Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Wandering Gourmand: Italy.

I have a friend who takes notes when he goes out to dinner, jotting down every course and the wines served in a little notebook. I'm not that organized. Lately, however, when I travel, I describe the meals I've had in my journal so I'll remember them later. Of course, when I get home, the notebook gets lost somewhere in the depths of my room, and months pass before I find it again. And then I find it, and read it, and suddenly I am back in Tuscany on a cool summer evening, eating dinner on the terrace of our hotel, looking out at rolling hills covered in vineyards as far as the eye could see.

I spent two weeks in Italy last summer, the end of July and the beginning of August. There were wonderful meals, from the simplest prosciutto panino at a roadside café to a dinner that spanned several courses over three hours. I managed to eat prosciutto at least twice a day, gelato once a day, and tomatoes at practically every meal, if not every dish. Here are the three meals that stand out most clearly in my journal (the fact that they were also the three most expensive meals of the trip is completely irrelevant):

1) Firenze. Alle Murate. Some restaurants we found in guidebooks, but this one we found by chance. Wandering through the narrow streets of Florence, past cathedrals, through squares, over the rough cobblestones of one of my favorite cities in the world, we passed a glass store-front, strikingly modern against the classical architecture surrounding it. Through the windows we looked into a smallish front room with banquettes along the walls, so starkly furnished that at first I didn't realize this was a restaurant. It looked more like one of those luxurious modern furniture stores that requires an appointment just to walk in, rather than a place to eat. Then you stepped back and realized that you could just see the feet of the dining tables and chairs on the mezzanine level, above our heads. There were women moving around inside, one polishing the endless expanse of glass windows. She told us that they didn't open until 7:30, but we were welcome to make a reservation. An hour or two passed while we wandered around the city, and then it was time for dinner. We were the first customers of the evening. An older woman came out, and seated us in the banquettes in the front room. Apparently you first sat down in the front room, drank a glass of sparkling wine, and looked over the menu. You were not seated at your table in the inner dining room (or upstairs) until after you'd ordered your meal. While we pored over our menus, they served perfectly round crostini with precisely trimmed layers of tomato and mozzarella cheese, each layer the same size (small) and thickness (thin). It was delicious, sweet (tomato), creamy (mozzarella), and crispy (toasted bread). A promise of good things to come. And then the real dinner began. First came a carrot soup, intensely sweet and smooth. Then came a dish of cuttlefish cooked with peppers, the flavors mingling surpisingly in the mouth. Next came tortelli filled with eggplant, light as pillows. A delicate souffle of green beens followed, with the sweetest caramelized cherry tomatoes on the side, not the sweetness of sugar but the purest sweetness of tomatoes at the absolute peak of ripeness, roasted until the flesh and skin began to brown, almost blacken. The main course came next, and it was a revelation. Later I learned that this was the signature dish of the restaurant, beef braised for seven hours in Brunello di Montalcino until unbelievably tender, infused with the flavor of the wine, mellowed and deepened by the slow cooking. On the side were mashed potatoes, the kind that seem to be equal parts butter and potatoes. Finally, my dessert turned out to be a yogurt tart, airy and creamy, not dense like a cheesecake. It was one of the best meals of my life, elegant and refined, but utterly unfussy, uncomplicated, unpretentious.

2) Porto Venere. Le Bocche. Another restaurant we found by chance, in the town of Porto Venere, just south of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre. The restaurant was right by the water, in the shadow of the ancient fort that guarded the mouth of the harbor. We ate outside, under giant canvas umbrellas. It was a beautifully simple meal. I had a carpaccio of sea bass to start. Thin, translucent, white slices of fish draped over the plate, barely dressed with lemon and olive oil, with a handful of chopped arugula in the middle and pine nuts sprinkled over everything. Incredible. It was a play of contrasts, the sweetness of fresh raw fish, the bitterness of arugula, the earthy smooth feel of olive oil, the bright tartness of lemon juice, and the nutty aroma of pine nuts. Then I had bavette, a flat spaghetti, with spiny lobster, and a tomato sauce that had just enough hot pepper to give it warmth without spiciness. Absolutely wonderful. This is the kind of food I come to Italy for, simple, unadorned seafood at the height of freshness and uncluttered with uneccessary flourishes.

3) Rome. La Rosetta. We found this restaurant in the guidebook, and it just so happened to be the last night before it closed for the August holidays. It was just my mother and I, having left my father behind in Pisa. Or perhaps it was Lucca; I can't remember. Apparently La Rosetta was famed for its seafood; there were so many choices it was hard to decide. I started with red snapper, encrusted with vermicelli and surrounded by vegetables. My mother had squid with potatoes, a dish she ordered at every opportunity (several months later, she would do the same across Portugal and Spain, but I will save that story for another time); this version came with a cool, minty sauce. Then came linguine with Meditteranean lobster (a different creature from the spiny lobster the week before) and tomato sauce. Finally, I had bass cooked with mussels, shrimps, cherry tomatoes, olives, and potatoes. It was beautiful, a symphony of seafood. At last, it was time for dessert, the most amazing tiramisu I have ever had. (I remember with perfect clarity the first time I had tiramisu, at the house of a friend in Formia, not far from Naples, in 1994; this was even more extraordinary). A layer of espresso-soaked savoiardi, an ethereal mascarpone cream, powdered chocolate, a scoop of the best coffe granita I've ever tasted, all topped with a snowy drift of whipped cream. It was the perfect end to the perfect meal. A plate of jewel-like petit fours followed, chocolate and lemon and all sorts of different flavors, but we were so full that all we could do was stagger back to the hotel and save them for later. A long time later. Like the meal at Alle Murate in Florence, it was simple and elegant and completely, absolutely perfect.

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