Archive for June, 2011

RT: Milan’s Paris w/nicer people. Also, trams.

June 2011

Location is truly the key to loving a city, and my second stay at Antica Locanda Leonardo proved that again. It’s in a residential neighborhood with lots of culture (the Last Supper church is steps away), great cafes (I went to the lovely old Biffi every day for a caffeine fix), good shopping and a park to write in, plus it’s a quick walk to almost anything, not least the Maurizio Cattelan finger. The main food market is also close by, at Piazza Wagner, and the express train to Malpensa is five minutes away by rolling suitcase. Plus it was all of 95 euros a night. (So what if my room was designed for a hobbit? It was totally functional, with free internet to boot.)

The neighborhood was so seductive I made the mistake of eating most of my meals there, and a weird pattern quickly emerged: One would suck, the next would be spectacular, the following would be spectacular, then the next would suck big time. (The one meal I ate farther afield was with my friend Francesco, so it will be spared judgment because the conversation so trumped the paccheri.)

Sunday lunch at Trattoria Meneghina was recommended by the hotelier with the caveat that “service is comme ci, comme ca.” I wouldn’t have minded the dismissive sweating owner and his perfunctory “waiting” on me while ass-kissing the guys at the next table if the pappardelle with funghi had not delivered grit in every buttery bite and the fried zucchini with blossoms had not been gooey doughballs, senza the gamberi mentioned on the menu. (Worse was seeing a cook, I hope not the wife, wheezing up the stairs from the bathroom holding her gut. I ached for her.)

That night I made my way to another close-by option, one I had dismissed for lunch because it looked too tourist-friendly. And at L’Uccellina I had the forks-down best pizza of my life, a crudaiola with mozzarella (no sauce), arugula, cherry tomatoes and ricotta salata on a crust not much thicker than a paper plate, all the way to the edge. No bones were left behind with that baby. But the whole experience was just what you fantasize about on your own on the road: a genuine welcome, a lively room, a waiter who put up with my halt-and-lame Italian just until we got to the serious stuff (“Vino bianco? Can you be more specific? Prosecco? Gavi?”)

Lunch the next day was nearly as happy-making. On my friend’s recommendation I tried Enocratia but got there just minutes before 2; when I stepped inside to read the menu, the woman behind the counter greeted me effusively, so my tongue stumbled out: “Pranzo finito?” and my ears got, “No, no!” as she gestured to have me follow her up the stairs to a tiny dining room hung with dramatic paintings of flowers where three tables were occupied by what looked to be businessguys. The place had style to burn. And that woman (not sure if she was an owner or just a server) had the Italian confidence you’ll understand everything she’s saying, which led me to bucatini cacio e pepe for my food and two glasses of an exceptional biodynamic white from Piemonte for my drink. The pasta made me realize I could never try that treatment at home. The balance of noodles and cheese and pepper was sublime. I finally understand that your lips should tingle when you eat it. Plus, did I mention the place had style to burn?

And then I had to go and ruin my memories by trying another pizzeria/ristorante near the hotel, Acero Rosso, which, I realized only once I ventured inside, was also too near the train station. Awful room, with rows and rows of empty tables, only a few occupied by guys eating either alone or with their mobiles. Awful wine (prosecco is wonderful until you let it near food). Awful quattro stagione pizza, the kind we have suffered almost everywhere in Italy: soup on bread. I was so demoralized I had to go try the gelateria I’d been laughing at for days, the one with the big sign reading “Eat me, I’m famous.” Something had to give me a last good taste of this magical city. And the pistachio/passion fruit cupful I had there did wash away the restaurant’s sins. To the point that I could go back to the room and Tweet that its translated website had touted “homo burning” and that was the least of its sins. . .

Birds: The birth of singing

June 2011

And I guess I’m guilty of premature exultation for announcing my verdicts on destinations first on Twitter. For Parma it was “the third time is just as charming.” I really had had no desire to go back after spending 10 intense days there with my consort when he was doing a gig for the city, producing color photos to exhibit with Sebastio Salgado’s black-and-whites. But I’m very glad I did. This is one of the most magical places in Italy, with a vibrant core and a mellow feel, thanks to all those single-minded bicyclists pedaling everywhere and keeping car traffic in its place.

I had limited time off the bus, so the most gratifying experience was lunch with my friend Francesca, whom I met one summer at TPW when my consort was teaching and hers was absorbing and who now has a three-year-old daughter, Viola. Whose idea of playing house is cooking using leaves and sticks from the grounds of the “Snow White” castle in Mom’s hometown, San Secondo. And who titled my post here. We all went to Porfido, with its wood-burning oven and super-friendly staff, where I did my best with an over-the-top pizza topped with radicchio, mozzarella, Gorgonzola, truffle oil etc. Viola shared a bite of her superb chicche del nonno, tiny, tender spinach gnocchi in a glaze of  tomato sauce, too. And half a liter of vino bianco helped with the catching-up, too. Before we walked over to meet Francesca’s parents and I finally learned why I have never learned Italian despite at least a baker’s dozen trips there: I never studied. There’s a reason they speak English perfectly. . .

Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini 4 43017 San Secondo

New York minute

June 2011

The “I was warned”: Colonie in Brooklyn Heights, where my consort and I ducked in after Sahadi’s on a Saturday outing to terra incognita and where the underwhelming food seemed less underwhelming because our friend in the neighborhood had flagged it with yellow lights. The space is quite impressive, with front and back bars (the latter overlooking the stoves), and greenery both visible out the back windows and on the wall between front and back rooms. And the staff was almost hyper-hospitable. If only what we faced down on our plates had been at that level. I of course had to order the duck hash, which was more like a warm potato salad sans acid: halved fancy baby potatoes, a few chunks of bland meat, an oozing poached egg that neither added nor subtracted from the final assemblage (not being a runny-yolk fan, I was almost disappointed that this one just lay there like a lox). It was enough to send me home to the dictionary to check if I’d lost my mind, but yes, “hash” should involve browning. Bob’s “shrimp and grits” also missed the concept, with two huge grilled crustaceans laid onto the creamy grits. It was yet another marriage of partners not communicating. WIGB? Not when we passed other tempting places the farther we got on our stroll over to where Atlantic Avenue hits big-box city.