Showing posts with label Bologna. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bologna. Show all posts

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Best Restaurant in The World

I qualify the statement simply because there are a couple of other extraordinary restaurants that I know and love, and would not want to make a definitive statement like “The Best” without causing opprobrium. Among them are Pheasant's Tears in Sighnaghi, Georgia, and The Creel in St. Margret’s Hope, Orkney (now sadly closed) and the Roca Sao Joao dos Angolares in São Tomé. There are others, wonderful restaurants all of them, but few make it to my top table, and let me tell you why.

To me, a restaurant is a combination of elements. The food, of course, has to be perfect; it also has to be “honest” and straightforward. The ambience must be comfortable and it must fit its surroundings; service needs to be attentive and professional but not overwhelming and finally the whole meal must feel honest; a curious word, I will agree, but one that upon reflection you will understand.

The Trattoria di Via Serra fits all of these requirements and more. Bologna is Italy’s “Food City”, and yet, among this fierce competition, the Trattoria remains (according to TripAdvisor) number 1 or 2 out of over 1,700 restaurants. This is no mean feat with only fifteen tables. It is in a curious location “off-piste”, and has a very challenging menu, one that is determined by the season, by the month, the week and simply the morning’s trip to the market.

The chef, Tommaso Maio, is quite simply a wizard; a category of chef that I have only before bestowed upon Gia Rokashvili at Pheasants’ Tears. His ability to take simple food and create a masterpiece is second to none, and tonight was no exception. Flavio Benassi, the front-of-house “face” of the Trattoria is another masterpiece; his knowledge of the food, its provenance and its culture is second to none, and his welcome is absolute.

And this partnership, of Flavio and Tommaso, is the first key ingredient.

The second is the food. It is, quite simply and without exaggeration, superb. It is fresh, locally sourced, perfectly cooked and exquisitely presented. This evening, I indulged, and had the (almost) complete meal; I fell at the final hurdle and had no dessert.

It started with a delicious pork sausage. The details remain a little unclear, but the meat came from some Hungarian Hairy Pigs who ran free by a volcanic caldera in central Italy. They tasted wonderful, seasoned as they were with fresh thyme and curiously, just a hint of orange, and I let the matter of their birthplace and upbringing slip. Then came the sweetbreads, grilled to perfection and served on a bed of puntarelle Romano, a slightly bitter green vegetable whose tartness was offset by a slightly sweet reduction that obviously included honey.

The pasta was delightful; a light strataccelli (described as the off cuts of pasta disguised as bow ties) with a cunningly simple Parma ham and pea sauce. Just like Flavio’s mother made it, apparently, but not a bit like my own mother’s cooking.

The fine dinner at the Trattoria

Finally, not wishing to appear churlish or full, I embraced the Main Course; the roast rabbit wrapped in yet more Parma ham was the piece de resistance, and darn good it was too. Simple, fresh, tasty and utterly delightful; I simply can’t imagine a better meal; light, elegant, delicious and interesting … all of the above, and boxes ticked in every category.

I could go on, and I will.

The restaurant is brilliant; apparently a solo diner, who I had watched suspiciously from the start, had (after he finished) flourished a Michelin card, and advised that he was “on the look out”, or words to that effect. Flavio was uninterested and a touch nervous; they were full all of the time already and what more could a star do but offer stress?

I agreed, and tucked into a second, or possibly third glass of Nocino; a digestif derived from green walnuts, syrup, patience and magic. What more could the restaurant want? What more could it deliver?

When it is perfect, it is best to keep it that way.

Reservations are, of course, recommended; and they need be made by telephone and no more than thirty days before the required date. To avoid disappointment, I would recommend calling a month before you want to dine there. I do.

Bologna; Italy's northern gem

Visiting Bologna is a very special experience, and one that all travellers to Italy should consider.

Touring Italy is a wonderful experience, but where to start? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff, the brands from the local and get to experience some part of the country that is not highlighted too boldly in the guidebooks. It is complicated, and here’s the thing.

Italy is an almost brand-new country; it was unified only in 1861 from a motley collection of Dukedoms controlled by Hapsburgs, the French and other foreign powers, and as such only just beat Canada into the family of nations.

This is not terribly important other than to say that “Italian Food” is a bit of a misnomer, and as I find myself in Bologna, the food capital of Italy, mentioning that one likes “Italian Food” appears to be an insult of some significance. It is the food of Bologna, or Sicily, or Veneto or one of the country’s many regions that counts, and not an agglomeration of them all under one label.

So, with that definition out of the way, and I can assure you that it was an admonition that I bore well, it is time to wax poetic about Bologna, a fine city and home of one of my favourite restaurants of the world.

It is a city of some 385,000 wealthy, well dressed burghers who inhabit one of Europe’s loveliest places. It is old and preserved; the “abominable” urban renewal of the 19th century has now, in the 21st century become quite charming; the miles of colonnades housing shops of long provenance and restaurants that inspire wonder.

The Piazza Maggiore in Bologna 

Bologna is the home of Lasagna, Maserati cars, the Italian Co-op movement, Lamborghinis and Tortellini; it is the birthplace of Scipioni del Ferro, a mathematician who solved the cubic equation in the early 16th century and Pierluigi Collina, one of the best football referees that the world has ever known. Other luminaries were born here as well, but I rather like these two.

It is also the home of the world’s tenth largest cathedral (by volume) at a stunning 258,000 m³. I have absolutely no idea who measures places of worship by the cubic metre, or why, but I couldn’t resist sharing this important detail.

It is also the home to a wonderful city wall, towers (one leaning) and vast piazzas. It is not, however, the sight of the overwhelming number of tourist that have come to blight so many brand name European cities. It is, in short, a magnificent place to visit. It is a walking city as so many European locations are, and a fascinating place in which to discover quiet gardens, medieval towers (one leaning) built in the 12th century, and the traces of Roman urban planning reflected in the street layouts.

A major Roman road, the Via Emilia, the road that stretched from Rome to this northern territory, still forms the main thoroughfare of Bologna, and the largely pedestrianised streets of the city centre still follow the grid pattern laid down some two millennia ago. The colonnades are endless and delightful; one is a winding 666 vault arcade that wends its way some four kilometres linking a major church, the St. Luca to the town centre. The shopping is wonderful, the museums fascinating and the atmosphere of the city is relaxed and confident.

As my regular readers will have noticed, I am a fan of the “second division” destinations. I feel that they offer travellers a quite delightful perspective of a country, and are ideal points of entry, infinitely preferable than landing straight into the jungle that is Rome or Florence. Flying to Bologna is straightforward, its airport is linked to all of the major European hubs, and one can choose to fly directly here, enjoying the pace and beauty of the city before heading off to explore the rest of the country.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bologna and Tbilisi; Two very fine restaurants

I do realise that I have a very fortunate life, and my ability to wander and experience the world is one that I don’t take for granted.

There is, for those who wonder, a downside. My friend Cameron once said that I was “hyper-stimulated”, and thus unable to settle to routines any more, and constantly craving excitement. New colours, unseen mountains, interesting people and simply the need to see what is around the next corner. This is, of course, true, and while not exactly a curse, it does have its negative moments. However, in the quest for new and exciting places and experiences, I have found many wonderful places and people; and restaurants.

I have, in the past three days, been to two of the most wonderful restaurants it has been my privilege to experience. And I say this from many decades of hard trying; I have eaten at fine restaurants on each continent; I have had Michelin meals, eye popping fish and chips, spectacular Icelandic lobster and some of the finest meat that South America can provide. I have also had scorpions, sheep’s eye balls and the pride and joy of some lascivious horse, but those meals fade quickly.

This week’s two prizes are Barbarestan in Tbilisi and Trattoria di via Serra in Bologna.

Now both cities are renowned for food, Bologna possibly more simply due to its location, but for foodies seeking new and exciting tastes, Tbilisi offers some dramatic dining.

Neither are Michelin starred, and neither are expensive; neither are fancy and nor are they conceited. They are both family run, in Bologna by Flavio and Tommaso and in Tbilisi by the massive Kurasbediani family with their ten children. They both offer an exquisite balance between bewitching flavours and a completely unpretentious atmosphere. This self-assurance is the key to their success.
Georgian food is exciting; it is a riot of flavour and colour that both delights and amazes. Barbarestan takes this to a new level by fusing the unexpected together. 

Polyphonic singing at Barbarestan

Their use of traditional herbs is masterful, and in fact, the entire menu is drawn from a cookbook written in the 19th century by a Georgian duchess (Barbara Jorjadze if you must know) found in the Tbilisi flea market; these are recipes unknown to the contemporary kitchen, and most certainly unfamiliar to the modern palate. Balanced with their substantial offering of Georgian wines, their encyclopaedic knowledge of Georgian customs and music and the polyphonic singing that can accompany some mealtimes, this family has got it right.

And so to Bologna I flew; two years ago I had written that the Trattoria di via Serra was “worth stopping over in Europe simply to eat there”. I wanted to see if this was true.

The menu at Trattoria di via Serra

Flavio was, as usual, at the door, letting diners in only after they had rung a bell. One can dine pretty well only by reservation, and the small location is usually full. Its popularity comes, I think, from its attention to detail and the presentation of local, countryside food. Once again, the dishes are not fancy, but drawn from the inspirations of fresh produce artfully combined. Tommaso is a wizard in the kitchen; his skills are evident with every mouthful. His ability to draw the strength of flavour from such simple combinations of ingredients is an inspiration.

Meatballs are not, in fact, a terribly attractive dining options; however, Tommaso's wizardry in combining the apparently basic ingredients is awe inspiring, and takes this simple dish to dizzy heights. 

Two such different restaurants in two such different cities. Their similarities, however, are at the root of their success and attraction. Both run by families, one small and one large, but the intimacy offered by the close collaboration of the owners is evident in their food. The cuisine is simple, artful, thoughtful and utterly delicious.

This is fine dining, and not “Fine Dining”.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The wonderful face of Natural Wines

Life can be oddly circular. Even for those of us mildly irritated by the overuse of such adages as “what comes around goes around” and “well, life is just a circle”, from time to time it works like that.
Not trying to seek a completion of a six-week sojourn in Europe, sorry, Gruelling Business Travel, that has taken me from Khaketi in Eastern Georgia to Lairg in the Scottish Highlands, and from Stanley Gibbons stamp auction house in London’s Strand to the Pyrenees and finally to the hills of northern Tuscany and the final departure point of Bologna.

And it is of Bologna and Tbilisi that I speak.

The purpose of my trip to Georgia was to join the Second Qvevri Symposium, a fascinating week of education liberally illustrated with an extraordinary supply of these marvellous “natural wines”, made entirely in the Old Fashioned Way.
Stomped grapes, fermentation in an earthenware pot (an Amphora or Qvevri) and finally settlement in another of these pots; it is a technique that is over 10,000 years old and the wine produced thus is marvellous and most eminently drinkable. Unfortunately all too little ever reaches North America, although there are a couple of importers and restaurants that do carry these wines.

The food of Georgia (as you can imagine, we did not only drink), was exceptional; fresh, flavourful and a daily treat. The trip was an insight, a vital lesson and an awe-inspiring insight to the possibilities for food, culture and wine exploration of this mostly unknown corner of the world.
Which leads me to Bologna.

Everybody goes to Florence, and I am sure that it is very pleasant indeed, and is stuffed full of astonishment. It is, however, also stuffed full of tourist in July, and not wanting to line up behind hundreds of yards of earnest folks clutching Let’s Go Europe, I decided to head to Bologna instead.

For years I have heard and believed that Bologna has very much to offer. It is close to Florence, and if one wants the “medieval Italian city experience”, there is little to differentiate the two. Sure Florence has the brand-name sights, and is a little bigger, but Bologna is truly gorgeous and has no queues.
Stunning towers, piazzas, medieval lanes and delightful architecture; museums and galleries, and even for those with a more contemporary bent, the Ferrari factory.

And food; Bologna is a food lovers delight, and for reasons that had something to do with Trip Advisor, and a lot to do with serendipity (there are a lot of restaurants listed in TA), I dined at the unprepossessing Trattoria di via Serra last night.
Frankly, you would not be walking past by chance, and if you were, you would probably not give it a second glance; however, once through the unsightly door, one is transported into a home. The owners, Flavio Benassi and  Tomasso Maio offer a truly superb and simple product.

They learned to cook in the mountain villages between Bologna and Modeno where, Flavio said “You can’t fool people about your pasta”; so from these beginnings to opening their restaurant in Bologna a year ago that have concentrated in preparing simple, local and organic food.
And it is quite simply delicious. From their cheese and ham or local mushrooms on home-style bread antipasti through the most exquisite pasta one can imagine to their secondi of rabbit or other local delicacies, one could taste the care. Tomasso, the chef, prepares wonderfully and is perfectly complemented by Flavio’s terrific personality, so vital for a successful front-of-house.

And the wine; interestingly, they offer only red and white on the menu, although there are other bottles available upon demand.

The house wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and the white Pignoletto are both produced by the Vigneto San Vito, and are completely fresh and natural; and, I have to say, utterly delicious.
I sat, complete after far too much food, contemplating on the concept of “natural wines” and why such an ancient concept seemed so new and fresh. Perhaps it is because we live in a world so dominated by brands that we have lost sight of where the ideas came from in the first place.

However, fortunately for us, vintners in Georgia and Italy, among other places, are beginning to catch on to the fact that there is a market who is keen to embrace the fresh and clean ideas of wines made without resort to chemicals.