Osteria Brunello - Milan
Having been confined to a plane for the greater part of a day sans sleep and adequate food, I was perhaps a bit over ambition in dragging my exhausted self out for some traditional Milanese food. Perhaps way too overambitious to order both the risotto and the cotoletta! I was really hungry though. And delirious.
The risotto was simply perfect. Creamy, with each al dente grain swimming independently of each other in a sauce redolent of saffron and stock. The drippings of veal jus on top offered the same flavors as a nice piece of osso bucco, but without the bulk. Couldn’t ask for a better welcome to Milan. The cotoletta on the other hand was under-seasoned and undercooked. The delicate nature of veal was lost here and the accompanying veg were unremarkable and did not really offer much to the dish as a whole. Despite the grains of salt sprinkled on top, the dish really lacked flavor in sum.
Ristorante Silvio - Bellagio
The next day I decided to take the train and head up to Lake Como. A bunch of recommendations on CH led me to choose Silvio for my meal. The narrative of fresh fish caught right off of the lake and presented for that days meal was beyond appealing for me as was the promise of a nice stroll from the ferry depot to the hotel.
Well, the stroll was not that memorable as it took me away from sight lines of the lake. I can’t say much more about the food either.
I took the suggestion of the server and ordered the fresh pasta with pike fish ragu as well as the grilled Lavarello fish. The pasta was fine, but the portion was abundant and rather one note. I would find it difficult to eat this amount of pasta as a main course, let alone a first course. On the other hand, the grilled fish was woefully overcooked as was the slop of mushy veg on the side. If this fish was indeed culled from the lake that day, it wasn’t treated with much respect. The dining room was the real amenity: an enclosed patio over looking the lake. The view was great, but it wasn’t enough to keep my mind of the mediocrity of my lunch.
Gelateria Riva di Riva Duilio - Varenna
This cone of pistachio gelato in Varenna while waiting for the train back to Milan was a perfect antidote to the lunch on Bellagio. Really strong nutty flavor and very creamy. This along with the nice stroll along the bay side was a perfect way to end my trip to the Lake.
Contraste - Milan
This was my first really outstanding meal of the trip. Super fun and creative, and super delicious.
The dining room is sort of sparse and dreamlike, with the presence of the glowing blue cloud on the table adding to the vibe. My main server explained to me that this the restaurant’s intention and I must say that it worked well. The various amuse bouches were served on that cloud before it was taken way. The standouts were a small dish of foie gras and fig creme brûlée (with a perfect sugar crack on top) and a fun version of sarde in saor, served as a gelatinous green apple. Of particular note were the beef sashimi, the donut bolognese, the cod fish, and the orange and chocolate dessert. If there were any critiques, one might be the disbursement of certain elements within some of the dishes. For example, the mussel dish tasted a little flat until a bit of the mandarin hidden at the bottom was scooped up and I hadn’t figured that out until I had almost consumed the entire portion. All in all, a very creative and tasty meal with great service that led up to its own lofty dream like goals.
All’Osteria Bottega - Bologna
If I say nothing else about this meal, let it be said that it contained the single best dish I consumed on my trip: the slow cooked pigeon with chicory. And it wasn’t like the rest of the meal was lacking in any capacity either. I was able to negotiate the meal with the most warm and delightful proprietress. She suggested that I have a half portion of pasta in order to enjoy the main. The platter of culatello has pretty much spoiled me since I have returned home. We just don’t get ham this good in the States. I feel that every twee little “charcuterie plate” I see on a menu nowadays should simply be swapped out for a plate good Italian cured ham. I really can’t think of a more perfect starter. Friends here at home have been asking me, “Isn’t it salty?” and the answer is “no.” Perfectly balanced: hearty while remaining delicate. The tortellini in brodo was wonderful, but that pigeon was exquisite. The fat was perfectly rendered, the breast meat was buttery, and the wings and thighs were caramelized so well that I really wanted to suck every last bit of surface area. A really great experience all and all and I would love to return again someday.
Vicolo Colombina- Bologna
Another great meal in Bologna. The salumi plate (the smaller of the two offerings) was diverse in its selections. I am usually loathe to eat head cheese, but the preparation was really appealing and delicious. The tagliatelle al ragu was great. Slightly toothsome pasta dressed lightly with a very flavorful ragu. Service was great and the room was quite open and cozy. At this point, my appreciation for the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna is pretty solid.
Angiol d’Or - Parma
Aside from the food, the location was pretty special, seating inside an enclosed patio peering out to the cathedral. Seemed like the right thing to have some 30 month aged prosciutto to start, and it did not disappoint (Not sure how it could!). The tortelli d’erbette were good, but the shaved cheese on top was the real highlight. Excellent quality parm. A perfect spot to have a relaxed lunch.
Gelateria la Pilotta - Parma
Insanely good gelato. And the stracciatella and amarena combo was a very good call. Excelent way to end lunch and meander around the city.
Parizzi - Parma
Sorry to say that if there was one resounding thud during my trip, Parizzi would be it. Aside from the duck ravioli and the odd foie gras with pumpkin ice cream (which actually sort of worked), the rest of the meal disappointed on several levels. The room itself felt like sort of a late 80s/early 90s throwback with pastel hued walls and craft store gems strewn across the tables. The easy listening electronica would be better suited to a day spa waiting room. And the food just did not gel. The guinea hen “Caesar” salad was no more and no less than the very un-fancy thing that it was trying to emulate. The goat dish was inedible, with the skin and fat woefully un-rendered. The idea of a parmesan tasting really excited me. However, the presence of three fairly large chunks of cheese of increasing levels of intensity with no condiment or foil other than a small glass of water was way too much to complete. Service was cheerful, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the inconsistencies in the food.
Dal Pescatore - Runate
After the letdown of dinner in Parma, the trek to Dal Pescatore was the perfect antidote. I would be hard pressed to think of a finer dining experience I’ve had in recent memory. The food was wonderful, but the aggregate experience was truly memorable. First off: the journey. The train was simple enough to take. As we were getting closer and closer to the station, i noticed that the stations further afield were lacking the signage of more populated areas and that some of the stations appeared to be no more than a small abandoned building. I got off at the right stop and ID’d one other traveller who happened to be visiting from Singapore and on their way to the restaurant as well. We opted to walk, which was a bit of a heady distance to say the least! (Upon arrival, Alberto Santini said that they would have picked us up had we called ahead). At any rate, it really is someone’s house in the middle of the country side. We went to the front door and was led to the dining room, which really felt more like a living room. A very cozy environment and a nice place to settle in an relax for the next few hours. The service was spot on. The food was great. There was a lot of technique employed, but the kitchen really let the exemplary products shine as much as possible without much manipulation. Of note were a beautiful terrine of lobster with caviar, a simple plate of some otherworldly culatello, a juicy and tender venison loin, and the famous toretelli di zucca. I had built up some expectation of the tortelli in my mind prior to coming and was not expecting it to be as assertive in flavor as it was. At first I was taken aback by the level of spice and seasoning, but I can’t get it out of my mind since departing. The use of the mostarda in the saucing was brilliant and I hope to try to create some semblance of an homage at home when fall comes back around. I was taken back to the kitchen to meet chef Nadia and her son. They stopped cooking to greet up. Chef Nadia shook my hand and said with complete sincerity that it was “an honor” to cook for me. I was really moved by this gesture. She meant it, and I was really mindful in that moment not only of the effort that people make to dine at their home, but the extraordinary care and attention that the Santini family puts forth to meet this effort. The only thing that made the experience even more personable was that Alberto and his dad cleared out their car at the end of the meal and drove me to the train station! There are other things I am probably failing to mention: the gorgeous and attentive wait staff; the red wolf statue that I would see again a few days later; the bathroom in which one does not have to touch a thing…It was really a most memorable experience and well worth the effort.
Da Danilo - Modena
I arrived in Modena and found Da Danilo right around the corner from my hotel. Very lively and casual place. Most impressed with the server who was in the weeds all night long, keeping a chipper attitude, while speaking Italian, French, and English interchangeably among various tables. He suggested that I try their tortelloni di ricotta all’ acetico balsamico for my meal. I was a bit skeptical about having vinegar being the sauce for the pasta. But I was in Modena and I said yes. It was a good decision, most likely because the quality of the vinegar was good enough to compliment the delicacy of the toretlloni. He also suggested some strawberries with balsamic and ice cream for dessert, and this was most certainly overkill at this point. The strawberries themselves were not particularly good. The pasta enough was a good way to start my stay in Modena.
Hosteria Giusti - Modena
Suffice it to say, totally worth the hype. Even if I was not going to get into Francescana (even with substantial follow-ups), this meal pretty much met the culinary goals that I had aspired to reach with this trip. The salumi melting on top of the impossibly warm and airy gnocco. The paradoxical lightness of the ragu bolognese. The tenderness of the veal cheek. I’m kind of at a loss to describe the meal fully because its brilliance really lies in its simplicity. A simplicity that obviously took years to perfect and hours to cook. And as I left, an elderly women popped her head out of the kitchen to thank me for coming in. Similarly to my experience in Dal Pescatore, it’s rare here in my neck of the woods to find such intergeneration, familial commandeering of restaurants as I observed in Italy. It is certainly a way to doing things that yields tremendous results.
Belle Parti - Padova
The walk from my hotel to Belle Parti was so ridiculously beautiful, as the sun was setting and dusk was falling over the buildings and bridges. The restaurant itself was absolutely gorgeous inside as well. The amuse was stunningly good: a quenelle of mackerel on top of some excellent polenta. The rest of the meal was not bad per se, but it did not live up to the level of those first bites. The server suggested that I try the cacio e pepe with scampi. The anecdotal belief that fish and dairy do not mix well floated in my mind. However, I was in Italy and I was game. The pasta was perfectly fine (the sauce was not so much of a creamy emulsion as a dressing that clung onto the strands). The scampi was fine was picked out separately. However, they did not combine well at all. The grand platter of crudo was fine as well. It did give me pause that they asked me if I wanted any olive oil or seasonings on the side. I assumed that the fish would have been pre-seasoned prior to coming to the table. After all is said and done, a woman who I assume was the general manager took very good care of me and led a brigade of very warm and efficient service staff.
Le Calandre - Rubino
This was certainly one of my most anticipated meals. And it wound up being one of the oddest. Take that back. It was the oddest, to my mind, at least. First off, the location. Not that three starred Michelin places have any requirement to be in the most refined settings. Having said that, the location of the restaurant reminded me of a strip mall in the central San Fernando Valley. The only thing really differentiating the entrance from a suburban dental office was an exact replica of the wolf statue I had seen at Del Pescatore. From beginning to end, the service was impeccable, on point, and rather fun. If there is one overarching criticism that I might have about the meal is that almost every single dish was extraordinary hearty and a few bites past what I would consider to be tasting menu portions. Everything was good, but nothing stood out as extraordinary. I sort of wish that I had taken a chance and gone with one of the more seasonal, experimental menus. I was advised to go with the classic selection as it was my first visit. There was some use of herbs in some of the dishes that was a bit off putting. I was brought out a coquette of their famous risotto and was told that it had not yet been dressed with juniper broth and that they wanted me to taste the “before” version. It tasted rather medicinal, reminiscent of herbal cough remedies. When they brought out the finished version (mind you, both portions were substantial), that flavor went away and melded quite nicely with the juniper broth’s addition. Mind you, this was not the best risotto that I had ever consumed (as many of the rather sycophantic reviews I had read had declared). There were a few grains left in the bottom of the dish as I was anticipating more food to come. The captain came over, scooped the remnants of the rice into my spoon, lifted it up, and fed it to me like a baby. Odd, but completely awesome. I don’t think this will ever happen again in my lifetime, but I’m glad that it did! This was indicative of the playfullness of the food. However, when this gorgeously massive bone full of marrow was sat in front of me, it tasted of burnt dried herbs – sort of as if the ashes from a hippie ritual were scattered over the food. The only real fail was the main dish of pork - unrendered fat, toothsome meat, and skin that was hard rather than crispy. As I left, I felt rather stuffed and unsatisfied by the food simultaneously. But I would love to come back and hang out with these guys again. A couple of times, Chef Alajimo came out to say hello, with a big smile on his face and a boisterous “Go Lakers!” when he found out I was from Los Angeles. Super fun experience, but the food did not match the mood for me.
Iyo - Milan
Last day of my trip and I decided that I wanted to see how Japanese cooking integrated with Italian culture. Iyo was a beautiful space with super friendly wait staff who smartly led me to order the omakase, saying that Chef Ichikawa was in the kitchen that afternoon (I was taken back to the kitchen to meet him and was delighted to hear that he had worked in Los Angeles something like 30-40 years ago!). It was a great lunch with very fresh seafood and nice clean flavors throughout. Of note were two different squid dishes: one used the bodies of the squid as “noodles” in a light dashi broth with caviar and quail egg, and the other was a dish of soba, with fresh fava beans and baby squid that are unique to Italy. I usually turn my head at white chocolate, but the dessert which was a spun globe of white chocolate with mango, was really extraordinary, both in texture and in taste. A very satisfying experience.
Tokuyoshi - Milan
My very last meal in Italy was nothing short of outstanding and a nice way to end a great trip. From my understanding, Chef Toyuyoshi was the second in command at Osteria Francescana for many years before opening his own place in Milan. The food was decidedly Italian, with modernist and Japanese elements woven in quite nicely. Seated at the bar in front of the coolest and warmest cook who was in charge of amuses and desserts, I can tell you that there was not one dud in the bunch. From the bacala mantecado to the tortellini in brodo (nothing tweaked here at all, according to the cook in front of me, in respect to all of the chef’s years in Modena) to the pigeon to the strange looking, but utterly delicious dessert of carbonized vegetable protein meringue with Jerusalem artichoke ice cream. Although I didn’t get entry into the mothership in Modena, I am glad that I was able to taste some good examples of what Italian food can be like when reinterpreted with some divergent perspectives.