Like any complex man of the world, HG has a few contradictions. While I have posted previously about my preference for a traditional Thanksgiving meal, the reality is that HG has never been a fan of Thanksgiving dinner in general. HG’s unsentimental view: dry turkey and heaps of sloppy food only saved by a liberal dousing of gravy. The exception was the non-traditional Thanksgiving feast prepared by Brilliant Daughter Lesley R. a few days ago in Bologna. Turkey Involtini (slices of turkey breast pounded very thin and covered with a layer of prosciutto and fontina cheese). These lovely morsels were rolled up, secured with toothpicks, browned and then finished in the oven. They were gilded with a robust mushroom gravy. Accompaniments were brussel sprouts (sauteed with shallots and pancetta). Tender haricots vert. Lush mashed potatoes (whipped with butter and Greek yogurt). A perfectly balanced meal. Full of flavor but not an abdominal depth charge. The wine was an excellent Brunello di Montalcino. Cheese and salad followed. Gifted Granddaughter Arianna produced a made-from-scratch pumpkin pie. Pureed roasted pumpkin (not the vile canned stuff). Excellent crust. Toppings were whipped cream and marvelous gelato. Vin Santo followed for the family, while HG sipped a beautiful grappa. A Thanksgiving feast to be thankful for.
The Universitá di Bologna is the oldest, continually operating university in the world (in existence for more than a thousand years) and its 85,000 students still dominate this city of soaring towers, medieval buildings and glorious arcades.
There is no formal graduation day as in the United States. When a student passes his or her examinations and successfully defends a dissertation, he or she is granted a degree–and that’s graduation. What follows is a rollicking custom which brings the middles ages alive in the cobblestoned streets. The graduate is dubbed “dottore” (doctor) by friends, adorned with a laurel wreath (as was the custom hundreds of years ago) and often dressed in ludicrous costumes. HG saw some attractive young female graduates crammed into baby carriages and indecently sprayed with white paste stuffed into pierced condoms. Rough fun. The graduates are followed around the city by crowds of friends who sing “Dottore!! Dottore!!” followed by obscene anatomical and scatological references. The graduate is the butt of a lot of irreverent fun — the continuation of an age-old university tradition.
This doesn’t mean that learning is not respected in Bologna. At the city’s museum of medieval art, HG was moved by the beautiful tombs, some six centuries old, of famous scholars and jurists. Usually, such magnificent works of medieval art have religious, imperial or martial themes. But, here in Bologna, men of learning have inspired great artists.
A significant man of learning is HG’s son-in-law, Professore Massimo R. The Professore has brought his unique digital display of the Garibaldi Panorama to the Sala Borsa, the great public library in the center of Bologna. It is an exhibit that is both learned and dramatic. The electronic wizardry and research scholarship of Professore Massimo and his Brown University students has brought the remarkable history of the Italian hero, Garibaldi, and the unification of Italy to vivid life. Anita Garibaldi, Garibaldi’s great- great-grandaughter, visited the Panorama (extensively covered by the Bologna daily newspaper). Next week, there will be a presentation at the University of Professore Riva’s latest book, “The Future of Literature,” a scholarly study of the impact of electronics on literature. When not busy illuminating Italian culture, the Professore researches the best regional restaurants and local wines. This bore delicious fruit recently, when the Professore led HG and family to a restaurant in Ferrara that served an exceptional bollito misto. An HG report will follow.
Venezia. Venice. La Serenissima. Whatever you call it, the city of canals, bridges, vaporetti, hordes of tourists and the natives who have made a tradition of fleecing them for more than 500 years remains a wonder. HG and BSK have been going to Venice for close to 30 years and the city has never lost its fascination. This time HG and BSK visited to see the Biennale, the great Venice explosion of art that takes place — every two years — in the national pavilions of the Giardini (the only park in the city) and the vast Arsenale, the startlingly huge building complex where the ships and rope were manufactured that helped it rule the seas for centuries. If you love art (and life) the Biennale should not be missed. Every type of artistic enterprise — visual, aural, environmental — is on display throughout all the neighborhoods in the city. Once more, HG and BSK were left speechless by the depth of the artistic imagination and how artists increasingly utilize technology to expand their vision and the boundaries of art. HG and BSK saw great creations by Anselm Kiefer and Emilo Vedova on the Zattere Promenade and a very impressive retrospective of Julian Schnabel at the Museo Correr (HG left with new respect for this flamboyant and hugely talented artist).
Of course, Venice also offers a variety of culinary treasures. There was sublime spaghetti with nero di seppia (squid ink) at Il Nuovo Galeon; giant platters of fritto misto at Trattoria Al Diporto in Sant’ Elena; scallops, octopus and grilled fish platters at Ristorante Giorgione. At this last eating place, the proprietor, Lucio Bisutto (sometimes accompanied by his wife) delights the customers with a song recital. A very happy dining experience (and modest prices). All three restaurants are in the Castello neighborhood which is decidedly off the typical tourist path. With artistic vision expanded and tastes titillated by sea pleasures, HG and BSK return to Bologna for more art, history and pleasures of the table.
HG loves a good Paris bistro. HG is equally fond of small, Bolognese trattorias. Might even like Bolognese dining more because of that very special life-enhancing quality so many Italians seem to have. Case in point is La Montanara, a small, nicely lighted trattoria decorated with an amusing array of food linked items, including old egg baskets and toy kitchens that delighted kids a generation ago. There were many smiles and lots of laughter in the room (but, voices were kept happily low). All in all, an unpretentious, amiable atmosphere. Pleasure to be there.
The food? Two very good antipasti: a spinach and sausage mousse-like creation molded into a loaf and served in pie-like wedges. A rich radicchio tart flavored with truffle. Primi piatti included an outstanding risotto of radicchio and melted smoked scamorza cheese. Gramigna (homemade short, curly pasta) served in the signature Bolognese tomato and sausage sauce. As is the case in many Italian restaurants, the secondi piatti paled in contrast to the flavor fireworks of the preceding courses. Meal ended with a lovely semifreddo of zabaione, grand marnier and caramelized orange slices. Yum. In fact, double yum. Summary: a very good time.
Eataly (the slow-food inspired emporium which began in Turin, spread throughout Italy, and has offspring in Japan and New York) is located at the very center of Bologna’s central historic district. It is the kind of food complex that every city should have. Bologna’s Eataly is a dining and information multiplex. Bookshelves and tables are laden with the timeliest works on cuisine, travel, art, design, and there is space for public readings and demonstrations. Shelves contain every shape of pasta, olive oils, vinegar, beans, grains and canned goods. An encyclopedic array of the flavors and staples needed to create superior Italian food. There’s a big, communal table on the first floor for casual dining. A trattoria on the next floor with tables for two or four. An osteria on the top floor.
HG, BSK and various members of the Riva family have frequented the trattoria. Here are some of the dishes sampled: a light, flavorful sardine tart. Linguine with a unique sauce of fresh mackerel. Steak tartare (hand chopped to a perfect consistency) served on a bed of cauliflower (someone in the kitchen has some real knife skills because the vegetable had the appearance and shape of couscous) and topped with a handful of baby arugula. A confection which consisted of shaved truffles, egg whites and potato puree (pungent and light as a feather). A new deconstruction of the hamburger — this consisted of a burger (crusty on the outside with a pink and juicy interior) seated on a thick slice of roast eggplant in a pool of light tomato sauce and topped with crumbles of goat cheese. Among the dolci were exquisite chocolate creations as well as a scoop of very fresh, sweet ricotta glazed with aged balsamic vinegar.
And, there’s another treat. Prices are very reasonable.
Ah, Sundays in Bologna. A day made for laughter-filled family dining. And, here is family HG/BSK/Riva happily seated on the sunny terrace of Trattoria Monte Donato perched on a verdant hillside overlooking the greenery and towers of Bologna’s medieval center. Abundant bottles of the house Sangiovese arrived. Then an appetite-provoking salad of radicchio and sauteed pancetta. The rendered pancetta fat was reduced in the pan with a very good balsamic vinegar which was employed as the dressing. Add a poached egg and you’d have an approximation of the frisee salad served at Chez Georges in Paris. An antipasto (another appetite provoker) of grilled polenta slices topped with lardo and pecorino cheese. There were primi of tagliatelle al ragu (the Bolognese signature dish — HG found the noodles silken and the sauce robust without an excess of fat or oil); faro soup; feather light herbaceous gnocchi; pastal al torchio with guanciale and tomatoes. Main dish was a huge platter (decorated with branches of rosemary) of crisp-roasted chicken, potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes and garlic. HG had a dessert of crema catalan (the Italian version of creme brulee). There were other desserts — a plum crostata; a semifreddo al mascarpone — but HG could not focus. Too much wine, perhaps. The meal was followed by a stroll on the steep, sun-dappled slopes overlooking Bologna. Good to have an appetite. Good to be alive. Good to be in Italy. Good to have a loving family.
Yes, Bologna is a city of meat. Show a Bolognese cook a vegetable or a pasta form and his/her tendency is to stuff it or shower it with beautifully cooked, deftly spiced meat or sausage. In recent years, however, the city has sprouted a number of excellent sea food restaurants. Sale Grosso in the Bologna University neighborhood was HG and BSK’s luncheon destination. A very clean-lined, slightly austere room. Sound panels, doubling as minimal art work, affixed to the walls keep the sound level low. The few works of art are decorative and witty. Service provided by an elegant young waitperson was very civilized. Food flavors were Sicilian and Calabrian. Delicate puree of fava beans enriched with chopped, sauteed chicory. Folds of al dente pasta dressed with the typical Sicilian mixture of sardines, pignolias and fennel. All perfectly balanced, fragrances, textures and flavors playing off each other beautifully. Then came superb roast calamari and broccoli. The calamari was tender, crisp edged and spiced to allow the sea flavor to present itself without competition. Big platters of flash fried anchovies dotted with crunchy sea salt were crisp and delicious and absolutely grease free. Dessert was a confection of melting chocolate dotted with ripe cherries. A meal of sublime simplicity and memorable flavors.
There is nothing better than dining en famille. And, dining with daughter Lesley R., husband Profesore/Dottore Massimo R. and the Daughters Beautiful, Arianna and Sofia, in the Riva/Brown University Bologna apartment surpasses all expectations. Exhausted from 11 hours of air travel and a mighty schlep in the Frankfurt airport, HG and BSK were revived by a superb group of Bolognese, Roman (and Tuscan) specialties. There was a puntarelle salad (the pungent green is now in season). This was followed by a charcuterie platter: juicy truffle salami, fragrant fennel salami, two kinds of prosciutto (smoked and traditional), mortadella. Next: steaming bowls of tortellini in brodo—sturdy broth and tender tortellini. Three cheeses (truffle, pecorino and gorgonzola—accompanied by artisan jams and honey) followed. Wines were Lambrusco and San Giovese. Coffee was the appropriate exclamation point.
Haven’t been in Italy for a few years so needed a refresher in how coffee should taste. Strolled to Zanarini, a posh bar in the histrionic center of Bologna. A macchiato for HG. A thunderbolt of taste in a tiny cup. Deep, rich black espresso topped with a froth of milk. Energized HG for a walk beneath medieval arcades containing the latest in chic Italian fashion.
The Pojoaque Super Market on Highway 285/84 in New Mexico (15 minutes north of Santa Fe) is an HG favorite, a veritable treasure trove of ingredients needed for authentic Southwestern cuisine. There are at least 100 salsas on the shelves ranging from “super hot” to “mild.” “Mild” raises an instant sweat. “Super Hot” can induce cardiac arrest.
There are at least 40 varieties of canned beans and posole. An encyclopedic array of peppers — hot, sweet, fresh, canned, frozen, jarred and dried. Spices galore. A take out counter featuring truly funky menudo, green chili stew and enchiladas.
Customers are a colorful group. Latinos. Native Americans from the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo and Santa Clara reservations. Sikhs from local ashrams. Artists, politicians, farmers, and of course, Bronx reared elder Jews like HG himself.
HG loves to browse, taking in the regional goods. A big, recent discovery: Candy Krisp Jalapenos from Texas Pepper Works (a Houston outfit). There’s a rattlesnake on the jar label and the words: ” Nice Bite. Not Too Hot. Not Too Sweet.” That’s truth in advertising. Perfect accompaniment to any pork dish.
Great on a cracker with some goat cheese or cream cheese. If you have trouble sourcing a jar visit: www.ribafoods.com.