Friday, May 27, 2011

Hosteria Romana

The quickest lunch I ever ate was at Hosteria Romana in Rome, so I can accurately say that the service was very fast. In November of 2009, I was on my way to meet family at the Borghese Museum with the prepaid reservations in hand, and had a difficult morning locking myself out of the Bed and Breakfast where I needed to retrieve the paperwork. Running very late didn't deter me, it was imperative to fit lunch in regardless, since this was one restaurant I didn't want to miss while in Rome. David Downie, my favorite author for Roman cooking had written a food centric handbook, or should I say manifesto, for Rome and was very complimentary about the Spaghetti Carbonara.

Somewhat surprised and slightly shocked by all the graffiti on the walls, I found myself reading it until the bread arrived. Not only did I get the little rosette hard roll with the hollow center, so very classically Roman, but they also served pizza bianca, the flat, dry yet chewy focaccia, also traditional in Rome. Even though I had only ordered the pasta, they served me an arancini of rice and a potato croquette, nice touch.

Even before my own order arrived, the owner put a small portion of Carbonara on my table, short changing another customer to benefit me. It was a guilty pleasure to sample it. I think he did that because I had shown him the Downie book with the note about his Spaghetti Carbonara. I wished he had actually read the part about the sauce being mixed table side, because that didn't happen at my table. Since I primarily went to taste the Carbonara, not only to witness the culinary magic act, I dug into the pasta and did taste the best Spaghetti Carbonara I've had to date. The guanciale was chunky and crispy enough to make a noticeable contrast with the silkiest, thickest, Carbonara sauce. This restaurant will be on my check list for the next trip. The prices are very reasonable and they even have goat on the menu as well as suckling pig and a broad selection of antipasti. You can bet I'll be going back for a full dinner instead of an on-the-fly lunch.


I did go back for another meal and can truthfully say Hosteria Romana still has the best Carbonara in Rome as far as I'm concerned. No need for further exploration, I'm sold! The roast goat was still available, so it was my dinner choice and it was thoroughly succulent and delicious. The hosteria chef really knows how to slow roast a piece of meat so it's tender and juicy, and tender to the bone. Now I long to go back to try their lamb.

On this occasion we were seated in the front dining room, a much more formal feeling pervaded and the antipasti bar was close to our table. The variety looked very nice and many people were going up to make their selections.  
The vegetable frittata looked  appealing and it seemed to be a popular choice. Since I had already selected two dishes, it was not going to be tasted on this particular evening, but it's on my list for our next trip. 
Vegetable side dishes will also be on that list of items to try. To reconfirm the incredible taste of Hosteria Romana's Carbonara, my traveling companion went back for lunch the next day, while I was discovering more markets, and ordered the Spaghetti Carbonara.

Via del Boccaccio 1
00187 Rome Italy
06 4745284‎

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wood Tavern

Wood Tavern is a comfortable neighborhood restaurant that grew into a destination restaurant in its first month,  due to the fine reputation of its owners and chef. Read about their culinary chops on their website listed below. It must be exactly as they envisioned it with a great menu, a broad wine list, and a reputable bar. With a cracker jack crew it had to work.

My friend and I started out with drinks, something I don't do regularly, and they were well made. She had a Manhattan and I opted for one of the proprietary drinks, since I like to try something new each time; I'm still searching for a "favorite" libation. The bread was delicious with  rustic loafs of white and wheat mixed in the basket. If my friend hadn't really liked the white so much, we may have been fighting over the wheat, it was that good. Sweet butter only added favorably to it. I have suddenly realized that most fine restaurants in America have finally eliminated salted butter; a fine improvement.

When I dine out I go for broke, ordering what I cannot make myself, but fortunately my friend is more prudent and ordered the simple arugula salad, the light and refreshing salad. My order was the pork belly and figs. Luscious from top to bottom, down to the balsamic glaze, very little of which remained on the plate when I was done.

It was so good in fact, that I feel a closer look is necessary. The pork belly had a nice sear and was rested on the figs that had been sauteed with shallots. A dressed water cress was then applied and it was bordered by the sweet and sour balsamic glaze, then sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts. The plating was outstanding and had I not known any of the ingredients, I would have wanted to try it based on eye appeal alone.

The potato gnocchi was well made and light. Although I had never before seen it pan seared, it was a very good move that added more depth of flavor to the dish in general. Good thing too because the fresh vegetables needed a little something. As usual, freshly grated cheese came to the rescue and added the needed salty element to this culinary composition.

The double cut pork chop was the only failure of the evening and I will say that the restaurant was willing to remake it for me and actually took it off the tab, when I thanked them but refused a new plate. As you can see by the bone, this little piggy was over cooked, indeed burned to the bone. Since the pan juices were used for the sauce, every element in the dish was unpleasant. So much so that I didn't want another go at it. I felt very uncomfortable not paying anything for it, so I left a very large tip and wrote that I wanted to pay for the pork chop. Either the waiter went home a very happy camper, or the restaurant was paid. I'll never know but I felt I did the right thing. Still, I would not order that dish again as it literally left a "bad taste in my mouth".

Wood Tavern Website

6317 College Ave
Oakland CA 94618
(510) 654-6607

Tuesday, May 17, 2011



Their slogan is "A small place for a big treat.", and that short marketing sentence is not false advertising. On our way the the National Art Museum on South St in Valletta, we passed this very small restaurant. I laughed at the slogan, thinking it was cute, but not taking it seriously.  Their dining room was so small it only held about twelve tables and the kitchen was relegated to the basement. The last photo above on the right is that of the dumbwaiter. It was fun to actually see one being used. As I sat waiting for lunch, I finally opened our travel guide and Cocopazzo just happened to be the second restaurant listed.  I was very pleased to have ordered the rabbit ravioli, one of the daily specials, when I read that they specialized in seafood and house made pasta dishes.

The plate looked beautiful as it was being served. The glaze on the ceramic bowl was a smoky taupe color and the ravioli were a pale tan, causing me to wonder if the pasta was made with buckwheat flour. As it turned out, the hand made pasta was made from ceci (the Italian word for garbanzo) flour. The texture was perfect with a nice al dente bite to it. The filling was also quite good with cooked rabbit meat, bread crumbs, garlic and perhaps a bit of dried parsley. I suggest that because dried parsley was also sprinkled over the top of a luscious mushroom cream sauce that dressed the ravioli. This was the best food I'd eaten in days. I especially liked the use of caramelized onions that were in the sauce, sliced not diced or minced.

My traveling companion was equally as smitten with his mussels and clams steamed in a white wine and garlic sauce. He sopped up the sauce with the garlic bread left on our table, gratis, no cover charge. It was the best of the trip, since we regularly order mussels when in the Mediterranean.

After lunch I decided to try the Cassata because I only had one in Sicily and was hoping to find more. It was not what I had expected in looks, but it was exactly what I had hoped for in flavor. Instead of being presented in a cake form, the sponge cake was sitting in the bottom of a small glass with candied fruits mixed in. The Marsala wine looked more red than I have ever seen used on a Cassata. The ricotta was also less sweet than I have been used to in Sicily, but it was so much better in this rendition, where it was topping the cake. But what about the marzipan? A small circle of it crowned this little gem of a dessert. Perfetto!

We liked our meal so well, we came back the next day but the kitchen had just closed after the lunch service. Not to be deterred, we decided to hold off on lunch and take an early dinner instead. I started off with their fish soup which consisted of one large prawn in fish broth. it was good but a bit cumbersome. To simplify the process and avoid a real mess, I only removed the shell after I had consumed all the broth. Then I ordered the special and mixed vegetables.  

The special was veal with a mushroom mustard sauce. It was fork tender and the mushrooms were a good companion to the mild mustard cream sauce, that benefited from their robust, earthy flavor. The sauce on my ravioli was excellent; the sauce on the veal was even better. The vegetables were simply prepared peas, carrots, and string beans that were bright in color, yet not undercooked. The boiled potatoes needed to be eaten with the sauce, if any pleasure at all was to be extracted from them, so onto the plate they went. The veal, plated on red, looked even better next to the green vegetables.

One look at the mixed seafood pasta and I almost regretted ordering the veal, almost. Thankfully I was offered a taste of the pasta and it was again, as good as any seafood pasta we have eaten in Italy or Sicily. It is so clear, in the cuisine of Malta, to see the Italian and Sicilian influences. The pasta itself was cooked al dente, as it should be, and the tomato sauce tasted "of the sea". Scampi, clams and mussels were responsible for the subtle flavoring. We were so delighted to have found this restaurant, and to have been able to dine there twice.

South St
Between Old Bakery and Old Mint St
Valletta Malta

Monday, May 16, 2011

Le Volte

What luck to find a recommendation this good. After several days of mediocre food in Palermo, we were finally directed to Le Volte, a small ristorante/pizzeria in the financial district of Palermo just off of Via Liberta easily accessible  by the number 104 or  101 buses. I'm generally not attracted to pizza restaurants, but the cases of fish and antipasti made a better impression upon me than their association with pizza had.

The first dish I think of when Sicily is mentioned is Caponata, the Sicilian version of Ratatouille. Mostly eggplant, tomato, olive oil and onion, it makes a fine appetizer and works well  as a bruschetta topping or alone as a marinated salad. I thought the plating with fried spaghetti was very modern compared to plating in many Sicilian restaurants, and this simple act made an even better impression that was being formed about the restaurant itself. The caponata was rich with olive oil and had a very silky mouth feel. It included green olives and capers.

The good impressions ended when I tried the classic Palermo pasta of  Buccatini con Broccoli with raisins and pine nuts. When the plate arrived it was covered in breadcrumbs, a topping usually reserved for pastas that include fish. The taste was fishy enough to lead me to believe that anchovy is also part of this recipe. The raisins were very small, round and tasteless, looking more like huckleberries than anything else. I may have found 5 pine nuts in this dish, but after seeing their cost on the markets, I can understand the economy of this particular ingredient. Pine nuts were selling at 4 ounces for 2 euro. I shouldn't have, but I asked the waiter where the broccoli was, since it could not be detected in the plate. It was overcooked and mashed, barely even looking green, in fact it wasn't green. Since Broccoli is an Italian word, I could not even defend this recipe by saying it may have been made with another vegetable. One more disappointment, the buccatini was actually spaghetti, my least favorite pasta.

What we order is what we are served and judging by the plates going to other tables, I would definitely order the fried vegetables if I were to come here again and if I were in Palermo, I would. Especially if other pasta recipes were as good as that of the spinach gnocchi with a Gorgonzola cream sauce and toasted pistachios.

Via Agrigento N 12
90141 Palermo Sicilia
091 625-9999

Friday, May 13, 2011

Trattoria Corso in Berkeley


Someone once told me that sitting at a counter overlooking a restaurant kitchen was an enviable position. I'd have to disagree after sitting in one such position at Trattoria Corso. It was there that I witnessed one of the line cooks wiping down dishes with a dirty towel, time and time again. I told management about it and I'm certain it hasn't happened since, but I may check that by sitting there again. Yes, I would go back to Trattoria Corso, even though there was another mishap that same evening, because the food is excellent.

The second mishap was being served a house made burrata that was decidedly over the hill in terms of its age. Burrata is a cheese that has a very short shelf life due to its very nature. A true burrata is made from water buffalo milk, but I don't expect to find that being made here. It is a mozzarella type cheese that is made by creating a pocket in the cheese ball and filling it with smaller pieces of the cheese and fresh cream, then tying it off and preserving it in water like fresh mozzarella is preserved. In Italy it is wrapped in leek leaves, in the US it is made with cow's milk and is stored in a plastic container. It is quite a production and a wonderful experience to cut into the cheese and see the cream oozing out. It is indescribable and really needs to be tried. When the cheese is more than a few days old the interior cheese pieces start to coagulate into the cream and the texture, though still soft, changes completely and solidifies. The burrata served at Trattoria Corso was already solidified and was developing a sour taste. However, the idea of combining it with cooked peaches, mint, and hazelnuts was a great call, so I have to give them points for being inventive. cigar. Okay, now that I've come out and said that, it's smooth sailing from this point forward.

My dinner companion decided not to order an entree, but went with the charcuterie plate and a basket of bread. Good call because the house made and cured meats were wonderful, starting with the coppa to the far right of this photo and ending with the lardo in the center. The Calabrese salami with the red chili pepper was especially tasty. But if you give me lardo, it has to be on toasted bread, so it will melt.

Ask me and I'll tell you that I hate tripe, but I ordered it at Corso. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and as they started needing help I was happy to do grocery shopping for them. Occasionally I was asked to pick up tripe. My grandmother taught me to look for the whitest piece possible and it had to have a very small honeycomb texture. She would be pleased when I found exactly what she had requested. I knew she was a wonderful cook, but still, I couldn't bring myself to try her "trippa". After trying Corso's  I regret that this was my first taste of this popular offal. The tomato sauce was rich, the beans, although too big for cannellini as stated on the menu, were fork tender and so was the tripe. Adding mint was a great touch as were the toasted bread crumbs. I thought I'd be tasting it but never expected to eat the entire bowl, a generous serving. Yes, I'd definitely go back to Trattoria Corso.

Trattoria Corso's Menu

1788 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley CA 94709
(510) 704-8004

5pm - 9pm Sunday
5pm - 9:30pm Monday - Thursday
5pm - 10pm Friday - Saturday

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pizzaiolo Oakland

It certainly didn't hurt this Telegraph Avenue eatery that it was Charlie Hallowell, a Chez Panisse alum, who decided to open it, but I believe it did get him noticed. His hard work and imagination did the rest. Pizzaiolo makes a good pie. Wood fired pizza is very popular these days and we have many exceptional pizza establishments in the Bay Area, so this one does not stand out as much as it did originally. It's a great boon to the East Bay, but with Una Pizza Napoletana, Tony's Pizzeria Napoletana and Ragazza in San Francisco, I would be hard pressed to make the drive to Oakland for a pizza here. Still I'm very pleased to have tried it.

This photo of the Stinging Nettle Pizza reveals a light, flakey crust and grated Romano on top. The Romano added just enough salty taste to enhance the nettles. There was an opportunity to add more toppings, so I opted for Italian sausage that was also house made. The few ingredients worked so well, the idea of tomato sauce and mozzarella seemed foreign and would have actually detracted from the overall taste. Nice job.

Pizzaiolo Oakland Website

5008 Telegraph Ave
Oakland CA 94609
(510) 652-4888
Open: Mon - Thurs 5:30 pm - 10 pm
           Fri - Sat 5:00pm - 10:30pm

Sunday, May 8, 2011

7 Archi

On our most recent visit to Bologna, we discovered that Trattoria Da Ercole had closed. Da Gianni which I had been trying to go to for several years happened to be closed for the evening as well. Since it was a Monday, Ristorante Monte Grappa Da Nello and Ristorante Diana were also closed. We were running out of options. It seemed like a great opportunity to try 7 Archi, the restaurant that had replaced Da Carlo a few years ago. The friends we were dining with hadn't tried it yet, so I crossed my fingers and we asked for a table.

First order of business, the bread, a nice variety of bread slices and rolls, good textures, and ample amounts. Things were looking up. I also enjoyed the lovely linens on the tables. I missed the fried crescentini from Da Carlo, but learned some good news about the former restaurant. The owners decided that they wanted a smaller venue just outside Bologna, so they are still in business.
Prosciutto makes a good test for quality at any restaurant in Italy. This antipasti item passed muster and was served with a small salad on the side, elevating it from the norm. It was pleasing to see a new presentation rather than the familiar melon or fig that usually accompanies this cured ham.
Steamed seafood was good in terms of the variety on the plate. It included mussels, shrimp, clams and a whole scampi . Like the cherry that tops a sundae, the scampi was the perfect topper for this dish. Speaking of dishes, this is not a lopsided photo. The serving dish actually stands that way, another nod to the modernity of this restaurant.

What can I say about this wonderful seafood carpaccio? Plenty. I think this is the best seafood appetizer I have ordered to date and I selected it from the "Fantasia" section of the 7 Archi menu. They offer traditional renditions of classic cuisine, but let their culinary imaginations and schooling shine with their own interpretations of the classics. After eating this, I was very pleased to have ordered my pasta and secondo from the same side of the menu. Speaking of menus, the waiter offered to copy their menu for me when he saw me taking notes. Black rice was an unexpected addition to the paper thin tuna, octopus and sea bass. It really enhanced the variety of color on the plate.

The beef carpaccio was another treat as it was made from Chianina beef. If you have never tried this breed of cattle, transformed into steak on a platter, buy your ticket for Tuscany right now. The flavor cannot be adequately described, but you will immediately note a distinction from other beef, much the way there is a difference between grain fed and grass fed cattle in the U.S.A.
Paglia e Fieno or Straw and Hay pasta is also another classic with a twist from 7 Archi. The pasta was dressed in a light cream sauce that was riddled with sauteed prosciutto and sprinkled with walnut pieces. Although you can really not detect much difference between the spinach and egg pasta, because they are chosen for color more than for taste, the dish was wonderfully rich and delicious.

What would a trip to Bologna be without Tagliatelle Bolognese? If you asked my husband, the answer would most certainly be "bleak and dismal", since he has yet to go there without ordering a plate of this sumptuous pasta. I'd love to wax poetic about how well this restaurant makes this particular dish, but we have yet to find a bad rendition of this Bolognese classic anywhere in this city, they have all been exceptional. So in all honesty, it was "average" for restaurants Bologna, yet all the while, still mouth watering.

The gnocchi is where I start waxing poetic! Our entire table was in agreement that this was the star of the evening. We would call these quenelles because of their shape, but since they are made from potato the Italians call them gnocchi. Their likeness to dumplings cannot go unmentioned, but whatever you choose to call them, they were outstanding in flavor and extremely memorable. I had never seen a filled gnocco before, so it was a surprise to bite into one.

Not the best photo, but it's all I have. The filling was made with Bresaola, truffle oil, and Parmigiano. It was an outstanding combination of flavors and the gnocchi dough added a nice contrast in texture and helped to blend it into a lush offering. The richness was heightened with a butter sauce, but the gnocchi dough softened the filling richness and took it down a notch, so you could eat more than just one. I could have eaten more than the four on my plate and hope it is still on the menu on our next trip. A special thanks to our friend Lina for suggesting to place the red napkin under the plate. If not for that idea, the photos of this dish would have looked washed out and the gnocchi would have looked much less appealing.

The Filet Mignon in green peppercorn sauce seemed out of place on an Italian menu, but this is no ordinary Italian restaurant. The Chianina filet was cooked to a perfect medium rare and the sauce was as good as any I have eaten in France. I suspect the balsamic is just for decorative purposes, it seemed to appear on most of our plates. Potatoes were roasted in a fruity olive oil and made this a dish perfect for the meat and potato lover.

Another of the Fantasia offerings, this seafood main course was flavorful and needed neither the black rice nor the small salad to hold its own on the plate, although I did enjoy the rice mixed with the buttery pistachio seafood sauce. I wasn't certain how the pistachios would work on the plate, but their texture was a nice contrast to the softness of the fish filet. My only complaint was that they hid that beautiful scampi. I'm very happy to report that 7 Archi is my new favorite restaurant in Bologna.
This website is in Italian and English The English translations on the menu are not very good in capturing the spectacular food.

Via Marchesana, 6
40124 Bologna