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.

Postcard from Lisboa, Portugal: Yes, we did eat out a bit.

Traveling for six weeks, we did not always make it to the restaurants with the hottest chefs. We were reserving some of them for the end of our trip, and, by then, we weren’t up for such major meals. Plus, we had some favorite spots beckoning return visits.

Am arbitrarily dividing the food into two categories. The second post will deal with restaurants serving “foreign,” as in not Portuguese, fare.

The Mister’s favorite fish dish of the trip, meaning we went to the place twice so he could enjoy it again, was what I believe is called bream fish at Belem 2 to 8. The flaky fillet topped layers of greens, potatoes and a richly seasoned tomato sauce. For the first time after seeing it on many menus, I broke down and tried the traditional fried green beans. These are whole, long beans in a tempura batter. The Portuguese claim to have originated tempura cooking for seafood and vegetables – tempura referring to the “time” of no-meat fasting during Lent – with missionaries spreading its usage to Japan in the 1600s.

There were a multitude of restaurants within a few blocks of our apartment. Carmo Restaurante was on a lively plaza filled with jacaranda trees and street musicians. Enjoyed freshly steamed clams and octopus rice there. We were prowling for vegetables when we found Café Royale, with a “parcel” of thinly sliced eggplant wrapped around vegetables, tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella and a goat cheese salad. Another great haven for lighter vegetable dishes was Vertigo Café, a place one immediately felt comfortably at home. There, we enjoyed eggplant and zucchini toasts, a chicken and couscous salad plate and a “jacked-up” potato, with vegetables and tzatziki sauce.

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The seductive patio on a hilltop drew us for several meals at Lost in Esplanada. Everything we sampled was good, from a healthy beet soup to the decadent arugula and gorgonzola cheese toast. We also enjoyed roasted vegetables, rosemary grilled shrimp and tender octopus there.

At a nearby park, grab a table, if you can, at the Café Esplanada. Humongous rubber trees provide the shade for this spot filled with locals sipping beer. On Saturdays, there’s a farmers’ market, and the people-watching is great. Don’t delve far into the menu; order what everyone else is having – large toasts, panini-like sandwiches filled with oozing cheese. So good, and so inexpensive. And they convinced me to order a panini-maker as soon as we got home.

Smoke swirls around booths set up in the streets on the Feast Day of Saint Anthony, and many nights surrounding the date, vending fresh sardines and grilled meats slapped into sandwiches. Some vendors just go whole hog, speared from head to tail.

 

Postcard from Porto: Exploring beyond the traditional fare

Pizza always beckons us at some point no matter where we roam. And, perched over the Douro River, the glass-walled Casa d’Oro boasts both a wood-burning oven and almost the best view in town. The pizzas were pretty good, and the arancini made up for missing Central Market’s Passaporto Italia. The  arugula and parmigiano salad was perfect, and even better when combined with the pear and goat cheese salad – a mountain of cubes of both those key ingredients.

With almost an equally prime view on the opposite side of the river from Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia, Real Indiana gave us a burst of flavors totally different from the traditional  dishes of Porto. Texas tastebuds had begun yearning for an infusion of spicy flavors, so the sauces were welcome. The mixed grilled meats as an appetizer were plentiful; each one – chicken, lamb, beef, gyro – had such wonderfully distinctive seasoning. The vegetable biryani was pleasing as well, and all the dishes seemed to pack more punch than Indian restaurants at home.

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Book Restaurante is among the restaurants updating traditional Portuguese dishes well. Located in a former book store in a downtown neighborhood with several others still surviving, the restaurant keeps shelves of books on the wall and delivers menus and checks in pages of (seemingly) random books. We ate there twice, our first experience being so positive – a lunch special of luscious carrot soup followed by a large timbal of potatoes, greens and crusty codfish. Our second visit was minus the lunch special, so had a painful pinch to it. But, aside from that, the tender tentacle of octopus twisted into a pot layered with roasted slices of sweet potatoes and greens was truly a remarkable dish.

Amazingly, our other contemporary-take experiences were right in our neighborhood. This past March, an enthusiastic new manager making a career change took over a traditional restaurant located in an old post office – O Carteiro. The results were both pleasing and geographically convenient. He introduced us to the refreshing drink of white port, tonic and mint. The kitchen makes a wonderful mixed-game sausage, which was a flavorful appetizer and wonderful as a stuffing for chicken, and the grilled sardines were the best we have had so far….