Wednesday, December 31, 2008

At Pizzeria Delfina with Antonio

In addition to feeding us very well since they opened, one of the great things that Umberto Gibin at Perbacco did for me was to introduce me to Antonio, who initially became my Italian tutor and soon became virtually a member of our family.

Although Antonio typically comes to meet me at my office for our sessions, our normal schedule was interrupted by the holidays so we decided to meet last night and combine a lesson with an end-of-the-year dinner.

Antonio is from Salerno in Campania, just south of Naples, and if there is one thing he knows it is good pizza. I had never been to Pizzeria Delfina on 18th Street near Dolores Park so Antonio suggested we go there. It also gave us a chance to stop in to take a look at some of the other highly regarded establishments within a couple of blocks -
Bi-Rite Market (must go back soon!), Tartine Bakery, and Farina Foccacia which specializes in Genovese cuisine and employs James Bowien who won the Pesto Sauce World Championships and the "pestello d'oro" (the "pestle of gold" award) in Genova in April.

We were able to get to Delfina fairly early and although it was full when we arrived we did not have to wait too long until we were seated. We were assisted by a very nice waitress named Jeanine who helped us with our selections. Antonio had been there before so also had some views on that subject as well! We ended up selecting two appetizers and two pizzas:

  • Monterey Bay sardines "in saor" with crostini;
  • Collard greens with guanciale and Calabrian peppers;
  • Salsiccia Pizza - housemade fennel sausage, tomato, onions and mozzarella; and
  • Broccoli Raab Pizza - broccoli raab, ricotta, oven-dried tomatoes and mozzarella.

For wine, Jeanine recommended a glass of the Aglianico dell'Irpinia "Taurì" produced by Antonio Caggiano in the province of Avellino in Campania just up the road from Antonio's home town.

Our dinner was excellent. We started with our two antipasti. The sardines were prepared using a Venetian mixture ("saor" means "sour") used to preserve fish which is made with vinegar, onions, olive oil, bay leaves, pine nuts and raisins. It was the first time I had that preparation and it was wonderful, and complemented well by the crostini.

The collard greens with the guanciale and peppers were also superb (see this site for a photo of the dish). It led us to a long discussion (I can't remember if that was in Italian or English) about leafy green vegetables and what the counterparts were in Italy and the US -- collard greens do not seem to have achieved a foothold yet in Italy! Jeanine told us that the guanciale had been cured there at Delfina, although she said they also use Nieman Ranch guanciale from time to time. It was sweet and cut in large cubes which went very well with the collard greens. It seemed that all the dishes we enjoyed that evening used relatively simple ingredients in a straightforward presentation which allowed each ingredient to express itself. In my view exactly the right approach.

The two pizzas arrived together. Initially the salsiccia pizza was our strong favorite, but as the broccoli raab pizza cooled off a bit and firmed up the slightly bitter flavor of the broccoli raab became more defined and by the time we finished the two were in a dead heat (more discussion of bitter greens, including the Galician "grelos" which were mentioned in my last post). Incidentally, although the salsiccia pizza comes with bell peppers, Antonio recommended that we have them hold that ingredient as it would make it too complicated and sweet. It was the right decision!

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Everything but the Squeal - Adventures in Galicia

Until recently I had never heard of Galicia. However, last year I saw an article in the San Francisco Chronicle which reported on the Albariño wines that come from the Rias Baixas area within that region ("rias" refers to the flooded river valleys which form estuaries along the coast). I tried a number of those wines and found I really enjoyed them. Per the Chron article, "Albariño grapes make neat, distinctive wines that smell and taste like a remix of other, more popular grapes. It has some of the citrusy, grassy flavors of Sauvignon Blanc, flashes of the richer peach and pineapple flavors of Viognier, and the delicate, minerally character of Riesling." For any interested in learning more about Albariño wines there is a very good website.

Galicia is in the northwest corner of Spain on the northern border of Portugal.

There are some beautiful areas within the region - much more is available from the Galician tourist board web site.

While strolling through the aisles at Borders over the Christmas holiday I came across a new book by an author named John Barlow entitled "Everything But the Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain." Upon picking it up - thinking perhaps Nancy might like it! - I found it was described as described as "a year-long travelogue, in which the author attempts to sample every part of the pig, whilst visiting as many parts as possible of the territory of Galicia in northwest Spain." Pork+Galicia? What was not to like (although I did wait until after Christmas to buy it for myself!).

I have now been though just the first chapter of the book but it has already exceeded my expectations. I also found a review of the book in the New York Times, which includes links to both the full first chapter of the book and a great set of photos taken by John Barlow in Galicia. The only thing which I found a bit disconcerting was that NYT review stated: "In the last couple of years the pile of books about pork — let’s call the genre Pig Lit — has grown tall enough that it’s threatening to topple over and hurt someone." I realized I had read them all!

Let me just provide a couple of extracts from that first chapter which whetted my appetite (vegetarians should stop here):

Excerpt re “Caldo” and “Grelos”

Nearby a couple of men in baggy pullovers are deep into a pot of caldo, Galician broth made with pork bones, pork fat, a little meat, potatoes, chickpeas, and grelos. The word grelos, as is only right and proper for a native Galician plant, is a bit of a mystery, a little imprecise, with no straightforward translation into English. My dictionary says "turnip tops," but grelos are not turnip tops, exactly; some people say "turnip greens," which comes closer to the truth, while others say "bitter cabbage" or "Galician greens," which is just making names up for the fun of it. Everyone agrees that none of these translations is quite right, yet without doubt they are all perfect renderings of a very Galician word.

The broth sits on the table between the men, in a pot big enough for bathing a baby. It's a watery light brown soup with bits of the dark green grelos floating on top. It doesn't look very appetizing. It looks, indeed, like what might run from an overflowing drain after a downpour. Yet it tastes tremendous. And it sums up the tastes of Galician cooking, a sort of edible shorthand: the solid, meaty backtaste of bone stock; the rich but not overpowering notes of pork fat and skin; the lumps of potatoes that, if they are local, are relatively waxy and on the sweet side; the fragments of dark green grelos, bitter to the taste, without which caldo is just savory swill.


Excerpt re “Cocido”

Cocido means "cooked." Like the name, it is simplicity itself. Take a pot the size of an immersion tank, add a few bucketfuls of water, toss in a sackful of potatoes, three or four yards of chorizo sausage, a bucket of chickpeas, plus several animals (chunked). Boil the whole thing up and let it simmer until next week. Then, around Thursday, you add your grelos.

In fact, cocido is a selection of slow-cooked, pot-boiled meats. Everything that was in the pot is served: whole chorizo sausages, potatoes, chickpeas, grelos, a slab of veal (for variety), plus a great deal of pig. The man attraction is lacón, the shoulder (foreleg) ham, but then there's belly, hock (ankle), snout, cheek, armpit . . . any piggy oddments that were to hand. A carnivore's Cockaigne on a plate. Traditionally, these would be all the parts of the animal that were preserved in salt when the pig was slaughtered during the onset of winter, and which could be used in stews throughout the winter, when there was nothing much else to eat.

To say cocido is unsophisticated is to miss the point. The combination of all the slow-slow cooking, the meat nudging up against bones and skin, the gradually dissolving pork fat, the paprika seeping out from the chorizo, and all of this ballasted by the potatoes and sharpened by the bitter grelos—reduced to stringy softness and oozing those meaty juices from the pot—makes cocido as satisfying an eating experience as it is possible to imagine. If you don't love it, you're insane.

Cocido - photo by John Barlow

I can hardly wait to read more and am now searching for a local restaurant specializing in Spanish cuisine!
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Good Bye to 2008

On the last day of the year we have fog over the San Francisco Bay, but clear skies out to sea. A couple of pictures and a short video taken this morning from Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands. Happy New Year.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holiday Dinner at Perbacco

Perbacco is my favorite restaurant in San Francisco and we were there for dinner last night. We were sad to learn at the outset of the evening that our favorite waitress, Auxilia, had returned to Italy. Auxilia is one of the warmest and most outgoing individuals we have met and always added a special energy to our dinners at Perbacco. We will miss her.
Auxilia with Alex and Pat - My Birthday Party, December 2007

Although we missed Auxilia, we were well taken care of both by a waitress named Fitri, who knew the menu well, and Mauro Cirilli, Perbacco's Wine Director who is a good friend and who has never failed to lead us to interesting new wines that go well with Perbacco's cuisine. We started the evening with a bottle of the "Particella 68" Prosecco DOC di Valdobbiadene from Sorelle Bronca in Colbertado di Vidor (Treviso/Veneto). I have always enjoyed their wines and the story of the two Bronca sisters (the "sorelle Bronca"), Antonella and Ersiliana, who started the winery in the mid-1980's.

To accompany our Prosecco, Mauro helped us select a trio of Piemonese cheeses from the Perbacco cheese tray -- Castelmagno DOP, Testun al Barolo and Toma Biellese. We had not had any of them before -- the Castelmagno was the standout for me.

After our appetizers (I tried the vitello tartare with bruschette topped with lardo - yum!), we moved on to our pasta course. In addition to pappardelle with a shortrib sugo and some gnocchi, we also tried a new agnolotti that we had not had before - stuffed with fontina cheese and bone marrow. It was excellent.

Mauro helped us to select a white and red wine to go with our dinner. For the white he suggested a wine named "Enosi" (Greek for "putting together") produced by the Baron di Pauli winery located near the town of Tramin (Bolzano/Trentino-Alto Adige) and just south of Caldaro al Lago (aka the Kaltern am See). That is in the area of northern Italy where the Austrian heritage is particularly strong and most companies, towns and landmarks have both Italian and German names, which makes it even more difficult to keep everything straight. We enjoyed the Enosi wine which is made from 55% Riesling, 35% Sauvignon and 10% Gewurztraminer (in fact, the town of Tramin gave that grape variety its name) -- per the winetasting notes: "The wine presents a bright, golden yellow with green reflections. The nose is evocative of peaches and elderberry blossoms with fine citrus notes. On the palate, it reveals a lively flavor full of finesse, with subtle acidity and hints of mineral."

For our red wine, I asked Mauro to recommend an Amarone and he suggested a 2001 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico produced by Masi (Gargagnago di Valpolicella/ Verona/ Veneto) and named “Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron". The wine is produced using 65% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, and 15% Molinara Serego Alighieri. Per the winemaker’s notes: “Fascinating garnet reflections apparent to the eye within deep ruby red colour presaging the aromas that stand out on the nose: cherries preserved in spirit, plums, Mediterranean herbs, violets and striking sensations of rosemary and sage. The aftertaste shows mint, cherries, plums, berry fruit and chocolate. Full-bodied and well-structured with shifting hints of sweetness. Long and fresh tasting on the finish.”

That wine also has an interesting relationship to Italian history and literature since the term “Amarone” may have derived from the name of the Vaio Armaron vineyard located on the Serego Alighieri estate in the Valpolicella area north of Verona. The Serego Alighieri family are decendants of the poet, Dante, and grapes have been cultivated on that estate since the mid-1300’s. As described on the Masi website: “For over six centuries the Serego Alighieri estate has been the historic reference point for Verona's winemaking and agricultural traditions. Masi has been collaborating with Count Pieralvise for more than thirty years, both in the production and distribution of products and services from the Verona estate, and, more recently, in the Tuscan-based projects. It was in 1353 that Pietro, son of the poet Dante Alighieri, purchased land and a villa in the hills of Valpolicella. The estate is still the property of the descendants of the author of the Divine Comedy. After careful restoration, part of the historic "Casal dei Ronchi" estate has been transformed into a residence with eight apartments, conference rooms, and areas for the tasting of food and wine. Over the course of the centuries the wine and agricultural activities of the estate have supported the family but, above all, they have been regarded as an art form.”

Most of those at our table had Perbacco's signature Beef Short Rib Stracotto for their main course, although I went with the roast duck accompanied by brussel sprouts and apples with guanciale. It was superb, although the touch that was most interesting was the addition of a potato-crauti (sauerkraut) puree which provided a tangy counterpoint to the duck.

Not much room for dessert but we did manage to fit in a few of the light "brutti ma buoni" ("ugly but good") hazelnut cookies.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Viaggio in Sicilia -- Our September 2008 Trip to Persephone's Island

In September 2008 Nancy and I joined a tour group organized by the Museo ItaloAmericano in San Francisco on a 12-day tour of the island of Sicliy. Much more about that trip may be found at the website Viaggio in Sicilia.

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Happy Birthday to Me!

This blog was a gift from my son, Andrew, for my 60th birthday (thanks again guy!!). My family organized a surprise party for me the night before my birthday - an initial rendevous at Wellington's, our favorite wine bar in Sausalito, and then a larger dinner at Mezzo Mezzo in San Rafael. Sadly, Mezzo Mezzo, where we had taken a number of Sicilian cooking classes earlier this year, will be closing soon. However, Giovanni de la Renta prepared a wonderful meal for our group, incluidng a roast suckling pig, which evoked the kalua pig that I had grown up with on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was a memorable evening.

Family at Wellington's

With Giovanni at Mezzo Mezzo and the real star of the evening!
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