You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Monday, July 24, 2006

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, part III: Bologna and Venice

Bologna had the honour of hosting both a "best of" and "worst of" experience. The "best of" was the gelato: on the recommendation of our Lonely Planet guidebook, we went to La Sorbetteria Castiglione at Via Castiglione 44. It was a little bit out of the way, but every bit worth the walk. They have an "open-kitchen" concept, so you can actually watch them make the gelato you're about to enjoy. The end product itself is incredibly creamy and rich, and many of the flavours have chunks of goodness (chocolate, house-made pralines, candied fruit). This may well have been the best ice cream I've ever had in my life.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the rabbit my husband had had for dinner the night before. We happened across an ad for Trattoria del Rosso (Via Augusto Righi 30) in Bologna's gay-oriented magazine, and thought it would be nice to support a business that supports the community. That turned out to be a mistake. My meal of lamb was fine, but my husband's roast rabbit with potatoes was awful: the potatoes were improperly cooked french fries, and the rabbit was overcooked, to the point of shoe-leather consistency. I don't think I've ever seen my husband simply put down his fork and refuse to eat a meal before - it was that bad. So I complained to the waiter in a mix of English and broken Italian. He promptly consulted with one of his colleagues, and then they both left. When a third waiter came to clear our plates, he noticed that most of the rabbit and fries was left, and politely inquired "Non e' buono?" To which I replied, with verve, "No! Non e' buono! E' troppo cotto! Molto, molto troppo cotto!"

To the trattoria's credit, they struck it from our bill, but the whole experience left us with a mixed opinion of the Bolognese food scene. We may just have a conference there for my husband (who's a university professor) so we can investigate further.

Venice was probably our favourite city of the whole trip. I suspect this was partly because our expectations were low (we had been warned off it by a couple of friends), partly because the weather was much cooler there than anywhere else we'd been, and partly because of the incredible graciousness of our host, Antonio, at his bed and breakfast (called Alle Guglie B&B, not to be confused with the hotel of the same name). Because the B&B is essentially a private apartment (Antonio rents out the spare bedroom), we were even able to prepare dinner for ourselves one night. So we had an insalata caprese (tomatoes, basil and organic bufala mozzarella), some prosciutto crudo, and some walnut and radicchio ravioli dressed with olive oil. All of that, washed down with a bottle of Amarone, made for a nearly perfect evening.

In addition to providing us with impeccable recommendations for sights, Antonio also suggested a couple of restaurants. My favourite in this latter category was Bentigodi. We went here on our last night in Venice, so ordered the full deal. We started with spritz cocktails (prosecco and Aperol) and the most perfect octopus salad ever, with warm octopus on a bed of cold greens, with orange segments to round it out. For mains, my husband had a very fresh, perfectly cooked sea bass and I had baccala' with polenta. For dessert, we shared the house "chocolate salami" and I had a glass of grappa. It was a wonderful meal to end the trip.

I would add to the general observations I made in my last post that we found the flavours of some of the vegetables too really stand out. Maybe we just fell victim to the same syndrome of confusing our state of mind with the state of the food, but the tomatoes really do taste different - and much better - in Italy. Another vegetable that surprised me was arugula. I don't think of myself as being a big fan of arugula in particular, though I do like my bitter greens in general. But on our first night in Rome, I ordered a pizza with bresaola (dry-cured beef), arugula and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. It was an eye-opening experience: the arugula tasted very peppery, with only a slightly bitter flavour. Definitely a vegetable to explore.

I want to close with a word on Italy's coffee culture. The coffee was generally excellent, with a shot of espresso ranging from 85 cents to €2.50 (the latter being a price we paid less than happily to sit at a table in Florence). We liked the Bolognese tendency to serve a shot glass of sparkling water alongside the morning coffee, presumably in case there are any grinds that have made their way into the cup. My husband, who was a strictly drip-coffee-and-occasional-cappucino man before the trip, has now started drinking moka (stovetop "espresso") with me in the mornings. Indeed, the moka pot has surpassed our regular coffee maker in usage since we returned. There's even been talk of buying a home espresso maker. So the coffee culture in Italy gets two enthusiastic thumbs up!

Now back to your regular, unscheduled, made-from-scratch food blogging. Don't be surprised if you notice a higher concentration of Italian cuisine in the next little while.


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