Don’t ask me why we wound up in Rome for two days (something to do with the goddamn rental car costing as much as a hotel room in the countryside), but I have to say my least favorite city was vaut le voyage this time, and not just for the sight of a highway lined with young, stylish hookers on a Sunday morning as we blasted back to return said goddamn car. In a rare stroke of good luck, we slept in the Aventine, the leafy residential neighborhood, and ate mostly down the hill in Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse area. We’d stayed there on our last trip and found Volpetti, the specialty food shop that makes Dean & Deluca look like Trader Joe’s, and one quick stop had set us back $60. This time our guard was up. When a familiar tempter asked where I was from and then proffered a slice of “drunken cheese” — one washed with amarone — I turned around to see Bob had vanished before we could get seduced again, but I stayed long enough to buy us at least a slice of the just-baked zucchini blossom pizza to go.
The pizza was good, even cold, but lunch around the corner was even better. After checking out the kick-ass Paolo Pellegrin show over in Trastevere, we pushed one tray for two down the Volpetti cafeteria line while an amazingly patient attendant dished up trofie with pesto, extraordinary eggplant parmesan, seafood (all octopus) salad, roasted and marinated zucchini slices and a lovely little half-bottle of white wine. Our eyes were 33 euros bigger than our stomachs, but I wasn’t complaining.
By then we were on a roll. Every morning started with a surfeit of fruit from the buffet at the excellent Aventino (included in the 95-euro room rate, booked through venere.com). The night before we had put up with Vespa din on the sidewalk to eat at “Da Oio” a Casa Mia, where my rigatoni cacio e pepe was perfection and Bob gnawed his Roman-style stewed chicken down to the rosemary- and pepper-infused bone. Lunch was at a sleek businessy restaurant he sussed out in Trastevere called La Ripa: sauteed frutti di mare (mussels and clams in a peppery brodo), super-tender grilled grouper and calamari, and spaghetti with clams. And every afternoon we trekked in the brutal heat to Sant’Eustacchio for an espresso granita. Bob would get his plain and order alla panna for me, and we would stand outside in a patch of shade, passing them back and forth for maximum bliss. It was hard to believe I almost died from caffeine withdrawal in Rome, back in the days when I drank tea and the Excelsior Hotel balked at brewing it and I had to medicate myself with Coke. Harder still to believe some people still think St. Peter’s is the only shrine in town.
Volpetti shop, Via Marmorata, 47, Testaccio, 39 (0)6 574 2352.
Volpetti Tavola Calda, Via Alessandro Volta, 8, Testaccio.
“Da Oio” a Casa Mia, Via Galvani, 43/45, Testaccio, 39 (0)6 5782680.
Ripa 12, Via San Francesco a Ripa, 12, Trastevere, 39 (0)6 5809093.
Sant’Eustacchio, Piazza S. Eustacchio, 82, 39 (0)6 688 0248
Hotel Aventino, Via S. Domenico, 10, 39 (0)6 570057.
I don’t think we have ever done Italy and France back to back, which must be one reason why I was so underwhelmed by the food in a country where I had always fully intended to have my last meal. The comparison was rather stark, especially considering the first course at our first dinner in Tuscany, at Posta Marcucci in Bagno Vignoni, was Kelleresque in both concept and execution: a plate of Cinta Senese prosciutto paired with a chilled melon soup with a dollop of onion jam — the ham tasted irresistibly barnyardy against the sweetness. But another reason is simply that a wedding banquet in Italy is a hard act to follow, at least as staged by a multinational crew. The reception was around the pool at magical Il Poggiolo in San Quirico d’Orcia, where four food stations had been set up: One with fried food (tomatoes, arancini, zucchini, etc.) to be eaten from paper cones, one with melon and prosciutto carved to order, yet another with cheese and red wine and one more with bruschetti; if that was not enough, waiters were passing hors d’oeuvres like little tarts with artichoke and truffle filling. The sit-down dinner under the hyper-clear stars started with gnocchi, followed by a filled pasta, then roast pork, then Tuscan steak, then the wedding cake, then a full dessert table.
The steak, and the melon soup, were so extraordinary that it’s no wonder Bob yawned at the best meal we had in Arles, at Le Cilantro. I ordered essentially the same two dishes off the special menu, but the beef was not as dazzling and the soup came with slivers of prosciutto crisps and a balsamic granita. He had seared tuna and sea bream, each with two sauces, and we both left thinking the room was half the reason for the Michelin star.
We had a promising start at lunch at Tamarillos in the lively city of Montpellier — minis including foie gras with vanilla, then coconut milk risotto with langoustines, dried strawberries and mushrooms — but the herky-jerky service and slow kitchen cost us patience by the time our main courses came. Glutton for fowl punishment, I ordered duck with mango and chewed yet another penalty ration. Bob’s scallops with spinach and pistachios arrived with neither of the billed ingredients, but who was counting?
My faith in France was restored at L’Entre Pots in Languedoc, in the Moliere stomping ground of Pezenas, and not just because we had been tasting picpoul all morning. This was a Paris-quality restaurant, on every level, starting with the fact that our wine was chilled in a silver bucket shaped like a dinosaur egg. It even offered half-portions on several starters and main courses, and I took one (monkfish sauteed to succulent perfection with calamari) while Bob made a meal of two (anchovies atop eggplant and tomato, then veal saltimbocca with a plethora of mashed potatoes). My appetizer of exquisite brandade with pesto tapenade was enough for an entree. The bread was excellent, the cafe creme even better. And the place itself was designed more like a resort than a restaurant, with a patio where we ate, a seating area with tables in the middle of the restaurant, and shelves with food and a few housewares for sale in the front. Like that ice bucket.
Hotel “Posta” Marcucci, Bagno Vignoni, 39 (0) 57 788 7112.
Il Poggiolo, San Quirico d’Orcia, 39 (0)57 789 9074, www.poggiolo.info
Grand Hotel Nord Pinus, Place du Forum, Arles, 33 (0)49 903 4444, www.nord-pinus.com
Le Cilantro, 31, rue Porte-de-Laure, Arles, 33 (0)49 018 2505.
Tamarillos, 2, Place du Marche aux Fleurs, Montpellier, 33 (0)46 760 0600.
L’Entre Pots, 8, Ave. Louis-Montaigne, Pezenas, 33 (0) 46 790 0000.
FRIENDS IN GOOD PLACES
I have never been the kind of traveler who can plan my meals from New York. If we’re going to Paris, or Sydney, or London, I want my feet on that foreign ground before deciding where we will eat on any night, first or last. If we can’t get in, we can try for lunch. Half the appeal of leaving home is not knowing where your next meal will be.So how did I wind up booked on my third and penultimate nights in Italy almost as soon as I had paid for my Delta ticket on Alitalia? Blame the same thing that got me to Milan: the internets. Within a couple of emails wondering first what the hell Identita Golose was all about and second where to sleep cheaply in Milan, I had an invitation to the new Trussardi alla Scala and an insistence that I come to Veneto for another birra orgy at La Lampada.
Our friend Flavio works for the Trussardi Foundation, which opened the second-story restaurant next to the opera house last summer as almost a work of art itself. The bathrooms alone are worth the journey at this Michelin-and-model magnet, all gloss and green and floral motifs, but the whole design is sleeker than sleek, more like an airy hotel lobby than a cramped restaurant. Each table has about as much space allotted around it as the average Manhattan studio, which is how our group of four could eat “next” to Wylie Dufresne’s quartet without him knowing. But there were enough distractions landing that it was hard even to focus on the view of the square below us: rice puffs flavored with squid ink, saffron and Parmigiano (high-class popcorn); a pumpkin soup with ginger as an amuse, and a basket heaped with a choice of what my friend Rolando called “bread bonsai,” little rolls with exquisite flavor, particularly a layered, flaky, very buttery one. The towering chef, Andrea Berton, tried to talk us into his Identita menu, but six courses seemed daunting. So we just shared the most amazing vitello tonnato ever, with thick slabs of veal that were impossibly tender (I guessed sous vide and was not embarrassed), before my gamberi rossi with puntarelle and lardo plus a huge plate of duck with cabbage. Dessert, which our friend Cristina insisted on in between lobbying us to come to their wedding in Rome on lucky 7/7/7, was the one off note. Tiramisu is undoubtedly overdue for reinterpretation, but serving it in a martini glass with a brulee crust is axing for trouble — to shatter one you risked breaking the other. Still, that was the tiniest of quibbles on a superb evening in surroundings that make Del Posto look like some nonna’s idea of class.
As theatrical as the meal was at Trussardi, dinner at La Lampada was a whole different kind of performance art. Our friend Giorgio Copparoni dreamed up a Proust-by-way-of-Trieste menu to capture taste memories to pair with beers. He is so sly that our first glass on arriving after an aperitivo at a nearby wine bar was as bright red as a spritz but was actually Boon Kriek, a cherry beer he said was fermented like wine. To go with it he set down a platter of smoked buffalo mozzarella surrounded by thinly sliced coppa that he had cured like culatello but with beer rather than wine.
Faces at tables around us were already looking envious when we next were presented with the most stealable idea ever: Giorgio had hollowed out a baguette, stuffed it with bulk sausage, sliced it and fried it. The combination was a nice partner for the gutsy beer poured with it, Jan de Lichte. Next up in the bowl was jota, the classic winter soup/stew in Trieste. I had had it when my consort was shooting there on his caffeine story for Geographic, but it was nothing like this almost delicate rendition, with good pork, sauerkraut and two kinds of beans, paired with toasted rye bread. Of course there was the perfect beer to go with it: Zahre, poured from a bottle that looked like a clone of Freixenet.
Anyone else would have called it a meal right then, but Giorgio, in his signature leather apron, still had bollito misto on his stove, and a big platter of smoked pork, beef cheeks, museau sausage and stinco arrived just after turnip strips cured in grappa and sauteed in olive oil, plus a freshly baked herb flatbread. More beer, you have to ask? L’Olmaia, from San Quirico, in Tuscany. And then a bottle of 32 Nectar was uncapped, with the most intoxicating fragrance and flavor of chestnut honey. And what would we drink with this Belgian-style beer brewed nearby, in Treviso? A polenta cake layered with dulce de leche, of course. No, wait. That went with the three-year-old grappa, Torba Nera.
My friend Rolando was jammed in at the tight table, too, and he gave the ultimate review to Giorgio, who is planning a beer festival this spring to showcase the local choices: Everything I had said about his cooking was not just true but worth multiplying by 10. And this was uttered by a guy who had opened a restaurant in New York where he had initially refused to serve beer and only caved to Moretti under pressure. Last I heard, he was stocking up on 32 Nectar. . . .
Trussardi alla Scala, Piazza della Scala 5, Milano 39 28 068 8201.La Lampada, Via San Marco 4, Mogliano, Veneto. [Villa Stucky is a superb base near Venice — Boccadibacco wine bar is close by, the train station is five minutes’ walk and the staff is beyond hospitable.]
A NOTE FROM MY SPONSORS
If I had the kind of readers who would know when 5500 euros is a deal, I would tout the cooking program Rolando is starting at the Gritti Palace in Venice, and not just because he conned me into a comp at the hotel on a wildly foggy night when the city was particularly enchanting. The place clearly caters to people who have Bremer-level euros to burn (breakfast goes for 55; internet access is 25 an hour) and don’t care about souvenir toiletries (they are all branded Starwood Luxury, not GP). But it is also set up to make magic; the last meal is at a costume ball with masks designed to order. Rolando will lead food shopping tours, and if he throws in a stop at the workmen’s bar he took me to as soon as we dropped our bags off, it has to be an adventure. We had spritzes and tramezzini while the bartender popped open a bottle of prosecco, aiming the cork at the bare cula of the buxom woman on the Pirelli tire company calendar on the wall behind us. But then the hotel itself is a trip. A young guy in jeans who rode the elevator down with me commented caustically when the door resisted my shove to open it: “Tutto vecchio.” Yeah, like from 1525.
CITY OF RISING HOPES
You know things are grim when even the chef at the Gritti concedes that Venice has not just a bad reputation for food but a bad reputation that is well earned. Even so, when Rolando and I set out for lunch I figured we were fine. We would go either to my choice, the newish Bancogiro, or his, an old favorite called Madonna, near enough to the Rialto to make anyone nervous. Given that I was light on euros that day, I was happy to push on after perusing the menu at Bancogiro and seeing “no credit cards.” And as soon as we walked into Madonna I knew it was no default. A huge array of fresh seafood was the first greeting, then Rolando spotted a back dining room full of gondoliers eating away, and the waiters could not have been more professional in that bright, cheery room. (I didn’t want to ask why a chest freezer was positioned next to the coat check, though.)We split a ceramic pitcher of perfectly fine house wine as Rolando tucked into spaghetti with clams and I gorged on a crab loaded with meat and roe. We each got a big plate of perfectly fresh, beautifully cooked rouget and split a couple of artichoke hearts. It was all what Italy does best, total simplicity. And with espresso and no scorn, it was about a hundred bucks. In Venice, that’s a deal.
S. Polo 594, Venice 39 41 522 3824.
ONE FOR THE ROAD
I would be a terrible condemned prisoner. Deciding on my last meal would be a nightmare for me and anyone else involved. So there is no real way to describe how blissful it was to get into a car for the drive to my final dinner in Italy and know I was heading somewhere perfect. Our friend Diego Orlando (a k a the Interpreter of All Mysteries Italian) had picked the destination; even better, he said it was a restaurant my consort had chosen twice last fall. It probably was not good for Diego, given that my language deficiency dissuaded me from joining a table of his friends, but then I would be a terrible condemned prisoner. I wanted it my way on my last night.La Osteria di Pasqualato Renato is new Italian, which is highest praise. The kitchen is deadly serious about the food and the wine is outstanding, but there is a relaxed feel and look to the place that makes it seem very California. The day’s menu is on a chalkboard (although the owner handed over her cribbed notes to Diego to translate at our table), and you can let the waiter choose the wine and be rewarded with something affordably mind-blowing like the Sirch Mis Mas tocai from Friuli to start.We both had a special of fried mozzarella with tomato sauce that was like carrozza sans the carriage and anchovies. I ordered bigoli with duck ragu even though pasta is never my top choice, and I was rewarded with a world-class interpretation, with firm bits rather than sodden scraps of duck scattered among the firm noodles in excellent sauce. Diego seemed happy with his huge slab of steak and then a too-big apple cake for dessert. Through it all the lovely owner stopped by often, even though the place was packed, to talk and show us food books by the organizer of Identita Golose. Half the experience was due to my escort, who has friends wherever he goes, but you don’t find a restaurant like this every day.La Osteria di Pasqualato Renato, Piazza IV Novembre 11, Marcon, Veneto 39 16 583 0274. (Reservations are a very good idea.)
SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST
My consort has been teaching photo workshops in Tuscany for more years than I can remember, but until this summer I was always able to resist tagging along as easily as if he were flying off to Maine. Even the lure of TPW’s taps running red and white wine did not tempt me. I have been to Tuscany, at least three times, and it’s no Piemonte — my most memorable meal ever there was in Todi, and it’s actually in Umbria.
But given that Bob is decamping soon for Ohio and my stowaway status is about to be revoked for a year, I couldn’t say no when I got the chance to come keep him company between two weekend workshops in San Quirico d’Orcia, near Sienna. And of course Tuscany has never seemed more seductive, at the table and away from it — the setting sun turns green fields to velvet and stone walls to copper; any time of day you see poppies and smell jasmine. Maybe it was because everything was experienced through a “this may be the last time” filter, but more likely it was that I got to see not just the Frances Mayes manicured side but the rougher, realer Maremma. And to literally taste it: Latte fresca there makes the best farm-squeezed milk in this country taste like reconstituted Carnation. It’s full and rich and redolent of what the cows consume, the flavors you smell as you drive past pastures and hayfields.
Not every meal was spectacular, but that’s a given considering the same pasta may go by three different names while all menus are virtually alike (fish? not an option). The last night of the workshop was a high point, when seven of us made our way to the nearby village of Bagno Vignoli for dinner on the sidewalk at Il Loggiato, run by a young couple who use local ingredients in nouvelle ways to make small plates, which is not as ridiculous as it sounds in a region where heavy is a mantra. I had the polenta of a lifetime — very thin, delicate, light triangles topped with cherry tomatoes under melted pecorino and Parmigiano — while my consort shared his huge crostino with exceptional lardo and his spiedini of local pork (cinta sienese). I also cadged an amazing tuna-stuffed pepper and marinated artichoke heart off the director’s plate. Somehow we went through several bottles of Orcia, the next Brunello.
Another day I was rescued by another workshop widow, the amazing Francesca of Parma, for lunch at La Porta in the hilltop town of Montecchiello, where her newfound friend Valerio the leather artisan in Pienza suggested we head for the terrace view. It was 900 degrees (33 Celsius) and 1:30 (too late in Italian time) when we got there, but we snared a table inside once I spotted the Slow Food decals on the door and decided it was worth the shade. And even though our pasta was as cold as our white wine was warm, it was a superb experience. We shared a plate of the inescapable crostini — I got the tomato-chile and plain-cheese ones and she took the ones with mushroom-cheese and artichoke puree; we both passed on the chicken liver — and she slogged through the pici agliano (fresh thick pasta with tomato-chile-garlic sauce) while I reveled in almost airy gnocchi made from spinach and bread with a thick coating of melted pecorino. For once the whole Tuscan obsession with bread made sense — not only was it used in the dough, but it was also the crunch of the crumbs mixed with shreds of pecorino around the plate.
Our eating started picking up as we headed west into the Maremma. At lunch at the very pretty Trattoria la Pergola in Orbetello, the fresh pasta topped with grated bottarga was world-class and the grilled rombo was one for the memory books in a country where fish usually translates to dry flakes rather than juicy chunks. Dinner that night at Il Pescatori was also a marvel, with a table on the water, a blind-in-one-eye begging cat pawing up the other diners and extraordinary grilled smoked mackerel and antipasto from the sea: anchovies, marinated eel, red beans with cefalo (the same mullet used for the bottarga), potato puree topped with grated bottarga and assorted crostini with seafood. The huge place is a trip: You walk in, pick up a menu and order at the front desk, where a guy sits with a cash register, a computer and a printer; you pay, take your printout and grab a table and the food starts coming, brought by stunningly cheerful waiters. With wine, we paid all of 24 euros; the sound of the cooks cheering the World Cup on the TV in the kitchen came at no extra charge.
Without realizing it, I saved the best for last, in the least appealing city in all of Tuscany: Florence. Thanks to a good friend who hooked me up with her niece who lives there while studying Italian and wine, I wound up at Cibreo, on the affordable trattoria side. Along with her classmate from Utah, we split a 20-euro bottle of red and a starter of gelatinized tomatoes to spread on bread, then a potato-ricotta sformata with pesto, airy polenta with cheese and herbs and a porcini puree before the main events: boiled veal with green sauce, baccala montecato on toast points arranged in a star pattern and wonderfully tender salsicce with fagiole. Each was better than the last and every entree came with a complementary contorno for the 13-euro price: beet and potato salad with the baccala, zucchini variations with the others.
Along the way other dishes stood out: the tender cianghale in rich red sauce that made the dog bonkers in Pitigliano, at Osteria d’Acqua Ardente; the grilled and marinated artichoke hearts at Miravalle in Manciano; my first and last plate of charred Tuscan steak (tagliata with rosemary) at the restaurant where in my initial bout with jet lag I did not take a card; the grilled sausage and the sauce on the frogs’ legs off a student’s plate on the street at the Barbarossa festival in San Quirico; the fresh ricotta and perfect cherries for breakfast in our hotel in Pitigliano; the soppressa and pecorino Bob and I made dinner of on the terrace at the agriturismo in an olive grove outside that enchanting town. And as always, memories of even the most lackluster meal will make it very difficult to enjoy Italian in New York for a good long time. At least a year.
Il Loggiato, Piazza del Moretto 30, Bagno Vignoli, 39 (0) 57 788 8925La Porta, Via del Piano 3, Montecchiello, 39 (0) 57 875 5163Trattoria la Pergola, Via Roma 12-14, Orbetello, 39 (0) 56 486 7585Il Pescatori (dinner only), Via Leopardi 9, Orbetello, 39 (0) 56 486 0611Cibreo, Via dei Macci 118/122/R, Florence, 39 (0) 55 234 1100
BY BEER POSSESSED
If I had spent the better part of two years thinking some idiot American mistook me for Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons,” there is no way in hell I would be greeting her and her consort at the door of my estimable establishment in a cool apron, ready to dazzle them both with an even more over-the-luna experience than was provided the first high-octane time. But then I’m so unenlightened as to think beer is a four-letter word, not the milk of human brilliance the kitchenmeister at a certain pub outside Venice perceives it to be.I was almost persuaded otherwise over several hours and many courses, even before the serious alcohol started flowing. Certainly it’s hard to argue with a guy who has covered nearly every inch of his walls with 1,600-some bottles of beer and who makes it a rule that friends always bring him two bottles: one to taste, one to mount. Passion is amazingly communicable, and before long even this true believer in beer as “all bloat, no buzz” was almost picking up nuances and intensities to rival wine. Almost.
It was all so simple, and all so brilliant, was befits a theme of poor food. As soon as we sat down we were presented with the first beer, in a special carafe used by carriage drivers, set into a holder that kept it from spilling while cantering, along with an exquisite plate of thinly shaved ham cured in house: culatello style, but with beer rather than white wine. The meat was silky, with intense flavor. A different beer was poured with the next course, a plate with an oozy slab of that too-perishable-to-travel creamy cheese stracchino on baby arugula, drizzled with good vinegar made from beer, alongside slices of soppressa, sauteed to concentrate the flavor and accentuate the texture and awash in a vinegary cream sauce. Lesson one: Straccho in Venetian dialect means tired, and the name means “cheese from tired milk.” Okay. Lesson two: Thanks to EU rules, true soppressa from Veneto is a vanishing taste. Which I took to mean: Enjoy it, don’t analyze it.
The right Mr. Burns (Ken) materialized to explain the next course, a bread soup that he volunteered was “very strange.” This was the showcase for the box of vivid radicchio our mutual friend had brought him from the farm where we had spent a couple of afternoons near Treviso. Essentially it was layers of rye bread, radicchio and grana, baked in good brodo until the bread was crunchy and the radicchio and cheese anything but. It was fascinating, and I could only pity the other patrons all around us who were settling for mere sandwiches from the regular menu.
And it was not over yet. A platter of what we thought was grilled skewered lamb arrived next, but we were so ahead of the trend: it was mutton. A second platter with two vegetables — braised wild “grass” and sauteed wild mushrooms — came with that, as did, yes, another beer: Carolus, made for Easter, and even earthier than the mushrooms. As we were still sniffing and swirling that one, our gustatory guide materialized at tableside again, to explain that our last beer should be drunk “with a little bit of sadness,” because the Irish brewery that made it was closing the very next week. In its honor we had Cashel Blue, along with two Italian cheeses including “Wind of Summer” and various accompaniments including rosemary jelly. Things were getting fuzzy.
At this point in a press tasting, I would be starting to feel like a hostage, and not to pleasure. But we were in the very clear grip of an exceptional palate. If cookies arrived with a martini glass brimming with poire William, what could I do but dunk? And when the absinthe was poured, how could I not take our taste guide at his word when he insisted it was really the “mouse poison” artists drank with the notorious alcohol that made it so addictive and insanity-inducing? And how could I not try the grappa distilled in cherry and oak, or the one made from prosecco? And why can I not read any more of my notes?
I always think that if it were not for superstition, I would have no faith at all. So the greatest compliment to the chef is that at some point during dinner I quit worrying about the horror that my last meal before a flight did not involve wine. I could die happy knowing I had had an experience no other American, idiotic or otherwise, could stroll into La Lampada and ever have. But you could try. . . .
La Lampada, Largo S. Marco 4, Magliano, Italy 39 (0)41 590 5088.
I went once to Turin as a ghost and once as a cripple. The third time had to be the charm.
What I learned from this last trip is never to judge a city by August, or by its hospital. Turin was deserted in the eighth month of 2002 when we took the train there, lured by one of my consort’s photo workshop students who happened to mention the city was completely neglected by Americans. That it was, but then no one else was around either, including the student, only a few stocky, dour women on the street and a few more disengaged shopkeepers and restaurateurs. We had no interaction with any of them; we might as well have been invisible. And the city seemed profoundly less alluring last year after I checked into CTO with a fractured femur and was wheeled out 15 days later. When I went cruising in my wheelchair I could see its landmark, the Mole Antonelliana, from one hallway window, the Alps from another and sculls on the Po from a third, but otherwise I might as well have been in Lenox Hill without subtitles.
All of which makes it all the more amazing that I flew back most recently not just hating to come home but wishing I could live there. And not only because I finally got to walk into Lingotto, the former Fiat factory down the street from the hospital that has been converted into what has to be the world’s most stunning shopping center/hotel/gallery complex. Everything about Turin combines the sensuality of the Italian way of living with the brusque coldness of a big city that this survivor of a small-town childhood always finds simply irresistible.
A big difference on this trip, aside from my being ambulatory, was having a guide. The lovely, acerbic Laura showed us a completely new Turin, whether steering us to the back of the cathedral where all the worshippers were paying homage at the shrine to a plane-crashed football team rather than the ancient saints or taking us to cafes in full aperitivo mode, places where they pour great wine for one small price and serve tidbits of food for free. The other sea change was simply September. In the same way New York is reinvigorated by one flip of the calendar, Turin is apparently transformed when vacation month ends. And never more so than when the winter Olympics are looming. The whole city was torn up for construction of parking garages, arenas, even a subway; being there was like arriving at a dinner party while the stressed-out hosts are still getting dressed and screaming at each other over the un-set table.
Through it all we ate extremely well, without even trying. We staggered besottedly out of the totally seductive cinema museum and into Al 24, a sedate restaurant I remembered from our first trip, and without any bad flashbacks. The service was just as family-values smooth as the cooking was simple: rabbit agnolotti gilded with butter and rosemary; whole roasted branzino with amazing potatoes roasted with black olives. We followed my surgeon’s wife’s recommendation just down the arcade from her San Paolo Bank headquarters to Arcadia, a sushi-spaghetti crossover I would never have tried otherwise where the food was almost London-level and the prices almost cafe-low (mono-piatto special of gnocchi swimming in cream, followed by a zabaglione mousse, with wine and espresso, for all of 11 euros). I overindulged in duck sauced with honey and hot peppers with caramelized fennel after a vegetable strudel stuffed with vegetables and ricotta and thought I had died and gone to Paris.
Another night our guide took us to her favorite pizza place, a Neapolitan joint with admirable tackiness called Da Cristina, where the simplest pie (margarita with anchovies) was the very best. Other evenings we aperitived, to coin a verb. Laura and I sat out Bob’s sunset shooting by planting ourselves at Circus Bar and drinking local wines while picking at pistachios and olives before ordering lardo on crostini, tomatoes and fresh thyme on crostini and a form of hummus to scoop up with perfect grissini (the pride of Torino, she said — if they don’t snap, leave).
Laura also introduced us to aperitivo as feeding frenzy at Free Volo, near the shroud’s storage locker: a sidewalk cafe was overrun with people chowing down at a happy-hour buffet complete with grissini, huge olives, chunks of pecorino, boccocini, pasta salad (yes, in Italy), mortadella, salami, pancetta, brie and focaccia. At Spazio, in the splendiferous Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo gallery of hyper-modern art, we ate two different foccaccia, one with olives, the other with anchovies, followed by bocconcini and little “snails” of puff pastry rolled around pesto. And on our last night we found the cafe in the back of the wine shop Rosso Rubino just as it was closing. Eight euros bought two good pours of arneis and barbaresco plus an overloaded plate of toasts spread with roasted pepper puree and with garlic mayonnaise and capers, olives, cheese, grissini wrapped in prosciutto and much more. It was dinner, Torino style.
Somewhere along the line there was a mushroom pizza with breaded veal as the “crust,” at the sidewalk cafe at La Pace, and a couple of orgies with fried porcini, and drinks in a cafe where the waitress was evidently a he in good heels and better makeup than the next Sandra Day. There was one scary lunch at a suspiciously sumptuous restaurant called Due Mondi where the only other patrons were hulking guys in sunglasses, one with requisite blonde moll, and where the grissini failed the snap test but we stupidly stayed. I also seem to recall several breakfasts in a sunlit room at the charming, affordable (and Kummer-/Willinger-free) Hotel Piemontese, deep in the funky heart of San Salvaggio, near the train station. The cappuccini were superb, the cheeses always interesting, the chocolate croissants a lesson the French could take (the flaky dough was braided, not folded, over the dark chocolate).
But one lesson of three years ago was reinforced: No one should ever go to Turin without wallowing in bicerin, the addictive blend of hot coffee and chocolate and chilled cream served in a glass. We had our first this trip with my surgeon extraordinaire and his family, at Baratti & Milano, in the miles-long arcade in the center of town that was built to protect the king from having to walk in the rain. And we had our last at the 1763 shrine, Caffe al Bicerin, near the Porta Palazzo market. As the web site promises, it will “make your heart flutter.” Just as the city can, the third time around.
Al 24, Via Montebello 24, 011 812 2981Arcadia, Galleria Subalpina 16, 011 561 3898
La Pace, Via Bernardino Galliari 22, 011 650 5325
Free Volo, Piazza Emanuele Filiberto 7
Rosso Rubino Enoteca, Via Madama Cristina 21, 011 650 2183, rossorubino.net
Circus Bar, Piazza Gran Madre N. 10
Spazio, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, 011 983 1635, www.fondsrr.org/eng2/fondazione.htm (click through for the best kitchen shot ever)
Hotel Piemontese, Via Berthollet 21Baratti & Milano, Piazza Castello 29
Caffe al Bicerin, Piazza della Consolata 5, bicerin.it
PARIS IN THE SUMMERTIME
It was hot, it was dirty, it was empty, and I still kept walking around thinking: There could be no city on the planet more beautiful than Paris when it’s overcast. Gray skies just bring out the best in the place, even when more beggars are holding out cups, when you can spot guys squatting in the archways of beautiful buildings with dogs to help them panhandle, when the garbage and graffiti on the Metro on the way in from the airport look like New York in the early Nineties. It’s Paris, and there is no place like it. Even in July, a month so French-forsaken a princess could wind up dead there.
The upside of emptiness is that you can eat almost anywhere if you don’t try on a Sunday night. I walked into Joel Robuchon’s Atelier on Monday at noontime and almost would have had the expansive place to myself if not for a pompous Dutch ass and his wife, a big dog with a bowl seated below his owners across the room and maybe two other couples. Even better, it proved to be a conceptual revolution, the antithesis of the Per Se/Tetsuya hostage situation for degustation. At Atelier, you can taste on your own terms, as little or as much as you like.
I got greedy and chose two courses from the do-it-yourself tasting menu and threw in a regular main course because I have a weakness for quail, especially when it’s stuffed with foie gras and teamed with Robuchon’s signature potato puree (vegetable transformed into dairy) overkilled with truffles. Nothing but that dish was what I expected: the crab with avocado brought the seafood in a springroll with the fruit mashed and beautifully seasoned on the side. The poached egg came in a frothy broth with chanterelles, and over a little bed of perfect spinach, all in a martini glass and all transporting. Dessert was a bit of a letdown — a souffle is just a souffle, even when it’s chartreuse and filled with pistachio glace. But waiter was superb and so were the two wines he chose, especially the white, a Domaine Galby Calcinaires.
Contrary to what so many travel writers have regurgitated, the place is not small and not like a lunch counter (sushi, maybe). And it is drop-dead gorgeous, with gleaming surfaces and exposed cooktops with Creuset-type pots and with big bowls of cherries on ice (not to be sampled, judging by the disgusted reaction of the host when my pompous neighbors departed, leaving a mound of pits). It was as close to perfect as a restaurant can get, at least when it’s nearly empty.
The Pompous Asses said Robuchon’s other restaurant was far stuffier and less satisfying, so I decided not even to try it. That night I went to the other extreme, looking for a classic, classic bistro. Unfortunately, almost everything on the menu at Allard was meant for two, or even three. It was no place to eat alone, although the room was so beautiful it was almost entertainment enough: zinc bar, huge flowers, crazed mirror, vintage photos, ancient paint.
From the first bite of the pate de canard, it was like reveling in tradition, though, if at a scary price. My sole was $51; the second-cheapest half-bottle on the list, a sancerre, was 23 euros. But that was the best rendition of sole meuniere I will ever eat: fresh, firm, exquisitely cooked, and boned so fast by the waiter it was still hot when I put my fork into it.
Since everyone was buzzing about the Regalade chef come out of retirement to cook at Le Comptoir, I dutifully made my way there and was appalled to see it was in a tired old tartine joint where my consort and I had had a pretty grim experience two trips ago. But I couldn’t resist going back for my last lunch, braving the hordes latish for what turned out to be an ideal meal: foie gras terrine pressed with cepes, with eggplant puree and balsamic viengar on the side and a wedge of crisp lettuce in sharp vinaigrette on top; gratin of brandade de morue with crispy onions strewn over the center, right about where your mouth usually gets tired of the creaminess, and two glasses of rose. I’m not sure I would be able to suffer the cramped room for the six-course tasting menu at night, but the idea of brilliant food at an affordable price with cafe easiness is pretty seductive.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, 5, rue Montalembert (7th), 33 1 42 22 56 56.
Allard, 41, rue St.-Andre-des-Arts (6th), 33 1 43 26 48 23.
Le Comptoir, 9, carrefours de l’Odeon (6th), 33 1 44 27 07 97.
THE REDEMPTION OF ST.-REMY
The real reason I braved Europe for the first time since The Incident is taking some time to assimilate. But I’m glad I went if only to experience St.-Remy in Provence in a kinder light. The first time we breezed through we saw mostly souvenir shops, ate a good lunch at Maison Jaune and tasted some amazing confections at a brand-new shop opened by Joel Durand, who was mixing then wildly exotic spices like star anise into his deep dark chocolate. This trip we were lodged at a splendiferous new hotel for five nights and had all the time in the world to lean back and enjoy it.
Our first meal was at Alain Assaud, a name I plucked out of the Michelin at the TGV station as we staggered into town not sure where we were or what time it was after a late overnight flight. Not only was it one of those fantasy finds — friendly, nicely appointed, interesting — but it had a menu at 25 euros. My consort played around a la carte, with excellent duck pot au feu and a tomato tart with anchovies and basil, but I greedily took all three courses: eggplant flan, a quintessential grande aioli with mussels, whelks, vegetables and three kinds of fish, and then a rhubarb tart. We needed about half that after sitting down to tapenade and toasts, bread and superb butter, and a little plate of anchovies in puff pastry in various forms (snail, crescent and tartlet). A bottle of rose was doled out in tiny glasses the way the French do so brilliantly to make one bottle last as long as you need it.
Next night we met a friend who lives in what she described as a cow town, where locals sing karaoke and fantasize about bulls. Her restaurant choice was Grain du Sel, where we sat on the terrace at the mercy of a dramatic-looking waiter who apparently had much better things to do than tend to our table. At her instigation we both ordered tasting plates, meat for my consort and mostly vegetable for me, but we swapped right away to avoid giving him foie gras nightmares. Imagine a degustation on a platter and you have a sense of what it was like to dabble among foie gras terrine, magret, apple stuffed with duck gizzards, onion frites, duck confit, miniature fried ravioli, composed salad and more. At 25 euros a person, though, it was hard to complain about too much.
For our last lunch before the orgy began, we went back to Maison Jaune, the best choice on a beating-down-hot Sunday afternoon. I’m convinced we ate exactly the same market menu as our last trip, back in the last century, but I could face it down every day on that wondrous terrace: cantaloupe soup with fresh basil paired with a pigeon leg with tomato confit; pistou with beans and sliced goat cheese; duck breast with orange, fennel and olives; goat cheese with pine nuts and sublime olive oil, and fresh cantaloupe with strawberries and jam.
Joel Durand was closed when we staggered out, but just steps away we found Anne Daguin’s pastry shop, Le Petit Duc, where she sells candies and cookies baked from medieval recipes at seriously modern prices. And we were very happy to be staying just a short saunter away at Les Ateliers d’Image, where the staff was a singular combination of friendly and hyper-efficient and the modern room was starkly beautiful and the shower was such a world-class experience we never even tried the pool we could see from our little veranda. It was like a resort in the center of town, a town that may be the Santa Fe of France but does have its charms.
Alain Assaud, 13, blvd Marceau, 33 4 90 92 37 11
Grain du Sel, 23-25, blvd Mirabeau, 33 4 90 92 00 89
Maison Jaune, 15, rue Carnot, 33 4 90 92 56 14Les Ateliers de L’Image, 36, blvd Victor Hugo, hotelphoto.com.
IN THE FORMER EVIL EMPIRE
Even without the back story, Estonia would be one of the most seductive destinations anywhere in Europe. But starting a visit with someone who grew up under Soviet rule and remembers the days of stringent rationing when a big bar of chocolate would bribe the way into the doctor’s office made it seem even more marvelous, in every sense of the word. Our connection, Maarten Kross, is the son of a renowned writer who was shipped off to Siberia and once saw green coffee beans in a shop there. When he tried to buy them, Maarten said, the owner said no, they were worthless — she had tried to boil them the day before and after three hours they were still hard. Half an hour after that sad laugh, we were sitting down to huge and excellent lattes in a cafe called Moskva that made Soho seem stuffy.
Two days later we had lunch at Pegasus in the old writers’ union clubhouse but might as well have been in London. The sleek space was designed to the max — with clever “paintings” done in masking tape on the walls, big windows for seeing and being seen, table decorations of coffee beans nestled with limes, women’s toilets designed for hovering (easily the best idea in plumbing since the foot flusher) — and the cooking was that rarity, a steady hand on the global throttle (the chef is English with Indian roots).
The three-course budget carte (shades of Restaurant Week) was a little dull aside from the extraordinary plum sorbet, but I was amazed at my choices: asparagus with minted pea cakes and smoked salmon, followed by the most I-dare-you option on the long menu: “Cantonese style roasted duck with vegetable pow — Chinese dumpling.” 66 should do something so brilliant and so well. Both the breast and the leg were beautifully cooked, and the fat dumpling was better than I have ever eaten in New York (if not Hong Kong).
Our last meal was on the flip side of Estonia, a subterranean, very cosy restaurant called Vanaema Jures (roughly, Grandmother’s), owned by the director of the theater where my consort had presented his photo show, the reason for our flying to a latitude so northern it would be uninhabitable without the Gulf Stream. On sitting down with the boss, we were told everyone ordered what Hillary Clinton did: the traditional Christmas dish of Estonia, roast pork with pickled cabbage and fried potatoes. It was good, but my salmon with “cream-cheese sauce” was pretty great and the director’s cut of beef with pickles and roasted potatoes was the real winner. For dessert, we were lobbied into kama, the one true national dish, if the bear baiters were to be believed. It was either an acquired or a forced taste, a cereal-like blend of grains and ground dried peas with a little jam for sweetness.
But as always in Estonia, the true pleasure of Grandmother’s was the back story. The decor, the owner admitted, was more stage set than vintage authenticity (the photos came from families besides his own, the awards and plaques from estate sales, the sewing machine near the door from who knows where). It was a testament to restaurants as theater — as he said, they “sell air” as much as food — but it was topped by his Hillary remembrance. The day she was to come to lunch, he had no idea and arrived at the theater upstairs to find a cluster of men in sport coats and ties with earpieces. One of them asked him if he had heard from the White House, and he assumed it was a rock group. What we all wouldn’t give for the good old days of innocence, before honor and dignity collapsed.
Pegasus, Harju 1, 372 631 4040.Restaurant Vanaema Juures, 10/12 Rataskaevu, 372 626 9080.
RUNNING ON FUMES
It’s noon on our first day in Italy this trip. Our bags are lost somewhere between Newark and Venice, and the Air France kit with compensatory toiletries complete with condom has not been much of an antidote to the high aroma of our slept-in clothes. We’re only a couple of hours into Wine Day, the lavish taste-and-talk extravaganza at Villa Braida where my consort is to receive a photography award, and we have at least nine hours to go before the big dinner and slide show for all the wine producers working with the sponsor, Vinoteca Balan. Two cappuccini are not helping. Lunch sounds like the better No-Doz.
Our friend Diego Orlando suggests calling one of his friends who will open his restaurant for us, and we’re off in two cars with five strangers and acquaintances. We crawl under half-closed security gates into what could be a bar in a movie: every wall covered with either jazz posters or bottles of beer of every description. Within minutes a guy who looks like a cross between Jackson Browne and Ken Burns is popping open what could be a bottle of Champagne and setting out plates of taralli and homemade pickled vegetables, olives and peperoncini. The bubbles are beer, a special kind called Zahre, and it’s as smooth as Veuve Clicquot.
JB/KB’s clone excuses himself to “bake some bread,” then reappears with two plates piled with steaming focaccia, not much thicker than tortillas and fragrant with oregano. He vanishes again to make the lunch he has dreamed up while painting walls after Diego called: “salsiccia, birra, pecorino” for the sauce, spaghetti alla guitarra for the pasta. We quickly polish off a bottle of great Altis sauvignon from Friuli, and then he brings out big chunks of pecorino di fossa, aged underground in walnut leaves, and insists we drink marsala Terre Arsa with each piece. And then it won’t do unless we try some ice cream with fig marmalade drenched in Calvados. As we all start to make Mr. Creosote motions, he plonks three bottles of 23-year-old booze — Scotch, Irish whiskey and Venezuelan rum — on the table and tries to persuade us to taste them all to understand how age matures them to similar perfection. We have many wines still to sample back at the Balan event, though, and so we say our thanks and goodbyes. As we head to the car, our driver shakes his head. “He’s nice,” he says, “but he is without caution.”
A man after my own heedless liver, the bar maestro shows up later in the day to give one last hint of Italy’s high-octane culture. As we’re working our way from table to table sipping our samples, he tells us there’s an Italian term called staffa — one last drink for a horseman who has his foot in the stirrup. I still had motor skills enough to write it down in my notebook, but I have a feeling it will not be forgotten any sooner than that surreal sojourn in a pub outside Venice.
La Lampada, Largo S. Marco, 4, Magliano, Veneto 39 (0)41 590 5088.
TAKE THE MEAT AND RUN
Usually the nicest thing I can ever say about Florence is that it isn’t Rome. Which is my least favorite city in the world, between the noise, the dirt and the gap-toothed gigolos (not to mention the Vatican). But now I know the secret to enjoying the most overrun Italian city outside Venice: duck in on a Thursday night, go to a friend’s lavish birthday party on Friday night and fly right out. With a stop or two for a Florence-specific meal and not enough sleep in a find of a hotel (the Pitti Palace), it’s just about bearable.
Stop One was Cammillo Trattoria, after the hosts at a weeks-old Manhattanesque restaurant steps from the hotel told us they were fully committed and recommended what looked to my suspicious eye like a tourist trap just steps farther down the same street. I was cranky right up until my quintessential fried zucchini blossoms arrived, and they almost made up for being surrounded by the same kind of people who ruin meals all over the world. (Aggressive English can break the strongest overseas spell.) But the food, the wine, the service were all faultless. Which was no surprise once I later realized Cammillo was where the birthday after-party would be held, as the host’s favorite restaurant in all of Florence.
Stop Two was a restaurant recommended by our aging Gambero Rosso as the best value/quality equation in Florence, a cramped joint called Mario right outside Mercato Pike Place. Again, the line waiting for the few seats was all speaking the wrong language, but the experience was everything you hope for when you’re looking for disorentientation. The menu was oral, the wine list tiny, the tables shared, the toilets of the back-into-the-footsteps-and-aim variety. My consort was hellbent on trying the house specialty, Florentine steak for two, and it was worth whatever our friends wound up paying for a forkful, buttery-tender and full of all-too-rare beefy richness. The potatoes (freedom frites, to be more precise) were also excellent. So was the wine. But the preserved-in-garlic ambience was the best part. It all but pounded the message of eat and run, which is just what you want to hear in Florence.
Cammillo Trattoria, 57r Borgo San Jacopo, 39 (0)55 21 24 27.Mario, 2r Via Rosina, 39 (0)55 21 8555.
NO EXCESS, PLEASE, WE’RE DANISH
By the sixth day in Copenhagen, it was starting to sink in why suicide is so prevalent in Scandinavia. There are only so many burger-nachos-Caesar salad menus you can face in endless sunlight. And then we met an editor from the hip newish food magazine Spis Med who suggested we try the restaurant her partner just happened to run which just happened to have won its first Michelin star. Our only hesitation was not at the out-of-France rating or even the price — a set menu at close to $100 was starting to sound like a bargain — but the five courses involved. We were looking at a wake-up call at 3:30 the next morning, and the last thing either of us wanted was a marathon at the table (or, to put it more bluntly, a protracted exercise in chefly onanism).
From the amuse we knew we were in for a very well-edited ride. It was a tiny bowl of cucumber “soup” that was really juice, with a couple of dribbles of intense olive oil and a single square of red mullet that was equal parts oceanic flavor and taste-extending texture. After a better than decent interval we were presented with a tiny cup of still foaming pea soup accompanied by a few perfectly grilled scallops with first-of-the-season peas, baby carrots and a leaf of wood sorrel. A judicious slab of mullet baked in black olive puree came next, with a tiny terrine of crab and tomato on one side and a hint of garlicky cucumbers in yogurt on the other. Those few bites were followed by a generous slice of foie gras set over pickled white asparagus and under roasted wild mushrooms (three for three). And then we got a spectacular little bit of rabbit with the new potatoes Danes go nuts for in springtime. Our plans to skip dessert vaporized when we saw that it was rhubarb three ways, most dramatically in a chibouste, an idea that makes panna cotta seem as reflexive as creme brulee.
Restraint is not something you would expect in a place called — seriously — The Thief, the Cook, His Wife and Her Lover. But we were back in our room by 10:30, in a much lighter mood. Tetsuya could seriously benefit from a trip Up Over.
TyvenKokkenHansKoneOgHendesElsker, 16 Magstraede, 33 16 1292.
MY DINNER WITHOUT CESARE
Actually, it was lunch, and a friend who is friends with the wife was with me. Neither of us could agree what was causing the extra attention and freebies, but it certainly made my second encounter with the place much nicer than the first (I went in the first weeks after it opened with a high-profile friend who had made reservations well in advance and we ate bad food at the worst table in the house . . . but that was a long time ago). On request, we were moved to not the second-worst table in the house (for a 2 o’clock reservation, we were to be seated in the most cramped two-top back in the Guantanamo of section of the dining room), and before long the atonements were flying. They almost made it possible to ignore the fact that the lighting on our side of the room had apparently been installed by Ashcroft’s goons. I was ready to confess to anything.
Just when I was about to go into sticker shock ($30 entrees at lunch, and Daniel Boulud is not involved?), we were presented with a house specialty, octopus salami. It looked much better than it sounded (white pressed round stuff sliced paper thin, rolled around mizuna and dolloped with tapenade topped with pickled shallots), and tasted better than such a human-like seafood ever should. Unfortunately, we followed it with a pasta we chose together: gemelli made with chestnut flour and tossed with “wild” mushrooms. The pasta was gray-brown and gummy, the mushrooms tasted mostly of garlic and at one point my friend lifted a fork tangled with six congealed twists and said disgustedly: “This is how Jeanne makes pasta at home.”
Entrees were better, although my monkfish wrapped in prosciutto with sage was oddly peculiar and her beef short rib could only have been carved off an ox, maybe an elephant. Before we had time to get critical, a huge plate of fries arrived, crisp and crunchy and heavy with herbs.
By dessert, our nervous waiter had vanished and what looked to be a busboy was confidently offering us dessert. We declined, he disappeared and two glasses of moscato materialized, followed shortly by a tableful of gratis desserts. From worst to best: Peanut butter ravioli would, in the words of another friend, bring back Mussolini, particularly if he tried to get a mouthful with the julienned apples and spaghetti-length strands of celery tangled on top. Gingerbread pudding/cake is a bad idea in Washington’s birthplace but scary in a restaurant with Italy-worshipping photos on every wall. A little panna cotta surrounded by excellent citrus and juice, though, was just what you think dessert in Italy might be.
Go for our freebies and you can eat quite well.
Beppe, 45 East 22d Street, 212 982 8422.
OUT WITH THE OLD
I take back whatever I said about the odd coupling of David Burke and Donatella Arpaia. Their new restaurant is Italian in spirit only. Burke has lost none of his American wildness. Instead, he’s taking it to a higher level with this new partner. Dinner from his kitchen in her dining room on New Year’s Eve was one of the brightest spots in a grim year of chewing through Manhattan.
I chose it for two reasons: We could get a reservation days in advance because it was just opening, and the menu was not the usual amateur-night gouge (unlike the Biltmore Room, which demanded $150 a person before wine — and was still pleading in the Post for reservations on Dec. 31). We had a choice of three courses for $65 or a tasting for $100. Because I reserved in my own name and know both partners, though, I’ll confess we got the best of both menus.
An amuse of pomme souffle with caviar landed as we were still hearing the story of how the staff had only been serving for seven nights. We were reveling in Mumm at $12 a glass when little shotglasses of foie gras mixed with steak tartare arrived. Before we could get to our first courses of blue crab ravioli in minestrone broth and foie gras terrine with tempura-fried grapes we had to plow through comped lobster-Sauternes flan, served in a brown eggshell with a perfect quail breast and beggar’s purse of the leg and shiitakes on the side, and pastrami salmon paired with a sea urchin panna cotta to spread on seaweed-topped toasts. Bigger appetites than ours would have called it quits about then, but we still had to face down the main courses: “filet mignon” of veal with pistachio ravioli, and lobster “steak,” both perfectly humongous. Except for the portion sizes, we could almost have been eating at Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch in London. The food was as whimsical as Burke can get but still as serious as Escoffier, while the service was that all-too-rare blend of professional and conversational.
Add to that a wine list that Donatella calls an atlas. All wines are grouped by latitudes, which communicates more than the most overwrought descriptions. Even better, the low end was as appealing as the high. We ordered a Peter Lehman semillon from Australia for $31 that was a good bridge between the Champagne before and after dinner.
For dessert, we had fireworks. Along with the two we chose, the kitchen sent out a dark chocolate-praline torte and a super-rich butterscotch pudding in a martini glass plus a huge arrangement of petits fours. All three were richer than the citrus trio I’d picked, but nothing could top Bob’s cheesecake lollipop tree. It literally came with a trunk and branches, each speared with one of Burke’s signature little balls of cheesecake dipped in different coatings. And they packed the leftovers to go.
New Year’s always brings out my superstitious side. I believe whatever you do on the last night of December is a symbol of what you will do or feel in the year to come. And if so, I could be in trouble. Bliss could outweigh bile, and then where would I be?
DavidBurke & Donatella, 133 East 61st Street off Lexington Avenue, 212 813 2121.
THE SOUND OF FLAVOR
One of my rules for travel is that the less appealing a place sounds, the better it will be. Salzburg was not even in my top 500 destinations when my consort suggested I tag along on a shoot there, but it now ranks pretty high on my list of great cities of the world, especially when it comes to food. There’s a there there. As I’d dreaded, it is a tourist town, but the tourists are not the usual quarter-tonners in shorts scarfing sausages as they waddle behind strollers. This town lives off serious money. Which may not buy taste but does buy consistently great food. Locals we met volunteered that Wienerwald was “the worst restaurant in Salzburg,” but one of them conceded that even there, if you stuck to schnitzel, you could have a decent meal.
From our first eating experience, in a deserted beer cellar recommended by a Local Contact who used to wait tables there, I was certainly impressed. The salad, as it turns out all Salzburg salads are, was more of a soup, with about an inch of dressing in the bottom of the bowl. But the greens, tomatoes and cucumber were all California quality. Spinat nockerl, floating in a cream sauce with just a little ham, were pasta the way the Italians should only have conceived of it. Local fish with lemon sauce and perfect roast potatoes was also exceptional, but then Gruner Veltliner at about 3 euros a deep glass may have clouded my judgment.
Breakfast was always a high point, starting at the legendary Bazar the next morning. The room looked austere but not once the food arrived: croissants with spectacular marmalade and currant jam, cappuccini and a platter of ham, bread and exceptional cheese. People-watching, even at 9 in the morning, was the best show on the river.
Fingerlos Cafe was cool and warm for breakfast two days, the most gorgeous sunlit room with tall trees and flower-splashed curtains and hyper-efficient waitresses. It’s the ground floor of a rich old folks’ home, which made it all the more surprising to see many tables popping Champagne at 9 in the morning. The regular breakfast with meat and cheese was good, especially with crudites and a chive cheese spread, but the scrambled eggs everyone orders are the best.
My appetite for wiener schnitzel was running pretty rabid by lunchtime the first day, about 24 hours since my first encounter with the breaded and fried cutlets at a truck stop suggested by LC (a place worth the visit just for the pay toilet, where e50 cents bought a singular show of a little machine washing the pliable seat by pulling it out from an oval into a round to cover every surface). And so I brushed off a suggestion by Bob’s local assistant Helmut that we just eat sausages at a stall in the street market in the center of town, where the produce displays looked like Paris on steroids, and try the “pub” his friend recommended. Which is how we came to be eating tortelloni in cream sauce and Middle Eastern lamb kebabs and Thai coconut soup at tables under umbrellas and a sprinkling sky while a French waiter brought water bowls for the dogs around us. All the food was good, but not as fascinating as the show late that night when we came back for Bob to shoot and saw local sots being escorted out by bouncers while young tourist-tenders in their dirndls and other local costumes were knocking back beer and wine in the hip bar.
We got our fix of Austrian food that night after stumbling across a century-old beer hall serving Die Weisse, which Helmut later told us was popular with tourists but also with locals. Maybe it was a cliche, but there’s a reason cliches linger. We split a ragout of the chanterelles we had seen at the market (overwhelmed, unfortunately, by a paprika sauce) with a heavy bread dumpling, and a heaping “snack” platter of three hams, two bacons, two cheeses and my first encounter with real Liptauer spead. Bob had the beer on tap, I tried all the wine and we left through what felt like a separate beer hall, a completely renovated and modern half of the restaurant, complete with Warholesque pictures on the wall of the hallway to the sleek bathrooms. The tourist slogan for this town should be “Mozart has left the building.”
Continuing on my mission of “when in Salzburg, eat as the Austrians do,” we took refuge from the brutal rain next afternoon at Stiftskeller St. Peter, owned by the church that hulks over it. Everything about it screamed tourist snare, but we plunged in and were rewarded with a snug little table with equal views of the square and the musicians and Salzburghers at other tables. This was the place to wallow in wiener schnitzel, and I did, with three plate-size cutlets cooked to juicy crustiness. Bob recaptured essence of Polish childhood with an outsized casserole of roast pork with sauerkraut, dumplings and pan juices. I had the salad/soup to start, while he rolled his eyes back in his head over the creamy smoked trout soup with pumpernickel croutons and herb sprigs.
That was a hard act to follow, but the next day LC came through when we insisted on eating traditional food for one of our last meals. She had to make several calls on her “handy” (the perfect name for a cell phone) and consult a number of coworkers, but she did find us Wirt am Gries, a restaurant with an octogenarian (read cranky) waiter, outdoor cafe decorated with kurbis (as they call winter squash) and some dazzling food. The menu, like every other one we encountered, could have been in hieroglyphics, but it turned out that only about half the choices were classics. She ordered an LA-worthy salad topped with strips of chicken schnitzel, and we divvied up the few remaining relics. Kasnocken servietl are the world’s greatest rendition of macaroni and cheese: airy dumplings fried in a black skillet with strong cheese. The pumpkin soup was stellar: very creamy, strongly squashy but with an undertone of curry and a serious garnishing of pumpkin seed oil and toasted seeds. LC insisted we share her favorite dessert, kaysermarron, which amounted to torn fried pancakes to dredge in plum sauce. Tastes like that are why you suffer flying anymore.
Ikarus turned out to be the perfect name for the setting of our last meal, in a glass complex called Hangar 7 built by the founder of Red Bull to showcase his airplane collection. The tiny, over-the-top restaurant took us just a little too close to the sun, for four hours of Michelin-seeking service and silver. Our meal put some of the best cooking in New York to shame, but getting through it was an ordeal, even though we both took the shortest four-course options, one vegetarian, one meat-heavy.
The amuse was brilliant: a gazpacho-like soup made from melon with fried mozzarella sticks on the side. Any chef worth his beef stock could turn out the carnivorous menu: crayfish with baby asparagus, favas, mache and a cucumber sorbet; St. Pierre wrapped in prosciutto set over creamy lentils with two sauces; squab stuffed with foie gras and teamed with roasted porcini. But Bob’s was the test of meatfree brilliance: Parmesan flan layered with eggplant puree made crunchy with pine nuts as well as marinated tomatoes and pesto, then artichokes in barigoule with goat cheese tortellini and mint, all winding up with a wild idea that worked: carpaccio of potato literally cooked on the plate, topped with a mound of roasted porcini and surrounded with an herby green sauce. Desserts were a letdown, but there’s no way they wouldn’t be after that kind of high-wire cooking.
Two tips on Salzburg: Fly into Munich and you’ll save the price of a meal at Ikarus, and definitely avoid the place during any of the myriad festivals, unless you’ve bought your $100 concert tickets already. Our room at the corporate-bleak Sheraton was 367 euros a night until the festival ended, then the rate dropped to 95. For the first price, the least they could leave on the pillow would be the authentic Mozart chocolate, from Furst, not the dime-store one made from cheap chocolate and artificial flavorings wrapped in gold foil that has turned out to be the first ball my cat will actually chase around the kitchen.
Pittir Keller, 6-8 Rainerstrasse, Salzburg
Cafe Bazar, 3 Schwartzstrasse, Salzburg
Cafe Fingerlos, 9 Franz Joseph Street, Salzburg, 0662/ 874213
Republic Cafe/Bar/Club, 2 Anton Neumayr Platz, Salzburg, 0662/841613
Die Weisse, 10 Rupertgasse, 0662/872246
Stiftskeller St. Peter, Salzburg, 0662/841268
Wirt am Gries, St. Gilgen am Wolgangsee, 0662/2386
Ikarus, Hangar 7, 2 Wilhelm Spazierstreet, Salzburg, 0662/2197
HOME OF THE BRAVE
Eating in London never felt more luxurious than it did after Salzburg. A menu mostly in English is truly a thing of beauty after half a week trying to remember which word on which bathroom connotes a skirt.
My one goal was to get to the pioneering new Indian restaurant Benares, but we missed it because we had a surprisingly tough time trying to persuade a Londoner to join us, and we had only two meals alone, and one was on the fly. Luckily, I wasn’t minimally working for a high-profile travel page, so my dereliction of table duty isn’t quite so embarrassing.
Benares, however, could be the Taj Mahal of London cuisine and would still be left in the dust by Sketch, Pierre Gagnaire’s partnership with the mob scenemeister from Madonna hangout Momo. The three-star Paris chef has turned the old Royal Architecture Academy into a gastrodome that makes Terence Conran look like Steve Hanson. The first floor houses a hip, packed cafe with videos on the wall, an intimate bar and, during the day, a tearoom that is as far removed from mustiness as Manhattan is from Baghdad. The bathrooms are the most talked about in town: each stall is a pod, like an eggshell, or maybe like a sterile airplane toilet. But on the second floor, the Lecture Room is a 40-seat pleasure palace, with that over-the-top British design married to total French comfort. Eating there ranked right up with our exercises in overkill at the French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s, and not just because the appetizers alone were 30-some pounds apiece.
Gagnaire has his finger in the wind of three-star dining, and he knows you need young people downstairs to keep the old-fogey chairs filled upstairs. Arriving at Sketch is like landing at a club, and there’s a good feeling about having the rope to the second floor pulled aside when you give your name. There’s a weird feeling when you set your foot onto what looks like melted chocolate spilled down the stairs, but it’s the right set-up for the whole evening, which is formal but funky and precise but loose. The young staff, once you get used to all the silver tongs and whisking away of Limoges china, seems genuinely interested in guaranteeing a satisfying ride on the roller-coaster of haute cuisine.
For starters, Gagnaire has solved the whole problem of 16 mini-courses and fussiness and flatware changing. He goes for shock and awe with multiple dishes landing at once. The first amuse is a five-parter that arrives on one tray and includes a cuttlefish “tapenade” with red peppers, sauerkraut with salmon caviar, and two little flavored wafers. Before the appetizers, the table is blanketed with little dishes to be sampled clockwise: foie gras mousse topped with raspberry coulis, a miniature cassoulet with Emmenthaler and pork belly, a sardine on toast with Espelette pepper, beef carpaccio on a herring mousse. (Descriptions do not do this food justice.)
My appetizer was “essence of spring,” which I pooh-poohed on the cusp of September but which tasted like a long-lost season. Crab was combined with julienned snowpeas and olive oil ice cream in one dish, sheep’s milk cheese was gelled over a green tomato sorbet in another, a sweet pea soup with lettuce, rye dumplings and Beaufort cheese floated in a third. The guinea fowl for a main course was worth every pence of the 55-pound price: the breast was stuffed with green papaya and set over a zucchini jam with parmesan over a wine sabayon, while the leg was caramelized with onion.
Talk about a party in your mouth. When dessert time came, I insisted we get two (4 pounds apiece — is Gagnaire a genius, or what?) and I’m never a sweets person. The whole next day we walked around feeling good, not gorged, and almost as if we had been to the theater we never had time to indulge in.
The other revelations of London were Eyre Brothers, where friends took us, and J. Sheekey, where we wedged ourselves into the bar late one night after Bob was finished shooting and we felt as if we’d infiltrated a private club without bribing the doorman.
Eyre Brothers is described in the usually reliable Harden’s guide as “Hispanic,” but something must be lost in the overseas translation. The menu was the liveliest amalgam outside of Peter Gordon’s Sugar Club, where we last ate with those same friends. Bob stunned me by ordering safe: scrambled eggs with chorizo, which were outstanding, and then a superb halibut with capers and lentils. The menu, after all, had Sacha-seeking devices like conger eel steaks and casseroled wild rabbit (a little Old Spot must go a long way). I have to say I picked out a perfect meal, at least until we had eau de vie forced upon us by the house after two bottles of wine. Quail “confit” with garlic, chile and smoked paprika was a stunning starter, and a grilled whole dorade was better than I have ever gotten in Italy. The flesh actually held together long enough to fork off the bone.
J. Sheekey, by contrast, was straightforward seafood: I couldn’t finish a world-class slab of Rye Bay plaice, grilled with tartar on the side, and Bob had to finish the eels in rich green sauce with those Robuchon-style potatoes that turn a vegetable into dairy. We split a big portion of crab “hoummous” that was an idea worth stealing: a faintly spicy mayonnaisy spread of seafood with flatbread. Eating at a real table might have been fun, too, but the place gave off Grand Central vibes: better to indulge at the oyster bar.
Our other meals in London were fine, but it tells you something about the state of the world that Salzburg is worth detailing just in case anyone gets there anytime soon. London will keep on churning, and apparently always for the better.
Sketch, Lecture Room, 9 Conduit Street, London W1, 0870 777 4488
Eyre Brothers, 70 Leonard Street, London EC2, 7613 5346
J Sheekey, 28-32 St.-Martin’s Court, London WC2, 7240 2565
Eating alone in public is never easy, even though I have been training myself to do it for 30 years, ever since I decided to drop out of college in Tucson and move to Nebraska. The first thing I did then was go to a Woolworth’s in the town I knew, sit at the counter and order a meal, just to be sure I could in a strange city. What I have since learned is that it’s so much less stressful in alien surroundings. I just tell myself: “You’ll never see these people again,” and I can get through eight courses and sometimes more.
Palermo, however, was a challenge, not least because my consort was busy teaching a photo workshop and eating in bars and pizzerias and I was aiming a little higher. My first meal alone was on a holiday afternoon when the small, surprisingly formal restaurant I had chosen was crowded with rich extended families out celebrating. My last was in a small, casual restaurant where the only people on the premises were me, the waiter and the chef. I don’t know which was more awkward: seeing all eyes in the room averted from my pathetic table, or having all eyes on me with every bite I took.
Both lunches more than made up for any weirdness, though, not least because a bottle of white wine — good white wine — costs as little as 6 euros in Sicilian restaurants.
Lo Scudiero, my first stop, would be worth any discomfort for the bread spread alone: it was a little piped mound of Gorgonzola blended with bechamel and butter. I was spreading it daintily until I noticed all the other tables just dragging grissini through it to scoop major mouthfuls. I could have stopped with that and the free prosecco.
But I was soon presented with a plate of linguine with tuna and squash blossoms that seemed rather ordinary until I kept swirling more forkfuls. Unlike pasta in America, which goes from dull to boring as you eat, this one somehow seemed to be working like wine: allowed to breathe, it got deeper and headier. The whole grilled orata with roasted potatoes was just as straightforward but nuanced, especially after the waiter anointed it with five or six passes from a decanter of seriously good olive oil. For once, I was happy not to have anyone to share with.
La Scudiera was far more different than just a change of vowels (the translation is “the stable;” no one could tell me what “scudiero” meant). Instead of a big fancy printed menu accompanied by a rolling cart of seafood, it had a single handwritten sheet in a plastic sleeve, with dishes I had never heard of. I picked two at random — a “tortino” and something the waiter haltingly described as salumi rolled in meat — and sat back with my wine and my lonesome. Immediately the waiter was back with an array of dishes stacked up his arm: a platter of caponata and the best grilled eggplant with garlic I have ever tasted anywhere; a small bowl of tart green olives; a saucer of seawater-fresh anchovies; a saucer of semolina-sesame bread, and a little bowlful of ragusano cheese and house-made salami, one simply spicy, one pepper-red and spicy. I tried them all before the watchful waiter came back to persuade me to try the pork cubes in gelatine. They were definitely of the “don’t ask” school of cooking, but they did taste light-years away from a hot dog.
My tortino was not cake or pie but a bowlful of little round pasta links that looked like Cheerios, sauced with ground meat and fresh peas, bits of each caught in the center of every round. I ate as much as I could as the chef peered on from across the room (no pressure, of course). The secondo was two little rolls of veal stuffed with ground and chunked mortadella and salami and other cured meats, along with pine nuts and bread crumbs and what tasted almost like cinnamon, all in a saffon-scented pea sauce. You won’t try that at home.
To keep the chef’s spirits up as the room still sat empty at 2:20, I ordered the cassata al forno, which was worlds apart from the usual hypersweet Sicilian dessert you see but never want to taste in New York. It was like a warm cheesecake with a few flecks of chocolate in a light crust. And my only regret was having but one stomach to give to it.
Lo Scudiero, via Filippo Turati 7, Palermo, 091 58 1628. Lunch with wine, water and espresso macchiato, 33 euros.
Trattoria de “La Scudiera,” via Castrofilippo 10/12, Palermo, 091 617 7152. Lunch with wine and water, 28 euros.
PROVING THE RULE (OR, GONE YESTERDAY)
Until I ate at rm, I was actually starting to wonder if the problem with New York restaurants wasn’t just me. Maybe I expect too much. Maybe I eat out too much. Maybe I’m just impossible to please.
But my faith in my crankiness has been completely restored. Really great places are really, really rare. And when you find one, the scarcity is all the more obvious.
Everything about rm was right, from the warmth at the door to the staff’s savvy to the room itself, an odd space transformed into a rather luxurious little stateroom, like Oceana but without the stuffiness and weirdness.
Almost no one in New York does fish better than Rick Moonen, and he’s seriously on with this menu. I actually ordered the halibut because it sounded so dull — steamed, and in a nage (once fish leaves water it should stay out; I hate brodos and nages and every other variation on flavored liquid). But this was extraordinary: perfect fish almost floating on a powerful mushroom-scented foam so substantial I could eat it with a fork. Cod was also sensational, a crisp cake of brandade topped off with roasted fillet in a truffle vinaigrette, and the sturgeon got the right lift from a wild take on sauce gribiche, with a poached egg.
Appetizers were just as dramatic. The duck confit was more like a slab of rillettes, all the meat pressed into a cake, with the bits of crunchy skin to one side and a little mound of fruit to the other, to cut the richness but not murk up the taste. The roasted garlic veloute was obscene, even before the strip of bacon mounded with cod flakes was crumbled in. And while I’m not much on raw fish, the yellowtail crudo was a jazzy rendition, with grapefruit, fennel and black olives.
Even desserts held up. The chocolate marjolaine was not quite the equal of the world-class one I had in Lyon, at Bocuse progeny’s patisserie, but that’s not a diss. And black pepper and Meyer lemon actually talked to each other in a citrus extravaganza with cake, ice cream, confit and blood orange syrup.
What’s mystifying is that we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It’s not as if restaurants like this are on every corner these days.
33 East 60th Street, 212 319 3800.
Lunch entrees are $20 to $24, appetizers $10 to $15. [AND OF COURSE IT’S CLOSED AND SOME CRAPPY CELEB/CHINESE JOINT NOW]
TAPAS: A GLASS HALF FULL
Tapas may be one of the original fusion foods: they suit both tourists and locals. And that’s why I had no qualms about patronizing some of the better-known taperias in Madrid. We were treated well first at La Casa del Abuelo (excellent gambas a la plancha), then at Alhambra (chorizo, followed by aged Manchego) on our first night on the prowl, in a cold rain, near the Plaza de Santa Ana. For round two, Casa Antonio off the Plaza de Puerta Cerrada was a fine stop: cecina with pimentos on toast; pisto (the Spanish stab at ratatouille), and mushrooms with Cabrales.
But it didn’t take long to decide tapas are no fun when you’re drinking from cups seemingly sized for urine testing. The hell with the local customs. We wanted a real glass.
And that’s how we happened upon La Otra, a jazzy little hallway nearby with great music, a very mixed crowd and serious pours, at tapas prices: 1.80 euros for a full glass of Penedes white, for starters.La Otra calls itself a wine bar, but it was also the only place where we didn’t have to buy food. Each round of drinks came with tidbits, whether Manchego or marinated mushrooms. A blackboard around the bar suggested real tapas to go with the wines, including cecina made from horsemeat.The bartender was one of those lacy-bra women with six eyes and 12 hands who can empty ashtrays, take cash, greet customers, refill glasses, change CD’s and slice up salt cod to marinate with olive oil, all at the same time. And if her domain had none of the nicotine-choked atmosphere of the older places we tried, the open-door policy was the same. The Brits ordering Bailey’s got no more scorn than the Madrilenos with their fino. Or even the New Yorkers who knew there were wines in Spain that they could never taste back in the land of the French and the Californian.
La Otra, Cuchilleros 14, Madrid
SALVATION, MILANO STYLE (circa 2002)S
No self-inflating gastropod ever wants to admit it, but sometimes you have to rely on the guidance of concierges. This summer we landed in Milan, bedraggled and disoriented after an overnight flight wedged upright in steerage, only to find the trains had been shut down by a countrywide strike. All my careful research on eating in Turin, the city of our final destination, was useless here, in the least hospitable city in Italy in bleakest August.
And so we left the recommendation to the professional nice guy at the front desk in our emergency shelter, and we braced for mediocrity at an Armani price.Of course that reservation was the key that turned on the charm. Known to be guests of the Hotel Cavour, we were ushered to a great table in a crowded, cheery dining room and presented with flutes of prosecco and a plate of bruschetta with tomatoes and basil. Marked as Americans, we felt compelled to overorder: huge platters of pasta with rich ragu and with amazing fresh porcini; a whole branzino, roasted in salt, and a plate-size slab of swordfish with capers and olives plus those fabulous Italian potatoes that must be bred solely to soak up garlicky oil.
The Brad Pitt lookalike with the waiter’s pad took all this down between sneaked peeks at his reflection in the mirror behind the table and suggested: “White wine? Eighteen to twenty euros okay?” The food was just what we were looking for, the service what we fantasize about in New York. By the time we were halfway through the bottle of crisp Fioanodi Avelleni, the two businessmen at the next table were leaning over and making jokes in English about California Chardonnay.And Milan was looking like a place where we might want to be stranded for supper.
Il Coriandolo, Via Dell’Orso, 1, Milano (39 02 869 3273). Near the duomo and La Scala. Lunch for two about $90.