Welcome To France

A couple weeks ago, someone sent me a thoughtful gift from the US.

A few days later, I get a bill from the delivery company; 42 euros for taxes (the gift was valued at 80 euros, making the tax about 55%.)

So I head to the office of the delivery company, where they show me the official rules for gifts sent and received in France:

“If someone sends you a gift, they must write on the paperwork ‘Unsolicited Gift'”, they explain.

I reply, “So next time I receive a gift I should refuse it if it doesn’t say ‘Unsolicited Gift’ on the paperwork?”

No, by then it’s too late. If someone’s going to send you an unsolicited gift, you need to tell them to write ‘Unsolicited Gift’ on the paperwork.”

“Oh.”

I stand there for a moment, looking at them to see if they perhaps detect any bit of irony there.

And do they?


I reach for my checkbook.


Welcome to France.

Rome, Italy

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…

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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.

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Little balls of risotto, rolled into neat rounds with a morsel of cheese tucked within. Called arancini, they’re meant to (kind of) resemble oranges…until you cut them open, of course. Finding melted cheese in an orange would be a rather unpleasant suprise, wouldn’t it?

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!)

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Help yourself!…Antipasti at Campana.

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..eateat!

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Fettuccini alla Radicchio

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?)

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Torta di Ricotta

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.

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It’s not burnt…it’s perfect! Pizza with wilted broccolini and salcicce (pork sausage).

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.

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Thin-crusted pizza, with a handful of cheese, fresh arugola, and slices of bresaola, air-dried beef.

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.

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Simply Supplì

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?

Nuovo Mondo
Via Amerigo Vespucci, 9
Tel: 06-5746004

Other fun places I love in Rome:

Porcellana 55
Via dei Coronari, 55
Tel: 06-68806053

A small, but nice selection of housewares.
I bought a fabulous fire-engine red espresso pot there. Features Alessi dinner and cookware.

Sermoneta
Via del Tritone, 168
Tel: 06-6795488

Old-world shop selling hand-sewn linen kitchen towels, fine tablecloths, napkins, and aprons.

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L’Albero del Cacao
Via Capo le Case, 21
Tel: 06-6795771

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.)

Innocenti
Via della Luce, 21
Tel: 06-5803926

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.

C.U.C.I.N.A.
Via Mario de’Fiori, 6
Tel: 06-6791275

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.

Knuckleheads

So I’m in the supermarket line with my basket of groceries.

The man in front of me unloads his basket, then dumps his plastic basket on top of the neat stack of other shopping baskets.

But instead of nesting it snugly within the other baskets, he just drops his basket on top, askew and cock-eyed, handles facing upward.
So I need to put my basket down to re-arrange his basket so I can set mine down inside and unload it.

This happens to me all the time.

Obviously he set his basket in there before me, and the person before him was kind (and smart) enough to do it properly.
Right?

Or…he had to adjust the others (like I’m gonna have to) and maybe afterwards, like any normal, thinking person who walks upright and not on all fours, do you think he might realize…
Gee, wouldn’t it be nice of me to stack my basket properly for the next person, not like that idiot in front of me?

Are you one of those people that just drops their shopping basket wherever they want and doesn’t think about the person behind them?

Are you?

If so, cut it out.

Especially if I’m in line behind you.

Espresso di Roma: Sant’Eustachio

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.

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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.

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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.

Sant’Eustachio
Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82
Rome
Tel: 06-6880-2048

Italian Menu Options

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“Can I get that, um, on the side?”

Molto Gelati: Italian Gelato

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.

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Not a lesbian…but enjoying gelato anyways

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.

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Scooping gelato at Il Gelato di San Crispino

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.
Whew!

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My gelati

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!)

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How does one decide?

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.

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Note the huge bowl of ‘panna’, or whipped cream dwarfing everything

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.

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Frosty, crystallized granita in many flavors

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.

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The welcoming sign at Tazza d’Oro


Related Posts

What is gelato?

Pistachio Gelato

Gelato di Polenta

Tasting Rome: Gelato, Pasta, and the Italian Market

Chocolate Gelato

At Giolitti, where I got my daily cono of chocolate gelato in Rome…

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Giolitti
via Uffici del Vicaro, 40
Rome
tel: 06 6991243

Pairing Wine and Chocolate

I confess.
I’m one of those people that don’t like wine and chocolate together.

There’s something about all those diverse flavors going every which way in your mouth…all I want when I enjoy chocolate is to taste rich, dark, unadulterated chocolate without any distractions.

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Gâteau Bastille: A Little Chocolate Cake with Prunes

I’ve been meaning to write more about chocolate, and when Clotilde announced she’s hosting Wine Blogging Wednesday 13, it was the perfect excuse to add some notes here about chocolate.

I asked two friends and chocolate experts (I love having chocolatiers as friends)from two of my favorite chocolate companies how they felt about pairing chocolate with wine. You may not know this, but most chocolate is a blend of various roasted beans, plucked from pods and roasted to achieve a certain flavor and profile that the chocolate-maker is seeking. Like wine, chocolate is often blended from various beans, which of course can vary. Depending on variety, origin, fermentation, and roasting, cacao beans can have amazingly different flavors, so often they’re blended.

And in spite of what you’ll read and hear, there’s often no advantage to single-origin chocolates over blended chocolates, unless it’s really important to you that your chocolate is only made from one particular kind of cocoa bean.
A few chocolate companies make excellent single-bean chocolate, such as Amadei, E. Guittard, and Domori; all are extraordinary and well worth eating, but I find other single-bean chocolates a result of good marketing and no more exceptional than some of the blended chocolates.

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Brilliantly-Colored Cocoa Pods From Africa

As a former winemaker, chocolate-expert John Scharffenberger transitioned from sparkling winemaker to mastering the art of blending fine chocolate. During his explorations and tastings, he was intrigued by discovering similar flavor components in wine and chocolate, finding nuances that both had in common.


“In tasting Chocolate and wine, there’s a definite fruit acidity (cocoa beans in chocolate, grapes in wine) in the beginning. Next is a bit of a respite in the mid-palette (the fatty cocoa butter for chocolate) and finally sweetness (sugar in chocolate, the alcohol or yeast of sparkling wine.)”

He describes a similar finish when tasting wine and chocolate “defined by tannins, sometimes long and soft, sometimes short and harsh.”

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Freshly-Dipped Parisian Chocolates

Chocolate and wine both have tannins, which can makes them remarkably similar, and I agree with John Scharffenberger (although Hershey’s ain’t making any offers to buy my business!)
The problem arises when those tannins compete with each other. That’s why I prefer a sweet, smooth, rounded ruby port wine with chocolate, rather than a bracingly intense wine, like Cabernet or Zinfandel.
Often the two just obliterate each other and cancel out each others fine qualities.

So I admit that for this chocolate and wine pairing, I fudged a but.
(Sorry, bad pun…)
I opted to pair chocolate with something unusual: Spiritueux de Cacao, a clear, distilled liquor made by steeping and heating cocoa beans then capturing the essence by collecting the aroma and bottling the liquid created by the steam.

Sounds difficult?
That’s why good eau-de-vie is rather pricey. Jörg Rupf of St. Georges told me he uses 60 pounds of Bartlett pears to make just one bottle of Pear William (pear eau-de-vie).

I discovered my Spiritueux de Cacao at Lavinia, the 3-story wine emporium here in Paris. At Lavinia, there’s a roomful of eaux-de-vie made from every flavor possible: quince, thyme, sour cherries, honey, lime, and…chocolate. I recommend visiting the 3-story wine emporium if you come to Paris, located near the historic Place Madeleine and visit the collection of open bottles. You’re welcome to take a good sniff and sample from their selection. (Now that’s my kind of wine store…)
Naturally I chose the chocolate one, and left the garlic one behind!

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Superb Slitti Chocolate Bars and Beans

Frederick Schilling, the ‘alchemist’ of Dagoba, one of my favorite organic chocolates (his Dagoba Xocolatl bar with chilis, cacao nibs, maca, and a hint of nutmeg is simply amazing), finds that the nuances of some of his exotically-flavored chocolates pair well with wine. Frederick loves pairing his floral lavender chocolate with a pinot noir and his delicious lime-scented milk chocolate with a crisp pinot gris.

But when I pressed him for tasting specifics, Frederick replied that he thinks that chocolate tasting comes down to “there are no rights or wrongs. Taste is a subjective art … If it tastes good, you’re having fun, and are surrounded with people you love, it must be the right pairing.”

So here’s my ‘wine’ and chocolate pairing for Wine Blogging Wednesday 13: little rich, individual chocolate cakes.
I make one for each person because I don’t like to share my chocolate! Each is studded with liquor-soaked prunes, adding soft, sweet little bites that meld perfectly with intense dark chocolate. These petits gâteaux can be made in advance and the flavor improves as they sit. (Trust me, I ate all four cakes over the course of the day I made them. They kept getting better and better and better).

If you don’t happen to have a bottle of chocolate eau-de-vie in your liquor cabinet, either come to Paris and pick one up (sorry, I don’t deliver)…or macerate the prunes in port wine or dark rum.

Gâteaux Bastille
(Little Chocolate Cakes)

4 individual cakes

For the prunes
6 medium-sized pitted prunes, cut into little-bitty, bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons Metté cacao eau-de-vie

For the cakes
4 ½ ounces (125 gr) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
¼ cup (50 ml) heavy or light cream
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt

In a small bowl, mix the prunes in the eau-de-vie.
Cover, and let macerate for a few hours.
Butter four 2 3/4-inch (7 cm) paper cake molds and set them on a baking sheet. (See note.)

To make the cakes:

1. Preheat the oven to 375° F degrees (190° C).

2. In a medium bowl set over simmering water, melt together the chocolate and cream. Remove from heat.
Mix in the prunes and any liquor in the bowl remaining, then let cool to room temperature.

3. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, at high speed, beat the eggs and sugar with a pinch of salt until thick, about 5 minutes.

4. Fold one-third of the beaten egg mixture into the chocolate, then fold in the remaining egg foam.

5. Divide batter between each cake mold.
Bake for 30 minutes, until cakes are tender and still soft when you touch the top. Each will rise, then gently sigh down a bit.

Remove from oven and cool a few minutes before removing the paper cake mold (use a scissors to cut it away).

Serve warm or at room temperature with very cold cr&egraveme anglaise and perhaps a scattering of crisp-toasted sliced almonds.

Note: If you can’t get paper cake cups, you can use paper muffin liners in a muffin tin.

Ok, how’s that for a nice, rich little chocolate dessert?
I’m so wiped out from all that chocolate, I need a break.
Let’s see, where should I go this weekend?

How about…..

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…Italy!