On my last trip to Istanbul, a year ago, I succumbed to a Starbucks for a wake-up cappuccino in Attaturk airport after a twin-babies-behind-me-with-mom-screaming-what-is-your-fucking-problem overnight flight, so I’m not as derisive as most about the chain opening in Italy. If it can brave the home of Turkish coffee, and also the home of the far superior Gloria Jean’s, it can barge in wherever the hell it wants. Even so, you could only read this and think a flack could not have paid for better placement.
For once I’m siding with Goliath. It’s parochial to think the Eataly infringement is about Molto Ego when the brand was built in Torino. Fiat wouldn’t take a Little sitting down, either. Or rolling.
And I always hate getting suckered into manufactured debates, but I have to say the latest “best food cities” poll was absolutely Maroonish. Florence has its charms, but fud ain’t one of them. Even the great central market is more Faneuil Hall than real Italy these days. And don’t get me started on Rome. You can eat well there, but only if you are very, very selective. As always, absence says more than top ratings. Where were the votes for Torino? To quote friends, the Piemontese make the Tuscans look like peasants. But how would you know that sitting in your Barcalounger reading the travel glossies?
Lavaplatti sounds so much nicer than dishwasher. Prosecco and sparkling Malvasia and even Lambrusco are all-bloat, no-buzz wines — why do they even try to team any of them with food? Plates at buffets should always have a loophole to attach a wineglass. Al dente pasta is better for the digestion. Aperitivo apparently no longer means free food, only overpriced drinks. But the dread coperto seems to be going extinct. “I want to kill the guy who invented truffle oil.” Never dis a steak as donkey; the latter is actually very tender meat, or so I hear. A la Russe meant everyone sitting together to eat; a la Francaise signified a buffet, which was prevalent until the 19th century, when printed menus began. Or so I read. In a library. Afterword on the best restaurant in town: “You can’t eat the name.” And a maxim to remember: “Only the living have difficulties.”
Say one thing for Cesare, though: If he had to go out with much less overkill, he was exiting with an abbondanza bang. We were on our way to the subway from my new favorite restaurant when I remembered the invitation to stop by for wine and salame, and so even though we were five minutes ahead of schedule four of us muscled our way in as the party for regulars was loudly winding down. I felt a little like our friend who rang the doorbell early for a going-away dinner in his honor and overheard my behind-on-the-ice-cream consort blurt out: “Shit!” But the herb-scented one’s assistant immediately escorted us into a booth and brought drinks and then the food started coming, much more than promised: the great fried pasta from the bar; cheese and meatballs; steak and shrimp. A waiter dropped off two bottles of wine for the second round, and it was hard to dislodge my friends before we could consume it all — and we had just finished a huge meal. The good news is that the creativity is undiminished: the prosciutto arrived wrapped around watermelon slices. And the better news is that he’s opening closer to us. I just hope he keeps the horse wineglasses. And as one of the accidental crashers with me said: The closing was more fun than an opening.
I must have been an elephant in a previous life. I read all the gushing online coverage of a fadeout on Central Park South and could only remember bad stuff: The first time I went, with a bunch of food photographers, and how underwhelmed we all were by the raviolo with egg and how poleaxed we were by the bill. The second time I went, at the insistence of a sommelier friend who comped me lunch, and how astonished I was to be virtually shoved against my chairback by a pissed-off owner insisting he was right and I was wrong about a piece I’d written in the NYTimes magazine about bogus Italian (my editor there, to her eternal credit, later admitted she had read his letter and sent it straight to the trash, do not pass writer). And the last time was truly the anti-charm: A neighbor who happens to move among the lawyer class wanted to indulge for Restaurant Week and I indulged her, only to find ourselves shunted off to some shitty table in the back with contemptuous waiters and fish that was already in Purgatory and really kiss-off desserts and appetizers. Every time I have walked past the place since I have wondered how it has hung on so long when it is truly the antithesis of true Italian (Italy being, of course, the country where I have eaten more often than I have anywhere but the “homeland”). But I do give him credit. He knows how to work the cyber-world. Next he’ll be hooking up with that superhero Ko-Man and banning photography.
I see from the Guardian that Jamie Oliver is launching a chain of Italian restaurants next. And his partner is promising it will be “completely authentic, rustic Italian.” Also “fast, urban casual dining.” Is there a contradiction in there? Or are they just happy to knock off McDonald’s failed Hearth Express? But at least the chickens will be free range, so maybe they won’t get too flattened by Slow Food in the fast lane.
A sandwich board outside a restaurant in the Garment District the other day was maybe too revealing: “Best Chienese food.” I just hope no poodles were harmed in the making of it.
What lured us to Eutopia this time was a 7/7/7 wedding in Tuscany — two students from two countries who met in one of my consort’s workshops at TPW were literally tying the knot in a Philippine cord-and-veil ceremony and flew him over to be witness. They graciously let me tag along and so I got to see what happens when a cheesy tradition meets an upscale ingredient: The rice most everyone threw outside the church in San Quirico d’Orcia was arborio. And compared with Uncle Ben’s, that stuff is weapons grade.
While we were tooling around Tuscany and Rome, an Italian friend was in Arles, for the fabulous photo show where we were heading next, and we got an email from him warning that the restaurants there “sucked” and saying he was longing for “good, honest Italian food.” I wrote it off as the usual semolina chauvinism, confident that even the worst French meal would always be more rewarding than endless plates of pasta. The joke was on me at our very first stop, in Grasse, where we found a relatively cheap hotel to break up the drive from Nice. The owner suggested some pizza/French hybrid, but we went wandering through the deserted streets of the oldest part of the city, stumbled upon Le Gazan and settled into a table outside, thinking it was the only option. I have eaten some bad French food in New Jersey, but this kicked the bar even lower. My monkfish tails were steamed okay, but the “bouillabaisse-style” sauce was the color and consistency of the squitters, and both came on more a platter than a plate, strewn with broccoli florets and boiled potatoes and a carrot flan and a single roasted slice of roasted zucchini. The whole assemblage looked as if time stopped in 1977. I wrote it off to the same rube mentality that produced a cup of good espresso topped with a Montblanc of whipped cream and dusting of shaved chocolate when I asked for a cappuccino at a cafe the next morning. Then we got to Arles, and I was ready to email Carlo for directions to the nearest honest Italian.
Without boring with details, I’ll just say sucks is an understatement for the food there. We started at a gorgeous little restaurant the manager of the incomparable Grand Hotel Nord Pinus recommended, Le 16, where both my duck and Bob’s rabbit could have been raised by Perdue for all their flavor. We continued the losing streak at the very hospitable Au Brin de Thym, where the chewy magret was partnered with a baked potato in foil(!) Gritty salads one night outside at Les Deux Fondus were redeemed only by the amazingly accommodating host and the carafe and a half of decent rose. Lunch at Le Jardin de Manon did not exactly qualify for the S word, since the appetizers were actually nicely done if American-portioned: a gateau of salmon tartare with fennel, and a sundae glass brimming with whipped cheese layered with roasted tomato, eggplant and pistou. But my braised rouget with watery pistou, beans and tomato made an unbeatable argument for grilling or sauteing that wondrous fish, while Bob’s rabbit stuffed with kidneys and more pistou gave new meaning to the words tough and tasteless (the mashed potatoes with it, however, were superb).
We did eat well in France a few times, astonishingly well once, but even a restaurant my friend led us to for Sunday lunch in Languedoc was a letdown despite the gorgeous setting overlooking vineyards, the exceptional service by the chef himself and his wife, and the world-class wine they suggested, Mas Champart Saint-Chinian made by what the chef joked was his second wife. Everything was too much muchness; it was if the French don’t have a word for restraint.
Of course I may have only myself to blame for not doing better in Arles in particular, because we resisted the insistence of a friend living in Provence that we try what she swore was the best restaurant in the region. I just could not see sitting through endless courses and dropping what the Michelin said was 55 euros a head and she warned was even higher. Of course it turns out to be the one-star getting all the press, but I’m still glad we pinched centimes now that I’m home and doing the Bush-league math. That Saint-Chinian was 27 euros. And for roughly $40, it should have been good.
Years ago we swung through Atlanta to visit friends who took us on a weekend expedition to a rural B&B where a 300-pound relative of the proprietor was rocking on the porch as we arrived and warning that “if I don’t eat in 30 minutes I’m gonna starve to death.” Which taught me that “Deliverance” can take many forms. The Italian translation on this trip came about an hour or so out of Fiumicino when we pulled off near Mazzano for something better than Autogrill processed crap and came across an Old West-looking restaurant where three or four people were sitting out on the veranda. The fattest of them jumped up as we locked the car and asked something starting with “mangia . . .?” We said “si” and followed her inside as she slapped on a cap and showed us to a table in a huge unlit dining room with a pizza oven on one wall and black lawn jockeys scattered around the others. She rattled off a few pastas and sauces, we nodded first at strozzapretti and then at amatriciana and she waddled off, seemingly disgusted that we did not want wine. Not long after she slapped down two plates of something toughly frittata-like topped with zucchini blossoms, plus a carafe of water, and we sawed away until a big-eyed young girl wearing a red T-shirt with a swastika on it brought bread and condiments. Then the pasta landed, two medium bowls of chewy noodles with chunks of pancetta and onion in faint tomato sauce. I sprinkled mine with grated cheese, ate a few bites and threw on a little more much-needed cheese, only to have the Dick Cheney of cooks appear and whisk it away disapprovingly. She was even more annoyed when I left behind half our shared insalata mista. I think the tab was $40US for two pastas, one salad, two coffees and all the scorn we could swallow. The printed menu I had sneaked a peek at listed pastas at 7E. Several times on this trip Bob quoted John Krich, who said when they worked on a travel story together many years ago (and I paraphrase): Getting ripped off occasionally is the price we pay for not speaking the language. And at least this time we didn’t have to squeal like pigs.
Some things I saw in Eutopia: Villeroy & Boch toilets, seatless by design, at a rest stop in Provence. Salmon steaks grilled over blazing grapevines in a very formal dining room in Nardonne on a blazing hot afternoon. A chef in Montpellier, at a restaurant where the food had come slowly and been cooked erratically, sporting a black eye. A 200-year-old wood oven in continuous use in Nardonne (even day-old on the road, the croissant and pain au chocolat from it were outstanding). Tiny saucisse wrapped like little candies on the plate with the olives at Le Jardin du Manon in Arles. Chamber pots used as planters at Osteria Delle Grotte in Singalunga in Tuscany. A waitress at a cafe in Montpellier tying the tricolor flag around her dog’s neck on Bastille morning after delivering us a perfect croissant and cafe creme. Cats ready for the Apocalypse with a pup tent and stockpiled food, in a park in the Aventine in Rome. And, best of all, box wine poured from a crystal decanter in Languedoc — talk about style trumping substance.