Category Archives: Italy

Thursday Night on Mulberry St…

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Sometimes you just need to rant. And rant I will.

Late Thursday night I was walking with my muse, right hand and trusted creative conspirator, Soo Jeong. Hungry and heading toward the dive noodle shop on Grand St. we like to go to for our Chinatown fix, I was in a good mood. The air was cooler than it had been than in the last few nights, we had seen a fun movie and we were looking forward to cheap steaming bowls of brothy noodles. And then the wheels started to come off.

We didn’t realize how late it had gotten as we were greeted by the owner with that resigned look of, “sorry, we are closing”. We thought…hey…this is NY..no problem. A fine thought if we were anywhere but Chinatown on a weeknight where the streets resemble any small town after 10pm…closed storefronts and deserted streets. So we wandered. As we got hungrier we ended up strolling up Mulberry Street. I make it a rule never to eat at touristy places and as the sidewalk hawkers were crowing about their ‘authentic” Italian menus, I was not swayed in the slightest. And then the critical mistake was made.

Soo playfully asked this fire hydrant of a man outside one of the cafes if they had stuffed artichokes. He of course started to wax poetic about how wonderful they were and where we would like to sit. Sitting was not an option in my mind but I could tell by the look in Soo’s face that she had been overcome by hunger, curiosity and the lure of easy eats. Stuffed artichokes are also her kryptonite…so I was resigned to the fact that I was about to break one of my cardinal rules. So we sat.

I made what I thought were pretty safe choices considering I was setting the bar pretty low in terms of expectations. Rigatoni and eggplant with marinara and mozzarella. Rather hard to screw up…especially since this was Little Italy…or so I thought.

I am bothered the bridge and tunnel crowd on date night in The City. I sneer at the cigar smoking wanne be’s on the sidewalk strutting around like they are Gotti in the 80’s. I roll my eyes at the tourists, drunk and loudly proclaiming their love of all things I-talian. My blood begins to simmer as the roving accordion player rocks out “O Solo Mio”, “That’s Amore” and a stirring rendition of the Theme from the Godfather.

What sets me over the edge is bad food and what I find absolutely infuriating is bad Italian food. This food was abominable. To call this Italian food was a disgrace to anyone with even a drop of Italian blood flowing through their veins. Our ancestors who called what is left of this neighborhood home are rolling over in their graves. To see what these business owners are holding out their as our culture, our food and our heritage makes me sick to my stomach.

I left so irritated and physically bothered by the experience that I needed to rant. Please, for the love of all things sacred never…ever…come to New York and visit ANY of the so-called Italian restaurants on Mulberry Street looking for Italian food. I am sure not all of them will serve you food as bad as what I had the other night but the kitsch and triviality of it all is too much to take. You want Italy…go to Italy. You want Italian food…go to a reputable Italian restaurant…or a family owned business…or stay home and make it yourself from a good cookbook with good ingredients. I can recommend places in all 5 boroughs that will at least serve you something that resembles effort and care if not a gourmet experience. Stay out of the tourist traps and the places that treat Italian culture and food like some sort of horrible caricature. Please.

I’d like to say I feel better…but I don’t. I’m just as angry as I was the other night writing this but at least now maybe some of you won’t make the same mistake we made Thursday night on Mulberry Street.

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Franco’s Italy

Photographer Franco Pagetti of VII Photo Agency has seen and documented the horrors of war.  His battlefield photos are breathtaking and his reputation in the field is of fearless journalist and fabulous cook.  When the bullets fly he runs toward the action and when it’s over he whips up some pasta. A small villa on a farm in Tuscany is Franco’s sanctuary and he takes great joy in sharing the beauty of his home and preparing food for his friends.  We finally found the time and resources to visit him on our recent trip to Italy.

Franco’s home in Tuscany is not the Tuscany of tour books.  He lives in Polverosa and the locals prefer to say they live in Maremma not Tuscany.  This is rugged Italian farmland still inhabited by cowboys and farmhands and formally by bandits and thieves.  We drove through miles of rolling hills, several dirt roads and acres of recently harvested fields to get to Franco’s house.  He lives on an active farm currently processing the very recently picked sunflower and corn harvest.

The grounds are peppered with pomegranate trees and sits on the high land surrounded by the fields. There is a central courtyard where all of the residents have outdoor patios covered with greenery and herbs.  The rosemary bushes are as big small cars and wild fennel grows everywhere.  The sights and smells in this place make you realize why food is so ingrained into the culture in Italy.

On our first night Franco took us to his favorite local restaurant, Rosa dei Venti in Albinia, where among the amazing dishes we sampled the Pesce al Sale and a Ravioli with Dorado and dried tuna eggs were the standouts.  The whole fish was entombed in a cave of salt and baked.  The result was a fish that was steamed by its own moisture.  It was flaky, slightly briny and delicious. We drank a 2004 Lagrien and a 2007 Sudtiroler (Pinot Noir).  The food was fantastic but I was already looking ahead to the next night’s dinner, one that Franco would cook himself.

The next two nights were two of the best meals I have ever eaten.  First, Franco made a spaghetti alla vongole unlike anything I have tried.  The freshness of the ingredients, particularly the small sweet clams that had come out of the Mediterranean that morning and the tiny but potent dried pepporcini peppers made the difference.

With dinner we drank a 1994 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.  Gianfranco Soldera is renowned as maybe the finest maker of Brunello in the world…and it was an absolutely sublime experience.  This was the most complex and exquisite wine I have ever sipped.  That was true for one day until we drank a 1983 Soldera with the following night’s dinner.  Incredible. These wines shaded my view of everything else I drank on this trip.

We ate raw langoustines with salt and lemon and red snapper Carpaccio with olive oil and red pepper corns before we were treated to Franco’s signature dish.  His whole fish rubbed with salt, stuffed with fresh rosemary, wrapped in wild fennel branches and cooked over an open fire is legendary among his friends.  The dish was Tuscany…rugged while elegant, simple yet complex, fresh, aromatic and bursting with flavor.

We left Maremma for Siena the next morning astounded by Franco’s hospitality, generosity and skill in the kitchen.  His warmth and energy made our first visit to this part of Italy very special.  Franco’s Italy.  I can’t wait to go back.

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