Unexpected Flavors: Lost and Found in Venice

I don’t need a paddle, I need pasta.

Upon returning to Venice for a day trip with my brother I had set my heart on finding the little patio restaurant I discovered on my last trip into town. Only problem was I couldn’t remember the name… or where it was…or what the dish was called. Only that we decided to find an authentic meal in Venice on a Friday night, and that was going to take some reconnaissance. We waited till around 8:30 near one of the piazzas, and watched for the most Venetian looking group of adults speaking Italian and walking with purpose…and followed them.. Down the maze of winding streets and bridges we walked a few feet behind until finally they darted down an alley. This was either exactly what we were looking for or we were about to get yelled at in Italian.

There is pistachio ravioli here somewhere, and I intend to find it.

A charming courtyard of winding green foliage and hanging lights, like a quaint garden party. They spoke little English and we spoke just enough Italian to order and It was perfect. Out of everything that was memorable about that meal the pistachio shrimp ravioli with cream sauce was otherworldly. It has haunted my dreams and was the kind of course you return to a place just so you can try to recreate a moment of perfection….and find what else they can blow your mind with.

So with this in mind I racked my brain on the flight, checked Google keywords  as we checked in at the hotel, read through hundreds of restaurant reviews and as we wandered the winding streets and shops and asked strangers while the regatta boats partied on by, still it eluded me. Tired, cranky and hungry, I opted for a quick nap before venturing out for replacement dinner. When I opened my eyes as if delivered by dream, “Al Profeta” was magically on my tongue! It came up in Google Maps! It was mine!

I poured over the menu again and again,  searching in vain through the menu for my long lost pistachio love. When I still came up empty my Italian still proved insufficient in my attempt to ask If it might still exist. The waiter pointed out another dish with pistachio, but it seemed a little strange.. But I had come this far. So I picked the entree with pistachio even if the other ingredients didn’t entirely make sense to me.

And a believer was born.

Pistachios, Ricotta, bacon “jumps” and… Cocoa pasta? I admit, I doubted it’s power. God help me I doubted.

I wasn’t sure what to expect,  but dammit I was on an adventure and not stopping now. When it arrived, I was intimidated by the inky color and silky black noodles. But if anything ever inspired me to soldier on it was the happy little bacon squiggles on top that dared me to dive in. The biggest shock in the first bite?  IT WAS NOT SWEET AT ALL. The predominant flavor was the bacon “jumps” throughout, which I at first somewhat unappealingly  mistook at first sight for onion. But the cocoa pasta had no sweetness in the flavor but rather added depth to the savory tones (not unlike a good buckwheat noodle) but with a lighter texture. The ricotta was smooth and fluffy and carried the lightly nutty flavor of the pistachios. Never before had I really considered cocoa as a savory ingredient, even knowing it wasn’t always sweet. But hello darkness my old friend, I will never underestimate you again.

And Al Profeta…we will dance again soon.

Tiganello

So I would be remiss if I didnt have an entire post dedicated to a phenomenal bottle of wine I had whilst in Parma. This wine was special. As was the company I shared while drinking it.

The wine itself, like most of Italy, is drenched in history. Often refered to Italys “first modern wine” it was the wine that broke all the rules in Tuscany and coined the term super tuscan.

The Antinori Family has been making wine for 600 hundred years

This wine was the first sangiovese to aged in barriques, the first sangiovese to be blended with non traditional grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon and later on the addition of Cabernet Franc) and one of the first wines made in Chianti that did not include any white grapes.

The wine is produced exclusively from the vineyard bearing the same name. A small 140 acre parcel. And since its inception in 1971, it has only been vinified in favorable vintages.

The initial reactions of the Italian wine establishment were, obviously, mixed, yet, from the very start Tignanello was immensely successful in the international markets, and soon it was hailed as one of the prized Supertuscans.

Ever since 1982, the blend has been the one currently used : 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc.

In the cellar of La Greppia in Parma we had this last bottle from the 1988 vintage. A wine almost 30 years old. It was complex and lively still. Very pronounced tobacco with almost a curry powder like aroma. The fruit was not lost. Blackberry and jammy notes. The wine was silky. It was the icing on the cake for an already amazing meal. .

Ill always remember this meal and this bottle of wine.

My best meal in Italy

I should say, I mean my best meal in Italy this trip. Each region of Italy has such a different food identity its like comparing apples to oranges if I were to compare my best meal in Emilia Romagna to my best meal in Tuscany to my best meal in the Amalfi Coast.

So first of all walking in the streets of Parma most every restaurant looks amazing. The menus posted by the doors boast famed local ingredients, and sophisticated preparations.  The one thing that I absolutely had to have was culatello while I was there. Culatello is the most prized salumi in Italy and of course unavailable in the U.S. The city of Zibello (In the provence of Parma) is the only place that produces it. It is said that climate of that tiny borghi is what gives the ham its innate sweetness and heady fragrance.

With only plans for one meal in Parma, the bar was set very high. I chose a small restaurant called La Greppia. It was warm and cozy inside with waiters with jackets and white table cloths although it didnt feel stuffy. Almost every table was occupied for lunch.

It took me a minute to realize what was missing, but the menus for ladies do not include prices.

The wine list at this place was incredible. The waiter said there was a very large Cantina( wine cellar) underneath the space. The prices of the wines were fantastic. The prices of Italian wines in italy is obviously a better deal than in the states but this cantina held tons of back vintages with seemingly very little markup from the original purchase price.

I love the rare occasions I can drink almost as old as I am

The first course was proscuitto wrapped Parmigiano Reggiano pan fried on top of a lentil puree. This is the most sophisticated delicious version of fried cheese I have ever heard of.

Culatello!!

So this is the aforementioned and rhapsodized about Culatello.  Even the consumption of culatello has its own guidelines for bringing out the most flavor and fragrance. Well-aged culatello, which is hard to the touch, should be cut free from any twine, rinsed in tepid running water and carefully brushed clean.

The meat should be softened in very dry white wine for a couple of days. Then the skin should be removed and any fat trimmed off. The culatello is then ready to be thinly sliced by hand. The direction of the cut and the slightly irregular width caused by the blade of the knife contribute to the experience and flavor of culatello. Otherwise, one would use a meatslicer and the resulting slices would be precise and even.

The best way to conserve culatello, once it has been sliced, is to spread a little olive oil or butter onto the exposed part.   The butter served with this dish is made from winter milk of Parma cows. The meat should then be wrapped in a towel, preferably made of linen, and moistened with dry white wine. The culatello should be kept in a fresh place, but definitely not the refrigerator, which would destroy the flavor. (This how to eat serve culatello info is from www.academiabarilla.com)

Pasta course was house made tagliatelle with rabbit ragu. Rabbit is a very common ingredient in traditional emilia rogmanga cooking. The pasta was delcious with the perfect amount of chew and the rabbit was very delicate. The fresh fava beans were wonderful.

This simple dish was amazing. Braised veal cheek with polenta. We all know that the cheeks of the animal are often the most tasty parts. The cheek was falling apart it was so tender and the platewas drizzled with what I assume was the braising liquid. By the time this dish made it in front of me I was so full with all the rich Parmesan food I didnt want to take another bite, but I couldnt resist this.

La Greppia was an incredible experience as was exploring Parma. You can tell that the people who live and work in the gastronomical mecca love what they do and have such pride in the local delicacies that are available.

A day in Parma

When I think of Parma I literally hear an aria of Angels in my head. Parma is like the promised land of cured meats and cheeses.

Although I traveled there for food, Parma is a cultural and artistic hub in the Emilia Romagna region. Its the home to one of the best opera houses in Italy, the Teatro Farnese, beautiful cathedrals, museums, and a botanical garden.

Teatro Farnese

Parma Cathedral

 

The ceiling of the Duomo. The cathedral is home to several frescos by renowned painter Corregio

An entrance to the botantical gardens, which I did not explore (It was like 30 degrees outside)

Monasterodi San Giovanni Evangelista

Most people think of Proscuitto, Culatello, Parmagiana as being the main food attraction to Parma, and they are quite the attraction but the Piazza della Ghiaia hosts one of the best markets in Italy every morning but sunday.

Local Salumi

 

One market stall seemingly dedicated to cured anchovies

I dont know why Parma isnt on many tourists radar but its definitely worth a trip. Even the surrounding areas are great to visit. Because Parma is such a wealthy town the country side is literally littered with Castles. Some open to the public for tours, some even available for lodging via AirBnb.

 

 

Mercato di Mezzo

The Mercato di Mezzo ( ” The Middle Market”) is very close to the Piazza Maggiore near the Quadrilatico area. The area has been a meeting place since the middle ages, and after the unification of Italy, it was transformed into the first indoor market of the city, and in 2014 it was recovered and renovated, after many years of being abandoned it was finally reopened.

The market has 3 floors. The basement houses a craft brewery, the first floor food stalls, and the top floor a pizzeria. They offer meat, fish, sausages,cheese, fruit, bread, pasta, gelato, pastry and most importantly wine.

No one is outside because its January and it feels like it 15 below outside

The place was packed every time I went there and for good reason. The food is great and inexpensive. This is one of  bologna’s versions of fast food and it puts everything about American fast food to shame.

Lots of different type of fresh pasta are available to have prepared or take out.

Enoteca Regionale Emilia Romagna has a stall in the market. Glasses of wine start at 3 Euros for a generous pour.

Most of the stalls are run by or partnered with well known chefs and well respected shops and restaurants. The wine shop us partnered with a local wine museum and shop. The bakery, Forno Calzoni is affiliated with one of the most famous bakeries in Bologna. (So says their literature, I am not claiming to be a Bolognese Bakery expert, and I don’t know if my waistline could afford such endeavors)

Chatted with this guy and he said he really loved working in the market because of the people and the energy. But he was on the look out for another job since he was in his twenties and needs to find a wife and start a family. So any interested ladies head to the butcher counter…

I sat in front of the Butcher Stall, Macelleria Zivieri, because there were no other seats to be had. If you sit in front of the stall you have to order something from them. I ordered a small plate of salumi.

This is considered small?? Only cost 6 Euros.

Cannelloni special from the Romanzo Stall

This is the best cannelloni Ive ever had. It was very thin pasta rolled with a light meat sauce and tons of cheese. It was baked until the cheese on the top got caramelized and crunchy while the cheese on the inside was creamy and gooey.

 

Inexpensive wine from Tuscany

 

The wine stall was busiest second only to the seafood stall. I didnt want to risk waiting so long in the line that my seat got snatched up.  So I got wine from the same stall as the cannelloni (most of the stalls sell wine).  This wine is 92 points from Decanter magazine and cost 19 Euros. Its from a small 7 Ha estate in the higher altitudes of tuscany and is grown biodynamically. A great suggestion from the girl behind the counter.

One Afternoon in Dozza Part 2

 

Castle Entrance

Enoteca Regionale dell Emilia Romagna

In the center of Dozza is the the fortress “Rocca Sforzesca”, constructed in the 15th century, its been turned into a museum open to the public, the first floor is the Enoteca Regionale dell Emilia Romagna. Its a combination museum/wine shop/wine bar. The only wines available are from the local region and they have over 800 wines available for purchase.  Entrance to the museum cost 5 Euros, entrance to the wine shop is free.

Researching the shop I read about wine classes and sommelier guided tastings. None of those things were available the week I was in the area. The “wine bar” was not what I expected. There was a self serve enomatic machine, and the staff seemed disinterested in suggesting any wines to me.

Even with the meh service the Enoteca was a wonderful experience. It was great walking around (in a castle) reading all the different labels and seeing wines made from grapes Ive never heard of.  I also learned that there are way more producers of one of my favorite wines from the area (Lambrusco) than I ever imagined.

Ive never been a big fan of these machines. They take all the romance out of having a glass of wine poured for you. 

In addition to the amazing and extensive selection of wine, there are a lot of gourmet food products to purchase. Balsalmics from Modena, olive oils , jams and locally produced dried pastas.

10-30 yr old Balsalmicos

This definitely wouldnt fit in my luggage