Friday, June 28, 2013

Italia - Firenze

Off to Firenzi (Florence)! Clocking in at just a 2.5 hour train ride from Venice, it's the city of Michelangelo's David, the Medici's, the home of the renaissance and a ridiculous amount of world famous art. It's also smack dab in the middle of Tuscano (Tuscany) with the stunning rolling hills, wineries in the hundreds and some of the best olive oil in the world.

The best sandwich I had in all of Italia was at a shop just a block away from our apartment called Salumeria Verdi. When we think of porchetta here in Philly our mind immediately goes to roasted pork, sopping in juices and stuffed into an Amoroso's roll with sharp provolone and sauteed garlicky greens. In Italia, porchetta is a boneless pork loin, wrapped in pork belly, stuffed with garlic, rosemary, fennel or other herbs, roasted till crispy on the outside,then allowed to cool and sliced thin for layering onto bread. Take that sliced porky goodness and throw on some ham, roasted potatoes, provolone, spinach & spicy tomato sauce between two layers of focaccia. Toss it on a grill press until the cheese starts to ooze and you have something magical. It's not the garlic bomb gut buster of Tony Lukes - instead this is an intensely flavored mix of textures, smells and tastes. All your senses will be tingling.

Fun fact - a panini in Italia is not necessarily grilled on a press. It's just a sandwich. When it's grilled it becomes a panino. Remember that, heathens.

Salumeria Verdi
Via Giuseppe Verdi, 36/r 50122, Firenzi


Dinner on our first night was thanks to a recommendation from a college friend that studied abroad here. Il Brindellone is on the south side of the Arno and was a bit of a walk off the beaten path. That walk would serve us well on the way home as we waddled slowly down the street, smelling of delicious Italian steak.

A starter of crispy fried zucchini blossoms. Not quite as good as our first ones in Milano, but that didn't stop us from housing the lot of them. 

These little puffs of dough are called coccoli.  They are served with a heaping mound of stracchino cheese  that is something like a tangy cream cheese. The name is derived from the Italian word "stracca" meaning "tired". Supposedly it comes from cows coming down from the alpine pastures in the autumn and the milk is richer and higher in fats. The balls are basically little hunks of pizza dough that are allowed to rise and then quickly fried to just golden. You spoon the super creamy stracchino onto one and hop on the train to flavor town. I have never had anything like this before - I'm fairly certain this is a local Firenzi dish. Sooooo good.

Ho hum. Another amazing caprese salad with beautiful rounds of mozzarella di buffala and ruby colored tomatoes. The cornerstone of any decent meal. 

House wine (vino di casa) is the way to go in Italia. Don't even bother spending extra on fancier bottles, you're just wasting your euros. The house wine is always good. It's cheap. And it's served in liters or pitchers. Cin cin!  (Cheers!) 

I say "probably the best" a lot on this blog. The above pork chop is not in that category. It is THE BEST pork chop I've ever had. A one inch thick slab of perfectly grilled pig, shimmering in an olive oil rub, beckoning me like a siren song. So, so tender. It needs no sauce or enhancement. This is just pure carnivorous perfection.

Prosciutto and melon. I was never sure if this was just an Italian American thing, but here it is!  That salty, paper thin prosciutto wrapped lovingly around juicy sweet hunks of melon is such a delicious play of flavors. Vegetables and fruit were not exactly front and center on most menus. Even if it's wrapped in ham, it felt good to eat something that didn't have parents.

Speaking of vegetables, a beautiful salad of greens, radicchio, tomatoes, thin sliced cucumbers and shaved pecorino. 

I don't even know how they pile spaghetti this high. If I tried to do this at home it would immediately slump down onto the plate.  Italian magic!

Il Brindellone
Piazza Piattellina, 10, 50124

A quick day trip out to the west of Firenze through Prato, Lucca & Pisa. Had some really good thin crust pizza in Lucca, which is this beautiful little medieval town that is still surrounded by it's ancient walls. For a few euros you can rent a bike and ride the walls for a great view of the city and the surrounding countryside. The pizza was from a hold in the wall place called Sbragia. Look it up next time you're there.

Our favorite apertivo spot in Firenze was at ChiarScuro. An amazing spread of pasta salads, cheese, meats, sandwiches and spreads. Good red wine and strong negroni's. I don't understand how this concept hasn't caught on in the states yet. This place is basically a coffee shop by day, but in the late afternoon they start assembling the apertivo buffet. Anything that hasn't sold that day is offered up for free when you buy a drink. A great place to meet up with friends before heading out for the night. Lots of locals and a very fun scene. 

Via del Corso 36R


Mmmm...more gelato. This was a great little place by out apartment called La Carraia. That's cookies & cream with dark chocolate on top. Wow. The trip advisor reviews rank it as some of the best gelato in Firenze, if not all of Italia. The address on the trip advisor link shows it on the south side of the Arno river, by the Pitti palace.  But we stopped at one on Via Giuseppe Verdi just where Borgo Santa Croce comes in, by the Santa Croce church.  

Finally got to sip some good Italian beers. The Moretti's and Peroni's are fine, but I wanted a taste of what Alla Spina has been bringing to Philly.  Danny Rock is not the most Italian sounding name, but they had a great beer list and a foosball table.  We literally stumbled into this place on the way back from sight seeing. A good sampling of beer on tap (alla spina) and lots more in bottles. My favorite was the Extra Re Ale. Nice amber color and just a little hoppy. Basically a good farmhouse/saison.

The TrentaTre was a much stronger, Belgian style with a bit of sourness that reminded me of a flemmish ale.  Very good, but this is a sipping beer.

Danny Rock
Va de' Pandolfini 13r, 50122


Our last dinner in Firenze was at Osteria del Caffe Italiano, with friends from Philly who just so happened to be in town for the day. After a bit of back and forth "where should we eat" conversation, we picked the place that was busiest and ended up waiting outside for a table about 30 mins. The wait was well worth it, plus they gave us free glasses of wine to keep us happy. I love it when a plan comes together. 

They also own a little pizza shop just next door that serves traditional Neapolitan style pies. We did not get to try the pizza, but there was a hefty line out the door for it. Always a good sign. The website says they make it in strictly three variants - Napoli, Margherita and Mariana.

By far the best prosciutto we had in all of Italia. I personally love how it is served on a tray with no adornment. They are basically saying that this stuff is amazing and needs nothing else. And they are right. This is a tray of smiles.

Just another caprese you say? This one split up the tomatoes and cheese on different plates! Mind blower!! Seriously though, this was insanely good. This was the best piece of mozzarella di buffala we had in our two weeks there. The cheese is barely solid, falling apart with beautiful tears. It tasted like the cow was milked hours ago and sent directly to our plate.

Riccota & zucchini balls, dusted in pecorino. These little guys literally melted in your mouth. 

Papparadelle with the wild boar ragu. This is an oft repeated dish at many a Philly BYO. Nice to have a taste of the real thing. It is so simple but such an intense burst of flavor. The homemade pasta is light and nearly orange with egg yolks. The perfect backdrop to the earthy, falling apart tender ragu meat.  

Osteria del Caffé Italiano
Via Isola delle Stinche 11/13r, Firenze

Monday, June 24, 2013

Italia - Venezia

You know, I didn't think I was going to enjoy Venice. It just sounds so hokey and touristy.  I've already been to the Venetian in Vegas, can't be that much different.  But we were travelling with family, and it was one of the stops on the itinerary. I would soldier on and do my duty.

Coming in via train, it doesn't look like much. But take five steps out of the station and you are on the grand canal with a flurry of boats motoring in every possible direction, houses seeming to magically float on the water, and the bustle of tourists trying to scurry off to their hotels. This is a special place in the world - there is nothing else quite like it. No cars and no scooters, only boats. It lends an amazing peacefulness to the city, especially once you get a few blocks from the grand canal and the water ways are no bigger than a few feet across.  At night when all the cruise ships have left you feel like you have the place to yourself. 

The first real market we saw in Italia. Beautiful, heaping mounds of produce.  The purple artichokes looked so good you'd want to eat them right on the spot. I've never seen anything quite like them. Everything comes in from the mainland here and it all delivered via boat. It is an endlessly flowing stream of crate after crate of food, wine, beer, and on and on. Considering how much goes into getting something on your plate, it's amazing it's not more expensive.

Venice feels like you are in Disneyland, only it's actually real.  There are so many beautiful boats. The vaparetto is the "water bus" and is the cheapest (€7 for a one way ride) around. There are also the gorgeous water taxis like the one above - shiny wooden hulls like something out of a Bond movie - that will gladly take you wherever you want for €40 - €100. Best bet is to just get a good pair of walking shoes and hoof it - it's not that big of a city.

Dinner our first night was at a tiny locals only spot way off the main drag, recommended by the owner of the apartment we were renting. Osteria Al Portego offered a great apertivo tasting of random local seafoods. The dinner menu was a bit more substantial with some hearty pastas and whole fishes.

Ever wonder what the difference is between an osteria, trattoria & ristorante is? Neither did I. But we found out anyway.  In Italia they are not necessarily interchangeable.  An osteria menu tends to be short, with an emphasis on local specialties such as pasta, grilled meat or fish, and often served at shared tables. A trattoria is less formal than a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria. There are generally no printed menus, the service is casual, wine is sold by the decanter rather than the bottle, prices are low, and the emphasis is on a steady clientele rather than on haute cuisine. A ristorante on the other hand will have white table cloths, proper silverware and a formal wine list. The food is not guaranteed to be any better. Ristorante basically charge more for similar food, and tend to prey on tourists. Buyer beware. 

A beautiful plate of fresh mozzarella with sliced artichokes and tomatoes, on a bed of arugula. I never thought of using arugula for a caprese, but it goes really well this - better than basil even. The peppery bite of the arugula greens is a great contrast to the creamy mozzarella and sweet tomatoes.

Some spicy little prawns with pappardelle pasta. A little bit of work getting the shells off, but totally worth it.

Mmmmm….spaghetti with clams. This is one of my absolute favorite pasta dishes - I feel complete having had it in Italia now. Beautiful little clams, releasing their sea brine just at the right moment to create a salty, luscious sauce. Perfectly cooked spaghetti and just a sprinkle of parsley.  Simplicity in it's purest form. 

Lunch by the canal; a few bites and a couple beers in the sunshine.  Big hunks of mortadella with pickled peppers, wedges of taleggio with figs, slices of cured salami. I don't really see how you could improve on this.

Oh, let's not forget about the gelatto.  After lunch we stopped at Gelateria Nico on the waterfront with an amazing view of Giudecca island, just to the south of Venice. 

Another plate of ham?  Si!  Dinner on night two of Venice is off to a good start. 

Pasta fagiouli soup.  With almost no chunks of pork or solid beans to speak of.  The taste was spot on - a deeply flavored crock that brings to mind a slowly simmering soup being tended to with love by little Italian grandmother.

Buried under that sauce is an irresistibly good piece of eggplant lasagna. Layers of thin sliced roasted eggplant, sandwiching alternating layers of mozzarella and ricotta. Incredible.

Half the fun of Venice is just getting lost in the alleys. Every turn leads you down another corridor that looks likt it has remained unchanged since the Venetians ruled most of the Mediterranean. People hang their laundry overhead, smoke cigarettes out the window on lazy, hot afternoons, and  pull their boats up to their front doors. This is a place like no other. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Italia - Milano

Milano is not on most people's Italian itinerary. Apart from the Duomo (there is one in every city), DaVinci's Last Supper, and of course the shopping, there is not a ton of super touristy things to do here. What it does offer though is a glimpse of normal Italian life. People are going to work, lounging at cafes and enjoying their city (just like we do!) in a way that isn't as easily accessible in the more popular destinations. It's so much simpler to assimilate into the scene here and not feel like you are just an observer. And really, isn't that the point of travel anyway?

What a fabulous way to start Italia. Just off the plane, checked into the hotel, showered, and HUNGRY. Time for a coffee and a snack before we start exploring. How about a caprese salad and a cappuccino? Perfecto. First lesson of Italia - there is no such thing as a "cup of coffee". Italians mostly drink either espresso (café) or cappuccino. Café is usually at a coffee bar - and when I say bar, I mean exactly that. Standing up, you drink it like a quick shot. They'll do this multiple times a day, in and out in just a few minutes. Cappuccino you sit and savor a bit more. What they don't do is a big cup of brewed coffee that you just sip on for an hour. They will make you an "Americano" which is espresso that is then watered down. It's kind of gross and speaks to what they think of our coffee.

The caprese had the most amazing chunks of mozzarella (di buffala) I'd ever tasted (it would get better along the way). Super soft and almost still milky. It is rich and luscious and salty and melts in your mouth. Beautiful ruby red tomatoes. You don't even need olive oil on this. This was the first of many caprese salads to cross our tables as we make our way through Italia.

Side note here - mozzarella di bufala IS NOT the same thing as regular mozzarella. The di bufala version is made from, you guessed it, buffalo milk! But, these are not the big, hairy, horned versions we have in the US. These are Italian water buffalo and usually from Campania. It is domain controlled (like champagne) so only the real thing can be labeled as such. The milk from these water buffalo is almost twice as rich as cow's milk.  It only takes 5kg of buffalo milk to make 1kg of mozzarella, whereas you would need 8kg of cow's milk to make the same. Mozzarella di bufala is so incredibly good, I don't think you can even put it in the same category as cow's milk mozzarella. 

After a walk around the city and a look at the duomo (cathedral) it was time for lunch. We found a great little cafe on a quiet street just a few blocks from the buzz of the main square. 

Fried zucchini blossoms. Wrapped up oh-so-cute in a little paper. Cut into them cross-wise like you're dissecting a frog in high school and you get a side view of the delicate blossoms and the rich stuffing of ricotta. Crunchy, salty, delicious. We had these several times in Italia, but these were by far the best version. 

When you're in Milano, you eat rice. The farther south you go, it turns to more pastas. They are rightfully famous for the risotto. Above was a perfectly cooked plate (just toothy) with ribbons of fresh asparagus and so much melted cheese it was nearly pulled like polly-o.  

Some fresh papparadelle with huge hunks of funghi (mushrooms).

Our first apertivo! This is such a wonderful Italian concept. You buy a drink - usually a negroni, aperol spritz or vino - and you get all you can eat access to a random selection of the day's offerings. The one above was mostly little bites of pizzas, but other places will have cheeses, breads, pasta salad, sandwiches, etc. Pretty much whatever is left over from the day and easy to serve in bulk. It's a great way to eat cheap.

A small little salumi appetizer. This is not meant for one person, but what the hell, it's delicious. Mounds of prosciutto, mortadella & deep dark speck. I could just eat this and go to bed with a smile on my face (and a clog in my arteries). 

Stracciatella stuffed burrata. Fresh cream inside a little shreds of mozzarella. Sitting on a bed of arugula. Incredible.

This is my salumi face.

Spaghetti carbonara. Another staple of the menus. Huge chunks of pancetta mixed with a fresh cracked, yolky egg dressing up pasta so rich it's nearly orange. Amazing. 

Artichokes are abundant and fresh in the spring. They should be the special on almost every menu. These were grilled and then sliced super thin on a mandolin. Dressed with just a bit of olive oil and black pepper, it's pretty much the perfect side dish.

Our first pizza in Italia! Note that it is not sliced. This is apparently a thing here. You order a whole pie for yourself and go at it with a knife and fork. They are sized for one, so you're not being a totally gluttonous fatty. The crust was very thin, which is a trait of pizzas in the northern part of Italia. As you move south the dough gets thicker and fluffier, with Napoli being the center of the pizza universe.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Talula's Table

Mention to someone in Philadelphia that you write a food blog, and they'll invariably ask if you've been to Vetri (I have, it was incredible). Mention to someone that lives just outside of Philadelphia that you write a food blog and the conversation usually turns to Talula's Table in Kennett Square. It's become the gold standard of the suburban foodie, and for good reason. There is no place quite like it - outside or inside the city limits. You have to make your reservation one year ahead of time. That's right, one year.  This is not the place for the impulsive.

It's less a restaurant and more of an adorable little market on the main street of an even more adorable town. Kennett Square could be the setting for a Norman Rockwell painting.  In the evening when the market closes they offer the chance for up to twelve lucky people to sit down at their solitary table and be treated to a luxuriously lavish meal. Every course is meticulously thought out and prepared. When you know you are cooking for exactly 12 people each night, you can really take your time - basically a chef's dream scenario.

It's also a BYO, so even though you are paying a decent sum for the meal it is not an exorbitantly expensive affair. You do however have to think about transportation. You are probably not going to want to pay for a cab or an Uber ride here. Septa is not taking you here. Driving means you can't really enjoy the meal you spent a year planning. You are going to need to hire a private ride. It's worth the money.

Lucky for us, we were going for a friend's 30th birthday and they just happened to hire a party bus to take us all down. Baller style. *Note - bring sippy cups for the champagne on the ride down. Our meal consisted of 7 courses - each described in vivid detail and served by a small team in an utterly ghost like manner. You would turn your head for thirty seconds and when you looked back there would be a new dish for you to ogle. 

Our table for 12. Shabby chic.

The rolls were actually one of the most amazing pieces of bread I've ever eaten.  They were light as helium balloons and stuffed with a bit of gruyere cheese. Some salted butter, served softened for spreading (bonus), and we were off to a great start. 

Marinated mackerel, pickled quail egg, microgreens/herbs and walnuts. I know what you're thinking - "marinated mackerel, really?"  It's a pretty strong tasting fish to begin with (great on the grill, by the way) but whatever they marinade it in really mellows out the flavor. The pickled quail egg is pure decadence. Yolky and dense  but somehow tasting of caramel. Pretty good trick. 

For the morel mushroom soup, they do the pour-over thing in the bowl in front of you for a bit of drama. The unbelievably earthy soup surrounds and island of wild rice, bone marrow and pickled ramps. It is expectedly good considering that we are in the mushroom capital of the US.  The broth alone would be enough to justify a bowl on it's own, inviting the other guys to the party puts this into the Gatsby realm. 

Probably one of the only disappointments of the evening was the wild alaskan halibut.  And I have to qualify that by saying that this was by no means bad - it just wasn't on the level of everything else we ate. The fish is sautéed nicely, but it's just kind of bland. Adding radishes, beets and wilted romaine didn't exactly take you to flavor town. Meh. 

The best thing I ate was definitely the rabbit roulade.  It's a rolled up little hunk, that must have been sous vied, then seared quickly for flavor.  Underneath is a snail & white bean ragout and sandwiched in the middle are fresh fiddle head ferns which are only good for an extremely short window in the spring. The bean ragout was incredible - reminiscent of a Tuscan bean soup but with the flavor amped up to 11. 

I swear there is tagliolini pasta underneath that pile of house smoked onions, spring greens and shaved ricotta salata. I wish I remembered more about the pasta, but it kind of got lost between all the other splendid dishes. I can definitely tell you that the onions were great. 

An incredibly tender and tasty slice of roasted veal strip loin, topping crispy sweet breads and  potato & creamed swiss chard puree. A little of that veal reduction forms a protective moat around the castle of protein. 

Birch RunHills Farm "Fat Cat" cheese & bacon crepes, drizzled with Meadowset honey. An impossibly luscious blend of cheese and crispy delicious bacon. All meals should end this way.  Now by this point you've undone at least the top button of your pants. I hope you came hungry, cause they are not going to stop bringing it. 

Lemon three ways, sweet roasted barley, almonds & thyme. Sorbet. Ice cream. Mousse. Yumm.

Chocolate truffles - not on the menu.  Just because.

Remember that if and when you get to Talula's Table, none of this will be on the menu. They cook extremely seasonally. Lot's of places claim the "farm to table" thing, but they are doing it, and doing it well like LL Cool J. Your meal will be completely different, based on the time of year, what is fresh that day, and the whims of the chef. 

Now I have to qualify this whole post by saying that this was not one of the best meals I've ever had. Although it did get me thinking about those other meals and there's another post coming on that topic shortly.  The food is amazing, but it would not be my last meal on earth. But really, you are going for the experience. Having the entire restaurant to yourself is pretty special. The setting is wonderful and the service is sparkling. Your every need is catered to the entire night. It is everything that a special occasion should be.

Food Baby Rating:  Triplets

Talula's Table
102 W. State Street
Kennett Square, PA 19348