Sunday, March 30, 2008

Several surprises in Italy

I just returned from Italy. Several food items caught my attention, and a few of them are beginning to appear in Houston.

1. Crudo -- raw fish Italian style. The Venetians love fish, and their restaurants benefit from the fascinating fish market near the Rialto bridge. With all this fresh fish, is it any surprise that the Venetians have learned to enjoy it raw?

The Italian preparation of raw fish is called crudo. Crudo differs from Japanese sashimi in that the fish is usually served with a drizzle of olive oil, a dash of sea salt, and a sprinkling of citrus juice. I first tried some excellent crudo dishes in Houston last year at Da Marco.

Instead of the appetizer-sized portions of Da Marco, the crudo plates in Venice were sampler plates with bite-sized portions. At one restaurant (Vini da Gigio), the preparations were very simple: langoustine, shrimp, scallops, John Dory (a white fish), and clams were served raw with fruity olive oil, large-textured sea salt, and lemon juice.

At another, pricier restaurant (Fiaschetteria Toscana), crudo had gone modern. Diced raw tuna was combined with diced strawberries in a perfectly-constructed mound. A raw scallop was sliced thinly and placed on top of a thin round slice of a deep green gelatinous substance (seaweed jello?). Raw clams were topped with a dollop of bright orange sea urchin. The presentation was as beautiful as it was strange.

With Houston's growing appetite for sushi, I would not be surprised to see more crudo dishes popping up on menus here.

2. Wines from Friuli

I first noticed wines from Friuli 5 or 6 years ago when a distributor began selling inexpensive Friuli whites, such as pinot grigo and tocai friulano. The ones I tried then were cheap, simple, refreshing summer wines.

What I did not know is that the Friuli region in northeast Italy is making some profound, age-worthy white and red wines that rank among Italy's finest.

On this trip, my first surprise was a 1999 Josko Gravner Ribolla Collio. Gravner makes this cloudy, amber-colored white wine from the Ribolla Collio grape using an ancient technique involving clay amphora. At 9 years, most white wines have long passed their prime. But like a white Burgundy or fine German Riesling, this wine had evolved into a complex wine with an amazing nose of exotic fruits. I spent more time smelling it than drinking it.

My second surprise was the quality of red wines from Friuli. A few months ago, I found the first Friuli red I had seen in Houston -- a di Lenardo Refosco that sold for about $15 at Christopher's Wine Shop on West Grey. After trying a bottle, I was impressed with the quality for the price and bought the rest of Christopher's stock. I discovered that Italian supermarkets are full of inexpensive refosco wine of similar quality. But I was surprised to find that Venetian restaurants highlight a number of more expensive, aged refoscos. We tried a few that were very good, and one that was profound.

I have seen a few $50+ Friuli whites on the wine lists at Cafe Annie and Quattro. As American consumers turn from the standard international grape varietals to more unusual place-specific varietals, don't be surprised to see more and more great wines from Friuli.

3. Bistecca Fiorentina.

In Florence, they cook steak the way I do. They take a thick porterhouse, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and cook it on a searing hot grill for a total of about 3 minutes, flipping it every minute. The result is bloody perfection.

Despite the simple preparation, there is something magical about the Fiorentina -- the beef tastes completely different from ours. I have tried USCA Prime, Kobe beef, and Wagyu beef, and nothing tastes quite so good as this Italian steak. From the first bite, I knew I had to get to the bottom of what made this beef so good.

As it turn's out, it is the beef. The Fiorentina is made from Chianina beef, a particular breed of cattle in Tuscany. Chianina are large white oxen. Fortunately, some Chianina are being grown in America. Does anyone know where to get it in Houston?

The best food surprises in Italy were not dishes, but ingredients. The Italians use simple preparations to highlight outstanding, distinctive local ingredients. In an upcoming post, I will explore whether that philosophy can work here.


Misha said...

If you are interested in Italian - and specifically Tuscan - food culture, you should read Heat by Bill Buford. It's one of the best books on food culture I have read.

The book began as a profile on Mario Batali by an editor of the New Yorker who takes a job as a kitchen hand at Babbo for a week. Before all is said and done he quits his day job and makes a fascinating journey through stations at Babbo, eventually finding himself following Batali's footsteps in Italy to learn about the food by immersion into the culture. Completely consumed (Heart of Darkness type of consumed), he goes native and lives in the Tuscan countryside, learning from a legendary master butcher and discovering the importance of the relationship between the Tuscan farmer and the Chianina, which is a dying breed in Italy.

It's a fascinating read and you'll learn a great deal about Italian food culture that's a complete mystery to outsiders.

anonymouseater said...

Misha -- What a coincidence. I just started reading Heat last week, but I have not made it very far. You have made me even more interested in finishing it. Thanks.

Cipher said...

I remember years ago seeing a Chianina breeder's sign when I was driving back country roads around Chapel Hill, looking for bluebonnets.

One of my favorite ways to have beef is the way I had it near Arezzo, a big slab of steak about 4 or 5 pounds, chargrilled on both sides, but rare in the middle. You let it rest 10 minutes and then slice it across the grain, and layer it over a bed of fresh arugula, drizzle it with olive oil and salt and pepper, and then shave big long pieces off a hunk of Parmesan on top. That'll serve about 8 hungry people.

Cipher said...

no, now that I think of it it was probably Charolais

issa said...

welcome back ae! i'm still reveling in my italy trip from almost a year ago that it was hard not to plan another stop this year during our upcoming euro vacation. i'm looking forward to hearing your adventures!

Anonymous said...

Great Blog... just one comment - your link to James Beard no longer functions.... it's been updated to the following:

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