Saturday, December 27, 2008


The true meaning of Christmas is not presents, nor is it the birth of Jesus. It is bûche de noël.

A bûche de noël from Marquet Patisserie

Photo courtesy of my father.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Italy Addendum: Ordering Food in Italian Restaurants

I used to be confused about the structure of Italian meals. I had read some authoritative sentence that sounded like this: "In Italy, pasta is eaten not as a main course but rather as a small appetizer prior to it." Back when I read that my appetite was large enough that eating a meal of some appetizers, pasta, meat, and dessert didn't strike me as crazy. But a meal like that with restaurant-sized portions would be crazy. (And don't blame it on American portions: Italian dishes were about the same size as American ones.)

So, here's my bid at a new authoritative sentence on how to order at Italian restaurants: "In Italy, pasta is eaten in a separate course from meat and fish. You can have one course or the other or both, and you can share dishes in either course." I always like sharing, and apparently so do Italians. We had a representative meal in Ancona. Three of us had two antipasti, two pastas, and one thing from the fish menu, which was a good amount of food.

Italy, Day 15, 6/29/2008

  • breakfast: typical
  • lunch at Trattoria Tre Torri: eggplant "bruschetta"; casoncelli (pasta stuffed with a meaty paste); polenta cake
  • dinner: airport sandwiches

Eggplant "bruschetta" was tomato, Parmesan cheese, and dried oregano on slices of grilled eggplant. (Incidentally, all the oregano I encountered on the trip was dried. All the other herbs were always fresh.) The casoncelli were small pasta stuffed with a pink paste that seemed to include prosciutto. They were served with a sauce of bacon and fried sage. The dish was terrific, especially the sage.

After lunch we bought one of the many small cakes sitting in a bakery window. It was made of polenta and had a thick layer of chocolate frosting, and as you'd expect from something made of coarse cornmeal and chocolate, it was delicious.

We ate some sandwiches at the airport. Even airport food is good in Italy!

Trattoria Tre Torri
Piazza Mercato Del Fieno, 7/A
24129 Bergamo (BG), Italy

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Italy, Day 14, 6/28/2008

  • breakfast: typical
  • lunch: mozzarella, tomato, lettuce sandwich; torta di verdure
  • dinner: polenta with cheese and mushrooms (antipasto); grilled pork tenderloin with rosemary and deep-fried squash flowers; vegetables with sesame seeds

Torta di verdure--vegetable cake--was a spinach pie with a thin, flaky crust. We ate it on our train journey to Bergamo, which suffered all sorts of delays (typical of all the trains we rode in Italy).

We finally got to Bergamo and walked around a bit. It's a nice town, especially for one that no Americans have heard of. It has an old town on a hill and a new town (still pretty old) below. I failed at finding a restaurant for dinner, and we ended up back at our bed and breakfast, which was also a restaurant.

The polenta with mushrooms was a traditional dish from Bergamo. The polenta had a much stronger corn flavor than it does when I make it. The pork was good but a little dry. The squash flowers mostly tasted like deep-fried batter, but it was very good batter. The vegetables were shockingly bad.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Italy, Day 13, 6/27/2008

  • breakfast: the usual, plus a lemon granita from La Scogliera
  • lunch from Focacceria Antonio: focaccia, walnut cake
  • dinner from La Cantina de Mananan: mixed seafood antipasto; pasta with pesto; mozzarella with tomato, capers, olives, and oregano; fruit with gelato

I got a lemon granita at La Scogliera, and it was the best granita I had ever had. It was a refreshing, icy lemonade, like the Italian ice at Court Pastry but with a thinner consistency and a much stronger flavor.

We had made a reservation for dinner at La Cantina de Mananan. Giovanna was excited that when she gave her name, she didn't have to spell it. The restaurant had placemats advising us in English and German that Parmesan cheese doesn't go with seafood, that pesto doesn't go with pepper (who knew!), and that it is not appropriate to drink cappuccino after dinner. One frenzied man was the waiter for the entire restaurant. The antipasto had two delicious bits of smoked fish, two anchovies, some fish marinated in oil, capers, and lemon juice, and two shrimp with sweet, moist meat served in dark tomato sauce.

The pesto was exactly what pesto should be. The pasta was the weirdest shape I've ever seen (I forget its name, unfortunately). They were flat squares, about two-by-two inches, and one side was covered in little bubbles. They looked almost exactly like boiled pieces of pork skin (don't ask how I know that).

The gelato in our dessert wasn't vanilla but fior di latte--milk-flavored. It tasted like milk with no other flavor, and I think I liked it more than vanilla.

A roof with rocks and a satellite dish

La Scogliera
Via Fegina, 222
19016 Monterosso Al Mare (SP)

Focacceria Antonio
Via Fegina, 124
19016 Monterosso Al Mare (SP)

La Cantina de Mananan
Via Fieschi, 117
19010 Corniglia (SP)

Italy, Day 12, 6/26/2008

  • breakfast: pastry with raisins
  • lunch: roll with spinach; stromboli-like thing with tomato, mozzarella, and ham
  • dinner: prosciutto and melon; trofie (worm-shaped pasta) with pesto and zucchini; ravioli with lobster

We bought breakfast at a trendy pastry shop in Bologna. Giovanna had a croissant stuffed with hazelnut cream, which was as good as it sounds.

We had an hour layover in Parma on our way to the Cinque Terre, five towns within walking distance of each other on the Mediterranean coast. We found a shop selling focaccia and other things resembling pizza. We got a roll that looked like a Chinese pork bun. It actually was kind of similar, but stuffed with spinach flavored with a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar.

We arrived in Corniglia, the middle town of the Cinque Terre, and we walked down the coast to two other towns. Things got more and more touristy, but it seemed appropriate for such a beautiful coast to be a little bit touristy. The restaurant we ate at was half good, in unexpected ways. In our prosciutto and melon, the melon was perfect, and a perfect melon is a surprise even in Italy. But the prosciutto was bad, which for Italy is an even bigger surprise. The ravioli with lobster were outstanding, though they were actually ricotta-spinach ravioli in tomato sauce with half of a little lobster on the side. On the other hand, the pesto dish was terrible. It had mushy strips of zucchini with the same texture as an overcooked potato and about as much flavor too.

The coast around the Cinque Terre

Italy, Day 11, 6/25/2008

  • breakfast: bread, honey
  • lunch: sandwich with prosciutto, sheep's cheese, and roasted eggplant and zucchini; peach granita
  • dinner: pasta filled with potato with guanciale and chives; lasagna with little vegetables

Our afternoon in Bologna was taken up by a search for somewhere to stay. We had booked a room, but when we got to the listed address, there was no sign of any hotel. We went to a tourist office for help and someone there was friendly enough to walk down with us and ring some buzzers. She managed to find our (entirely unmarked) hotel, but the man on the other end of the buzzer said that he wasn't the owner and couldn't let us in. We had to call Giancarlo, the owner. We already had called him several times--his cell phone was turned off--and so we gave up and looked for something new (we hadn't paid a deposit or anything). We ended up with a cheap room in a hotel that looked exactly like a college dorm. It was incredibly hot, but it housed us for a night. Some time while we were wondering around with our bags taking care of this, I managed to get myself a peach granita. It seemed to be just pureed peach and ice, and was very refreshing, though not particularly intense.

At dinner we had small triangular pasta (bigger than tortellini, smaller than ravioli) stuffed with potato, kind of like pierogis. The sauce was chives, very crispy guanciale (cured pork cheek--similar to bacon), and lots of butter. The lasagna had little pieces of zucchini, carrots, and I tihnk some other vegetables, and lots of Béchamel sauce.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Italy, Day 10, 6/24/2008

  • breakfast: bread, honey, jam, peanut butter
  • lunch: prosciutto sandwich and gelato
  • dinner at La Cantineta: cold fish antipasto; mussels and clams in tomato sauce antipasto; orecchiette with shrimp and cuttlefish; tagliole (long, thin pasta) with seafood; roasted seafood; lemon sorbet

We packed sandwiches and left in the morning for a beach in Sirolo, a small town on the Adriatic. After a day there, we got some gelato and came back to Ancona. Despite Italian food's superiority over Hungarian food, I preferred Hungarian ice cream. Gelato and fagylalt (i.e., Hungarian ice cream) are similar to each other; both are lighter and less creamy than American ice cream. I thought most gelato felt unnaturally (and unpleasantly) slick in my mouth. Giovanna did not agree.

The beach in Sirolo

Back in Ancona, Chiara took us to a seafood restaurant called La Cantineta. She took forever to translate the menu for us because she gave us a detailed description of every pasta shape. According to her (and perhaps to all Italians?) the shape of the pasta was as important as what was on it.

The cold fish antipasto had a lot of different things: a single shrimp with an intense flavor; a piece of smoked salmon; anchovies marinated in lemon juice; and arugula with what I think was cuttlefish. Our other antipasto, mussels and tiny clams in tomato sauce, was delicious.

Both pastas were great and achieved a miraculous chewiness. When I cook either dried or fresh pasta, it goes from uncooked to cooked without passing through such a chewy stage. (Apparently the intermediate value theorem does not apply to pasta.)

The seafood in the one secondo that we got consisted of a few mild white fish and some crayfish. All were covered in coarse breadcrumbs, including the crayfish, which needed to be shelled, rendering most of its breadcrumbs irrelevant. The different fishes were all good, and I have no idea what any of them were. After this I had lemon sorbet, which was essentially thick, icy lemonade, served with a straw. It was one of the best meals I had in Italy, and it made up for my year in landlocked Hungary with no seafood.

La Cantineta
Via A. Gramsci, 1/C
60121 Ancona (AN)