Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mantua, Part II

I mentioned earlier that Verona is in the region of the Veneto. Mantova is just over the regional border in Lombardia (Lombardy), and even though it’s only a half-hour train ride away, it’s a different culinary world. Lombard is probably best known for its rice dishes and stuffed pastas, and for a sparkling red wine called Lambrusco.

First stop on our foodie tour was this beautiful pastry shop:

We picked up an assortment of goodies to sample. We brought them back to Verona and by Monday had devoured them all: sbrisolina, a cornmeal shortcake, crumbly and not too sweet, with a pleasant savory counterpoint from the whole roast almonds contained in it; a delectable conchiglia (shell-shaped pastry) filled with chocolate and pears; an offella (tartlet) containing a dense, sweet layer of quince paste; a capricciosa (diamond-shaped pastry) with cherries and cream. The most foreign-to-us item was the torta di tagliatelle, composed of fine, slightly crunchy egg noodles layered with a buttery, sweet-spicy filling. Most of you reading this already know that I dabble in culinary history—it’s only natural that my personal interest in food and my scholarly interest in history and cultural studies would intersect, no? Anyway, the combination of the noodles and sweet-spiced filling reminded me of some sixteenth-century pasta recipes. In the cookery books by Cristoforo di Messisbugo (the majordomo of the Este palace in Ferrara, early 1500s) and Bartolomeo Scappi (head chef for Pope Pius V, Rome, mid-1500s), there are a number of variations on this theme: fresh noodles or gnocchi (dumplings), made with or without egg, seasoned with butter, sugar, cinnamon and cheese. This includes layered pasta dishes, such as lasagne. (Sound peculiar? I’ve tried making a couple of these recipes and they’re unexpectedly delicious.) This sweet may very well be a direct descendant of those preparations. I found several websites with recipes and descriptions of this sweet, but none of the ones I've seen so far attempt to trace its history. There seems to be some debate as to whether the torta should have a short-crust base or not (the one we had didn't), but that aside, all sources agree that the key ingredients are fresh egg noodles, preferably homemade, with a filling of butter, ground blanched almonds, sugar and cinnamon. I might take a crack at making this someday—funny, I never thought I’d use my pasta machine to make dessert!

On the walk to the Teatro Bibiena we’d passed a couple of food shops and eateries (including, disconcertingly, a McDonald’s), so after our pastry-buying binge we turned back along Via Accademia to investigate.

First was a very charming combination of delicatessen (La Boutique del latte—the milk boutique) and bookstore (Il Pensatoio – la librogusteria—The thinkery – the book-tastery?). The food side had mostly cheeses, plus wines and local specialty products; the book side had fabulous art books and cookbooks and novels and music and movies. If the academic job market is still slumping by the time I graduate, maybe instead I should think about opening a shop like that one…

Even though the point of this whole trip is to get friendly with Italian language-culture-gastronomy, when I saw the fabulous display of French cheeses, I couldn’t resist it. They had a Coulommiers, which is one of my very favorites: a gloriously stinky creation that I have never yet been able to find in the US, even in specialty cheese shops. It reeks of a barnyard and tastes of an earthy paradise. This one was quite mature, with a rind that was more blush than white. Darlingtonia had never encountered this cheese before, and we decided that such an aggressively smelly delicacy simply had to be introduced into her gastronomic curriculum. For when else, after all, would she next have an opportunity to taste it? Despite my warnings and the potent aroma emanating from the shopping bag, I am not sure that she was quite prepared for its pungency. Even I had to trim the excess rind from the slices I ate—and I was raised to believe that it is anathema to cut the rind off a soft-ripened cheese! Our beloved home state of California produces some exquisite cheeses, but none are as bracingly pungent as the good French stuff, and I sometimes think that, just as I’ve lost my tolerance for humid summers and snowy winters, my tastebuds have gone soft, too accustomed to the plush luxuriance of a Mt. Tam or a Humboldt Fog. We Americans are starting to pull away from our Puritanical roots where food is concerned—witness the rising triumphs of SlowFood and nose-to-tail eating—but even though we’re eager to sample artisanal breads, heirloom vegetables and heritage livestock, even though we quaff biodynamic wines and obsessively hunt down single-origin chocolates, we are still a little fearful, I think, of soft-ripened cheeses that are authentically and intensely stinky, redolent of humus and decay. Oh, sure, you’ll come across the occasional Epoisses or Pont L’Eveque, but most of what’s fit for USDA-certified importation is bound to be on the milder end of the pungency scale. And besides, there’s something naughty about eating these cheeses…something dirty, almost transgressive. We shouldn’t be putting our mouths near anything that smells like that—and yet we do, and what’s more, we love it, we keep on doing it, we crave it.

Whew. Sorry for the digression. Ricominciamo:

We didn’t actually eat the cheese in Mantova. We brought it back to Verona and had it before dinner the next night. But we did want a snack before going in search of our dinner, and we passed by an enoteca (wine bar) with a tantalizing display of hors d’oeuvres piled all along the bar. A crowd was starting to gather, so we popped in to see what the deal was. It was a very good deal. For €4 each we got a glass of excellent dry Prosecco, and were at liberty to sample as much as we wanted of the appetizers:

schiacciata (flatbread) with tomatoes
herbed green and black olives
mortadella di Bologna
Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese, in chunks
crostini: salame; shrimp; tuna; cheese and wurstel (a thin, bratwurst-style sausage)
bocconcini (tiny sandwiches) of salame and mortadella
tomato bruschetta
salad of zucchini, cheese and wurstel
carrot sticks
pasta salad
rice salad

I wish this setup would catch on in American bars; it’s brilliantly simple, economical (because no wait-staff is needed) and convivial. The enoteca drew singles, couples, even families with small children! And if you didn’t want to crowd around the bar, you could fix yourself a plate and enjoy your wine and snacks at an outside table.

We didn’t eat much because dinner was imminent, but we did sample a few bites and they were all very tasty. Then onward to the restaurant, Hosteria Leon D’Oro, which promised authentic Lombard cuisine. We sat outside in a picturesque alleyway and were given handwritten menus. There was a two-page preface explaining why there were no fish dishes on the menu, because they changed at every meal service depending on what was fresh, and that we would have to ask our server, and explaining that even though the Hosteria was committed to showcasing locally sourced ingredients, the seafood was all flown in from Sicily, because it was quite simply the best available. The descriptions of individual dishes were often a full paragraph long. Sorry I didn’t get any photos of the original menu, but here’s what the English version (they only have one copy for the whole restaurant) looks like:

Since we were in Mantova, we ordered a bottle of Lambrusco to drink. I’ve had Lambrusco in the US, but usually it’s too sweet; this one was crisp, with a strong head of bubbles, and was served properly chilled. Very refreshing, and it went nicely with the first two courses.

We started with a very simple antipasto of grilled polenta squares, each topped with a different cheese—Gorgonzola, Fontina (Val d’Aosta), and Brie—and broiled until the cheese was melted and bubbly, then dusted with freshly ground black pepper and crushed toasted hazelnuts. It could hardly have been less complicated or pretentious, and yet it was elegant, memorable and of course delicious. I’m totally serving it at my next dinner party.

For our primo we had the famous local specialty, tortelli di zucca. These are little stuffed pastas filled with a spiced purée of winter squash and served with a minimalist dressing of melted butter and sage. There are few things more scrumptious than this dish, when it is properly prepared, and the fabulous chef (did I mention that the Leon D’Oro is owned and operated by a woman chef?) did a superb job with it.

The secondo was a filet of Tuscan beef with mustard sauce, served with white beans in olive oil and parsley (so very Tuscan). Again, fairly simple, but hearty and full-flavored. We didn’t order contorni, figuring that we already had plenty to eat.

No room for dessert, but we did finish with a caffè corretto, that is, an espresso “corrected” by the application of booze, in this case Sambuca.

The best part: This three-course meal, including coperto (a cover charge for bread and service), wine, bottled water, coffee and liqueur, cost us about €30 each. Still a bit of a splurge, but an outstanding value given the quality of the food and service. Better yet, the Leon D’Oro, unlike most American restaurants, did not charge us for splitting the plates, and the portions were still plenty generous (I couldn’t imagine just one person ordering all that). If I ever come back to Mantova, I am definitely eating here again!

On the way into town we had taken what seemed, according to the map, the best route from the train station; but it was visually uninteresting, and a little isolated. On the way back to the station we cut through the center of town, which was much more lively and attractive (and felt quite safe), even at 10pm. Just past the restaurant we spotted this gorgeous building:

The nighttime photos don’t do it justice, and because it was late and we had to catch a train there was no chance to stop and investigate. But this is the most marvelous thing about Italy: there is something wonderful to look at almost everywhere you turn. You’ll never get to see all of it; if you’re lucky you’ll find something out about a fraction of the artworks in this aesthetically splendid country. These architectural grand-dames confront you literally around every corner, looming, challenging, but also strangely comforting, reminding you that there is sometimes permanency in worldly beauty.

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