The Great Plotnik

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Serious Eating

Italy: The Serious Eating, Part One

By Lynn Gweenie, GP World Food Correspondent

We flew five hours from San Francisco to JFK, six hours to Dublin and three more to Venice. We spent our three nights in Venice in a Fleabag-Plus hotel down the street from the train station. The Hotel Nazionale was small and stuffy and the first four letters were problematic. But in the middle of the night in the hotel lobby, which was the only place I could get a wireless signal, the night clerk would bring me crackers from the vending machine while I attempted to watch Dodger playoff games on my IPhone, in my pajama bottoms and t-shirt, while texting back and forth with Mary Ann Mush.

We took a two hour train down to Bologna, the food capital of Italy. Marie Hassan's two bedroom Air BnB apartment was in a Moroccan neighborhood half a mile from the piazza maggiore. We shared a bathroom with a Polish student named Maddalena. Maddalena spoke Italian with a Polish accent and Marie was French and spoke something that might or might not have been English, and I had studied some Italian for a month before we left but mostly we all just smiled and waved our hands around as we discussed restaurants.

In Bologna eating is the universal language. Everyone has a favorite trattoria. The one they sent us to had no tables available so we walked next door, where they told us they would give us the seat by the entrance if we promised to finish in an hour and a half. We said sure, and they brought us tagliatelle wth ragu Bolognaise and lasagna with a wispy besciamella, both of which were the two best pasta dishes of my life. Up to there.

Then the buses went on strike so we took a cab to the Bologna airport and flew on Ryan Air down to Palermo, the capital of the island of Sicily. We got a cellophane package of stale pretzels, then they charged us two euros for water.

In Palermo we hooked up with our friends Patter and Peetsy who flew in from Washington DC via Stuttgart. We got there first so we waited for them in an outdoor cafe where they brought us glasses of chilled orange Prosecco and a sea bass roasted in olive oil and covered with tomatoes and black olives.

We stayed in a brand new apartment that Peetsy found on a British equivalent of Air BnB called Listings. The apartment was in a medieval neighborhood of narrow, cobblestoned streets where the Mafia is in charge of garbage pickup but the Mafia is busy somewhere else. The neighborhood was a mess but the apartment was an architectural jewel. We had the whole place to ourselves, three levels, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a huge kitchen and entertainment room and, best of all, a roof deck that looked out over the sword-spired 1165 cathedral and the trash-filled 2013 street funk. We'd buy olives and caciocavallo cheese and tomatoes, herbs, wine and fresh Sicilian bread in the sprawling Ballaró market then come back to the alley, turn right at the mosque, avoid the dead rat and walk into the magnificent apartment and eat and drink everything on the roof deck under a full moon.

We knew the apartment could not have been rented often because it was spotlessly clean and the owner left boxes filled with biscotti for us, and baskets of fruit and four bottles of wine. After you've been renting out your house for a while, and people have trashed it continuously, these niceties disappear. We stayed three nights.

Then we rented a mid-sized Opel and headed west, along the coast. We stopped for lunch in a beach-side trattoria in Castellamare del Golfo, run by a Sicilian woman from New Jersey. She made us her delicious Busiata alle Sarde, which is a specialty of western Sicily. Busiata means "knitting needle" and is a long, round pasta with little hooks on it. Sarde are sardines and Busiata alle Sarde is hand-made busiata with fresh sardines, pecorino cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and breadcrumbs made golden in olive oil.

An hour before dusk we pulled into the Don Carlo agriturismo. An agriturismo is a working farm that offers rooms to rent, in this case a few motel-like quarters on an olive orchard. Don Carlo's last name is Zichichi, which is pronounced Zee-KEE-kee. Don Zichichi's helper, Anna, baked all the breakfast delicacies by hand, including sun-drying her own tomatoes and curing her own olives and making fresh yogurt and ricotta cheese and Sicilian cakes. We bought extra mosquito repellent and stayed two nights and could have stayed a week.

We hiked in the hills among the olive and pomegranate trees. Don Zichichi wore old jeans and work boots. He told us we should try his friend's restaurant, Baglio Nuovo. He showed us on a map, but it was daylight. By the time we left it was dark and the roads in the country are windy and unmarked. We saw a light in the distance and aimed the Opel towards it. We expected maybe a red checked tablecloth and a plate of spaghetti.

There was a small parking lot. We walked into a restaurant that was surprisingly fancy. There was no one there but us. After awhile a nicely-dressed man came out of the kitchen. I told him we were friends of Don Zee-KEE-kee and asked if he was open and he said "Prego, Signore!" and ushered us into a dining room towards a table for four. We sat down. He explained to us, in Italian, that there was no menu and asked us if we wanted red or white wine. We were concerned about how much dinner might cost. I asked him. He said thank you and disappeared into the kitchen.

He delivered some bread and bread sticks and bottles of sparkling water. Then he began bringing out tray after tray filled with antipasti on small plates. He placed one after another plate on the table and told us in Italian what each was. We were surprised to see so many. We recognized some, not others. He kept going back for more.

Porcini mushrooms. Marinated peppers. Eggplant with thick parmesan. Eggplant fried into dumplings. Eggplant caponata with black olives. Green olives. A few small fish. A few less bigger fish. Cubes of fried chestnut flour. Couscous. Many kinds of cheese. Croquettes. Tripe. Snails. Prosciutto. Salame. He set down each plate gently, like a beloved pet. In the absence of a better plan we began helping ourselves.

We ate like we were starving, which we hadn't been, but now were.

After he cleared away the antipasti he brought larger plates of pasta: Tagliatelle with Sicilian sausage, Ravioli with winter squash, tomatoes and ricotta. A twisty maccheroni with mushrooms and bacon. These plates of pasta alone were too big for four people to finish, but then he came back with a sizzling platter of grilled veal, sausages and pork belly.

The sausages were filled with wild fennel and the veal slices were basically pan-fried steaks, but the pork belly, or pancetta...well, it was either inedible or the most extraordinary thing I have ever eaten. It was like thick bacon, grilled, with an extra order of pig and a side of fat. Grilled crispy but syrupy inside, it was too rich. Too fatty. Too porky. I couldn't swallow it. I couldn't not swallow it. My life passed before my eyes as I reached for chunk after chunk.

For dessert: local, chilled green grapes. Ahhhhh. But aiiii, here he comes again.

The owner stood formally in front of us, a white towel across his folded arm, holding a tray with four plates on it. He explained that the next course was his own creation. He gave it a Sicilian name: cassatella. He set the plates down and waited until we dove in.

It was simple - a Sicilian donut, the size of your hand, filled with sweet and molten ricotta cheese, lemon rind, candied fruit and nutmeg. You got the crunch, then the heat, then the sweet, then the lemon finish. After each bite we stared at each other and shook our heads.

Then he brought out two bottles of grappa. Grappa is fortified slightly sweet wine. It is highly alcoholic and burns all the way down, nose to toes. It shouldn't be good after a huge meal, and isn't, at the start, but after two or three shots you stop worrying about how much you're going to have to pay for this dinner.

Capuccini all around?

Of course. Piú vino?

No, signore, grazie.

Altri espressi? Capuccini?

No, grazie mille. Il conto, per favore.

Though I had just asked for the check, there was no check. The owner just said "Cento." One hundred. I thought he meant each, especially including the wine and the grappa.

"Cento? Total? Per tutti?"

"Si, si, signore. Cento."

One hundred euro for everything, tip included, and out the door, many grazie all around.

Somehow we got our stupefied and oversatiated selves back to Don Carlo in the darkness. There was still a sliver of moon. Patter and I tried to sit outside on the veranda with a nightcap but the mosquitos wanted some too, so we gave up and went in. We ate little the next day, but then we got to Gangivecchio on my birthday and The Serious Eating began.


At 8:50 PM, Blogger notthatlucas said...

Wow. If you two aren't HUGE when you show back up here, I'm not going to believe a word of this. That sounds amazing.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger DAK said...

NotThat, it boggles my mind too, but we lost weight on this trip. I don't get it. Maybe we're all wrong about pasta.


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