23 April 2014

Emilia Romagna: Not the ‘Foodie Mecca’ we expected

After three beautiful days in Venice, we departed by train; destination Bologna in the heart of Emilia Romagna. Located in the Po Valley, the terrain is broad, expansive and flat. Emilia Romagna is touted as the new or emerging foodie destination of Italy, and for good reason. It had a very agricultural feel that made me think of the Central Valley of California. It’s the home of Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, Prosciutto, and Lambrusco wine. But as we discovered, as much as it’s a center for food production in Italy, it has a long way to go to match the scenic beauty of Tuscany or other regions of Italy that attract tourists.IMG_0114

The train station in Bologna is located just at the edge of the center city. It was an easy walk, about 6 blocks, to our hotel, The Metropolitan. The hotel, in turn, was only about four blocks from the Piazza Maggiore and Due Torri (Two Towers, Bologna’s answer to Pisa’s Leaning Tower). So the location was ideal for exploring the city and for our day trips by train to Ferrara and Modena.

Quite in contrast to our hotel in Venice, The Metropolitan was sleek and modern. Some reviewers call it a boutique hotel. To me, it was more like a very comfortable business hotel. If I had ever been lucky enough to have a business trip to Bologna, I would have stayed in a hotel like the Metropolitan. Our package included breakfast. While the food itself was fairly standard (cheese, ham, bread, pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit) the presentation was beautiful and very artistic. Appropriate I guess for a food Mecca.

After getting settled into the hotel, my wife and I took a walk around the city to get our bearing and scope out a restaurant for dinner. Our first impression was not favorable. Bologna is a noisy, bustling, gritty city. One of the things that struck me, unfavorably, was the graffiti. It’s everywhere. I mean literally, you can’t go anywhere without seeing walls tagged with stylized graffiti. It was a little disconcerting. We were expecting more of a historically preserved city center, like we did see on our day trips.

And unlike Venice, Bologna and the other towns we visited in Emilia Romagna observed the traditional mid-day break. So in our walk around town, we saw lots of graffiti and lots of shuttered shops. We were quite chagrined. However, as the afternoon wore on, the city gradually took on a different tone. As the midday break ended, the city took on a much more cosmopolitan aura. We also came up with a list of several restaurants that looked promising for dinners during our stay.

Now, as I noted above, Bologna was our base for exploring Emilia Romagna. We planned two day trips. Originally, we reserved a rental car. But we discovered that the towns we wanted to visit were easily accessible by train from Bologna. So we cancelled the car and took the train. To me, that was a great decision. Traveling by train in Italy was easy and mostly relaxing. (I always had a little apprehension about making sure I was on the correct train for my intended destination.) The train stations were quite close to the city centers, and it was an easy walk to see the highlights of each town.

We picked Ferrara primarily for the historic buildings. The city center is dominated by the Castello Estense. The huge impressive castle is surrounded by a water-filled moat. The other dominant feature of the city center is the cathedral Duomo di Ferrara. But as much as anything, we enjoyed just wandering the medieval streets within the city walls and taking in the ambiance of the town. After a couple of hours, we felt that we’d seen enough and headed back to the train station.

I suppose at that point, if we’d had a car, we might have driven around and explored the countryside between Ferrara and Bologna. Instead, when we got back to Bologna, we made an impromptu visit to an art exhibit. It was a collection of Dutch art featuring Vermeer’s painting of The Girl With The Pearl Earring. The exhibit was at the Palazza Fava, an exhibition center just two blocks from our hotel. We enjoyed the exhibit, but also enjoyed looking at the architecture and permanent exhibits in the palazza. IMG_0133

Our second day trip, to Modena, finally gave us the foodie experience we anticipated in Emilia Romagna. The food market in Modena is fabulous. In addition to the stands selling regional food specialties, we were fascinated by the array of vegetable vendors as well as vendors of fresh meat, fish, and seafood. It was well worth the trip. And overall, we found Modena to be a more inviting town. It was more cosmopolitan than Ferrara but much less gritty than Bologna. My highlight of the day was sitting at a sidewalk café enjoying a plate of lasagna alla Bolognese and a glass of Lambrusco. (I didn’t know this before our trip, but I learned that one of Modena’s sister cities is St. Paul, MN.)

We did return to Bologna for dinner each night. Here are the restaurants we picked:

Ristorante Il Moro: I suppose this would be considered a tourist restaurant. Its menu includes a line up of pizzas. But we had a very enjoyable meal here. It’s not far from The Metropolitan and sort of off the beaten path for the city’s restaurant district. We happened by on our way back to the hotel. We stopped to look at the menu, and a waiter who spoke very good English invited us in for a bite of lunch. We declined, but we liked the menu and liked the way the restaurant looked. So we came back that evening for dinner. It was very good, and the service was friendly and accommodating.

Ristorante Victoria: This was my least favorite restaurant of our while trip to Italy. In fact, after eating here, I decided we had to check diner reviews of restaurants before deciding on a restaurant. (I actually installed the Trip Adviser app in the hotel that evening and used it the rest of our trip.) It had all the prospects of being good – menu, décor, ambiance. And it’s not that our meal was bad. It was just … so average.

La Capriata: This was a great restaurant. We got the recommendation from our hotel (so I bet that means they cater to business travelers). But on our last night in Bologna, it was not at all busy, and we got great personal attention from the servers. We played it up a little bit by telling them that our trip to Italy was in celebration of our wedding anniversary. They made a truly great effort to make the meal memorable, and they succeeded.

After our dinners on two of the nights in Bologna, we went to Cantina Bentivoglio to listen to music. Billed as a restaurant, wine bar, and jazz club, Bentivoglio was a wonderful find. The cover charge for the jazz club was only 4.5 Euros and the drinks were not expensive. One night we heard a trio with sax, piano, and bass. The second night was a duo of piano and drums. They were great performers and the venue was really cool. It was downstairs and had a feeling like a wine cellar or underground vault. It was my favorite part of our stay in Bologna.

One final note about our visit to Emilia Romagna: For being a center of food production, especially meat and dairy, I didn’t see a single cow or pig (or chicken, sheep or goat for that matter) during our whole stay. Perhaps if we had rented a car and driven around the countryside, we might have seen some farm animals. But I was surprised by that.

22 April 2014

Basking in the sublime beauty of Venice

One of the top items on my list of things to do in retirement is travel. After 9 months of being retired, we finally took a major trip. We spent two weeks in Italy in late March and early April. That wasn’t literally the first travel since retiring. We took a trip to New York in October and to Los Angeles in January. But both of those trips were related to Mazon board meetings, and so felt more or less like when Linda would travel with me on business trips for Land O’Lakes.

But our Italy trip was a real vacation. We could plan it any way we wanted with no worries about working around work schedules and no worries about missing e-mails. We could go for as long as we wanted, and that’s what we did.

So to begin the vacation, we flew into Venice. We had never been to Venice before. We both wanted to see the city. But we really didn’t know what to expect. As we did our planning, we consulted many friends and family members. We found that people either loved Venice or hated it. We didn’t know which category we’d fall into. So we planned Venice for the beginning of our trip. That way, if it was a disappointment, we could just spend our three days getting over jet lag and then go on to other destinations.IMG_0017

But it turns out, we loved it. We got off to a good start. The sun was dipping low in the sky as our plane circled the city. The golden hues of the late afternoon sun gave the city a warm, welcoming glow. After we landed and retrieved our luggage, we scurried to catch the waterbus (vaporetto) for an hour-long ride to the dock closest to our hotel. The sun slipped below the horizon as the boat neared the dock, and I took a photo that captured the moment.

We did actually have a little confusion finding our way from the bustling waterfront through the winding passages to our hotel. But we found it, and it was fabulous. Casa Nicolo Priuli is scarcely three blocks from the waterfront. But it could have been miles away in terms of quiet peacefulness. That’s actually something that we experienced a lot in Venice. There are locales with throngs of people. Yet in just a few minutes, you cross a bridge and find yourself virtually alone on a quiet walkway.

Our hotel was great. The location was fantastic, very close to the major sites of Venice. But once evening fell, the neighborhood became very quiet and subdued. I keep thinking in terms of the streets becoming empty. But of course, in Venice, there are no streets. Just canals and bridges and porticos and walkways that wind through the city, promising the visitor an endless variety of things to discover.

The weather was fabulous while we were there. In the morning, we’d open the windows and listen to the sounds of the city waking up – shop keepers opening their stores, gondoliers preparing their boats, and people scurrying by to find a cup of coffee and a bite of breakfast. And always the sounds of church bells echoing through the city.

Restaurants in Venice

Trattoria da Nino: After a day of travel, we were tired and just wanted to find a restaurant nearby to have a quick dinner and then go to bed. We checked out a few places and settled on Trattoria da Nino. It offered a ‘menu del giorno’ that looked good, and we could eat on a covered patio outside. (This was a significant thing for us after the long, brutal winter we experienced in Minnesota.) The restaurant was ok … average really. We both liked our first course best. I had gnocchi and Linda had a lemony vegetable soup. The rest of the meal, roast chicken and greens, was pretty ordinary.

Agli Artisti da Piero: During our first full day in Venice, as we wandered through the city, we checked out the restaurants we passed with an eye toward where we would return for dinner. Most of the restaurants that were geared to serving tourists had someone standing outside engaging people who walked by, trying to lure you in. It’s really kind of annoying. But as we walked by Agli Artisti, there was something about it that was appealing to us. We wanted a fish/seafood restaurant – a specialty of Agli Artisti. The menu looked good, and we liked the décor. So later that evening, we found our way back and enjoyed one of the best meals we had in Italy. IMG_0088

Luna Sentada: On our last night in Venice, I really wanted to find someplace that was not a tourist restaurant. Luna Sentada was very close by. We walked by it often going to and from the hotel. We liked the ambiance. But what intrigued me was its food concept. It was Asian Italian fusion, with the chef trying to imagine and prepare the combinations of flavors that Marco Polo might have experienced during his world travels centuries ago. It was a very creative and delicious meal and a great way to end our stay in Venice.

Every night after dinner, we strolled to St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) and mingled with the crowds, enjoyed the mild spring weather, and listened to music. There always were bands performing on outdoor stages in the square. They’d quit playing around 11 p.m., and we’d be back in our hotel by 11:10. Otherwise, we didn’t find much nightlife in Venice. But no matter. We were still recovering from jet lag.

Departure

We left Venice the way we arrived, on a vaporetto. After breakfast, we packed our luggage, checked out, and made our way to the waterfront where we caught a waterbus to the train station. The boat was jammed full as it made its way past the stately buildings of Venice. We watched wistfully and vowed that we would return someday.

10 April 2014

Who decides what is 'good' food technology

There's a great article on the St. Paul paper's web site about an innovative project using the old Hamm's Brewery to grow fish (tilapia) and use the fish waste to fertilize greenhouse veggies. http://www.twincities.com/News/ci_25497427/At-former-Hamms-site-its-the

Don't get me wrong. I love the concept and I hope it works. But I was curious to see that it's being celebrated as an organic food production system. And since I'm an organic skeptic, I wondered: If cows and pigs and chickens have to have access to sunshine and pasture to be considered sustainable, why aren't those same activists criticizing this project for confining the fish and failing to provide them with access to open water? For that matter, why aren't organic plants required to be grown in dirt and have access to sunshine, rather than hydroponics in a greenhouse?

Who decides that this project's industrial technologies are laudable while conventional 'industrial' agriculture (like my dad practiced) should be castigated?

I've felt for a long time that the organic movement has gotten so wrapped up in self righteous rhetoric and food politics that it's lost its way. 

25 March 2014

Pre-Italy wine tasting in S. Mpls: Terzo

My wife and I made it to Terzo before we went to Italy. My goal was to sample an array of Italian wines so that we’d be more knowledgeable when it was time to order in-country.

I had hoped to do a custom flight of Tuscan wines – chianti, sangiovese, and Brunello. Regrettably, Terzo didn’t have just exactly what I wanted “al bicchiere” (by-the-glass). They did, however, have three Tuscan wines on the menu; one was a Chianti, one a Sangiovese blend, and a Montepulciano. We ordered a half glass of each. Our server recommended what order to try them. All were good. My wife liked the Chianti best, and I liked the Montepulciano.

TerzoNow, a word about Terzo’s wine menu. Terzo is an Italian wine bar. All of the wines on the menu are Italian, and they have a robust selection of wine by the glass as well as an extensive selection of bottles. Pricing is not cheap, but it is very straightforward. I think the most expensive glass I saw was $20 for a Barolo. Most of the glasses that we tried cost anywhere from $8-14. They serve a 6-ounce pour, which I consider generous. (I usually expect a 5-ounce pour.) You can get a half glass, 3 ounces, for exactly half the price.

Terzo does not do wine flights per se. Instead, you can specify your own ‘flight’ simply by choosing an assortment of half-glasses. If your server is as good as ours was, you can get good advice on choosing a custom flight.

As a wine bar, the food menu is oriented toward small plates and appetizers. They do have 5 or 6 ‘piatti’ which are entrée sized plates of food. Some of them looked very appealing. But we chose an assortment of small plates. The categories on the menu are ‘cicchetti’ (snacks), bruschetta, salads, and small plates. They do also offer a cheese board, salumi board, and prosciutto. On the snack list, they offer something that I’d call an ‘amuse bouche,’ a one-bite appetizer for $1. (We didn’t get one on our visit.)

Here’s what we did get to eat:

  • Calabrian peppers stuffed with herbed goat cheese. There were two nice-sized peppers on the plate. The server said they were not too spicy, but they were too spicy for my wife. I loved them and gladly gobbled them both.
  • Caramelized onion tart. The server was practically bubbling with excitement to tell us that the puff pastry for the tart was made in-house. It was excellent.
  • Two gorgeous seared sea scallops with mini potato chips (made from fingerling potatoes). The scallops were served with a fennel puree and a preserved lemon relish. This was my wife’s favorite dish.
  • A plate of chilled and sliced veal, dotted with tuna emulsion, each dollop topped with a caper berry. My favorite. It was sublime.

I’ve mentioned our server a couple of times in this post. She was fantastic. She was friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and attentive. Her food recommendations were exactly what we wanted. And she did a great job helping us to explore the nuances of Italian wines. I hope all the other servers are as good as Karen.

One more thing about Terzo that I really appreciate; they take reservations. Terzo, in case you didn’t know, is the No. 3 restaurant at the 50th & Penn intersection of Minneapolis owned by the Broder family. The Cucina is a deli, and the Pasta Bar is one of the best Italian restaurants in the city. But in order to maintain the ambiance of a neighborhood restaurant, they don’t take reservations. That’s ok on a nice summer evening. If it’s a long wait, you can always stroll down to Lake Harriett. But we don’t have enough of those warm evenings in Minnesota. So we don’t go to the Pasta Bar as often as we otherwise would, because we’re not going to be hassled by bad weather while waiting.

Terzo solves that for us. Half of the tables are available for reservations, and half are kept open for walk-ins. Nice compromise.

We will definitely be back.

24 February 2014

I hate food waste #3: Carrot pasta

Sorry, I got distracted after writing two posts on using leftovers creatively instead of throwing them away. (Click here for #1 and here for #2.) But this one is the one I’m most proud of.

It started with a turkey. When I make turkey, I almost always grill it. After dinner, my wife and I strip the carcass of the remaining meat. Then I break down the carcass and freeze the bones, usually in two bags. I use the carcasses later to make turkey broth for any recipe that calls for chicken broth. I use this recipe from Bon Appetit/Epicurious as my starting point. (The recipe calls for roasting the bones. But since I grill my turkey over charcoal, I find that the carcass already has a nice smoky flavor and depth of flavor, so I skip that step.)CarrotPasta

After the broth was done simmering, I strained it into freezer containers (for future use). What remained were the bones, now pretty well bare of any meat, and the soggy celery, onions, and carrots. I did toss most of that stuff. But I decided to save the carrots. They looked so nice and while they generally held their shape, they were quite soft and mashable.

The inspiration for my use for them came from two separate places. First I saw a video on Mario Batali’s website for mezzalune (click here). And shortly after that, I read a recipe for potato gnocchi. “Aha!” I said to myself. “I wonder if I could make pasta dough with the boiled carrots from my turkey broth.”

It turns out that the carrots worked very well in the dough. I used pretty much the same proportion of carrots to flour as the recipe called for potatoes to flour.

After shaping a few gnocchi, I noticed that the dough seemed very malleable. I decided to try rolling it out, and it worked very well. So then, remembering the mezzalune video, I blended together some (leftover) ricotta, herbs, and an egg and went about shaping the mezzalune. I did about half of the batch as mezzalune and half as tortelloni.

Besides feeling sort of self-satisfied that I’d found a use for the boiled carrots, it was fun to shape the stuffed pasta. The carrots provide a nice orange color, but they don’t really add much distinct flavor. Most of the flavor comes from the herbed ricotta plus the olive oil, herbs, and cracked pepper I finish them with after cooking.

23 February 2014

Italian comfort food & cool jazz at Parma 8200

The heaviest snowstorm of the season (so far) almost spoiled our plans to have dinner with friends. We had a reservation at an Italian restaurant in Minneapolis. Then we planned to drive to Parma for an after dinner drink and to listen to the sounds of Benny Weinbeck who performs there every Saturday night.

With the roads covered with packed snow and ice, we wanted to minimize the amount of driving. So we changed our dinner reservation to Parma and spent the whole evening there. Good decision!

Parma 8200 is part of the D’Amico family of restaurants. I admit that I’m a fan. Their restaurants are reliably good. My favorite is Café Lurcat (which I’ve written about before; click here). But even though Parma is quite close to our house, we’d never eaten there previously. DSC00752

To start with, we had a little trouble deciding on wine. Parma has a good wine list with many choices at reasonable prices. The trouble was, we couldn’t find one that appealed to everyone at the table. Our server was very patient and helpful. He brought tastes of several wines. Finally, the women decided on a bottle of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. I had a glass of chianti, and my friend had a glass of California cabernet.

Like the wine list, the food menu at Parma also offers a nice selection to appeal to different personal preferences. For antipasti, they offer a variety of cheese plates and ‘salumi’ plates in addition to traditional Italian starters. We skipped those and went to salads. The women shared an apple salad which featured romaine, hazelnuts, and gorgonzola dressing. I had a ‘blistered’ romaine salad with radicchio, pecorino cheese, and a sherry vinaigrette. The romaine had been grilled gently until it was slightly wilted and blistered. The slightly smoky flavor complimented the slightly bitter taste of the radicchio. My friend had a Caesar salad. It’s not on the menu; you have to ask. You can have it with anchovies (he did), but you also have to ask for that.

The pastas on the menu can be ordered either as entrées or as a ‘primi’ course. One of their specials for the evening was a lamb tagliatelle, and that’s what I ordered. I loved it. The pasta arrived covered with a tomato sauce with tender, flavorful pieces of shredded lamb. The server offered a sprinkling of grated cheese and cracked pepper, which I took.

It was easy for our group to find appealing meals among the ‘secondi’ entrées. My friend asked about the brasato. The server described it as being like pot roast. (Looking online, I see that the beef is braised in wine, so it’s not an ordinary roast.) It was served with soft polenta. The presentation looked very appealing, and there wasn’t much left of the meal when he was done. The women each ordered chicken. My wife had grilled chicken and our friend had lemon chicken. Both women requested and received grilled mixed vegetables on the plate with the chicken instead of potatoes or other starch.

The menu offers several side dishes, including risotto, potatoes, polenta, Brussels sprouts, and butternut squash. We didn’t order any, nor did we have dessert. Instead, we took the remainder of the bottle of white wine into the bar and listened to the music until Benny closed the piano at 10:30.

At the end of the evening, we all agreed that if we had gone to the other restaurant, we probably would have skipped the music and gone home after dinner. Instead, we had a leisurely dinner, friendly conversation, and entertaining music after dinner. Very fun.

10 February 2014

A carnivore’s delight at Butcher & The Boar, Mpls.

I don’t really have a good excuse for not trying Butcher & The Boar sooner. It’s been highly acclaimed since it opened, and I’ve been curious. Finally, after an evening out with some friends, we expressed mutual interest in trying it. That was fine, but then came the challenge of finding a weekend that worked for all of us, and when we could get a reservation. The place is popular. Hopping busy. It wasn’t easy getting a reservation. We finally picked a date 6 weeks out, and that worked.

You could say it was worth the wait. I’d say, “I wish we’d gotten there sooner.”

As you’d expect, the menu is very ‘meat centric.’ Having said that, I noted that they do have a ‘Waters’ section of the menu with fish and seafood. Several of the fish and seafood items looked interesting, and I considered ordering the barbecued octopus. But in the end, we stuck to meat.ButcherBoar

All of the publicity about Butcher & The Boar mention the smoked beef rib. It’s huge, and it’s expensive. We decided we could split it among us. We also ordered a skirt steak to share. Both were excellent. The beef rib was moist and meaty and had a tremendous Tabasco-molasses barbecue sauce. It had plenty of heat, but was not overwhelming. My wife, who does like overly spicy food, thought the beef rib was great. I thought so too, but I found the steak to be particularly appealing. It was served on a platter cut into slices with roasted peppers. I thought it was great.

We ordered several side dishes to go along with the meat – mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. All of them were good. My wife was disappointed by the mushrooms; she said they didn’t have any distinctive flavor. But I liked them – they tasted like mushrooms. We all liked the roasted sweet potatoes, and the broccoli also was very good.

As a group, we’re not big eaters, so splitting two entrees and a bunch of sides worked well for us. But the entrées are generally not huge (except for the beef rib). So I think most people likely would order their own entrée. Another friend, who’s a fan of Butcher & The Boar, recommended starting with some of the sausages on the menu. No one in our group particularly wanted them, so we didn’t. In retrospect, I kind of wish we had, or at least we should have ordered another side dish.

We did split an order of S’Mores for dessert. They were ok. I certainly didn’t need dessert, but I probably would have preferred the pistachio tart that’s on the menu. I had an espresso that was very good and a nice way to finish the meal.

Besides meat, Butcher & The Boar is noted for it’s extensive beer selection and bourbon. Our friend had a beer. Linda and I had cocktails. Hers was called Brainstorm – a special house exclusive bourbon with Benedictine and dry vermouth. It was excellent. I had an outstanding Sazerac cocktail; classically mixed, nothing fancy, but really great flavor. The restaurant offers bourbon flights as well, and that might be fun someday.

Just a couple of other comments – the restaurant has a parking lot, but it’s reserved for valet parking. I found street parking about four blocks away. As I said, we had a reservation, and we were seated as soon as we arrived. But at first we were shown to a table in the bar. When the group objected, they gave us a table in the dining room. The décor and ambiance is very pleasant – dark and woody. It’s not a dressy place by any means. I saw many patrons wearing blue jeans. And it’s quite loud. You can see by the photo that we did not have a large table, but I had trouble hearing our friends across the table during dinner.