Thursday, October 28, 2010

Flashback: Best Italian Restaurants Ever. Period.

 The stuff Italian Meals are made of.  In a dreamy kind of way.

 Just before we left London this past summer, I went back to one of our favorite eating establishments with Matt - a place I've written of before: The Fat Italian.  In a last-ditch effort to do and eat everything we hadn't done and eaten in the 3 1/2 years we spent in London, we started shamelessly dishing out on posh lunches and London Eye tickets.  Most of the stuff we had was hit and miss and some of it was downright boring and overpriced, and so in the end we decided maybe just revisiting our favorite places was a good way to make our big exit in "good taste" if you'll allow me the lame pun.  What we ate there was a simple but unforgettable lunch - one lacking in pretention and price but weighty on taste and even health.

The Last Lunch
Fat Italian Style
Pasta all'Amatriciana accompanied by a simple tomato salad
and soybeans tossed with semi-sun-dried tomatoes and carciofi in olive oil
Prosciutto and Avocado accompanied by a Caprese salad
Sliced Ciabatta and Aqua Gassata
Two Caffe Macchiati with Biscottini di Mandorla

Aesthetically pleasing and delicious.  We also ate at a local family-run Putney haunt worth mentioning called Valentina.  It was literally our last dinner in London, and I'm glad we went with good, simple  Italian for it.

As you read in my last post, and have probably already gathered from this one: I've got Italy on the Brain.  I have been shamelessly blabbing about our upcoming trip to anyone that will listen (despite having planned very little of it yet - yikes.).  And last night I was further plunged into a pool of Italic nostalgia when I decided to go out with some girlfriends for dinner and left Matt a no-need-to-reheat-or-cook dinner that I thought he would enjoy.  The menu went a little something like this:

Matt's Awesome Bachelor-Night Dinner
*small flare of trumpetiness*
Vinegar-cured Greek Kalamata Olives: black and green mix
Buffalo Mozarella Caprese Salad with garlic, basil and balsamic vinaigrette dressing
Prosciutto and Avocado Platter dressed with black pepper, EVOO and lemon juice
Freshly sliced Oregano Ciabatta
A Cherry Danish for dessert

I admitted to my friends once we arrived at the Indian restaurant we chose that I had left home a little envious of his meal.  And despite thoroughly enjoying my dinner at Ushna, this morning I woke up and made myself a platter of prosciutto and avocado for breakfast.   Yes, that is generally how I roll.

Since first encountering prosciutto and avocado - an obvious yet under-used combination - at Frankie's in Putney, I have been a devotee.  It's the easiest and simplest thing in the world to make, provided you have good quality, fresh ingredients (what's new, right?). It is as pleasing to the eye as to the palate and just wreaks of sophistication, which always sits well with me. :) 

Well, anyway, all of this prosciutto-y delirium inspired me to make a quick list of my favorite spots for the best Italian food in all the places I've lived so far.  It's an undertaking, but one that I found immensely satisfying as, in writing it, I re-lived some of my favorite meals to date.

* * *

Brenda's All-Time Top Italian Restaurants Ever. Period.
all over the world, in fuzzy-memory form

One is a swanky super-modern Italian restaurant located on the King's road where traditional food is elevated to the palate of London's foodie elite.  The other is a family-run 35+ year old restaurant in Fulham serving rustic home-style Tuscan fare.
 You can't go wrong with either, though admittedly the latter is far cheaper and less likely to snicker at you when you're tempted to drown the carefully pan-fried sea bass in grated Parmesan cheese, even though I might raise an eyebrow. :)

3. New York: Caffe Taci (or Patsy's?)
They look like mere mortals.  They always do.  Opera singers, I mean.  But they're not.  And if you're an opera fan, you know this very much to be true.  Caffe Taci is the only place I know of that is these three unique things at once: a casual opera house, an Italian culinary force in its own right, and home to the best Lobster Fra Diavolo I've ever had in my life (ok except the one I had at Patsy's on the West Side - please go there!).

World renowned singers from the Met Opera come hang out here, have a few drinks, and serenade the innocent bystanders on a make-shift stage with a live octogenarian Russian pianist accompaniment.  The place was in Greenwich Village when I lived in Manhattan but it has moved more times than I can count and last I heard the Opera nights were being held at some placed called Bistro Papillon (kill me now).  But they did have a documentary made about them (Mad About Opera), which at least guarantees my dearly beloved Toreador will not be forgotten anytime soon.

2. Rome: The Centro (or that place by the Pantheon?)
Sorry, as cool as "The Centro" sounds it falls short of any kind of trendy modern Italian restaurant image you might have based on its name.  In fact, it is pretty much as "uncool" of a place to eat as you can imagine, if you function under standards set by modern society at large, that is.  On the other hand, if you're a Wannabe Latin Scholar, a budding Ancient Roman Archeologist, or even an aspiring and wordy Renaissance Art Historian as I once was, it's the best place in Rome, at least as far as nostalgic cravings go, and as long as you don't mind plastic tablecloths.

But in all seriousness, when I did my one-semester study abroad program at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies (as it were), not only did I get a soul mate out of the deal, I was lucky enough to get amazing food.  The cafeteria catered only to the 36 students and 4 professors, and it was run entirely by old Italian ladies who served only traditional home-style Italian food.  Simple, easy to make, and involved fresh seasonal ingredients.  The bread wasn't always amazing, and it was technically BYOW, but hey - pumpkin risotto, Amatriciana, Caprese Salads - every week?!  Awesome.  And they also made a mean carpaccio, but for a truly amazing one you'd have to go to that place directly in front of the Pantheon.  No, not McDonald's.  And no, I don't remember the name. :)

1. Duino: Al Cavalluccio (or the Mickey Mouse Bar?)
When I sit down with Matt and try to list the all-time top five best meals in my life (which I do surprisingly often), a lunch we had in October of 2007 at Al Cavaluccio is always on that list, no matter how hard it is to come up with the rest.  This is particularly notable because in that same weekend we also stayed, ate and drank at the infamous Hotel Cipriani Venice, an experience that left me, well, mostly just chatting about Al Cavaluccio some more. :)

Al Cavaluccio is situated in the small and scenic port of a tiny Italian village called Duino where I lived and studied for two years at the United World College of the Adriatic (brava, I know).  I once found a seahorse (which I still have) right by the restaurant steps, which I take as a supreme sign from above that it's a chosen place.  It's also one of the most scenic, pleasant little restaurants I've ever eaten at with its al fresco area roofed by grape vines and with a full-ocean view.
Photo credit

Duino is noteworthy not only because of its natural beauty - nestled atop dramatic cliffs along the Adriatic sea - but also because of its intellectual / literary past and present.  Rilke was inspired to write his Duino Elegies (some of my favorite poetry) there and even Dante was rumored to have once visited the Castello di Duino and meditated on a rock ("la scoglia di Dante") there.

Al Cavaluccio is where the then-student-poor foodie in me got her kicks on the wages of an unpaid English tutor (apart from Mickey Mouse where I serially ordered the Insalatona and Patatine con Salsa Rosa).  I would go down of a Friday evening and order their seafood soup as my entire meal.  If I was feeling particularly generous I'd get a glass of wine (which let's face it, I generally was).

Anyway, I graduated the UWCAD in 2000.  When I went back to Al Cavaluccio in October 2007 with Matt, the same waiter served me that had served me in my student days - same wild bushy hair, same unbottoned pirate-esque waiter shirt, same wild bushy chest hair.  And get this - he remembered me!  We ate a whole seabass cooked in rock salt (branzino al sale) and garnished with lemon (brought out whole, still under hot salt, to your table where the waiter de-bones and serves it).  We had simply sauteed spinach and roast potatoes to accompany it.  We also splashed out on a bottle of Prosecco that sparkled almost as much as the Adriatic in front of us.  Best. ITALIAN. Meal. EVER.

The sparkling Adriatic.
Duino, Porto

Hurry up, go buy some prosciutto and avocado.  You'll thank me for my insistance.

This post is brought to you by the Opera Nights at Caffe Taci - an intensely nostalgic, deliciously exhilirating affair to remember.
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  1. Sweet, love this list and the recap of global Italian hot spots. Wish I knew about Centro before Rome, I kinda feel like you held out on me. Oh well, must go back now. =)

    I posted a find you may want to factor into your plans.

  2. Oyster - yeah sorry about that :)
    And awesome - will def be checking your blog soon!