Results tagged Bologna from David Lebovitz

Balsamic Vinegar in Modena, Italy

The hardest part about sampling so much good food is that it’s almost impossible to go back to eating the everyday stuff.

I challenge anyone who’s flecked a bit of fleur de sel across their food to go back to ordinary table salt. I took one taste of the cloud-like, billowy chocolate-enrobed marshmallows from Pierre Marcolini and now I can’t seem to get enough.

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A special bottle used to evaluate ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’


My first experience with real, true balsamic vinegar goes back to the time I worked with Paul Bertolli at Chez Panisse. Every so often he’d ask me for the key to the liquor cabinet (which, for some reason, I was entrusted with) and he’d pull out his little dark bottle of brown, viscous syrup.

A breathless hush would fall over the kitchen, and he would tenderly drip a few precious drops onto the dinner plates with great reverence. Although that liquor cabinet got pilfered on perhaps one too many occasions, mostly involving after-work fresh fruit daiquiris for the staff (I was definitely not the person to entrust with the key), I never did touch that little bottle.
It scared me.

So when planning my visit to the Emilia-Romania region, I decided I would be so close to Modena, it would be a shame not to visit and see what all the fuss was about. I sent a message to the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena who was happy to provide me with a glimpse of the process of making traditional balsamic vinegar.

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Giovanna uses a glass tube to demonstrate the varying thickness of her vinegars

I could not have been luckier to spend the morning with Giovanna Cati-Barbieri and her husband Giorgio, who may be the tallest man in Italy. Giovanna took me up to their cellar where rows of barrels are lined up, where her vinegars are aged and stored. In fact, tucked away in the attics of many residents of this city are similar wooden barrels, some hundreds of years old, where families privately make their own batches of vinegar, as they’ve been doing for generations.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is not to be confused with industrial balsamic vinegar, the acidic brown water that costs 2 bucks at the supermarket. It’s like comparing Ye Olde Log Cabin to pure, deep-dark maple syrup: there’s simply is no comparison. Giovanna, like others in town, follows traditional methods to make her balsamic vinegars, a process that’s strictly regulated and has both DOC (Denominazione di Origin Controllata) and DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) designations which ensure the 80 member consortium of local producers follow specific quality-assured guidelines.

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Rating the vinegar

You need to have a lot of patience to make true balsamico and many of Giovanna’s barrels are stamped with her daughter’s name in hopes she’ll carry on the tradition. Although you can find balsamic that’s younger, only balsamic vinegars that are aged 12 or 25 years get certification. And as those of us getting into our advanced years, there’s certainly a good argument for the gifts that age has bestowed upon us. But more importantly, aside from the certifications and designations, these balsamic vinegars are without a doubt one of the best-tasting things you’re ever liable to put in your mouth.

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Gorgeous bottles of balsamic aged in cherrywood

The process of making balsamic begins in October of each year with just-picked Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes. If the grapes sit for any period of time, they’ll begin to ferment, so they’re cooked right away, but to a temperature no higher than 194 degrees (90 C), which is enough to release their juices but not to cook away any of the flavor. This year, 2006, was exceptionally good for the grapes, since the heatwave concentrated the natural sugars in the grapes.

Once the grape must has been cooked, the juice is cooled, filtered, then stored in barrels, which are never filled more than 3/4′s full. Giovanna uses many different types of wood, mostly castagno but also ginepro (juniper) and ciliegia (cherry), to make special reserve vinegars, since the wood imparts a fine flavor to the balsamico.

As the vinegar ages and evaporates over the years, the vinegar gets transferred from the large ‘mother’ barrel to smaller ones, gradually and systematically, over a period of several years. If you’re lucky, some day you’ll get a chance to taste vinegar that’s over 100 years old. It’s a rare treat.

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Judy Francini, the Divina Cucina, shows off a bottle of 100-year old vinegar in Florence

As Giovanna explained, “Balsamico is a life philosophy” since the techniques get handed down by word-of-mouth, and it takes more than just reading a recipe to know how to make the vinegars; when they must be decanted, how to monitor the evaporation, and evaluationing the vinegar at various times throughout the aging process. Giovanna also explained that the barrels are used like a dowry, handed down to daughters from generation-to-generation. She’s hoping her daughter will want to carry on the tradition as well. I hope so too.

Afterwards, Giovanna led me through a tasting of her vinegars, starting with a 12-year old bottle designated by a white cap, which was grape-y, tart, and pungent-sweet. It would be perfect to drizzle over carpaccio or shards of aged Parmesan cheese. Her 25-year old with a gold cap, was far fruitier, stickier, and with less acidity and more beguiling complexity.

Then she brought out the big guns: a tray of very special bottles, including her 25-year old reserve balsamic aged in cherry wood, which I immediately envisioned dripping over a vanilla-flavored panna cotta, then I tasted another 25-year old balsamic vinegar aged in juniper wood barrels, which she said should only be served over something “very important”, like venison or red meat.

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So good drizzled over sliceds of rare beef at Ristorante Vinicio

After several delectable spoonfuls, I was starting to swoon, wondering why I had lived so long without making aceto balsamico an essential item in my pantry? Well, I’m sure it had something to do with the cost; a small bottle will set one back at least $25. But since you’re just using just a few drops at a time (don’t you dare mix it into salad dressing), maybe ½ teaspoon, it’s merely a few cents per serving. So I tucked several bottles, packed very well, in my suitcase which thankfully made it back to my Parisian pad in one piece.

In spite of the price, a stingy few drops are all you need to make a very big impact. And never mind the photo…I asked them to keep pouring, feigning trouble with my camera, so they’d keep the precious liquid flowing. But I do recommend for newbies to try a bottle that’s at least 12-years old, as there’s a substantial difference between a thin, rather uninteresting 10-year old balsamic vinegar and a luscious, velvety 12- or 25-year old. The consortium of balsamic producers use a special bottle, designed by race car designer Giugiaro, to designate the provenance of their vinegars. Incidentally, it’s the same creative team that designs cars for a well-known, very famous Italian factory nearby, too.

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Freshly-churned vanilla gelato is the perfect foil for the tart-sweet taste of balsamico

The sad news is that now I’ve developed a taste of the good life, especially for true aceto balsamico, and have been tipping it over everything around here. But balsamico is also good with fresh figs, soft young goat cheese, shards of pecorino or Parmesan cheese, dark chocolate, gnocchi, and tortellini filled with sweet butternut squash.

Acetaia di Giorgio
Via Cabassi, 67
Tel: 059/333015

Visits can be arrange by telephone or through their web site and Giovanna speaks English. Reasonably-priced, secure international shipping is available as well.

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If you haven’t spent all your euros on vinegar, stop here on your way out of Modena

Modena

To learn more about balsamic vinegar in Modena, visit the web site for the Consorzio Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.

Modena is a easy train ride from Florence, and the trip takes about 20 minutes making it a perfect day excursion. To visit the balsamic producers, call in advance and you’ll need to rent a car or take a taxi. The New York Times recently wrote an excellent article about the region as well.

Another, larger producer of traditional balsamic vinegar is Acetaia Bompana. Visits can be arranged in English or French as well.

Be sure to visit the Mercato Coperto Albinelli. This wrought iron-covered daily market is a must-see and is one of the best in the world. Open until 2pm.

Hotel
Hotel Centrale
Via Rismondo, 55
Tel: 059/218808

Modest lodging, smack-dab in the center of town, on a quiet street.

Restaurants

Ristorante Vinicio
Via Emilia
Tel: 059/280313

Gran Caffè
Piazza XX Settembre, 34
Simple, contemporary foods. Great lunch spot for pasta and salads, with wine bar for early evening drinks. Next to market.

Trattoria da Omer
Via Torre, 33
Tel: 059/218050
Pastas and simple trattoria fare.

Ristorante da Danilo
Via Coltellini, 31
Tel: 059/225498
Regional cuisine, including bollito misto, boiled meat dinners, dished up almost tableside. The ravioli di zucca, plump squash ravioli, are excellent.

Hosteria Giusti
Vicolo Squallore, 46
Tel: 059/222533
Tiny salumeria with a few tables hidden in the back.

Molto Gelato in Bologna

“It’s not your fault!” she laughed.

I had just walked in the door of my hotel, clutching my stomach in a bit of a panic, unable to fit in another morsel of food, no matter how small or appealing. Halfway through my 10 day eating trip through Italy, I felt like a plump, overstuffed ricotta-filled cannoli, bursting at both ends. I told the woman at the front desk at my hotel that I could not eat one more bite of anything, or I would surely die.

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“It’s not your fault.” she told me, “The food in Bologna is too good!”

And indeed, she was right. We’d eaten very well, from simple trattorias, slurping up Tagliatelle al Ragú and Tortellini with Ricotta and Zucchini Blossoms floating in brodo, to filling up on pizza bianco, stuffed with everything from roasted potatoes and fragrant rosemary to gooey, stringy Italian cheese and thin-sliced prosciutto. Although I could easily point a finger at the restaurants for the gustory overload, I did have a role in the matter, since between all these meals, I consumed a rather indecent amount of gelato.
So I’ll share the blame, mezzo-mezzo.

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Fresh-churned Gelato di Cioccolato

Eating gelato in Italy is a national pastime. Like Americans who tote oversized paper cups of coffee wherever they go, Italians walk around lapping up cones of gelato instead. You never hear anyone complain about their weight, calories, or anything like that. They just love their gelato and its enjoyment is an integral part of life in Italy. And as they say, “When in Rome…”
(A theme which began a few days earlier, when we actually were in Rome. But it’s not so pretty to say, “When in Bologna, do as the Bolognese do.” Is it?)

But one thing that is pretty incredible is the gelato that’s churned up in Bologna.

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Gianni Figliomeni of Il Gelatauro

Just a short walk from the center of Bologna, is where you’ll find Il Gelatauro, where Gianni Figliomeni makes what many consider the best gelato in Italy. Although I think the cookies deserve an award as well, and just looking at the picture makes me wish I hadn’t been so polite when they offered me a bag to take back with me.
Stupid Boy! What was I thinking?

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Krumiri cookies and Mondorletti al Cioccolatto Fondente

Above are the chewy, excellent cookies that I had from Il Gelatauro. The krumiri are vibrant-green cookies made simply of pistachio paste and honey mixed together and baked. But what pistachio paste that is! Unlike ordinary, dull-flavored pistachios, Bronte pistachios from Sicily are brilliant-green, and not-so-delicate, filled with intense pistachio flavor. You simply can’t make cookies like these without them, nor can you make Pistachio gelato without them as well, so don’t even bother. The other cookies, Mondorletti al Cioccolatto Fondente, are made by mixing ground nuts with rare manna syrup (when Gianni can find it), then dipped in sublime Amedei Chuao chocolate from their plantation in South America.

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Most gelato has less fat than regular ice cream, but it’s denser since less air is whipped in while churning, generally just 20-25%.

But what I came here for was the gelato, which not only didn’t disappoint, but after eating gelato non-stop the previous week in Rome, I wasn’t prepared for how special these gelatos are. Il Gelatauro uses mostly organic ingredients, so when you order a cone of Creme (and they have gluten-free cones), you can taste the fatty, golden-yellow egg yolks used to enrich the gelato base. And although it would take a rather big Italian dude with lots of muscles and a crowbar to pry me away from my beloved Cioccolato gelato, the Yogurt gelato had the fresh tang of yogurt combined with the slippery, lickable texture of gelato. It was the best, freshest-tasting Yogurt gelato I’ve ever had.

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Once the gelato is scraped from the machine, chunks of cake crumbs are scattered over and soaked with liquor, then mixed in.

Other flavors included Principe di Calabria, scented with bergamot and Calabrian jasmine flowers, rich Mascarpone, Zucca e Cannela, made with squash and cinnamon, and Semi di Finocchio, a gelato flecked with sugared, candied fennel seeds, which were originally given to pregnant women to increase milk production. Since I’m neither pregnant, nor lactating, I’ll have to take their word for it.

But it’s not just esoteric or the unusual that tempt, delight, or whatever they say in Italian (Hey, lay off—I’m having enough trouble with French…let’s not toss Italian into the mix.) His Chocolate-Brownie gelato was an amazingly right-on recreation of an all-American idea, although that should come as no surpise since his wife is American artist Angela Lorenz,whose artwork is shown on the walls of the gelateria. Perhaps she also had a hand with the creation of the Baked Apple and Cinnamon gelato and Caki, or the creamy, autumnal Persimmon gelato with a soft orange hue as well. If so, I suggest they revoke her American passport so she has to stay in Italy.

As they walked me through the gelateria and the spotless laboratory I learned much about his gelato-making techniques. Many gelaterias make just one base, then add flavors to build them up. But at Il Gelatauro, each base is made separately and to certain specifications, then frozen at the start of each day. All Gianni’s gelatos are made with fresh, organic cream and milk, unrefined cane sugar, and a touch of the highest-quality powdered milk to increase the milky-smooth flavor and mouth-feel without increasing the fat. He confided in me that many of the thick gelatos we taste at other places have added vegetable fat to make them thicker and smoother. But there’s nothing like that done here, and as I watched and tasted a spoonful of each and every flavor they had to offer (how could I resist?), I finally made my way back to my hotel.

To do—what else? Make plans for dinner!

Il Gelatauro
San Vitale, 98/b
Tel: 051 230049

(More food photos of my trip to Italy are here.)



Other Gelato in Bologna

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Stefino
Via Galliera, 49/B
Tel: 051 246736

Sicilian-style granite, or shaved ice. I can’t imagine anything better in the summer (or even in the winter) than espresso and chocolate granita piled into a cup.

la Sorbetteria
Via Castiglione, 44
Tel: 051 233257

Rich, thick gelato in flavors such as ricotta with caramelized figs, dulce de leche, and chocolate-studded straciatelle.
Make sure to visit their chocolate shop, il Coccolato at Via Castiglione, 44/B, just down the street too.

Restaurants in Bologna

Trattoria Tony
Via A. Righi, 1/B
Tel: 051 232852

Simple basic Bolognese fare. Great pasta, tortellini en brodo, and bollito misto. Friendly service, but the food requires a grappa chaser afterwards if you plan to sleep that night. Seriously.

Trattoria Anna Maria
Via Belle Arti, 17/A

Angela from Il Gelatauro was so rapturous about the barely-there, super-thin strands of tagliatelli that I knew if I didn’t go, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. I followed my Tagliatelli Ragu´ with roasted, fork-tender Guinea Fowl. Be sure to reserve.

Enoteca Italiana
Via Marsala, 2/b
Tel: 051 235989

Lovely, lively wine bar with an amazing selection of Italian delicacies for sale as well, including well-stocked shelves of Domori, Slitti, and Amedei chocolates.

A.F. Tamburini
Via Capriarie, 1
Tel: 051 234726

Glorious shop featuring all sorts of cheeses and salumi. Casual cafeteria if you wish to sample their fare on the premises.

Hotels in Bologna

Two reasonably-priced hotels in the center of town, just a 10 minute walk from the train station, and just minutes from all the gelaterias listed above!

Hotel Paradise
Vicolo Cattani, 7
Tel. 051 23179

Hotel Metropolitan
Via dell’Orso, 6
Tel: 051 229393