Friday, October 14, 2011

Eating in Italy: The Sublime to Divine

As I write this I’m on the plane back to Seattle from Rome. Sigh. I love my Pacific Northwest, but when in Rome…

“Enough of the mountains and canals, where’s the food porn?” says a friend on FaceBook when I post pictures during my Italian trip. After all, a trip to Italy is just as much about eating very well as it is about seeing gorgeous people, fabulous art, and picturesque towns.

So I oblige.

It’s nearly impossible to eat truly bad food in Italy. For starters, it’s all about what’s in season and grown and produced locally. As my friend Lisa, who lives in Liguria, says, “At the grocery stores they label what’s grown in Italy and what’s not. The imported produce section is very small compared to the Italian-grown section.” Most stores where I shop in Seattle label Northwest-grown produce and imported produce, but locally grown takes up the smallest space (except at our wonderful farmer’s markets).

I don’t claim to be a sophisticated foodie, but I do like relatively simple and well-prepared seasonal food. I thought about titling this post Pasta, Gelato, Formaggio, and Prosciutto because that’s what I ate a lot of in Italy—but then there was that sublime marinated and herbed artichoke. And the exquisite zucchini flan with carrot sauce, the raddichio-laced insalata mistas, the incredible vino, and more. Notice a pattern?

Pasta Parfetto

A plate of perfect al dente tagliatelle pasta topped with sautéed porcini mushrooms and cipolline onions (in season of course), a few shaves of parmesan reggiano, and a sprinkling of fresh Italian parsley had me raving “Spectacular!” to my Italian host. 

“It’s just pasta,” he muttered modestly. But I’ve never had such a savory, delicious dish of pasta before. And I really don’t think it’s just because I was sitting at a lakeside café in the Alpine foothills on a lovely autumn evening. Then there was dessert.

Another night our host Mario whipped up a quick meal of cinghialle ravioli al burro e salvia (fresh wild boar ravioli coated lightly with butter and sage—it’s hunting season in Italy for cinghialle). Again, spectacular!

Much of the pasta served by the Italians for Italians (and us outsiders lucky enough to eat places where the locals eat) are very simple but perfectly executed. A fresh rigatoni with sausage, pepper, and pecorino cheese was just sprinkled lightly with ground sausage and cheese. Very satisfying. No big chunks of meat or heavy cheese you’d often find in North American Italian restaurants.

Pizza Alla Romana

The farther south we traveled, the more divine the pizza tasted. Yesterday in Rome I shared a Pizza Alla Romana, a thin-crust pizza topped with a light tomato sauce and olive oil; fresh buffalo mozzarella, arugula, and tomatoes; and shaves of pecorino. Superb. As I slowly chewed eat bite, I closed my eyes to savor and remember the taste of Rome.

Gelato e Sorbetto

Italians love their gelato, and so do I. Artisanal gelaterias throughout Italy make gelato and sorbetto fresh daily with seasonal ingredients. Each flavor captures its essence in every creamy bite. One hot day in Venice was a three-cups-of-gelato day—my favorite there was the icy pink grapefruit and Italian plum sorbetto combo.

But then I can’t forget the fresh grape, hazelnut, and chocolate combo in Novara, or the pistachio and amaretto in Manarola along the Cinque Terre, and the apex of my gelato experiences: the transcendent raspberry, peach, and blueberry sorbetto at famous Giolotti in Rome.

Rustic Roasts

So it wasn’t all pasta and gelato. At historic La Campana in Rome, where we dined on a tip from a friend (thanks Barry!), the succulent roasted baby pig with potatoes was superb. As my friend Jenifer said, “If I was a cat, I would be purring right now.”

The rustic manner in which the pork was served, with hunks of meat still on bone tucked inside a layer of crusted fat, sent me to an earlier era, perhaps a few centuries ago. I’m told La Campana is Rome’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, although some wonder if that’s just urban myth.

So while I am glad to come home to the Northwest to catch the end of the apple harvest, I gotta hand it to the Italians. They know how to eat. I hope you are able to enjoy such culinary splendor too.

When You Go

In case you make to Italy, here’s a list of some of the places I mention above:

Pasta (primi) and entrees (segundi): Ristorante Imbarcadero in Pella on Lago d’Orta north of Milan, where I had the porcini tagliatelle.

Trattoria Monti in Rome, where I got the rigatoni with sausage and beautiful artichoke contorni, which has a sophisticated neighborhood cafe vibe and is frequented by Roman regulars.

Osteria Cinghialle Bianco in Florence, opened by a British ex-pat in a building that dates to the reign of King John. We had fresh roasted cinghialle there with polenta, hmmm.

Also La Campana a few blocks north of Piazza Navona in a side alley is a popular standard with both tourists and Romans. Don’t go too early (before 9) if you don’t want to be dining in a room full of Americans.

Trattoria Romana is an unassuming place we just stumbled on near the Tiber River in Rome, where we had the wonderful pizza outside in a stone-covered courtyard.

I’d like to recommend my friend Lisa’s home near Sarzana and her amazing cooking, but sorry!

Gelati:   In Venice, my favorite was the Gelateria Artigianale Le Mele Verde. Wonderful, unusual flavors and a really nice proprietor. My credit card fell out of my wallet there and he ran outside the shop to find me on the street and return it. La Borsa, right off the Piazza del Republico in Florence, is expensive but excellent. I had been there when I was in college, and found it again many years later. I provide a link above to Giolotti in Rome. Be sure that the gelateria sign says “artigianale” to ensure they use the freshest, best-quality ingredients.


MM said...

Wow Jill! This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

MM said...

Wow Jill! This is great! Welcome home. Happy you had such a spectacular time.

Ann said...

Pasta with mushrooms, and anything with wild boar were my favorites in Italy.

Sounds like you had an AMAZING trip! It made me want to go back.......

Jenifer said...

Jill, this takes me right back there! Yummmm!!! Can we go again? Right now? I'm ready to start purring again...

Anne said...

Is it possible to have a bad meal in a neighborhood restaurant in Italy? I don't think so, I've never had one. Time to restock airline miles! Thanks for the reminders! The photos are fantastic.

Anne said...

Is there such a thing as a neighborhood restaurant in Italy that is not superb? Not in my experience! Thanks for the reminders and photos, I need to start saving airline miles again.

Lisa Osse said...

You are making me hungry. Lucky for me, I live here!! Well, as fantastic as the food is here, the PNW has a wonderful culinary scene and is blessed with nature's bounty (salmon and berries come to mind). The wine and beer isn't too shabby either! It was great to see you and Jenifer. Buon appetito!

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jill said...

Thanks for your comments! Yes, it was an amazing trip. And Jenifer, I'm ready to go again, now! Lisa, ahhhh. Relish every moment of your life in bella Italia. And we do have great food here in the NW too -- in fact I bought some King salmon at the farmer's market today caught off Westport two days ago.

Jillian KyungJa Graham said...

My Dear, I really enjoy your blog! Having lived in bella Roma for a year back in the early 80's all I can say is that true authentic Italian food remains my all- time favorite. Your photos make my mouth water. I've never been able to find Italian food in the States that compares to the deliciousness of what I ate in Italy. I say "When in Rome, eat your way though it- con Gusto!" Thanks for your pictorial review. It brought back memories fabuloso, and I am so happy you went, enjoyed and devoured! Love, Jillian-o

Jean Lewis said...

Hi Jill, really enjoyed this. thanks!

Anonymous said...

Where in Seattle can I find roasted baby pig like you found at La Campagna? My mouth is really watering. -MaryAnn