Archive | Food and Wine

Comfort Me With Potatoes: A Tale of Two Tuber Dishes in Italy


Pity the poor American who can only find comfort in the familiar flavors and food textures of home. Pity me for not taking kindly to the coniglio (rabbit) or swooning at the sight of chicken liver crostini or the tripe truck in Florence. It’s not that I don’t have an adventurous palate. I’ve happily chewed on chunks of guanciale (boar’s cheek), the fatty meat that gives bucatini all’amatriciana its savory lusciousness, and I’ve even snacked on lumache (snails), all garlicky and buttery and served with a hunk of bread to sop up the juices.

When I travel, I try to have an open mind when it comes to trying new foods. But meats have never really been my thing. I’m more interested in seeing what different cultures do with their vegetables – how they saute them, roast them, steam them, sauce them, dice and shred them for salads, or bake them in casseroles. The world is keenly aware of what the Italians did with the tomato, a vegetable (or fruit, if you’re being technical) that didn’t even arrive in Europe until the 1500s but is now the cornerstone of dozens of dishes found in every region of Italy. Making its arrival in Italy at the same time as the tomato was the potato, which, like the tomato and other edible products from the New World, “stimulated the native genius [of Italy] by giving it new materials to work with.” (See Waverley Root’s The Food of Italy.)

The potato is a vegetable that no one really associates with Italy but that features in two dishes that either make me feel at home when I’m Italy or give me a fit of nostalgia if I try them here stateside. In this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable, we look at comfort foods in the context of Italy. Here are two of mine.

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How to Eat Fish in Venice

Dining is one of the best parts of the Italy travel experience. Of course, as you’ve probably read before, there are rules when it comes to enjoying a meal in Italy. I hate rules. But I do appreciate tradition, as well as learning about how Italians use and eat different ingredients.

So I was excited when Nan McElroy, author of the Living Venice Blog and the “Instructions for Use” travel series, approached me with a post about eating fish in Venice. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did and I also hope that her tips come in handy when you’re in Venice for your next dining adventure.

Nosh Venice Fish, But Leave That Lemon Alone: Advice from a Fresh Fish Fanatic

Venice CalamariYou’re town for a few days, for the Biennale, for the Film Festival, for the Regata Storica; before cruise, after cruise, or for the month, and tonight, you’ve chosen the restaurant where you’ll treat yourself to Venice’s precious pesce.

If you’ve done your homework and chosen your eatery carefully, you’ll rarely be disappointed. Even non-fish fans, if they can be tempted, become converts, as often this freshest of fish bears no resemblance to the more common frozen fare — something that, should a restaurant even consider serving to a local, will at best cause them never to return; at worst, incite a heated argument that can end with the guest either storming out or being asked to leave. Harrumph.

Venice has always treasured (if not totally depended upon) its fish, whether from the lagoon or the upper Adriatic, and never tires of finding new ways to consume it and serve it to their guests. You’ll select from baked, grilled, sauteed, raw and even whipped versions of familiar (or less so) species; flat, fat, large and small; shellfish and mollusks, with and without shells, without and without backbones. Traditionalists will opt for the fabulous frittura, often rating various locales’ versions on crispness, abundance, and the fish-to-vegetable ratio — each important when defending your choice for the best fritto misto fried fish platter in town.

Fish Plate with LemonAnd the lemon wedge? A common fish-dish accompaniment anywhere else in the world, but  to a Venetian fish purist an appalling idea. Figurati should a slice wend its way to the plate.

Come mai, why is that? Because (explained the self-proclaimed fresh fish purist), the fish served at your dining table is a treasured thing: it’s just arrived from the sea (or better have), “swimming with its brothers” as they say, only hours ago; it’s expensive (we had to wait years for that branzino to get to a catchable age — not six- or 12-months for a force-fed farm-raised antibiotic-ingesting mutant); and a delicacy, whether a tiny schie lagoon shrimp, a robust rombo turbot, or a magnificent blue or yellow fin wrestled from the Japanese sushi trade.

And you want to put lemon on it? Macché! Don’t even think about it.

Branzino fishIt’s true — where lemons are concerned, what’s obvious to maniacal fresh-fish devotees may not be so obvious to everyone else. If you ask a few of them, they’ll tell you there are actually some fairly logical reasons to let the lemon lie.

First, the fresh fish you find served in Venice have marvelous, sometimes delicate flavors (mostly non-fishy, by the way); the chef has prepared today’s catch to enhance them. If you smother them with lemon juice, what will you taste? In their eyes, the lemon homogenizes these very distinctive fish dishes — and nobody wants that. In fact, lemon is more for fish that’s, well, been around, that has defects to overcome — not for fresh fish flesh. Finally, expert fryers will work tirelessly to serve you the crispiest frittura possible. So what happens when you squeeeeeeze a half of lemon over the mound of crunchy fried fish?

Lemon mush, that’s what. Una tragedia, a real heart-breaker.

In a labor-saving move, or perhaps because they lack the fish-faithful culture of a born-and-raised Venetian, many restaurants have just given in and included the lemon as garnish. There are other eateries though, who will flat refuse to serve you the lemon (along with any sort of grated cheese, by the way), so best be prepared.

Rhombo ChiodatoWhy not compromise? Before you request a lemon wedge, or crush the one on your plate over its contents out of habit, why not simply sample what’s been served to you as is? If you’re eating in a restaurant famous for its fish, you’ll be surprised at how unnecessary the lemon might seem (try a light olive oil drizzle if you must). And — you’ll be immediately categorized as a informed fish fan. (When in Venice, and all that…)

So, will you become Venice’s next fish purist? Who’s to say? In any case, the fresh fish found here is certainly worth indulging in. Enjoy!

Dining in Rome: Rooftop Restaurants and Special Occasions

Rooftop Dining at Rome's Hotel 47

Refined Rooftop Dining from Rome's Hotel 47

In the first installment of “Ask the Italy Expert,” a feature in which I ask Italy travel specialists to help me answer reader inquiries, Stefania Troiani of Rome Shopping Guide about outlet shopping and pastry shops in Rome. This week’s questions are also about Rome and eating. What can I say…? Those are two topics I get asked about the most!

So, I called in another Rome expert. This time it is Erica Firpo behind the gorgeous travel blog Moscerina, to which she has been posting anecdotes about life in Rome since 2005. If you follow Italy travel news on Twitter, you may know Erica as @moscerina or @NG_Rome. The “NG” in the latter stands for Nile Guides, for which Erica is the local expert in Rome. After contacting Erica, I also learned that she wrote the Rome Little Black Book, a dining and entertainment guide for the Eternal City. Once again, I knew I had called on the right Italy expert for the job!

Following are the questions submitted by real Italofile readers and Erica’s expert advice.

Question 1: Rooftop Restaurants
Hi, Melanie! Can you recommend the best restaurants in Rome? Non- touristy and relaxing? ;). I am looking for a client. I’m not sure where she is staying, she has not set a budget- just wants great food and nice atmosphere- any rooftop restaurants with views maybe? Thanks, Laura

Rooftop restaurants in Rome are almost always, as a rule of thumb, atop hotels, which can mean they are touristy and perhaps a little too stuffy. Since a Roman sunset is a sight not to be missed, my advice would be to have a champagne toast on a rooftop– St. George Hotel (panorama of all the domes of Rome), Hotel Raphael (above Piazza Navona), Grand Hotel de la Minerve (view of the Pantheon’s dome), or Forty-Seven Hotel (looking toward the Tiber to the Temple of Fortunus), and then make your way around the neighborhood to a fabulous dinner. My favorite restaurants? Santa Lucia and San Teodoro — both are nestled in piazzas, away from the hubbub, and have delicious menus. Santa Lucia’s specialty is fish, while San Teodoro is creative interpretation of Roman cuisine.

(I also recommended San Teodoro in this post about Restaurants Near the Roman Forum.)

Question 2: Special Occasion Restaurants in Rome
Hi, Melanie. I wonder if you can help please. It will be my daughter’s 21st birthday on the 15th July. As a surprise, we are looking to take her (and her sister who is 26) to Rome for a few days. On her actual birthday, I would like to go to a nice restaurant (but maybe somewhere that’s more fun than posh) and as part of that, I would like to arrange a special birthday cake (which they would bring at the end of the meal). Would it be possible to arrange something like this in Rome and have it booked in advance? Any ideas appreciated! Thanks, Linda

Most restaurants will ask that you choose from their desserts, or if desiring a cake, choose from their pastry chef of choice. Casina Valadier, which may be more posh than fun, has an excellent pastry designer whose cakes are fantasies in marzipan. La Pergola‘s pastry chef is perhaps Rome’s most creative: his chocolate creations are unique to the world. [La Pergola is also Rome's most coveted restaurant with 3 Michelin stars for cuisine, service, and price.] For a fun evening of eating (and less taxing on the wallet), Felice a Testaccio has excellent Roman cuisine and a fun, hip atmosphere. I just asked about birthday cakes since I’ll be celebrating there- the chef suggested a pick from his desserts, and order one in advance especially for the evening.

Laura and Linda, I hope these answers will help you plan the perfect Roman holidays for your client and your daughters. Thank you so much, Erica, for your extremely useful answers.

If you’d like to submit a question or if you are an Italy expert who’d like to offer some advice, contact me. Hopefully, we can collaborate on the next installment of Ask the Italy Expert!

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