MILAN TO BOLOGNA AND THE MEALS IN BETWEEN 3/21-31, 2016
Monday, March 21, 2016
BOLOGNA is a city of arches, of loggias. They shelter pedestrians from rain and shine. Bearing the weight of two-story structures in a maze of narrow streets, the loggias are both oppressive and comforting. Bologna has changed hands so many times in its 700-year history that it’s hard to know whether it was the Pepolis, the Viscontis or the Pope who decreed every church, residence, business, or city hall be painted terra cotta, ochre, chocolate, or red. But it was most certainly the Communist Party which kept it red, breaking from the Christian Democrats after the war, and thenceforth administering the most efficient municipality in Italy.
We arrive from London around dinner time. Lynn is not thrilled with our room at the HOTEL METROPOLITAN, which is probably more inviting in summer when one can actually enjoy the spacious terrace. But she warms to Roberto, the white-haired, handsome and gracious manager and so decrees that we shall make the best of it.
MARIPOSA is a five-minute walk, across the bustling via Independenza, through a narrow street called Malcontenti. It’s a one-waitress trattoria, with framed poems and sketches by the patrons. The paper placemats have sections marked out to encourage contributors, so I do a quick sketch of Lynn perusing the menu. Later, she will compose a Petrarchan sonnet to affeti misti. The satisfying platter of salumi does not, strange as it may seem, include bologna. Our primi piatti are tortollini, Bologna’s signature pasta, and a sloppy-looking but groan-inducing lasagna. Lynn stops there. I press on with coniglio in a simple white sauce. We’re happy.
Since 1078, Bologna has been and remains a city of students. As we trek northward in search of the Pinacoteca, they swarm through the rain-slicked streets.
It’s graduation day. You can spot the graduates by the bay leaf garlands on their heads. They pop Prosecco bottles, take selfies, pose with families and friends. Six guys run through the streets, carrying their buddy on a mattress.
Weaving in and out of the crowds, clutching our map, searching for streets, we make false turns, double back, ask directions, get disoriented again, but finally, at long last, arrive at the Pinacoteca Nazionale at around one. It’s closing for the day at one-thirty. The Curse of Chuiso. We take a pit stop at a tiny bar, crammed with students and order a double espresso and for Lynn, a macchiato. Two gorgeous baristas are slamming out coffees. With that first sip of espresso, the color of bitter chocolate topped with the perfect crema, I know we are in Italy.
We start looking for lunch places, pass up PIZZERIA DELLE ARTE because the wait is too long, wander for another hour, get lost, go around in a circle and wind up at two-thirty at Pizzeria Delle Arte. Even then we have to wait. We understand why when we’re finally seated at our table. The adjacent private room is packed with students and their families celebrating. The over-taxed waiter is solicitous and patient. I order an octopus salad; Lynn, the best spaghetti carbonara either of us has ever had. It’s such a big portion and so rich with orange egg yolks and salty ribbons of guanciale that I’m forced to help her finish it. They’re out of the Vermentino, so the waiter suggests a mineral and pear white called Clemente Primo, named for a pope, a blend of Riesling, fiano, and sauvignon blanc.
Still savoring our late lunch, we head back up to the university district to CANTINA BENTIVOGLIOS, a rather elegant trattoria-cum-jazz club with a serious restaurant in front and a cozy club down a flight of steps beyond the bar. A talented trio – guitar, bass and sax – are playing tuneful West Coast jazz.
Tuesday, March 22nd. As they say in the theatre, a bad dress rehearsal makes for a good opening night. We make it to the PINACOTECA in eleven minutes flat. En route we pass the two remaining towers built by rival families during the 15th Century. Once, there were fifty. I suppose the others either fell or were torn down and replaced with more moder 16th Century buildings.
The Pinacoteca Nazionale, once looted by Napoleon; now, with most of its treasures in situ, is practically empty. It’s a beautiful collection, particularly strong in early Renaissance paintings, but with a few stunners by Raphael, Perugino and Tintoretto.
It’s a clear sunny day with a biting wind but scarfy guy and Cashmeria buck the gusts in the Piazza Maggiore whirling around the naked Nettuno and his Naiads squeezing their breasts, which presumably squirt water in warmer weather. A student band plays a fractured Moon River. The façade of the Duomo, recently cleaned, is bright against the brickwork above it. They couldn’t afford all marble.
Nearby, is the covered market. We arrive late and most of the vendors have closed for lunch. We find BANC 32, a hip little fish restaurant with a limited menu of the catches of the day. I have a steamed cod with potatoes – simple, fresh, perfect; Lynn, a prawn and arugula salad.
The CHIESA SAN STEFANOS, not far from the Duomo, but far more intriguing, is a Russian doll complex of churches, dating back to the 11th Century built on top of a 5th Century Roman temple, the evidence of which is a pagan inscription to Isis carved in the rutted, ancient stone.
It’s also a great shopping area, the Quadrilatero. Serpentine streets are lined with expensive boutiques and mouth-watering food stores, stacked with chunks of Reggiano and hung with whole prosciutti.
DA GIANNI A LA VECIA BULAGNA has been a Bolognese institution since the ‘50s, specializing in bollito misto, which I order. Lynn is happy with the pasta del giorno, penne laced with zucchini and guanciale, recommended by our waitress, who might have been painted by Raphael.
March 24rd is Massimo Day, his Michelin-starred OSTERIA FRANCESCANA being the raison d’etre for our coming to Emilia Romagna.
In our Fiat Popemobile we get to Modena fifteen minutes before our reservation and even find a parking place close to the restaurant; lucky, too, because I have to drag Lynn’s bag which won’t fit in the trunk there for safe-keeping.
Meals like this are performances and Osteria Francescana is no exception. There is the set, in this case, a complex of three small dining rooms, painted a serious but warm grey, hung with dramatic, cutting edge art, lit with swooping standing lamps. Linen-draped tables, etched stemware, bone china. The cast from water boy to head waiter are well-rehearsed, performing their tasks with the seamless grace of ballet dancers. The sommelier recommends the most expensive Soave on the list to which I nod. (That same Soave, 100 Euros, turns up on a wine list two night’s later for 38. Ah, well.)
We select the prix-fixe mix of Massimo’s experimental and traditional Modenese dishes. A progression of small plates with poetically cute names such as Misery and Nobility (one fried oyster atop a crock of prosciutto soup); Lentils are better than caviar (black lentils over crème fraiche in a caviar tin on shaved ice); Mackeral, suckling pig and saffron (smoked mackeral and batons of pig veiled with a saffron/green tomato gelée); Fish soup (chunks of sashimi with sea weed chips and a side of tomato/fish stock); The crunchy part of the lasagna; Croccantino of foie gras (a foie gras lollipop rolled in hazelnuts, almonds and walnuts); Autumn in New York (tiny marbles of fall vegetables and fruit swimming in a pool of clove and cinammon-scented broth). Most of the dishes are surprising and delicious; some, silly and/or weird (Caesar salad in bloom).
One course, however, is worth a side trip, as the Michelin says. Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano is five iterations of Parma’s principal contribution to the civilized world. A Parmesan mousse and Parmesan soufflé float in a pool of Parmesan cream with a little stole of Parmesan foam, and a jaunty hat of Parmesan crisp. Each component is from variously-aged Reggianos, though, you may ask, who can tell the difference? It is both spectacular and homey.
The star, Massimo Bottura, doesn’t make his entrance until Act Three by which time we are so bewitched, bedazzled and besotted that we listen, entranced, as the charming chef expounds at length on his philosophy of food – essentially, the elevation of simple dishes like lasagna and fish soup to the sublime.
Reflecting on this meal, I realize that restaurants like Osteria Francescana are as much laboratories as eateries. Fernand Adria and his acolytes such as Heston Blumenthal, David Kinch and René Redzepi will continue to exert their influence on Michelin-aspiring chefs. I’ve had more gratifying meals at more conventional restaurants such as Taillevent, Trois Gros, French Laundry, and Eleven Madison Park. Perhaps Molecular Gastronomy and Locavorism have pushed chefs to value novelty over taste. These chefs want to disarm us, surprise us, alter our preconceptions of how things taste and in what form they are to be tasted. They are further obligated to the small plate parade, which for good or bad, is here to stay. But to give them their due, didn’t the culinary pioneers such as Fernand Point, Michel Guerard and Alice Waters, want to change our conception of great cuisine? Their gift to us was simplification, the celebration of perfect ingredients. But they were innovators as well. I can still taste that first bite of Saumon à L’Oseille at Trois Gros some 40 years ago. The sour sting of the sorrel cutting through the richness of the buerre blanc. Part of that pleasure was revelation. Massimo’s Parmesan medley is such a revelation and it will stay with me for a long time.
“Don’t miss the Duomo in this light,” Lara, Massimo’s American-born wife, urges us as she hurries to collect her children from school. Modena, proper and prosperous is a cleaned up Bologna, elegant and indeed stunning in the afternoon.
But we’ve miles to go before we sleep. Parma isn’t far but finding one’s way in an Italian city at night ain’t easy. Sheer dumb luck lands us in front of the PALACE HOTEL MARIA LUIGI, where a night manager with the warmth and charm of Eric Von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard hands the aging bellman the key to a room where someone recently may have died. Lynn’s Medusa stare buys us a much better room.
But we’ve soured on Parma, maybe of cities in general. Our reservation for the next day is at ANTICA CORTE PALLAVACINA, northeast of Parma, which is also a Relais. They’re booked but recommend the LOCANDA DEL RE GUERRIORO, a short distance away. We eat the money for the next two nights and book the Locanda. I can’t tell you how many sexual favors this grand gesture earns me. Okay, one.
March 25th. After a quick look at Parma’s extraordinary octagonal baptistery, built of pink marble and decorated with early Renaissance frescoes of the Nativity and the Passion of You-Know-Who, we pack up and head for the country.
The day nearly ends in divorce as Amerigo Vespucci sends us off in exactly the wrong direction. The 43-Google-Minute drive becomes an hour and 43-minute nightmare of curses and u-turns, but the kind folks at Antica Corte seat us for a late lunch in an empty dining room.
Massimo and Luigi Spigaroli own a working farm with a Parmesan factory and a herd (pack? coven?) of acorn-eating black pigs for their world-famous culatello, which we sample in a vertical tasting, the Three Ages of Culatello. They are both smoky and sweet with a more leathery texture than ordinary prosciutto. Next: tortellini parmigianini, divine little pillows stuffed with spinach and ricotta, the Spigaroli’s ricotta, and napped in Spigaroli butter. Lara Bottura Gilmore’s warning, “You don’t want to know what he does to a piece of meat” turns out to be true. Lynn’s duck is dry; my lamb, overcooked. But, oh, that culatello!
The revelation du jour is LOCANDA DEL RE GUERRIERIO, impossible to pronounce but easy on the eye and so good for the soul.
Located in San Pietro in Cerro, a town of 800 souls, the Castello di San Pietro, built by Bartolomeo Brattieri, Piacenza’s ambassador to the Vatican, was maintained by the family until 1993, when the estate was bought by a wealthy Italian industrialist with a passion for art. The spacious grounds are home to Calderesque stabiles, equestrian statues and gun-toting warriors. The locanda has paintings and drawings in every room. The entire top floor of the castle is home to the Museum in Motion, so called because the collection is so large that it’s periodically re-hung. The basement houses replicas of 39 Xian Warriors.
Katya, a gracious and attractive woman in her early 40s, shows us two rooms. We pick the second. 20-foot ceiling with massive timbers and beautiful ironwork supports. The bathroom – bright red tile, a walk-in shower, bidet, great soap. From our bedroom window we look down on an array of white cubes and beyond it, the castle. 170 Euros a night. Including breakfast with local confiture and honey.
This area of Emilia-Romagna is the Loire Valley of Italy. Through centuries of incessant warfare, fortified castles were as important and prestigious as beachfront property in Amagansett. As things settled down, the occupants added refinements and commissioned artists to re-decorate. The following day, a Saturday, we visit FONTANELLATO, which boasts not just a moat and non-functioning drawbridge but frescoes by Parmigianino.
On the other side of the moat, the castle is presently under siege by food trucks of every description. I wait in line for tagliata and porchetta sandwiches, while Lynn partakes of the Cacio e Pepe truck.
The lunch is more fun than the tour, which is in Italian, but the frescoes, depicting Ovid’s mean-spirited tale of Actaeon and Diana, are lively and entertaining, if you like stories about men being transformed into stags and devoured by their own dogs.
We return to Signorelli Estate for our last meal, at Luigi’s humbler taverna, CAVALLINO BIANCO. Except for the frog’s legs, the meal is disappointing.
Easter Sunday, March 27th. Our little Popemobile is practically the only car on the autostrada and we find the Hertz drop-off without a hitch. Our Prius-driving cabbie, a guy around 40 explains to us how maligned Mussolini is. He did so much for the country. “Only one mistake he make,” he admits, passing the Stazione Centrale, a monument to Fascist architecture. “No should make friends with Hitler.”
HOTEL DE LA VILLE is not French, but it is a stone’s throw from the Duomo and a brisk walk from everywhere else. We only have to change rooms once before my blushing bride gives her modest nod of approval. High ceilings, broad expanse of windows overlooking the via Hoepli. Working off our friend Marcel’s list and heartily seconded by Ugo the Concierge, clutching our map for dear life, we head north along Brera to IL RIGOLO, serving Tuscan fare since 1950. The manager is a pal of Ugo’s. We are ushered to a very good table, across from a couple about our age devouring what looks like a five-pound, blood-rare fiorentina. And they’re not fat! We opt for more modest fare – an excellent warm seafood salad for me; pasta for Lynn. We split the baby goat which is toothsome but a tad atavistic. If I had it to do over again, I’d order the fiorentina.
March 28th is a rainy Monday after Easter but still a holiday, which is good because the Brera, Italy’s mini-Met, is open and a short walk from our hotel.
Dominating the inner courtyard of the museum is the naked figure of a Roman soldier/statesman holding a staff in one hand and, in the other, Tinkerbell balancing on a softball. On closer inspection the Roman turns out to be Napoleon, whose armies marched into Italy in 1796 and stayed long enough for Canova to craft this somewhat idealized portrait.
The Brera’s collection is not extensive but it’s not daunting either. There are great treasures of the Renaissance such as Mantegna’s Dead Christ, a feet-first picture of a bloodless Christ, mourned by a tearful Madonna and Magdalene; an exquisite Botticelli Madonna and Child, and an eerie Piero della Francesca, Madonna and Child with a Bunch of Saints. The donor clad in armor, kneels in the foreground, looking both pious and brutish.
We crave fish. Ugo, patting his paunch to assure us of his expertise, sends us back to the Brera district to LA CISTERNA, an osteria famous for its fresh fish, where Lynn orders spaghetti Bolognese. Okay, to be fair, we had first accompanied Abdul, our waiter, to the fish case where we selected a large scorpion fish to share for our main course.
We should have quit while we were ahead: Lynn’s Bolognese and my linguine alla vongole – sweet and briny little clams with a whiff of garlic and a splash of white wine – are memorable; the scorpion fish, notwithstanding its fearful moniker, bland and expensive. My wife, a tireless promoter of Brazilian music, persuades the staff to search for Ivan Lins on their Pandorini, so by the time we are dipping into the tiramisu, Jobim croons from every speaker.
The Brera is the “arts district”. As in Soho, the shop windows display pricey but original clothing, jewelry and footware you will not find on Fifth Avenue, Bond Street or the Rue de Rivoli. Lynn spots a sneaker place she likes. I know what tomorrow will bring.
Tomorrow. March 29th. En route to YOU CAN SURF LATER! P448 we take in a little culture at SANT’ AMBROGIO, named for the early Christian saint with an affinity for bees (don’t ask). Somehow we managed to miss the basilica but the museum itself houses not only the second best collection of paintings in Milan, but the Atlantic Codex. The galleries are practically deserted, the lights low, but the paintings meticulously lit with individual framing projectors. The effect is startling. Every work, no matter its size or quality, looks like a Rock star. The collection is organized by donors, by which I mean Borromeo, Visconti, and Sforza, tyrants all, with awfully good taste. One took a fancy to the Flemish school. We wonder at a group of small Breugel landscapes and a fantastically intricate interior, Vulcan’s Forge.
The Atlantic Codex, the crown jewel of the collection, has been unbound both to preserve and display Leonardo’s sketches. Vitrines line the 17th Century Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Leonardo worked for the pugnacious Sforzas. Case after case displays his meticulously-rendered designs for siege machines, escape tunnels, fortifications, and cross-bows.
Some 28 years ago, when Sophie was ten, we ate dinner AL GIRARROSTO da CESARINA. Lynn and I re-visited it with Liz in 1997, and I was curious to see if the Risotto Milanese and Osso Buco were as luscious as my memories.
They were. They are. This ancient restaurant, on the outer fringe of the famed Montenapolene district, is completely empty when we arrive. It is, after all, the day after the long Easter weekend. The service is precise and gracious, even when Lynn sends back her veal chop because it’s medium, not medium rare. And the espresso – wow.
Stuffed with meat, we stagger north, through the Montenapolene back to the Brera. It’s hot, too. But we find P448, which is managed by a gracious salesman who speaks Italian with a northern Irish accent, having moved to Milan from Belfast 16 years back. Lynn scores two pair of multi-colored, super-hip, Florentine-designed hi-tops – one for her; one, for Sophie – and a belt for Ray made from tire treads.
Milan’s BLUE NOTE bears scant resemblance to its New York equivalent. Housed in what looks like a former automobile showroom, the Blue Note is both a jazz club and fairly serious restaurant. Sated from lunch, we go for the music, not the food. The program looks promising: six female vocalists and a big band, which kicks off with a rousing rendition of Il Ragazzo di Bugle Boogy Woogy della Societa B. They’re better on their own than as a back up band, but the ladies soldier through, age trumping beauty in the vocals department.
We thought four days in Milan would be plenty, but suddenly it’s March 30th and we haven’t seen the Last Supper, the Poldi Pezzoli, La Scala, not to mention all those churches!
We zero in on SAN MAURIZIO, a former Benedictine convent and church, recently restored, which an Italian couple from Como we met at the Brera insisted we should not miss.
Our route takes us past the Posta Centrale, an enormous, Neo-Fascist edifice, with bas-reliefs of muscled farmers, factory workers, secular madonnas, and marching soldiers. What draws me into the vast inner courtyard is the towering statue of a hand, all its fingers severed but one, giving the finger to the surviving remnant of Mussolini’s Italy.
SAN MAURIZIO is two discreet but connected chapels, designed as such because The Benedictines were a cloistered order. The nuns took confession through square windows cut in the stone, from which they could watch services without being seen or intermingling with the secular world.
Every inch of wall space is frescoed; the artist, a local boy named Bernardino Luini, painted the Passion in the church and, in the Benedictine hall, the lives of the saints featuring Saint Maurice, a Third Century Theban general, who made the fatal mistake of converting to Christianity at a bad time. His life is depicted along with other martyred saints – Saint Sebastian (death by arrows), Saint Ursula (double mastectomy), and Saint Catherine, who really got a raw deal, when, having broken the spiked wheel, was summarily beheaded. There is also an adorable depiction of the animals marching two-by-two up the gangplank into Noah’s Ark. Among them, two unicorns, who, what…died at sea?
Those who imagine my wife thriving among the Benedictines, might be surprised to learn that upon exiting San Maurizio, Lynn immediately darts into a RANCḖ, a perfume boutique adjacent to the church. While I flirt in broken French with the comely, multi-lingual salesgirl, who’s in Milan because she fell in love with an Italian, Lynn sniffs and buys an exorbitant flacon of Hélène.
Our cosmopolitan nephew Nick has urged us to visit the NAVIGLI, the canal district south of the center, which is fast becoming the new Dumbo, teeming with hip trattorias, cafes and boutiques. The canals themselves were first commanded by a Visconti who was determined to build the Duomo of pink marble from up around Lago di Maggiore long before interstate trucking. Napoleon completed the job, linking landlocked Milan to the Adriatic.
You can find a TAGLIO in Echo Park, the Marais or anywhere in Brooklyn. Part café, part take-out deli, part espresso bar, part expensive grocery. A scaffolding of shelves both partitions the restaurant as well as providing shelf space for single barrel olive oils, hand-made pasta, and artisanal condiments. The menu is only in Italian. Lynn orders what she thinks is culatello (the proscuitto) and winds up with culatello (veal tartare). I order a kind of puntarella salads with fresh anchovies, which is delicious, followed by a pasta with squid, also good. Secondi for Lynn – you guessed it, spaghetti Bolognese, a safe bet after her culatello trauma.
A bit weary now, we trudge along the canals, which at this time of year, are drained of water and charm. No ducks but plenty of soda cans, broken umbrellas and sodden newspapers. We’re about to call for a taxi when we happen upon a boutique which, upon closer examination, contains a treasure trove of well-designed, one-of-a-kind merchandise. We buy a leather duffle for our shoes, a wool, hounds-tooth top by a Japanese designer and red glass earrings. Our shopping is done!
We taxi home to pack and nap. Darkness falls. Appetite returns. Taxi back to the Navigli and TRATTORIA TRIPPA, another Nick Pick: “New restaurant with a young chef, but the ‘contemporariness’ stops there. Totally unpretentious, incredible food. The menu changes everyday with some mainstays. And he is gutsy: I’ve had manta ray (amazing), donkey (not so much), and witnessed a woman at the table next to me be served cow’s vagina (not joking).”
None of the above items are on the menu, perhaps because the chef just broke his leg in a scooter accident. There is fried tripe which Lynn vigorously eschews until she’s offered a crispy strip by the cute guys at the adjacent table. We stick to basics: shaved artichoke and Parmesan salad, an incredibly subtle and fragrant white Bolognese of lamb over house-made pappardelle, pork belly, and a complex Fiano from Campania. The chocolate-brown restaurant fills up with well-heeled families and trendy young couples.
It’s our last meal in Italy and, thanks to Nick, one of our best. We strike up a conversation with the men at the next table, all of whom, plus one of the Trippa managers, met working for Carnival Cruises. They now work for Shell. One’s from Genoa; another, Rome; the third, Milan. Over dessert and espresso, the Genovese shares his dream with use – to live in San Diego.
San Diego. Wouldn’t you miss the tortellini? The brooding loggias in the winding streets of Bologna? Spaghetti carbonara? The culatello in Modena? All those Madonnas? Osso Buco at Girrarosto? The blinding whiteness of Milan’s Duomo on a crisp spring day? The scarfy regazza e bella ragazzi cruising the shops along the Brera? Wouldn’t you miss tiramisu, a shot of grappa, the everyday love of food, of wine, of beautiful buildings, beautiful women? Wouldn’t you miss the coffee?