Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mamma Gina

The first time Mamma Gina came under my radar was a night when Cinghiale Bianco was closed. It was an accidental dining experience that turned out to be a good one. The second time was not by accident but by design, because I knew they had Pappa al Pomodoro, the classic Tuscan soup, on the menu. Having wanted to give it a try for a long time, lunch seemed a good opportunity for me to take the plunge and order it as a light meal. On the last occasion a table was reserved with the intentional purpose of getting reacquainted with this decent restaurant with its broad selection of Tuscan fare.

Give an Italian the most meager of ingredients and he'll come up with something tasty and filling. Pappa al Pomodoro* is a case in point. Made primarily of day old bread, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil, and red pepper flakes, this gem of a soup is bright in color as well as in flavor. The acid in the tomatoes is a nice contrast to the creaminess of the bread and olive oil. So far, I like Mamma Gina's recipe the best, but I'll continue my research because this soup is worth reordering time and again.

How can one resist a fried zucchini flower? So far there has been no answer for this question and until one comes to my attention, this will remain my antipasti of choice. Mamma Gina produces a light and delicate version, well worth a try. One of the best ways to determine an authentic Italian restaurant is to discover how well the gnocchi are made. Try the spinach gnocchi pictured above and you will know how to judge them in the future. Mamma knows how to make gnocchi, light, flavorful and never gummy or pasty in texture. The basil included in this recipe added a light sweetness that worked beautifully with the tomato sauce.
Never having seen fried chicken on an Italian menu before, it was a delight to try it for the first time. Light and crisp, it was also the least greasy chicken I have ever tasted. The accompanying fried zucchini was also delicious, but a little overkill with the zucchini blossoms as our first course, so I would have preferred an unfried vegetable. Still, this kitchen staff really knows how to fry foods.

The best has been saved for last, and it was not dessert. Cannelloni Mamma Gina is outrageously flavorful and the perfect food for a cold evening. It warms your heart as well as your stomach and is probably the best cannelloni on the planet. Meat filled, tasting mostly like veal, it comes to the table swaddled in a delicate crepe, and bathed in an equally delicate bechamel. Our dining companion was ready to drive from his home in San Diego to Palm Desert to order it again, but unfortunately the sister restaurant does not have the same menu. That is truly a pity.

*Pappa al Pomodoro does not appear on the English version of the menu, but they do serve it there.

Borgo S.Jacopo, 37/r Tel.
Florence Italy
Fax 055.213.908
Closed on Sunday

Sunday, November 1, 2009

La Carbonara

One of the most well known Roman Restaurants, listed in travel books around the world, La Carbonara is well worth a visit. It's not that they make the best version of Spaghetti Carbonara, their namesake dish, but that everything they make is done well and in the classic style. From antipasti to dolce, you can depend on them to deliver a good meal. Waiters are efficient and unobtrusive and prices are fair. They serve outdoors during warm weather and indoors on two floors, but the main floor is small. I like sitting in any of the several rooms upstairs, obviously made from renovated apartments.

La Carbonara waiters serve the famous Roman bread Pizza Bianca before they even hand you the menu. It's foccacia made in Lazio not Liguria, so the name is different, but the texture is just as chewy and the taste just as delicious. For starters our group of 6 ordered prosciutto and melon. The colors in this photo look every bit as intense as the sweet flavor of the melon and the salty richness of the prosciutto, that happened to be drier than most we had on this trip to Italy. Therefore, the textures played nicely off one another too.

Smoked swordfish topped with arugula and a mild dressing of fruity olive oil turned out to be the very best of the three antipasti we shared on this particular evening. It was moist and fork tender with a smokey note that did not overpower the delicate fish flavor, but added beautifully to its richness and taste. I'd love to be able to order this again and hope it will be on the menu the next time we're in Rome.
Look at the deep orange color of the mussels in this photo. They were simply prepared in white wine, but what impressed me was that they looked wild, not farmed. Plump and juicy, they were delicious with the Pizza Bianca, that we had replenished several times that evening. The photo to the right is of Spaghetti Carbonara, simple, luxurious in its eggy dressing and made with guanciale, as is customary.
Carbonara is also made with penne at La Carbonara and it has a more pronounced al dente bite, since the pasta is thicker. Personally, as long as it's made correctly without cream and only egg, cheese, guanciale, and cracked pepper, I don't care what kind of pasta is used. Interestingly enough, there doesn't seem to be any pepper on either of these pasta renditions of Carbonara.
One of the diners in our party decided to go with a secondo and skip the pasta course. I'm sorry she didn't order something a little more interesting than a breaded veal cutlet. This has to be the most often served dinner item in restaurants all over Europe. Vitello Milanese, Wiener Schnitzel, whatever it may be called, it's rarely anything better than bland and inoffensive. My selection was a special for the evening, Gnocchi in a truffle cream sauce. October travel to Italy is perfect timing for porcini and tartufo.

The heady fragrance of the black truffles permeated the entire table, and coated the light as a feather gnocchi with just enough sauce to be flavorful without being overpowering. Wish I had analyzed it a bit more, but the gnocchi were irresistible and my efforts went into savoring them, rather than trying to figure out what ingredients went into the sauce. Parmigiano, in a restrained amount, was added by the waiter shortly after this photo was taken.

Piazza Campo de' Fiori 23
00186 Roma Lazio Italy
06 686 4783