Tuesday, 22 July 2008

excitment and disappointment

as a foodie, i consider the excitement that comes before going to a well-known good restaurant as one of the best small pleasures of life. when you have been to a place a couple of times, brought your friends there, familiarized with the menu and the owner, each new visit is a reassuring but fresh experience. new dishes are sampled, new flavours explored, but old memories of culinary satisfaction are usually confirmed. this is the cause of a sort of silent trepidation that i feel before each return, especially when i have not been to a certain place for a long time due to my restless moving around the world.

this time, i had been savouring the pleasure of going to the bucun du preve for a couple of days. the restaurant opened only a few years ago, hidden in one of the small alleys that cross the centre of the small seaside town of noli, on the italian riviera ligure. i have been coming to this town on holiday since i was a few months old, as my grandparents have a house here, but until the bucun du preve (literally, the priest's bite) opened, i had not set foot in any of the many restaurants around town, which all look like they opened in 1955 and forgot to update the menu or the furniture ever since. the first three times i went there, i felt like my favourite seaside resort had finally entered the 21st century, finally offering a friendly atmosphere and excellent food along with the crowded beaches and the quaint medieval town centre. the owner and cook was an almost caricatural example of local attitude, big, loud, chatty and rude, defending his food with passion and pride. Justly.
this time, i carefully manouvred my grandmother into saving her energies and allow me to take her out for dinner on my last night in town and i immediately started waiting for this event with pure, if hidden, excitement. as i was reading a novel on the beach, i was actually thinking of what the menu would offer and if i should take the trofie al pesto, which i had been longing for a while, or go for the seafood dishes. i was imagining the jokes the rowdy owner would make at my lobster-coloured skin and picturing the rustic atmosphere of the vaulted dining hall.

you can therefore imagine the disappointment when i walked into this old familiar restaurant to find it...slightly changed. at first, i couldn't pinpoint it. but my grandma noticed the new bright lighting, the absence of the wood oven in a corner, the white paint covering the brick walls. the infamous owner was nowhere to be seen and we therefore had to realise that a new management was in place. the menu was the first visible difference...a few local traditional dishes, a lot of fish as expected, but also a tray of tuscanian hams and meats. nothing catchy, nothing terribly original and, most importantly for me, no trofie (a local kind of fresh pasta). i was already quite disillusioned, but decided to hold my judgment until i actually tried the food. unfortunately, it didn't make much difference. my linguine al pesto with green beans and potatoes were truly unimaginative, as if someone had told the cook what ingredients he should use but forgot to explain how. even the pesto sauce, the great traditional pride of liguria, was not much better than the imitations found in other italian regions, always too generous in garlic and poor in parmesan. the stuffed calamari were better but presented as a microwaved ready-meal. redemption only came with the dessert, excellent stuffed peaches which competed with equally attractive fruit tarts on display.

the price was honest, if not cheap, but nothing could compensate for the great disappointment i experienced in finding out what a poor replacement they had found for what was an innovative and excellent restaurant in a culinary desert on the ligurian riviera. i only wish the lovely new owners had opened their own patisserie rather than add another boring and plain-looking eatery to my few options for a dinner out in my beloved noli.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

crescentine e tigelle

it had been a while since i last came to bologna, the town where i did my undergrad. it had been so long that i had almost forgotten about its many gelaterie, where you can get the finest ice cream in italy, in my humble opinion. it had been so long i didn't quite know what to say when my friends asked me “so, where do we go for lunch?” on a fiercely hot sunday afternoon. but most importantly, it had been so long i couldn't really foresee the pleasure of sitting on a terrace perched on one of the many hills surrounding the city, with a couple of old good friends, a jug of house wine and the reassuring abundance of plates that come with very traditional tigelle and crescentine.

i have not been on this hill before, so i let chiara drive me up to this very big, old fashioned restaurant on the side of the provincial road. it looks quite plain, but i know better than judging a restaurant by the paintings on the wall in this country, so i sit down excited at the idea of my first good italian meal in a while. the simple menu tempts me with a variety of grilled meats whose smell pervades the large terrace and small garden where most of the tables are. but chiara suggests to take some crescentine and tigelle to share, and i feel like a friend who i have not seen for decades just showed up at my door. how could i have forgotten about them?! when i lived here, i used to drag all my visitors from the “north” to traditional restaurants on the hills to marvel at the lavishness (and “fatness”) of the bolognese cuisine and now i am the one to marvel once again.

in a few minutes, our table is covered with large serving plates and pots. crescentine, puffy rectangular shapes of fried pastry, are sizzling hot and we need to handle them with care, while we stuff them with layers of local salami, ham and creamy soft cheese. tigelle, flat disks of hot crunchy bread, need to be cut in the middle to create delicious sandwiches with pesto, a creamy mixture of lard, rosemary and garlic, nothing to do with the ligurian pasta sauce that we find on supermarkets' shelves. the first bite in my overloaded tigella makes my taste buds shiver with pleasure, from zero to a thousand calories in 3 seconds. it really is a coming home, to familiar flavours and slow paces, remembering large convivial dinners extending into the night over a wine-stained paper tablecloth.

but there is still much more to go, this restaurant does not limit itself to the traditional ham and cheese, but it fills our table with pots of jam, plates of freshly-made onion and tomato sauce, jars of pickled onions and peppers. each bite is an exploration of new flavours and combinations, i am eager to try everything, at first devouring my creations, in the end chewing slowly as hunger is replaced by pure gluttony.

coming down to bologna, imagining all the things that i wanted to do here with my friends, i forgot to wish for a dinner on the hills, i colli bolognesi. if i had, i would have probably not enjoyed this night out, because it was not perfect: the wine was a bit acidic, they forgot to bring parmesan (la forma, or “the shape” as it is called around here) to the table, dessert was plain and the bill was not as cheap as we expected. but because it came as a total surprise to my senses, it turned out to be a delightful meal, bringing my mind back to memories of student life and my taste buds to the reality of fat but oh-so-delicious bolognese traditional food.

trattoria gilberto
monte san pietro, bologna

mary ward veggie café

living in student residences doesn’t always allow for healthy eating habits so yesterday m and i decided to go get a veggie fix. the choice of place was the mary ward café. the café itself is rather nondescript but is packed to the brim. the food is very reasonably priced and full of flavor. we landed up ordering the same thing. 

a thick coin of aubergine sandwiched between two squares of polenta and topped with grilled peppers and melted blue cheese. on the side was a selection of salad from the bar; cabbage with lentils and a carrot slaw with sesame. the menu varies daily and both of us were sad to find that on our return there were a new addition, an aubergine and courgette risotto. i must have had a really hopeful look on our face because we both got a taste of the risotto which was actually very good too. next time we’ll have to sample dessert... the only problem is, the café isn't open year round. it's attached to the centre and therefore gets a summer vacation. 

good for them but definitely not good for us...