Saturday, November 6, 2010

2010 Viaggio in Italia - Post #3 - The Best Things I Ate

Having completed my two earlier posts with an overview of our trip and highlights of some of the things we saw, it is finally time to turn to my favorite part - a recounting of the many wonderful things we had to eat. In coming up with this list I took into consideration a few factors. First and foremost, of course, flavor. Second, the extent to which the dish or its ingredients were traditional in the region where we found ourselves. Third, the extent to which the dish or ingredients were uncommon (at least in my experience). And finally, sentimental factors, including the circumstances under which we ate the dish.

1. Ossobucco with Risotto Milanese - Antica Osteria Stendhal- Milano (Lombardia)

On our first night in Milano our friends Gabriele, Paola, and Ilaria took Nancy and me to the Antica Osteria Stendhal, a restaurant in the Brera district a short walk from our hotel named after the 19th century French writer Stendhal. I had the quintessential Milanese dinner - ossobucco with risotto Milanese (made with saffron), both of which were excellent.

As the Osteria’s menu explained, Stendhal loved Milan so much that he asked to be remembered as a Milanese. It was a perfect spot for us to enjoy our first dinner in Italy with good companionship.

2. Best Gelato (tie): Chocolat & G.R.O.M. - Milano (Lombardia)

I am pretty sure we ate gelato every day regardless of the weather (at least we tried to). As it turned out, the best gelato we had was in Milano, and two places tied. The first was a cute place called Chocolat near the Cardorna Station that our daughter-in-law, Cass, had raved about after an earlier visit. As the name suggests their specialty is chocolate and I loved the cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate).

I am a bit embarrassed to say that the second gelateria on our top gelato list was something of an Italian chain -- i.e.
GROM (the name of one of the founders). Actually the first time I had their gelato was last year at their New York store on Broadway on the Upper West Side and they seem to be doing well in New York with plans to expand to LA. I thought it was great on that occasion, and the stracciatella (chocolate chip) we had in Milan was equally good. GROM was started in Torino and uses high-quality organic ingredients. It shows.

Of course, if I was forced to a tie-breaker, I would have to go with Chocolat given their appealing cow logo.

3. Bunet - Ristorante Croce Bianca - Oropa (Piemonte)

So we were in an cozy restaurant next to a famous sanctuary on a fog-swept Piemontese mountain side having just finished a hearty meal. As the final course the waiter brought around slices of a dish called bunet, a traditional Piemontese dessert I had never heard of before - sort of a firm pudding made with eggs, sugar, cocoa powder, ground amaretti cookies and milk, with a bit of caramel on top. It was very tasty!

We enjoyed this dish at the Ristorante Croce Bianca, one of the restaurants just outside the entrance to the Santuario di Oropa in the mountains above Biella. Our hosts were the kind couple, Mario and Chiara Rappa Verona, described in my earlier post.

4. Canestrelli Biellesi - Pasticceria Coggiola - Biella (Piemonte)

Not having done enough for us already, before we got back on our bus to head down the mountain from Oropa, Mario and Chiara gave each of us a little bag with some additional goodies. My favorite among them turned out to be an excellent traditional cookie from the Biella area called a Canestrelli Biellesi, in this case made by the Pasticceria Coggiola in Biella. It was made with bittersweet chocolate and provided a fabulous snack a bit later that day.

5. Brioche con Albicocca - Davit Bar & Cremeria - Aosta (Valle d'Aosta)

This one makes the list based solely on sheer yumminess with a pinch of ambiance. We had just gotten off our bus in Aosta on a crisp, clear morning and were looking around for some coffee and a quick bite to eat before starting our tour of the city. Ale suggested this apricot pastry from a small nearby bar and it was heavenly - great fruit flavor plus a perfect pastry crust on a beautiful morning in the mountains. The only thing I have had that is comparable is the fresh peach tart at Frog Hollow Farm bakery in the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

6. Fontina Cheese - Fromagerie Haut Val d’Ayas - Brusson (Valle d’Aosta)

Our bus climbed up and up and up along switchbacks through the Val d’Ayas (one of the valleys running north off the Valle d’Aosta) until we finally arrived at the town of Brusson. There we stopped in the parking lot of the Fromagerie Haut Val d’Ayas, a cheese making cooperative which, among other cheeses, specializes in Fontina, one of the most famous cheeses in the Aosta Valley and all of Italy.

After a presentation on the production method and a visit of the aging cellar, it was time to start tasting. Fontina is a wonderful cheese with an earthy, mushroomy flavor. It is superb plain (I won’t admit how many times I snuck back to the tasting area) or, as we would learn later in the day, melted.

7. “La Medicina” da Boris - Parking Lot - Brusson (Valle d’Aosta)

Boris, the fellow who drove us all over northwest Italy, is a very sweet guy. When we emerged from the Fromagerie in Brusson and were milling around the parking lot in a cheese stupor, he took pity on us, pulled out a bottle filled with a mixture of lemon slices and unidentifiable herbs floating in a yellowish liquid -- “medicina” as he called it -- and poured us all shots (he did not partake). Whatever it was - and I am fairly certain it had never been inspected by any governmental agency - it was good.

8. Fragola Yogurt - Fromagerie Haut Val d’Ayas - Brusson (Valle d’Aosta)

At the Fromagerie I also picked up a jar of strawberry yogurt which I happily slurped as we descended the mountain. It may have been the best yogurt I have ever had. Plus it also helped to settle my stomach after Boris’ “medicina.”

9. Lard d’Arnad/ Pane Nero - Bertolin - Arnad (Valle d’Aosta)

White prosciutto anyone? OK, “lardo” is what it sounds like - fat - but what fat! It is pork backfat that has been cured like any other salumi and is one of the most delectable things around, especially when served in very thin slices that melt in your mouth. The town of Arnad is the center of production of a lardo specialty - Lard d’Anard - produced in the Valle d’Aosta, and after we descended the Val d’Ayas from Brusson we stopped at the Bertolin facility where we enjoyed a brief tour then retired to their next door restaurant.

We were each served a full helping of a variety of Brusson’s products. My favorite was the Lard d’Anard, served with a piece of “pane nero,” the traditional Aosta “black bread” made from a combination of wheat and rye flour. However, as you can see we had a full salumi plate including one made from “asino” (donkey imported from Argentina) and another a potato/beet combination (interesting but not my favorite).

10. Zuppa Valdostana (Seupa a la Valpellinentze) - Bertolin - Arnad (Valle d’Aosta)

Ah, they are hearty eaters in the Valle d’Aosta. No sooner had we finished with the salumi course at Bertonin than they brought out bowls of Zuppa Valdostana, a local specialty made from bread, Savoy cabbage, Fontina cheese and beef broth. It was fantastic. Although I understand there are variations of this “soup” prepared throughout the region (it apparently originated in Valpelline just north of the town of Aosta), the one we had actually had no broth, the dish having been cooked to the point the broth was totally absorbed leaving a moist loaf with a nice crust.

This is a dish I would like to try to make, and from the recipes I have seen (see, for example,
here , here and here) it looks quite straightforward. Just a matter of layering pieces of hearty bread, Fontina and cabbage in a bowl, sloshing on some good beef broth and tossing it in the oven to bake.

11. Cugnà - Cascina Pistone (Silvio’s farm) - Borgomale (Piemonte)

Another enjoyable stop Ale had arranged for us was at the sheep farm of Silvio Pistone near Borgomale in the Langhe south of Alba. Boris stopped the bus along a country lane and we trooped up a hill to Silvio’s home/sheep farm where he and his family raise a small flock of sheep of the Razza Piemontese breed for their milk, which Silvio makes into excellent cheese. We first took a look at Silvio’s working area, then visited the sheep. He then made us comfortable in a small dining area and began serving us a variety of wonderful sheep milk cheeses.

While the cheeses were great, the dish that caught my attention was the Cugnà that Silvio served. Cugnà is a Piemontese dish - sort of a jelly served as a condiment - which, depending on the recipe, consists of some combination of quince, apples, pears, grape must and dried fruits and nuts. It is generally prepared in the fall, during the grape harvest. I had never had it before so was pleased to try it for the first time at Silvio’s place, especially when he told us he had prepared it himself based on his grandmother’s recipe. It went very well with his cheeses and is also a traditional accompaniment to meat dishes.

12. Torta di Nocciole - Cascina Pistone - Borgomale (Piemonte)

After we were finished with all of the cheese (and there was a lot of it!), Silvio brought out a spectacular Torta di Nocciole, a traditional Piemontese flourless cake made with ground Langhe hazelnuts - the famous “nocciola tonda gentile delle Langhe.” The next day we saw (and sampled) several examples of the same cake at the truffle festival in Alba, but none compared to Silvio’s version. Two thumbs up!

13. Caldarroste - Piazza Savona - Alba (Piemonte)

On our first night in Alba I wandered into the center of town and found a stand on the edge of the Piazza Savona selling “caldarroste” - roast chestnuts, another traditional fall dish. They were excellent and a great snack to tide me over until dinner.

14. Carne Cruda - Hotel I Castelli - Alba (Piemonte)

We had dinner that evening on our own at the Hotel I Castelli where we were staying in Alba. I started with a plate of carne cruda made from “Fassone” beef, which I believe is the same as the Razza Piemontese. This was the same dish as I had enjoyed at Eataly in New York a couple of weeks before and it was equally good in Alba, served with some cheese shaving and lemon juice.

15. Uova al Tegamino con Tartufi - Hotel I Castelli - Alba (Piemonte)

We were in Alba during the height of the white truffle season so it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge. As a second course following the carne cruda at the Hotel I Castelli I opted for the simple fried eggs with truffles and was not disappointed. The waitress brought the eggs together with a truffle shaver and microscale. She weighed the truffle and then, after shaving what seemed like a truly decadent and fragrant shower onto my eggs, weighted it again to compute the charge. Ale had referred to eggs acting as a natural “flavor amplifier” for truffles and that is exactly what it seemed like to me (the eggs themselves were also very flavorful). One of the top two eating experiences of the trip.

16. Puff Pastry with Funghi and Baccalá - Osteria VerdeRame - Castiglione Tinella (Piemonte)

For lunch the next day we stopped at the beautiful Osteria VerdeRame in Castiglione Tinella, a small town in the Langhe hills south of Alba. In addition to it being truffle and hazelnut season in the Langhe, it was also mushroom season, and we had seen many mushrooms in the markets. One of the dishes we had at the Osteria was a puff pastry served on top of a mixture of sautéed porcini mushrooms and baccalá (dried salt cod). It may not sound appetizing to some, but it was a terrific dish.

17. Baci di Cherasco - Cioccolateria Ravera - Cherasco (Piemonte)

Ale had told us about an artisanal chocolate maker named Arturo Ravera and his shop, the Cioccolateria Ravera, in the town of Cherasco just west of Alba. We stopped there late one afternoon to find that the town was just wrapping up a toy festival and the streets were lined with toy vendors. We made our way to the Ravera Cioccolateria near the center of town and found Arturo on the sidewalk outside his shop serving up the most marvelous hot chocolate (Cioccocaldo).

After we all sampled the hot chocolate, we moved inside the shop were Arturo showed us his other products and provided more samples. I think you will agree that if there was ever a man with a twinkle it his eye it is Arturo Ravera - a fellow who looks like he truly loves what he is doing.

I was knocked out by Arturo's rendition of the traditional Baci di Cherasco pictured above, a chocolate kiss made from dark chocolate and hazelnuts. Absolutely fantastic.

18. Risotto con Gorgonzola - La Gallina - Gavi (Piemonte)

On our drive from Alba to Genova we passed through the town of Gavi south of Alessandria and stopped on the outskirts of town at the Villa Sparina resort which consists of a beautiful hotel, L’Ostelliere, and an equally beautiful restaurant, La Gallina, set among rolling hills and vineyards.

We had a very good lunch, but the highlight for me was the risotto with Gorgonzola cheese. The risotto was cooked perfectly - from a consistency standpoint, the best we had on the trip, with the rice at the perfect chewiness level. The
La Gallina restaurant was also one of the most spectacular dining spaces we were in during our trip. The restaurant is located in its own brick building separate from the hotel and has large windows looking out onto the vineyards. They have elaborate chandeliers with candles that would make the room magical at night as the photos furthest below borrowed from their website suggest.

19. Mandilli al Pesto - Le Cantine Squarciafico - Genova (Liguria)

After nine days traveling inland it was a joy to cross the mountains north of Genova and see the Mediterranean. Somehow I associate Italy with being on or near the sea and I realized how much I missed it as we had passed through the other land-locked regions. Our first night in Genova we were on our own for dinner and Nancy and I tried one of the places that Ale had recommended, Le Cantine Squarciafico, just off the piazza in front of the spectacular grey and white Cattedrale di San Lorenzo.

Of course, Genova = pesto, so that was a must have that evening. They served it with a large, flat, floppy pasta called mandilli, short for “mandilli de saea” which in Genovese means silk hankerchiefs. The pesto was just right and was set off perfectly by the mandilli pasta which in fact had a very silky consistency.

20. Brioche con Crema - Caffe Boast - Genova (Liguiria)

One of my missions during the trip was to find the best cream-filled brioche in all of northwest Italy. Obviously I could only begin to dent the possibilities, but I managed to have at least one each day in my quest. The winner was the tasty number pictured above which I found in a caffe across the street from our hotel in Genova. A perfect pastry married with a perfect filling.

21. Focaccia di Recco - Pizzeria del Ponte - Recco (Liguria)

Liguria is the home of focaccia and one focaccia specialty dish I had heard about before our trip from several sources was Focaccia di Recco, a dish that had originated in the town of Recco on the coast just a bit north of Portofino. Happily, after our visit to Portofino we had time to stop off in Recco on our way back to Genova and visited the Pizzeria del Ponte which, as its name suggests, is in the shadow of the railway bridge in the middle of the town.

Sometimes when you have been anticipating trying a dish for a long time the actual experience does not measure up to one’s expectation. Happily such was not the case with Focaccia di Recco - along with the fried eggs and truffles in Alba, it was one of the two best things I ate during our entire trip.

The Pizzeria del Ponte is not a particularly large place and the area where they make their focaccia and pizza is right in the middle of the restaurant. Two fellows were hard at work in front of the wood burning oven when we came in and after we got settled at our table I went over and introduced myself to them - Nicola and Alessandro. The preparation of the Focaccia di Recco is quite simple as illustrated by the photos below. First, the dough is rolled out then stretched into a very thin almost crepe-like consistency. The first sheet is draped over a large pizza pan and large chunks of cheese (they were using a commercial brand of
Crescenza Cremosa produced by Invernizzi, part of the Gruppo Lactalis Italia conglomerate) placed on the dough. Then a second sheet of dough is draped over the cheese, the edges are sealed and the pan is slid into the oven. After about six minutes or so the Focaccia di Recco is ready. It is removed from the oven, sliced up into individual servings and the fun begins.

The dish was unbelievable. The dough was chewy and crispy and the molten cheese tangy and creamy. Definitely worth a trip to Recco just for that dish alone.

22. Minestrone Genovese - La Barcaccia - Genova (Liguria)

After our return to Genova from Recco we cleaned up and then, after a drink at Ale and Rick’s apartment on the Belvedere Montaldo above the city, we had dinner at La Barcaccia restaurant which is on a side street just behind their palazzo. We had an amazing Minestrone Genovese with pesto which had an incredible depth of flavor. It included a small round pasta that I was told is called scuccuzzu in Genovese, a term apparently from “couscous” which it somewhat resembles, reflecting its origin on an island off the Tunisian coast. (Not to digress, but for an interesting discussion of couscous, see here). Quite similar to fregola which we have enjoyed in Sardinian dishes.

23. Farinata - Antica Sciamadda - Genova (Liguria)

I have always had a soft spot for street food - il cibo da strada - and Genova with its rich culinary history and traditionally “value-conscious” population (Ale asked us not to say “stingy”) promised many opportunities to sample such food. Unfortunately we simply did not have enough time in the city to fully explore the possibilities. However, there was one place named Antica Sciamadda about which I had seen this video on YouTube before we left California and I was determined to find it in the narrow streets around the port and to try their farinata - a sort of flat bread made from chick-pea flour.

On the morning of our last day in Genova we had a little free time before we had to check out and leave the city so I took that opportunity to head down and wander through the “caruggi.” I was running out of time and had just about given up on finding the place when I rounded a corner and there it was. Happily they had just pulled a fresh pan of farinata out of the oven so I was able to sample that as well as a few of their other items (including focaccia topped with sardines and deep fried baccalá).

A Few Closing Thoughts

I was able to try in the course of our tour most of the things I had hoped to eat. I have to say that while we certainly had some wonderful things to eat, in a number of cases I was disappointed with some of the food that was served to us. This was particularly notable in some of the restaurants in the larger cities that supposedly had good reputations - e.g. Trattoria Milanese and Il Coriandolo in Milano, and Tre Galline in Tornio. Perhaps it is best to stay away from such “famous” places and look for the up-and-coming establishments.

I had also hoped to have snails in Cherasco where they are the subject of an annual festival. I did find a restaurant that specializes in them, but a visit there will have to await another trip.

Similarly in Genova it would have been nice to be able to sample more street food. One of the fish mongers I spoke with highly recommended a dish of small fish (“letterini”) fried in batter which she said I could have at the nearby Pintori restaurant.

Again sadly just not enough time.


Simona said...

What a nice post! I am glad you tasted some very special dishes, starting with the focaccia di Recco. I miss the vendors of caldarroste: they are an intricate part of the fall season for me. I enjoyed reading your post a lot.

gastronomichael said...

Thanks Simona. It was a lot of fun to pull the photos and information together (and reminisce about all those tasty things we enjoyed during the trip). I was over at the Museo ItaloAmericano for a lecture this afternoon and a friend mentioned that the SF restaurant Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana, which specializes in Ligurian cuisine, serves both Focaccia di Recco and Mandilli di Seta al Pesto - see their website at I will have to check that out soon!

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