April 6, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Eating Up Italy

Caffè Fiorenza’s intricate sculpting of ice cream stops traffic on Via Calzaiuoli. Photo: Steven Richter
Caffè Fiorenza’s intricate sculpting of ice cream stops traffic on Via Calzaiuoli. Photo: Steven Richter

        Do you remember those liberating old rules for staying slim?  Calories don’t count if you eat standing up.  It’s not fattening if you nibble from someone else’s plate. Cake crumbs and broken cookies? Calorie-free. Even today, wise as I am, I drift into that never-never land that discipline may relax as soon as I get on a plane. Calories don’t conjugate above 10,000 feet. Warmed mixed nuts… too much salt… oh yum.  Seconds. Are you insane?  Yes. 

        At home, breakfast is no-fat yogurt with branny kibbles and bits and maybe a tangerine. No problem. No complaint.  Now we’re in Italy, tagging along on a gastronomical discovery tour with chef Cesare Casella, and All-Bran topped with fruit – fresh, canned and dried – is just the amuse bouche at our hotel’s breakfast buffet. Dense crusty wheat bread, to slice and toast, is a fine excuse for a chunk of pecorino, and a small wedge of apricot tart is suddenly irresistible. And what was that perfume-y alcohol in the wondrously moist chocolate torta at breakfast in our Parma hotel?

‘Ino owner Alessandro Frassica plies us with rounds of focaccia panini. Photo: Steven Richter

        Yes, deep down inside, I am fully aware that bread is 80 calories an ounce, or is it 85? But all bets are off for now.  We’re overseas. We’re working. Waistbands are elastic.  I must confess I’ve never tasted hot chocolate in New York but now I’m determined to have the thick melted chocolate at Cafe Rivoire on the Piazza della Signora.  Alas, Michelangelo’s David is invisible – modestly wrapped in his own plastic shower curtain for restoration.  Not even his gorgeous feet peek out.  But it’s Monday so the Rivoire is closed.  I’ve been saved from myself.  
        A relentless parade of panini at ‘Ino turns out to be our best lunch in Firenze. This smart little shop can be hard to find on an odd side street but it’s not far from the Ponte Vecchio or the Piazza della Signora. The refrigerated showcase of sandwich makings dominates the small front room with its cream walls, blond wood, arched stone ceilings. We’re early and Cesare and his Salumeria Rosi chef Meridith Sutton are late. Steven and I perch on stools at a counter along the wall next to a handsome display of sauces from Le Calandre (the three star restaurant near Padua I discovered as a two star our first winter in Venice). ‘Ino’s owner Alessandro Frassica offers a glass of wine and sends over a small bowl of “bagigi,” curry-flavored crunchies by Le Calandre. 

        At last.  Cesare steps out of a cab. He stops at the plant stand outside – with its massed infant basil tendrils. But he’s got to have a sprig for his pocket.  If his iconic rosemary isn’t available, basil will do. 
Chef Sutton snaps the photo.  “What will we have?”  Our host is eager to dazzle.

        Soft fresh raw milk pecorino arrives. And foccacia panini squares filled with melted cheese and mostarda salsa, salami rosa – they use guanciale and a tender piece from the hip (‘Ino’s perfectionist owner shows us where on his own hip) with pecorino and saffron, old style mortadella with, yes, pecorino and truffle, porchetta di tonno (tuna).  Oh, so good. There’s a pause.  Just when it’s enough and then beyond, Frassica arrives with another platter.  Real mortadella with pistachio-studded pecorino. And after that, melted pecorino with basil, pine nuts and capers from Pantelleria (i.e. Sicily’s best). A bite should be enough.  But of course it isn’t. We are sitting in the back room on stools around a table made from a barrel surrounded by merchandise: cookies, chocolate and coffee, ridiculously priced.  “It’s all in the packaging,” says Cesare, caressing biscotti dressed for the Oscars. He wants to know where Frassica gets his china and apron. Other customers have eaten modestly, sipped wine or coffee, come and gone.  At 2, the local cognoscenti are still arriving, clustered around the panini listing on the wall, everything priced from 5 to 8 euros ($8 to $10.75), and made to order.  A glass of wine comes with the 12 euro meat and cheese platter.
‘Ino. Via dei Georgofili 3r. 39 055 219208
 Parizzi’s Third Generation Has a Vision

Small fillets of red mullet ride the asparagus rails at Parizzi in Parma. Photo: Steven Richter

        I start every day with the persistently adolescent dream I’ll soon be eating something sublime. But my hopes quickly flag tonight with one look at Parizzi Ristorante in Parma, where three generations of family have gone minimalist. The avant-garde art, florescent tubes and pierced stainless steel, our table in a private dining room, droplets of blown glass scattered on the table.  I’ve felt betrayed too often by the pretensions of ambition and upscale fusion in Italy.  Like the fussy bread tonight.  Pretty but not very good.  And then the chef’s offering arrives, a small ball of chicken liver mousse to scoop up with a toasted crisp. Silken wow. And with it, a lesson in not judging by appearances begins. A focus on presentation, the imposition of fancy plates, a fascination for new techniques, even a redundant foam, none of it seems to distract from the fine flavors and textures of Marco Parizzi’s food, most of it decked out with marvelous greens and vegetables. 

Toasted bread crumbs on this hill of bigoli pasta delights the Road Food Warrior.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Mullet fillets ride in on perfectly cooked green and white asparagus under a frizzle of puntarelle defined by stripes of herb salsa. Carpaccio of yellowtail and langostinos on an elegant salad tossed with sea urchin plays sweet voluptuous flesh against crunch. And a salad of room temperature beef with wilted field greens and black truffle tinged with sherry vinegar is equally pleasing. I don’t even mind the candied tomato in the saltiness of toasted crumb-topped bigoli noodles with black olives and anchovy.  I have only myself to blame that I forgot to ask for the squab rare. 

Parizzi’s chocolate bon bons must have their own stylist. Photo: Steven Richter

        We’re in Parma after all, so attention must be paid when the captain wheels in a rolltop cart with three ages of parmigiana. (There are some pretensions I’ll defend.) And by now I appreciate the linen cloth, the floor length grey satin skirt underneath, the Venetian water glasses, each a different color, as well as the first dessert that tastes like the inside of a cannoli. Since we’re with Cesare we’re getting the full VIP dessert attack.  Something labeled “Winter, 2009” is a heap of chocolate debris and wan white bubbles. Fitting, I guess. Tartly citric sorbets are a tonic, lined up like billiard balls on carpaccio of pineapple.  I can live without the small spray-can of chartreuse that seems to delight everyone, but I surrender to a Daliesque display of chocolates – even though the Dali is more thrilling than the bon bons.  Worth a detour, absolutely.
Parizzi. Strada Repubblica 71, Parma. 39 0521 285952
An Essential Detour for Breakfast

Giorgio Pagello reaches for one of his celebrated panini – perfect breakfast. Photo: Steven Richter 

        There will be no orderly progression from Firenze to Parma to Cesare’s home town, Lucca, where Mama awaits.  Cesare has us criss-crossing the boot. No wakeup is too early if there’s a great panini within an hour’s drive. He drags us out of bed for coffee and panini at his good friend Giorgio Pagella’s La Tazza D’Oro in Alessandria (in Piedmont). “People come from everywhere because the newspapers say it’s the best tramazzini in Italy,” he assures us. Actually it’s not tramazzini as we know them from Venice: salumi and cheese or mayo’d delicacies on soft white bread.
        I study the hand-scrawled labels: cooked ham, olive, pâté and cheese with mayonnaise, artichoke, tuna, prosciutto with cheese and mayo… I am feeling a little fragile and it’s early so I choose a frittata of tomato, tuna and mayo. Mayo’d indeed, and stuffed inside nicely salted, not at all oily, focaccia.
Tazza d’Oro di Giorgo.Via Bergamo. Alessandria. 13 39 0142 55758
 Romano Goes Glam

Roberto Francesini keeps his eye on Cesare Casella’s needs at Romano in Viareggio.  Photo: Steven Richter

        From breakfast in Piedmonte, we’re racing all the way southeast to Viareggio for lunch at the celebrated fish house, Romano. I know this Francescini family place from summers we’ve spent in Pietrasanta, not far from the Tuscan seashore. Mama Franca at the stove since she was 16, Papa Romano and son Roberto in the dining room. But except for the bold sign outside, I don’t recognize it at all. An unassuming mom-and-pop shop for exceptional seafood has been glossed up with backlit panels, blown glass intimations of the sea, big colored bubbles, bouquets of yellow-green roses in silver pitchers and Ginori china on every yellow damask-covered table.  It has that ready-for-Michelin gleam. The cake-like basil bread seems new also.

        I mention memories of Franca’s marvelous deep-fried zucchini blossoms to son Roberto as a dauntingly long chef’s tasting begins. Not today, I am told. It’s not yet the season.  As always, the sea creatures, familiar and exotic, are exquisitely cooked. And we’re sipping Montecanto di Bianco that Romano makes himself in Monte Carlo, where he was born.

Chef Franca sends out luscious carpaccio and crudo at Romano. Photo: Steven Richter

        I find it strange to have four courses in a row of the same critters – jumbo shrimp, baby squid, the long white mantis shrimp they call "sparnocchio" – first braised, then fried, again raw, then dressed up in spoons, and later reappearing with white beans in tomato broth.  “But that’s what’s fresh today,” Cesare says, dismissing my complaint.  In between there are fillets of small red mullet with a mince of black olive, tomato, basil and prestigious Tuscan olive oil.  Calamari bodies come stuffed with zucchini and carrot enlivened with orange zest. And then…what can this be?  A waiter dispatched to the market has come back with early squash blossoms for Franca’s stuffing and meticulous frying in a fritto misto with artichokes and zucchini.  Both touching and wonderful.

        Tagliatelle is tossed with arselle clams, tiny as a toddler’s fingernail, a rare local prize. By the time desserts cover the table – Sirio’s crème brulée, chocolate variations, a luscious apple crumble sitting on cocoa powder, and four citric sorbets each in its own little goblet – Cesare is getting restless. There’s not even five minutes for a promised stroll on the beach.  If we don’t hurry, we’ll be late to dinner.

Romano. 122 Via G. Mazzini, Viareggio. 39 0584 31382
Lorenzo Has Gone Tony

Lorenzo whisks the mayonnaise himself…and, what a shock…in a suit. Photo: Steven Richter

        Another big jolt awaits as we walk into Lorenzo, still on the same shopping street of chi-chi Forte dei Marmi – a summer retreat on the Tyrrhenian Sea for well-heeled Florentines and Milanese.  It had always been our splurge of choice during summers spent in the adjacent town of Pietrasanta, a fabled spot for fish, tended by the lean, blue-eyed Lorenzo Viani, in faded blue jeans and shirtsleeves (blue to match his Paul Newman eyes). Sirio Maccioni introduced us in 1995, an innocent era when Viani's wine card offered the ’82 Lafite for $100. I remember him telling Sirio that American Express had him listed as a trattoria.

        I’m sure Annette Reed de la Renta’s reception room cannot be more elegant than Lorenzo’s. It was like seeing the house you grew up in replaced by a McMansion.  An ambitious decorator has had his way with the place.  Sterling silver everywhere.  Witty curving sconces and three foot tall roses, big wicker chairs with lush corduroy upholstery.  Even the olive oil is “couturier.”  He is wildly proud of it and displays it on a pedestal table.  The bulbous bread sticks are addictive. I’m not sure if the witty art and accents are Lorenzo’s, but there he is, with the same sexy grin but o-l-d-e-r, and wearing a black suit. He takes every order and always makes the mayonnaise. And yes, it’s the same Lorenzo Viani most recently here to do the menu for Armani’s new restaurant on Fifth Avenue.

Slivered favas and tomato add earthy zest to red mullet.  Photo: Steven Richter.

        Well, we were all into home improvement for a decade so why not Lorenzo, one time “trattoria” in Forte dei Marmi..

        I am nostalgic for the room temperature sea food salad I always used to order and the wide pacheri pasta teeming with sea creatures that Lorenzo does in a skillet, adding liquid as if it were risotto. Tonight that salad seems a bit bland. But I’m also sharing in the perfection of the tasting sent out for everyone else at the table. Bitsy fried shrimp (about as big as a fingernail clipping) surround a sublime shrimp croquette for openers. Two big red shrimp, gently cooked, are parked in a vegetable custard in a martini glass, dazzling critters in what tastes to me like Gerber’s baby food. Calamaretti bodies are stuffed with I’m-not-sure-what, delicious and salty. Two flat slivers of barely-gelled red mullet are piled with slivered raw favas, small and complex. And one Jackie-Gleason-sized scallop on celery root purée sits in the middle of the table, buried in summer truffles, for all of us to share. As promised, Lorenzo himself rolls over the mayonnaise-making stand and we actually need that creamy emulsion to moisten the remarkably firm deep sea fish atop deep fried potato slices that is the finale. It’s a fish with flesh so sturdy it cannot be as lightly cooked as I want, according to Cesare.

        I don’t remember dessert, sorbet probably. But that mayonnaise still haunts me. I could start all over and put it on everything.  Including… no, I won’t say it… I’ll just think about it as we race now toward Lucca.
Lorenzo. 61 Via Carducci, Forte dei Marmi. 39 0584 87 4030
Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers