Friday, September 7, 2012

Chow Bella!

So there we were, in a hotel room in Firenze, Italy, with no idea where we were headed next. We ended up having an extraordinary dining experience, one that I can still smell and taste 16 years later. 
Welcome to my story of the most amazing meal of my life. And the most expensive.

One of the perks of living in Alaska for over a decade was taking a holiday. When you're in Alaska, and you have the chance to get go as far away and for as long as you can possibly go. That's just the way it's done. So most of my annual vacations during my decade-plus-a-few-years in Alaska involved transcontinental flights to Amsterdam, followed by 6 to 8 weeks of trekking across Europe.
At first, these trips were elaborately planned well in advance. Glenn, my husband at the time, would work for weeks, planning elaborate itineraries based on Rick Steves' "Europe Through The Back Door" philosophy, usually falling asleep with a highlighter in his hand and a map across his face. And then later on down the road, when we were old hats at this European jaunt thing, we finally started playing it by ear, and letting things just happen. And that's when we really had fun. 
The first time we really threw caution to the wind was 1996 in Firenze, Italia ( that's Florence, Italy to you landlubbers). We had planned the trip as far as the Hotel Bretagna, an old world pensione right on the Arno River. But after that? No plan. We had literally no idea where we were going from there. We didn't know how long we would be there, or where we were headed next. We'd seen all the important sights (David, the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, and a beggar with a baby taped to her chest trying to pilfer out of an unwitting Dutch tourist's fanny pack). So we decided to tape our Eurail map to the wall, close our eyes, and throw a Sharpie at it to determine where we we were headed next.
And that's how we ended up getting on a train the next day for a 7 hour trip to Brindisi, immediately boarding the ferry for the 20 hour trip to Patras, Greece, running across the street to the bus station where the next bus was just leaving for Athens, then directly onto the last subway train of the night to the port of Piraeus, where we decided we would get on the next ferry boat, no matter where it was headed. And that's how we eventually ended up in Turkey.
But let's back up for a moment to the place, the moment, the experience that is for me the quintessential European experience. My favorite meal ever.
We had just thrown the Sharpie. It had made a little black mark somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Now that we had a plan for the next day, we needed to eat. We had no plan for that either. Then my attention turned to a little book on the desk, signed by previous guests. There was a nicely written paragraph dedicated to a glorious review of a nearby trattoria, obscurely hidden away in a nearby alley at Via Parioncino 26.

So we headed down the road away from the Ponte Vecchio, turned right into a pedestrian alley, walked another block or so, and there it was.  Coco Lezzone.
It didn't look like anything special. It was so unassuming. So un-chic. White tiles and ugly yellow walls, long communal tables, an ancient woman hovering over an even more ancient wood stove, and a waiter who didn't understand much English. What was the worst that could happen, besides food poisoning?
Patrons dining at Coco Lezzone
So we went in. And ended up sitting at a table in the front, bundled with a gaggle of New Yorkers. At first I was annoyed, but they turned out to be very cool shoe buyers for Neiman Marcus. One of them promised to get me a pair of leopard spotted galoshes that were just coming out in their Fall collection (which I never got). On the wall above me was a photo of Roberto Benini, posing with the guy who had just walked up to us and said, "You want water con gas, or no gas?" There was another photo with  Luciano Pavarotti and the same guy, who then asked us, "You wantta da red wine, or you wantta da white wine?" (For the record, con gas, and red. Definitely red.)
I think we were on the prix fixe meal plan. We never even saw a menu. The waiter, Gianluca, just kept asking us if we wanted dis or dat. "You wanta da fagioli, or you wanta da farfalle con tartufo?" Well, we didn't even know what we were getting, so we took one of each. We were just going with it.
And from there, I don't even remember what the main course was. Because those two plates....the beans and the pasta, will live with me forever. They remain the most delicious individual plates of food I have ever been served in my entire life.
The beans were enormous, white and cooked to perfection. So tender. Served in a puddle of olive oil with the perfect amount of salt and garlic. They were amazing. I was so happy I'd ordered them. We asked Gianluca how they made the beans, and he said the secret was in the soaking. 
And then I tasted the pasta. A small plate of farfalle, little bow ties in a sauce of olive oil, garlic, white truffles and some parmesan shavings. 
OMG. As in Oh. My. Garlic. It was amazing. Better than the beans. I'd never had a truffle before, only heard about them in A Year In Provence. The ugliest mushroom on the planet. But it is the most incredible and pungent foodstuff, harvested from the forests of Europe with the assistance of specially trained pigs. Aromatic. Heady. Umami. Earthy and musky. It's like saffron. You only need a little bit to change the entire flavor of your dish. And it's expensive. How expensive, you ask? Well, at the time I had no idea. Like I said, we never saw a menu, and when the bill arrived it wasn't outrageous, in fact the prix fixe meals seemed pretty decently priced. Eventually I did find out how expensive, because this story isn't over.

Five years later, we went back to Firenze. This time we had 3 year old Sophia, my sister Dana and husband Brett were traveling with us, and we were visiting Dick & Bridget, friends from Alaska who were living in Italy with their kids for the year. We told them about the amazing restaurant and the incredible beans and pasta, and the affordable price tag as we'd remembered it.
We decided to go as a group and revisit our meal.
When we arrived, we had the same waiter, Gianluca. His mother was still behind the bar. This time I noticed a few more photos on the wall. Prince Charles had visited. Anthony Hopkins had been there. Ralph Fiennes, too. I started to worry a little bit, that maybe word had gotten out since we'd been there last. But everything seemed the same as it had been 5 years before. Same stove. Same paint job. 
We were seated in the back, all 9 of us.  We started with the same routine. Acqua con gas, vino rosso, but that's when we went off script. Like Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair. We stopped him as he was probably offering some other amazingly delicious course of food, and told Gianluca we all wanted to try the fagioli bianco and pasta con tartufo. We ordered a few plates of the beans and six plates of pasta con tartufo.
The meal was exactly as we had remembered it. Until the bill arrived, and all hell broke loose at the table of Americanos.
We were 6 adults and 3 kids, and Gianluca had just handed us a tab for A MILLION LIRA! More than $600 US dollars. We had assured everyone that one of the reasons we loved this restaurant was because it was so reasonably priced. And everything was. Except for the several hundred dollars we'd just been charged for some side dishes of pasta. Not main courses. Side dishes. And they didn't take credit cards.
WTF? Everyone was shocked, trying to politely hide their outrage, but they were all looking at us. We'd just cost everyone a crapload of lira.
We didn't know. We'd never seen a menu. We were only going off of our experience from the last time. We didn't know the little side dishes of pasta would cost somewhere around $40 each (in 2000 prices) if it wasn't part of that evening's prix fixe meal. We only knew it had been really, really delicious!

After a bit of head slapping and grumbling, and silently deciding nobody would ever take our word for anything ever again, everybody still had to admit that it was one of the best meals they'd ever had. We managed to scrape up the money between us to pay the tab.

But my story's not over yet. I've got a redeeming follow up.

Our friends Dick & Bridget, when they returned to the states the following year, told us a funny story. At their Italian language class the week after our visit, they told all their fellow classmates how an American couple had lured them to this restaurant with really good food, promising that the cost was reasonable, only to come in several hundred dollars over what we were all expecting, and it was all because of those damn truffles.
Another student in the class told them they'd gotten off easy. And then he told his own story.
He'd gone to Paris some years before, and ordered pasta with truffles at a fancy restaurant. The waiter delivered the pasta, and then pulled out a grater and a hideous looking bulbous growth. That would be the truffle. He began shaving paper thin slices off the mushroom over the pasta. The patron sat by, smiling at the waiter, waiting for him to finish, salivating at the thought of trying this amazing European delicacy. The waiter continued. And continued. And continued.
Well, you probably already know where this is headed.
The White Truffle. Priced at $1000 USD per pound in 2000.
When a truffle is served in this manner, you are paying by the gram. The truffle is weighed before it is shaved, and then it weighed after it is shaved, and the customer is charged accordingly. The customer had no idea that he was supposed to tell the waiter when to stop. So the waiter just kept going, and going, and going (probably until his conscience got the better of him), and the gentleman ended up with over $200 worth of truffle shavings on his plate. Hope they took credit cards.

Like I said, we got off easy.

Funny thing. I just went on Facebook to do a little fact checking with my friend Dick. I haven't spoken to him in years. He's not much of a Facebooker. The one post on his wall? A recipe for white beans.  He reminded me that we paid much more than I originally recalled for each plate of pasta (I was thinking somewhere closer to $25. He said it was more like $40). He was writing to me from Tuscany, where he's on a ten day hiking tour. He said the dinner we had at Coco Lezzone that night is still one of the most memorable meals of his life too. 

Now that my story is done, I want to tell you about today's playlist, and why I wrote about extraordinary food in Italy. Our mutual good friend and food goddess Doni is headed off soon to Italy to a Slow Foods convention. It's quite an honor. She's the Slow Food Central California delegate for the Terra Madre conference next month in Turin, Italy, where it's all about food. Doni, if you get anywhere near Firenze, you had better get your hindquarters over to Coco Lezzone and try those beans, and then make them for me when you get back, because they require some very slow, slow, slow cooking. I've never been able to master that recipe. Maybe it has to do with that Italian climate.

By the way, you've got an opportunity to support Doni and the Slow Food movement at a party in the very near future, which will help fund that trip to the conference. A News Cafe and Slow Food Shasta-Cascade are hosting A Harvest Sampler in Redding October 7th at The Atrium (you're all invited, get your tickets at the link above). Doni asked if I might provide some music for the occasion. So here it is. La migliore musica italiana per la bella donna. I call it Ciao, Bella. Or Chow Bella. Either way....I think you're gonna love it.
Ciao Bella! by Valerie Ing-Miller on Grooveshark