We recently returned from Italy; you can read my travelogue over here.
But, let’s get to the food. I was initially going to run through all of the meals, but I think I will just hit the highlights.
First, the coffee, of course. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many single espressos in so short a time. It was all so civilized and ritualistic. And also so yummy that Rick may have come over to the dark side. One of the best cups we had was at the legendary Tasso d’Oro in Rome:
It was crazy crowded, and so slightly annoying, but also exciting and interesting. And a damn fine cup of coffee.
The first night was definitely a highlight at Da Bucatino near our hotel in Testaccio. In addition to the pleasing decor and atmosphere, the food was great: an outstanding amatriciana and a sick roast pork with potatoes. Erin and Rick also polished off many a grappa.
Up to Tuscany then. When we first arrived, our host Claudio had some wine and cheese waiting for us. The outstanding cheese here was a pecorino with truffles that was just amazing. I bought some before we left and plan on having it with football tomorrow:) I also brought home some of Claudio’s olive oil since it was unlike most olive oil — less oil than the lightest oil you’ve ever seen and so pungent with olive taste instead of just oil taste.
That night we also went to a local place in Vinci that was just an avalanche of amazing food. Another cheese stole the show: fresh gorgonzola that had the consistency of brie — something I had never had but was truly revelatory. It was a sweeter, smoother blue than any had ever had.
At this place, we also had two traditional Tuscan dishes — pappardelle cinghale (wild boar ragu) and steak florentine. Holy Moses these were amazing.
It was rich but not heavy, and wonderfully spiced — a perfect hearty winter dish.
The steak florentine was dramatically presented:
Just seared on one side, we seared it on the other once it came tableside. Yeah, it was good. Simply seasoned, but ridiculously tender and delicious.
Oh, and we drank some there:
We were also lucky to make it up to Pistoia to friend Alessandro hosted and fed us well at La BotteGaia. The standout dishes for me were a spinach flan and ravioli filled with mozzarella in a deeply satisfying sauce:
Look at those ravioli, my friends: obviously fresh pasta veritably bursting with the cheese. Nummers.
Speaking of pasta, I couldn’t let a trip to Italy go without getting gnocchi, and I luckily got some with a gorgonzola sauce in Volterra:
Not much to look at it, but gnocchi never is; you could tell though that this sauce was made with that fresh gorgonzola I mentioned above: not bitter, but just tangy, and so so so creamy.
Oh, and pizza, of course. Where we got the gnocchi, I had a good pizza with roasted vegetables. In Siena, I had what I think was my favorite pizza — a pizza carbonara, and you know what that means: egg baby!
Yeah, that’s bad-ass. At another place in Lamporecchia, we had a sausage and cream cheese pizza with the thinnest crust I’ve ever had — a mere wisp of a crust really.
So, let’s end with dessert. I didn’t go really insane with desserts until the last night walking around Rome. After we got our coffee, we came across a market in the Piazza Navona, where we sampled some treats, including basically pine nut brittle and freshly grilled jumbo doughnuts:
I’m a big sweet and savory fan, so the brittle hit the spot, but I of course also love doughnuts, so that was nice too — sort of homey. We also had gelato during the trip, but nothing was really transcendant, though very good.
Overall, it was a wonderful food trip, in part because I just love Italians’ relationship with food. It is something to be enjoyed and something with which one takes time to enjoy. There is also such a spirit of sharing. I mentioned above that I bought some cheese before leaving; it was at a delicatessen near Da Bucatino in Trestaccio. It was such a happy place, with the myriad workers offering sample upon sample and wanting you to enjoy what they obviously are proud of. It was just a great place that took much money from me, though I parted with it gladly. Oh and here’s a parting shot from that place — of that miraculous gorgonzola.
If there is one thing I have learned about blogging, it is that one must seize the day: the longer the time between the event and you blogging about the event, the less it stays with you, beyond the fact that you probably will never even publish the damn thing.
Such it is with my whirlwind culinary adventure with my dad and step-mother in November. We hit Parc, Vetri, and Tinto in the space of about 48 hours, and yet here it is February, and I still hadn’t talked about it. So, let’s do that, with apologies for the lack of specifics.
We hit Parc on a Friday night, and it was bustling and convivial, likely an evening representative of what Stephen Starr dreamed this place would be. On most levels it worked: the food was fun, fresh, and flavorful, the atmosphere theme-y but not quite kitschy, and the entire experience just entirely enjoyable. The service had its ups and downs, but that is likely more because of some demanding tables and perhaps a bit too high a customer:server ratio than incompetence. I’d love to go back here for any meal really, but I think I’d like to wait for a nice warm day when we can take advantage of the street scene.
The next night was Vetri, where we had the full on degustation menu. This menu began with a course featuring Sweet Onion Crepe, Pork Cheeks with Chestnut Crema, Venison Tartar with Focaccia, Nantucket Scallop Crudo with Blood Orange. I remember the tartar being highly flavorful and quite enjoying the scallop, despite my usual reservations when it comes to that particular animal. Next though came the best thing ever, or at least pretty damn close to it.
It’s a crap picture, but I was likely already in ecstasy that my hands couldn’t stop shaking. These effortless fluffs of pure spinach were so redolent of spinach yet holding together like a typical gnocchi that I had to ask what they were made out of: I was told that there was no pasta there — just spinach. Good lord. Amazing dish. Really worth the entire meal frankly. The other pastas didn’t really have a chance:
Ricotta Cavatelli with Goose Ragu
Through no fault of their own, these pastas didn’t shine like their green brother, but they were nonetheless quite tasty in their own way — the rigatoni brashly meaty while the ravioli creamily disdained her buff brother. The pasta course was incredibly balanced and kicked Mario Batali’s version all over the eastern seaboard. Restrained yet flavorful and creative.
Turning to the beef, we eschewed the baby goat for “oogly” reasons. We did get the other options:
Braised short rib with celery root and mushrooms
Fried cod with citrus mayonnaise
The cod was more pedestrian than the short rib for perhaps obvious reasons; the former had too many obvious references to fast food flavor profiles, while the latter benefitted from everyone on earth being unable to withstand anything being braised. Good course, but not amazing frankly. I’m still reeling from the pastas though when the dessert comes.
Apples, Apples, Apples
Yeah, I guess. I can’t remember everything that was there, but it was all delectable and I particularly enjoyed the whimsy of the candied apples, even if it was a bit of a hard nut to crack. The service was impressive: attentive without being meddlesome, it was there when we needed them and awfully knowledgeable, though Erin did sort of school the sommelier, who in turn produced a Tokay that I still want 18 cases of. It was an awfully enjoyable evening, though I don’t know if I’ll need to get the degustation again: I’ll just take 8 pounds of the gnocchi.
The next morning we headed to Tinto for brunch. All in all the meal was underwhelming. First, no one was there, which always makes for an odd experience. Second, and most importantly, the meal just was not all that impressive. I started with the tortilla espanola, which consisted of a few slices of serrano ham and a clunky tortilla stacked on a splash of saffron aioli. The aioli overpowered everything and nothing was all that interesting on its own. Next I had the padre e hijo, consisting of crispy duck confit, hash, fried duck egg, and escarole:
Sounds and looks interesting, huh? But can you predict what I will say?
It was sort of a mess, frankly. Textures and flavors were not clean, but instead commingled haphazardly. It tasted good, but wasn’t all that appetizing in a weird way, and was certainly not transformative. Perhaps brunch isn’t the meal for a Tinto experience.
It ended an amazing food weekend on something of a downer, but it wasn’t all that tragic: I could still think back to those tasty breads at Parc and my glorious gnocchi at Vetri, and I did end Tinto with a surprisingly tasty and refreshing grapefruit brulee that gave me enough of a good feeling that I forgave it all its disappointments.
I had to thank dad for the opportunity (and bank account) to try all of these places. Being a veteran of the restaurant business, he was impressed with the Philly food scene as represented by these three places (as well as the Italian Market and Continental, where we went for lunch on Saturday), and I think they did us pretty proud as well.
Grand Canal Shoppes, Las Vegas, NV
Our last night in Vegas ended with a bang — not just with me hitting 4 Deuces on video poker, nor eating at Mario Batali’s more casual place, but there may have been some alcohol imbibed, including at the slightly odd but ultimately pleasant Double Helix. Thus, my memories of this meal are a little hazy, in that I could have sworn I must have had an appetizer, but in looking over the appetizers, I don’t think I did. How strange.
Anyway, present me with gnocchi, and I’ll get it. However, Mario decided I wasn’t worthy or something. However, he did offer me a cauliflower ragu with chili and rosemary over rigatoni; far be it from me to decline:
What’s that on the side, you ask? Why it’s brussel sprouts and pecorino. Like I was going to pass that up. I would like to think that I calmly enjoyed the meal and savored every bit. That would be a lie: I inhaled it. Yes, it’s easy to make pasta vegetarian-friendly, but you can miss the earthiness and texture meat can provide: not here. The ragu was slightly spicy, but not overwhelmingly so; it just made the dish incredibly homey and perfectly seasonal. Rick had the rigatoni as well, but he opted for meat — pork belly, to be specific:
And beets on the side, natch. He too raved, as did Sara about her octopus salad. Sure, the $25 restaurant.com gift certificate put just a little dent in the bill, but it was a nice dent; the pastas are in the upper teens, which I thought was very reasonable (I thought the salads were overpriced though at $14). The service was largely efficient, and the setting, though cheesy because of the canal-ness of it all, was fun — great people-watching. With so many options in Vegas, it’s hard to say that I will return places (save for something like the liquored lemonade stand outside of Caesars or Bouchon), but I think I might consider it: reasonably priced Italian food on the Strip? Sure.
So, while in Chicago, we did some fine dining — in addition to Frontera Grill and mk, we also hit Marcus Samuelsson’s C-House for lunch, which was fairly meh — but we also did the Chicago classics that everyone hears about: deep-dish pizza and hot dogs.
Initially, we were going to do Lou Malnati’s for pizza, but our travels made it easier for us to go to Giordano’s, which I think was still a good choice. The sauce was flavorful, the ingredients well done, and the crust delightful. And it was huge:
And it had a lot of cheese; this was left on Rick’s plate after his meal:
It was grubbin’ though, and I’m glad we got it.
We also partook of the classic Chicago hot dog, which has piled on top of it myriad ingredients, only a few of which are discernible below, but which include mustard, onions, tomatoes, and a pickle.
Oh, and celery salt of course. It was fine. I mean, a pickle instantly discounts a meal for me, but this one was relatively palatable and gave a nice crunch to the dog. Would I seek this out? Um, no, but it was worth the excursion down that road.
We also had a decent breakfast at a place in Oak Park; we were tripped up by the worst server I’ve had in a while. What’s notable though is this sign:
“Great days start with good breakfasts!” I couldn’t agree more.
One more grubbin’ thing: popcorn, specifically, Garrett Popcorn Shop off Michigan in the Loop (there are tons of locations, but that’s where we had ours). Rick opted for the cheesecorn, which was an aesthetic mistake as he gradually turned into Chester Cheetah or something, while I got the standard with butter. They were both excellent, and I highly recommend them. I got the caramel with cashews, but didn’t eat until the next day, and it was sort of a mess (so, the caramel corn doesn’t keep like another popcorn purveyor of note), but it was still awfully tasty.
So, Chicago as a food town? Very, very good, though I don’t know that I need to do the pizza and hot dog again.
640 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130
For quite a while, we’ve been coveting a reservation at Vetri, the little Italian boite in the gayborhood that many laud as the finest Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, if not the eastern seaboard, and therefore presumably America. No, I’m serious. Mario Batali said so.
However, reservations are difficult to come by, so all of Philadelphia rejoiced when Marc Vetri opened Osteria, a slightly less formal and definitely larger restaurant north on Broad–an odd place to put a restaurant, but give him marks for gumption.
We tackled it with fellow foodie, Donna, who had heard great things about both places from the national paper of record. We made a reservation on Open Table, and, though we were a bit early, they seated us relatively quickly. However, the table left some things to be desired. First, we were placed in the adjoining greenhouse space. The problem with the space was not temperature-related, though I assumed on a cold winter’s night that it would be cool. The problem with the space is two-fold: it is noisy (as conversations rattle off of the glass walls and the stone floor), and it just lacks any warmth of character. The tables are far apart, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the arrangement lacks the excitement of the interior spaces. Second, the table was plainly a two-top that had been transformed into a three-top. I asked the server if this was indeed going to work, and she assured me it would. It did, sort of: as the meal progressed, we were soon playing a game of plate and glass Twister, trying to find space for everything, and eventually moving things to the ledge above us to create more space. Overall, I felt like I was getting a bad a less-than-great table in a less-than-great space: not the kind of first impression one should give–everyone should have similar experiences of comfort, as much as possible.
However, the food made up for the space, as did the service. Since my memory is horrible, I can only remember what I had (this was about a month ago), and barely that.
We shared the pizze polpo — octopus, tomato, red chili flakes, and mozzarella:
Yeah, it was that good. It was perhaps a bit more “done” (read: burnt) than I would like, but the flavors and textures were wonderful.
My primi piatti was a gnocchi with parmesan, because I love me some gnocchi. The first place I ever had gnocchi? Salzburg, Austria, August 1992. One remembers these things. Anyway:
A little crock of heaven, frankly. I can say with certainty that this was the best gnocchi I have ever had. Unlike most gnocchi, these didn’t go into your stomach and expand, creating eight times their weight in dumpling goodness. No, these were light gnocchi, but certainly not “lite,” as that cheese and oil were there to help things along. God it was good.
Finally, I had a venison special, because, well, why not? I don’t remember how it was prepared, but it came with some potatoes:
It was very good. Not knockout, blow-me-down, but very good. (Also, can you see how cramped we were? Sheesh.)
From what I can remember, Rick had a soup (very good) and lamb (I think?); I don’t remember Donna’s first course, but she got the rabbit for dinner, and it was good as well. Perhaps they can fill things in in the comments. Here are pics to refresh their memories:
Perhaps I went in with crazy expectations, but who couldn’t? The meal was very good–food quality across the board great, excellent service, and fine drinks (limoncello!). However, I really think that initial impression somewhat soured me; moreover, I just wasn’t slapped upside the head by anything except the gnocchi, and that was just a little crock. I would definitely go again, and I would definitely recommend it, and I definitely still want to go to Vetri, but…it’s not in my Top 5. Sorry.