Monday, February 25, 2008

Pizza: The Cradle of Mankind.

Pardon us for dwelling so long on our recent trip to Italy, but as I said, while we were in New York we managed to stuff ouselves on just about everything except Italian food, so we had to make up for it in Milano. Milan, unlike most of the Mediterranean world, is generally too busy to take a serious siesta break in the middle of the day, and with so many people running from workplace to workplace, the Milanese have taken quick eats to the level of a sublime art.As anybody who has been to Italy knows, the pizza is usually different in every region. The big flat american pie has its origins in Naples, and sure enough, when one goes out for a sit down pizza in a place that has tables and waiters the Neapolitian pizza is usually what you get: smaller than the american version, usually with a thinner crust and served as a single meal in itself. Most pizzas are bought at local bakeries for take out or reheated in the shop to eat standing up. This is where cold pizza for breakfast takes on a new and elegant meaning.In the US, a square, doughy pizza is usually called a Sicillian pizza, but all over Italy you find combinations of toppings and different styles of flat breads popping up in pizza bakeries. The white pizza seen above was in a shop just outside of the main square in Bergamno's upper town: onions, mushrooms, and potatoes with fontina cheese.White pizza with walnuts. If a tour bus full of squirrels shows up, this place has them covered. Uncommon pizza toppings like this are no idle culinary experiment, however. Nobody in Italy really experiments with food on a molecular level. If you see food for sale it is pretty well guaranteed to taste good. Italians wouldn't do business if these things didn't sell. And they do sell.Fumie discovered the cheeseless pizza on this trip, seen above. Tomato sauce, olives, but no cheese, a new way to experience pizza for us. A corner pizza palace in Milan during lunch hour. About fifty different pizzas, including focaccia and paninis, are laid out. Choose your pizza, and they toss in a sweet pastry and a drink for EU 3.30 At noon the place is almost deserted... an hour later you can hardly move for the crowds inside. Later, my friend Igor - a deep well of knowledge for everything Milanese - met us downtown at the Duomo one afternoon, which is not a part of Milan known for good, cheap eats. Never fear, Igor is here! Just behind the Galleries, next to the posh Rinascente department store is a small bakery which specialized in panzeroti, cheap little folded pizzas from Puglia. Obviously, a lot of locals know about the place - everytime we passed it had a line going out the door.Panzeroti are like miniature calzones, only better, stuffed with soft mozzarella and a bit of fresh tomato.Yes, you can eat well in downtown Milan for under one Euro! And since walking around is what we do best, there is also time for coffee. In Italy, coffee prices - for the single shot of expresso, at least - are standardized by the State. Wherever you go a small espresso coffee is .90 Euro cents. Make that a capuccino or a caffe lungo and the added labor and ingredients add to the price of the shot. Usually, if you sit down you pay a surcharge for the seat, but at this small cafe we were granted free street seating. Nothing beats a free seat.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Markets in Milan: Salami Heaven

Just a slight reminder of why Italians eat better than you do. In Milan markets are held around the city on straggered days in different neighborhoods. Vendors in trucks bring fresh local produce, fish, and meats and sell in the open air markets. Of course, you can buy anything in a supermarket, but if you want to hunt around for that special local pecorino cheese or a home made Calabrian salami, your best bet is buying it out of a truck.Cheese, glorious cheese! Personally, I like pecorino, or anything that smells of sheep or goats. Fumie, however, traveled through Mongolia and western China once, and so she can't really stand any sheepy flavors anymore. She's a parmesan type of girl. So we got one of each.Most people buying fish will look for the open air markets. The coast is an hour and a half away towards Genoa, so some of these babies were swimming in the sea a few hours earlier. Classically cute old lady handling the vegetables. You know how vegetable sellers get when you start poking at their lettuces with your filthy, unwashed hands. Once you get old and cute they don't dare tell you to back off.Guanciale is smoked pig's jowls, and is one of the great unknown ingredients of the Italian kitchen. It actually specific to the area around Rome and is kind of rare in most places in Italy. So this was the basket of artisanal guanciale that I scored my kilo slab from. Guanciale is used like bacon in recipes such as pasta carbonara, and it really is not a spaghetti all'amatriciana,unless you make it with gunaciale. Most recipes substitute pancetta for it, but once you try the original with pig's cheeks you never go back. Until you run out of pig's cheeks. The fat.... oh, Lord, the fat... it just melts from the heat of the pasta. You hardly have to cook it. My fellow Jews, take my word, stay away from this stuff, please! I could not resist... don't make that mistake! (which leaves more for me....)This presents a special quandary... which salami to choose from. In a more perfect world, I wouldn't have to choose. I would just buy the whole truck load of them and hang them up in my living room above my computer, where I could just reach up and slice a bit off of one while I am working...
N'duja is a special salami made in southern Italy, especially Calabria. Essentially it is spiced sopressata salami meat stuffed into a bladder and smeared on bread raw. It rates a four chili pepper on the hotness scale and is something you will probably never see sold outside of Italy. The dialect term N'duja is a subtle linguistic morphing from the same latin root word as the french andouille, but there is nothing subtle about this bit of pig meat.Most Italian pork products were not cleared to be legally imported into the United States until a few years ago, and while the US has a long tradition of Italian butchers who prepared prosciutto and sausages for their own local markets, it is pretty safe to say that most folks in the US, or anywhere ouside of Italy, really know just how amazing the variety and quality of real Italian salamis can be. Which is a crying shame. For years I have been trying to get my brother, Ron, who is a noted chef in California, to get his butt over to Europe and try some real Italian food. When he finally does decide to come... guanciale for everbody!!!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Milan: My Pretty Pony. On a Plate with Olive Oil.

The sense of outrage created by the eating of adorably cute donkeys in Soncino was naturally carried over to our next outing: horse meat in Milan. Italians eat just about everything that moves. Italians are reknowned all over the world as avid hunters - they love to shoot birds, wild hogs, deer. You name it, and you will meet Italians blasting away at it. That's because they have shot everything that could ever move in Italy and eaten it. Entire species of birds and rodents native to Italy have seen extinction come in the form of careful broiling, lovingly sauced with just a hint of sage and maybe some wild mushrooms... and then... POOF! Extinct. Gone from the face of the earth except for an aroma that lingering in the kitchen.The next thing you know, you are down to eating the domesticated animals, a a step down, I know, but you gotta do what you gotta do. You eat donkeys. You eat horses. You look up from your plate of My Pretty Pony and suddenly realize that these creatures are damn tasty meat.And then you go looking for more. As we did at the Taverna Moriggi in the old financial district of Milan. The Moriggi is one of the oldest eating establishments in Milan... located near a bunch of Roman ruins dating from the fourth century days when nobody really knew who the hell ran the Roman empire anymore. Was it Ogoric the Blind? Or Astroboye the Unitdy? Nobody remembers. Things got awfully confusing between the second and sixth centuries.Though the early Anno Domini centuries, the Western Roman empire had a few bad times - don't we all? - and, reasonably, spent those centuries holed up in Milan, far from the malarial swamps and Berber pirate raids of Rome. There was an invasion of Huns, similar to our trip but lacking the cheap air fares we got on Whizz Air, there were invasive waves of Vandals and Ostrogoths and Avars and Gauls. And the Taverna Moriggi stands as a testament to those days, situated on one of the oldest buildings in the downtown area.The Moriggi is one of the last honest, cheap old style Milanese lunch joints still functioning in the downtown. With a typical sense of Milanese style, it has the air of someplace unchanged since the early 19th century.Where the Barbarians once brought Rome to its knees, today yuppies from Milan's finace district attempt to to the same. And after a hard morning of squandering wealth, you need to eat. The fashionistas are all crowding the downtown eateries, so the yuppiosi find there way to via Moriggi 8 for lunch.The last time Igor took us here the place was packed and we couldn't get atble. We were luckier this time. Igor went for the classic Milanese veal cutlet. This is essentiually a Wiener Schnitzel, except that the Viennese were probably still ripping live squirrels apart with their teeth when the Milanesi learned how to bread veal and fry it. In Hungary, as well as a lot of places in Europe, a "Milanese cutlet" means a breaded meat-wad served next to some spaghetti. In Milan it is served with potatoes. And you can't find a coteletta milanese more perfect than at the Moriggi.I had built up a decent appetite walking around the city for hours on end filling up on the beauty that is Milan. Lots of people - just about everyone, actually - take exception to my love of Milan. It's kind of ugly, big, and busy, but that is how I like my cities. So I walk around until my feet are about to fall off and then I look for lunch. In such cases, offer me pasta in a saffron cream sauce with bits of speck bacon, and I am yours, baby...My brother - the one who likes "forts and stuff" - is a chef in California who is very well known for his hand at Northern Italian cooking. And I like to eat what he cooks, but until Ron gets his lardo-butt on a plane and comes over to taste Northen Italian cooking in its home territory - and I do not mean Sonoma County - he is simply fooling his durned unkosher self. You want to taste Italian home flavor? Only in Italy. This is the face of a Jew eating bacon in saffron cream sauce. I'm going to hell. But at what cost? Damn... is there a branch of Moriggi's in Hell?Now we get to the... meat of the matter! Horse meat! Not just any cut of nag, but brescaola di My Pretty Pony.Here we have brescaola - air cured dried horse meat. Now, a lot of folks have a problem with eating horse, consigning it to the kind of foods that one eats during, say, the siege of Paris in 1871, just prior to starting on the terrines of Zoo animals. I however, have no such qulams. Italians understand the ten-year-old kid's approach to good cold cuts. Why just offer a couple of slices? If it is so good, why not cover the plate with a whole lot of it and fill yourself for lunch? Which is what we got at Taverna Moriggi. A frigging horse feast.The Bar at the Taverna Moriggi. A better selection of wines will be hard to find, and knowing that I am not good at walking thousands of urban kilometers in the afternoon after drinking wine, I stuck to mineral water for my meal. But walking creates a thirst, so Igor led us towards a local bar for a coffee. In Italy coffee is... unbelievably fantastic. Is that enough superlative for you? It is true. Order your coffee lungo, though. An Italian espresso is usually two teaspoons of incredibly strong and delicious super coffee, but still, it is only two teaspoons. A cafe lungo means you get a bit more hot water tossed in with your coffee, and it still beats any coffee on the face of the planet. Anywhere.Tooling about the neighborhood brought us to the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio. This is one of the earliest churches in Christian history - it was built by Bishop Ambrose in 379-386, in an area where numerous martyrs of the Roman persecutions had been buried. The first name of the church was in fact Basilica Martyrum. Then they realized that nobody could possibly ever spell that and went for Sant'Ambrogio. The flat appearance of the hut-like façade is typical of Lombard medieval architecture. Lombards were into huts. Given its age, it was much more impressive to me than the ever-unfinished Duomo downtown.Oddly, it seems that this plaque, located outside the Basilica, shows annoying exclusivist tendancies. Somehow, it seems people who bake pizzas in summer for a living are not allowed into the church, nor are are people who use cell phones, which eliminates most of the population of Italy.All in all, a good day in Milan... but even late at night, you gotta get home and nibble on something. Take out! Is that journalist Kate Carlisle in the background? Damn! It is! And... she's hungry...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Soncino: Donkey Stew with the Guelfs and Ghibellinis

On arriving in Milan, our friend Igor had a plan. We simply must travel out of town to a small town on the Lombad plains to try the donkey meat stew in Soncino. Local food traditions like eating donkey meat were falling by the wayside and are now being revived, much to the disdain of the British public and other pet lovers, who simply can not abide the idea of eating Eyore or any of Winnie the Pooh's other anmal friends. This, however, proved no stumbling block to us. It was Sunday in Milan, and we were going out of town for some down home ass-munching!Soncino is a beautiful, small medieval walled town on the flat Lombardy plains, near Cremona, right on the border betwen the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdoms of Brescia and Pavia. it wasn't the easiest piece of real estate to maintain in the fifteenth century, and was the scene of several major battles involving knights and pikemen and such, in which Milan came out best, leaving the town to the contending clans of Guelphs and Ghibellinis. These were two clan based political parties as much given to stringing each other up as to stringing up Brescians and Pavians. In times of war the two clans shared the one castle, which is preserved as a museum these days, albeit a victim of the nineteenth century trend of reconstructing old castles in the style of some romantic novel instead of basing it on any historic representation. "Castello di Mickey Mouse!" said our host, Alessandro.The real reason we were here is the local Trattoria, the Antica Rocca, (Soncino, Via Battisti 1, tel. 0374.85.672) which is rooted in local cuisine styles. And that means donkey meat stew is the house specialty.While we tried to decide what to eat - it was an easy question of ass or no ass? - we were served a plate of local wild onions ("little lamps") anchovies and dried tomatoes.Horse meat is quite common in Italy, and donkey meat is also a local specialty, although today most of the donkey meat is imported internally from Sardinia. Located about an hour's drive from Milanb, Soncino attracts a lot of sunday visitors from the big city out to try the local dishes and wines, and of course, donkey meat stew is the main attraction. We started our meal with a selection of proscciuto and salamis.Next up was a plate of gnocchi served in a sauce of ground duck breast meat with chiodini mushrooms in cream sauce. If you live a very good life on earth and don't harm innocent donkeys during your life, this is what they give you to eat in heaven.Notice that there isn't a hint of canned tomato sauce to be seen on this table. Everything was home made, and fresh to the season, which is a surprisingly mild winter. The house specialty - donkey stew - appeared next. time for some real ass munching!For all our horrified expectations, donkey meat turned out to taste like... meat. Nice texture, good red meat. The donkeys are actually imported from Sardinia, so we didn't even have to feel bad about any donkeys seen in the neighborhood. The sauce was the main flavor in the stew - a red wine reduction heavily herbed with juniper, bay leaf, and rosemary. Served up next to a lump of polenta, this made me feel like i could eat a herd of cute, adorable, lovey-dovey baby donkeys.A cup of good espresso and a glass of sambuca with three coffee beans inside to end the meal. And guess what? At about EU 25 from each of us, this is actually a lot cheaper than any sit down resto meal I can find in Budapest. Excelent value, and the world has to feed one less cute donkey! Soncino is also the location of the first printing press to have published the Hebrew Bible. The first of the Jewish Soncino family engaged in printing was Israel Nathan b. Samuel, who set up his Hebrew printing-press in Soncino in 1483, and published his first work, the tractate Berakot, in 1484. Eventually the Soncino family oved their operation to Istanbul, but today the house is a museum of the lithography craft, presided over by a very entertaining old curator.

Friday, February 08, 2008

This Land is your Land, This Land is Mailand.... Milano, Italy

We are in Milan, Italy's least lovely city, but the one where everybody works so hard that they really value their leisure time, and they are some of the most open folk in the old boot of Yurp. It's the last week of Carneval in Mailan - they follow something called the "Ambrosian Rite" of Catholicism, which at any level means less days of fasting before lent, and so we are here while the shops and stores are busy offering bad Catholics everything their heearts could wish for.
Milan is Italy's richest city - home to a lot of the big italian industries, not to mention the fashon Mecca of Italy. People here don't just toss on a jacket and head out into the ild winter weather... they seem to spend hours coordinating outfits, rejecting out of date looks, and - if you are a teen age male - making sure your pants hang so low on your ass that it seems to be a battle between gravity and crazy glue that keeps them up.Everywhere you go there is carneval food... especially these flat flakey fried bread things covered with powdered sugar, for sale just about everywhere during carneval.As we walked around Milan, every other bakery seemed to pull us in as if by magnet. You can have a cream filled pastry, o maybe a slice of pizza, or some amazing apple cakes... or... it gets hard to choose, as well ast to say no. Hell, we are in Italy, and only for a few days, so let's try everything. Eating on the run is a ot cheaper than sitting down to a slow restaurant meal, and since Milan is the stereotypical workaholic city of Italy - they don't take time out for a siesta during the afternoon - the things you can eat while on the run are usually damn good. Our man Igor used to run the Jewish radio broadcast for RAI Radio in Milan, and now spends his time chewing on cream filled fried dough balls. It's a living. He suggested we head down to the Navigli neighborhood for evening grazing.Navigli used to be the run down area of Milan, crisscrossed by canals that hauled barges of sand into the city for construction. today it is the hip night life district, full of bars, restaurants, and gift shops that serve the after dark crowd. Right by Porta Tichinese station is a market area, and in front is a well known fish market offering freshly fried fish. Igor splurged on some squid, and the two chefs offered their skills as Japanese translators.For good measure they tossed a couple of special skewers of shrimp and squid in on top of our order...Wandering a bit farther down the canal, we stopped for some aperitivi. The Milan tradition - dating from as far back as the 1980s - has been to offer a "happy hour" of free food as appetizers with the price of a drink between 6 and 9 pm, the dead hours before any self respecting Milanese goes out to eat at around 10 pm. Aperitivi Milanese has become a kind of secondary meal in itself. We began with the classic Milanese cocktail, the Negroni - gin, campari, and vermouth. A drink entitles you to the buffet.. which at the Big Pig Bar was a modest affair, but just right for the job at hand.Ahh.. Milano... what Big Pigs we are...