Recently in Dining & Travel category
In Rome, I was happy to relax a bit in my friend’s apartment between eating and sightseeing. I had brought some books to read, but I was thrilled to discover on the bookshelf one book I’ve wanted to sit down and read for some time, but never got around to it…
In between reading, I did manage a few spare moments to find some wonderful places to eat.. steering clear of any huge ships, of course.
One of the best things about eating out in Italy is there’s lots of salads and vegetables, and restaurants like Campana have a huge selection, and you’re welcome to help yourself (don’t worry…Mangia!…eat now, and worry about the bill later…it’s Italy!)
Many guests come to Europe and are surprised there’s not more vegetables served when they eat out. The reason is mostly because preparing vegetables is very expensive: cleaning and cutting them, cooking them properly, then re-cooking them to order. It’s much more work than tossing a piece of meat on the grill and serving it with some frites.
The casual and rustic antipasti tradition in Italy means many small, family-owned restaurants have piles of vegetables and salads, and you just help yourself, but…be careful…there’s always another course on it’s way, but what a way to begin! Big platters of wilted chicory and spinach, grilled, thick slices of eggplant, sweet carrots spiced with red chili peppers, mushrooms braised in olive oil and herbs..eat…eat!
A simple pasta of freshly-rolled egg noodles and wilted radicchio. I love cooked greens, especially if they’re slightly bitter and this simple bowl of pasta didn’t disappoint. (Ok, radicchio isn’t really a “green”, so what to call it?)
Of course, I had a couple of desserts (it had been at least a few hours before hitting my first gelateria) and I had a nice, moist wedge of Ricotta Cake. Little pieces of candied citrus peel and I suspect a splash of liquor flavored this cake, and it was moist and simple. And utterly scrumptious.
I didn’t share. You wouldn’t have either.
Ristorante la Campana
Vicolo della Campana, 18
Tel: 06-68 75 273
Although pizza is decidedly Neapolitan, if you can find great pizza in Brooklyn and New Haven, Connecticut, you can find it in Rome. Unlike jumbo American pizza that’s meant to serve a hungry mob, Italian pizzas are thin-crust and prepared individually.
My absolute favorite place to eat in Rome is Nuovo Mondo. The room has all the charm of a high-school gym: bright lights, Formica, and brusque servers who toss a few plates and forks your way along with a big pile of napkins (consider it a warning: Things Are Gonna Get Messy). Each time I ate here, I was the only non-Italian in the place.
What incredible pizza I had here! Each is hand-rolled (not dramatically tossed…this ain’t the Food Network), topped with whatever’s been ordered, and baked in a blistering-hot oven for about 1 minutes. Afterwards it’s pulled out, slid onto a plate and the waiter rushes them to the table.
While you wait, order a Supplì or two, and you’ll be rewarded with a plate of tender pellets of rice moistened with tomato then deep-fried. I didn’t see one table in the place that didn’t have a plate of these, and since Nuovo Mondo is also a birreria, I can’t imagine anything better with a bottle of icy-cold Italian beer, can you?
Via Amerigo Vespucci, 9
Other fun places I love in Rome:
Via dei Coronari, 55
A small, but nice selection of housewares.
I bought a fabulous fire-engine red espresso pot there. Features Alessi dinner and cookware.
Via del Tritone, 168
Old-world shop selling hand-sewn linen kitchen towels, fine tablecloths, napkins, and aprons.
L’Albero del Cacao
Via Capo le Case, 21
A tiny, delicious little chocolate emporium, featuring many of Italy’s best chocolates, including Slitti and Domori. And if you’re looking for some edible souvenirs of Rome, why not pick up a few made from white chocolate? (Although I can’t guarantee you’ll make it all the way home with them. I certainly wouldn’t have.)
Via della Luce, 21
Amazing selection of biscotti (it’s a biscottificio, after all) with an astounding selection of sweets piled everywhere. The rather brusque saleswoman at the counter wasn’t very helpful (she complained about how fat Americans are… perhaps she couldn’t see very well behind her…her butt was nearly as wide as a Fiat.) Still, the service was worth braving for the terrific, crispy cantucci, biscotti, and amaretti, richly-scented with aromatic bitter almonds.
Via Mario de’Fiori, 6
Upscale housewares, you’ll find espresso makers, measuring cups, pasta-making tools, and examples of contemporary Italian and European kitchen design. Think lots of stainless-steel and glass.
The famous Italian “30-Second Breakfast” of a espresso and a pastry, consumed quickly at the counter, before sprinting off on your Vespa, is one of the charms of Italy. The coffee is so good no matter where you go, from small corner caffès to trattorias and pizzerias, the end of a good meal is always punctuated with a shot of espresso. Each time I sip a tiny, sweetened ristretto (a very small, or “short” espresso), I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes (yes…really, I’m a romantic).
I stand at the counter while the barista lowers the handle on the powerful espresso machine, watching the thin trickle of aromatic liquid. The bartender loudly clanks the espresso saucer on the counter with a tiny spoon and perhaps a packet of sugar, then moments later presents me with a teensy cup of very hot, toasty and deeply flavorful liquid.
Just a sip or two, then it’s gone; the perfect espresso.
And in Rome, one must make the pilgrimage to the most famous espresso in the world… Sant’Eustachio.
The espresso at Sant’Eustachio in Rome is so well-regarded that William Grimes of the New York Times advised those in the US seeking the perfect espresso, “…When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant’Eustachio cafe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble.”
The perfect espresso requires a few factors: the pressure of the machine, the quality and grind of the coffee beans, how often the machine is cleaned and serviced, the skill of the machine operator and many feel, most critically, the water used.
(And in spite of what many people think, there is much less caffeine in espresso. Unlike drip or plunger-style coffee, the coffee extraction for espresso is so rapid and powerful, there’s too little time for much caffeine to be extracted from the coffee.)
No one at Sant’Eustachio will reveal their secret for the crema that tops their espresso, which is a thick layer of frothy cream that floats on top of the espresso, which experts claim should float the sugar for exactly 3 seconds before it begins to sink in and dissolve.
I have to admit, no one at my table was very impressed with the espresso or cappuccino at Sant’Eustachio. The famed crema sat on top of the coffee like a thick, cranky layer of froth that refused to budge, rather than the delicate layer of silky bubbles that beautifully frames the rich brown, steaming liquid pressed into the tiny cup. I tend to agree with those that claim the secret of San’Eustachio’s espresso is a tiny bit of bicarbonate of soda added to their water (since acid neutralizes the taste of bicarbonate of soda, the slightly-bitter espresso would indeed eradicate any trace of that ‘soapy’ flavor). That foam was suspiciously rich and stubborn and I had to press down on the sugar, and stir, to get it into the espresso.
And the coffee was pricey.
Most caffès charge perhaps 80 centimes (about $1) for an espresso at the counter, whereas here it almost three times the price.
But admittedly, no one here seems to stand at the counter…most opt for the tables in the lovely, placid Piazza Sant’Eustachio overlooking the church. An unusually quiet little square in the middle of Rome.
Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82
The first time I ever had gelato was about 20 years ago when it seemed to be all the rage in the 80′s, that staggeringly over-the-top era of excess, when we all seemed to be fascinated by Studio 54, record-shopping at the Gap (anyone else remember that?), Bianca Jagger, ultra-suede, and Bill Blass-designed Lincoln Continentals.
There was place around the corner from Chez Panisse in Berkeley where I would stop before work. Although it had some fancy Italian name, it was known around town as ‘The Lesbian Gelato Place’.
I don’t know if the women who made the gelato and scooped it up were lesbians, but since it was Berkeley and it was the 1980′s, they may have been a ‘womyn’s-owned collective’, if memory serves me right. It was the time when blending politics (Wendy Yoshimura, the SLA cohort of Patty Hearst, worked at the Juice Bar Collective next door), social change and gastronomy somehow becoming all linked together and made what you were going to have to eat a ‘social statement’, instead of just filling your gut.
Soon there were gelato places all over the place, but that wonderful lesbians gelato bar was a revelation to me.
(Hmmm. I wonder if I will now start getting lots of hits from lesbians looking for good gelato?…)
Anyway, they eventually they closed, as some diet probably became the rage and it perhaps was time to Stop The Insanity making it forbidden to eat delicious gelato or anything except mountains of potatoes. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that lesbians weren’t the only ones who made good gelato. In fact, gelato is the national obsession in Italy, where you’ll find everyone from sleek businessmen to groups of Vespa-driving teenagers (and lesbians) getting their licks in.
Italians just adore gelato and it’s rarely consumed sitting down. It’s gooey and soft, and meant to be licked and slurped while walking down the street, swirling your tongue around it and catching every little chocolate-y drip that begins its inevitable slide down the side of your cono.
Il Gelato di San Crispino (Via della Paneterria 42), has been dubbed the “laboratory” of gelato, since it’s gleaming and spotless. And amazingly efficient…something that you begin to appreciate the more time you spend in Italy. You take a number and they serve you in order. And this one woman happily served everyone, without flinching, in several different languages, keeping the place spotless..and with a big smile.
You can’t get an ice cream cone at Il Gelato di San Crispino, according to Maureen Fant, who’s writes about Rome who I met up with. She explained that a cone is considered unhygienic. Instead you order your gelato by the cup (which I don’t mind, since you don’t waste any when it drips.)
I was told by several Romans to be sure to taste the meringa, which baffled me until I tried it. When I ordered cioccolata along with two meringas of hazelnut and chocolate chips, the cheerful scooper told me I had made a great selection.
And…oh my God, was that good. The gelato of course was excellent, but the meringa was a frozen meringue studded with crispy bits of dark, bitter chocolate, toasted Piedmontese hazelnuts and crackly, sugary meringue. Each little mouthful revealed something new to me…a whole new world of frozen desserts had expanded right in front of me.
My other favorite gelato was at Giolitti, close to the Pantheon. The place was enormous and pandemonium ensued, as tourists tried to figure out the system (or lack of) then fight their way to the front of the counter through the bustling mob of excited Italians (in Italy, it’s common to pay in advance at the cashier before ordering your gelato or espresso at the counter…and in Italy it’s not common to line up in any particular order!)
There were lots of fruit-flavored gelati to choose from; I loved the beautiful colors and there was every flavor you could imagine, from a dark, inky blackberry to a dreamy-pink white peach. Each server, wearing a chic jacket-and-tie, would generously smear your cono with up to three flavors then top each with a blob of panna, or whipped cream.
I saw a few non-Italian women scraping theirs off once outside, into the wastebasket.
Another counter at Giolitti featured a dizzying array of granitas, flavorful, intensely-flavored ices that are ground up into
little crystals and explode in flavor when you eat them. Usually they’re topped with a flourish of panna as well: the contrast between the sweet richness of the cream and the lively flavor of the granita makes this a Roman favorite.
While they all looked delicious, I was still teetering from my granita di caffè from nearby Tazza d’Oro, which perhaps has the best espresso and was my daily stop in Rome.
Of all the regions in France, one of the most peculiar is Brittany. The cuisine is hearty, earthy, and dynamic…like the terrain…
The coastline is a virtual lunar landscape of jutting rock formations, with pristine beaches tucked in between. Consequently, upper Brittany is somewhat remote and not a popular tourist destination. Most of my days began at a almost-deserted beach with a dip in a frigid, clear water, and finished at a lively crêperie, picking through a mound of moules frites, steaming-hot mussels simmered with white wine and local shallots, served with a overly-generous pile of frites that I thought I’d never be able to finish. (But of course, I always did…mustn’t be rude.)
Ah, summer vacation in Brittany. There’s not much to do here except swim in the chilly water, and eat seafood, red onions (more about them in a later post), and…the delicious salted butter.
Unlike the rest of France, the Bretons don’t eat much cheese…in fact, there’s no local cheeses that I can think of that are produced there and I didn’t see one fromagerie in ten days. But they make up for it by offering up lots of butter, which they’re justifiably famous for. When you compliment a local pastry shop or restaurant on their cuisine, they will invariably respond proudly, “C’est la buerre de Bretagne!”
There’s also not so much wine wine consumed either, since the locals drink plenty of sparkling, lightly-alcoholic apple cider. A fizzy bottle is popped open before each meal and served in a traditional bolées, similar to a squat coffee cup with a handle.
But back the butter—it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Breton butter is notable since it’s almost always flecked with large, coarse grains of salt that crunch when you bite into them. I spread some on my toast each morning before drizzling it with bitter chestnut honey. Much of the salt used is harvested on ponds and marshes in the Guérande, where the famed fleur de sel is harvested as well. And unlike the rest of the country, Bretons often butter their bread, which is never done elsewhere in France except with oysters, which are customarily served with buttered rye bread, pain de seigle. (So next time you’re in Paris and that waiter gives you a disapproving sneer when you ask for butter, tell him you’re from Brittany.)
Naturally much of this butter makes its way into buckwheat crêpes, or galettes de blé noir (when made with buckwheat flour, or blé noir, they’re normally called galettes rather than crêpes. You can buy crêpes at most of the local pastry shops, and if you’re lucky, they’re still warm.
One night I picked up a stack and for simple dessert, I heated a bottle of hard apple cider in a skillet, added a handful of unrefined cassonade sugar, a modest knob of Breton salted butter and some delicious prunes from Gascony. Once the cider was sweet and syrupy, I added some folded crêpes, a pour of Calvados, and voila!
Perhaps the most famous dessert of the region is the Far Breton. Far is the Breton word for ‘custard’, and the Far Breton is remarkably similar to a custard tart sans the crust. Like everything, there are good versions, and not-so-good versions (like pretzels on the streets of Manhattan). You’ll find Far Breton everywhere in Brittany; in supermarkets, outdoor markets, restaurants, and pastry shops. Like flan in Paris (which is a wedge of custard tart, and not the inverted caramel custard that many of us are used to,) a slab of Far Breton with prunes is often a mid-afternoons snack, or le goûter for hungry folks.
Although I find most of them rather dense and heavy, I knew that if I tried as many as possible like Goldilock’s, I would certainaly find the version that was “just right”. And sure enough, the best was from a pastry shop in Lesnevin called Labbé, a few steps off the main square.
Another extraordinary treat is the Kouign amann, which is pronounced (and spelled) a few different ways, depending on your accent. I learned to say it by rhyming Kouign with the word schwing!, from Wayne’s World…which I’ve tried to explain with a sharp thrust of my hips to French people but it doesn’t seem to translate very well, and people were looking at me funny, so I gave up.
A friend who visited Brittany once wrote me and said, “A stick of butter would seem light in comparison!..” when describing his first encounter withKouign amann. And indeed, the word amann is the Breton word for butter.
I had to try one from several bakeries, since it’s one of my favorite desserts: layers of flaky pastry baked with plenty of salted butter and sugar, until it’s all dark, crisp, and caramelized? Bring it on. Sometimes they’ll sell it by the slab at outdoor markets, and they slice off a hunk for you and sell it by the kilo. But the best thing I ate all week was…
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. Here I was surrounded by fabulous buttery creations, but then I discovered strawberries from Plougastel. But honestly, these were the best strawberries I’ve ever had. Although usually I judge fruit based on it’s aroma before I buy (and these had little smell), these looked so ruby-red and glistening, that I just had to try them. Each one was sweet-sweet-sweet! Each was juicy with flavor, like a soft piece of sweet strawberry candy and deep red all the way through. I’ve never had strawberries like that before, although I’ve seen them in the markets in Paris, they never looked so appealing as they did at that village fruit market in Brittany.
Related Links and Posts
Le Bateau en chocolat (Georges Larnicol launches a chocolate boat, video)
In summertime, I follow Parisians who’re making a mass exodus from the city. We scurry from the city, jamming crowded autoroutes and packing the train stations. The city offers few trees or shade, and the sunlight reflecting off the white buildings means little respite from the withering heat no matter how hard you look-and there’s only so much icy-cold rosé that I can drink!
So I often make weekend trips to the village of Coulommiers, where there’s a lively outdoor market selling the most famous cheese in the world: Brie.
Brie is not a town, but a region to the east about one hour away by car or train. The sunday market in Coulommiers is one of my favorites because no where else in the world will you find so many cheese vendors selling all kinds of Brie, many unavailable anywhere else.
There are two true Brie cheeses. The classic is Brie de Meaux (Bree-du-Mohw), about 14-inches across, each disk weighing approximately 5 pounds. Brie de Melun (Brie-du-Meh-Lahn) is slightly smaller, a tad higher, and doesn’t ripen all the way to make a creamy pâte, like Brie de Meaux. Often you’ll cut open Brie de Melun and discover a drier layer of underripe cheese in the middle (at left). These cheeses have the most superb flavor in the late spring-to-early summer, when the cows feast on mustard blossoms, giving the cheese a musty, complex flavor and slight golden tinge.
Brie de Melun is aged longer than Brie de Meaux. It has a firmer texture and many aficionados prefer it because of it’s stronger and more aggressive flavor. Both cheeses can be made with raw or pasteurized milk, although I prefer the raw versions, which are rarely available in the United States due to regulations in the US (where you’re allowed to drive at high-speeds on freeways while talking on a cell phone and drinking a giant latté, but prohibited from eating cheese that has been prepared the same way for centuries.)
These two Brie cheeses are AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) as of 1990, a product designation given by the French authorities, which states that these specific cheeses meet certain criterion for heating, coagulating, and salting the milk, the subsequent ripening, as well as being fabricated within the specific region. Most cheeses you’ll find labeled Brie are not a true Brie unless the AOC label is affixed to the exterior. In the US, you’ll only find it at a specialty cheese store…if you’re lucky to find it at all. In France, a notable exception is Brie de Nangis, which is a young, milder Brie from the region but does not carry the AOC label, but it’s good. The AOC designation has also been given to 34 cheeses as well as other products like the tasty green lentils from Puy, Haricot Tarbais (the dried beans used to make cassoulet), and the free-range Poulet de Bresse.
Although AOC is often a sign of quality, other products don’t carry the appellation, since they may be made in a neighboring region, or a slightly larger size, or stirred a few more times than the regulations allow during production. So as with anything, let your nose and the taste be your guide. No matter where you live, always seek out a good cheese shop and ask the fromager for advice: they’re a wealth of knowledge and should be proud of their cheeses and happy to help you.
Coulommiers is another excellent cheese from the region, and not AOC. It’s a smaller round, about 6-inches in diameter, and not widely known outside of France. Coulommiers has the same barnyard-like smell that is delectably appetizing in Camembert and indicative of a truly ripe Brie, but is a bit more pungent.
Locals in Brie are perhaps the only ones who have developed an appreciation for Brie Noir. Normally Brie cheeses are ripened for between one and two months. Brie Noir is ripened much longer, often 8 to 10 months. It’s such a regional specialty, and only appreciated by people of the region, that you’re likely never to see it anywhere else.
As you can see, Brie Noir is dark, brown, and crumbly. It’s covered with dusty powder and it tastes, well…horrid. After my first eaglerly-anticipated bite, I could not get the vile taste out of my mouth. It’s bitter and acidic. A friend from Coulommiers suggested I dip it into my café au lait at breakfast, which I suspiciously tried, which actually moderated the flavor and made it more palatable. Who knew?
Brie Q & A’s
But my supermarket cheese says Brie…isn’t that Brie?
Real Brie is almost always Brie de Melun or Brie de Meaux. Most of the other cheeses labeled ‘Brie’ are not true Brie. They often won’t ripen properly and taste worlds apart from real Brie.
Should you eat the rind?
The general rule for eating the rind of any cheese is that you may eat it as long as it won’t interfere with the taste or experience of the cheese. For example, something with a lot of mold growth obviously wouldn’t taste very good. A tough rind, like the rind of Parmesan, you wouldn’t want to eat either.
How do I cut Brie?
Think of any round wheel of cheese like a pie or cake. You should slice a triangular wedge out, so that you have a nice portion of cheese.
When presented with a full cheese plate to serve yourself, never cut the ‘nose’ off the cheese, the pointy end: It’s very bad manners!
Can I bring back raw milk cheese into the US?
That depends. Most of the time, I’ve found Customs Officers (oops…I mean ‘Department of Homeland Security’) officers will look the other way as long as you’re bringing in cheese that’s for personal consumption. Obviously if you have 60 wheels of Brie, you will likely get busted. Many fromageries in France will Cryo-vac (sous vide) cheese for transport to contain the fragrance, which I recommend. I once traveled with cheese in zip-top bags and by the end of the flight, the overhead bin totally reeked of cheese.
Luckily the other passengers were French…and for some reason, the US officials quickly waved me through customs.
If you plan on eating at Le Verre Volé (The Stolen Glass) be sure to call first and reserve a spot. It’s located just next to the Canal St. Martin, a trendy quarter of Paris, and there’s only seats for about 18 people or so. But unlike New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, you could call that afternoon and likely get a spot. During dinner I told my dining companion that if this was in New York, there would be a line out the door…and around the corner.
I began the complex task of choosing from one of the wines from the shelves. Each has the price written across the neck of the bottle since Le Verre Volé doubles as a retail establishment. To drink it there, they add a modest 7€. I scanned the shelves and chose a red Mazel from the Ardeches (18€) that was very light and fruity. A bit ‘fresh’ when first opened—once it sat, it gained complexity. I was happy that it was the perfect choice for the warm evening and hearty food. During the evening, practically every three minutes, someone would roar up on their scooter, disembark, and rush in to buy a bottle of wine for dinner.
We shared a jellied terrine of oxtails (5€). The finely shredded meat was gently molded with some spring asparagus and peas, all barely held together with jellied beef stock that was light. It was served with pickled, vinegary capers on their stems and dressed salad greens.
All the main courses were meaty: blood sausage with roasted apples and potatoes, andouillettes de Troyes, and veal Marengo. Not being much of a fan of ‘variety meats’ (as they’re politely called in America), I chose the caillettes ardechoise (10€), a patty of well-seasoned pork ground-up with tasty and still-chewy beet greens and spinach. It was roasted until searingly-crisp on the outside, and when I split it open, a moist cloud of steam erupted revealing fork-tender meat within.
One could also make up a meal composed of lots of the appetizers, like the roasted eggplant caviar, salt cod-stuffed peppers, or platters of various meats and cheeses.
The genial young men who run the place managed to keep the small crowd happy. One took orders and opened wine, while the other stood behind the tiny bar and dished up salads and roasted meats and sausages in the small ovens. Behind the bar is a glass door leading to an air-conditioned room, a jumble of boxes and bottles of wine.
I’ll see you there.
Le Verre Volé
67, rue de Lancry
tel: 01 48 03 17 34
Métro: Jacques Bonsergent
UPDATE: In late 2010, Le Verre Volé remodeled and put in a real kitchen and additional tables. I still like the place, however it did lose the impromptu feel that it used to have after the transition. And having a kitchen has made the menu a little more “ambitious”, which I’m not sure is necessarily a good thing. (I miss the copious cheese and charcuterie boards, for example.) It has also become quite popular so it’s best to book well in advance if you want a seat in this still relatively small dining room. On my last visit, our reservation was in their reservation book, but they told our small group that they couldn’t give us a table because they didn’t have room for us. The did give us the name and phone number of a restaurant in the 20th arrondisement that they recommended.
Related Links and Wine Bars
A favorite quick-bite on the streets of Paris, at L’As du Fallafel.
L’As du Fallafel is one of the few places where Parisians chow down on the street. Beginning with a fork, dig into warm pita bread stuffed with marinated crunchy cabbage, silky eggplant, sesame hoummous, and boules of chick-pea paste, crisp-fried fallafel. Spice it up with a dab of searingly-hot sauce piquante.
L’As du Fallafel: 34, rue de Rosiers, in the Marais. Open every day, except closed friday beginning at sundown, reopening for lunch sunday.