Friday, October 24, 2008


Proximity to our hotel was the only reason we selected Perilli as a restaurant to try in Rome, at least the first time. We now make a point to dine there whenever we are in town. Situated in the Testaccio section of Rome, it seems off the beaten path, and perhaps because of that, it is still an authentic trattoria serving classic Roman "cucina povera" specialties. Testaccio, at one time, was the epicenter of the butchering trade in Rome and workers could expect meager earnings, but were also sent home with the parts of the cattle that were considered "the fifth quarter", the offal and unpopular cuts of meat such as the ox tail. Necessity was certainly the mother of invention in difficult economic circumstances, and the Italians of Rome turned straw into gold. When it came to using the fifth quarter meats, Roman ingenuity turned giveaway organs into classic Roman cuisine.

Some classic foods in Rome are not meat based. Perilli starts off your meal with the classic Roman 5 pointed rosetta roll that typically is hollow inside. I love this little roll and am happy to see it being emulated by Grace Baking here in Northern California, although theirs is not hollow. For starters we ordered a generous plate of prosciutto that paired well with the roll.

I've always wanted to try puntarella, the escarole type green served very commonly in Rome with olive oil, anchovy and a squeeze of lemon. It was very refreshing with its slightly bitter taste. Even so, my favorite vegetable at Perilli's is the Carciofi Romana, a tender artichoke drizzled in olive oil and lemon. I panicked when I didn't initially see it on the menu, but it was eventually found in the contorni, not antipasti, section of the menu.

The next choice required nerves of steel and a strong determination to order. It was a rigatoni in tomato sauce, but the offal was quite unique and begged to be tried. Everyone at our table turned up their noses, but 2 out of 3 of them gave it a try and said they liked it. What was it? Pajata, a newborn lamb intestine that still held sheep's milk. It was very narrow as you can see by the closeup photo to the right (sitting diagonally in the center) and tasted like ricotta cheese. Delicious, but once was enough and I will most likely go back to ordering Coda alla Vaccinara, another rigatoni pasta dish smothered in an ox tail and tomato sauce.

We cannot go to Rome without ordering Carbonara and Perilli has an especially rich tasting one made with rigatoni instead of spaghetti. The meat course for this trip was braised lamb in red wine vinegar. The contrast of the vinegar with the rich meat was very good.

Via Marmorata 39,
Testaccio Rome
Phone: 06/5742415

Al Mascaron

Nestled on a narrow street in the Castello region of Venice is a delightful restaurant of some fame and good reputation, Al Mascaron. It has been mentioned in many of the travel guides I have researched and referenced in a cookbook as well. I went there specifically for the risotto that unfortunately is no longer available and has even been stricken from the menu. When I inquired why that was, I was told it was because few tourists had the patience to wait for a risotto to be made properly, and because it took time, it also required 2 or more patrons to order it together. Mentioning that my patience was legendary did not get me a risotto, because the kitchen was no longer stocked with the rice. Looking at the menu again only led to further frustration, since my 2nd choice of seafood pasta also required an additional person to order it.

Noticing my disappointment, the waiter said that I could place an order and he would split it for me. I was delighted at this accommodation and promptly ordered the seafood pasta and a bottle of water. When the water came to the table it was a very large bottle. It seemed odd to bring such a large amount of water to a lone diner. If the establishment was trying to increase the final cost of the bill, I needed to know to budget accordingly. Upon inquiring about the price of the pasta, it was a relief to learn that my single serving was going to be half the price of the full serving. Being offered a free antipasti of sweet and sour onions and a stuffed potato with mozzarella and prosciutto eased my fears, and reminded me of the "presumption of innocence until proven guilty".

The spaghetti with clams, mussels, and shrimp was excellent with garlic, olive oil and the obligatory confetti of parsley. It felt as though I had discovered the prize in the Cracker Jack box, when the prawn showed up in the middle of the plate, buried under the mound of pasta. I had no plans to order dessert, but when the waiter told me about the chocolate chili cake, I indulged myself. That exotic, decadent mixture of chocolate and spice seemed appropriate for a culture responsible for bringing chocolate from the Americas and spices from the Far East to Europe. The cake was a complimentary combination of those two ingredients with a light hand on sugar.

Speaking of a complimentary combination of Gigi and Maggio (maybe it's Maccio). Since I was alone, Maggio decided to show me his masterful skill at the art of Italian flirtation. My feet are firmly planted on the ground and I understood this to be part of his personality and not intended for me in particular, but anyone in general. Still, it was nice to have an extended conversation with a Venetian. I asked if he was the owner and he said no in a very self effacing way, then introduced me to Gigi who had his back to me, while shelling beans at the next table. Essentially trapping me at my table, Gigi was in part responsible for my ordering of the dessert; I didn't want to disturb him. Admittedly, it was a great afternoon and ordering the dessert was probably an unconscious effort to lengthen my stay. 

Soon both men were engaged in the activities of shelling borlotti beans and talking to me. Gigi was the Abbot to Maggio's Costello; the straight man, but very simpatico and charming. When I asked for the check, there was a short conversation in Italian and I was told to pay twenty euros. This didn't add up since my pasta was 15, the water was at least 5, and the dessert would have been typically 7 or 8, and there certainly must have been a coperto (service charge). I questioned the amount, but they insisted that my price was 20. One can only hope the 10 euro tip actually paid fully for the meal. The entertainment factor alone was worth the price of the meal. After reading a few reviews of the restaurant over the Internet, I can see that everyone walking through the door is treated like family. I also discovered that the very pleasant Gigi is not only the co-owner of the restaurant but the chef, Giancarlo Seno. No wonder Maggio laughed, when after tasting the cake, I told him he should marry the chef. If you ever wondered what it is like to be part of an Italian family, live out your fantasy at this restaurant.

Calle Longa Santa Maria Formosa 5225
Castello Venice
phone +39 041 522 5995
Fax: +39 41 523 0744
Just north of Campo Santa Maria Formosa

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Trattoria Enzo & Piero

With the world getting smaller every day and change happening at lightening speed, it is a true comfort to find a familiar place that brings you back to a simpler time. Enzo and Piero is that place for me. I discovered it on my first trip to Florence, half a lifetime ago. It looks the same and has many of their time tested recipes, including my favorites, from so many years ago. This is the right restaurant for a good value too, as the prices seem to be in a time warp. Chicken entrees start at 7 euro even though I haven't seen "Secondi" priced in single digits in many years. Salads start at 5 euro, pasta at 7-8 euro and contorni start at 3 euro. Enzo & Piero is run by the next generation of the same family who originally served me their unforgettable Lasagne Verdi di Pasta Fresca al Forno, a melt in your mouth comfort food if ever there was one.
The mouth feel of this dish is soft and velvety with a butter like texture, since the pasta was fresh when assembled. Like a classic Lasagne Verdi Bolognese it combines Bechamel and meat sauces, but unlike the Bolognese version this one uses thicker pasta and has fewer layers. It appears more rustic, but has the same sophisticated flavors as its equal in Bologna.

In Fall you would do well to order the Tagliarini Tartufati. This egg enriched pasta is served with shaved truffles and arugula, an interesting combination since the earthiness of the truffles was enhanced by the slight spicy bite of the arugula. Lardo Di Colonnata is not everyone's idea of a delicacy, but the first time I tried it, I was hooked. When it tops a bruschetta it can be at it's very best, but the criteria for excellence is twofold. Lardo must be sliced paper thin and layered upon a hot piece of toasted rustic bread. Without the heat, it does not melt sufficiently to blend onto the bread, releasing its flavor. If Enzo and Piero has a fault, it is one of generosity. They simply used too much lardo.
The menu offers a full range of Tuscan specialties from Antipasti to Zuppe and I was impressed to see that the prosciutto was Tuscan also. The photo above shows salami with fennel seeds, another Tuscan pork specialty called Finocchiona. It also had a buttery, moist texture, much less dry than most salami. One night when we were there, I ordered one of the pasta specials on offer, a porcini ravioli with a light ,fresh tomato sauce. I was not disappointed with it even though it was torture not to order my own lasagne verdi. Luckily I could count on my dining companion to offer me a taste of his. To top off the meal, fresh strawberries with mascarpone and chocolate were a refreshing yet rich delight.
105r Via Faenza
Firenze 50123
055 21 4901
Closed on Sunday

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Vini Da Gigio

Few places on earth are more romantic than Venice, so doesn't that make it easy to find a romantic spot to dine? With so many of them positioned on canals, one would think it would be easy to find a romantic restaurant, but not every canal side establishment knows how to set a mood. Vini da Gigio sets the mood like a five star restaurant sets a table, inspiring hushed tones of admiration from new patrons, whether they be travelers who had heard of it and reserved a table, or tourists lucky enough to have stumbled upon it. From its position set back from the busy Strada Nova to the dimly lit dining rooms with their low, hand hewn, beamed ceilings that transport you to another century via your imagination, the mood is decidedly romantic. Although there is heavy foot traffic in Venice, the pace at night is slow enough compared to the day, that arriving after dark makes a romantic stroll possible as well. A menu that offers a selection of meats is not easy to come by in Venice, so that alone is reason enough to try this restaurant. It worked for getting me to go there as a solo diner.

My erstwhile traveling companion wanted to hike in Switzerland and ride the aerial gondolas. Having a lifelong fear of heights, the only gondolas that held any interest for me were floating not in the air, but on water. Spending a few days alone in Venice offered a great opportunity to try a few new restaurants I had been reading about, but this was not my first visit to Vini Da Gigio. We took friends and family there in 2005 when I had first seen its name in The Food of Venice cookbook. The pasta with duck sauce was excellent and roast duck was also available then, but not on this particular evening.

After a week and a half of cheese and potato laden foods in Switzerland, vegetables sounded like just the right antipasti for this visit. Their sweet and sour cippolini in the center of the plate was one of the recipes this restaurant had contributed to the cookbook, so I was happy to see it and personally evaluate the recipe; it passed the taste test. Besides string beans, zucchini, and spinach, there also was a grilled eggplant slice topped by a marinated, dried tomato; a grilled tomato and braised radicchio.

With duck unavailable, I settled for the lamb tenderloin that was encrusted in cornmeal. It arrived undercooked and I don't recall being asked how I wanted it served, however, my standard answer is medium rare. Looking at this photo one has to wonder if language translation netted me exactly what I would have preferred, since it seems medium on the outside and definitely rare on the inside. Upon looking at their website, it seems the lamb was served perfectly cooked. Not having to eat another heavy meal made me so grateful, I finished it without complaint.

Fondamenta San Felice
Cannaregio 3628A
Venice Italy
Tel. +39 041 5285140
Fax. +39 041 5228597

Take the vaparetto to Ca d'Oro, walk up the small alley and turn left onto Strada Nova. Fondamenta San Felice is on the right after you cross the first bridge.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Trattoria Dalla Marisa

Finding this restaurant on your own would not be impossible, but highly improbable, since it is an establishment known almost exclusively to locals. Also improbable was the fact that I recently met a Venetian who had moved to San Francisco and we discussed this restaurant. He mentioned the reasonable price and I had to question him as I paid 40 euros for my 5 course meal, which in itself doesn't seem too bad when the dollar is doing better against the euro, but for that particular time it was a $60 meal for one and no bargain to my estimation. He told me that it was 25 euro for locals (harrumph!)

I knew little about this restaurant except that it was recommended in Biba's Italy and was one of the few Venetian restaurants to specialize in meat and fowl rather than fish. I trust Biba Caggiano's recommendations and have used her cookbooks as travel guides for years; she always lists her favorite Italian restaurants. So I went by the restaurant on my first night in Venice and was surprised to see that there was no sign only a closed door and the number 652B on the small building. I even asked a passerby if that was the location for Marisa. He basically said..."of course", like I should have known better. I waited for it to open until dark, then gave up and tried a place down the canal. It turns out Marisa's is closed on Tuesdays.

The next night I went down about 20 minutes before it officially opened and was told that is wasn't open, but they had at least hung a sign on the wall so one could recognize that it was indeed a restaurant. I said I'd wait and was then told that the restaurant was fully booked, but was offered an outdoor table, so I sat and waited again. I asked to see a menu and was told what was on offer that night and it turned out they were only serving fish. I was disappointed until I heard about their seafood lasagne and decided on the spot that it would make a perfect light dinner. When a plate of polenta was placed on my table, it occurred to me for the first time that this was a fixed price and no option establishment. Whatever was being cooked is what I was going to be served. Not such a great position to be in with only 40 euro in my pocket. So in my limited Italian I asked the price and because I could manage it, decided to stay because of all the time I had already invested in attempting to eat there.

The next dish placed on the table was a stewed cuttlefish in a rich tomato sauce. I ate it with the polenta as quickly as I could, since the wind was coming in off the lagoon and was cooling the food down rapidly. The waiter offered me wine but with only the 40 euro in my pocket I declined. Later I discovered it was included in the price.

The next course was mostly very good. A marinated raw fillet of some fish was quite good as were the stuffed mussels, but the bacala manticato was very "fishy" and unlike the traditional recipe, did not include potato, just cod and mayo, much too strong for me. The fritto misto was beautifully prepared as the main course and included prawns, calamari, and a small fillet, but I couldn't identify the mild tasting fish. I could barely finish it.

Finishing the secondo was difficult because the star of the evening's menu came before it and was so satisfying, I could have stopped eating after finishing it. That would be the seafood lasagne pasta course. Delicate in taste, silky in mouth feel, this was the dish worth coming for. I only wish I could duplicate it. With a rich bechemel, nutmeg, and a mild fish like sole, I may be able to come close.The one thing I did notice on this trip was that each lasagne I had eaten was cooked so the pasta was what most people would consider overcooked.

The last course was composed of biscotti with a very sweet mascarpone. The biscotti themselves were not sweet or flavorful and perhaps used just as a vehicle for getting the mascarpone into one's mouth and cutting the sweetness of it just a bit. When I go back to this restaurant, I'm having my hotel make a reservation so I can sit inside and I'm definitely going to drink the wine.

652B Fondamenta San Giobbe
Cannaregio Venice
As you walk down the Lista di Spagna from the train station, this location is to your left before crossing the first bridge. Walk past Ponte Tre Archi to find it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Chez Paul

Chez Paul was originally suggested to us by friends when they heard we would be traveling to Paris. We liked it so well we went three times during our first trip, and keep going back every time we are in Paris. This is your dream bistro, dark, moody, lace curtains in the windows, and full of classic bistro fare with rich flavors. It had 2 concessions to this century, neon lights on the ceilings, and a smoke free room. The first three times I decided on their specials which they conveniently underline in red on their menu.

My first meal consisted of a salad of butter lettuce, endive, chives and 4 pieces of duck foie gras (11 euros). On a subsequent trip I ordered it again and it had changed to butter lettuce, tomato and harcourt vert with pine nuts and 2 larger pieces of the foie gras. Perhaps it was a seasonal change, however it was still a bargain. Twice as much foie gras can be ordered for 17 euros and that comes with toasted brioche and a pickled fig. Another great starter is the lardon and poached egg salad, a classic of French cuisine.

My main course was braised lamb shank with gratin dauphinois (15 euros), a rich and filling meal. My husband ordered what he referred to as the best steak tartare of the trip (14 euros) and that could be easily shared by two people as it looked to be about 1 1/2 cups worth.

Next round, rabbit leg stuffed with goat cheese and mint...covered in what tasted like a goat cheese sauce. Like most of the menu items, this came with sauteed potatoes (which were actually crisply fried, thick round slices that were so much better than standard fries). The restaurant staff were very gracious and would have traded them for more of the gratin, which I couldn't get enough of (15 euro). The starter was a charcuterie plate that included more than one person could eat (13 euro) with country style pate, 2 types of dried sausage, rabbit rillettes, jambon, and several other cold cuts. My husband had a beautifully thick, perfectly cooked Chateaubriand in a rich wine sauce that came with the gratin (22euro). Trying to recreate my first meal, I ordered the lamb steak since I couldn't find the shank on the menu (perhaps it had been a daily special) and it was close, but no cigar. The sauce and dry cured olives that accompanied it, packed a powerful punch of flavor. Is it any wonder why we love this restaurant and return over and over again?

My last meal during our first time at Chez Paul, was the chicken in foie gras sauce over carrots, green beans and delicate pea pods. The chicken was moist and tender, the sauce rich and memorable (16 euros). Who knows what my husband had? All I could see was his gratin which did not come with my order. For dessert he had a poached pear in red wine sauce with poached prunes, apricots, and vanilla ice cream. I had the tarte tatin with creme fraiche... heavenly. Because I did not photograph our first few meals at this fine bistro, I was forced (hardly) on subsequent trips to reorder some of what we had already eaten. The wine poached pear was excellent and I finally was able to order the profiteroles I had seen there before.

On our last trip to Paris we decided to try the classic onion soup, but Chez Paul had their own take on it without the melted Gruyere on top. It was still a perfect choice on a cold day. The rabbit rillette was delicate looking but very flavorful.

We saw plates flying by us with steaks and marrow bones that were calling to me, so the next night I answered and ordered the entricote steak that came perfectly cooked to medium rare. The marrow bone may have been better if it were piping hot, but it was lukewarm and just tasted like fat. I have had better luck with lamb bones as far as flavor is concerned. Still it was fun to try.

Saving the best for last, we must discuss the risotto. Having been made with creme fraiche and Parmigiano cheese was enough of an epiphany for the palate to push this rendering of heaven in a bowl up the ranks at Chez Paul. Topping it with foie gras that lovingly melted in its embrace was a stroke of French genius. I may never think of risotto as an Italian dish again. If I ever eat anything that beats this on my hit parade of food, I'll be in a state of shock.

Update: We have been to Chez several more times at this writing and are fitting it into our upcoming plans. Unfortunately they have taken the foie gras risotto off the menu, but we begged and the chef made it for us.

It has occurred to me that even their standard offerings change with the seasonally available produce, because the last frisee and lardon salad I ordered with made with yet another chicory. Each time it has been different, but also delicious.

Their steak in peppercorn sauce was as good as ever and so was the gratin potatoes, that came in a very generous portion, as does everything at Chez Paul. So here we are, four years later and everything on the menu is consistently good. It's no wonder that this is such a well known, popular bistro. As we discuss travel to Paris, we discover more and more people who love Chez Paul as much as we do.

One more thing to add, I just adore this waitress. Not only is she efficient and good at her job, but to me she embodies the restaurant. She is "so French" and down to earth, that she would have made a wonderful subject for Toulouse Lautrec. If Chez Paul ever decides to print a poster, I insist it be in his style with this waitress front and center.

Chez Paul's Menu

13 Rue de Charonne
Paris 75011 France
+33 1 4700 3457
Open Noon-12:30a