Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Foods steeped in tradition

With a month of meals in Seville under our belts, it is hard to know where to begin to talk about food. So… starting with some of the traditional dishes we encountered over and over again throughout Andalusia.

Friends from San Antonio wisely insisted we all squeeze into and belly up to the bar at El Rinconcillo. The first tavern on this spot opened in 1670, so it would be fairly impossible to find a place more flavored by its history. Although, the current owners, the De Rueda family, only have operated a tavern in this location since 1858. A platter of boquerones fritos, fried anchovies, was chalked onto the bar counter next to our beer count as the method of recording our tab. These were perfect and perfectly addictive and are an order we repeat throughout our stay in Spain.

While Antigua Abaceria de San Lorenzo might not be an establishment as ancient, it certainly feels that way. The restaurant is located in a 17th-century house in a former abaceria, an old-fashioned grocery store specializing in vinegars and oils, dried legumes and cod. Locals claim most tables, so visitors without reservations rarely can obtain a spot. People often order and eat elbow-to-elbow at the counter or take food to go. The ham is cured on premise, and the featured croquetas naturally are filled with either that or with cod.

In two months, I am not sure we have entered a single restaurant or bar in Andulusia without croquetas on the menu. Seriously. Usually multiple kinds. It almost feels as though there must be a law requiring them to be offered if a business wants a license to open. Seville also seemed to require featuring patatas bravas; a spicy blend of spinach and chickpeas; and salmorejo, a cold tomato soup pureed with bread to thicken it.

In restaurants, few customers contemplate the menu without relishing the requisite olives and downing a cana, a small draft beer, even when ordering wine next. Reasonably priced wine is available in all but the luxury establishments, with wine by the glass generally running $3 or less. And that cana? Rarely above $1.50.

And my favorite, despite that recent column disparaging the custom in the New York Times, sharing of any and all courses is encouraged. And you rarely end up with just one large entree, unable to sample other menu items. Numerous dishes are offered in three sizes: tapa, 1/2 racion and racion. Unlike at home, there is no waitstaff glaring at me for ordering only from the appetizer section. Enjoying an all-tapa meal is totally acceptable.

Casa Antonio “Los Caracoles” qualifies as a sexagenarian. The inside fills up with locals of about the same vintage who crave homestyle food the way it was served when they were young. The recipes are classic; the dishes good and fresh.

The chickpea stew here was made with cod, which was a bit of relief. The Mister is a bean stew fan, but the traditional fabadas, callos and pucheros served in Adalusiacan sometimes prove challenging with their hodgepodge of meats all thrown into the pot together – chicken, chorizo, blood sausage, scraps of jamon, stew meat, panceta and even tripas. But wowsers, the resulting thick broth always is flavorful.

Our first taste of tortillitas de camaron, crispy shrimp fritters, was at Los Caracoles. I assumed they might be a limited-edition Lenten special on menus, but they survived Easter throughout the region. And padron chiles. So simple and often the only non-battered vegetable (the battered one being eggplant sticks drizzled with cane “honey”) at pescaitos specializing in grilled and fried seafood.

And the spot to find the freshest seafood? The markets. While often getting jostled by people trying to get close enough to a counter to order, there is a civilized air to eating in markets in Spain. No paper plates and flimsy plastic forks, but actual pottery plates, metal utensils and glassware for beer and wine.

At the always bustling Bar La Cantina in Mercado de la Feria, keeping track of orders has been modernized from the chalk-on-the-bar system used at El Rinconcillo. A dry-erase board is employed. We feasted on fried boquerones, stuffed mussels and octopus, and then, for dessert, grilled sardines and cuttlefish.

While Mercado de la Feria remains a traditional food market, most cities in Spain now have mercados that function only as prepared food halls. Mercado Lonja del Barranco is found in a handsome, soaring-roofed riverside pavilion. While the look is clean and contemporary and the traditional foods abundant, one misses the authenticity provided by neighboring stalls offering produce, meats, cheeses and seafood. And locals. The crowd is almost all-tourist.

Postcard from Genoa, Italy: A seafood-lover’s paradise

The sounds woke me up Monday through Saturday in Genoa. The way-too-early alarm echoed from two doors and two floors down the steep 10-foot-wide street, actually only a pedestrian passageway. The fish monger hurling up the metal shutter, hauling out the trough and filling it with ice to hold the fresh catch of the day. Those jarring noises were followed shortly by the first customers, evidently all friends as interested in exchanging pleasantries, amplified by the four-story buildings, as purchasing seafood.

But the morning sounds quickly reminded me of a meal ahead and what always is central to menus in this port city – an abundance of fresh seafood. Mussels, squid, octopus, shrimp, butterflied fried sardines. The Mister often has remarked that Italians frown upon mixing seafood with cheese, but Genoa breaks that rule. Several restaurants feature striking black and white squares of ravioli filled with fish and ricotta cheese.

Also, Genoa is the home of pesto. Demanding Ligurians expect pesto alla Genovese to be made with D.O.P. basil, found only in the immediate region and terroir-dependent for its flavor. A favorite Ligurian pasta often paired with pesto is trofie, rolled out by hand on a flat surface to taper its ends and then twisted. Another regional specialty sold like pizza by the slice is farinata, made from a mixture of chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt. The baked-until-golden, somewhat floppy slices are most commonly offered and consumed unadorned .

Almost every guidebook or travel feature tells you to head to Eataly on the harbor. We ventured inside, as we did in Rome, and tried to talk ourselves into eating there. The food did indeed look amazingly good and the display of high quality, authentic Italian food products were enticing. But the atmosphere felt manufactured. The customer base appeared composed of  passengers recently disgorged from the massive cruise ships docked there. Disneyland for foodies. A place to avoid crossing paths with any of the immigrant population now calling the center of Genoa home. We declined to dine. And for shopping? The alleyways in the historic center of Genoa are packed with charming and pristine specialty cheese and pasta shops and meat markets – the places where the locals go.

Instead, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at Locanda Spinola, so popular with locals on a Saturday afternoon that we felt fortunate to get a table. Parents pushed strollers in and out of an upscale cheese shop and a deli across the narrow pedestrian-only street. And now for the gritty side of a port city that keeps many tourists unnecessarily clustered near their cruise ships: a prostitute was standing on the corner. When an interested party approached, the pair subtly would disappear up the street somewhere to take care of business. Another woman immediately took up the station. But Genovesi, young and old alike, were unfazed by their presence. The prostitutes were not harassing or blatantly soliciting passersby, and most locals walking by took no more notice than they would a door of a shop selling products they did not want. The only gawker was me, albeit screened from being caught by the restaurant’s curtained window.

We enjoyed the slow-rise gourmet pizza topped with seared tuna at Savo Pizza Gourmet, and the Mandarin shrimp at Pesciolino were tasty. The casual Le Piastre di Emma is always packed; expect waiting lines. Contributing to the bustling confusion inside is one of the flamboyant owners who dramatically scurries about like a mother hen, perhaps almost to the point of flapping like a chicken with its head cut off. But the place that kept drawing us back was the family-run Trattoria le Maschere. The almost-homely décor fails to draw in many tourists and leaves the tables with their inexpensive platters full of perfectly prepared fresh seafood and classic pesto to the locals. And us.

 

 

Postcard from Mexico City: Trolling for seafood in Roma Norte

We kept trying to find just the right seafood fit for our tastes while we were in Mexico City. The ceviche de atun with ginger at the reasonably priced Marlindo was among our favorite dishes, and the shrimp atop a tostada were beautiful. But Marlindo definitely is an ultra-casual neighborhood spot without much atmosphere, better for grabbing a quick bite than for lingering over a bottle of wine.

El Parnita is amazingly popular and bustling, but the dishes failed to excite us. On the other hand, we found ourselves the only ones in the dining room for lunch at Lucas Local. But the softshell crab sandwich at Lucas Local was phenomenal, and the pulpo and dried shrimp ceviche was refreshingly good and imaginatively presented in a coconut shell. Softshell crab is never easy enough for this Chesapeake Bay girl to find; wishing I had returned for seconds.

Our final week, we finally hit our favorite spot, Campo Baja. Casual, bustling rooftop with an open-kitchen concept, and it was not even a full block away from our apartment. The approach to each dish was distinctively different, making wandering through numerous shared plates feel as though we were venturing into new territory.

If you are visiting the neighborhood, hope our photos help you find the right spot to suit your seafood mood.