We had travelled in October-November 2012 on a food-and-wine-focused tour of Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna, and had relied heavily on the many posters on CH who take the time to share their knowledge --- in this instance, especially, allende and barberinibee. I had posted reports on Piemonte, had intentions of posting on ER as well --- but a frantically busy period at work right after returning intervened (always happens to me after time away). As time went by, a detailed report seemed less and less meaningful.
Seems relevant again as we are in the process of quickly putting together an impulsive visit to ER and Lombardia during this Christmas break. Figured perhaps even such a late report can at least serve as a token of our gratitude to the posters who had helped us and, especially, to two hosts whose extraordinary hospitality we will never forget.
Dal Pescatore was our first port of call in this part and, based on the suggestion on their website, we stayed at Palazzo Quaranta Hotel at Isola Dovarese. Had communicated beforehand with the Hotel owner, Signor Malaggi, to arrange a taxi to take us to the restaurant and bring us back, as we would surely end up having a bottle of wine each. We were told the taxi wants 50 euros for round-trip and that makes little sense: the restaurant is only 6 kms each way. We still wanted the cab: this was going to be the most expensive meal of the trip anyway.
We check in: a beautiful hotel situated on a lovely piazza, a real palazzo, huge rooms, frescoes on ceiling, and a totally modern stylish bathroom!
It starts raining and taxi doesn't show up. Signor Malaggi says he would drop us off, get the Santini family to ring him when we start on dessert and then come and pick us up. That turned out to be near midnight and we later found out he woke up from sleep to pick us up on a night with wild weather! Next morning we tried to add the 50 euro to the hotel bill that we would have paid the taxi anyway, but Signor Malaggi wouldn't hear of it. Grazie, Signor Malaggi!
The meal was memorable in many ways. We have never seen that level of gracious service involving every member of a family. Had one of the degustazione; requested substituting the venison with the duck (for we get superb venison where we live in Sydney and often cook a tenderloin of venison when entertaining), no problem, of course; a plate of vegetables in place of something ... it came as an extra course at no charge. We thought the lobster and the risotto were the best dishes. We asked where the saffron in the risotto came from ... oh, from the garden, picked by nonna. We hinted maybe they should let their customers know that ... and, after that, we were told about the origin of each produce. The wine list, as expected, was great. Our decision to stay away from Barolo (having spent the week before in Piemonte enjoying superlative aged Barolo) meant it was hard to find competing quality. Met the entire family, including nonna. On the whole, a memorable (and a memorably expensive) experience, but if truth be told, we prefer a somewhat lower-key service, like that in, say, Il Cascinalenuovo in Piemonte, that's knowledgable and attentive without being hyper-attentive and hushed. Nonetheless an experience we would like to repeat once more.
Next stop was Modena where we had a reservation for dinner at Osteria Francescana. This was meant to be our other big-name restaurant and an altogether different style of food from all of the other places on this trip. And it was indeed a very interesting experience. The chef patron, Massimo Bottura, took the order himself. We asked what might be on the "sensations" menu ... "oh, impossible to say, depends on what we think up in the experimental kitchen". OK, maybe we will stick to the "classics" (that are at least described, although in an impressionistic way) ... and he quickly said he can add one item from the "sensations" menu. The first two courses were a tempura (described as a "tempura" on the menu) and a lacquered eel dish, and very good they were. When Signor Bottura returned to our table, I asked, out of curiosity, what the source of (what I thought was obviously) Japanese influence in his food was. Although I had not realized it was a provocation, Signor Bottura was offended. He held forth on how eel was a part of the local food for centuries (no doubt true), his grandmother used to prepare it (lacquered to look like a teriyaki sauce, although it wasn't?), how what I might call dashi has various meat bones (in addition to the items that make a traditional dashi, something we make quite often) and is really a broth ...
And he had just been to Sydney and how it is Sydney that's obsessed with Japanese food (partly true), how it is impossible to find uniquely Australian food (not true except in the sense that modern Australian cuisine, like Californian cuisine, is ultimately derivative), how Mark Best is the only chef in Sydney thinking about a uniquely Australian cuisine (also not true; Best is a highly talented chef whose "philosophy" of food happens to be closest to Bottura's, among the chefs in Sydney). But we thought a celebrity chef who is so fiery about food, so ready to engage with his customers so passionately at so many levels, must be rare and remarkable indeed. Back to the food there. For us, the course that was a revelation was a tasting of Parmigiano Reggiano at different *temperatures* --- 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 C. There is a recent New Yorker piece on Bottura that is very interesting and of course, being a New Yorker piece, very well-written. However, the two dishes written up there were the two most "constructed" and those were our least favourite. It is clear from the New Yorker article (and indeed Signor Bottura's descriptions to us) that much thought has gone into their construction.
We had written to Hostaria Giusti in advance to try for a lunch reservation (for the day after Francescana) and had never heard back. We were going to go to another place but then, just in case, asked the receptionist at the hotel if she could call them about our reservation. And before she could finish spelling out our name, it was clear they in fact *had* a reservation for us, and apparently had replied to us! Delighted, we went, had a very simple meal --- so simple it is almost hard to describe --- but excellent in every way. Even the Lambrusco (which I confess I have always thought of as a bit of a joke) they served was pretty good and went very well with the food. A pity that, of the four tables in the restaurant, one was a no-show, one had only person, and the other two had a couple each --- so, five altogether. The sign outside said "Completo". Afraid they have some software issue, whereby they think responses to booking requests are being automatically sent but they are not being received.
The next two nights were spent in Bologna. Although this was going to be a food-focused trip and everything I had read on CH suggested Bologna was over-rated on that score, I felt we had to go --- for I have been there before and my wife has never been and it is such an endlessly fascinating city.
Wanted a light dinner after Giusti, went to Trattoria Anna Maria. Our first mediocre meal in this trip --- maybe even slightly worse than mediocre. Shared a plate of vegetables and had tagliatelle al ragu. Suffice to say that, IMHO, there is better freshly prepared tagliatelle available in more than one Emilian restaurant in Sydney (e.g., Pasta Emilia).
Next day we decided to take our cue from a recent UK Telegraph interview with Fred Plotkin on Bologna that barberinibee had so kindly posted when I was looking for advice for Bologna. Had a light lunch at Giampi e Ciccio: good without being special. Dinner at Carminetto d'Oro and it was an order of magnitude better. We had pretty standard fare: salumi, tortellini in brodo, cotoletta, and a plate of vegetables --- we really don't like a meal without vegetables --- but they were prepared well.
Wanted a light lunch the next day as we were headed to da Ivan for dinner. Somehow, we didn't want to take a risk and went back to Carminetto d'Oro. A nice shared plate of grilled vegetables there along with good tagliatelle al ragu.
We will always remember the dinner and the stay at da Ivan for the extraordinary hospitality of Ivan. Shared a plate of culatello, each had stinco di maiale, and shared the cheese board --- all superb. It was our last night in Italy and we wanted another good Barolo. We recall it was an excellent one (afraid can't accurately remember what it was), and before the cheese course came, we had already finished the bottle. I asked if we could have a half-bottle of something less exalted or if he had something suitable by the glass. My Italian (or Ivan's English) wasn't good enough for that communication. A fellow diner was pressed into service as an interpreter. When Ivan understood, he laughed and went to his cantina and came back with a magnum bottle! We started to protest ... that was a miscommunication ... Ivan calmed us down, then proceeded to go to every guest in the dining table and pour a taste from the bottle, an excellent aged Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and came and sat down at our table with half of the magnum left, poured a glass for himself, and left the rest for us.
He talked about his family in Italian (of which we understood only a fraction); asked about us and we spoke in English (of which he understood only a fraction). Nonetheless, I think we largely understood each other. Needless to say, he refused to take any money for the extra bottle of wine when we checked out next morning.
Next day we went to La Buca just a short distance away. It was one of the humblest and most memorable meals of the trip. Following allende's advice, we had ordered some culatello and tagliatelle con culatello and prete and mariola for us to share --- simple and divine. We had to be careful with the wine ... for right after lunch, we had to drive to Malpensa to catch our flight back :(
The food and the wine are still fairly fresh in my mind, but I know they will begin to fade at some point. I am sure, however, we will always remember --- with gratitude and fondness --- the extraordinary hospitality and warmth of Signor Malaggi at Palazzo Quaranta and of Ivan at Hostaria da Ivan.
Hope nobody suffered through the entire report ... but now feel less guilty.
In this thread below, will seek some advice on our upcoming trip to ER, Lombardia and a bit of Veneto ... maybe tomorrow