wonderful backdrop for the creamy leeks and onions without overshadowing their natural sweetness. Just a really harmonious flavor pairing, with no single ingredient singing backup for the others.

Then came a dish I remembered reading about in Frank Bruni's NYT piece that mentioned the place: Cinque stagionature di parmigiano reggiano in diverse consistenze e temperature. Five different ages of parmigiano-reggiano, presented together in five different consistencies and temperatures. At the base was a tepid creamy sauce of 18-month parmigiano. Resting in that was cool, airy whipped cream of 24-month parmigiano, beside a warm sformato of 30-month parmigiano that had, I think, the addition of some fresh ricotta for less grainy texture. On top of the cream was an "air", or foam, of 36-month parmigiano, and perched above everything was a crispy frico made with stravecchio 40-month parmigiano. A dish of both unity and contrast at the same time, I quite enjoyed this. You would think that the same ingredient repeated as such in the same dish could get repetitive, but the different textures, temperatures, and intensities of the cheese made this a fun dish to eat from start to finish, as every bite was a new sensation. This was exactly the kind of dish I was looking for from this restaurant, and by that I mean, a dish strictly loyal to local ingredients, but with a creative playfulness that makes it that much more fun to eat.

After this came foie gras con spuma di Vov e pasta e fagioli in bicchiere, the classic bean-and-pasta soup totally reinterpreted, and presented in a shot glass. The base layer was ultra-creamy foie gras. On top of that was a layer of beans, and then a thick, dark brown puree of what I assumed to be pasta e fagioli soup. Topping it all off was a foam made from Vov, the Italian egg liquer not unlike drinkable zabaglione. This dish was as rich as it sounds, and quite tasty. Alhough, aside from a similar sort of earthiness, I didn't really like the match of the foie gras with the dark, almost somewhat grainy beans. The textures just didn't blend too well, in my opinion. Certainly not a weak dish by any means, just not among the better ones of the evening.

Next up was a pasta dish, Pomodoro, mozzarella, e basilico in due ravioli, his take on the classic Caprese, Chef Bottura told me as he stopped by the table to chat. Nothing fancy in the preparation of this dish, he said, as 99% of the work had been in looking for the absolute best tomato, mozzarella, and basil he could find. I assured him later that his search had more than paid off. Each of the two ravioli were filled with a whole basil leaf, a piece of quite possibly the sweetest tomato I've ever tated, and a fresh mozzarella so milky and creamy I could have sworn it was actually burrata. Dabbed uselessly in a few spots around the plate were basil puree, tomato puree, and a creamy mozzarella sauce of some sort. These teardrop shapes were a nice touch visually, but were so miniscule that they had little to no affect as a condimento of any kind to the pasta that was sauced only very lightly with melted butter. A nice refreshing touch at the end was a shot glass of tomato water (and perhaps a bit of gelatin) with tiny pea-sized balls of fresh mozzarella suspended in it. Good dish. After this, and recalling the Caesar salad earlier, I certainly now trusted Massimo Bottura the food shopper as much as I trusted Massimo Bottura the chef. He clearly doesn't mess around in his search for the best ingredients.

More pasta was next, one of the most common recipes in the regional repertoire, Tagliatelle al ragù di Bianca Modenese. Okay, so perhaps the last little bit, about a certain breed of white cows raised in the Modena area, is not so common, but still. Maybe it was the cows, or maybe it was the cook, but this was quite tasty, certainly among the best renditions I had on the trip. He was relieved to hear that I liked it, he told me, as if he can't do that recipe proper justice, he has no place as a chef in Emilia-Romagna. È molto importante, he said.

Time for more meat, this time with the Maialino da latte laccato con anice stellato, arancia e aceto stravecchio di mele. Suckling pig varnished with a delicious glaze consisting of star anise, orange, and extra-aged (120yr-old) apple vinegar. After a pass under the broiler, the glaze had rendered the skin a sweet, salty, crackly, and unctuously fatty experience, all at the same time. So good. The underlying meat, presumably from the shouler, was moist, and oh-so-tender. There were two small beds of lentils on the plate, along with more of sauce that had been the pig's glaze, and another kind of lighter sauce I don't quite remember. This dish was a knockout. I found the flavor combination to be very harmonious, and the cooking spot-on. Good show.

Time for a "cheese course" of sorts, with the Crema di parmigiano-reggiano all'aceto balsamico brulee. A standing spoon is brought out, with a single, fat cube of a parmigiano custard (think the consistency of a firmer flan), topped with a thin, crackly sweet and acidic layer of bruleed balsamic vinegar. There were but two singers on this stage, but they sang well together. Delicious.

As a little pre-dessert, a little shot glass of palate-cleansing chilled cherry soup topped with a white foam made, I think, from a liquer I can't recall the name of. Tasty, but nothing amazing.

Dessert, though, what can I say? Nothing short of fantastic. It was his take on zuppa inglese, Italy's answer to the trifle, and a dessert quite common in many places I visited. For those curious cooks at home, I actually found the recipe online here. At the base, there was a square-pyramid shaped chocolate gift from the gods. I don't typically like chocolate so much, but this was stunningly good. As you see mentioned in the recipe, the top square was a thin crackly layer, giving way to the dark chocolate interior of your dreams. Was that texture mousse-like? Cake-like? Brownie-like? Yes, yes, and yes. All of the above. I'm pretty sure this would be a real chocolate-lover to tears, as I was just about there myself. Flanking the pyramid were spongy, tasty savoiardi, a.k.a. ladyfingers, and a quenelle of creamy vanilla gelato. Laid atop all of this were several beatiful scarlet-colored thin sheets of gelatin made from the Italian liquer called Alchermes. With notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla, the liquer yielded quite a flavorful gelee. Also scattered here and there on the plate were strands of fresh lemon zest that served to lift the other flavors that much more. Did I mention I really, really like this dish? In a meal with many highlights, this stole the show for me.

With my after-dinner caffe came a small tray of piccola pasticceria goodies, which included two types of chocolates, and two types of cookies topped with, of all things, candied tomato. Tasty, if just a touch too savory to close things out. Still, by this point, I was more than satisfied.

For those curious to know, with the meal, I drank the following:

Ca' del Bosco, Anna Maria Clementi 1999

Ribolla Gialla, Damijan Podversic 2003

Muffa Nobile di (Picont???), (Marco Sara????) 2004 **Oh, how I wish I could read the sommelier's writing on this one. Anybody know it? This was perhaps my favorite sweet wine on the trip.**

The food: €110. The wine: €40. The verdict: Very, very good meal. I would (no, scratch that, I will) go back at some point.

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Okay, so this doesn’t technically fit in to the chronological fabric of this thread, but to keep the geographical consistency intact, let’s have a little storytime…

August 10th was undoubtedly the coolest evening of the trip. After commuting from Venezia to lunch in Padova two days prior, I met an Italian girl from Modena while visiting the Cappella degli Scrovegni. This was Wednesday, and she said she'd be back home on Friday, so I should come visit and we'd go for a coffee or go for another walk or something.

Friday rolled around, and I wasn't able to get in touch with her for the longest time. Eventually, it was pushing 5pm, and I knew I was a good 2hr train ride away, so I finally just up and went to the train station and hopped on the next train, figured what do I have to lose really. Luckily, the cell phone gods connected us again once I’d arrived in Modena. She and several friends were headed to dinner “just outside of Modena” she said, and did I want to join them? Hmm…what is the Italian translation for “no-brainer”? Of course I wanted to come along.

So our group of 13 hopped in a few cars and we were on our way. I asked how it was that they happened to choose the restaurant to which we were headed. “La Notte di San Lorenzostelle cadente” was the response. Oh, of course, the Night of San Lorenzo…falling stars, why didn’t you say so before? I had absolutely no idea what this was, but they explained that every year on August 10th, they drive somewhere into the mountains of southern Emilia-Romagna, closer to Tuscany, and watch the natural spectacle as stars streak across the night sky. The place we were headed that night, an agriturismo called Il Ginepro, was located in Castelnovo ne' Monti in southwestern Emilia-Romagna, about at hour and a half drive from Modena. We’re talking closer to Liguria or Lucca than to Modena.

Siamo arrivati, they happily declared, and we stepped out into the pitch-black and dead-silent night. Walking up to an old stone farmhouse, we are greeted warmly at the door by the owner, and shown to a long table already prepped for our arrival. His wife, hard at work in the kitchen, steps out shortly to say hi as well.

There is no menu, and the kind gentleman just asked what we felt like eating. We assured him that we were completely in his hands, that we trusted him to provide us a great feast in whichever way he saw fit. Well, how does this sound?, he asked, and proposed a menu that had me smiling with anticipation. And it began.

Antipasti: Prosciutto, salami, and erbazzone, which is like a spinach and ricotta quiche, essentially.

Primi: A tris (trio) of pastas: tortelli di erbette (pasta filled with ricotta and spinach in brown butter sauce), tortelli di patate (potato-puree filled pasta sauced with butter, sage, and wild mushrooms), and cappellacci al ragu (meat-filled pasta in the meat-based sauce typical of the region). For me, the first tortelli stole the show, but all three of the homemade pastas were incredibly tasty.

Secondi: Some spalla di mailino al forno (baked pork shoulder), along with carne alle brace (grilled sausages, and chunks of pork wrapped in thin slices of crispy pancetta).

The pork chunks wrapped in pancetta, in particular, were the stuff dreams are made of. The outside crispy, smoky, and chewy, the inside practically dripping out, it was so moist. So good. Served with a fresh green salad with a simple balsamic vinaigrette as a contorno.

Dessert: Gelato alla crema con pan di spagna e mirtilli selvatici (cream-flavored gelato layered with ladyfingers, and topped with tiny wild blueberries). The blueberries, he pointed out, had been picked that day, so we were in for a treat. He was right. This tasted as summery and delicious as it sounds.

Of course, throughout the meal, we’d been having wine, a fizzy Lambrusco Reggiano, and a smooth Sangiovese.

After dinner, he brought over a bottle each of Limoncello, Grappa, and Amaro Montenegro with a tray full of empty cordial glasses, saying, simply, enjoy.

To cap things off, he poured us all a round of caffé, and probably 3hrs after walking in, we paid our tab. A mere €20 each. I felt like I'd just robbed someone for that price, considering the quality.

It was pushing 1am by this point, and we were feeling fat, drunk, and happy. Yet there was still the little matter of the falling stars to see, so we headed to the base of a large plateau maybe 5-10 minutes away. (the Pietra di Bismantova unless I am mistaken). After getting some strange looks from the staff of the bar at the base, we set out on the trail to get to the top.

It’s still pitch-black, mind you, and not only that, but it’s far from a clear night, and even so far away from the city lights, the stars are veiled by clouds. I sure hope the sky clears up soon, I thought to myself. Our group of 13 had a whopping two flashlights among us, so the hike was, well, interesting. Passing one particularly narrow cliffside area, we finally come upon a sign. A sign facing the other way, that is. It reads, roughly: DO NOT GO THIS WAY. DANGER OF DEATH. We laugh, considering that is the way from which we’ve just come, and we take pleasure in our assumption that, in that case, the toughest part must be behind us. We trek on. And on. And on. We can’t see our way very well, the steep dirt-only path is slippery from the previous day’s rain, and people are beginning to get frustrated. Literally half the group decides they’ve had enough, and they turn back.

Getting lost for what seems like an eternity, by some stroke of luck we had made our way to the top of the plateau by around 4am or so. So we watch the skies, now thankfully cleared of clouds. And nothing happens. Disappointed, one of the guys recommends turning back. My actual response probably is not fit for publication here, but let’s just say the gist of my response to him in Italian was “What are you thinking, man? Bad idea.” I was ready to stay there until sunrise if we had to. We’d earned a shooting star or two.

Then, suddenly, they came. One. Another one. Another one. Soon the bright streaky lines were crossing the sky like God playing with his Etch-a-Sketch, and we were nothing short of captivated. I had seen falling stars before, probably, but not like this. The “Tears of San Lorenzo” were truly something to behold.

Coming slowly back down the trail, the girl I’d met in Padova asked me if I would’ve ever thought that my visit back to Modena would mean climbing a dark trail in the middle of the night with a group of Italian friends to stare at the beautiful sky. No, I told her, but that is what made the experience that much more amazing.

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Senigallia, Le Marche

After Emilia-Romagna, I wasn't sure at first what the next stop would be. The logical choice, perhaps, was to head up to Venice. But I could hardly count the number of Italians that had warned me: "Non si mangia bene in Venezia". One doesn't eat well in Venice. I'm sure it has the famous sights any self-respecting tourist could want. Not to mention the opera-singing, flat-brimmed-hat-and-striped-shirt-wearing gondola guys serenading the starry-eyed couples as they cruise through the city's canals. But whose vacation was this, anyway? I had come to Italy to eat, so where could I best do that next?

All signs, it seemed, pointed toward a small town along the Adriatic coast of Le Marche. So many chefs I'd met along my journey had put in their suggestions for good places to eat during the rest of my time in Italy. Definitely among the top vote-getters were Madonnina del Pescatore and Uliassi, conveniently both located in the same town of Senigallia, just a stone's through from Ancona. Now, it is good to take all recommendations, whether they come from a famous chef, the Michelin man, or a red shrimp (Gambero Rosso), with a grain of salt. But even I know when to stop being stubborn and heed the suggestions. From Bologna, I packed my bags and hopped on the train, having already made a lunch reservation for...

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Madonnina del Pescatore

Lungomare d'Italia 11, Loc. Marzocca di Senigallia, 071/698267

website

A trusted friend in Rome had told been the first to tell me that Chef Moreno Cedroni was an artist, whose cuisine was well worth my time and my money. Many others had done nothing but confirm this assertion, praising his creativity in particular. I arrived for my 1pm reservation excited, and hungry to see what this chef could do.

Given two menu degustazione choices, creativo and traditzione, I chose the former, priced at €120. (There was a la carte, too, of course, but it took about half a second to figure out that this was a chef whose vision would be best appreciated in a tasting menu format.) The list of dishes extended all the way down the page, and I was excited by the fact that I couldn't count them at first glance. It looked to be 15 or so, perhaps, but I closed up the menu and the feast began. I prefer to be surprised.

Four types of bread are brought out: black bread made with squid ink; a very crusty baguette-like bread; fat grissini, whole wheat if I remember correctly; and thin, crisp crackers made with, I believe, caraway seeds. None are particularly amazing, thought the black bread looks cool, at least, and its subtly rich flavor seems to work pretty well with the slightly spicy olive oil from near Arezzo that they've chosen to serve along with the bread.

The first course was Americano Solido (2002). The classic cocktail reinterpreted. Served in a Collins glass, with a long (maybe 6in), narrow spoon resting on the edge of the glass, like those honey spoons for tea. The campari came in the form of small cubes of gelee, while the vermouth was a cold foam of sorts. A splash of club soda, and this edible cocktail was complete. Just enough of the campari's bitterness was able to shine through in the gelee to make this pleasantly refreshing when couple with the chilled vermouth and club soda components of the "drink". Pretty nice start, if a little tough to eat with that funky spoon.

Next up was Gelato al parmigiano di Ferran Adria. This one, of course, needs no translation. Inspired by the famously innovative Spanish chef, the parmigiano gelato was sandwiched between two paper-thin crackers, which were also flavored with parmigiano. Good flavor once you let it slowly melt on the tongue. The texture, to me, was more like semifreddo than the creamy goodness I associate with gelato, but that probably has to do with parmigiano's inherent crystalline texture. I almost wanted some sort of top note to the flavor of this dish, perhaps just a drop of

stravecchio balsamic vinegar, but it never came. The taste, I suppose, was meant to be of pure parmigiano, and nothing else.

The next thing listed on the menu was not a course at all, but rather the drink meant to accompany the following few courses, Metodo Classico Garofoli Brut Riserva (2002), a bubbly dance across the tongue to wake up the taste buds for the delicate seafood that was to follow.

The drink's first companion was Caviale Calvisius e Burrata (2006). I'd had the combination of caviar and burrata cheese three or four times in New York before, and I knew the oceanic salinity of the fish eggs and unapologetic creaminess of the cheese were a nice match for one another. This white sturgeon caviar, a farmed product from Italy, was firm, relatively large in size, and a gorgeous full black color. Tasting it on its own was nice, and eaten in combination with the burrata, it added just the right amount of salt. Still, though, I felt like this dish was lacking something. I don't mean ingredient-wise, necessarily. Two complementary flavors is certainly enough to make a good dish. But if you are going to serve me just two ingredients, ideally I want them to be the best of each that I've ever tasted, and that just wasn't the case here. The flavors just didn't sing enough on their own, or lift one another the way I'd hoped they would.

Next up was L'Insalata di Mari che si da le "Arie"...al Limone (2006). Literally, "the seafood salad to which one gives the 'airs'...of lemon". Strange name, I thought, but what a knockout dish. Perhaps the best of the meal. The seafood salad consisted of different varieties of crostaceans and mollusks -- raw shrimp and canocchie (mantis shrimp), calamari and seppie (cuttlefish), lightly cooked lobster. It rested on a soft bed of finely minced vegetables, some basil pesto, and a lovely shellfish lobster reduction probably made with more lobster shells than I can count. Resting atop the salad was lemon "air", a very light foam. So, so good. The buttery texture and clean, delicate flavor of raw shrimp is, for me, one of the biggest culinary pleasures one can experience. Everything about this dish was wonderful, really. The textures, the flavors, the way it all came together. Bravo.

Moving along once again, a new wine arrived (I'll list these later), along with Cappesante brasate con pomodori gratinati, salsa ai finocchi (2007). Braised scallops with gratin tomatoes and a fennel emulsion. There is no getting around the fact that certain things just taste better in Italy. Fennel is one of them. The puree upon with the scallops rested was fantastic. The tomatoes, too, were quite tasty. I personally would've preferred simply seared scallops to the braised ones presented. The result with that cooking method for scallops always seems to be a bit too cooked for my taste. The flavor was quite good, to be sure, they just weren't as tender as they should have been, I think.

Next up was Zuppa di cavolo con uova di seppie e gelato all'alice salata (2006). This was definitely a winner. A shallow bowl of cabbage soup, with a small scoop of salted anchovy gelato and a single cuttlefish egg in the center. Surrounding the gelato were a few pieces of incredibly buttery cauliflower, and three lightly breaded and grilled cuttlefish. The hot-cold, buttery-salty, creamy-crunchy contrast going on all over this dish was very nice. The texture of the gelato was wonderful, and the addition that really made the dish was the delicious grilled cuttlefish. Good show.

Time for some pasta now, with Rigatoni all'arrabiata con alici fresche e melanzane (2007). The classic spicy tomato sauce, enriched with tiny bits of fresh anchovy. The four rigatoni were sauced and stacked like lincoln logs on a beautifully colored eggplant and basil puree. The pasta was just a touch undercooked, but not terribly so. The flavors worked nicely together, especially the eggplant and basil with the (not really so spicy) tomato sauce, but I thought the anchovy was kind of thrown in there for no reason, just to say, "Hey, we're a seafood-focused restaurant. You're eating on the Adriatic Coast, remember?".

One of the few dishes with both feet planted firmly on land was the next one, Tortellini di parmigiano con carne cruda al basilico e salsa di pomodoro (2007). Three delicious tortellini with a liquid parmigiano filling. Only the slightest bit grainy, and don't ask me how he acheived that liquid filling in the first place. But the result was certainly tasty. And to pair it with a small mound of raw beef, an almost-foamy basil sauce, and an intense tomato reduction, worked wonderfully. Very tasty course.

Moving steadily along, Bocconcini di rombo fritti con zucchini grigliate e salsa giardiniera (2003). Two good-sized chunks of cornmeal-breaded, fried turbot, piled atop grilled zucchini. At the base were two types of vegetable based sauces. If my memory is to be trusted, I think one was zucchini & basil, and the other was summer squash. Crowing it all was a crispy piece of fried turbot skin with the texture of pork rinds. The fish was moist, and the flavor pretty good. But overall I found the dish a little boring.

Next up: Poll & Pol (pollo e polpo alla cacciatora) con purea ed alga kombu (2007). After the beautiful series of platings that had preceded it, I found this presentation to be, well, almost ugly. I'm not talking purely in terms of the dishes used; the food itself just was not visually appealing. A piece of skinless chicken breast, presumably either poached or cooked sous vide, as it had no color. Some piece of octopus were unfortunately a bit too chewy. Both were prepared "hunter style", with the tomato, vegetable and herb condiment for which every cook seems to have his or her own version. The algae kombu (a type of sea-weed) was a nice touch that made sure the dish overall was more firmly planted in the sea than on land. But overall, this dish didn't really do much for me.

The "cheese" course, if one should call it such, was Sorbetto di toma con confettura di fragole e timo al limone (2007). Toma refers not to a particular cheese, but rather to the drum-like shape of a whole series of Italian cheeses. A sorbet made from this mild cheese rested atop a delicious strawberry confit scented with lemon thyme. This was a tasty, and refreshing, introduction to the sweeter end of the meal.

Next was Bounty di seppia (2006). Again straddling the savory-sweet divide, this was a single chocolate, filled with a crispy cuttlefish-ink and cocoa mixture. Flavor was okay, but I thought he was trying a bit too hard with this one.

Certainly not much more fully in the dessert realm was Sedano rapa croccante con gianduja e mozzarella, spuma di nutella e zenzero, gelato al pepe di szechuan (2006). A crisp thin slice of deep-fried celery root with chocolate-hazelnut mouse and mozzarella, nutella and ginger "foam" with the consistency of whipped cream, and szechuan pepper gelato, for a spicy-herbal top note for it all. I'll be the first to admit, this flavor combination sounds like a mess on paper, but the result was very good. The salty-sweet combination didn't lean too much in one direction or the other. The interplay between the different textures and temperatures, too, was quite nice.

Served alongside this dish, but listed separately on the menu, was The' Marco Polo, a lovely warm cup of tea with wonderful aromas of vanilla and citrus. Very tasty.

Winding down now, it was time for Zabaione ghiacciatissimo!!!!!!!!! (2005). "Very frozen" zabaglione. This was incredible. A thick mound of eggy zabaglione, dropped tableside into liquid nitrogen, then handed to me with the instruction to eat it quickly. Such a cool sensation on the tongue to eat this flash-frozen treat. Nice.

Had I finally come to the end? Not before a few more little treats. The piccola pasticceria that both preceded and accompanied my caffe was pretty good. The first round was a small creme brulee, a chocolate truffle with liquid mint filling, and some type of mousse (hazelnut). Along with the caffe came a sort of chocolate-caramel custard and a shot glass full of (licorice?) granita. The mousse was my favorite among the bunch, and overall the first round was much better than the next. But at this point, really, did I need to be wowed? Not really. I was far too drunk to care much.

Why drunk, might you ask? Well, in addition to the aforementioned spumante, I had the following wines:

Pecorino Villa Angela 2006, Velenosi

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Class. Sup. Montesecco 2005, Montecappone

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Plenio Class. Riserva 2004, Umani Ronchi

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Cerasuolo Vigne Nuove 2005, Valle Reale

Maximo Muffato, Umani Ronchi

I found the pairings, for the most part, to be pretty good. You can't really go wrong with spumante and caviar or delicate fish. I enjoyed the pecorino. I wasn't such a fan of the first verdicchio, but enjoyed the second. The montepulciano d'abruzzo was nice. As was the muffato, though that one was not as wonderful as the one I'd tried at Osteria La Francescana in Modena. I don't know the first thing about these wines, to be honest, but I found the pricing very fair, €26 for the five glasses (the spumante was included as part of the degustation menu).

So, all said and done, I was out of there for €155. Was it the greatest meal I'd ever had? No. I left unsure if it was even the greatest meal on the trip. But it was certainly fun, and I appreciated Chef Cedroni's playfulness and sense of creativity. It seemed like he must be having fun back there in the kitchen. Another word about the menu: I find that listing the year in which the chef conceptualized a given dish is absolutely ridiculous. But hey, we all have our idols, I suppose, and perhaps this is simply the chef's homage to the Ferran Adria. Not every dish was a knockout, but the highs reached high enough that I would certainly go back sometime. Maybe tradizione next time?

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This will likely sound a bit insane (well, maybe it won't, as I suppose you all know me a little better now), but I'd originally thought I could actually do Madonnina del Pescatore and Uliassi in the same day. Yes, two tasting menus in one day, an exercise in gluttony even I haven't experienced. Thankfully, that day was not to be the day for it, either. I rolled out of Madonnina del Pescatore around 5pm, and I'm not gonna lie...I was drunk. Sitting down sounded really good right about then, so that's what I did. For, oh, about two hours, give or take, near the water, watching the waves crash and the beach activity breeze by. I called to move the reservation at Uliassi to the next day for lunch, and went for a little walk around the town. I found a bookstore where I checked out the various food guides to see what light dinner options there might be in town.

One place, in particular, seemed to keep popping up, but first I had another stop in mind already, so I headed to Aniko, Piazza Saffi 10 (website), where I planned to have a light bite and make take a thing or two for the road. You see, the place hails itself as the first salumeria ittica, a fish salumeria. A cool concept, to be sure, but there were other reasons I was drawn here. Along with a susci bar in Baia di Portonovo on the other side of Ancona, this place is owned by Chef Moreno Cedroni of Madonnina del Pescatore. I'd seen what he could do in the context of a Michelin-guide sort of place. I wanted to see how his Gambero Rosso Low Cost mention might measure up. A pretty large menu made me question whether or not I should make an entire meal here, but the atmosphere wasn't really conducive to that, so I figured I'd try a few dishes and move on to the other place for more substantial fare. What I had here was delicious, though, and very well priced. I started with egg and bacon di tonno. Several thin slices of "san daniele" (a kind of prosciutto) of tuna, topped with a fried egg, drizzled with a reddish aioli-like condiment, and served with warm toasted bread. The egg had perhaps the most vibrant orange yolk I'd ever seen. This dish was simple, but delicious. The next dish didn't disappoint, either. "Tonno del Chianti" (Dario Cecchini). This "tuna" was actually pork meat from the most famous butcher in all of Tuscany, and therefore, all of Italy. The meat had been cooked in white wine (and I'm not sure what else), and had all the appearance, texture, and flavor of chunky drizzled with good extra virgin olive oil. Very tasty. Would ordering three dishes move this little trip out of snack realm and into a meal? Hell, what did I care? Dessert sounded delicious, and it was. Mousse di cioccolato con olio di clementine e fiore di sale, a phenomenal chocolate mousse drizzled with clementine oil and sprinkled with a few fat flakes of salt. So good. Price was only around €16 total for the three dishes. As the website hints at, in addition to the many types of fish salumi, they also sell Chef Cedroni's line of jams and various canned fish goods. I bought a jar of very tasty kiwi jam (€6) destined to accompany some fresh ricotta, and a can of trippa di coda di rospo in umido, stewed monfish tripe (€10), that would be wonderful atop polenta. Very, very cool place. I'll definitely go back sometime.

The place all the guidebooks seemed to mention was Osteria del Teatro, Via Fratelli Bandiera 70, so that was where I headed next. This place is very well priced, not to mention pointed out as both a good place for cheese, and for the traditional cuisine of Le Marche. I started with spaghetti al pesto alla trapanese, a Sicilian pasta preparation that I'd never had before. Take your traditional Genovese basil pesto and add tomatoes, almond and celery, the waiter explained. Sounded good to me. The result was tasty, but unfortunately a bit undersalted. Definitely something I'll make at home sometime, though. I saw a warm piadina cruise by my table, and knew what I should be having next. I ordered a piadina, filled with whatever regional cheese and meat the waited recommended. He said he'd do one better, and bring a plate of three kinds of salumi and three types of cheese, along with a piping hot freshly-made piadina, the grilled unleavened flatbread. The cheeses, as the guidebooks promised, were very well chosen. The salumi, too, was delicious. And the piadina, wonderful. There was no room, and no need, for dessert. A very enjoyable meal, and for €20, a good value as well. Definitely a place I would recommend.

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"Very frozen" zabaglione.  This was incredible.  A thick mound of eggy zabaglione, dropped tableside into liquid nitrogen, then handed to me with the instruction to eat it quickly.  Such a cool sensation on the tongue to eat this flash-frozen treat.  Nice.

Ooooh ... that sounds really nice. I can't wait to see a picture of this one.

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Tupac,

Excellent, most excellent of trip tales! I've been working through this for days now as I eat my dinners solo at the table here at home.

I loved the shooting stars, and not just the meals, but the food stores.

You've got me hungry not only for food, but for being on the road again.

Cheers,

Peter

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ULIASSI

Banchina di Levante 6, Senigallia (AN), 071/65463

WEBSITE

Arriving at my hotel in Senigallia the day before, I happened to mention to the lady working the front desk that I was headed to Madonnina del Pescatore that afternoon, and was thinking of visiting Uliassi as well. She gave me the kind of look that one gives a lottery-winner -- a congratulations that almost borders on envy. "Mio dio," she replied, "fantastico." She went on to explain how respected these two chefs were, not only in the area, but all around the country. Unquestionably the two best restaurants in Le Marche, in her opinion. But which is better?, I asked. Her answer to this was simple and clear: "Those two restaurants are here," she said in Italian, reaching her hand as high as she could, "while everything else is here," dipping her hand down near her waist. "Un altro livello, quelli ristoranti. Non si puo sbagliare." Both restaurants are really on another level, she assured me. You can't go wrong with either.

Endorsements like this make it quite easy to decide among two great choices -- do them both, of course. So the day after lunch at Madonnina del Pescatore, I was ready to see what Chef Mauro Uliassi would have up his sleeve.

Little did I know what I was getting into. It is always a wonderful thing to experience a meal that dazzles. It is better yet to experience one that inspires. For me to better explain what I mean, let me jump right into it...

Even on that dreary, rainy day, this was a beautiful place to dine. I chose to sit outside on the white patio, where the only soundtrack was that of the ocean waves and the only traffic, that of the seagulls drifting across the sky. The restaurant is cozily tucked away in a less touristed section of beach along the blue-green Adriatic, whose delicious bounty would provide the majority of the meal that was to come.

While I sipped an aperitivo of particularly refreshing spumante, some food began to arrive. First, two long, crispy grissini (breadsticks), one flavored with parmigiano-reggiano and the other with onion. Then the Loaker di fegato grasso e pralina di nocciola came along. Have any idea what a Loacker wafer cookieis? I certainly didn't at the time, though apparently the treats are pretty popular in Italy. Presumably not like this, though. This was three thin wafers, holding together two layers of luxiously fatty foie gras and salty-sweet hazelnut praline. The exposed sides of the filling were dotted with coarse flakes of fleur de sel. I hope it goes without saying that this was incredibly tasty. I was already smiling, and I was just getting started. Chef Uliassi had come out of the blocks strong, and I didn't know it at the time, but he wasn't going to let up anytime soon.

Another dish arrived: Pasta soffiata, baccalà mantecato, salsa cruda di pendolini e basilico. Two "blown" pasta shells, first slow-cooked, then later flash-fried to achieve an airy but crisp consistency not unlike shrimp chips (do such comparisons make me a food nerd? :biggrin: ). One shell was filled with a refresing mixture of chopped fresh tomato, cucumber, basil and some spices that weren't afraid to stand up and be heard. Much like gazpacho, refreshing and pleasantly spicy all at once. The other shell was filled with creamy whipped baccalà, or salt cod, and two other types of creams, one of black olive, and the other a sweeter puree of roasted peppers and garlic, if I remember correctly (which I probably don't).

At this point, the menu finally arrived. I opened it quickly, and closed it just as fast. Menu sorpresa, the first page said in bold. Surprise menu. My mind was instantly made up. I put myself in Chef Uliassi's hands for the afternoon, and here's what he did...

Four types of bread came out, all hot, and served in a fishing net for a bread basket. One was black, made with squid ink and sprinkled with white slivers of almond. Another was a ciabatta roll; another, a sort of raisin bread; the last, whole wheat.

Next came the Tagliatelle di seppia e alghe marine. Thin strips of raw cuttlefish "noodles", sauced with its own ink and a type of sea weed, and sprinkled with coarse toasted breadcrumbs for textural contrast. A relatively simple combination, prepared with neither too many ingredients, nor too few. Every part of the dish, it seemed, had something important to say. This would become a trend the rest of the afternoon.

The Scampo zen soon followed. In the center was one gloriously fresh raw scampo (a type of larger shrimp) on a skewer, covered with sake foam. Raked around the plate were zen garden designs of dehydrated raspberry and green tea powders, and in the corners, a wonderfully refreshing dice of cucumber and pineapple with grated lime zest. I think I may have mentioned this before, but I love raw shrimp. Again, the flavor combination was just spot on; nothing on the plate was extraneous. What else can I say? No complaints whatsoever.

Next came the only dish I had specifically requested: Zuppa di topinambour e gelato di ricci di mare. Jerusalem artichoke soup with sea urchin gelato. But wait, there's more. Also piled off to the side was more raw shrimp. And sprinkled everywhere were the same coarse toasted bread crumbs I'd seen two courses ago. This dish had really caught my eye on the menu (I love, love, love uni), and it did not disappoint. The hot-cold, creamy-crunchy, creamy-salty contrast among everything made this a very enjoyable dish to eat, as no two bites would taste exactly the same. It was a dish that kept changing as you ate it, and was simply one cog in the wheel of a meal that was doing exactly the same thing.

Next up was Erbe Selvatiche, cristalli di sale nero e capesante. Forgive me, as I have a hard time explaining the sheer brilliance of this salad. Wild herbs. Fennel. Strawberries. Grapefruit. Green beans. Balsamic vinegar. Frozen rounds of cucumber. Frozen rounds of watermelon. Warm sauteed scallops. Black salt. It would seem that such a long list of ingredients could easily lead to dissonance. This combination though, was nothing short of symphonic. It danced across every tastebud on my tongue: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Again, the chef's command of contrast (of temperature, of flavor, of texture) within the dish was incredible. I really can't say enough good things about this dish, so I'm going to stop here, day-dream about it for a second, and move on.

Following that up was the Schiacciata di patate, cannocchie e tartufo nero. If there is a cooler looking crustacean than the mantis shrimp, I would love to see it. These bug-eyed creatures are not only nice to look at, but incredibly delicious. One of the tastier discoveries I made on the trip, I'd say. Lightly steamed, the shrimp was resting on a delicious pillowy mound of "crushed" potatoes and some kind of herb, and topped with a black truffle sauce. It might seem like the intensely earthy flavor of truffles would overshadow the delicate sweetness of the shrimp, but that did not happen here. It was perfectly balanced, leaving one to wonder whether the shrimp was nobly carrying the flavor of the truffles, or vice versa. Either way, a delicious combination.

The hits just kept coming, with the Canocchia in nitrocitronette con shot di umami . A warm lightly cooked mantis shrimp, resting on a large spoon along with fat globs of citronette (like a vinaigrette, but with citrus juice providing the acid) that had been dropped in liquid nitrogen. Hot and cold hit the tongue at once. The "umami shot" was actually spremitura di granchio, an intensely savory crab reduction that I could hardly believe had actually come from the sea. Again, the chef has played so many beautiful chords at once. The naturally sweet shrimp contrasting the almost meaty crab reduction. The warmth of the shrimp diametrically opposed to the cold blast of the citronette. What a fantastic dish.

Next on tap was a refreshing Tonno in caipirinha. Inspired by the national cocktail of Brazil, this dish took those flavors and paired them with impeccably fresh tuna that had come from the waters of the Adriatic Sea, whose waves crashed along the beach as I ate. The three small cubes of raw tuna were served along with a cold diced of what I assume was frozen lime and fresh lime. Yet it was not overly sour, so I wonder if there was not something else in the mix as well. Perhaps they'd been cooked in a simple syrup before freezing. Or perhaps the cachaça that was also present helped cut through it a bit. Whatever the case, it was just sweet-tart enough to be refreshing, while still allowing the tuna's fresh flavor to shine through.

Then meat made an appearance for the first time since the foie gras early on, with the Maialino Parisi, astice, e giardiniera di verdure. Insanely moist slow-cooked suckling pig (raised by Paolo Parisi, apparently) and lobster taken to exactly the right point of doneness to keep it moist, delicious, and not the slightest bit chewy or tough. These rested atop very lightly pickled vegetables: carrot, cauliflower, tiny red pearl onions, etc. Dotted around the plate was a vibrantly colored and pleasantly tart raspberry vinaigrette. And rounding out this dish, there was another reminder that sometimes rich and meaty flavors can come from the sea, too: three delicious grilled heads of mazzancolle, a type of prawn. The most tasty part of that creature. Also resting atop the lobster and pork was two strips of something I couldn't quite identify. The flavor first suggested pork skin, but it was soft. Then I thought maybe tripe of some kind, but it was smooth, and not the slightest bit tough. Whatever it was, it had a wonderfully rich fatty flavor without the greasy mouthfeel. Overall, this was a very delicious take on surf and turf. Well done.

Firmly planted in the sea again, there was the Albanella con molluschi e crostacei. The albanella was one of those glass jars with the air-tight lids that clamp down. Filled with scampi, mezzancolle, and vongole (clams), covered with a broth made from the same creatures and enriched with aromatic vegetables including wild fennel. This was cooked for half an hour, I believe he said, in a bain marie, or waterbath. They don't unlock the lid until the dish is placed before you, and I can remember that first aroma like it was yesterday. Glorious. Now take the flavor of the best shellfish soup/stew you've ever had and intensify it by a factor of about 5. That's how good this was. The pure essence of the ingredients, plain and simple.

Still not done, I now had Sogliola, cus cus, quinoa fritta e cocomero. Two stark white lightly cooked (steamed?) piece of sole fish, topped with fried quinoa, and resting on a bed of couscous with about the same size grain as the quinoa. (Does it make me strange that James Brown was shrieking "I got soul, and I'm super bad" in my head as I ate this?). Mixed through the couscous were delicious summery-sweet chunks of watermelon. This all rested in a shallow pool of tomato water, enriched with the perfect blend of mixed herbs that I couldn't quite identify (mint, maybe?). The textural contrast was phenomenal, and the flavor pairing deliciously refreshing. The kitchen really seemed to be firing on all cylinders today. I was in shock that I'd not had even a merely mediocre dish yet. I would be in even bigger shock once I was done, though, and at this point, there was still more to go.

Next came Strigoli al nero di seppia, parmigiano, calamaretti pennini e basilico. Thick black hand-rolled worms of pasta, served with tiny grilled calamari, several mussels (without their shells), a few pieces of fresh tomato, some basil, and scales of parmigiano-reggiano. Most times, having cheese with a seafood pasta dish is a no-no, but here, the richness of the squid ink and the smoky flavor of the grilled calamari supported the flavor of the cheese perfectly. I should note that even with this dish where the focus is clearly on the noodles first and foremost (they were toothsome and delicious), and the condiment second, the calamari were perfectly cooked. Not the slightest bit under- or over-done, as the texture was just right. Again, nothing bad to say about this dish.

Following that up was the Oca laccata e fegato grasso di anatra. Two pieces of perfectly crisp-skinned, pan-roasted goose "lacquered" with a frutti di bosco ("fruits of the forest", or summer berries) glaze that was perfectly sweet and tart without being too much of either. In between those was an unctuous piece of duck foie gras. Scattered on either side were some lightly stewed raspberries and blueberries that had made up the sauce for the goose. And at the ends of the plate were two square chunks of pineapple, dusted with tiny slivers of fresh mint. This was meant to be a palate cleanser, I was told, after the rich, meaty flavors of the goose and duck liver. Even with meat, it seems that Chef Uliassi can do no wrong. The stronger flavors of this dish were an indicator that I might finally be making my way toward the sweeter end of the meal after all.

Time to start winding down to the end of the meal now, they brought out the next dish: Zuppa di gorgonzola, sorbetto di sedano, e datteri. Chilled gorgonzola "soup" (the texture of partially melted gelato), a little mound of crunchy celery granita, and pieces of dried dates. Rather than rave about the incredible deliciousness of this dish, it is probably more telling to explain my reaction. A guy sitting with a large party probably 30 or 40 feet from me yelled across to me, saying "We could see you smiling all the way from over here! That must be great!". Oh, it was. It was. I couldn't help but to smile.

If the previous dish was to be called the "cheese course", I figured I was in for some dessert, and I was: Meringa di ananas, gelato di fragola, e mou al rum. Two long sticks of pineapple meringue, propped up against a quenelle of strawberry gelato that rested on cubes of fresh mango. Streaked across the plate underneath all that was a delicious white mousse, which tasted of coconut milk. Alongside that was also a thin line of dark caramel, presumably flavored with rum, though honestly I don't really remember. Just as they had all afternoon long, the flavors and textures of this dish married beautifully together. The refreshing tropical taste of this dessert was a great way to end things.

But of course, such tasting menu extravaganzas can never actually end with just dessert. Why, there was caffe and petit fours to be had. With my espresso, I enjoyed three small treats: Piccolo bombolone alla crema; Crema bruciata al caffe; and Biscotto al nero di seppia. A small donut filled with pastry cream; coffee-flavored crème brulee, and a crunchy little rock of a squid ink "cookie". All were quite tasty, but the latter was by far the most interesting. Only slightly sweetened, and somehow with the tongue-tingling consistency of pop rocks, it was a delicious small bite to officially end the meal.

Sorry to all the oenophiles out there, as I don't seem to have written down the wines I enjoyed that day, though I recall starting with some spumante and later having some verdicchio. But anyway, with that knock-out tasting menu, three glasses of wine, and coffee, the total came out to €140. Not cheap, of course, but more than worth every euro.

I'm not sure that even the short novel which I seem to have just drafted can really express how incredible this meal was. Unquestionably the best meal of the trip. And I'd be lying if I said it wasn't among the very best meals I've ever had anywhere (only Manresa in Los Gatos, CA has ever left me with that same feeling). As far as I am concerned, Mauro Uliassi is a genius. The man has a gift, there is no doubt about it. Each dish was a beautiful study in contrast and depth. The flavors, the textures, and the temperatures all showcased the work of a chef who clearly understands balance. I found the progression of the meal to be absolutely perfect. Each dish satisfied fully in the moment, yet left you giddy with anticipation for what was yet to come. After a tour of the kitchen, Chef Uliassi told me about how he looks at the meal as a journey of sorts. It would be boring, he thought, to have a meal that is too predictable, too "flat", as he called it. He prefers instead to keep one always on his or her toes, riding a delicious rollercoaster, unsure what is around the next turn or over the next hill. It often happens at even the best restaurants that exceptional dishes are often interspersed with mediocre or merely good ones. But every now and again, that spark stays lit the entire meal. This was one of those times for me. What can I say? I guess it was just my lucky day. I will undoubtedly be back at this restaurant sometime. And believe me....that sometime can't come soon enough.

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Great report, Aaron. You are painting a great picture for us! We start our journey this Saturday. I'm sure we'll be visiting quite a few places we learned about from your travels. How much longer will you be on the road?

Sadly, my Italy trip was over the 14th of August. I've just been really slow in getting the last few weeks of it posted! :cool: No rest for the weary, though, as last week I was on the road again, coming to my new home here in sunny California. Guess it's time I get to writing again.

Best wishes for a wonderful trip through Italy for you both. I look forward to hearing about your adventures!

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ULIASSI

Banchina di Levante 6, Senigallia (AN), 071/65463

WEBSITE

Chef Uliassi told me about how he looks at the meal as a journey of sorts.  It would be boring, he thought, to have a meal that is too predictable, too "flat", as he called it.  He prefers instead to keep one always on his or her toes, riding a delicious rollercoaster, unsure what is around the next turn or over the next hill.  It often happens at even the best restaurants that exceptional dishes are often interspersed with mediocre or merely good ones.  But every now and again, that spark stays lit the entire meal.  This was one of those times for me.  What can I say?  I guess it was just my lucky day.  I will undoubtedly be back at this restaurant sometime.  And believe me....that sometime can't come soon enough.

Mmmmm....that's the way to do it. A good meal as a journey, with every stop a site worth the visit. I say for a meal to really work, it should be a well-scripted event, from start to conclusion, and then you don't mind in the least having been on the ride.

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Venezia

I wasn't sure what to expect from Venice. Would it be an expensive tourist trap, the Disneyland of Italy, and a culinary wasteland? Or a captivating spectacle, with its countless canals, palaces, and piazzas providing the backdrop? I'd heard both arguments from people both before and during my vacation, so I figured it was time to see for myself.

I can sum up my thoughts on Venice in one sentence: It would probably be my first choice for where to live if I packed my bags and moved to Italy....back in the 1700s.

I feel like, especially at night, there is (or more accurately, would have been) a mysteriousness about the city that I find quite appealing. The dark, byzantine maze of canals and alleys. The meaningless street names. The fact that a printed map is all but useless. I could easily imagine cruising around the canals in a gondola, face concealed with some kind of extravagant Carnevale mask, sneaking around here and there.

Doing so in 2007, though, would require a different kind of navigation. Going anywhere in the city now is like walking a gauntlet. Dodge the gondola guys telling you hello in forty languages and promising a "special price for you". Quick, duck! You're robbing someone of a priceless photo op of the grand canal. Close your ears, honey, another couple is arguing about why they're not having fun in what is supposed to be the most romantic city in the world. You get the idea...

This is not to say it is a city without beauty. The Basilica di San Marco and its infinite piazza are breathtaking. The Rialto market, as I'll probably mention below, is a foodie's paradise. But overall, I thought overall the city lacked character. If you want to really feel Italy, in my opinion, this is not the place to do it. But before I let this rant get any more out of hand, let me talk about what this thread is here for, the food!

Dinner the first night was among the most traditional meals that I had in Venice, and also among the better ones. I chose Vini da Gigio, Cannaregio 3628/A, based mainly on its proximity to my hotel. It had been a long day of traveling, and a huge lunch at Uliassi, so I was not in search of fireworks. I started with sarde in saor, a very traditional Venetian dish that I would try several more times before I bid the city farewell. Sweet-and-sour marinated sardines with onions and pinenuts. While it was okay, I thought it was too sweet, and this would prove to be a common theme for me with this dish. Maybe I just don't get it. Next I had a plate of bigoli in salsa. Another Venetian specialty, with long noodles not unlike spaghetti, dressed with a simple anchovy and onion condimento. Tasty stuff. To drink, I had a quartino of a white wine called Custoza, and dessert was sgroppino, a Venetian specialty of prosecco, vodka, and lemon sorbet. Nice refreshing way to end the meal. Fairly reasonably priced meal, at €35.

Dinners on other nights proved to be a bit more pricey, much to my chagrin. Bancogiro (Osteria da Andrea), Campo San Giacometto, San Polo 122, was a prime example of this. Pointed out in my Fodor's guide as not only a moderately priced restaurant, but a "Fodor's Choice" as one of the best of its category in Italy. I started with lasagne di pesce, fish lasagna that no doubt included some baccala (salt cod), for which the Venetians seem to have quite a soft spot. This was not very good. The sauce tasted sort of like an unsalted gravy, bland and almost floury. Luckily, things turned around with the tartare di tonno con pomodorini e mozzarella di bufala. The tuna was impeccably fresh and cut up into coarse chunks that retained a lovely texture; the cherry tomatoes had a wonderful sweet-acidic burst of flavor; and the mozzarella was milky and delicious. Nice dish. Dessert, too, was quite enjoyable. Fichi con ricotta, miele, e pistacchio. Three fresh Black Mission figs, three quenelles of very good quality ricotta, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with chunks of toasted pistachio. Very simple, but very tasty. With the savory portion of the meal, I had a glass of Falaghina. My notes of my reaction to that wine simply say: "No." After dessert, I also had a glass of Verduzzo sweet wine from Friulli. Not really my cup of tea, either, but you don't know until you try it, of course. Dinner at this giudebook "bargain" spot set me back €50. I guess I'd better be more careful, eh?

The single best thing I had to eat in Venice came from Vecio Fritolin, Calle della Regina, Rialto 2262, at dinner another evening. Their menu proudly boasted that they make their own bread, pasta, and desserts in house, use only fresh, never frozen, fish, and don't use canned goods of any kind. Imagine that, a restaurant that actually makes the food they serve. Crazy. Anyhoo, the bread was pretty darn good, I must say. I started with a spritz, a popular drink in Venice, consisting of prosecco, Campari, and a bit of club soda. I started with a dish of tagliatelle al cacao con calamaretti e fiori di zucca. This, to me, is creativity just for the sake of creativity. My only question after eating this was...why? It was okay and all, but I didn't feel like the bittersweet pasta meshed exceptionally well with the calamaretti or the zucchini flowers. After my next dish, though, all was quickly forgotten. The frittura di pesce con zucchini e polenta was absolutely sublime. Fresh, flaky chunks of fish fillet (don't ask me what kind). Crispy head-on shrimp. Tiny squid so fresh that their ink burst forth when I bit into them. Tender zucchini slices. Wonderful grilled white polenta, as one sees so commonly in Venice. The fish fry from heaven, seriously. Dessert, unfortunately, was a ripoff. I saw tartufo di cioccolato on the menu and asked if it was the Venetian take on that dish that I'd read about in a few guidebooks. A block of gianduja, dropped in a sea of whipped cream in a cup. The waiter responded with a casual affirmative, and later delivered what was no more than a scoop of chocolate ice cream on a plate drizzled with Hershey's Syrup or something like it. For €8, I would have hoped for something more. Dinner here came to €50. Not cheap. But oh, man, the frittura di pesce...

One afternoon, I decided to check out La Zucca, Santa Croce 1762, a restaurant whose focus is much more herbivorous than my diet had been lately, so it sounded like a nice change of pace. It was. I started with verdure fresche, a fresh vegetable composed salad of cucumber, lettuce, tomato, cabbage, and red cabbage. This was not amazing, but if you've read any of this blog so far, you can understand how this must have hit the spot at the time. I'd not had a decent serving of vegetables in quite a while. My main course was a knockout. Flan di zucca con ricotta stagionata. This pumpkin-like squash flan was dense but very tender. The ricotta stagionata on top was like ricotta salata on crack. I loved the stuff. Also sprinkled with toasted pumpkin (or butternut squash, or whatever squash this might have been) seeds. Very good dish. The total here, I think, was around €17 or so. Nice lunch.

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No food-focused trip to Venice would be complete without sampling cichetti, the city's answer to Spanish tapas. These establishments are scattered all over the city. Some focus more on the food, while others focus on the wine, but most have a nice mix of both. Often seafood-based, these dishes can make a nice snack or even a light meal, all washed down with one of the region's many nice white wines. The first place I tried was literally across the street (well, alley) that my hotel was on. Trattoria Ai Promessi Sposi, Cannaregio 4367, had some old NYT articles posted in the window, and I noticed walking by each day that they seemed to be quite consistent in bringing out fresh dishes throughout the earlier part of the day, covering the entire length of the bar with a whole array of options. This may or may not be evident by the tales I've posted so far, but I am an incredibly indecisive dude. When I walked in here, how was I to choose? Luckily, I didn't have to. The gran cicchettata, priced at €13 (the individual items themselves were typically between €1 and €3), provided me with a nice selection of things to try. Mozzarella in carrozza con baccala (fried mozzarella sandwich stuffed with salt cod); capesante (scallops); zucchini; melanzana (eggplant); pollo (chicken wing); fritelle di patate (potato fritters); granchio (crab); melanzana con alici e pomodoro (eggplant with anchovy and tomato); sarde in saor (the same sardine/onion/pine nut dish I mentioned in the previous post); and calamari e polpetti (small squid). Like I said, quite a selection, and the quality, aside from the terribly overcooked scallop, was pretty good. My favorite was the mozzarella in carrozza. This tasty and cheap meal helped show me that maybe I could eat well for not so much money in Venice after all.

The same article posted in the window at that place mentioned Cantina Do Mori, San Polo 429, as one of the best, and most well-known places for cichetti, so one afternoon I made my way there. This place has been around a long, long time (1462), and you can immediately tell that when you walk in the door. This dark bar with its low, wooden-beamed ceiling immediately drags you out of this century and back to another time in the city’s history. I had a selection of seven different cichetti, many of which were quite disappointing. I would give you a dish-by-dish rundown of what I had, but all I remember for sure was some tasty baccala mantecato (whipped salt cod with milk) bruschetta, an incredibly dry tuna “meatball”, and overly chewy octopus. These seven dishes and a glass of the house Merlot brought the total to €11. But even for that little money, I’m not sure I’d eat here again. Pretty underwhelming experience.

One place mentioned in my guidebook, Enoteca al Volto, Calle Cavalli 4081, San Marco, offered both cichetti and a full regular menu. This place was tucked away on a quite little street (yep, they do exist) near the Rialto bridge, so I decided to give it a shot one night. Their stove had stopped working that afternoon, they said, and they were sorry, but they could only offer the room-temperature cichetti they had behind the counter. Fair enough, I thought, as the seafood selection looked pretty tasty. So for €15, I had their antipasto misto di mare, mixed seafood antipasto, and made a meal of it. I had quite a selection: sarde in saor; an outstanding baccala mantecato, the best of the trip; polpo e pepperoni (octopus with bell pepper); baccala in umido (stewed salt cod); seppia (cuttlefish cooked in its own ink); baccala con pomodoro e cipolla (salt cod cooked in a tomato/onion sauce); and capesante (buttery scallops). I left nothing but the bell pepper (how anyone enjoys raw bell pepper is beyond me) on the plate. The baccala mantecato, especially, really stole the show. Quite an affordable and enjoyable little dinner.

This last place is more an enoteca than anything else, but they bill themselves as a spot for cichetti as well, so I should probably mention it here. Enoteca Mascareta, Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa 5183, has quite an extensive list of wines, and they will serve you absolutely anything you’d like by the glass, which was a policy I appreciated. Their selection of regular antipasti, primi, and secondi were pretty overpriced, I thought, so I figured it best to stick with something simpler. Instead of the meat-and-cheese thing I’d done so many times on the trip already, I figured the piatto di pesce, platter of different seafood antipasti, would be a nice change of pace. There were all kinds of things on this plate, most of which were pretty bad: (over-)smoked swordfish carpaccio; (over-)smoked bluefin tuna carpaccio; over salted smoked salmon; fresh anchovies; marinated anchovies; dry baccala mantecato; sweet baby shrimp; sarde in saor (too sweet); fillet of way-overcooked cod; red pepper stuffed with tuna; and octopus salad with tomatoes and olives (the best thing on the plate). As I’m sure my glowing descriptions have already told you, I wasn’t too thrilled with the food. To drink, I had a glass of Tocai Friuliano and a glass of Incrocio Manzoni, neither of which stood a chance in standing up to all the smoke and the salt. At €26 for dinner and wine, it wasn’t terribly steep, but I’m not sure I’d ever come back here to do anything but drink.

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So by this point in the trip, I was pretty much past the whole gelato-a-day thing, but that doesn't mean I didn't slip in a few sweets here and there in Venice. My search for a good gelato place first bought me to La Boutique del Gelato, Castello 5727, which seemed to be mentioned in several guidebooks and had a line out the door every time I passed. My cone of stracciatella (chocolate chip) and panna cotta was quite tasty, but I wouldn't say that either flavor-wise or texture-wise I'd place it among the best I'd had in Italy up to that point. I'd definitely return if in the area, though. The Gambero Rosso Gelaterie d'Italia book had been pretty consistently reliable so far on the trip, so I stopped into a place I saw in there as well. Gelateria Alaska di Pistacchi Carlo, Santa Croce 1159, had some funky flavors, of which I tried two: rucola-arancia (argula-orange) and uva-fragola (grape-strawberry). The texture of both, but especially the first one, was pretty crappy, I must say. Somebody please buy the man a stronger blender is he wants to used leafy plants again in his gelato. The other flavor was actually pretty good, but it was chunky and icy. Not a place I'd go back to probably, at least not for anything but traditional flavors.

As usual, I stopped at few bakeries as well. From Pasticceria Ballaria, Salizada San Giovanni Grisostomo, I had some extremely tasty torrone morbido alla cassata siciliana, soft nougat with fat chunks of candied fruit and nuts. Very good. From Pasticceria Pitteri Giovanni, Cannaregio 3843, I had pan dei vini al pistacchio, a dense pistachio cake with raisins and topped with almonds. Not particularly special. From Majer, Calle Larga Fondamentale del Megio, I had pane veneziano al pistacchio, much like the treat from the previous place, but this time more of a fat, crumbly cookie texture than a cake. This was pretty tasty, though it called out for a glass of milk in a major way. Another afternoon, I also stopped at Gobbetti, Dorsoduro 3108/B, where I had some spicy and tasty cioccolato al peperoncino.

Lastly, this is not exactly a stop for sweets, but there's no place else to put it: The tourist sucker that I am, I went to the famous Harry's Bar, San Marco 1323, for a (€15!) bellini, a drink made with prosecco and white peach puree. I glanced at the menu as I sat with my drink, too. Ha! The prices in there are so high it's comical. The drink was okay (why they serve it in that kind of glass, though, is beyond me), but I got out of there as soon as I could.

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To wrap up my thoughts on Venice, I should add a little bit about the Rialto Market. What a place. With just a week left in my trip at that point, I suppose it provided a nice bookend to my experience with outdoor markets in Italy. My favorites of the trip remained the two in Palermo, but the Rialto was definitely a close second. And the seafood selection, in particular, is absolutely mind-blowing. Really second-to-none. It was a veritable encyclopedia of different fish, mollusks, and crustaceans, many of which I'd never even seen before. Oh, to have a kitchen in order to be able to cook in Venice, what a treat that would be. Next time.

But how could I walk around a fish market like this and not get something? Seeing countless varieties, I figured I would seek out the most pristine shirmp I could find, and eat some raw. At this point in the trip, my stomach had undoubtedly endured enough abuse that I was certain a little raw seafood wasn't going to kill me, especially considering how fresh much of the stuff looked. So I walked around, stopping at every single stall, and finally I found them. Gamberi rossi, glossy little red shrimp from the Mediterranean. I bought a pugno (handful), and was on my way. From a fruit vendor, I bought a single lemon. From my hotel, I borrowed some very coarse sea salt. And that, my friends, was lunch. Raw shirmp sprinkled with crunchy salt and topped off with a small squeeze of fresh lemon juice. So good.

The fruit and vegetable (but not so much the meat) selection at the market was also very nice. Every morning in Venice, I started my day with whatever varieties of fresh figs they happened to be selling, often three or four different kinds. I also bought some beautiful fresh red currants, which is not something you often find in the US. And, the same day as the raw shrimp, actually, I had some wonderfully tasty salame di cavallo (horse) from the lone butcher shop at the market. Good stuff.

Overall, quite a nice outdoor market. Ideally, the next time I'm back here will be in the spring. I am a sucker for Maryland soft-shell crabs here in the US, which means I undoubtedly need to try Venice's moeche (soft-shell lagoon crabs) next time...

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After Venice, I had less than a week left in bella Italia, but there was still an important stop to make before I headed west toward Milan. This stop was in a small town on the outskirts of Padova...

Le Calandre

Via Liguria 1, Sarmeola di Rubano (PD), 049/630303

website

Arguably the most well-known restaurant in Italy among food-lovers worldwide. I had heard so much and read so much that I, in turn, expected so much from this meal. How could I not? Massimiliano Alajmo had earned two Michelin stars at the tender age of 22 back in 1996. The youngest chef ever to do so. Not one to be complacent, I suppose, he one-upped himself in 2002, earning three Michelin stars, the highest honor that organization can bestow on a restaurant. Again, at just 28, the youngest chef ever to attain that distinction. Now fast forward to 2007. What would the chef bring forth on my first visit to his restaurant? This was all I cared about, of course. For me, at the end of the day, all the ratings, rankings, and reviews in the world are secondary to what's on my plate. So without further ado, let me jump right into it...

Hello. My name is tupac17616 and I have a problem. When presented with several different menu options, like an uncontrollable reflex, I inevitably opt for the longest, most involved (and therefore often the most expensive) of the bunch. It was no surprise, then, that I chose the In.gredienti degustation menu for my lunch that day. With more courses (and more appealing courses, for that matter) than the Grandi classici (Grand classics) delle Calandre or Adesso (Now) menus, it was an easy decision. Priced at €200 before wine had even been discussed, the price of admission here is clearly no joke. They whisked my menu away, only to be quickly replaced by a copy I could take home. I liked that, as I undoubtedly would have asked for it later. I'm sure they get that all the time, hence the take-home copy. Prety soon, we were off...

While I sipped some prosecco (not to worry, oenophiles, I'll mention all the wine specifics later), pretty soon some nibbles arrived. Crema di melanzana croccante and rollatino di pesce. The former was very tasty, a little fritter with a totally liquid eggplant center. (My mind happily drifted to a meal I had at Manresa in Los Gatos, CA in August of 2006, with a sweet-corn version of the same thing). I didn't understand the waiter as he mentioned what type of fish was in the middle of the little roll-up, but the outside was fresh anchovy. This was also a tasty little bite, but the liquid eggplant fritter was the star of the plate.

At this point, there is but one other diner in the restaurant besides myself, and she is on the complete opposite end of the room. Without any noise or commotion, and of course without flash, I proceeded to take a picture of the dish. Seconds later, one of the waiters came over to the table to say that Chef Alajmo asks that people not photograph his food. I know full well this is a crock of you-know-what. A guy in Venice I'd met three days prior had shown me the pictures still stored on his digital camera, and of course I'd seen tons of pictures published elsewhere online prior to the trip. Something about this really rubbed me the wrong way, for some reason. I'm paying dearly for this food, and as far as I'm concerned, if I'm not bothering anyone else, how I choose to remember the meal is up to me. But enough venting. I'll move on now.

Another amuse-bouche arrived. Don't quote me on this, as I again had trouble understanding the description, but here's what I tasted: A slightly toasted cube of bread, parsley foam, watermelon, and almond-anchovy gelato. What's up with that combination?, you may ask. You tell me, as I certainly didn't get it. The textures of bread and watermelon don't exactly play nice together if you ask me, and while I enjoyed the salty-sweet, warm-cold contrast of the dish, I thought the flavors in the dish just didn't sing. Strange beginning to the meal.

Many differnt kinds of housemade breads, breadsticks and crackers arrived, stacked like a sculpture on the plate. Frankly, they were all pretty bad. Certainly not what I would expect from a restaurant of this caliber. I left most of it untouched.

The first official course then arrived. Al Aimo: pomodoro, olio, ricotta, fave, pane, fagiolini, basilico, peperoncino (dedicato ad Aimo Moroni). A tribute to one of Milan's most respected chefs, Aimo Moroni, this dish was one based about 99.9% on the quality of the ingredients and nothing else. The tomatoes were sweet and delcious. The ricotta, fresh and milky. The fava beans (pureed) and green beans (in small chunks) were vibrantly colored and flavorful. The olive oil was Sicilian, and quite good. The "bread" in this case was actually pane carasau, a thin crisp flatbread from Sardinia. Just enough peperoncino added to wake up the taste buds with a spicy top note. Very enjoyable dish overall.

Next came Millefoglie di mare: sandwich croccante di pane con baccalà mantecato, insalata d'alghe e maionese di gamberi e scampi. A towering dish of phyllo dough layered with some different things: whipped salt cod; seaweed salad; a "mayonnaise" made with pureed shrimp and scampi (I'll let the wise fortadei translate that for us); and Italian caviar. The quality of the caviar wasn't particularly good; it acted only as a means to re-salt the dish, and unfortunately nothing more. The baccala and the seafood were both tasty, but the phyllo dough may as well not have been there at all, so overwhelmed by too much filling as it was. There was not enough textural contrast in the dish, and the monotonous creamy-salty taste just got boring by the end.

Things took a better turn with the next course, Capelli d'angelo con crudo di triglie, oratine, alici, seppie e crostacei. Lightly chilled angel hair pasta, served with pieces of various raw fish: red mullet, sea bream, anchovy, shrimp and lobster. This was all sauced lightly with crema d'aragosta, a lobster reduction enriched with cream. It would seem that the sauce might cover up some of the delicacy of the fish, but that wasn't the case at all. It complimented everything well. Very refreshing and tasty dish. The fish and crustaceans were all impeccably fresh. Maybe the best course of the meal.

Next up was Carne cruda sulla corteccia...versione estiva. Four small mounds of raw beef served on this ridiculous-looking wooden half-log ("corteccia"=bark). I can appreciate a playful presentation when I see one, but I found this one to be pretty stupid, frankly. Anyhoo, each mound of meat (the shoulder meat from mature Piemontese Fasson cattle, not veal as I had assumed) was sauced with a different fruit flavoring. Fruit?!, you may ask. Yes, I wondered why, too. Believe me. All of them were way too sweet. The first, mango; then passion fruit; apricot; and raspberry. If you took away the cloyingly sweet accompaniments, the meat was fine. But I, too, know how to chop meat. I don't really want or need to pay $300 for someone else to do it for me. I found all of the fruit accompaniments to be unnecessary and useless. But just in case there weren't enough sweetness on the plate already, there was a piece of watermelon meant to cleanse the palate. Of course. I can see how, after all that sweetness, one might need something sweet to, uh, get rid of the sweet taste. Oh wait.

The fruit unfortunately continued. Next came a dish of Risotto con le conchiglie, rosmarino e frutto della passione. Risotto with "shells" (shellfish), including mussels, clams, and I can't quite remember what else. Why is it that I can't remember anything else? Well, the seafood was futile against the fruity, herbal onslaught form the passion fruit and rosemary. I must have missed some sort of memo, because I just had no idea where the chef was trying to go with this dish. I began to think about dessert, not because I necessarily wanted it yet, but because I felt like I'd already been eating it with the last two courses!

Next up: Fegato grasso d'oca caramellata, salsa di albicocche e curry, polvere di grano tostato e menta. Okay, now he's just messing with me. Seriously. Where's the hidden camera? Seared goose foie gras with a sweet apricot/curry sauce, a pile of toasted wheat powder, a tiny chiffonade of fresh meat, and paper-thin pane carasau on top of it all, for a little more textural contrast. The foie gras was cooked well. I will give him that much. The top had a nice sear, giving way to creamy deliciousness underneath. The accompaniments for the goose liver, though, didn't really do much for me. The foie-gras-and-fruit combination is certainly not a new one, but I thought this course, just like the previous two, veered too much in the sweet direction. I found myself pushing the sauce and accompaniments to the side and just eating the foie gras by itself. Shame.

Following the foie gras was the Filetto impanato ma non cucinato: carpaccio spesso, rotolato nel pane su salsa speziata d'ouvo e succo di rape rosse. Breaded, but not cooked, beef filet. In this case, a very thin, carpaccio-style slice, rolled in coarse toasted bread crumbs similar to panko. This rested on a spiced sauce enriched with egg yolk, and beetjuice. Surprise, surprise. This course was sweet, too. But at least this time it was more under control, as the beet's sweetness, especially, has a bit more earthiness to it, and the egg yolk present in the other sauce helped make that more rich and savory as well. I liked the textural contrast of the tender raw meat and the coarse breadcrumbs. This was a dish I quite enjoyed.

The last meat course came with the Piccione di Sante arrostito con il suo pate di fegatini, indivia alla amarene e gorgonzola. I like how the Italians just call a spade a spade. None of the usual "squab" nonsense when referring to pigeons we happen to be eating instead of feeding breadcrumbs in the park. This pigeon was stuffed with a pate made from its liver, and then roasted. Accompanying the bird was endive with slightly sour cherries and slightly strong gorgonzola. This was a pretty nice dish, with strong flavors abound. I found myself eating the bird and the endive separately, but in this case, at least each was quite tasty on its own. And with that, it looked like it was time to move toward the sweeter end of the meal.

But not before a little bit of cheese. The carrello dei formaggi, or cheese cart, had not yet made its appearance at my table, so I was excited for it. After a great explanation of what they had to offer, most of which was new to me, I enjoyed a selection of seven different cheeses. Excuse any mistakes I'll inevitably make in recalling the names correctly, but my notes say: plin alla canella (cinnamon); tuma d'la paja (soft, creamy, matured under straw, Piemontese); fiorile (rolled in flowers, flavored with garlic); affinato alla grappa di mele (flavored with apple grappa); golden gel (cow's milk, flavored with the skins and seeds of wine grapes, spicy/sweet/bitter all at once); gran sardo (sharp, sheep's milk cheese from Sardinia); blu delle cozie (sheep's milk blue, from the Alps of Piemonte). These were served with a few accompaniments: a spicy onion mostarda, a sweeter prune & sumac jam, and honey. This was a nice selection overall, and I'm always happy to try cheeses that are new to me. My favorites that afternoon were the plin alla canella, golden gel, and gran sardo (the only one among the bunch that I'd had before).

Dessert time. Or more specifically, pre-dessert. Sorbetto di sedano verde. Celery sorbet. By itself, no other flavors present. I understand this is supposed to cleanse the palate, but come on now. Chef Alajmo can do better than that. Really. The serving was enough for a few bites, but one was plenty.

Moving on to the actual dessert, "Costrizioni" al cioccolato - gioccolato 2007. Chocolate "Constraints" -- chocolate "game" 2007. Essentially, this "game" was to explore how our consumption of chocolate changes from childhood through adulthood through our elderly years. Cool idea. Ridiculous presentation. Wheeled out on a big wooden toy car, stacked high with a child's building blocks. One of the components of the dish was even presented in a baby bottle, so that one must suck out the contents. Fine dining at its best, this dish. I assume that Chef Alajmo is trying to assert that there are too many contraints that we place on what can be done with chocolate, as some of these combinations were a bit strange. There was a lot going on in this dish, so I'll divide my description into two parts. Let's start with the things that tasted good: liquid-chocolate filled bonbon topped with gold leaf; nutella and cream wafer sandwich; chocolate with liquid mint filling; beet gelee and white chocolate cream; baby bottle filled with warm cinnamon-flavored chocolate; bittersweet chocolate "cigar"; cherry granita with just a bit of chocolate mixed in here and there. And then there were the things that were, well, pretty bad: tepid coffee served in a shot glass atop a hazelnut-chocolate cream; an airy chocolate and saffron meringue; lettuce leaf with white chocolate, salt, and pepper; curried chocolate mousse. Aside from the baby bottle and the cigar, god only knows which of these dishes are for the young or the old typically. There's no telling. At least 7 of 11 components were good, though. Success rate could be worse, I suppose.

Winding down now, it was time for caffe and piccola pasticceria, the petit fours of the meal. With my espresso, there were several small treats brought out. Coconut-and-mint liquid-filled chocolate; liquid-mint-filled chocolate cup; a few pieces of 70% cacao bittersweet chocolates; and "sweet" grissini (only in quotes as I couldn't nail down the flavor. It was chocolate and somethng else that was a bit strange.) These were pretty good, but by this point, my only thought was "Enough with the chocolate already". But that, my friends, was that.

I should comment a bit on the wine. It is no exaggeration to say that the recommended selection for this meal was the most enjoyable progression of wines I'd had on the trip. I chose to do it by the glass to avoid selling the clothes off my back to pay for the pairing. But even for a novice like me, I found the wine list and service both to be fantastic. For those who are curious, I had the following wines:

Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta Saten 2002 (Lombardia) €12

Franciacorta Brut Cabochon Rosé 2001, Monte Rossa (Lombardia) €18

Capitel Croce 1999, Anselmi (Veneto) €8

Pathos 2004, Santa Barbara (Le Marche) €12

Moscato Fior d'Arancio Passito 2003, La Montecchia (Veneto) €9

I realized later that I was charged for a glass of Recioto Moron 2004 (€11), a red dessert wine, as well, even though by the time they'd finally offered it, I wasn't in the mood for anything else sweet so I politely declined. But they said they will gladly fix that minor flub after coming back from their August vacation. Anyway, I really, really enjoyed the wine selection here. As I said before, the best I had on the trip.

So what about some overall thoughts on the meal? As I'm sure this long-winded review probably hints at throughout, I can sum up my take on the meal pretty easily: A few high points, interspersed with far too many low ones. Overall, very underwhelming. Does price factor into that? Of course. When I pay €268 for a meal, I'd like it to be exceptional. This one just wasn't. The savory courses tended to be too sweet. The sweet ones, perhaps too savory. The ingredients, as evidenced in the delicious Al Aimo and Capelli d'angelo con crudo di mare dishes, were well-sourced and top-notch. Clearly, the chef is a skilled shopper. And no doubt, a skilled cook, too. I don't think it was the execution I found issues with, but rather the combinations of ingredients. Many times, I felt he was just trying too hard to be different, to be new, to be exciting. Forgetting what should be the main point...to make it delicious.

Will I be back? Maybe someday, but I'm certainly not in the slightest hurry. Chef Alajmo has earned so much praise for his work already and I have no doubts he will continue to earn more as the years pass. But my meal that afternoon was an indication that this restaurant, perhaps, is just not my coppetta di tè.

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Verona

Believe it or not, I actually visited certain places in Italy for things other than the food. I know this comes as a shock to some, but it is true. Case in point: Verona. The draw to this city was not Shakespeare's star-crossed love tale; nor was it the horsemeat I'd read about as being a traditional part of the cuisine. It was instead for the opera. The outdoor opera in Verona's 2,000-year-old Roman arena, that is. While in Venice, I'd purchased a ticket to see La Traviata. An overcast, cloudy and somewhat rainy forecast had me hoping for the best. Luckily, it cleared up that evening, just in time for the nighttime spectacle. It was certainly not your average traditional presentation of the opera, but the musicians and the singers were all very good. I quite enjoyed the performance, and thought the arena provided a lovely venue for it. I also found some time to walk around the city, taking in its beautiful piazzas from which beautiful classical music played by street performers seems to naturally emanate. Also checked out all the would-be Juliets, looking down from the her house's balcony to see not Romeo, but hoards of tourists with cameras. How romantic. Overall, I found it to be a quiet town, but a nice one. Not much to do, perhaps, but in Italy one mustn't forget about il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.

I arrived too late for a restaurant lunch the first afternoon, so opted instead for a panino from Salumeria G. Albertini, Corso S. Anastasia 41. Nothing but a very fresh roll of bread, some pecorino cheese from Tuscany (sorry, don't remember which type), and spicy Calabrese salame laced with peperoncino. Very tasty.

Dinner, then, would be at a sit-down place, I decided. Even if that meant an earlier dinner time in order to make it to the opera okay. My guidebook, and my cheapness (I mean, uh, frugality) brought me to Osteria Dal Duca, Via Arche Scaligere 2, which offered the Mena della Tradizione Veronese, including a primo and a secondo for €14. I was delighted to see both donkey and horse on the menu (who wouldn't be?), so it was a pretty easy choice for me. I started with Bigoli al torchio con ragu d'asino. A thicker, almost spaghetti-like pasta that is extruded rather than rolled, sauced with a donkey ragu. Simple, and tasty. My secondo was Pastisada de caval con polenta (spezzatino di cavallo). A horsemeat stew served atop delicious yellow polenta. Quite tasty. This meal, in proper Italian fashion, was enjoyed with a glass of Amarone, arguably the region's most famous wine. Dessert would be some beautiful fresh figs I'd bought at the fruit vendor down the street, so with my dinner and wine, 'twas a measly €20 for a nice meal.

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tupac17616,

I'm headed for Bergamo-Venice-Milan in the next couple weeks, and have my reservations at Le Calandre (and dal Pescatore) but was wondering if I'm still wise to select the Adesso menu, especiallly given your experience with the more extensive In.gredienti. Not sure if you were able to see the menu offered for the former and could shed some light there or if you just went straight into the larger one without a second thought (something I would normally do).

Thanks! It's been great to hear about your trip and be able to take notes before mine. :smile:

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tupac17616,

I'm headed for Bergamo-Venice-Milan in the next couple weeks, and have my reservations at Le Calandre (and dal Pescatore) but was wondering if I'm still wise to select the Adesso menu, especiallly given your experience with the more extensive In.gredienti. Not sure if you were able to see the menu offered for the former and could shed some light there or if you just went straight into the larger one without a second thought (something I would normally do).

Thanks!  It's been great to hear about your trip and be able to take notes before mine.  :smile:

I've checked out the thread you started about your upcoming trip, and it sounds like you've got some great eating ahead of you. I almost made the trip to Dal Pescatore, but it ended up being a bit off the path I'd carved for myself, so it will be saved for a future visit.

To answer you question, I did check out all of the menus before choosing In.gredienti. This is all a matter of personal preference, of course, but much of the items included in I Grandi Classici delle Calandre did not appeal to me. Certain combinations (saffron risotto with licorice, and suckling pig with mustard and coffee come to mind) just didn't sound good on paper. The Adesso menu looked very nice as well, and I almost went for that, but too many things on the In.gredienti menu were calling out to me. In the end, that made it an easy choice.

Certainly you will be more than sated by meal's end with either option. I would just make a meal-time decision, base it on what sounds good to you on that particular day. Your stomach will be all the guide you need at that point.

Looking forward to hearing about your trip. I hope you have a great one!

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Milano / Bellagio

To anyone still reading this trip report, first I should first commend you on your perseverance. Second of all, though, I've got a very important bit of Italian travel advice to share: Do not, I repeat, do not visit Milan during the month of August if you want to eat well. I know what you're thinking...."But wait, aren't August closures a problem all over Italy?" It is, of course, the traditional period of ferie, or vacation for restaurant owners, shop owners, you name it. But nowhere did I feel the effects of that more strongly than in Milan. The city was an absolute ghost town. Depressing, even, unless one finds consolation in shopping, of which the city certainly has no shortage even in August.

Even without taking into account all the closures, my first impressions of this city were not the best. Walking around the city, it feels industrial, commercial, and impersonal. The exact antithesis of all I had come to find beautiful about Italy. This is not to say the city doesn't have its merits. It's duomo, for example, is certainly among the finest gothic structures in the world. And I'm sure La Scala puts on a stunning rendition of your favorite opera. Maybe my timing was just off. Or maybe it is one city in Italy that just isn't for me (joining Pisa with that distinction, perhaps). Whatever the case may be, it's not a a city I will be rushing back to anytime soon.

The city was chock full of the signs I came to fear like the plague: ferie, ferie, ferie. Phone calls to pretty much everyplace in my guidebook were answered by none other than the automated voicemail guy: "Gentili clienti...." I soon wondered if I would ever be able to find someplace without the dreaded menu turistico.

But I suppose when there's a will (to eat well), there's a way (to eat well). Just a few minutes' walk from my hotel was my Peck, Via Spadari 9, arguably the most famous gourmet food market in the country. With nothing else decent open as far as I could tell, I decided to make this dinner the first night. I was not, for once, very hungry, so I had more of a snack than a proper meal. I had a piece of foccacia al rosmarino and some salame di Peck. The rosemary foccacia was nice and flavorful, maybe a tad dry, but that was to be expected, given that it was 7pm or so at this point. The pork salame was wonderful, if a bit pricey at €33/kg. Just the right amount ratio of meat and fat, and nice coarse black peppercorns here and there. From the fruit department, I bought a single fico d'india, as I'd never had it fresh before, only candied. This Indian fig, also known as prickly pear, was pretty terrible, I must say. Probably not something I'll be having again anytime soon, if I have anything to do with it. After this random snacking, it was gelato time. They were showcasing (by way of a different sign, at least) the fig gelato that day, so I went for a cup of two flavors: fichi and pistacchio. Both were outstanding, tbe best I'd had in quite a while, in fact. Nice creamy texture, served neither too warm nor too cold, and wonderful clarity of flavor. Closing my eyes, I was biting into a fig just plucked from the tree one minute, and tasting the pure essence of roasted pistachio the next. Very good. I browsed around the store a bit more. Their wine cellar is fantastic! Magnums of Chateau d'Yquem, example. Great selection of Italian and French wines, in particular, but stuff from all over. I decided I'd have to come back to this store. So I did. The very day I was to leave bella Italia. And it provided most of what was probably the best meal I've ever had on an airplane. But I will get to that later.

In the mean time, there was more eating to do. You know the saying: when life closes every friggin' restaurant you can think of, sometimes it opens a supermarket. Something like that. Anyhoo, on Sunday August 12, undoubtedly the most boring day of the trip (This was Milan in August AND on Sunday), dinner came from an unexpected source, the Standa supermarket on Via Palla 2/A. I walked in, studied their selection for a bit, and decided on the feast I'd lay out for myself back at the hotel. Three kinds of salumi: Prosciutto Toscano Colle Senesi (prosciutto from the hills around Siena, Tuscany), Filetto Stagionato (lomo di suino, cured pork loin), and Spianata Piccante (spicy pork salame from Calabria). Three kinds of cheese: Val Lesina, Fiordimonte, and Pecorino Pastore Sardo. Three types of marinated vegetables: melanzane grigliate (grilled eggplant), carciofi (artichokes), and peperoni (red and yellow roasted peppers). The icing on the cake was a baguette fresh from the oven, literally so hot I could barely hold onto it. When like hands you warm bread, plans change. You stop what you're doing, and eat it. I walked quickly back to the hotel. Hell, let's be honest. I practically ran. I laid out the feast and devoured nearly every bit. So delicious. The warm baguette, of course, was what clinched it. Instantly melting the fat in the salumi, accentuating both the aroma and the taste. The perfect companion, too, for the cheeses and the marinated vegetables. I'd made a delicious meal of things bought at the supermarket. Go figure. Ah, dessert was from there, too. Huge globe grapes and one perfectly ripe peach. Not bad, not bad.

After enduring a dead Saturday evening and even more dead Sunday in Milan, I decided to head for the sunny shores of Lake Como. I decided on the town of Bellagio, conveniently located where the three fingers of the lake meet. I started with leisurely lunch on the outdoor terrace of Ristorante Silvio, Via Carcano 12, Bellagio. A small bottle of prosecco to wake the taste buds. My antipasto was a selection of two types of fish pate, one lighter in flavor but more coarse in texture, and the other richer in flavor (made with fish liver, I was told) but smoother in texture. Also some small white fish roe (receipt says rottami (scraps), but maybe that refers to one of the pates?). And one missultino, an ancient preparation for the lake sardines called agoni. It involves salting, sun-drying, and then pressing the sardines. All were pretty tasty, with the tiny fish roe and the missultino being my favorites. My primo was ravioli di pesce. Overly thick, chewy pasta filled with a tasteless fish puree. This was pretty terrible. I could make better homemade pasta than this, and I'm horrible at it! My secondo was battuta di pesce, which I expected to be chunky (raw) fish tartare but turned out to be cooked fish that had been so finely chopped as to lose any sense of its texture. Three mounds of this mushy concoction was served, with pickled vegetables (onions, peppers, cucumber) alongside. I was not such a fan. Dessert, at least, was quite good. Semifreddo di grappa con uvette, grappa semifreddo served with tiny raisins and sauced with a grappa-enriched caramel. Very tasty finish. With the prosecco, and four courses of food, the total came to €38, which would have been quite reasonable, had the food not been so disappointing. The afternoon stroll through the beautiful gardens of the nearby Villa Melzi, with its breathtaking views of Lake Como, though, weren't a bad form of consolation, I'd say. Lake Como is certainly an area I could see myself visiting again sometime. Really beautiful.

By the time I'd made it back to Milan, it was time for a late dinner. I dreaded the thought of trying to find a place. But then I saw a certain name in my guidebook and realized it was among those I'd actually not yet called, so I gave it a shot. Lo and behold, someone answered! So soon I arrived at La Librera, Via Palermo 21. Was it a coincidence that my last dinner in Italy would be on a street named for the city that had been my first stop? :unsure: Who knows. But I do know I was relieved to find a place open, and the menu looked promising. I started with fiori di zucca gratinati, zucchini flowers stuffed with sauteed dices of zucchini, topped with a creamy cheese mixture, and baked until bubbly and brown. This was served with a thin, crisp, salty (in a good way) flatbread sprinkled with vibrant green-and-yellow minced zucchini flowers. This was a nice flavor and texture contrast to the baked zucchini flowers. Simple dish, but good. Next I had risotto al salto. This was a Milanese specialty I'd not seen before the trip. Basically the typical risotto milanese, enriched with chicken stock and saffron. The difference is that with this dish, a portion of risotto is transferred to a large warm skillet where it is cooked until it loses its moisture and gets that delicious crusty bottom that paella fans around the world so adore. I quite enjoyed this, and will certainly be replicating it in my kitchen at home. Dessert, too, was very good. Fichi gratinati con zabaione e cioccolato. Baked figs drowning in rich, eggy zabaglione and drizzled with a warm bittersweet chocolate sauce. I'm pretty sure that speaks for itself. It was delicious. The bill for the meal (I drank only water, as their wine didn't interest me, though they did have a large selection for the beer-drinkers out there, of which I'm not one) was a reasonable €28. I don't usually mention much about this, but I should add that the service here sucked. Ready to order? Need another beverage? Want to know where the bathroom is? God forbid you should ask the waiter, the busboy, or the owner making his rounds at many of the tables. They will give you a look of death for daring to go in their restaurant expecting service? Who do you think you are, anyway...a paying customer? Basically, what I'm trying to say is that while the food here was solid, the general attitude of the staff is best expressed as a question: Chi se ne frega?.

Now back to that airplane meal I mentioned earlier. The feast for the voyage home, courtesy of Peck. I started with a sformato di parmigiano. A parmigiano-reggiano custard, or flan, with absolutely the perfect texture. Not the slightest bit grainy, nor too congealed and rubbery, as these sometimes are. The flavor was pure unadulterated parmigiano, and each bite literally melted away on the tongue. The roasted mushroom and thyme atop the sformato provided the crowning touch. At this point, the bread service began. And by that, I mean I opened up the bag of three different kinds of small rolls I'd bought: integrale (whole wheat), pane al latte (milk bread), and a small foccacia with olive oil and sea salt. All very tasty. For my primo, I had crespelle con robiola all'erbette. Delicate crepes filled with ultra-creamy robiola cheese and minced herbs. The thyme, especially, did nothing but heighten the flavor of the already delicious cheese. Very good. My secondo was a nice hunk of entrecote di manzo, a premium cut ribeye steak. This was cooked to a nice medium rare, and was incredibly tender, even at room temperature as I was eating it. My contorno, or side dish, with the steak was finocchio e aglio arrostito, braised fennel with topped with a puree of roasted garlic. Some things simply taste better in Italy. Fennel is one of those things. This was delicious. No meal would be complete without dessert, of course, and this was actually provided by Garbagnati, Via Victor Hugo 3, just up the block from Peck. Their torta di ricotta (ricotta cheese cake) was nothing short of fantastic. And that, as they say, was that.

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