Saturday 27 February 2010

Bologna, Italy: Gluttonous Travels (Part 2) - Food Shops & Ristorante Diana: A Bounty of Hams, Cheeses, Tortellini in Brodo & Boiled Meat Trolleys

So, we finished up at our newly beloved Zanarini. The Peanut Gallery somehow managed to restrain me from sampling my 2nd bombolone before 10am, and guided me onwards into the bustling streets of Bologna. There's that furtive sense of it being market morning in a food obsessed town.

After some serious fashion/shopping deliberations in a selection of the local boutiques - Will studded black handbag and matching ballet slippers transcribe back in London? (for the record, no). Just how many black, wrap around cardies is too many? And how will TPG try to justify buying another pair of Seinfeld-esque white trainers? - we find our way to the pulsing heart of Bologna's hive of amazing food shops.

Tamburini (Via Caprarie 1, Bologna - pictured above) seems to be the most famous of them all. We stumble upon it, mouths agape in awe, even before we see the signage indicating its the place we've been looking for. Fresh, handmade pastas - gnocchi, tortellini, ravioli, papardelle - are beautifully displayed in the window (and are made fresh every day), large hams hang seductively from the ceilings, and an army of cheeses stand firmly at attention or ooze alluringly at the counter in turn. There's olive oils and balsamic vinegar (Modena is only half an hour away) and a deli serving up colourful bites to eat in or take away. The delectable smell of cured meats, cheese and sauces mingle and dance through the doorway, drawing us in off the street to browse, pick and scheme about how to get all this stuff home.

Tamburini is said to be a great place to try the local Parmigiano-Reggiano. The displays are beautiful, and there's a deli at the back where you can sit in to sample a quick bite on your travels. You could also try it for an apertivo at night.



But there are dozens of places like this (mainly around the cluster of streets surrounding Tamburini). One after the next beckons us in to admire and fawn. One of the coolest would have to be Simoni (pictured above) where locals line up to barter enthusiastically for their daily take of salamis and cheeses. Aside from the glorious delicatessans, this area is a great little hub to watch as the locals barter at stalls for the fruits, vegetables, fish and meats. Other big name gastronomes like Paolo Atti & Figli (via Caprarie, 7 - pictured below) with their beautifully presented pastas, cakes, panettone and breads, are also nearby.

(Above & below: Paolo Atti & Figli)

(Locals stocking up on fresh fish)

Next door to Simoni is a totally old school horse butcher, doing a quieter trade. But we love its style.

All this window shopping soon gets our appetites going, and we amble our way to secure our place among the well dressed Italians (and American tourists) at an institution of Bologna's dining scene, Ristorante Diana.

Ristorante Diana

Ristorante Diana is one of the better known restaurants in Bologna. Positioned pertly on the grand Via Dell Indipendenza, a main thoroughfare to the city's hub at the Piazza Maggiore, it is classic, elegant and - as you would expect - more formal than a lunch time trattoria. A fair bit of hairspray has gone to work on the clientele here, women and men alike.

Although there's a family of tourists sitting near us, this is a proper restaurant frequented by local Italians - and although it's not overly expensive, perhaps because of the slight formality, they seem to be those who are either monied up or celebrating special occasions. The plain wooden floor boards, white walls and attractive bright orange curtains lead one to suspect this place is not about to tizzy itself up for the tourists - it's there to serve up unadulterated local classics to a crowd who will understand them. I'm more than willing to give it a burl - especially as it's only a few doors up from our hotel.

Incidentally, on my return to London, I read an interview with Mario Batali (chef at one of my favourite Italian restaurants in New York, Babbo earlier reviewed here) who cites Bologna as his favourite city in Italy (he visits 2 or 3 times a year) and Diana as his favourite restaurant there. If we had known they do a lasagne there "that will bring you to tears", we might just have had to add on an extra course. Next time...

In any case, our own choices do not disappoint.

Because we're in Bologna (and when in Rome...) I go for the classic tortellini in brodo - tasty little parcel of veal served up in a light, moreish broth, and topped with a smattering of Parmagiana cheese. Despite the fact the pasta was a little underdone (I love al dente, but there was just a shade too much firmness here), this was one of my favourite and most memorable dishes of the trip. Simple but deliciously comforting.

TPG started with the baked tortellini funghi, stuffed with ricotta and spinach. There also seemed to be a fair bit of creamy cheese involved. This one looked better than it tasted - it lacked the flavour of my plainer looking dish and was nothing above an average plate of well cooked pasta.

I then moved on to the tortino di patate al tartufo (a potato gratin layered and spliced with rich, aromatic black truffles). Yuh. Small but fiesty, this one packed some punch. I adored it. The truffles were rich and plentiful, and were set off beautifully in the simply cooked potato dish. Despite its small size, it was deeply satisfying, and at 22 Euros I would say this a fair price for the abundance of truffley goodness involved.

TPG opted for the bolisto misto (boiled meats) - I had a hunch he would as soon as I saw the trolley working the room. A rather burly Italian man - who looks like he's had his fair share of the misto in his time - draws the cart to our table, pulls up a handle and a bounty of meats which have been sitting in broth are revealed. It's loaded with things like tongue, zampone (stuffed trotter), cotechino (pork sausage), guinea ham, chicken and beef. TPG points his way to a generous selection and adds blobs of pickle to his plate.  This choice seems popular with the locals and, apart from a couple of mystery meats, TPG is generally happy with it - and occasionally tries to help himself to my truffley potato bake which I guard fiercely.

We wash it all down with a bottle of Dolcetto D'Alba from nearby Piedmont. And we consequently find ourselves rather drunk by 3pm on our first day in Bologna.

We semi sober up over a vanilla gelato with chocolate sauce which we choose solely because everyone else in the room is choosing it so it must be good. It is. Delicious.

There are 2 reasons we might not go back to Diana next time. First, because there are so many great places to eat here, which are probably less likely to be found on the tourist trail. A place would need to be truly outstanding to warrant a second visit on our next trip. Second, the service - grumpy and stiff, and quite happy to ignore us at times in favour of the local, repeat business, these guys were at complete odds with the rest of the friendly, laid back population. But we were so drunk on wine and a hearty lunch, we did not feel inclined to take it too much to heart.

Our meal came to around 50 Euro per head including wine and service.

We made our booking once we arrived in Bologna and wandered past Diana which was near our hotel, however it was earlier discovered by Helen of World Foodie Guide who reviews it here.

We rolled home to our hotel room to lie flat out for a while in preparation for a much anticipated evening of apertivo and celebratory feasting with our local friends, Alessio and Raffaella. They would take us off the (hardly) beaten track and into their world of delectable Bolognese delights. Yes, you've guessed it - I'm (rather annoyingly) keeping the best 'til last.....

Ristorante Diana, Via Dell Indipendenza, 24, Bologna (Closed Mondays)

You click here for Part 1 of my Bologna investigations, including Espresso and a bombolone breakfast at Zanarini, and Part 3 Meeting up with the locals at Trattoria Gianni, followed by an endless course seafood lunch in Modena.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Bologna, Italy: Gluttonous Travels (Part 1) - Bombolone glory at Zanarini

Let's be honest. We took a cheeky weekender to Bologna because we wanted some pasta Bolognese. Of course. What I wasn't expecting was such a beautiful medieval city, booming with food lover's gold and a "gotta love it" laid back attitude to life.

Bologna is an unexpectedly enchanting terracotta maze of beautiful archways (perfect for keeping the hairdo in tact on those rainy days), 12th century brick towers (with quite a lean - who needs Pisa?) and Europe's oldest university (resulting in an appealing mix of old school Nonnas and care free, trendy youngsters like ourselves... sort of... yeah, not really). It has a massive central piazza (Piazza Maggiore, the hub of the city centre) and boasts a bounty of ornate fountains and churches aplenty (if you're so inclined). There's plenty to keep the camera clicking. According to the Wallpaper City Guide, Italians voted it Italy's best place to live in 2004.

But let's cut to the chase. We were there for the food.

If you're partial to a bowl of pasta, Bologna will not disappoint.

We arrived late on a Friday night (following a generous 2 inch bag of peanuts on our BA flight) and after checking in to the central I Portici Hotel (via Indipendenza, 69), we wandered around to soak up the sites before reclining with an Aperol Spritz at a funky bar near the university.

Our real business would begin in the morning. Espresso and breakfast. Our first true bite of Bologna would be crucial.

Espresso/breakfast: Caffe Pasticceria Zanarini (Piazza Galvani 1, Bologna)

Having read Helen's fantastic blog posts on Bologna (at World Foodie Guide), there was no option as to where we would be heading for our first Bolognese espresso and breakfast. TPG, saliva dripping from his sweet tooth, had already clapped eyes on Helen's photo of a brioche vuota (a big sugar topped brioche bun filled with custard) she had enjoyed at Caffe Pasticceria Zanarini (Piazza Galvani 1, Bologna). If nothing else was to be achieved all weekend, TPG would be getting himself one of those vuota. We passed countless other perfectly lovely looking cafes on our way - TPG marched on chin first, barely giving them a sideways glance.

We muscled our way up to the bustling cake and pastry counter and grunted and pointed our way to a bombolone for me (a custard filled Italian doughnut) and the much anticipated brioche vuota for TPG. We then payed in advance for our espressos and brioche with the smiliest counter man in all of Italy before edging in for a few centimetres of space among the locals at the espresso bar. If nothing else, this place is fabulous for immersing oneself in the local way of life with businessmen and shoppers alike. And its perfect for picking up some interesting snippets as one rubs shoulders with the local city slickers. If one can speak Italian. Which one, in this case, can't.

Our espressos were perfect, and the bombolone/brioche... Well let's just say we had 2 days in Bologna and we went back on both days. Absolutely delicious. Our entire breakfast among the chatter and clatter came to around 5 Euro. And such a lovely touch to be served up a small, freebie glass of sparkling water with your coffee at the bar. Why can't someone do this in London?

There's also plenty of sandwiches and other drool worthy tempters to keep you going at all times of day. Zanarini was one mighty fine start to our sampling of Bolognese delights. And it kept TPG eerily quiet for a blissful 10 minutes or so.

Caffe Pasticceria Zanarini, Piazza Galvani 1, Bologna

One of Bologna's many wondrous food stores - take a big suitcase

So now it's late, and Masterchef's on. So stayed tuned for our wander of the amazing foodie shops of Bologna's cobbled alleyways, a hearty lunch at the classic Ristorante Diana, and then things step up about 10 notches as we meet up with our Italian friends, and foodie guide bellissimos, Alessio and Raffaella, as they take us on a 4 course pasta dinner at a tucked away locale, and an all day, marathon lunch of countless pasta and seafood courses which ends at... 5pm. Gold.

Our amazing home grown, local Italian foodie guides!

Click here for Part 2: Bologna's Food Shops and Lunch at Ristorante Diana - a bounty of hams, cheeses, fresh pastas, tortellini in brodo and boiled meat trolleys and Part 3: Meeting up with the locals at Trattoria Gianni, followed by an endless course seafood lunch in Modena

Sunday 21 February 2010

Kaffe Automat - Climpsons coffee in Soho

Kaffe Automat opened discretely just before Christmas. And they've managed to maintain such a low profile (signage only appeared last weekend), that despite the fact I must have wandered past it dozens of times, and can sniff out a coffee bean from 100 paces, I only just noticed it. Or perhaps I simply had my blinkers on for Milk Bar, which is right around the corner. Either way, cafe owners of the world, let that be a lesson to you all - get some signage, people.

Anyway, the Kaffe Automat crew know and love their coffee, so I'm immediately on board as soon as we start chatting.

The coffee beans are from Climpson & Sons on Broadway Market (big tick), and they make a lovely, rich tasting brew. My coffee was slightly too milky (coming in too large a cup - a "regular" in American coffee shops, whereas I go for "small", which is regular in Australia. Confused?). However, they explained to me later that some customers, having developed a taste for Starbucks, raise an eyebrow over the strength of their espresso. Although they don't intend to "lower the tone" to address these tastes, I wonder if that had an impact on my dose. Anyway, I'll definitely go back, but I'll be more specific about my tastes - I'm not a Starbucks girl.

They're getting in some single origin beans for the filtered coffee option soon. And there's sandwiches, cakes and simple eats which I am yet to try - it was an emergency caffeine situation.

It's small (with more seating in what I believe is a bar out the back), but a lovely, character-filled haven to sit and sip your flattie over the daily paper, away from the Soho hordes. A great little find.

Kaffe Automat, 62 Frith Street, Soho, London
Kaffe Automat on Urbanspoon

Thursday 18 February 2010

Adagio, Pizza Al Taglio - New pizza by the slice in Soho (London)

"Adagio", in Italian, refers to a slow tempo. So, it may seem a strange name for what is essentially a fast food, pizza place, but there's a logic to the madness. Adagio Pizza al Taglio  hails its pizzas as "slow fast food".

It's all about the dough, you see. The dough is nurtured lovingly by chef Shelley Squire, for a minimum of 72 long, laborious hours before baking. The Mariah Carey of the dough world, this special blend of flours hailing from Vicalvi, south east of Rome, requires all the pandering and indulgence of the temperamental diva herself. It's kept at specially controlled temperatures, and is fondled, turned and folded at regular intervals as it bubbles and billows over the 72 hour wait prior to baking. And should one of these specially controlled conditions vary in the slightest, the whole thing (including Shelley's sanity) could all go out the window. The man must have serious nightmares about dough.

I didn't decipher all of this just from eating it. I am a sudden expert on pizza dough since, having opened in Soho at the start of February, the Adagio crew invited me and TPG down for a tour of the works, a natter with the chef and a comprehensive tasting of some of their many varieties of pizza al taglio ("by the slice"). Since we're off to Bologna this weekend, and in quite the "bring on all things Italian" frame of mind, we scooted down there as fast as our imaginary Vespas could carry us. We didn't pay for the tasting, but rest assured the Greedy Diva remains scrupulous in her judgement.

First impressions might not blow you away. It looks like a fairly standard takeaway place, and has clearly been set up for an intended roll out. There are a few stools for eating in, but there's a definite sense that Adagio is attempting to bring to London the Roman concept of pizza al taglio as a light snack on the go. And it's open late for the boozey crowd.

There's a large variety of flavours (over 40 apparently) which change daily, and are intended to change to match the seasons. They're sitting out on display, to be heated up once you order. They don't look particularly outstanding at first glance, but that's often the way with pizza and pasta in Italy from my experience - the proof is in the taste.

The distinguishing feature of Adagio's pizzas, compared to most of its London contemporaries, is the base. It comes in the traditional Roman style (slightly thicker than the thin Neopolitan style and much thinner than the big hefty focaccia-like numbers you'll get at Princi and elsewhere). And they do it pretty much perfectly - crunchy but chewy in all the right ways, and cooked evenly all the way through, it's moreish and filling without being overly doughey (a la Pizza Hut), floppy or oily.

A trained chef, Shelley's got the dough down to such a fine art because he traipsed around Italy until he found the perfect pizza base in a small neighbourhood place, then spent a month training in Rome in the kitchen of its maker. He has replicated the routine, preparation and ingredients precisely, right down to the special 400kg mixer and a 700kg oven which were transported over from Italy to give this doughey diva just the conditions she requires. Imagine getting this baby in the doorway:

We tried a smorgasbord of flavours, from our least favourites (and there were only a couple) - the dangerously explosive cherry tomatoes with garlic peperoncino and paprika (which lacked some spicy bite), and the butternut squash and pancetta with garlic (a tad on the bland side) - to the ultra tasty (even if a touched lightly with the ugly stick) tuna with mayonnaise, artichoke puree and artichoke hearts on a tomato base, the baked aubergine, garlic and parsley with feta, and the juicy Italian sausage with broccoli and peperoncino. The potato with mozzarella and rosemary was also lovely - carb on carb never fails me.

(I swear the tuna one tastes better than it looks)

While the toppings fluctuate in appeal, the delicious base is most definitely the highlight of these pizzas, giving the operation plenty of scope to play with toppings.

Made to measure and priced by weight - sample one big slice, or ask for bite sized samples of a few flavours. An average slice costs around £3.50 (and pizzas range from £1.90 - £2.10 per 100g).

I'm fussy about my pizzas, but I rate Adagio as one of my top places for a slice in London (along with Franco Manca, Red Pepper and Pizza East (reviewed earlier here), which are catering to a sit down crowd). I particularly love the full blown obsession that is going into getting this product just right. And I like the concept of a made-to-measure pizza snack for eating on the go - all while imagining you're strutting down the cobbled streets of Rome in your Armani shades with the Vespa parked just around the corner.

Adagio Pizza al Taglio, 10 Greek Street, London W1D 4DH
Adagio on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Gluttonous Travels: The edible joys of Paris, January 2010

What's not to love about saving up your hard earned to slip away for a culinary adventure in a distant city? Unless, of course, you get caught up in Eurostar chaos (we didn't) or end up wedged on the plane next to some burly arm rest hogger with a chest infection (I often do - it's a food blog so I won't put you off with my distasteful encounter involving a chest infectee, a warm hand towel and a phlegm ball). With any luck, it might even snow on the way home so you get stuck there (we were helplessly "trapped" in Rome last year - yes, devastating...what to do, what to do.... - and discovered the world's all time greatest carbonara as a result. High fives all round).

For TPG and I, the destination will always be dictated happily by the whims of our stomachs. Hours will be spent scouring the internet and travel mags for local delights, all in the name of "serious research". Once there, our needs are simple. An obligatory sleep in, a smattering of shopping, and a comprehensive exploration of the alleyways, nooks and previously undiscovered gastronomic adventures that our host city has to offer. Rain, wind, blisters and maps that don't work (it's not me, honestly) will be overlooked as mere trifles in the religious pursuit of ravishing foodie finds.

My first trip to Paris was back in 2000, as a wide eyed Australian backpacker (no, I did not wear a "Victoria Bitter" t-shirt). I carried my life on my back and had hardly a dollar to my name. My Parisian eating experiences were necessarily limited by budget to ham and cheese baguettes (so simple, but so good), Nutella crepes (a culinary treasure not to be sneezed at), pains au chocolat, cheap pates, creme brulee and cut price prix fixe tourist deals at tacky bistros with checkered table cloths. However, I can proudly say I never frequented "Bar Oz". (Ahem. Well, not until I found myself in Paris in 2007, desperate for a place to watch the Australian Rules Grand Final which my team went on to win - justifying hauling TPG out of bed at 4am for a romantic stint at the pub. He has never been the same since.)

Now that it's right on our doorstep, Paris is an ever tempting hop, skip and a jump away from that perfect steak frites and creme brulee. For us, Paris is all about lulling away whole afternoons in perfect little bistros over a carafe of wine and a pot-au-feu, while watching the world go by with its baguettes. It's about that leisurely stroll home past the Louvre at sunset with a madeleine in your hand and a macaron in your pocket. And it's about indulging in buttery goodness until your arteries hurt (how do the French manage to stop when their plates are only half finished?)

Here are some of the highlights from our culinary adventures in Paris, this January 2010:

Rue Montorgueil - The perfect Parisian street scene. Take breakfast at Au Rocher De Cancale, and sip your cafe creme while indulging in a perfect croissant, watching the locals queue up for their cheeses, baguettes, pastries, chocolates, meats and vegetables outside the quaint stores dotted along this bustling market strip. Somehow, this Parisian way of making multiple stops to buy from specialists has so much more charm than my nightly, harebrained dash to multiple supermarkets to acquire all the requisite ingredients for 1 home cooked dish....

Marche des Enfants Rouges (39 rue de Bretagne, near the Marais) - At the oldest covered market in Paris, built in the 1600's, stock up at cheesemongers, bakeries and Moroccan market stalls to satisfy all your stomach's desires.

Check to see no-one's looking before ducking into your 7th cake shop and 8th chocolatier for the day:

(Handbag? Check. Box of macarons and chocolate eclairs? Check)

Visit Yiddish cake shops and kebab/falafel stores on rue des Rosiers in the Marais:

(Sadly, not chocolate.)

Sample some delicious, modern French bistro fare at the fabulous Le Chateaubriand, where I had my promptly declared "meal of the year" (reviewed here):

Take a break before lunch at the beautiful Rodin Museum (where, incidentally, you can avoid the queues at the Musee D'Orsay by purchasing a ticket for both museums for an extra 2 Euro - you can thank me later).

Brasserie Lipp (151 Boulevard Saint-Germaine): Huge, popular, old school brasserie, with a crowded and bustling atmosphere, serving up simple Alsatian classics. Try huge plates of chaucroute (involving one helluvan ugly boiled pork knuckle, frankfurter and boiled potatoes), well cooked roast chicken and chips and delicious profiteroles stuffed with ice-cream and coated with a rich, hot chocolate sauce (which was strangely reminiscent of Mc Donald's chocolate fudge sundaes). TPG also loved the ile flottante in custard. As he would. It caters to a blend of locals and (plenty of) tourists alike. One to go back to more for the charming atmosphere in Art-Deco elegance, with mosaics, mirrors and grumpy signs laying down the rules of the house, rather than for anything extraordinary about the food. Although I'm still day dreaming about those profiteroles.

The charming Epicerie P. LeGrand Confisserie is well worth a stop to stock up on wines, sweets, pates and other local delights:

Chez Georges (1 rue du Mail, in the Marais area): An iconic and traditional French bistro, where the waitresses wear white aprons over their black skirts and the menu is handwritten in hard to decipher scrawl. A perfect spot for a long, civilised lunch, with friendly service -  we sampled some classics: oeuf en gelee, foie gras d'oie (in case your French is as bad as mine, this is from the goose - the house special), buttery, herby escargots de bourgogne, an entrecote with marrow (not the best steak we've had in Paris) and some green beans (again, very buttery - sensing a theme here?). TPG finished off with a creme caramel, although my arteries were already spluttering with foie gras and snail overload. I stoically held off for a crepe elsewhere an hour or so later. One of my favourite French bistros.

(Bringing back memories of Pretty Woman & those "slippery little suckers")

Il Vino d'Enrico Bernando (137 boulevard de la Tour Maubourg): It's all about the wine at Il Vino - a "wine restaurant" created by Enrico Bernando. Its menu displays the wines, but there's no hints at the food.  Just choose how many courses you want, advise of anything you don't eat and ... voila - the chef will choose a wine to match each surprise course. Probably not one for wine control freaks, but interesting for those who are happy to surrender their choices to the youngest ever winner (in 2004) of the Sommelier World Championships. There's an interesting and ecletic array of wines sure to suit anyone's tastes.

Each wine is matched with a surprise dish, or the chef can create a meal to match your bottle of choice. Blind tasting menus exist for around 75 Euros (lunch) and 100 Euros (dinner - which buys you 2 entrees, a main and dessert) - or there are even more extravagant options if you're feeling flush. The only frustration is that, unless you go a la carte (which is quite expensive), everyone must have the same dish.

Although the wine is the main event, the French/Italian food is more than a fringe benefit - Il Vino opened in 2007, and within 3 months had already won a Michelin Star. We started with a dish of prawns, (oddly) warm oysters and radish with coconut broth, followed by a lovely piece of cod with lentils, beef cheeks matched with a superb Dolcetto D'Alba and a baked apple with a crispy caramel lattice and caramel icecream. A tasty dish of roasted hazelnuts, tiny madeleines and biscuits followed. Everything was lovely (except we were not huge fans of the warm oysters), and a few of the wines were superb, but what's with the beef cheeks? I have a beef with beef cheeks - and particularly with paying for a high price set menu, and receiving beef cheefs or other fatty cuts unless something absolutely amazing is done with them. Give me a nice grilled peace of meat any day.

The atmosphere is quiet and formal (a little too hushed for me). I'm not sure that I would return given there are so many other great places to try in Paris, but it was definitely an enjoyable Parisian culinary adventure and worth trying out for the concept alone.

Other GD comments on Paris can be found here in my Gluttonous Highlights for 2009 post - including massive, divine chocolate mousse at Chez Janou, the glorious, brioche bunned Love Burger at Cafe Etienne Marcel and delectable wines and cheese at Juveniles Wine Bar.

And, it's time to dust off the passport again. Next stop: Bologna. Stay tuned.

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