Memorable Morsels & Fermented Finds of 2011

I know I haven’t been as actively blogging this year. Lots of things have changed. Our daughter is now one and a half, and I have been eating (and generally spending a lot more time) at home than I did in 2010. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been traveling and going out to eat – I have, but just not as frequently, and more often at casual places that we can go to together as a family.

I have still made it to my fair share of more ambitious restaurants, just not at such a frenzied pace as in the previous two years. I have also been eating much more near where we now live (in Connecticut) rather than Manhattan – not because it’s trendy to ‘eat local’, but because it’s easier and there is actually an abundant variety of excellent eateries nearby, particularly in ethnically diverse towns and cities such as Port Chester, NY and Stamford, CT. Sometimes, you find the greatest things when you don’t expect to, and these are the best discoveries.

While I still plan to keep writing on this site going forward, beginning in 2012, my words and images will also be appearing in some other places, including the ever-entertaining Arbuturian and the newly launched Bespoke Blog…so look out for my features there. My first piece for The Arbuturian, which recounts a fantastic meal at a vegan Japanese restaurant in New York, can be found here.

But on to the task at hand…

It is always hard to siphon down a year of eating and drinking, but I’ve tried my best to include only those dishes and drinks that were truly memorable. Hopefully I’ve gotten the balance right and you enjoy seeing both some familiar and not so familiar names in my rambling list.

Given what I mentioned above, this year I am also including a segment on the food I have enjoyed eating most at home, which I hope will highlight some of the amazing farmers, growers and restaurants/food retailers we have in the Tri-State area, particularly in Connecticut.

Although much of this year’s list comes from the US (as I haven’t been traveling as much), there a number of entries from the short but hugely enjoyable trip I made to Copenhagen, a longer trip to Italy (including Rome, Umbria and Tuscany) and a brief sojourn in my former home of 10 years, London. I also had some great food during my first trip to Brazil, but somehow none of it made it onto the list.

Sadly, I didn’t make good on last year’s resolution of cooking more often (well, really learning how to cook in the first place). I have my wife to blame (or thank?) for that as she is so good there often seems little point in me trying. But I’m going to make it my resolution again. Maybe I will try my hand at baking since she doesn’t know how to do that. I haven’t checked to see if I have cold hands, but hopefully I won’t get cold feet.

In any case, enjoy the list and, as always, please send your suggestions of new and exciting places I should try.

Here’s to a wonderful 2012 ahead, and thanks for continuing to support me through another great year.

PS – while I haven’t been blogging as much, I am quite active on twitter and, more recently, on instagram (username: ‘laissezfare’), so follow my tweets and picture posts on those channels as well if you so desire. Also, many of the photos below come from my instagram or un-filtered iPhone images, so apologies in advance for the inconsistency in quality.

~ AT HOME ~

For a number of months now, each morning at Chez Laissez begins with a glass of what I have affectionately coined the ‘green sludge’. It is not as bad as it sounds, and is actually quite tasty once you get used to it. It all started when we purchased a great blender earlier in the autumn. The concoction consists of a variety of organic leaves, usually including a mixture of kale, chard and arugula (rocket), spirulina and macca powder and goji berries, with a touch of banana or apple to make it more palatable. The natural and slowly released energy boost is amazing, and it helps to ensure we get a good dose of enzymes to tackle the day. I find I actually don’t need any coffee in the morning now, but since I like it so much I still often have an espresso or macchiato – not a Caramel Macchiato, which ‘doesn’t exist’ 🙂 – once I get to Manhattan.

Morning Sludge

We also recently purchased a very good dehydrator for our home kitchen, and my wife has been making all kinds of healthy and delicious snacks for us over the last few months, which you may have seen me tweeting about. We use only raw ingredients for these snacks (i.e. not heated/pasteurized) so they retain their full nutritive properties. My favorites are the kale chips, for which she makes a variety of seasonings. More recently, she is also making cookies from raw cacao, coconut oil, dates and nuts (cashews and almonds), which are also excellent.

Kale Chips

We don’t eat a whole lot of meat at home, but when we do, we like to know where it comes from and how it was raised. This means we source most of it from local farmers markets.

Some of our favorite steak & eggs

Our favorite beef comes from Four Mile River Farm, which practices excellent animal husbandry and sells dry-aged beef of very high quality at very reasonable prices. We have also bought grass-fed steaks from New York Beef, which is also good.

Four Mile River Farm Ribeye Steak with Brussels Sprouts

We love the eggs we get from Fishkill Farms at one of our local farmers markets. They come from pasture-raised, heritage breed hens that move in mobile coops and their eggs are downright delicious.

Fishkill Farm Eggs & Tarry Market Bread (Tuscan Farm Loaf)

We now buy these by the boatload, and often have them for breakfast with some excellent bread from Tarry Market, which we rate as the best bakery in our area. I have heard that they supply much of the bread to Batali/Bastianich restaurants in the NY area, but have not had this corroborated…they do have a huge facility that takes up a large block in Port Chester. Fishkill Farms also sells excellent organic fruit and vegetables (although they’re not officially accredited), which we buy weekly.

Lastly, one of the best things I ate this year came courtesy of my mother-in-law who just returned to Normandy after a two-week long stay at our home. It was a traditional Norman dish of Poule au Blanc and it was simply out of this world. We bought two old hens from Fishkill Farms and she did the rest. The iPhone picture doesn’t do it justice, but the cream sauce was almost literally to die for. We had this for her 77th birthday.

My Mother-in-Law's Poule au Blanc

Also excellent was a house-made foie gras terrine (mi-cuit) from Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich. We had this with some toasted brioche and a sweet and sour onion spread, which worked great together. The next night, she used the fat from the foie gras to sauté some fingerling potatoes – that was also something to remember.

Foie Gras Terrine from Restaurant Jean-Louis (Greenwich, CT) Paired with 2006 Château Suduiraut

~ ODDS & SODS ~ 

There is a Mexican restaurant named Bartaco near our house that makes you feel like you are on vacation when you dine there during the warmer months of the year. It is on the water and is designed like a beach resort of sorts. Their food is generally good, but there is one dish we always order…strangely enough, it’s a variation on corn-on-the-cob (pardon the iPhone pic). It’s about as good a version as I’ve had.

Grilled Corn with Lime, Cayenne & Cotija Cheese from Bartaco (Port Chester, NY)

Another nearby restaurant we discovered was Chili Chicken in Stamford, CT, which serves Indian Chinese food. Their fried okra dish was addictive as crack (not that I would know) and is the best thing we’ve had from there so far.

Crispy Fried Okra with Onions and Green Peppers from Chili Chicken (Stamford, CT)

I was lucky enough to enjoy some very good pizzas this year, the best of which were in – go figure – Italy. A casual family restaurant in Rome’s Monteverde neighborhood served an excellent Neapolitan style margherita. All the photos from that meal can be viewed here.

Margherita Classica from La Gatta Mangiona (Rome)

At our relatively new family hideaway in Umbria, a local pizzaiolo constructed an excellent meal of at least a dozen different types of pizzas for about 30 people. The standout of the evening for me was the speck pizza, and I also enjoyed the non-traditional dessert pizza with Nutella and peaches. Below, you can see the first pizza he made: just dough sprinkled with sea salt and a touch of olive oil. All of the photos from this meal can be found here.

Pizza Night in Umbria

While on the same trip to Italy, we had an unbelievable lunch at Arnaldo Caprai winery cooked up by Salvatore Denaro, who has to be one of the most jovial chef/hosts I’ve encountered. There were two courses that particularly stood out as being perfect versions of their respective dishes, the caponata and panzanella. There are tons of photos from this lunch, including some funny ones from the kitchen, all of which can be seen on my flickr set.

Panzanella from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Caponata from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Back in the US, I also had some great sandwich-type foods this year. My new favorite sandwich shop in New York is the Cambodian sandwich specialist Num Pang, whose five-spice glazed pork belly is definitely a standard bearer.

Five-Spice Glazed Pork Belly Sandwich from Num Pang (New York)

Ever late to the proverbial party, I finally had the chance to sample the famous Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern in the latter part of the year. I really can’t think of how it can be improved; it is a thoroughly conceived and rigorously executed beefy affair. Sure it’s $26 but that’s all you need to eat for the meal and it’s both perfect and perfectly satisfying.

Black Label Burger from Minetta Tavern (New York)

My favorite burger closer to home comes from the excellent Burgers, Shakes & Fries. Their meat is a bespoke blend from Master Purveyors in the Bronx (who supply a lot of the famous steakhouses in the Tri-State area) and is really good. The twist here is that the sandwiches are served on ‘Texas Toast’, which in this case is simply toasted bread that has been slathered with butter on both sides. After trying the various iterations, I like the single patty burger with a slice of cheese. The meat does all of the talking and doesn’t need much support. They also serve the best onion rings I have ever tasted.

Double Cheeseburger & Onion Rings from Burgers, Shakes & Fries (Greenwich, CT)

On a healthier note, my favorite food truck for lunch in the City is a rather new Colombian operation that serves arepas. All of their ingredients are organic and meticulously sourced. In addition to the traditional corn base, they also offer more innovative versions, for example one made with quinoa flour, and others with brown rice flour and flax seeds or sesame seeds. My favorite is the quinoa, and I either get it with just hogao and all the fixings, or occasionally a vegan ‘chorizo’ sausage (which is made from soy and comprises over 20 ingredients, including red wine for the color). They are small but if you eat it slowly it fills you up for the rest of the afternoon. Delicious.

Quinoa Arepa from Palenque Food Truck (New York)

 ~ BENIGN BEGINNINGS ~

One of the best appetizers I had this year was seemingly one of the simplest, a burrata from Roscioli in Rome, which is definitely the best version of the creamy cheese dish I’ve had so far. All the photos from that excellent meal are here.

Burrata from Roscioli (Rome)

Along the same lines, the ceviche di spigola (marinated raw sea bass with oil, lemon, onions, chili and fresh coriander) I had at another Rome restaurant – Osteria La Gensola – was vibrant, bright and fresh, the perfect beginning to our meal.

Ceviche di Spigola from Osteria La Gensola (Rome)

Another wonderful light starter came from the most unlikely of places. Spuntino, Russell Norman’s third of five London restaurants in roughly two years, is known more for some of its delicious yet artery-clogging dishes. But the thing I most enjoyed during my meal there was a salad. Possibly this was because it came after a few of those very rich dishes and my stomach was craving greens, but in any case, it was excellent and definitely worth ordering if/when on the menu. My review of the meal can be found here.

Duck Ham Salad with Pecorino & Mint from Spuntino (London)

Another stand-out appetizer also hailed from Italy, although this time from a restaurant in the picturesque hilltop-perched Umbrian village of Montone. During a great meal at La Locanda del Capitano, chef Polito served his own variation on the cappuccino, which included a hill cheese fondue, a quail’s egg and fresh truffle ‘snow’. Need I say more?

‘My Cappuccino’ from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

While in London during the spring, I had the pleasure of sampling James Knappett’s food at the two Michelin starred Marcus Wareing (he now cooks with Brett Graham at The Ledbury), and one dish still sticks out in my mind, both for its beautiful plating and its unique flavors. You can read more about the excellent cold, raw scallop dish I enjoyed here; it really was as pretty as a picture.

Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil from Marcus Wareing (London)

The last of the lighter plates to make the list was also a cold plate, served in Copenhagen during a very cold January evening spent within the warm environs of noma. You can read a full description in my review of the meal, but the main ingredient was sea urchins – it was a breathtaking dish. There were many other things from noma that could have easily made this list (including a plate with pine branches and one centered around an intense Gotland black truffle sauce), but this was my personal favorite.

Sea Urchins and Frozen Milk, Cucumber & Dill from noma (Copenhagen)

~ MAGNFICENT MIDDLES ~ 

It is often difficult for the ‘main’ dish, or dishes, in a multi-course menu to stand out as the most interesting of the meal, even if they are delicious in their own right. The preceding procession of nibbles and smaller plates are designed to whet your appetite, inducing you to salivate and preparing you for what is still to come. By the time you arrive at a meat or fish course, the portion is usually more substantial and can often become too rich and/or monotonous to finish. Happily, I had a number of ‘middle’ dishes that rebelled against the odds and still live on in my memory.

One of the best ‘middle’ dishes I had in 2011 came from a meal at Eleven Madison Park that started out great but didn’t finish as strongly (the meal was toward the midpoint of the year, before chef Humm and the General Manager bought the business from then-owner Danny Meyer). It was one of the best-cooked lobsters I’ve had and was completely delectable.

Lobster Poached with Carrots & Vadouvan Granola from Eleven Madison Park (New York)

We had the pleasure of dining at the chef’s table at Heston Blumenthal’s first London opening in the spring, and many of the dishes were excellent. The one savory course that stood out, however, was the pigeon. My wife doesn’t ever like pigeon, and she was licking the plate with this one. Other excellent dishes that almost made it onto the list were the Black Foot Pork Chop and now ubiquitous Meat Fruit. You can read more about the pigeon dish, and the meal as a whole here.

Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780) with Ale & Artichokes from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

One of the most interesting and delicious main courses I had was actually a vegetarian dish from the Japanese restaurant Kajitsu in the East Village of Manhattan. It was painstakingly plated and stood out for the variety of textures, temperatures and flavors. A full account of the meal can be found here.

Autumn Vegetable 'Fukiyose', Cedar Grilled Yomogi Nama-Fu and Portabella Mushrooms & Komatsuna Oshitashi from Kajitsu (New York)

A diametrically opposed dish, in both spirit and substance, was equally as tasty. This came from the excellent Commerce Restaurant, which is ironically in the West Village, the opposite side as Kajitsu. While it doesn’t often get the press it probably should, Harold Moore is a terrific chef that is both generous to his patrons (he is there night in, night out and actually cares that all of his customers are well taken care of), humble in his manners and genuine in his spirit. His food strives to make you comfortable and satisfied, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Some of the best things I sampled there were his carnivorous sharing plates. My favorite was actually the lamb (and pardon the instagram image below), although the chicken is more fabled, as you can see from this Ozersky TV video. One of his classic American desserts is also included in my favorite desserts of the year…read on.

Rack of Lamb on the ‘Things to Share’ Section of the Menu from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

La Locanda del Capitano makes its second entry with a superb main course of cinghiale (wild boar) that was hunted, killed, prepared and served by the head chef. It was the best example I’ve ever had of wild boar meat, and is worth seeking out if you’re ever in the area.

Montonese Wild Boar Braised with Scallions & Celery Herb Seasoning from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

Last of the top main courses of 2011 was a pleasant surprise from a casual little Ethiopian restaurant in Westchester County, NY called Lalibela, a name shared by many Ethiopian restaurants (indeed, our favorite one in London had the same name). We had a combination platter for two, which was great for lunch.

‘Taste of Lalibela’: Siga Wat, Yebag Wat, Doro Wat, Misir Wat, Shiro Wat & Gomen from Lalibela (Mt. Kisco, NY)

~ SWEET SURRENDERS ~

Although 2011 was a much healthier year food-wise than 2010, I managed to sample a great number of sweet treats which were totally worth the sugar and calories. In addition to some of the staple sweets we stock at home, such as Mast Brothers dark chocolate bars, we found some other great desserts in our local area. These included the best cannoli I have found in the Tri-State area (courtesy of a rapid-fire tour of Stamford, CT with perennially well-informed Jim Leff), wonderful pistachio and dark chocolate gelato from Daniella’s Gelateria in Greenwich, and also Daniella’s hot chocolate.

Cannolo from Sal’s Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)

Gelato & Hot Chocolate from Daniella's Gelateria (Greenwich, CT)

Some other treats I enjoyed outside of restaurants were from some of the better-known bakeries, including Bouchon Bakery’s classic lemon tart and Ladurée’s traditional macarons, of which the rose flavor consistently one of the best – but all are exceptional. I am glad they finally have a shop in New York, although they may still be working out some kinks, as there seem to be variations in quality from many reports.

Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery (New York)

Assortment of Macarons from Ladurée (New York)

A number of great sweets were consumed on our trip to Italy, but the following were my favorite. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me find the name of the bakery in Rome from which I had the amazing sfogliatelle. But I have a picture of the lovely man who made them!

Sfogliatelle from Rome…and the baker who made it

Also excellent was a simple dessert of two components from Trattoria da Teo, which serves rustic dishes in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. It was so good we ordered a second.

Mascarpone & Wild Strawberries from Trattoria da Teo (Rome)

My other favorite restaurant dessert from Italy also contained cream and berries and came from L’Asino d’Oro, home of one of Rome’s best-value lunch menus. You can read more about the meal here. I didn’t expect much from the description of the odd-sounding ‘Strawberry Tiramisu’, but the proof in this case really was in the pudding.

Strawberry Tiramisu from L’Asino d’Oro (Rome)

One of the most satisfying desserts of the year came from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, its second appearance in this year’s round-up. It was essentially a brioche and butter pudding with brandy, with the addition of one of the most meticulously roasted pineapples you are ever likely to find. You can read a full description in my review of this meal here.

Tipsy Cake (c. 1810) with Spit Roast Pineapple from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

My favorite apple pie comes from Mrs. London’s in Saratoga Springs, NY. Wendy (aka ‘Mrs. London’) makes it at the bakery, but also serves it at her son Max’s restaurant next door. The ice cream is homemade too. Both places are worth visiting if you’re even in Saratoga for the horse racing or other reasons. The bakery also serves a very worthy version of Kouign Amann.

Apple Pie & Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream from Max London’s (Saratoga Springs, NY)

One the most surprisingly good sweet things I ate this year came from Commerce, which served the rack of lamb I mentioned above. I have never had a coconut cake I particularly liked, but the name of the dish speaks for itself, and is not incorrect, at least in my own experience. Its moniker is simply ‘The Best Coconut Cake’. While it carries a price tag of $10, it is money well spent. Sadly, I don’t have a great picture, but you can get the general idea from the image below. It has the perfect consistency and is not overly sweet, the main problem that affects most examples of this cake.

‘The Best Coconut Cake’ from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

As a testament to the fact that great things often come when you least expect them, one of the best key lime pies I’ve had comes from a small steakhouse chain whose Boca Raton, Florida branch I visited twice in the last 12 months or so (the other location is in Boston). It was just as good on both occasions, the secret being that they (of course) use real Key limes and also make a delectable graham cracker-esque crunchy crust. If you ever go, their bone-in filet mignon is pretty darn good too.

House-made Key Lime Pie from Abe & Louie’s (Boca Raton, FL)

As it is getting cold now, I am reminded of a part-frozen dessert I had while in Copenhagen. It was my final course at Kødbyens Fiskebar, which consisted of sea-buckthorn as both a grainté and gel, with a base of crème made from tonka nut and white chocolate. The tart and creamy contrast was perfectly judged. You can read the full description here.

Sea-buckthorn as Grainté and Gel, Crème with Tonka Nut & White Chocolate from Kødbyens Fiskebar (Copenhagen)

~ FERMENTED FINDS ~ 

Most of the wines listed below are not particularly pricey (though all is relative), so I particularly enjoyed discovering them as I can afford to buy them again in the future. There were a few precious – in both sense of the word – bottles that I enjoyed on special occasions, but these were mostly the exception this year.

Now that I have a proper wine storage solution, thanks to the impressive Liebherr unit that arrived on my birthday courtesy of my generous parents, I have been buying a lot more wine as of late. I have also found that I’ve been buying a lot of my wine online, through excellent new sites such as Lot18 (click here to join, it’s free). There are also a number of excellent wine merchants I frequent, including Zachys, Sherry-Lehmann, Chelsea Wine Vault, Tarry Wine Merchants (which adjoins to the aforementioned Tarry Market) and the extremely competitively (online) priced Rye Brook Wines. Frankly Wines is also a great little shop, but I rarely get downtown to visit. 

Sparkling 

  • N.V. Claude Genet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • N.V. François Chidaine Montlouis-Sur-Loire
  • N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs
  • N.V. Jaillance Crémant de Bordeaux Cuvée de l’Abbaye
  • N.V. Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru
  • N.V. Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Grand Gru Oger
  • N.V. Scharffenberger Brut
  • 1997 Salon ‘Le Mesnil’ Brut Blanc de Blancs
  • 1998 Henriot Brut Millésimé
  • 2002 Moet & Chandon Dom Pérignon Brut

White

  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 Domaine du Chalet Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2008 Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis
  • 2008 Domaine Huët Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg
  • 2008 Nicolas Joly Savennières Le Clos Sacré
  • 2008 Wind Gap Chardonnay
  • 2009 Arwen, Lilleø Vin
  • 2009 Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc Laurel Vineyard
  • 2009 Evening Land Vineyards Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2009 Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Lazio IGT
  • 2009 Paul Hobbs CrossBarn Chardonnay
  • 2010 Arnaldo Caprai Grecante
  • 2010 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc

Red

  • 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo ‘Vigna dei Dardi’
  • 2003 Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Passito
  • 2005 Baigorri Rioja Crianza
  • 2005 Bodegas y Vinedos Finca Anzil Toro Vendimia Seleccionada
  • 2006 Yering Station Shiraz-Viognier
  • 2007 Ampelos Pinot Noir Lambda
  • 2007 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Médoc Réserve Spéciale
  • 2007 Bodegas Felix Callejo Ribera del Duero Crianza
  • 2007 Clos Du Val Pinot Noir Reserve Carneros
  • 2007 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva
  • 2007 Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum
  • 2009 Domaine de Villeneuve Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Vieilles Vignes’
  • 2009 Venta Morales Tempranillo
  • 2010 The Pinot Project

Sweet 

  • N.V. Josette et Jean-Noel Chaland Chardonnay Vendange Botrytisée
  • 2006 Château Suduiraut
  • 2006 Disznókö Tokaji Aszu, 4 Puttonyos
  • 2009 Domtalhof Rheingessen Riesling Auslese
  • 2009 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest
  • 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese

Beer

  • I am not the world’s biggest lover of, or expert on, beer (by a long shot) but my friend recently introduced me to the Three Philosophers, which is quite nice.

I hope you enjoyed my review of the best bites & sips from 2011 and look forward to keeping you up to date on my findings in 2012 and beyond!

An Indian Summer & Autumnal Eating in the Heart of Italy

An abbreviated version of this article was recently published on CheapOair’s Travel Blog.

My wife and I recently took a short break to Umbria, the green heart of Italy, to visit my parents who are in the process of finally realizing their little Italian dream. About three years ago, they purchased a rather remote piece of land in the rolling hills of Umbria just north of the largest lake on mainland Italy, Lago Trasimeno, and are now in the last stages of completing their home on the site which was previously home to just a few scattered ruins.

Note: you can click on any of the photos for higher-resolution images.

Ryanair's Window in the Sky

En route to Bella Italia

The closest airport to the property is the tiny one located just outside of Perugia (San Egidio), the largest city of the area. It is only a 2-hour direct flight from our hometown of London via Ryanair, the Marmite of airlines (i.e. you either love it or hate it, although most people probably fall in the latter category), making it very convenient for a quick trip.

the italian project

The Italian Project – ‘Under Construction’

As the property is not yet habitable, we stayed for five nights in the charming hill town of Montone which, although just off the E45 motorway, is not visible from the road and therefore less visited by tourists. The small village is well worth a diversion, if only for an hour or two. Our base was the lovely and very affordable Hotel Fortebraccio, a newly constructed hotel with well designed modern and functional rooms (we stayed for €80/night).

balcony of our room at hotel fortebraccio

The morning view from our large private terrace to the hills behind Montone at Hotel Fortebraccio

palo's window to the world

The view of Montone from our architect’s offices

As my parents were busy making final selections on furniture and paint colors during the weekdays, we were able to slip away and take a few day trips. We were very lucky as the weather was unseasonably warm during the days, with pleasant breezes in the evenings, enabling us to make the most of our time in Italy.

Tuscany, Part I: Volterra & San Gimignano

 

On the first day, we drove into central Tuscany to see the pristine hill town of Volterra and the nearby walled medieval commune of San Gimignano with its fabled collection of ancient towers. I had been to both places about 15 years ago and was eager to see if they would live up to my fond memories. While they are both prime tourist haunts, both are certainly worth a visit, and we especially enjoyed our time in San Gimignano, with its wide variety of shops, architecture and (most importantly) some very good gelato!

can you get more italian than this?

Can you get more Italian than this?! A new maroon Fiat 500 on the outskirts of Volterra

some towers in san gimignano

A few of the many towers in San Gimignano

being hung out to dry

Some laundry hanging on the back streets of San Gimignano – a common scene throughout Italy

pluripremiata gelato - the best in tuscany? maybe...

Pluripremiata Gelarteria in the central piazza of San Gimignano – apparently some of the best you can get in the world! It certainly lived up to my memories from 15 years ago...

coffee & chocolate were meant to together, right?

The coffee was particularly amazing, and the texture of the gelato was a perfect smoothness

Tuscany Part II: Montalcino & Castello Banfi

 

Our second day trip took us to the town of Montalcino, which is about a 1.5 hour drive from Montone. The town is perched atop a hill that is most famous for its native Sangiovese grapes, as these are what the ever popular Italian cult wine of Brunello di Montalcino are made from.

church bells ringing in montalcino

One of the churches in Montalcino

pedestrian street in montalcino

A steep pedestrian street in Montalcino

streetscape in montalcino

A typical scene from Montalcino

Montalcino is yet another beautiful little village, but we didn’t have that much time to spend in the town itself as we had a reservation for lunch at Castello Banfi, one of the best-known (and the largest) producer of Brunello di Montalcino. We believed it was just outside the town, according to some rough maps we had to hand…

After attempting to use my blackberry’s GPS to navigate our way to the winery (which took us, and our little Mini rental car, down an extremely steep and narrow dirt road that lead to the middle of nowhere), then losing my rag when I realized (and finally admitted!) that we were very lost, and finally having my wife not talk to me for a what seemed like forever, we eventually made it to the castle about 45 minutes past our reservation time :). If you ever go there, please be warned that Banfi is a good half-hour drive from Montalcino!

Luckily, their Taverna Restaurant was still serving lunch and our table had not been taken. The food was quite simple for such a formal room, and generally looked better than it tasted. It was okay, but we had much better meals elsewhere for less money (see the end of this post for more details).  That said, the free tour of the winery, which took place directly after lunch, was truly fascinating and entertaining, and we greatly enjoyed our visit overall.

taverna dining room at castello banfi

The Taverna dining room at Castello Banfi

 

 

banfi olive oil at taverna dining room

Aside from making wine, Banfi also produces its own olive oil

fusilli with chianina beef

Homemade Fusilli with Chianina Beef IGP Ragoût

roast pork loin

Roast Pork Loin with Rosemary Flavored Potatoes

pear & chocolate tart

Pear & Chocolate Tart

selection of tuscan pecorino

Selection of Tuscan Pecorino with Montalcino Honey & Pine Nuts

castello banfi wines at taverna dining room

The meal was naturally paired with wines from the estate, of which the <2004 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino> (right) was by far the best, and one of the best I’ve had from this very good vintage for Brunellos

banfi guest pass

My guest pass for the winery tour

grappa is made from the dregs that don't make the cut (so to speak)

The remains of the day – they actually make Grappa (the popular Italian digestif) from the bits of the grapes that don’t make it through to wine production

new modern vats for white wine at banfi

Recently purchased gargantuan modern vats for fermenting the white wines

roll ‘em on out...

Roll ‘em on out...

the cellars at banfi - split over two levels

The cellars at Banfi are truly cavernous and take up two subterranean levels, with the smaller barrels located on the higher of the underground levels, and the larger barriques located further below

finest french oak and gamba italian barrels (the best)

They use only the finest French oak and the best barrel maker in Italy (Gamba)

cool light fixture down in the cellar at banfi

A very cool light fixture down below...and, before we leave the tour, did you know that Banfi produces 20% of all Brunello di Montalcino and a grand total of 10 million bottles per year when including all of their wines together?

Umbria: Deruta, Perugia & Assisi

 

The bulk of our remaining time was spent in and around Umbria with my family. I have to say that while Umbria may not be nearly as well-known or as well touristed as its more famous cousin Tuscany, whose central eastern border it shares, it certainly does have a lot to offer, and is often less full of foreigners and less costly than similar places in Tuscany.

The town of Deruta lies directly south of Montone down the E45. It is world-famous for its traditional, handmade ceramics industry, with a large percentage of most studios’ pieces being sold in the Unites States and other international markets. We were there to check out some potential designs for the dishes in our future Italian retreat (see below for some examples) and also meandered into the older part of the town which lies above the rows of ceramic shops that line the commercial streets below.

ceramics makers in deruta workshop

Some of the ceramic artists at work in Maioliche Originali Deruta (MOD), one of the better known ceramics houses

before the ovens...

Before the ovens...

traditional ceramic plates from deruta

...and after glazing, the final products

which way to the center of town?!

Heading into the old town...classic! Now which was it to the city center, again? Only in Italy 🙂

ceramics on the facades of old buildings in deruta's old town

The center of Deruta is small but cute, and there are clues to the town’s ceramic heritage, with beautiful old ceramic designs integrated into the facades of many buildings

We found a great little restaurant down a side street in the old town, which looked promising, and indeed had very good food. Unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember the name now, and can’t find it on the internet either – sorry!

prosciutto with melon

Prosciutto with Melon (all dishes were served on beautiful modern Donitiani plates, which were atypical of the designs we saw elsewhere)

spaghetti with butter & truffles

Spaghetti with Butter & Truffles

chianina beef with balsamic

Chianina Beef with Balsamic

brunello di montalcino in deruta

And, of course, what else but a nice Brunello to wash down the meat?

Our penultimate afternoon was spent in Perugia. In reality, we ended up there because one of my relatives knew there was a fantastic gelateria there, and somehow we ended up parking directly in front of it without even realizing we had done so!

I didn’t know that the place my relative had been searching for was none other than GROM, probably the most famous Italian gelato maker. In recent years, its popularly has swelled both within Italy – where you can now find a branch in most major towns (we had our first in Venice earlier this year and loved it) – and also internationally, with shops recently opened in New York, Paris and Tokyo. Anyway, it is probably the best gelato that you can get consistently across Italy, and I was very excited to be trying it again as I wasn’t even thinking about going to one on this trip.

The GROM facade in Perugia

A gelateria, an Italian man & his Piaggio – we had arrived

GROM laboratory

The ‘laboratory’ within Perugia’s own GROM

the menu - all in blue

What to order, what to order...

GROM gelato in Perugia

You can get three flavors in one small dish (a great value). I loved my original Crema de GROM, Cioccolato Fondente (the less strong of the two dark chocolate flavors, the other being Extranoir) & Caramello al Sale (Salty Caramel) – yummmm!

Grom on Urbanspoon

a fiat and shades in the autumn umbrian sun

A Fiat and an Italian gentleman in shades in the Autumn Umbrian sun

three old men in perugia

Three old men relaxing on the main pedestrian stretch in Perugia

On our last day, we made the quick 30-minute car journey to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis and home to the world-famous Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, which Christians from all over the world flock to for pilgrimage. We were pleasantly surprised at just how well-maintained this ancient town was, and couldn’t believe some if its immaculate preserved pedestrian streets. It was truly stunning.

meat & cheese in assisi

A food shop in Assisi

amazing little home on a pristine street in assisi

One of the pristine streets of Assisi

basilica of san francesco d'assisi

The front of Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

basilica di santa chiara atop assisi

Basilica di Santa Chiara atop Assisi

a dome viewed from afar

A dome viewed from afar

a snooze in the shade in assisi

An elderly gentleman having a snooze in the shade

Tuscany, Part III: The Hidden Gem of Sansepolcro & the Two Restaurant Jewels in its Crown

 

The one truly hidden gem of a town that we discovered on this trip just happened to be a little past the Umbrian border in the far eastern reaches of Tuscany. The town is called Sansepolcro and, while it certainly doesn’t look like much when you first drive in off the motorway, it has a little secret. Drive further in towards the middle and there lies an old walled city that is home to some very charming streets, some very good shopping and two restaurants which certainly deserve special mention, as the best meals we had on our trip were spent in them.

Da Ventura is both a restaurant and a small guest house. It is very traditional in its decor, with wooden beamed ceilings and wine bottles lining the open arched doorways.

traditional décor of da ventura restaurant in sansepolcro

The traditional décor of Da Ventura restaurant in Sansepolcro

Service is wonderfully personal and professional, and we quickly learned the one rule that all the locals abide by: order by the cart, live by the cart!

The wooden trolley is first rolled out at the beginning of the meal and is filled with an assortment of antipasti that will get you salivating. They also shave truffles on top of pasta on the cart if you order that for your appetizer.

gnocchetti starter at da ventura

A simple gnocchetti starter

pasta with fresh truffles being shaved on top

The neighboring table’s pasta, with fresh truffles being shaved on top

The cart is then pushed out again for the meaty main courses. On our visit, they were offering roasted Chianina beef, lamb and pork (by far the best of the three). The dessert selection is also presented on a trolley, and they just sort of put anything you want from the offering onto a plate for you.

veal carpaccio with truffles

My veal carpaccio with truffles

the meat cart with a wide selection of seasonal vegetables

The meat main course cart, with a wide selection of seasonal vegetables

desserts - off their trolleys

My selection of desserts - 'off their trolleys'

one of my parents’ desserts

And one of my parents’ selections

The neighboring table, which was made up of three Italian gentleman who were clearly locals and regulars, noticed that I kept staring at their food as it was being served – especially when the waiter just decided to give one of the men the last hunk of one of roasts, and slopped about 50 ounces of meat onto his plate along with the already large portion he had served him just before. While they were sipping on Vin Santo with their desserts, they asked me if I had tried it before, and told the waiter to give me a glass on their tab. The whole meal had that wonderful feeling throughout, and we really felt at home there even though our Italian left much to be desired.

 

But I would have to say the best meal we had by far was at Ristorante Fiorentino, which also doubles as a small hotel and is smack-bang in the center of the old town, a few blocks down from Da Ventura.

fiorentino’s night-time facade

Ristorante Fiorentino’s night-time facade

First established in 1807, the restaurant has been run by the Uccellini family for over 50 years. Alessio, the man who greets you at the desk upstairs, is clearly the owner and runs the show. He is a truly amazing character, who will regale you with tales of how he has played his little tricks and surprises on other customers over the years as he slowly plates up the restaurant’s wonderful homemade dessert from the impressive trolley. He has an amazing sense of humor and you can tell that this is a family affair through and through, which makes it all the more enjoyable. His daughter is a very professional sommelier and is also very affable.

alessio running the floor

Alessio running the floor

The food at Ristorante Fiorentino was also a bit of a departure from the menus we had become accustomed to in the region (which tend to be very similar, traditional and not all that inventive). They serve historical Tuscan dishes but also infuse elements of Renaissance cuisine into the dishes (i.e. in those times there were many sweet and sour combinations, or piquant and salty dishes at the same time), with some particularly interesting flavor, texture and temperature combinations.

legume soup with spelt ice cream

Legume Soup with Spelt Ice Cream – we were told it was inspired by Italian Renaissance cuisine

For example, I absolutely adored my starter of Legume Soup with Spelt Ice Cream. The bean soup by itself was perfectly fresh and good, but when eaten with the ever so slightly sweet spelt ice cream (which also had little bits of chewy grains scattered throughout) it was truly delicious and interesting.  You can see some more photos of the restaurant below, which I believe is a fitting way to bid you adieu from central Italy. Until next time: arrivederci!

alessio's momentos at ristorante fiorentino

On the way upstairs to the toilets, you can see a portrait of Alessio and some old memorabilia

grappa contraption at ristorante fiorentino

A fascinating contraption containing all types of grappa

alessio doing his thing - entertaining

Alessio does his thing – he juggles dessert dishes and flips them over (with the desserts still inside!) and somehow the contents don’t ever escape...

my home-made desserts at ristorante fiorentino

My selection of desserts tasted were out of this world...Strawberry Shortcake, Chocolate Pudding & Coffee Crème Caramel...I will definitely return to Ristorante Fiorentino on our next trip!