Thursday, March 26, 2009

11 Species/ 15 Organs and Counting – Incanto’s 2009 Head to Tail Dinner

I will always harbor a special fondness for Incanto. I came across the Noe Valley restaurant not long after I had begun my study of Italian and was happy, apart from their food, to find their Dante Room with its huge mural depicting the return of Dante and Virgil following their descent to the Inferno – “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle/ Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.”

Here is a video, including comments from both Incanto’s owner, Mark Pastrore, and its chef, Chris Cosentino – more about both of them below – which provides a good overview of the restaurant.

Incanto was also where I began my exploration of Italian wines on six consecutive Saturday afternoons under the guidance of
Edward Ruiz, Incanto’s Wine Director. However, not long after I had discovered Incanto I learned about the event which really captured my imagination – their tradition of an annual dinner to celebrate sustainable consumption and to illustrate the many which less commonly used portions of animals could be put to very tasty use – their Head to Tail Dinner.

My first Head to Tail was in 2006 – Incanto’s 3rd such annual dinner - and I have not missed one since. Hence, when I received a few weeks back the announcement of the 6th Annual Head to Tail Dinner, I was pretty excited....

Chris Cosentino has been the chef at Incanto since I started going there, and his fame has grown over the years (in addition, he and Mark Pastore have now opened Boccalone, the salume company with a store in the Ferry Building Marketplace). For any who have not met Chris, I think it is fair to say that he pushes the envelope in several different directions. Perhaps one need do no more than visit Chris’ website – Offal Good – to capture some of that flavor. Here is also a good video interview of Chris in which I believe his philosophy and passion comes through.

Although I love offal (”frattaglie” was one of the first words I learned in Italian), it can be a challenge dinner companions to join me at the Head to Tail. I have long ago learned not to count on any family members, and it can be a difficult sell even for many wide-spectrum foodies. My friend Antonio from Salerno was always my ace-in-the-hole for such events, but I had a touch of panic when I learned Antonio was going to be in Italy on March 23. What to do???

To the rescue came a new friend, Vanessa, who I have gotten to know through her excellent Italian food blog
Italy in SF - "the directory to everything Italian in the Bay Area." I had mentioned to Vanessa my dilemma of not being able to find a dinner companion for the evening, and, although not without a slight bit of trepidation, she kindly offered to go with me.

So on Monday night Vanessa and I showed up at Incanto full of high expectations. We had a chance to say hello to Mark, Chris and Edward, and then turned to study the menu for the work ahead.

Venison heart tartare, foie gas & ciccioli brioche

Leading off was one my favorite dishes of the evening, and it had just the right balance of fattiness and meatiness. Vanessa and I paired it with the slightly frizzante Oltrepò Pavese Bonarda Viti di Luna from
Francesco Montagna in Pavia which cut the fat a bit. The brioche with bits of ciccioli was also a good match. I came across the following good definition of ciccioli (although that is a bit different from the ciccioli they sell at Boccalone which is more of a head cheese):

"Ciccioli are prepared by pressing and aging what is left of the pork after most of the other preparations have been carried to effect. Because of this,
the spectacle of the making of the ciccioli is not for the weak of stomach (but if you don't think about it, you'll find the taste is more than agreeable). The last (aging) stage in the traditional preparation involves a special press, where the meat (wrapped in sack cloth) is gradually squeezed, over a period of several weeks, to remove excess fat. A practical demonstration of the peasant saying "Del maiale non si butta via nulla" (“Nothing of the pig goes to waste”). Ciccioli come in two varieties: the regular, unattributed one - which are eaten sliced - and "ciccioli frolli" (sometimes called greppole) which have been subjected to further drying, which turns them into a crunchy snack."
Here is a picture of a stack of ciccioli which Nancy and I came across in the market in Bologna on one of our trips – as noted, a crunchy snack:

Goose intestines, fava beans & artichokes

This dish was interesting primarily because of the consistency of the goose intestines – a bit rough in texture - think cat tongue - and chewy. It had a rather mild flavor, although a very tasty broth. It was served with pasta rings – “anelli” in Italian (which Chris mentioned he had been hoping, given the nature of the dish, to identify as “analli” on the menu until he had been overruled by some adult supervisor).

Big brain, small brain with asparagus

This dish had given rise to all sorts of speculation when it appeared on the announcement. Would this be a parent and offspring combination? Perhaps a cross-species adventure (horse/quail? cow/fish?). As it turned out it was neither. The “big” brain was the real thing – veal in nature – which was apparently intended to represent woman. The “small brain” – the male contribution – was also taken from a bovine, but from the aft end – think “men think with their b----s” or “mountain oysters” (which we had in a slightly different presentation at the 2004 H2T). A bit of Incanto humor.

The “small brains” were lightly fried and very nicely done. The real brain was also well prepared - perhaps broiled - and with a nice creamy texture. It reminded me of a firm custard. Chris also added a splash of Japanese
sudachi juice to the preparation which was a nice touch. I had a glass of the Massolino Dolcetto d’ Alba from the Serralunga d'Alba area in Piemonte with the dish which was somewhat sharp and tannic but a nice counterpoint to the meat.

Cordedda with peas, mint & sheep’s milk polenta

This dish also caused some speculation when it was announced. Googling “cordedda” led to very few clear results as to what it might be, until I stumbled across the website of the Hotel Ispinigoli, located in Dorgali in the mountainous Nuoro region of eastern Sardinia. There they described and provided a photo of one of their specialties – “Cordedda in Salsa”.

My rough translation of the Hotel’s description of the dish: “A braid of baby sheep intestines, cooked in a sauce with fresh tomatoes, spices and local herbs. It is very flavorful appetizer or main course characteristic of barbaricina cuisine [the cuisine of the Barbagia region].”

Now this was exciting. I could imagine Chris hunched over a prep table braiding sheep intestines late into the night prior to our dinner using some ancient Sardinian patterns handed down by grandmothers in the Nuoro area.

However, the dish turned out to be a bit different – a mix of grilled lamb kidney, liver and spleen wrapped in lamb
caul fat (aka the greater omentum) and braised. A bit hard to describe, but the following photo that Chris Tweeted on Monday evening ("First cordedda of the evening") gives a better idea of the dish’s construction.

Chris said that unfortunately there were some health code restrictions on the use of lamb intestines, and hence he had some up with this dish as a substitute, although it does not appear that the Sardinian cordedda described above contains any stuffing. He indicated that his dish also had some Sicilian influence, which led me to the following description of stigghiola, a grilled street food staple from the Palermo area:

Stigghiola is defined by Antonino Traina, a noted nineteenth-century Sicilian lexographer, as "a dainty of intestines entwisted around kid, lamb or even chicken omenta." The omerta, also called caul fat, is a net-like membrane which covers the small intestine. The Sicilian cookbook author Tommaso d'Alba relates that in the outskirts of Palermo, streets are filled with the smell and smoke of u stigghiularu, the stigghiola-vendors, who sell them for a pittance. Variations on stigghiole are found throughout the Mediterranean. In Sardinia it goes by the name cordula. In Apulia it is called carramarra or gniummeriddi. In Calabria it is formed with Provola cheese, pancetta, garlic, parsley and lemon juice and called gliommarieddri.”

I had a glass of the Felsina Chianti Classico Riserva Rancia from Toscana with the dish. It was an excellent wine – by far the best of the evening and definitely one to try again.

Coffee & doughnut: blood & espresso – pork liver & chocolate

Our journey ended with dessert – espresso mixed with a bit of pork blood, and a doughnut stuffed with a mixture of chocolate and minced pork liver. Both excellent. The ingredients may sound a bit unusual, but if one were to try then without knowing what was in them I doubt one would know they included any pork products. The coffee was thick and a bit grainy, a bit like a warm milk shake. The doughnut was a perfect match, and Zane, who patiently waited on us and answered our questions during the evening, encouraged us to dip it into the coffee. Yummy.

On the way out we said good by to the Incanto crew, and Vanessa checked the ladies’ room to answer a question I have wondered about for some time – whether the same wonderful “Vinferno” map of the twelve circles of hell from Da Vino Commedia by Al Dente Allegory (c/o the
genius of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard) that is in the men’s room is also in the ladies’ room. The answer is no – score one for the small brains!

I am already looking forward to the 2010 installment. So far in four years the H2T dinners I have attended have explored 15 different organs and body parts (tongues hold the lead) contributed by 11 different species (bovines ahead by a nose) — although strangely no tails! Hopefully that oversight will soon be corrected.

Part of the Incanto Brain Trust – Possible Captions: "Big Brain, Small Brain?" -- "Do Two Small Brains Equal a Big One?" -- "You Put WHAT in the Coffee!!??"

1 comment:

Vanessa said...

Love this post Mike! I vote for the second captioning option... very funny!!!