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 Guanajuato, Mexico: Wishing these dining spots were not 600 miles away

Have tried to whittle this down to three recommendations for eating out in Guanajuato but failed to do so. These four were our favorites during our month-long stay, and, hopefully, the photos will convince you to roam a few blocks off the main squares to find them.

A bowl of warm vegetables with salsa to smear atop fresh bread is an unusual amuse bouche that gets meals off on the right foot at Mestizo. The seafood ceviche there is the best we have tasted anywhere, and we had difficulties weaning ourselves away from it to try other starters. Just before we left Guanajuato we broke rank and ordered the tuna carpaccio, and it was equally as good. The Mister grew particularly attached to the chicken in achiote oil, while I enjoyed the shrimp pasta as much as any pasta we had in Bologna. The Mister’s found his filete de res served as rare as ordered and extremely tender. Fish, chicken and meat entrees are offered on a bed of small roasted potatoes or perfectly prepared vegetables. Free from dictatorial reach of the Chiles en Nogada Council of Puebla, the chef shunned the batter. Sorry, Puebla, but this fresh-tasting and not-over-sauced chile rises above its heavy fried cousins to the southeast.

Even if you try nothing else, the corn and jalapeno fritters with queso fresco at Los Campos Cantina y Restaurante are a must-have. If you are not sharing them with anyone else, they make a meal unto themselves. Two kinds of guacamole tempt you as starters as well, one topped with roasted tomatoes and splashed with mezcal and the other featuring roasted corn and chapulines (read more about grasshoppers in dishes here). An unusual dish to fall in love with – a huge bowl of lentils. This was so good I tried to somewhat duplicate at home this week. Studded with bits of serrano ham, the lentils were flavored with smoky paprika and topped with a poached egg, saffrony roasted tomatoes add fried onions. Quesadillas were made with homemade corn tortillas rosily colored from beets in the masa, and the serving of burritos was so ample some had to be taken home in a doggie bag. Roasted pork was served room temperature over cauliflower puree with a morita chile salsa. And the black bean burger provided for a nice break one day.

A deep bowl of rich bouillabaisse an order repeated at El Midi Bistro. The goat cheese en croute is a wonderful starter in this touch of France in Guanajuato. The layers of roasted eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes in the vegetable tian make a great dish to share. Both the smoked salmon tagliatelle and pasta marinara are flavorful, and a salad topped with shrimp definitely can serve a full meal. Although we failed to try any of the breakfast pastries for which the French bistro is known, the apple tart certainly serves as an enticing advertisement for them.

A Mediterranean restaurant, A Punto, is spread out on the first floor of the same building housing El Midi. For a luscious start, treat yourself to roasted figs stuffed with blue cheese and topped with glazed serrano ham all nestled in preserves. The roasted eggplant “salad” arrives layered with sliced tomatoes and generous amounts of goat cheese. Avocado soup is refreshing without reliance on the heavy-handed use of cream. Both the riso marinara and the shrimp pasta with a pistachio pesto please, and the chicken is well paired with a port wine sauce and wild mushrooms. A white chocolate mousse is among the artfully presented desserts.

If any of these dishes appear extravagant, they are not. The Mister noted upon returning to el norte that the most expensive meal of the trip was consumed in the Houston airport. Sadly, it consisted of two not-very-good chicken sandwiches, one glass of house red and one PBR. Welcome home.

Postcard from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: She-chefs and expats revolutionize restaurant scene

Looking over the food photographs from our visit to San Cristobal de las Casas, it immediately struck me. Where is the Mexican food? What a dramatic change from our visit to San Cristobal more than three decades ago. There are so many contemporary fusion and international options lining the streets, we failed to eat much traditional fare.

Chef Marta Zepeda offers beautifully presented “haute” Chiapan cuisine at Tierra y Cielo, a boutique hotel focused on the food at its heart. Service was old-school Mexico; the presentation was not. Dishes we sampled included a julienned squash and apple salad with candied nuts; tamales with mole; and chicken with a pipian sauce on one side of the plate and a red mole on the other.

Another woman, Chef Daniela Mier y Teran, is at the helm of the contemporary Restaurante LUM in Hotel Bo. Our amuse-bouches were seafood empanadas, and the Mister opted for a spicily sauced tender pork dish. I jumped out of the country and plunged into a rich shrimp risotto.

Which leads us to pizza. We found a simple vegetarian pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven and loaded with chopped fresh tomatoes at the small, unpretentious neighborhood Pizzaria el Punto on a plaza reached by a flight or two of stairs in Barrio el Cerrillo. If directed to the second  floor with a view of the plaza, anyone over five-feet tall needs to watch their heads on the way upstairs.

What many consider the best Italian restaurant in town, Trattoria Italiana, was half a block from our house. Ordering is complicated because the owner-chef speaks Italian and Spanish and has no written menu. He recites the daily options – which are extensive – to you. We ended up over-ordering, which made our bill add up. An appetizer of ahi tuna was served in a crispy parmigiano reggiano basket. A successful Mexican take on lasagna layered cheese, custard and strips of poblano pepper instead of the customary pasta. The three-cheese ravioli was not exciting, but the Mister swears the pumpkin and sage ravioli was absolutely the best ravioli he has ever put in his mouth. We kept wanting to return for more pumpkin ravioli, but somehow didn’t make it.

Part of the reason is sometimes you long for something light, which led us to Te Quiero Verde for fresh vegetarian fare, such as a simple couscous salad. The Mister managed to bite into mountainous falafel burger, and not a drop of my coconut curry remained on the plate.

My favorite healthy meal was the ahi tuna salad found at a comfortable café around the corner from our house, Frontera Artisan Food. Preparation of coffee was raised to artistic levels, and the kitchen turns out wonderful gelato.

We even took a break to order Lebanese food at Arez Restaurant on Real de Guadalupe. The assorted grilled meat platter was nothing spectacular, but we enjoyed the appetizer platter laden with hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves, spicy potatoes, green beans and sort of an eggplant ratatouille. The friendly owner and his wife were enjoying an off-menu dessert they shared with us – a custard flavored with orange flower water and topped with pistachios.

But I saved the best for last. Our favorite spot was also on Real de Guadalupe, a Spanish tapas and wine bar – El Cau. We actually enjoyed it more than anything we found in Spain. The tradition of providing some complimentary tapas with orders of wine or beer lives on here, but we never stopped there. Everything we had was delicious, including lomo de puerco, pulpo, salmon, eggplant brochettas and the highly addictive honied slices of eggplant. We stopped here for lunch and a bottle of wine at least three times.

Am including a photo of the toy truck at El Cau bearing what a friend of ours in Mexico calls el dolor – the check – because it reminded me of one of the lessons from Portugal that should be replicated in San Antonio. Imaginative ways of presenting the final bill.

In Portugal, we had checks presented every which way – in elegant wooden boxes, in the pages of books and even curled up in an unused sardine can. It makes getting the dolor (pain, grief) so much more bearable.

However, settling the bill in San Cristobal de las Casas was rarely painful. The total bill for food and a bottle of wine generally was the equivalent of a single bottle of wine – no food – in a restaurant in San Antonio.