Postcard from Bergamo, Italy: Final meals in Italy

The porcini man. We never learned his name. He slices fresh porcini throughout the day, places them in boxes at the door of the store and lets the distinctive woodsy scent announce to the locals the arrival of their supply.

The seductive ploy worked on us. We would sautee what for us was a luxurious mushroom with some of his rich dried tomatoes for a light supper. We visited him almost everyday.

Okay, not everyday for his porcini. His wine beckoned us to cross his threshold. He had the best prices and selection in the high, walled section of Bergamo. We could have bought wine down below, but it would have been a long haul back up the hill. And he was less than a block away from us on the narrow main street of the Alta Citta. A truffle store was a block away the other direction, but we limited our intake to shavings applied in restaurants.

There was a dangerous shop nearby that I tried to avoid. A storefront with two full windows of licorice candies. That business model would never fly in the United States.

Although there is nothing in my blood, I must have been born with Italian taste buds. The Italians seem to love the flavor of anise, and their licorice is the real thing. I crave the intense flavor but worry about the impact on my blood pressure. The memory of staying up half the night in a wide-awake state after a waiter in Ferrara left a full bottle of licorice liqueur on the table for me to self-serve reminds me to temper my intake. I asked the Mister – who absolutely has no hankering for licorice – to restrict me to a pastille or two a day.

While we continued to enjoy the traditional pumpkin-filled pasta, risotto, grilled vegetables and pizza we became accustomed to during our sojourn in Italy, our favorite restaurant in Bergamo was outside the walls in the city below. Monna Lisa successfully and subtly marries the flavors of fresh products and traditions of Lombardy tinged with accents from its owners’ native turfs – she hailed from Sicily and he from India. Results might include sea bass and ginger ravioli in a delicate mint and pea cream sauce; lentils dhal with smoked herring and coriander; or purple potato flan with gorgonzola and hazelnuts. So worth the hike down and the climb back up to the Alta Citta.

And, am embarrassed to admit, during our eighth week in Italy, a brand, new hamburger spot – Goss Grill – opened up almost across the street from us. We were among the first customers, ordering one to go to split hidden away in our apartment. It truly was as good as any American hamburger, yet tinged with an Italian accent of grilled eggplant and sun-dried tomato on top.

The subversive hamburger diversion should not be misconstrued to mean we do not continue to bow at the altar of alta cucina. Everywhere we go, we seek out Italian food after a week or so of immersion in any other cuisine.

It’s embedded in our taste buds.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: First tastes of Emilia Romagna

This smiling whole hog symbolically welcomed us to the wealth of the traditional foods of Emilia Romagna. He seemed comfortably perched atop the counter of a booth set up for Il Cibo e Chi lo Fa Mercato del Gusto Italiano set up for the weekend on a plaza adjacent to the Cathedral. Although he continued to shrink as slices of him sold throughout the day.

This region of Italy produces some of its best-known cheeses, meats and vinegar. Think of parmiggiano and numerous goat cheeses, cured thinly-sliced Parma ham and aged balsamic vinegar from Modena. Ferrara was an ideal place to dive into some of the regional classics.

Virtually no menu is without cappellacci di zucca, a plump pasta filled with spiced pumpkin puree. It is served primarily two ways, either al ragu, with meat, or in a butter and sage sauce. The best, and most artfully presented, version we encountered was al ragu at Cibo. The meat sauce was flavorful without overpowering the comforting pumpkin. Lebanese were lurking in the kitchen, though, and I broke from the traditional for a chance to order kibbeh, a meat dish I’d wanted to revisit ever since a nephew’s mother-in-law generously contributed it to a Thanksgiving dinner several years ago.

Our go-to pizzeria proved to be Pizzeria Ristorante Este Bar, but the kitchen at the always bustling restaurant is capable of more than a great pie. We had two incredibly good octopus dishes there. One was a rich regional version in which the extremely tender chunks of pulpo topped a bowl filled with pureed cannellini beans and crisped guanciale. Guanciale is cured pork cheek or jowl that is regarded as a much more tender and flavorful ingredient than the pancetta commonly used in dishes at home. Our favorite preparation of octopus here, though, was Sicilian in style, with chunks of potatoes.

Spaghetti here bears little resemblance to the American version of the pasta. Freshly made, it emerges from the kitchen in a thicker, squiggly, more satisfying form. The best we sampled was in a casual, off-the-beaten-path, neighborhood spot, diCibo, that a tourist probably only would find if trying to locate a self-service laundry mat. The perfectly cooked pasta was topped with a bountiful array of fresh seafood.

Both the lasagna and the risotto – aged parmesan makes everything taste better – were great at Trattoria da Noemi. We tried a pasta new for us, passatelli, at Osteria del Babbuino, where a nice blend of jazz is on the soundtrack. With a texture midway between regular pasta and gnocchi, passatelli is formed from bread crumbs, egg and parmesan and cooked in broth. Babbuino’s was offered alle cozze vivaci in crema di cannellini, with mussels in a sauce made from cannellini beans.

Salads in Ferrara tend to be generous but rather basic, so we drifted often to the healthiest other option, grilled vegetables. Sides of grilled eggplant, peppers and zucchini are found on menus almost everywhere, and we were happy to quickly throw salads together at our apartment from prewashed arugula and watercress readily available. I keep longing for watercress to be offered this way in grocery stores at home.

Many of the restaurants in Ferrara still follow the hospitable tradition of providing diners with a complimentary glass of house-made limoncello at the end of the meal. DiCibo instead gave us a refreshing orange version, arancello, and Babbuino offered a choice of limoncello and liquore di liquirizia, my downfall. The bottles were placed on the table with rather large glasses for us to self-administer our servings. A licorice-lover, I poured myself a conservative helping, leaving my glass at least one-quarter empty. Every sip of the deep black liqueur was luscious, but then bedtime came. I was totally wired for most of the sleepless night.

Think the Mister has placed liquore di liquirizia on my off-limits list.