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.

One meal in Modena

So after some quick research on the train from Bologna to Modena, I had settled on checking out a place called L’Incontro for lunch. It had been recommended by our driver a few days previously and It has good reviews on both trip advisor and google. When I researched it, it was off the main piazza and the menu looked interesting.

The restaurant was on a quiet street and the restaurant was tiny. There were only a few tables and luckily we had reserved one. I was sat and given a menu in Italian. I asked for a wine list. I asked again for a wine list. Then I asked someone else for a wine list. The waiter wouldnt bring it to me until I had ordered food, which I thought was ridiculous. Essentially, how could I, a woman no less, choose wine when I couldnt even choose what I wanted to eat yet.  You know us ladies unable to make basic decisions as to what to eat.

So Waiter Waitersen told us what we should order. He vetoed somethings we wanted and explained that we must have this magical crab pasta they offered and of course we would want the local fresh fish (which was only available in Italy and very rare). The only positive things about him were that he spoke english very well and he had nice eyeglasses. Thats it.

So after ordering the food we were allowed to order wine. The wine order of course was vetoed by Mr. Waiterson, but luckily my dining companion informed him that I was in fact a sommelier and then he dutifully, if not begrduglingly, got our wine and gave it the waitress to open for us. Maybe he was busy or maybe he just didnt want to open it for us since he disapproved of the lambrusco I chose.

“Unacceptable” But delicious lambrusco

So the first course was grilled octopus with grilled potatoes and radicchio with balsamic. The octopus was tender and had a nice char on it. The potatoes were perfectly seasoned. The bitter crunch of the raddichio balanced out the sweet balsamic. This dish was fantastic. It definitely made up for some of the snootiness we had experienced.

Grilled Octopus

The next dish was one of my favorite bites of the trip. It was a grilled artichoke with parmaggiano reggiano cream sauce and aged balsamic vinegar with crispy pieces of proscuitto. The sauce was velvety and had a wonderful nuttiness to it and the balsamic was rich, thick and syrupy and sweet.  After  the artichoke I was happy with all the suggestions the infamous Waiter had made and was excited that he has essentially dictated our meal. I was looking forward to what else was to come

Grilled Artichoke

The next course was pasta. Waiter Waiterson had waxed poetic about this crab pasta. “We had to order it”. It was a signature dish. The presentation was amazing. Blah blah blah.

So the pasta was cooked well but that is the only positive thing I can say about it.  There was hardly any crab. The sauce was under seasoned and the presentation reminds me of something I would see on “Worst cook in America”. Harsh I know.

So now my disappointment is mounting again with Waiter Waiterson. But the next course held promise. Some mysterious fish I’d never heard of, prepared simply to let the flavor of the fish shine through.  And broccoli with anchovy butter(this is butter country since the area is known for dairy products among other things).

“Fish”

So when the waitress (the only other person we saw working there) brought this dish she said very clearly in perfect english “here is your snapper”.  Snapper. Not this fish I had never heard of. Snapper I didnt even think Snapper was a Mediterranean fish. In fact, Snapper is a local fish where I live in Florida. Was this fish from florida?  Or did this waiter think that I looked like the kind of person who has never had snapper before.

The fish was awful. I wanted to like it. It was undercooked and the sauce was bland and gelatinous.

Broccoli with anchovy butter

The broccoli was also disapppointing. I was expecting broccoli drizzled with a butter that cured anchovies had been melted into. Instead I got broccoli with butter and chunks of anchovys dropped on top. Maybe I didnt understand when I ordered it but this just seems like a lazy approach. Also it was served on a thin piece of cracker which I didnt understand. Is a quarter head of broccoli traditionally served with a cracker?  I mean Waiter Waiterson definitely knew more about food/wine/life than me so this must be the only proper way to eat broccoli.

So overall, first 2 dishes: wonderful. Last 3: awful. I think Ive spoken to the service enough. I cant wait to go back to Modena to eat, with so many artisanal ingredients made and available in this town, but not at L’Incontro

 

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.