Friday, May 19, 2006

How Do They Do It?

Two European Gems Raise The Bar…. Again

**note André is traveling the French and Italian Riviera and files this blog from somewhere in Northern Italy

Surely one of the joys of traveling abroad is pretending to be a local, and eating like one.

When visiting areas I’ve yet to explore, I tend to spend very little time in the touristy haunts and more in the back streets and neighborhoods, roaming through grocery stores and the like…. finding out what people really eat. It’s a hobby of mine. While my wife looks for shoes, I am tasting salami and buying bread. It’s sometimes more of an obsession than a hobby now that I think of it.

While I don’t have too much time to blog on, let me recap a few standout meals that you’ll need to eat in this lifetime. Amazing stuff.

Nice, France

There is lots to like about Nice as I wrote a month ago on an early trip, but there is one Brasserie that takes the cake. Brasserie Flo.

Yes, it sounds like a bad French diner located somewhere in Indianapolis, but when you get there you realize, this may be the only restaurant of it’s kind in the world.

That’s because Brasserie Flo is built inside of a dramatic old French theatre… using the theatre space for cozy banquette seating, and get this…. the stage for a kitchen.
Upon walking in the front door, the ticket booth area has been scraped for a glass enclosed seafood prep area, teaming with cold oysters, lobsters and salmon. Descending into the dining room is truly breathtaking, as the vaulting coffered ceilings reveal the thick velvet curtains that frame the busy kitchen on the stage. Behind a glass wall, the noise and hustle of the kitchen disappear into what simply becomes one of the most novel things you have ever seen…. and why not? Isn’t the food the real show?

As for dinner, it’s what we expected…. terrific. A perfect plate of warm asparagus topped with herbs and a light vinaigrette, a cucumber gazpacho with a small scoop of ice cream floating on top for pure sweetness, outstanding regional wines and steaks with locally grown potatoes, halved and pan sautéed with chives. Top it off with green apple sorbet and a perfect crème brulé and you go home happy. Really happy.

As much as I enjoy terrific French fare, I was longing to reach the Italian town of Rapallo to sample true Ligurian foods. Liguria is the northwest region of Italy many people skip over in lieu of Milano, Florence and Rome… and what they miss is gastronomic.

It’s this region (and possibly town) that invented pesto, so having a pasta dish with pesto here is an out of body experience. It is like nothing I have ever tasted, so I can only tell you that if you think you have had great pesto, think again. The subtle and fresh flavor that this sauce has here in Italy reminds me why we get on airplanes and fly until our butt burns. It’s worth every second.

On the water in Rapallo is Nattuno, a terrific local spot frequented by tourists and locals alike. They specialize in pizzas, pastas and seafood specialties, but make no mistake, it’s all about the pesto.

Our meal began with fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, a plate of homemade salami and cured parma hams, followed by two pasta dishes….
Pesto with trofie… a small, hand twisted pasta that carries the sauce perfectly, and a penne dish with pesto, tomatoes and cream. Whatever.

By the time the pizza came, we were in pain. As hard as it was, we asked for a box, drank a few cappuccinos and began a stroll along the water past the 15th Century castle that sits in the up lit harbor under the stars. It was so authentic, we laughed of how it resembled a movie set.

So, time to make a reservation. Look at the calendar, put in some vacation time, and book a trip. Anywhere. The only way to taste what’s out there is to get out there and discover…. and… uh, get the pesto.