Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When in Rome, Eat as the Romans Do


ROME--If you don't want to eat the crappy food that tourists are fed in every big city, you've got to have a battle plan. You can scour foodie magazines, you can spend hours online, or you can find a local friend. Probably easier said than done if it's a foreign country, which is why the first stop for many is TripAdvisor or one of its imitators.

It's not foolproof, and ya gotta understand the rules. But as a rule, the first dozen or so restaurants on TripAdvisor will be tourist joints. Don't believe me, look up your own home town. Seattle's top-rated "restaurants" are Beecher's (a retail cheese shop), Pike Place Chowder, Paseo Caribbean, Poppy, Toulouse Petit, Le Panier, Crumpet Shop, Salumi, Skillet Diner, Space Needle. In other words, places close to the heart of Seattle's top tourist attractions (the Market, Pioneer Square, Seattle Center, Kerry Park, Capitol Hill).

And even when you spot a TripAdvisor review that seems to point you in the right direction, you might still find yourself seated at a lousy table, ignored by the waitstaff, or handed a "tourist" menu. We ran into this in Venice last year; where we had a great time with the colorful owner of Mascareta, but the online reviews were decidedly mixed.

So if you don't have a friend in Rome, here are a couple of places that you should try. One is "Roman," in the sense that it's the food of the Lazio region; the other is "fish." They don't have fancy web sites, ritzy-glitzy decor, valet parking or waiters in tuxedos. In other words, they are probably not places to go on a first date.

dino-tony.jpg Dino & Tony's gets a fair amount of walk-in trade, since it's just two blocks from the Vatican Museum metro stop, not far from the tony Prati neighborhood. But its principal traffic has always come from "in-the-know" locals who say it's home to "the best spaghetti all'amatriciana" (pig's cheek) in Rome.

The thing about Italian food, we should remind you, is that it's not fussy. There's a time and a place for tablecloths and fancy china, but it's not what you'll find at Dino & Tony's. The lighting comes from fluorescent bulbs; the paint job is a hallucinatory shade of green. Tony once cooked at the White House; an apron autographed by George H.W. Bush hangs on the wall as proof. The servers bustle: prosciutto crudo, salami, two kinds of pizzas, a plate of chicory in pastry, croquettes, carciofi alla giudia (deep-fried artichokes). The carbonara is served with rigatoni; the pasta alla gricia is "dry," no sauce except the pig's cheek.

Puntarelle.JPG. The most "Roman" item on the menu is a salad of crunchy chicory shoots called puntarelle. It's a pain to prepare the greens properly at home, so they're sold ready-to-eat in local markets, but kept in water until they're ordered and the tangy garlic & anchovy dressing is added. Making one's own killer dressing for puntarelle is a point of pride for Roman cooks.

A portion of herb-infused suckling pig was one of the main courses, the other was another typically Roman dish, trippa alla Romana, marvelously tender honeycomb tripe in tomato sauce. Your wine, a liter of unremarkable red, is included, as is a post-prandial limoncello.

Apps at der Belli.JPG
The Osteria der Belli stands out for its high quality seafood in a gentrified neighborhood, Trastevere, known for its banal tourist fare. Not everyone gets it. The standard meal begins with a flurry of appetizers, brought to the table half a dozen at a time: three types of shrimp (sgambetti rossi, scampi, gamberetti), anchovies, squid, octopus, mussels, sardines, three or four kinds of bread, an excellent bottle of Vermentino di Gallura. You could make a meal of them, but save room, even if you skip the pasta,  (they brought me an artichoke alla Romana instead); there's a whole branzino yet to come.

Finally, a shot of Mirto, a grappa distilled not from the blueberry fruit, as you might think, but its bark. From Sardinia, just like the four Piras brothers who run the place. 

Pricing. Yes, you can eat for less money all over Rome. A lot more money, too. But the fixed-price, whole-meal-deal at both of the restaurants mentioned here (virtually unlimited appetizers, two or three pastas, two or three main courses, dessert, wine, coffee & digestivo) is no more than $50. You can get away for less by ordering à la carte, but why would you want to do that when you've come this far to eat like a true Roman? 

Dino & Tony, Via Leone IV 60, 00192 Rome, Tel 06 397 332 84
Osteria der Belli, Piazza S. Apollonia, Trastevere, 00153 Rome, Tel 06 580 2781

Colosseum photo by Andreas Tille, Wikipedia

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooking at the Top of the World


CASTRO DEI VOLSCI, Italy--Welcome news on the travel front: Casa Gregorio, a bed & breakfast and cooking school here in the countryside south of Rome, is bringing style and vitality to this perfectly restored medieval village.

Castro church at dawn.JPGThis area, known as the Ciociaria, is a long valley between Rome and Naples, hemmed in by steep, forest-covered hills (the Apennines--Italy's spine--to one side, a coastal range to the other) and saw some of the heaviest fighting during World War Two at Monte Cassino. (In the shameful aftermath of the Allied victory, renegade Morroccan troops pillaged the countryside; Vittorio De Sica's movie Two Women, with Sophia Loren's Oscar-winning role as the mother of a brutalized teenager, was called La Ciociara in Italian.)

The Ciociaria is often overlooked by travelers drawn the romance of Tuscany, to the north, or the glamour of the Amalfi Coast, to the south. In fact, the corridor is traversed by the A1 motorway; Italy's fastest train, the Frecciarossa, makes the 150-mile run between Rome and Naples down the center of the Ciociaria, in a just over an hour. Yet the Ciociaria was named an area of national interest for its panoramic views and fine food.

Doorway in Castro.JPGCastro dei Volsci--the stronghold of the Volsci clan back in the 15th and 16th centuries--sits atop one of the hills overlooking the valley. The village itself is a meticulously restored community of 300 or so inside the walls and a couple thousand folks who live on surrounding farms. A minibus comes up from the valley several times a day; private cars park outside the walls. There's a post office, a bakery, a couple of shops and cafes, and then there's Casa Gregorio, which combines a taverna for the locals (open weekends for now, soon to open daily), a professional kitchen, elegantly appointed living quarters and five luxurious guest rooms with private baths.

It's taken Gregory Aulensi three years to restore the property, which, ironically, he never set out to purchase. A successful decorator in Florida, he had decided to move to Rome in search of a simpler life. His father, though, had been born in Castro dei Volsci, and one day Gregory returned to the village for a wedding. The property next door to his father's house happened to be for sale: an interconnected series of houses, workshops and terraces built into the village walls, 12,000 square feet in all. The price was no more than a studio apartment in Rome, so, in the Italian tradition of spontaneity, Gregory made the life-changing decision to buy it.

Kitchen at Casa Gregorio.JPGNow he's offering cooking classes in a perfectly equipped kitchen to his B&B guests, who also get his personal attention throughout their six-night programs. You don't need a car of your own; Gregory's vehicles are comfortable sedans and minivans. You don't need to be a professional chef, either; the local women who come in to demonstrate pasta-making or vegetable carving are patient to a fault. Visits to a vineyard and an olive mill are part of the program as well. And if you happen to be there over a weekend, you can stop in at the agriturismo at the bottom of the hill, Il Rusponte, and enjoy the copious farmhouse lunch we described in a post back in October.

Gregory has launched an ambitious cultural heritage program for "his" village, which has even attracted the attention of Italy's RAI television network. The video is here, picturesque scenery, muddy buffalo herd, cooking class and all, though it's in Italian.

Bookings through The International Kitchen, which made arrangements for my visit.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Masserias: Puglia's Fortified Farms

Sunrise at Borgo Egnazia.JPG

PUGLIA, Italy--You arrive over a road whose pavement is, shall we say, rustic, as it traverses a grove of ancient olive trees with trunks so twisted they could be posters for a menacing horror movie. You bluff your way past the gate (honk, wait for it to open; US border security should be so lucky!) and pull into the parking lot of the Masseria Torre Coccaro, one of several dozen masserias, historic farmhouse properties on the lowlands facing the Adriatic.

Chapel at Masserie Torre Coccaro-thumb-560x420-1420.jpgPirates were once a real threat along the coast, so the farms and villages tend to be based a few kilometers inland. There's a Fort Apache or Alamo feel to these masserias, many of them refurbished as four- and five-star hotels for tourists, with plenty of banquet space for local weddings and conventions, sometimes with golf courses attached, often with a stretch of private beach (reached by shuttle bus).

Not all are genuinely old, though. Borgo Egnazia (in the photos at top & bottom) is a two-year-old movie-set of a village built, literally from the ground up, with the local beige-white limestone. The owner, Aldo Melpignano, is said to have designed the Borgo himself, adding a cluster of villas surrounding the central "fort.." Local designer Pino Brescia decorated the expanses with vast quantities of unexpected objects (bottles, keys, laddders, old newspapers, twigs and branches, candles, birdcages). Marble hallways lead to cavernous rooms with high-tech lighting (which I couldn't figure out), high-thread-count sheets, and phones that rang on their own in the middle of the night. The Borgo's spa catalog ("Vair") is a study in psychobabble, with two dozen treatments getting their own names in ancient dialect ("Loma Kian") and descriptions ("..inspired by Orthobionomy"; "....will help you fall like raindrops on your reconnect to your emotions." Not cheap, eather: a manicure is nearly $100.

Okay, I'm not the target market. Unfair to complain. Point being, though, that Puglia may be the far southeastern tip of Italy, only 25 miles across the Aegean Sea from Greece and Albania, but it's thoroughly modern when it comes to upscale accommodation and luxury services.

Note: My trip to Puglia was sponsored by the Italian Travel Promotion Council in conjunction with Italy's Natonal Tourist Board.

Borgo in Puglia.JPG

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Italy Needs a New Pair of Shoes

Shoes in Bari.jpg

Italy, baby, you need a new pair of shoes. We know that, and we're doing what we can to get you some. But not these, not at those prices. Look: 145 euros is 200 dollars and change. You can't afford them on your own, and there's no way we can pay those prices to bail you out.

--Photo taken Friday night in Bari, the capital of Italy's Puglia region, where I was a guest at a symposium sponsored by the Italian Government Tourist Board and the Italian Travel Promotion Council.

Outrageous prices for shoes (and $800 or so for off-the-rack men's shoes in Rome is not unusual) would be hard to justify in the most prosperous of economies. Italy is just the latest European country to find that consumer spending is no help when the bond markets lose confidence.

One fix is to promote international tourism, especially to undervalued destinations like Puglia, the heel of the boot. Amazing art and architecture have been here for centuries, but to build five-star accommodations you need to create five-star demand, which is why the ITPC brings several hundred travel agents, tour operators and journalists to Italy every year.

These are momentous times for Italy's travel industry. We've commented before on the challenges faced by Italy, which comptetes with Spain, France, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Morocco for visitors to the Mediterranean. Then the Puglia region, little known outside Europe, which competes with the picturesque Cinque Terre, the glamorous Amalfi Coast, the art cities of Emilia-Romagna, the splendors of Florence, the glory of Venice. Doesn't help that Trenitalia just cut 30 trains a week of high-speed inter-city service to Puglia.

The question is whether the technocrat Piero Gnudi, the new minister of tourism & sports in the post-Berlusconi cabinet of Maro Monti, can do what's necessary to re-energize Italy's moribund tourism sector. His predecessor, a right-wing TV reporter ("Berlusconi bimbo") and animal-rights advocate named Michaela Vittoria Brambilla, was so tone-deaf when it came to tourism that she proposed banning the colorful Palio--run every August on the cobblestone streets of Siena--because it was "cruel" to the horses.

As an industry, tourism is made up of thousands of independent businesses, from hotel chains to private citizens who rent out their villas, from local tourist bureaus to bus companies. (Even stores that sell hiking gear to visitors.) Getting everyone to agree on a strategy and a marketing campaign is like herding cats.

So maybe Gnudi is the right guy after all. Electric utilities know what's happening on the ground level, monitor the output of every transformer at every neighborhood substation. Gnudi ran Italy's NL for a decade, so maybe he's the right man to give the system a jolt. He's not going to worry about horseshoes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Puglia: Ancient Stones, Modern Poltics

Trulli in Alberobello.jpg

Conical, slate-roofed houses called Trulli in the UNESCO world-herItage village of Alberobello. Below, an alleyway in the hilltop town of Ostuni

PUGLIA, Italy--The good news, it's safe to say, is that right-wing Berlusconi bimbo Michaela Vittoria Brambilla is no longer Italy's minister of tourism. The one-time TV reporter, known for her long legs, red hair and fiery disposition, had been roundly criticized for spending eight million euros on a useless website (, and was never able to articulate why Italy desperately needs to promote intself as a tourism destination. Some 20 years ago, in a public vote, self-satisfied Italians even voted to do away with a formal tourism agency, forgetting that vacation expenditures and taxes contributed by visitors provide essential funding for basic local nservices. Within a short time, Italy was overtaken by France as the world's most popular tourist destination, and tourism outside the Rome-Florence-Venice corridor has stagnated. Here in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, a 45-minute flight from Rome, it's mostly sun-bathing German families lying cheek by jowl along the sunny Adriatic beaches. There's hope--not a lot, but hope nonetheless--that the new guy, a 73-year-old industrial engineer without political experience named Piero Gnudi, will "get it," but Gnudi management career was running Italy's national electric utility, a classic top-down hierarchy that bears little resemblance to the "herding cats" model of international tourism. In fact, managing a state monopoly is poor preparation for the competition Italy faces in troubled economic times: it's probably the most expensive destination in the Mediterranean (compared with France, Spain, Croatia, Greece, or Turkey), although this corner of the country can at least boast that it's affordable. Compared to Tuscany, anyway.

Nichi Vendola, the popular governor of Puglia, has expressed cautious support for the new Monti administration. An earring-wearing member of the left-wing Green party, he has a wider vision than most: Puglia is a gateway to the eastern Mediterranean; its stones speak many languages, its olive trees outnumber its citizens by 12 to 1. His deputy for tourism, Silvia Godelli, speaks of the region's attractions: its light, its flavors and smells, its antiquities. But only 25,000 of Puglia's 4 million visitors are Americans; it's not an easy sell

Americans spent $80 billion on overseas vacations last year, and there isn't one who doesn't want to visit Italy (according to the polls, ideally within the next couple of years) And Italy meets the three top criteria for a foreign destination (safe, affordable, scenic). That's why Italy's national tourist board, ENIT, and the Italian Travel Promotion Council (an association of 19 American tour operators) have sponsored this symposium for travel agents: so they'll know more about Puglia and convince more of their clients to come here.

Alleyway in Ostuni.jpgAll this as prelude to the scenery.

Take Ostuni, for example. You look at the narrow streets, whitewashed walls, and bright blue sky, and you might think you're on a Greek island in the middle of the Aegian. But no, the water out there, less than five miles away, is the Adriatic. The town is called Ostuni, a fortified town in the Middle Ages atop a limestone cliff, settled since prehistoric times. The influence of Greek architecture is understandable, as are design elements from North Africa.

Half an hour away, atop the Murgia plain, you find several hundred peculiar cylindrical dwellings called Trulli, with cone-shaped roofs are built without mortar from slabs of limestone. They're not like teepees or the chimney-houses of eastern Turkey; there's a separate stack at the side to vent the kitchens. You can buy your own trullo, should you want to abide by the strict historic-preservation standards, for 100 grand. A studio in one of the white-washed buildings of Ostuny, on the other hand, runs about twice that.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Traveler's Notebook: Back in Bari

Bari Castello w Cathedral.JPG
Bari's 12 C castello, built by Frederick II, and its 15th C Romanesque cathedral

BARI, Italy--We are back in Puglia ("Apulia" in English), last visited three years ago on a wine tour, this time around for a symposium sponsored by the Italian Travel Promotion Council and ENIT (Italy's National Tourist Board). Over 200 American travel agents, two dozen tour operators and about 20 journalists from the USA are participatiing.

It's too soon to tell what priority tourism will have in the "austerity budget" to be presented later this month by the new government of Prime Minister Mario Monti (just sworn in yesterday), although the signs point distressingly toward reduction to zero. Yes, Italians have the understandable notion that the whole world already knows about its historic cultural treasures, ideal climate, great food and pleasurable lifestyle. In this they are not alone; it is a homegrown pride that is (quite often) justifiable, yet quaint and ultimately short-sighted. But tourism promotion is not a luxury.

When Washington State eliminated tourism promotion from its budget, the only audible protest came from Seattle hotelkeepers who knew that people have to be encouraged to travel to specific places. You must tell your story over and over, the marketing folks lecture you; the public is a passing parade, not a static classroom of docile fourth-graders. Tourism professionals like travel agents need constant reminders, too, ideallly in the form of field trips, to experience the uniqueness of the "product," of the destination.

And the destination here in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, is certainly attractive. Some 500 miles of pristine coastlne dotted with ancient watchtowers (to guard against invaders); historic architecture (Roman, Greek, Norman, Byzantine); modern cities like Bari, Baroque cities like Lecce, prehistoric settlements like Alberobello, limestone hilltowns like Ostuni; medieval strongholds like Castel del Monte; vast groves of olive trees, and vineyards planted with southern Italy's best full-bodied reds (Negroamaro, Primitivo and Nero di Troia).

Olive grove at Vallone.JPG
Olive grove in Puglia
Interntional tourism is a much sought-after source of income, but local officials here acknowledged only "incremental" increases of 20 percent over the past decade, which is a polite way of saying that tourism to this region is stagnant. Only 25,000 Americans visit Pugllia in the course of a year, a tiny fraction of the half-million foreigners who come. Assuming they're not daytrippers disembarking from the giant cruise ships, Americans stay an average of three nights, a full day less than most international visitors (almost 20 percent of them heat-seeking Germans). Puglia's official tourist office recommends touring by bicycle or on horseback, but the Yanks tend to occupy rooms in the best hotels..

Don't get me wrong, it's a stunning region, even without the beaches, but there's a campanilismo here, a short-sighted, provincial, shoulder-shrugging attitude, that seems to undervalue the surprisingly broad cultural heritage.

Welcoming the delegates, Mauro Galli, the ITPC president, pointed out that Puglia is at least 30 percent less expensive than the rest of Italy, especially compared to the strasopheric prices of hotels in Venice or Florence. Whether the price advantage alone will draw American travelers is far from clear.

Street scene in Old Bari.JPG
Street scene in Old Bari
For Americans to visit Puglia, they first have to select Italy over France, Spain, Greece or Croatia (to name just four competing Mediterranean destinations). Then Puglia competes with the trinity of Rome-Florence-Venice, not to mention the romance of a villa in Tuscany or a cooking class on the Amalfi Coast. So it's not a stop for first-time visitors to Italy.

Puglia's capital, Bari, is a vibrant, modern Italian city, as big as Portland, Ore., with a pedestrians-only old town (narrow streets with washing hanging from the balconies), a busy harbor (shipping to Mediterranean ports, cruise ships, car ferries across the Adriatic) and imposing Mussolini-era buildings along the waterfront. The palazzo housing its Chamber of Commerce may not have wi-fi (for shame, for shame), but the city does have a dozen shared-bicycle stations and a stunning Romanesque basilica. And Puglia boasts a coastline that's every bit as long and varied as Florida's. It's embarrassing, frankly, that Americans haven't discovered this wonderful land.

So much for the first day; there's more to come. More seminars and site visits, more pictures, too.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Just a Small-Town White in a Red Wine World

vino_bianco.jpgFRIULI, Italy--It hasn't been tried before, an international summit like this on the opportunities and challenges facing the country's best white wines. We're not talking about the bulk pinot grigio, you understand, but the most prestigious wines from this region in the northeast corner of Italy, on the border with Slovenia). The daylong conference was organized by the Collio wine producers, and drew a good crowd of local winemakers, consultants, marketers, importers, exporters and restaurateurs, along with a dozen or more journalists. The panels--once the public and industry officials made the obligatory welcome speeches--talked about technical issues in the morning and marketing in the afternoon. 

The challenge was expressed by a grower who didn't attend. Edi Keber, whom I called the "Commoner-King of Collio" in a post last year, looked out from his winery this morning and surveyed the landscape, where vineyards and whitewashed houses share the sun-drenched hills, where Italy blends into Slovenia without so much as a border fence. "I could make and sell 50,000 bottles of pinot grigio here, but I would betray my heritage. What grows here is unique. Several varieties, but one wine." It's as if the very blend were a single grape variety. Nobody much cares that Bordeaux grows half a dozen red grapes, Keber points out. The same here. "One wine, and it is virtually autochtonous. It is Collio."

Collio vineyards.JPGItaly exports four billion euros worth of wine every year, more than any country, but less than two percent of that comes from this region, formally known as Friuli Venezia Giulia. FVG wines are nationally acclaimed as excellent, everyone agrees, but they don't have a coherent story to tell the export markets.

Prof. Francesco Venier.JPGFrancesco Venier, professor of business administration at the University of Trieste, points to FVG's grab bag of appellations and grape varieties, which end up with some 168 varieties and protected denominations spread over 25,000 acres. Collio, for all its efforts, is one small appellation but allows almost a dozen varieties and blends--all white--to carry the name. Venier urged the wine makers and government officials to develop a more coordinated and efficient system of leadership ("Cluster Governance") that would permit more flexibility and encourage more innovation. 

The marketing sessions drew plenty of attention, ranging from specifics (using gel packs instead of refrigerated containers, for example) to broad advice regarding Asian and American markets.

Becky Sue Epstein writes, Paul Wagner tastes.JPG"Making good wine isn't enough," said Paul Wagner of Napa-based Balzac Communications, who participated by videoconference from the US. The competition is overwhelming and the sales people are overwhelmed. A single distributor can carry more than 5,000 wines; Wine Spectator gave 90+ scores to nearly a thousand Italian wines. "So you need more than a good wine," Wagner told the audience, "you need a good story."

And because of the message-killing inefficiencies of the three-tier wine distribution system, wine makers need to tell that story themselves.

Less than a quarter of all Americans even drink wine (about the same percentage as own passports), Wagner pointed out. Americans do their "traveling" by going to the movies or drinking imported bottles in restaurants. They want to fall in love with their wine, yet most wine marketing is based on the false notion that Americans want wine education: enology (barrels), chemistry (fermentation) or geology (soil structure).

Wrong! says Wagner. This may work in emerging Asian markets, but to sell in the United States, you need to sell the romance of travel, sell the romance of wine. Sell the story of vineyards on sunny, foreign hilllsides; sell the story of a wine maker walking through those vineyards, touching his grapes. Sell the story of nonna's recipe for homemade pasta and the family dinners enlivened by a special bottle. It's not about facts, it's about feelings.

Antonio Galloni, the Italian correspondent for Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, agreedd that more work is needed to create an identity for wine from Friuli. "The sommeliers in New York restaurants are young, they have no wine prejudices and are happy to become ambassadors for serious white wnes along with the appeal of Italy's la dolce vita lifestyle.

Patricia Felluga, president of the Collio-Carso consortium, would certainly agree. "We need tourism," she said. The winery she owns, Zuani, is adjacent its own, wine-centered restaurant, Luka, to attract visitors. (In Napa, Wagner pointed out, a single winery sells one million bottles of wine at full retail to passers-by.)

Josko Sirk.JPGJosko Sirk, who owns Al Cacciatore della Subida, the region's best restaurant, sees a solution: the world's first bi-national appellation, a DOC that would include most of the Italian state of Friuli Venezia Giulia along with the vineyards of Brda, on the Slovenian side of the border. "They work well, they are serious, their wines are good," says Sirk. "And the publicity for Collio would be fantastic."

There's no doubt that the wines of Collio and FVG could use a stronger identity outside Italy. Only one winery (so far) has its own sales rep in China, where only ten percent of wine sales are white wine. Burgundy and Bordeaux do well in China, as long as it's their reds. New Zealand's sauvignon blanc is making inroads; its bouquet is aromatic and fresh. German Rieslings, well known and appreciated. Premium white from Italy? Yes, as it becomes more famous, and comes with a unified story: "The future is white."

It's all very well for the locals to be self-congratulatory about the excellence of their wines, but they need to do more for the gorgeous lady in the silvery-gold lamé dress, whose delights they're praising. Right now, she's standing all by herself in the corner, ready to strut her stuff. She needs to step into the spotlight, she needs to be invited to dance. The world is waiting.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Berlusconi Resigns, Sort Of

ROME--Tuesday night, after a dramatic rainstorm, the dome of St. Peter's glowed with an almost palable, paternal benevolence over the Eternal City. It wasn't quite bright enough for the TV correspondents doing live shots in front of the Quirinale Palace, of course, but their breathless reports were strangely reassuring: after 17 years at the helm of Italy's government, Silvio Berlusconi had finally announced that he would step down, and the Prime Minister would have to come to Quirinale to deliver his resignation to the President of the Republc.

It didn't happen. What Berlusconi promised wasn't exactly a resignation, and the message wasn't quite clear enough. Berlusconi lost a critical coalition partner earlier this week, then lost a procedural vote yesterday in Parliament relating to Italy's debt crisis. It looked like he would suffer the same fate that befell the Greece's George Papandreou just last week.

The obituaries were already being written: in the end, it wasn't the sexual escapades that brought Berlusconi down, it wasn't the street protests, it wasn't even the loss of political allies. Rather, it was the same thing that brought down Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns: the financial markets, which care nothing about sex or politics. Once the yield on bonds for Italy's sovereign debt came close to seven percent, Berlusconi lost his remaining support.

The markets responded this morning to the non-resignation with renewed ferocity and even higher interest rates (what is referred to here as "lo spread"). The drama is being measured in hours.

Italians as a whole are both self-indulgent (those shoes! those scarves!) and self-deprecating, by turns passionate and indifferent, but they are always keenly aware of image. That their head of government was seen by much of the world as a swaggering sex clown was, for a time, not so bad. When the Amanda Knox case eventually become an national embarrassment, they just sent her home. Berlusconi's embarrassing antics finally ran into the roadblock of international finance.

The markets were may not reassured this week, no doubt because Berlusconi has slipped through a number of crises in the past. But most observers think his time is finally up. Rome's newspapers reported this morning that Berlusconi had promised President Giorgio Napolitano that he would not run for re-election in February and would step down before then, as soon as an austerity package is approved. The nature of the package and its timing have yet to be revealed.

"I am personally delighted," said Michele Napoli, national sales director for FilmAuro, the distribution arm of the Dino De Laurentiis film studios. "The trouble is it didn't happen soon enough." Napoli's sentiments reflect conversations I overheard in cafes around Rome today. If you want a Big Mac, it's $8 at Mickey D's, by the way.

The question, from an American perspective, might well be, "what took so long?" But this is a profoundly conservative country (occasional forays into liberal politics aside). Everywhere you go, from the Roman Forum to the Sicilian countryside, you are surrounded by "old stones," by the monuments of antiquity and stones that have been in place for centuries. In Seattle, we're lucky to see a totem pole, but in Rome you drive past the actual Colosseo (and gas costs $8.50 a gallon in Europe). Even the manhole covers in Rome are emblazoned with the motto of the Roman Empire, SPQR. There's a literal weight to history that can't be ignored, change doesn't come easily.

No matter how long--hours or days--the prime minister manages to hang on, tough times lie ahead for Italy, but the countenance of St. Peter's will no longer shine on Silvio Berlusconi.

UPDATE, Sunday, Nov. 13th: Mission Accomplished!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Down on the Farm, It Really Is Farm-Fresh

Borgoluce farm w San Salvatore castle.JPG
Castello San Salvatore tops the village of Susegana, overlooking the Borgoluce estate

SUSEGANA, Italy--Call it "Field-to-Plate" or "Farm-to-Fork," it's a literal KM-0 meal, kilometer zero.

You can only do this when you're actually having lunch and dinner on the farm, eating what comes out of the ground, off the fields, and from the livestock. You don't feel guilty wasting the planet's resources because these two related farms, Collalto and Bertoluce, here in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, produce literally everything they serve: flour for bread and pasta, vegetables, meat, cheese, chestnuts, even the power needed to keep the lights on. (An earlier post describes the biomass co-generation process, which literally turns a daily ton of buffalo dung into a daily megawatt of power.) The properties have been in the Collalto family for literally a thousand years, part of a princely estate based at the Castello San Salvatore that dominates the adjacent village of Susanega.

The family's most recent leader, Prince Manfredo di Collalto, by all accounts a brilliant diplomat, instilled in his five daughters a spirit of humble yet forward-looking stewardship that has kept the 4,000-acre farm intact and prosperous. (All of King County has only 50,000 acres of farmland, spread between 1,800 properties, less than 30 acres apiece.) Where others might have sold off acreage to restore the family castle, say, Collalto has remained intact. In fact, it is a model of a vertically integrated farm, with wood chips from its forests used for fuel; grapes from its vineyards used for the region's prestigious Prosecco di Conegliano DOCG; herds of pigs and beef; butchering and cheese-making operations; mushrooms, chestnuts, walnuts, all from this Garden of Venice.

Prince Manfredo died prematureily in 2004, leaving the estate to his widow, Princess Maria de la Trinidad di Collalto, Castillo y Moreno and their five daughters. The Collalto estate is run by Maria's oldest daughter Isabella, who gave up a career in international relations with the European Union to assume hands-on management. The Bertoluce property is run by LOdovico Giustiniani, husband of the youngest daughter and an agronomist by training (and with a noble heritage of his own; one of his ancestors held the title of Doge of Venice). It's clearly an enterprise that occupies the entire family.

Mozzarella di Bufala.JPGSo what's for dinner? We start with a rich "cappuccino" of chestnuts, two swallows and it's gone. Then some mozzarella di bufala, stuffed with an anchovy, breaded with polenta and quickly fried. It has a superb delicacy and a chewy, elastic texture. Then a pumpkin soup enriched with a dollop of ricotta, followed by a pork tenderloin with chestnuts, and, finally, a typical local dessert, invented in Treviso in the 1960s, tiramisù.

"We did't want to bring the so-called industrial model to agriculture," Giustiniani tells me. "Instead, we intend to maintain the diversity of this property. With everything we do here, we communicate the landscape and respect the earth."

Stuffed buffalo mozzarella.JPGHow exactly does one "communicate the landscape"? Well, with farmhouse dinners like this, for example. Within the next year, Bertoluce will open its own Locanda, or country restaurant, and will serve meals like this to the general public for an all-inclusive price (wine, taxes, service) for $40 to $50. It's not big-city haute cuisine, of course, but healthy and hearty, astonishingly fresh, and incredibly tasty.

The only holdup: running upgraded electric service into the ancient stone building which will house the Locanda. The public utility--the same outfit that buys a megawatt of power a day from Bertoluce's biomass co-generation plant --has given its approval. And because Bertoluce is reliable supplier and a solid citizen, the Italian bureaucracy promised to expedite the installation of the new power lines "within the next 12 months."

Can anything be done to nudge the bureaucracy and speed up the locanda's construction? Giustiniani is far too polished a diplomat to divulge his strategy. But it doesn't hurt that the farm is one of the most popular shopping destinations in the area, with a steady stream of cars pulling up in front of Borgoluce's farmhouse store to buy cryovac cuts of pork and beef (everything from traditional steaks and chops to organ meats), bottles of prosecco, flour, nuts, and the semingly endless styles of cheese from that dairy herd of buffalo.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Buffalo Dung Keeps the Lights On

You're looking at a herd of 200 water buffalo on a remarkable property in the hills north of Venice. The best vineyards for sparkling wine are just up the road, at Conegliano, in the region known as Prosecco DOCG. The Collalto family have 215 hectares of vines (over 500 acres) planted mostly to the prolific Glera grapes, part of a much larger diversified operation known as Borgoluce, and open to the public as a "didactic" or educational farm.

More about the farm and the family in future posts. First, though, let's look at the buffalo. Like all female bovines, buffalos give milk. A particularly desirable milk, for its rich flavors and high fat content, yet these curious, friendly beasts are not particularly generous. Compared with a standard dairy cow that gives some 9 gallons of milk a day, you're lucky to get the stingy water buffalo to produce a quarter of that. But what milk! And what cheese you can wring from that milk, the world-famous mozzarella di bufala. A ball of fresh cheese sells for the equivalent of $9 a pound at the farmhouse shop, twice that in stores. In the US, restaurants and cheesemongers have shipments flown in directly from Italy and charge a small fortune. The official DOP Mozzarella di Bufala zone is actually in Campania, the region of Naples, but there have long been herds of cheese-producing buffalo in the north as well, here in the rolling hills of the Veneto.

The animals are fed grain and hay grown on the property, which, in addition to vines, includes woods, pasture, row crops, a pig farm, walnut trees, and a variety of grains, and several buildings with bedrooms for paying guests. (There's a fabulous castle as well, San Salvatore, in the village of Susgana.) It's a vast property, almost 4,000 acres altogether.

Each thousand-pound animal, having contentedly munched all day, does what animals do: poop. Bovines generally poop about ten percent of their body weight every day, which means there's a lot of buffalo crap for the farm to deal with. A ton or so every day, in fact.

The waste is scraped into enormous tanks, mixed with silage from nearby fields (like corn husks) and pumped into giant cone-shaped digesters. The sludge produces methane gas, which in turn is converted (by an Austrian co-generating machine that runs 24 hours a day) into electricity. A full megawatt every day. The farm only needs five percent of that megawatt to run every piece of equipment on the farm, so it sells the surplus to the government-run electric utility. It's enough surplus power to supply 250 homes.

Under a European Union mandate to produce more energy from renewable sources the utility pays Collalta twice the going rate of 14 cents per kilowatt hour. It's not a boondoggle; Collalta's managers figure they spend 18 to 20 cents to produce one KWH. Even so, they're still making a nice profit by doing the right thing. That is, the buffalo are doing the right thing, the only thing they can do. And we get to turn the lights on.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad.

Location:Conegliano, Italy

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Living a Doge's Life in Venice

VENICE--If home is the Palazzo Loredan dell'Ambasciatore on the Grand Canal, it's like having a penthouse on Park Avenue or a villa in Tuscany. Can't beat the view, great for parties, but a lot of upkeep.

Roll back the clock 350 years or so, Francesco Loredan, the doge of Venice at the time, offers this palazzo rent-free to the newly named ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire, in exchange for what were termed "extensive renovations." (Hence its current name, Palazzo Loredan d'Ambasciatore.) The owner today is Filippo Gaggia, and he has found a lively business opportunity in renovating and renting out luxury lodgings throughout La Serenissima.

Salon on piano nobile.JPGGaggia's company, Views on Venice, offers more than 70 properties, from a studio to a piano nobile (the elegant "main floor" above the waterside entrance) to an entire palazzo. Luxury can be rented at the great hotels of Venice, of course (the Danieli, the Gritti Palace, the Bauer, the Europa,the Cipriani, and so on), many of which may have started out as private palazzi but have long since been overhauled  Gaggia's princely accommodations were not only designed for princes, the princes and their families are still living in the private family quarters of many of the palaces and renting out a few elegant salons. (That's a salon in Gaggia's own palazzo in the photo.)

There's no Trump Tower in Venice, no real estate on which a developer could build so much as a Motel 6, which explains the stratospheric prices of five-star hotel rooms as well as the glut of 3,000-passenger cruise ships that tie up at Tronchetto, just off the Piazzale Roma, and disgorge their budget-vacation daytrippers into the souvenir shops along the Rialto Bridge.

There's a certain advantage to the relative anonymity of a luxury hotel, just as there's an advantage to the privacy of a rented palazzo. It's not much of an issue if you can afford it: a suite at the Danielli with a view of the lagoon is $3,000 a night in high season. Even with a staff, the palazzo's not going to be as costly, and you get to bring your entire entourage.

Our introduction to the Palazzo Loredan was courtesy of Marco Giol, whose Private Luxury Accommodation Network recently hosted a workshop in Venice for international tour operators.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Enrica Cooks Venetian

VENICE--Enrica Rocca, native of Venice, resident of London, returns to her handsomely appointed loft in the Dorsoduro and gives cooking pointers to paying guests. "The recipe," she says offhandedly, "is a modern concept."

Is this serious advice or another example of the Italian gift for stylish improvisation? "Just put good things in, good things will come out," she continues. Were this truly the case, she'd be out of work. But she continues: "The ingredient most often lacking is common sense."

And there, in a nutshell, is the reason for cookbooks, for the popularity of TV cooking shows and glamorous cooking-school vacations (a business I've got a stake in, truth be told): a lack, not just of common sense but of confidence.

We're in what used to be the laundry of her family palazzo, a short walk from the Accademia bridge. A butler in a tuxedo pours prosecco while Enrica and a couple of volunteers help with the risotto. Carnaroli, not arborio rice, two to three ounces per person. Put the porcini mushrooms in first, so their flavor penetrates the rice. Use stock made from prawn heads, where the flavor is. Add the prawns themselves at the last minute so they don't overcook. Stir in some wild mint and lemon zest, along with a touch of heavy cream, and let the risotto stand, covered, for five minutes before serving. We sit on stools covered with the hides of springboks, dyed bright orange, and the prosecco gives way to a Soave.

Karen Herbst w Marco Giol.JPG
We--a coterie of international tour operators--been invited to this impromptu dinner as part of a travel project called PLANETT, Private Luxury Accommodation Network, designed by Marco Giol (the very well-connected man with the motor launch described in this post) to showcase the very best of a private, hidden Venice that most tourists will never see:. a private palazzo on the Grand Canal, a private castello in the vineyards, that sort of thing.

Enrica worries about culinary programs that promsie to teach "how to cook" in one day. ("Pretentious bullshit.") Instead, four basics: qualty ingredients, take the time to shop, read the labels, and remember that the very act of eating is fundamental. Then go fot it. "And if you fuck it up, that's what takeout is for."

Top: Enrica Rocca checks the risotto. above, Marco Giol with Karen Herbst of The International Kitchen.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Italy in Mind

Sunday lunch at a farmhouse in the countryside 90 minutes southeast of Rome. It's almost a cliché, a scene you've watched in countless movies; just close your eyes and imagine the scene.

There are long tables under a pergola, there is sunshine, there is a medieval hilltop village in the distance. There is music (a gent playing a rustic bagpipe called zampogna), there is the cheerful sound of children playing soccer, there is wine, and, of course, there is food. A seemingly endless procession of food!

Assorted antipasto plates to start: slices of prosciutto and coppa, fresh ricotta, an older ricotta salata, home-baked bread, roasted peppers, a frittata, a potato salad, grilled eggplant, bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, bruschetta with arugula and cheese, cannellini beans...I confess to losing track.

Then comes pasta. Pacchetti (wide noodles stuffed with cheese, baked in the oven), strozzapreti amatriciana (thick noodles--priest stranglers--in a tomato sauce with guanciale, pork jowl), oricchietti (shell-shaped pasta) with artichoke hearts.

Then a couple of local specialties, braised goat (utterly delicious) and lumache, snails in tomato sauce (you pull the meat out with a toothpick).

Finally, some cookies for dessert. This was at an agriturismo (farmhouse inn, two guest rooms and a restaurant that uses almost exclusively the production of its own land) called Il Rusponte.

The price for the feast, which included a carafe of house red and a shot of house-made grappa with the coffee, all served by cheerful waitresses, was 35 euros per person (about $50), everything included. If you'd had a similar meal in a big-city restaurant, you'd pay three or four times as much.

The zampogna guy, on the other hand, was freelance. He showed up and played for the fun of it, then passed around his hat. Wake up? Surprise, you were awake the whole time!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Harvest Dinner in Italy

Seems like everybody's opening a restaurant this month in Seattle, and everybody who's already got a restaurant is promoting a harvest dinner. You want a real harvest dinner? Try this: a seven-course game, truffle & mushroom feast.

What's the big deal, you might ask? Well, here's the translation:
  • crostini with mushroom & game pâté
  • egg & parmesan flan with black truffles
  • pasta with more truffles
  • risotto with porcini
  • roast suckling pig with forest mushrooms
  • wild strawberry tart
  • coffee with homemade liqueurs. 
The price: 30 euros (about $40, tax, tip and five wines included).

It's being held at the restaurant of a working farm, the Borgo del Riso, in the fertile Po River Valley 20 miles outside Bologna. Might be too late to get there this season, unless you don't mind shelling out two grand in last-minute airfares, but the rooms are only $65 a night once you arrive. And there's a lot to see nearby: the gorgeous "art cities" of Emilia-Romagna, Parmigiano dairies, Prosciutto farms, and one of the world's largest radio telescopes.

Some of those sights below, from a trip with the Italian Tourism Promotion Council back in 2006.

Me, I'm actually going to this one in Lazio, a cooking school called Casa Gregorio, an hour outside of Rome, next week. Promise to keep you posted.

Wheel of Parmigiano cheese
Baptistry ceiling in Bologna

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Historic gnocchi at Festa Italiana

Two strands to this story. One is current, Rossella Rago's "Cooking With Nonna" website and TV show. The other is historic, involving Sicily and Garibaldi.

Garibaldi is a hero in Italy, the military commander who, in 1861, "unified" the 20 regions of Italy and helped create the modern state. He's especially beloved in Sicily, for it was a single victory at the western port city of Marsala that made his reputation.

The strands came together this afternoon, when Enza Sorrentino, a native of Marsala, took the stage at the annual Festa Italiana at Seattle Center and prepared red, white and green gnocchi, the colors of the Italian flag.

Her restaurant on Queen Anne, Enza Cucina Siciliana, had come to the attention of Rossella, whose real mother and grandmother had helped her win an episode of the Food Network's "24 Hour Restaurant Battle" earlier this year. So Rossella made Enza, who has five grandchildren of her own, her honorary nonna of the day.

So there we have it: potato gnocchi rolled out, flavored and cooked in the space of half an hour.

The most remarkable thing may be that Rossella is only 23. She has poise and wit, charm and an unflappable stage presence, and, even more appealing, a profound respect for the wisdom of grandmothers everywhere. We're going to see a lot more of her.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Sandwich, Your Sandwich

There's a sandwich shop in Manhattan called Pane Panelle, and their signature sandwich, a bun stuffed with chickpea fritters, is the one that inspired the name of this blog.

We know that there's more to sandwiches than ham on rye, more than even the fanciest, shmanciest burger. (In case we forgot, the Wall Street Journal this morning had a terrific reminder of great sandwiches around the country.) The street food of Sicily, or Vietnam, even a  New Orleans po'boy: that's where the flavor is.

The sandwich in the picture? From a vendor in the Vucceria market of Palermo, Sicily. It's spleen. Like all organ meats, full of goodness.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mollusks of the Mediterranean

An informal group of Seattle restaurants was again promoting wild Alaska salmon from Bristol Bay earlier this month, with the argument that eating salmon is the best way to protect the endangered salmon runs. Similarly, eating local shellfish in the Mediterranean provides a reliable demand for the shellfish growers.

Venetians shopping at the city's main fish market
VENICE--The Mediterranean Sea -- under a million square miles, barely a mile deep -- is tiny compared to the world's great oceans. (The mighty Pacific is 65 times as vast, three times as deep.) It's as placid as a big lake, teeming with aquatic life -- 250 species of shellfish alone.

Along the Mediterranean coast of France, boats set out nightly to catch rockfish and eels for the local bouillabaisse, while oysters grow on the rocky reefs west of Marseille. Along the coast of Sicily, they go for prize swordfish, bluefin tuna, grouper, anglerfish, mullet, and sardines. Octopus and cuttlefish are everywhere. And in the northern Adriatic, where the Mediterranean dead-ends between the east coast of Italy and the west coast of Slovenia and Croatia, there's a thriving business cultivating shellfish (mussels, clams, oysters, scallops), especially in the shallow lagoons between Venice and Trieste.

Aurelio Zentilin.JPGWith a PhD in marine biology, Trieste-based Aurelio Zentilin runs the marketing arm of a thriving shellfish cooperative and writes an entertaining blog about mollusks. Fluent in Italian and French, he also hosts a YouTube series titled "Mollusk TV" that provides down-to-earth advice on selecting and cooking shellfish. Restaurant professionals regularly invite him to their gatherings, where he willingly shares his expertise and his recipes.

So let's start, as does Zentilin, at the retail fish markets of the Adriatic. The most active is in Venice: The Pescharia (officially known as il Mercato del Pesce al Minuto) on the Grand Canal, which has sheltered dozens of fishmongers in a red brick hangar alongside the Rialto bridge for centuries. If you find tourists here, they're snapping pictures of Venetians buying dinner. Caught in the surrounding waters: Squid, sardines, sea snails, and those shrimp-like creatures called canoce that Cornichon wrote about earlier in the year.

Razor clams at 40 Ladroni
Where to go for the freshest shellfish? We told you about one spot, the Antiche Carampane, this summer. Here's another: the Osteria ai 40 Ladroni (40 Thieves), on a quiet canal of the Cannaregio. To get there, you first cross the Campo del Ghetto. That would be the original Ghetto, or slag-heap, considered the least desirable spot to live in Venice, all bright and shiny these days with a Jewish museum. Keep going. The spot you're headed for, on the Fondamenta della Sensa, is sought-after by locals because it's well outside the San Marco-Rialto-Academmia tourist triangle and serves dazzlingly fresh seafood.

Pay no heed to the tourist comments on TripAdvisor and similar sites. They'll never be happy unless it's cheap and deep-fried; the worthwhile comments are in Italian ("A chi piace il pesce e la cucina casalinga questo è un posto assolutamente da provare, noi non vediamo l'ora di ritornare!" which translates to, "If you like home cooking this is a spot you must try; we can't wait to return.") Shrimp with polenta, a perfect scallop in its shell, calamari, a sublime cod fritter, the sweetest razor clams imaginable. Not a tourist trap, for sure.

Risotto with Mussels at Terra & Laguna
And one more spot, Zentilin's own favorite spot, Terra e Laguna. It's in Aquileia, a Roman crossroads that was once the second most important port in Italy. (Pope Benedict XVI stopped by to celebrate Mass in Aquileia's historic basilica six months ago.) Local white wines -- Riesling, Pinot Grigio -- are served slightly frizzante (tingling), as is customary. The clams and scallops are served raw; even the branzino from local waters comes out sashimi-style, dressed only with strawberries. Risotto with mussels and black rice is served cold.

The Adriatic, by the way, is the same temperature as Puget Sound, and a single mature mussel, Zentilin reminds me, filters 21 liters of 14-degree water a day -- over five gallons. Farmed shellfish, he's convinced, are the key to healthy waters, since they eat the same thing as shellfish in the wild. Compare that to farmed fin-fish, whose feed has to be imported, and whose waste has to be disposed of. And Zentilin's shellfish cooperative has the full support of the local government.

"There's a mutually beneficial relationship here between our shellfish industry and tourism," he says. Not American tourists, necessarily, but Germans above all. It's just a 300-mile hop across the Alps from Munich to the warm-water playground of the Adriatic, and Germans love mollusks.

Osteria Ai 40 Ladroni, Cannaregio 3253 (Fondamenta della Sensa), Venice, Italy (39) 041 715736
Terra e Laguna, via Minut 1, Aquileia, Italy (39) 0431 919444

Monday, September 12, 2011

Allegrini's Single-Vineyard Valpollicella

Allegrini's Palazzo della Torre outside Verona
The Allegrini family owns a splendid hilltop property outside of Vernoa, in the Valpolicella region of northern Italy, whose pergola-trained vineyards are planted mostly to Corvina grapes. On the flatlands, Valpolicella wines are light and acceptable for everyday drinking; it's on the hills that they have the potential for more character. Allegrini produces its best wines here: Amarone, using the traditional ripasso method, and a 65-acre, single-vineyard Valpolicella named for the estate's Renaissance villa, Palazzo Della Torre. About a third of the harvest isn't fermented right away but is kept aside until January, when the dried and highly concentrated grapes are added to the new wine and fermented again. The resulting wine is aged for 15 months in small casks.

As it happens, we saw this "passito" technique used in Emilia Romagna when we visited Italy in the fall of 2008. Here's what the grapes looked like, on the right.

You could think of the Allegrini wine, which retails for about $20 in Washington, as a "Baby Amarone." But it's a serious bottle on its own, as the winery's Marilisa Allegrini demonstrated at a culinary event this week. It was called "Cookoff for a Cause," and featured three chefs competing for their favorite charity.
  • Sabrina Tinsley of La Spiga (where the event was held) prepared a duck breast stuffed with prosciutto and Parmigianno-Reggiano.
  • Emran Chowdhury of Cantinetta wowed the guests (well, me, especially) with his braised oxtail and ethereal ricotta gnudi (dumplings).
  • Mauirizio Milazzo of Barolo won the top prize ($5,000, for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) with a rabbit meatball braised in red wine.

Chowdhury, Allegrini, Milaszzo, Tinsley

More pictures, including the dishes, in the album. Thanks to Joe Kennedy for the camera!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Aperitivi and More at Artusi

Guests at Artusi
A year ago, I wrote features for both Crosscut and Cornichon about the ethereal, hand-cut pasta served at Jason Stratton's three-year-old, 30-seat Capitol Hill storefront, Cascina Spinasse. Since then he's doubled the size of the place and appended an entirely new venture, an Italian aperitivo bar called Artusi, where he continues to demonstrate levels of creativity and techinical prowess unique in Seattle.

Artusi occupies a quiet, signless corner at 14th and Pine. It has a high ceiling, a concrete floor, a neutral gray color scheme with bright yellow accent tiles and hand-rolled paper lampshades. There's seating for a total of 50 at two bars (one at the cooking station, one for cocktails) and a string of tables for two overlooking the sidewalk. The place is named for Pellegrino Artusi, a northern Italian silk merchant who wrote Italy's first post-unification cookbook ("The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well"), wildly popular in Italy at the end of the 19th century and only available in English since 1997.

Borlotti beans with egg
The concept is for folks to come into Artusi for a drink at one of the counters, a cocktail or maybe a glass or two of wine, maybe a stuzzatino (snack) of fried capers ($3) or a crisp semolina wafer with fresh ricotta ($6), then meander over to Spinasse when their table was ready. They way you would in Italy. An aperitivo and a bite in a caffè or bar, then dinner somewhere else. And some folks, to be sure, do just that. But no sooner do you think that Seattle gets it, gets the Italian lifestyle, than you learn that many more folks don't want to leave for dinner at all.

Gulp! Seattle wants more: bigger portions, more full-meal options. Sheesh! But Stratton's not a dogmatic chef, he's the soul of attentiveness to what his customers want . (Helps that he's got a great staff of business professionals working with him.) So dinner-size portions it is.

Bobby Palmquist
Which brings us to Stratton's dilemma. Can't put handmade pasta on the menu at Artusi, that's cannibalizing his own specialty. So instead he's doing some remarkable dishes that can be prepped in the Spinasse kitchen and finished on the induction cooktop at Artusi: duck leg with prunes ($15), lamb braised with olives ($16), and the single best dish I've had in months: tripe with bone marrow and local black truffles ($16).

A lot of people, needless to say, have negative experiences (or negative expectations) about tripe.
"There's something deeply satisfying about taking such an overlooked and even off-putting ingredient and transforming it into something delicious and tender," Stratton tells me. "I've had many guests be surprised at how much they like it."

Tripe with bone marrow & black truffles
Beginning to end, the tripe dish is a three day process. First, Stratton's crew blanches honeycomb tripe (from Nicky USA, a specialty purveyor in Portland) in a vinegary poaching liquid with white wine onions, garlic and spices. The pot goes on a very low simmer for about an hour, with a cook standing by to skim off the scum as it rises to the surface.

Most of the "funk" contained in tripe lies in the fat, and poaching helps render it. After the tripe is chilled, the honeycombs are scraped with a spoon to remove the rest of the fat residing in the folds and near the valves of the stomach. Then it's cut into thin strips.

Meanwhile the cooks prepare a brodo, a meat broth that begins with a soffrito of finely diced carrot, celery, onion, garlic, chopped rosemary and a little sage, pancetta and prosciutto rind. After it caramelizes and gets deglazed with white wine, the trips is added back and simmered for another three hours. When it's done, the brodo is thick and stew-like.

Stratton's line cook (Bobby Palmquist on a recent evening) finishes the dish with a slice of grilled bread, julienned black truffles from Oregon (sourced by Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found), and discs of bone marrow (from Silvies Valley Ranch), seared in a hot pan and added at the last minute.

"This is sort of a Northwest ode to cooking tripe in the style of Piedmont, where bone marrow is often used to enrich tripe dishes," Stratton explains. In any event, the tripe is rich and flavorful, with the texture of sliced mushrooms. The best wine? Schiopettino from Friuli, Primitivo from Puglia, Negroamaro from Siciliy, Canonau from Sardinia, Barbera from Piedmont. It's really a dish that transcends wine.

Artusi, 1535 14th Avenue, Seattle, 206-251-7673