Eating out. pork belly dreams. (Volterra).
We were eating dinner at Sitka & Spruce the other night when I overheard a fellow diner telling his friend that he liked to go to Volterra for Sunday brunch. (The thing about eating out is that you always hear people talking about other places they like). I had never been there before, but on their last visit my parents had gone there with some neighbors who spend a considerable amount of time at their villa somewhere in Tuscany and therefore know good Italian food when they see it. Somehow we found ourselves there on Sunday for brunch, even though we already had a dinner reservation for dinner another night. Tonight.
On Sunday morning the restaurant had been sunny and bright, the polished dark wood tables covered with coffee cups and plates of frittatas and scrambled eggs and poached eggs and pancakes and French toast that looked like soft golden pillows. Now the daylight is fading on the narrow, tree-lined streets outside; alabaster lamps hanging from the ceiling (handcarved in Volterra, the hillside town in the Tuscan countryside from which the restaurant takes its name) cast a soft glow over the gleaming stemware and dark-red walls. Now I notice the large photographs on the walls, sepia-toned images of Italy; the owners had gotten married in Volterra and their wedding photos mingle amongst images of winding cobblestone streets and wildflower meadows.
I know that I will order the pork belly as soon as I see it on the menu. L. is likewise tempted but decides instead on the wild boar tenderloin when I promise him a piece of my pork belly. We decide on appetizers - baked asparagus and artichokes, eggplant parmigiana, and halibut cheeks - and main courses - risotto (for my mother, who always orders risotto in Italian restaurants), pork belly (for me), halibut (for J. and J.), wild boar (for L.), and tortellini for S. I reach for a piece of the bread as we wait for the first course; it reminds me of the dense, plain, crusty bread we had in Italy, a good omen.
The appetizers arrive. Asparagus and artichokes are piping-hot in a bubbling, creamy white sauce. Halibut cheeks are sweet and tender, contrasting against the faint textural acidity of the lentils. The crisp-soft eggplant has just enough cheese, just enough tomato, just enough crust, each element melding into the next without overwhelming. Then our main courses arrive, in pairs, each person craning their neck to see what the next person will be eating. My herb-scented pork belly is like a cross-section of layers - the crunchy skin, melting fat, rich, soft meat, crusty on the bottom; each bite is a play of one layer against the other. I don't know how the hell they did it. There is cheesy polenta, sautéed spinach, which I ignore in favor of the pork. I take a bite of L.'s wild boar tenderloin, with its deep, dark taste, a faintly gamey earthiness, the spark of mustard in the sauce, and offer a taste of mine in return.
There is no room left for dessert but I cannot resist a cherry-chocolate Napolean. What arrives is not the French mille-feuille-style kind, all cream and custard and paper-thin layers of crisp pastry. Instead, like the pork belly, it is a study in contrasts and flavors, tender chocolate cake, cream, cherries, sheets of chocolate, and a final layer of some chewy, nutty, dense cake, like nothing I have ever tasted. It is incredible.