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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bologna, Italy: Piadina, Kebab and the Best Cold Cuts and Cheeses in the World

Bologna -- arguably the culinary capital of Italy. I discovered so many new things about Italian food and relished in the amazing selection of cold cuts and cheeses found in Bologna and Rome.

In Venice, I had an Italian version of a quesadilla called piadina. It had arugula, prosciutto and mozzarella cheese that had all been melted like a panini. It was ok, very much like a flatbread panini. The difference is that it's made out of dough instead of a tortilla.

I had the best home-made meal in Bologna, courtesy of my dear friend EB. She made a killer spaghetti carbonara (purists will notice that she made the quintessential Roman dish, as opposed to tagliatelle al ragu, which is Bologna's signature meat-based tomato sauce pasta dish), followed by tomino, a small soft cheese that she wrapped with pancetta and baked in an oven until the cheese oozed out.

This pancetta was unlike the thick pancetta I'm used to having in the US. It was a different kind of pancetta called pancetta magretta or pancetta coppata, sliced thinly and with a lot less fat -- kind of a saltier prosciutto. It was delicious and the saltiness complemented the warm, creamy cheese perfectly. She accompanied this dish with a huge bowl of arugula salad tossed with some extra virgin olive oil and lemon. I'm not sure if it was the al fresco dining, the food or the company but we couldn't stop eating, drinking and talking until after 2 am.

Near the University of Bologna, we made a pit stop at a kebab hole-in-the-wall joint called Jolly (Via Oberdan, 29/a - Bologna, 051-272808) and inspired by my recent discovery of piadina, ordered a piadina kebab. To my pleasant surprise, the guy proceeded to make the flatbread from scratch and baked it before stuffing it with the meat, lettuce mix and a tomato-based sauce with a kick that made it such a fine snack.

A few hours later, we had dinner at a quaint little restaurant called Casa Buia (Via Dell' Arcouverggio, 138, Bologna, 051-320089) that serves tigella and crescentine, neither of which I'd ever tried. Tigella looks like an English muffin but is made in these iron molds that give it the star stamp. I didn't think the taste was anything mind-blowing but it was a fine accompaniment to the side dishes they served, which I'll get into in a sec. Crescentine are little sheets of square dough deep fried that also are good alternatives to plain old bread.

The sides included squacquerone, a mild, soft cheese that is often had with piadina and arugula; ciccioli frolli, deep fried pork fat that tasted like crunchy chips; pickled peppers, shallots and garlic and a salsa-like sauce made with tomatoes and peppers called peperonata or friggione.

The tigella and crescentine also came with a sampler plate of cold cuts and one type of cheese. The cold cuts in Bologna got me so addicted and I couldn't stop consuming copious amounts of ham (not to mention cheese -- like smoked provolone that turns out to be hard to find here...) and different cold cuts throughout the trip for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The plate included caciotta, a more aged cheese than the one above but still pretty fresh and creamy, prosciutto crudo, pancetta (the thinly sliced kind with less fat), mortadella (which I suspect degenerated into "baloney" in the US since mortadella hails from Bologna -- get it? What a travesty!), salame and coppa.

My favorites were the pancetta and coppa, each of them imparting varying degrees of saltiness with a bit of sweetness. The mild flavor of the tigella and crescentine paired perfectly with the very strong flavored charcuterie and cheeses.

With such huge appetizers, I wasn't even hungry by the pasta course but of course I had to have a pasta sampler made to order just for us.

Since we were in Bologna, we had to have the signature tagliatelle al ragu, the famed meat sauce with wide noodles that has since been dubbed "Bolognese" in the US, much to the chagrin of our Bolognese hosts. "There's no such thing as spaghetti a la Bolognese," they told us. Whatever it's called, it was very good. The pasta was cooked perfectly with just the right amount of sauce, not drowning in it. We later learned that the ragu was a mix of various kinds of meats, including pork, beef and prosciutto.
Bologna is also known for its tortellini, tiny dumplings that are filled with ground meat or cheese and are added to a clear soup to make tortellini al brodo (usually made with ground meat filling), or tossed with a light cream sauce. This one was the cream sauce variety that had ground meat filling in it. What I loved most was that it didn't feel too heavy and enabled me to sample and enjoy all three pastas. The third one was slightly sweetened with brandy and mixed with grilled radicchio, which was good but our hosts frowned at the notion of sweet pasta and set it aside.

All in all, great meals. Most memorable during the very hot and humid summer days: the wonderful fruit popsicles sold at a tiny stand in downtown Bologna. They tasted homemade -- so fresh, rich with flavor of the fruit essence and not too sweet -- like my mother had just made them and handed me one straight out of the fridge. I could have had five more if it weren't for our pending dinner plans...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Venice, Italy: Seafood Risotto, Seafood pasta, etc

Back in Venice after a week-long cruise, I was so happy to be on solid ground again, sort of.

My Italian food adventure was about to begin. First stop: Osteria al Garanghelo in Venice. Disclaimer: I was traveling in a large group so wasn't able to travel far from the hotel in search of the perfect restaurant. So I didn't get a chance to have typical Venetian dishes but for a tourist trap like Venice, it wasn't too shabby. Thanks JL for your recs!

One thing I loved about this meal was that the ingredients were all fresh and it felt like down-home cooking, no bells or whistles. It was a proud family-owned and run establishment that had been around for decades and it showed in their great service and care.

The spaghetti vongole was fantastic, laced with generous portions of fresh clams and slivers of fresh garlic, finished off with fresh tomatoes and parsley, all mixed in with quality olive oil.

The main dish of mixed grilled fish was also excellent. The fish was perfectly crispy on the outside and nice and juicy on the inside. Drizzled some lemon over it and presto! It came sprinkled with parsley that gave it a refreshing kick. I just loved the rustic presentation that didn't involve any fillets or complicated and fussy emulsions that would have distracted from the simplicity of the flavors.

The fried calamari appetizer was good but I personally prefer the ones served at Burma Super Star in San Francisco that were lighter and fluffier and came with a lemon, pepper sauce that had some kick to it. These fried morsels came with a side that I had first mistaken as a dipping sauce but later learned was polenta. Interesting combination that I'm not sure worked for me -- as much as I liked them separately.)

This dish actually came with fried baby sardines too, which were tasty but not as good as the squid.

The basic pasta pomodoro, or tomato-based sauce, was ok, but nothing to write home about. Most restaurants in Italy have a certain basic standard where they cook the pasta just al dente, the sauces aren't at all heavy and portions are manageable to save room for il secondo, or main dish such as meat or fish.

I also love the affordable house wines or wine selection that features local wines.

By the way, I did have risotto ai frutti di mare, seafood risotto, that Venice is known for. I had it in the even bigger tourist trap of Murano island, but it was actually decent. Again, a testament to the quality of Italian restaurants.

I enjoyed the funky glass sculptures in Murano but boy, was it hot. It's no wonder the glass-making factories close in the afternoon because people would just bake.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Santorini, Greece: Who Knew a Meal with a View Could be This Good?

It's safe to say that I've virtually never had a good meal at a place with a view, much less a fantastic view. I was proven wrong in the beautiful city of Santorini in Greece, where the breathtaking views didn't hamper the quality of the food.

Archipelago, a restaurant perched on a hill (as most structures in this hill-y town are) overlooking a deep blue ocean set against the white buildings (see below) was outright excellent.

We got many dishes as we were a party of 12 and I would say most if not all of the dishes were stellar. Everything tasted so fresh and flavorful, including the humble tomato and cucumber in our starter salad. I was glad to see that Greek food wasn't much like the greasy Greek food we encounter in the US, a-la Papa Christo's in LA, etc.

Some of my favorites were the grilled octopus atop a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, the artichokes appetizer, oven-baked flat bread stuffed with tiny cubes of beef, tomato and spices, and lamb medallions stuffed with artichokes and cheese.

The octopus was perfectly cooked without being rubbery or tough. The octopus and potato "napoleon" of sorts (one thing stacked on top of another) was lightly drizzled with olive oil and some lemon and parsley, as well as some bright red beet strips. The chewy texture, soft potatoes and sweetness of the beets were a winning combination.

The artichokes were marinated in some olive oil, herbs and what they called Anthotiro, a local soft cheese that wasn't as strong-flavored as feta. It tasted so fresh and light.

The stuffed flat bread came piping hot, charred at the edges, as if straight out of a brick oven. The meat and tomato stuffing was, again, light without being bland. I could taste the tomato and spices. It came with a small dollup of a bean dip, which the menu curiously called "fava," described as "Santorinian chick pea puree with onion and capers." We also got a whole side of this dip, which wasn't diluted like many of the commercial brands of hummus found here. I could actually taste the chick peas.

The lamb dish was a pleasant surprise. I had ordered it because I had never had a dish like this before. Lamb stuffed with artichokes and cheese, all wrapped in grape leaves. The lamb was extremely juicy, and despite the fact that I'm usually not a big fan of stuffed meat or fish dishes because I consider stuffing a distraction to the main ingredient at hand (lamb in this case), this lamb was almost transformational.

While these were the best dishes in my book, the other dishes weren't too shabby either. Take, for example, the eggplant appetizer, which was baked eggplant in a ceramic pot with some parsley, the ubiquitous extra virgin olive oil and topped with two sweet slices of fresh tomatoes.

The salads were just what the near-100 degree weather called for. Fresh, crisp greens like spinach or romaine lettuce with sun-dried tomatoes and the soft cheese, which -- to my delight -- is added to nearly everything (If anyone knows where I get this cheese in LA, please holla!). I was surprised to see sesame seeds sprinkled on top as I hadn't realized the Greek used sesame seeds as well, which I loved for its addition of toasty flavor.

The tomato, cucumber, green pepper, onion, feta, capers and olive salad was equally good, just less exotic for this neophyte in authentic Greek cuisine.

We also had grilled fish kebab that came with rice and grilled vegetables, which was good but nothing to write home about.

I feel so fortunate that I got to at least taste the tip of the iceberg of Greek cuisine that I had always felt a bit skeptical about.

Although I've never been to Turkey until now, I've always liked Turkish food better than Greek food. Ironically, my first foray into Turkish food in Turkey (albeit in the tourist trap that is Kusadasi near Ephesus) was utterly unremarkable. Some spicy ground beef kebab with rice and grilled whole fish. Ok, but nothing earth.

I look forward to eating well in less tourist towns in Turkey and exploring more that authentic Greek food has to offer.

As a side note, I also discovered Vinsanto, an exquisite dessert wine supposedly only produced in two places in the world -- Santorini and Tuscany in Italy.

I love it when I learn so much about the local country's food and wine that I had no idea about before. Opa!

That's exactly what happened in Italy too. My latest revelations coming soon~