Sunday, April 29, 2012

Trattoria Monti, April 26, 2012

 It saddens me to have to write my first negative review here on Homie Sapiens. Normally I gloss over the less than perfect eating experiences because I would rather write delicious reviews than disappointed ones. However, Trattoria Monti was well recommended to me, so I am suffering from frustrated disillusionment. Expecting a reasonably priced, casually elegant meal, instead I received a moderately bad meal in a casually pretentious setting. At forty euro a head for two pastas, two secondi (one vegetarian) and a bottle of wine, I expect better. Let me clarify: I know I can get stellar cuisine for that price, so why settle for less?
On a Wednesday at 10 pm, the restaurant was filled with a well heeled, relatively mature crowd. Since we hadn’t made reservations, we took a ten minute walk around the neighborhood. The service was friendly enough, although the amount of discussion between the waiters before putting our name down seemed more suited to an exclusive club than a neighborhood restaurant. For our first course, we ordered ravioli stuffed with a white fish in a fresh tomato sauce and tagliolini with anchovies, pecorino and golden raisins. My dining companion felt that the filling of his ravioli was a little dry, too compressed and crumbly compared to other versions (including his mother’s, but that is to be expected). I felt my pasta was mediocre in quality and that the flavor of the raisins was completely lost unless you actually had one in your mouth.
We were both hoping the secondi would be better. We were both disappointed. The radicchio torte my friend ordered was one of the most unappetizing sights I have ever seen served in a restaurant. It was a perfectly rounded, uniformly matte brown scoop in the middle of a pale yellow puree, with a crowning sprig of parsley that did nothing to redeem it. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked, but I have to admit to a moment of embarrassment that anyone would serve something so ugly. The texture was bizarrely mushy, and it didn’t really taste like radicchio so much as like hazelnuts, mushrooms and earth. Not terrible, but definitely not great.
My baccala (salt cured cod) with tomatoes and onions should have been easy to execute. I didn’t expect it to be as good as my mother’s, but I am still struggling to understand how the chef could have gone so wrong with a relatively simple combination of flavors. The fish was overcooked to a slightly rubbery texture and the sauce was too sweet and strangely gelatinous. It was also devoid of any chunks of tomato or visible onions, which underscored the unfortunate departure from the rustic, saucy and vibrant baccala I know and love.
Then, though we still had a quarter bottle left of the delicious Sylvaner we were drinking, the waiter pressured us into ordering dessert or coffee. He was obviously trying to rush us out so they could close, which I always find rude but which was especially so considering the three other tables still finishing their meals. To make matters worse, he brought the coffees long before we were done with our wine! This may seem like a petty detail, but drinking the coffee would have completely ruined our palates for the lovely (white) wine we had left. As a consequence, our coffee was stone cold by the time we could drink it. At a restaurant that considers itself as highly as this one does, I expect service to be polite and alert enough to gauge these details.
The only thing I truly enjoyed was the Kuen Hof 2010 Sylvaner from the Sudtirol. It was crisp, with a faint aroma of lemongrass and a lively balance of Asian pear and Alpine minerals. Imagine drinking mountain spring water out of cupped hands after a grueling trek, savoring the traces of stone and lingering winter on your palate. In general the wine list was quite good and reasonable, with a wide selection of bottles for 25 euro or less as well as more expensive options.
Trattoria Monti reminded me that it might be better to avoid things your parents make wonderfully at home. Unfortunately for my friend and me, that would rule out dishes ranging across cuisines from Mexico to Japan. Instead, I will say I am eternally grateful for my mother’s wonderful culinary skills and for the discerning palate she fostered in me. The art of cooking (and eating) is a legacy to be passed on as thoroughly and carefully as any more material inheritance. As one of the next generation of cooks and epicureans in my family, I can only be thankful.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rome, April 26, 2012

I have been struggling with what to tell you about Rome in the past few weeks. It doesn’t feel necessary to talk about how beautiful this city is, even though it continues to astonish me every time I leave the house. I imagine you would get tired of reading about gelato, though I found a place with better pistachio than Fassi. Though I am constantly inspired to create, the fruits of my labor don’t yet illustrate the contours of my experience here.
So what can I tell you, a month and a half into this adventure? I don’t really have the words to describe how content I feel here in my room with high ceilings, or to truly describe the glorious minutiae of my days doing nothing. To say I awaken gratefully each day doesn’t come close to expressing the pleasure I derive from simply existing in this place. But I owe you an honest attempt, because the only thing that could make this better would be to share it with you.
 My roommate makes espresso, and I sip at leisure while reading the news. Some days I walk to the market and sift through vegetables with a stern face, rejecting cabbages until I find an optimal combination of price and quality. It pleases me to play the discerning buyer, and it has made me some friends among the vendors who consistently prevail. They have the brightest, most fragrant fennel and their chayote has the right waxy sheen. They give me good deals on beets and carrots, of which I buy a lot to experiment with fresh juices, and they always answer my questions when I ask about things I’ve never seen. One woman, whose greens are always beautiful, gives me tips on how to prepare quintessential Italian contorni like the grassy agretti currently in season.
I make lunch every day, sometimes just a salad but more often a pot of soup. Last week it was meaty, sweet borscht with the beet greens wilted on top under a drizzle of olive oil. Then a classic Mexican caldo de res, with its iridescent swirls of fat from the marrow bones and lots of oregano, lime and chili. My roommates eye my creations with dubious faces that become smiles as the first taste settles into their stomachs.
Dinner tends toward the Italian, especially at the frequent dinner parties we are hosting. This past weekend brought two seafood pastas, one with calamari, langoustines and cherry tomatoes and another with clams in white wine and parsley. I like to push the boundaries of tradition with second courses, and so we served a roast chicken with paprika, oranges and fennel one night and mussels in beer and fennel broth the other (we had a lot of fennel). The chicken, a particularly meaty specimen, furnished a leisurely Sunday lunch alongside my roommate’s fragrant Iranian currant rice. The crunchy part from the bottom of the pot was resplendent soaked in the chicken’s citrusy pan juices. The beginning of this week continued to benefit from the same bounteous chicken, whose carcass became a clean broth full of vegetables best eaten with a squirt of sriracha and cilantro.
If it sounds as if I spend my days cooking and eating, I can’t deny that I do. But I also read, in Italian to boost my vocabulary and in English to stimulate my intellect. At museums I let the grace of marble sculptures awe me, so that I am filled with the beauty of their frozen movements. There is always a different church to rest in when I am overwhelmed by the echoes in this ancient place. Laundry affords the singular pleasure of inhaling the scent of sun dried towels, pressing my face to each one as I take it off the line.  
Lest you accuse me of omitting the awkward edges, most days I argue with clerks over absurd details in broken Italian. The lady that lives downstairs is convinced we’re trying to destroy her house with our bad plumbing, so she calls and calls as if yelling will make the pipes reseal. I listen to the list of our transgressions in vague comprehension, though I suspect no amount of Italian will help me understand. Time flies by while I wait in line, only to realize no one is being served in any particular order. My grad student roommate and I commiserate over the egotistical habits of professors and bureaucrats alike. I wait for someone else to clean the bathroom, or take out the trash. On Wednesdays I journey to tango class via a bus that only comes when I’ve given up hope of getting there on time.
Living in Rome is like being in love. You struggle over the smallest, most banal details, but when you go to bed at the end of your day you are suffused with the rightness of being together.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gelato, April 1, 2012

Let’s talk about gelato. A term often bandied about by neophytes and dessert junkies alike, gelato is actually just the Italian word for ice cream. What has given it legendary connotations worldwide is that in Italy, ice cream is quite simply better than anywhere else. The texture is simultaneously denser and softer than other ice creams, resulting in a velvety mouthfeel. Gelato is never so cold that it is hard. You don’t need to bite it, either. It clings to the spoon or cone, but gives sensuously to the slightest pressure of your tongue.
To be completely fair, San Francisco ice cream makers tend to have more creative flavors (like so much else, ice cream is an SF food fetish). In Italy, you are unlikely to find balsamic and strawberry, or avocado, or bourbon and cornflake, except at a few select shops. However, there isn’t an ice creamery in the US that can match Italian nut flavors like pistachio, pine nut, hazelnut or walnut. In the past week, I admit I’ve eaten more gelato than in the past year. The two gelaterias that stand out so far are G. Fassi, near Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, and Fior di Luna in Trastevere.
Fassi is emphatically of the old school, situated in a cavernous space with promisingly grumpy service. The flavors are mostly traditional, comprising a good twenty five different fruit, chocolate, nut and dessert combos. You pay and get a ticket, then at the counter you order the flavors (multiple) that you want in your cup or cone. My first taste of Fassi was actually an ice cream cake at home. It blew my mind, firstly because of the clarity of the flavors and the phenomenal silky texture, but secondly because this ice cream cake was all ice cream, no cake in sight. It was as if someone had gone to the fount of all good desserts and tailored one to me. Coffee, dark chocolate and vanilla melted beautifully on my tongue, I found it disturbingly difficult to stop eating. My second taste was at peak hours. I got elbowed by several mothers ordering for whole soccer teams, but I walked out victorious with a cup of pistachio and coffee. Both flavors were lusciously tasty, though I've since discovered much better pistachio. Fassi's is ultimately too sweet for me. 
On my third trip to Fassi, I encountered another love at first taste: rice gelato. I expected it to taste like arroz con leche, and at its core it does taste like rice pudding. However, the flavor is so delicate and mildly sweet that you find yourself tasting it over and over to attempt to capture its essence. Also, incredibly, there are actual grains of rice in the gelato, giving your mouth a contrast between the luscious cream and slightly al dente rice. It is, quite frankly, crazy good. Thankfully Fassi is around the corner…life is beautiful.
Fior di Luna is a completely distinct experience, being both very tiny and relatively nontraditional. Texturally, the gelato is a little fluffier than Fassi, though not in a bad way. They take a lot of care in choosing ingredients and the emphasis is on fresh, seasonal fruit flavors. Here, you can only get a cup because they disdain the artificial ingredients in cones (though they do have these fabulous hazelnut wafers that you can eat with your gelato). My favorite flavor so far has been the subtle perfume of pine nut. Their pistachio was slightly too sweet for me, but the winter melon was wonderfully light. They also have chocolate with chili and chocolate with rum, both of which I plan on trying. I look forward to their summer fruit flavors, since the selection expands considerably. If you are in the neighborhood, do try to stop by.
In summation, it is perfectly reasonable to eat gelato every day here. Or so I keep telling myself.