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Friday, June 26, 2009

Swing At The First Pitch

CEFALÙ, Sicily – Baseball wisdom advises against swinging at the first pitch. See what they’ve got, and work the pitcher for something you can turn into a hit.

Driving into Cefalù, I had a restaurant I’d tried before and a couple new recommendations on where to eat written on a scrap of paper in my pocket.

It was also Time To Eat, and pulling into the back side of town, we saw a roadside tavola calda (think buffet, but good) with a nice deck, sun and shade, ficus and palms.

God knows how much time I’ve frittered away tracking down a lead or looking for that next good spot when a place like this presented itself, but here, I didn’t even ask – I just pulled into a parking spot.

It didn’t look like much on the inside, but that didn’t matter on the deck, where, once you had ordered, runners in gas-station style green and blue jumpsuits and white caps hustled orders out to the tables.

Everything was tasty – a seafood and vegetable salad, great roast potatoes with rosemary goodness and good, local-style arancini – stuffed and breaded rice balls that make a quick meal on their own. ‘Local-style’ apparently means that they don’t have a red sauce in with the filling and mom asks me to get some.

My Italian can be painfully bad, but despite a passable attempt for the desired sugo, the waiter looks at me with the blankest of faces.

I re-explain, stressing the maternal need and appealing to his inner momma’s boy. He sweetly replies that though they don’t do it like that in these parts, he’ll get some.

Long enough time elapses to think he’s forgotten, but right when we’re wrapping up, he reappears with a piping hot, custom-made arancini in his hands.

“For mamma,” he says. “A regalo.”

A gift.

A home run.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Taming Ogres

PALERMO - Dad can be very good at bonding with the locals. His eyes might glaze over with a museum guide or, say, me when I get going about food, but give him someone salty in a tweed cap or a tour bus driver and in five minutes, they’ll be sharing a bag of sunflower seeds with Dad telling the joke about the drunk twins from the County Cork.

In Palermo, this happens with Sicily guide Jean Paul Barreaud, the man who introduced me to pastry chef and gelato god, Santi Palazzolo, and spoke my favorite Motherland quote: “Sicilians eat like ogres.”

Their bonding subject was instant: Palermo traffic.

“I like your car Jean-Paul, are those claw marks on the bumper?” Asked Dad.

“The only pedestrians with untouchable rights are pregnant women,” replied Barreaud, not skipping a beat. “Everyone else is fair game.”

I couldn’t tell if Dad, a true road warrior, was terrified or agog in admiration for the Palermitans, but I can say that he never took the wheel and after returning home, he wrote a lengthy email thanking me for driving.

Barreaud brought us to U Zù Caliddu, a former smuggler’s safe house in the hills above Palermo run by a sprawling family that includes a grandmother in the kitchen and a four year old playing soccer in a Spider Man costume in the dining room.

There’s a 15-euro fixed-price menu that could put even the hungriest ogre under the table, but it’s also a great way to get a handle on family-style Sicilian. The antipasto includes great examples of the sweet and sour caponata, roasted ricotta and a pizza cousin called ‘old man’s face’ – a square and thick pie with a cheese-laden red sauce that Dad promptly got all over his shirt.

Seemingly from nowhere, the guide pulled out a bottle of miracle stain cleaner that he sprays on Dad’s shirt.
Barreaud looks at me and smiles, “He’s becoming Italian!”

U Zù Caliddu – MAP
C/ del Piano dell’ochio
Torretta (PA)
091 8983913

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dusty laurels

It’s fine. I just don’t get what the fuss is about. Maybe I miss my old bakery - L’Autre Boulange in the 11th.

Belleville’s Au 140 bakery won Best Baguette in Paris in 2001 and the way they string the accolades up around the bakery, you’d think it was last week.

There are more scientific ways to do this, but the most Parisian baguette test is to nibble off the end on the way home. A really good one won’t be sticking out of the top of your bag by the time you unlock the door.

Still, it’s fine. There’s a trace of an almost sourdough-y bite, but I’d be hard pressed to say it’s much better than most. Top 40 percent? Mine was a bit past its prime freshness and mysteriously cool on the inside, but that might just be me being sensitive and wanting it to live up to expectations.

Up in this neck of the woods, there’s La Flûte Gana on the Rue des Pyramides which is technically a flute and not a baguette, but it blows the doors off of Au 140.

L’Autre Boulange MAP
43 rue de Montreuil
75011 Paris
+33 1 43 72 86 04

La Flûte Gana MAP
226 Rue des Pyrénées
75020 Paris
+33 1 43 58 42 62

Au 140 MAP
140 rue de Belleville
75019 Paris

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Carme’s coming to Barcelona

News flash – Catalan Carme Ruscalleda, Spain’s first female chef with three Michelin stars, will open her first restaurant in Barcelona at the city’s Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Ruscalleda has three stars for her Restaurant Sant Pau in the town of Sant Pol de Mar and two more for the Tokyo version of the restaurant.

Who’s cooking in Barcelona? Her son, Raül Balam, who’s been working beside his mother in Sant Pol de Mar for years.

Doors are scheduled to open at the end of the year.

Bon profit!

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Sicilian Street Theater

PALERMO – Mom and Dad are gone and I have Palermo to myself for the morning. I walk behind the Teatro Massimo in the city center, find a bakery where fresh, hot, ricotta-laden pastries come out of the back room just as I enter.


Outside, a helicopter whoops mysteriously. I down my coffee and head outside with breakfast to see what the fuss is about.

The theater has moved outdoors.

“You can’t stand there,” says someone who I’ll later realize is a plainclothes policeman.

Twenty-odd mobsters have been rounded up and, one by one, under cover of the helicopter and an impressive line of carabinieri cars, they are escorted out of a special police station, down a set of stairs and into a waiting car.

Wives and grandmothers dissolve into tears and collapse to the sidewalk. News crews and families are pushed around. Tragedy! Comedy! Italians have a particular capacity for making the serious look ridiculous.

Some of the cons come out of the door and pause at the top of the stairs with a look of dread. Newbies. Others grin and give a handcuffed wave with a look that says, ‘Don’t worry honey, I’ll be outta the clink in a couple of days.’

One guy has a plastic bag that looks like it’s stuffed with a three-day supply of pasta and cannoli.

I pop the last bite of pastry, take a nervous picture of the chaos and wander toward my gelato.

Da Carlo is as fantastic as ever. I have scoops of yogurt and cantaloupe gelato in a brioche capped by a beautifully not-too-sweet whipped cream.

Later, I wash it down with a standup coffee at Caffé del Moro where the barista blurs the line between man and machine.

Without looking, he flips a clean espresso cup from the top of machine to his other hand, waiting for it next to the portafilter. Steam rises from the used grounds in the knockbox.

I ask if I can make a photo and while his machine gurgles, he sizes me up with a look that says, ‘Why bother?’ combined with ‘I don’t care.’

“Fa,” comes the response. Do it.

I’ll miss this city.

Caffé del Moro - MAP
Via Giovanni Da Procida, 3

Gelateria Da Carlo - MAP
Corso dei Mille, 72

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Scallops like scallops. Pigeon like pigeon.

PARIS – It’s perplexing when a new favorite doesn’t live up to what you remember.

A few months ago, I went to F.S. favorite Au Bascou and had a transcendent dish that, when I looked at the price - a bit more than what I’m used to paying with mains in the low to mid twenty euro range - still said ‘well worth it.’ I knew I’d go back.

Tonight, on my return, I thought of the restaurant as a place that out of town guests would never find on a first trip to Paris and it was only…good.

Scallops tasted like scallops. Pigeon like pigeon. Cooking temperatures were perfect, yet nothing was lifted to that happy level where what’s in your mouth becomes more interesting what you’re talking about.

Fittingly, a thirty-odd euro Corbières was never mentioned as good or bad. The service was as slightly understaffed and flighty as ever – nothing to complain about at a corner café, but here, it feels like you’re paying for a bit more and not quite getting it.

I want to like this place as much as I did before. I want my meal to interrupt.

Au Bascou MAP
38, rue Réaumur,
75003 Paris
+33 1 42 72 69 25

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Friday, June 05, 2009

Sicilian sex food

RAGUSA, Sicily

I thought Ciccio Sultano was the only Sicilian serving sex food – the kind of stuff that makes you want to forget you’re in a public place, vault the table and make a meal out of your date.


One of the things I like about Chef Francesco Cassarino and his Ragusa restaurant is that he’s not afraid to do pizzas that tend to be in the 5-10 euro range on a menu that also includes a 58 euro tasting menu; both are great values, but it’s rare to see someone with the guts and skill to do it all right.

Naturally, Cassarino is a product freak and his menu lists four types of olive oil, six salts and five kinds of pepper. Apparently, we both share a dislike for Peugeot pepper grinders (no coarse grind) but he’s ordering a special German grinder normally used by scientists to extract the most from his peppercorns. Until then, he uses a mortar and pestle crushing pepper to order.

One of the first plates with a tasting menu is an index card-sized slice of fat from a Spanish pata negra cured ham atop a similar-sized thick slice of lightly-smoked beef carpaccio with Maldon salt and specially-imported Szechuan pepper so fresh that it actually fizzes in your mouth.

Everything happens at once: textures and flavors, smoky, salty and slippery, fizzy and raw.

Damn these public places. I want to vault the table.

Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio MAP
via P.Nenni 78

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The death of Pizza Otto

Ragusa, Sicily

Whenever I’m in the Motherland, Francesco, my good pal and stalwart guide, humors my quest to find the best pizza in Sicily.

There’s some good stuff in the south where he’s from, strong examples in Palermo and more unique, thicker pies in Trapani. We ignore the question of ‘what is real Sicilian pizza?’ and just go with our taste buds.

In the end, we got to the point where, instead of calling places by their names, we’d just call them by their score on a ten-point scale. The place in the hotel down the hill with Speedy Gonzales on the takeout box? Pizza Sette. The seaside place? Sette Punto Cinque. Reigning southern champion? La Contea in Modica, where a pie with rocket, cured wild boar and parmesan (a combination that tends to send me over the moon with glee no mater in which state I find it) which earned it the Pizza Otto title.

Before I came back to the Motherland, Francesco started hinting at a new find: a place he was calling ‘Pizza Nove Plus.’ The ‘plus’ being for the food at Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio (which we’ll get to in another post) hidden in the outskirts of Ragusa.

As a group appetizer, we order a tomato, mozzarella and basil pie. The sauce is sweet and acidic, the crust crisp and soft with wood-fired flavor. Plus, there’s milky sensuality from the mozzarella and a crisp, fresh bite from the basil.

Pizza Otto was dethroned in one bite.

Later, after a full non-pizza meal, I get edgy, thinking that I might not be back here for a while.

After the cheese course, I find chef Francesco Cassarino wandering the floor and ask for another pizza.

Full to the gills, everyone at the table stares at me funny until it shows up, but Francesco dutifully has a slice.

The pie has a sort of flight path: “This won’t change my life,” I think over my first bites, but then the Parmesan and cured meat sweeten and begin working together.

I look over and Francesco has broken his fork-and-knife protocol and eats his pie with his hands. He pops the last bite of crust into his mouth with an ‘I-told-you-so’ smile.

Then he asks for another slice.

Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio MAP
via P.Nenni 78

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