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Italy Report: Rome, Florence (& Environs) and Venice

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Restaurants & Bars

Italy Report: Rome, Florence (& Environs) and Venice

Invinoveritas | Nov 18, 2003 09:15 AM

Since I have been a consumer of information on this Board for so long, I thought it appropriate to provide some insights, albeit limited, into my recent culinary experiences in Italy. Apologies in advance for any mispellings.

Rome:
(i) Matricanella: Mentioned previously on this Board, this small, reasonably-priced restaurant located near the Spanish Steps provided the best dining experience in Rome during our stay. In particular, this retarurants excells at the art of frying various vegetables and meats. Although I did not indulge in the fried lamb's brains mentioned by a previous poster, the fried artichokes and vegetables (including porcini) were delicious. I nice mix of tourists and locals (every local table was covered in various fried foods). The fried dishes were followed by your spaghetti carbonara and buccantini alla amatricana. The buccantini was delicious while the spaghetti was a bit over-salted (a problem I found common with most pasta dishes in Italy).
(ii) Al Moro: After reading last year's article in Gourmet, I thought a visit to this traditional Roman trattoria would be quite an experience. Upon entering, we were assaulted by the smell of white truffles which were displayed in a basket as you entered the restaurant. Although the truffles were small and their quality did not appear to be high, my pavlovian response to them manadated that I order a dish that included them. Before that, we ordered artichokes in the traditional roman style (marinated), fresh mozzarella and various grilled mushrooms (porcini, oliveti (sp?). The dishes were simple but the quality of the ingredients was very high which made for a great beginning. These dishes were followed by spaghetti al moro for my wife and taglietelli white white truffles for myself. Spaghetti al moro is a version of spaghetti carbonara and was one of the few pasta dishes I tasted in Italy that contained the right amount of salt. Moreover, Al Moro's version was better and lighter than the version I had at Matricannella the night before. The white truffle dish, however, was a tremendous letdown. The white truffles did not live up to my expectations and the pasta was undercooked.
(iii) Al Ceppo: Since it was a Sunday night, our dining options were limited. This restaurant located in the Paroli district provided an average meal that did not leave a lasting impression. The meal started was a baccala appetizer over whipped potatotes that was good but was followed by an average grilled "queen fish" and beef tenderloin dish. One item of note at this restaurant was their diverse wine list that contained a high number of wines from Le Marche region (were the owner's are from) including a number of Verdicchio's that you cannot find in the U.S.
Florence
(i) Parione: As mentioned by a previous poster, this restaurant is owned by the former owner of De Vinus. We had a quick lunch here that consisted of a artichoke salad (yes, I know so many artichoke dishes but they were in season) that was excellent followed but two great pasta dishes- gnochhi in a very light meat and sundried tomato sauce and taglietelli with porcini mushrooms for my wife. Although I did not order it, I saw the bistecca which looked great.
(ii) Pandomonium: Located in the Oltarno section of town, the service here is very friendly and our appetizer of tortoloncini (large tortellini) made with ricoota and radicchio was very good. After seeing the bistecca at Parione, I couldn't resist ordering the bsitecca for two. Sursprisingly, the cut that we received only contained the sirloin portion of the porterhouse. Furthermore, I asked the owner if the beef was chianina and she indicated that it was not although the beef came from Tusacany. She indicated that chiannina is very hard to obtain although many restuarnts claim to serve it (Question: How would one be able to determine if they were served real chianina beef?). The beef is not marbeled like the meat in the U.S. which led to me conclude that the cattle are probably grass-fed rather than grain fed as is often the case in the U.S. (and thus requires the meat to be served on the rarer side to avoid toughness). Impressions of the bistecca: good but not great. Although the meat had a distinctive flavor, I missed the presences of liquid fat that often exists in good cuts of prime meat. As with my rush to white truffles in Rome, the fault lay partly with me since this was not a restaurant known for its bistecca. Nevertheless, one item that did stand out at this restauarnt- a side dish of white beans that were the best white beans I have ever had.
(iii) Walter Redailli- Located 30 miles outside of Siena in Sinalunga, we stopped here for lunch after spending the morning on a truffle hunt (very, very bad year). This was the find of our trip. This restaurant and B&B provided an exquisite meal that was very well priced for the food. The chef draws upon local ingredients (vegetables, loacl breeds of pork and beef, olive oils, etc.) to produce great dishes in a very cozy setting. Whether it was a simple poached egg on toasted bread with white truffle shavings and a touch of olive oil or a stuffed pork loin with various local vegetables, everything was done to perfection. What really made this restaurant worth noting is that the prices were extremely reasonable given the quality. The chef's lunch menu for two was only 60 euros for a meal that would have been at least 150 euros in Florence if it could be found. While we didn't stay there, I hope to visit again when were in Italy next time.
Given the size of the lunch a Redailli, we cancelled our dinner plans at Sostanza that night. Instead we raided the local gourmet shop for various cured meats, cheeses and the like and grabbed a bottle of red wine for a makeshift dinner in our suite at the Excelsior. After night upon night of dining out, this is a welcome respite that I reccomend to anyone seeking to taste some of the authentic flavors of Tusacany.
Venice:
As previous posters have mentioned, the quality varies in Venice more widely than any other city in Italy. Therefore, I only want to mention two restaurants.
(i) Alle Testiere- The best meal (slightly edging out Redailli) that we had in Italy. We started with appetizers of Scampi in a red wine broth and grilled razor clams. The scampi were a revealation for me. Used to the firm texture of most shrimp/prawn dishes, these scampi had the most incredible mouthfeel (a word I did not appreciate until trying these) of any crustacean that I have ever tasted- soft to the bite that literally melted in your mouth. The razor clams were also divine- smaller than those usally served in the U.S., they were impossible to resist. We followed these with another appetizer dish (too many good choices to resist) of local spider crabs that had been marinated for half a day then fried and served whole at room temperature with a light drizzle of a vinagrette. These tiny crabs put most soft shell crab dishes to shame. Each crab could be eaten in one or two bites and were the best! Main courses of pasta with spider crab and turbot with nuts and dried fruits. While the scampi and fried spider crab dishes warranted they best dishes of the trip award from me, my wife declared the turbot the best overall. Cooked perfectly, this dish reminded me of the best of what Le Bernadin has offered on my trips in the past. Lastly, don't forget to try their cheese course which contains small artisinal producers not found in the U.S. Great ending to a great meal.
(ii) Avogaria- The biggest dissapointment of the trip. Given the recent discussions on this restaurant, I was looking forward to our meal (although I had tried to get another reservation at Alle Testiere to no avail). Arriving at 8:15 we were the only people in the restaurant on a Saturday night (and it stayed that was throughout our meal). By dissapointment, I don't mean that the restaurant was bad but rather that it was not anything out of the ordinary. It should be noted that the restaurant owners are from Puglia (the heel of Italy) and the food and wine list reflect Puglian rather than Venetian cooking (although there exist a few nods to Venice). We started with a mixed fry of fish and vegetables which turned out to include only calamari and few shrimp (a far cry from the scampi at Alle Testiere), some onions and peppers. Even with such a limited selection, the fried food was not a notable example (see Matricannela above). This was followed by mixed grilled vegetables and burrata for my wife and beef in an almond sauce for myself (recommended by the server and definitely a Puglian specialty). While both dishes were fine, they did not provide any fireworks. If I had the opportunity, I would have rather tried another one of the more Venetian-oriented restaurants such as Antiche Carampane but alas it was not meant to be. Given some of the other recommendations on this Board, I cannot in good faith recommend Avogaria.

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