Sky Full of Bacon

Catching up here on past Key Ingredients; incidentally, please note that it’s going to every other week at the Reader, but keeps on keeping on past the point where any of us would have expected it to wear out its welcome, as Julia said in her recent 50th-edition piece. Anyway, the two over the New Year were, first up, John Anderes of Telegraph given the epistemological question of ash by Jason Hammel:

And then, Erling Wu-Bower of The Publican using gold leaf, which he totally disliked on aesthetic/moral grounds, making this one one of my favorites for the tension between chef and ingredient:

One thing to note, though: Michael Nagrant and I looked at our respective schedules and decided we just can’t pull off the week-long year-end roundup this year. Partly due to other obligations (we both have steady gigs) but also partly due to feeling like we’re saying it all elsewhere (we both have steady gigs). Maybe somebody else, someone who’s still on the outside and a rebel, needs to do it and give us the hell we gave others, now that we’re establishment figures. Or maybe we’ll do it next year. But it just isn’t going to happen this year. If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, here’s Year 1 and Year 2.

Some years ago I went to Florence and Siena. The image of dining in Italy that Americans have is idyllic— every Olive Garden ad bloodsucks that image of the table of hearty food and warm family in our collective head— so it often surprises people when I say that I found it almost impossible to find anything good to eat on that trip. Well, for dinner; for lunch we would stop at the central market or the bakeries nearby, and that stuff was always cheap and fantastic. Here was the bounty of amazing-tasting simple stuff that is Italy’s birthright. But let them actually cook it into a dish… there was the pasta place so bad we waved other tourists away, like the damned warning the living that there was still time to save themselves, and there was the Florentine steak place we picked out of Michelin which forever defined Michelin for me (snobbish, insanely expensive, twenty years behind the times). Honestly, one of the best dinners we had in Florence was Chinese food. It was almost as good as the old school Cantonese in Wichita.

Now it is many years later, Chowhound and LTHForum and Sky Full of Bacon and Grub Street Chicago later, and I think I understand better how to avoid crap places and suss out promising ones, in any culture. First, of course, is just to go where someone you trust says you should go; more on that anon. Second is learn how to recognize the signs of crap for tourists— the Coca-Cola-branded signage promising menu turistico, the lavish gelato bar (Americans are drawn to vast arrays of sweets like bees to flowers), etc. I’m not going to say we scored 100%, there were a couple of meals where we wound up spending $50 to feed the four of us hospital cafeteria sandwiches, but I also had several scores where we picked a place, a humble bar or bakery, and spent a relative pittance to have fresh-tasting, beautiful homecooked food served up by a smiling Italian mama or gent straight out of a 50s movie. Like this place:

This was the bakery just around the corner from our friendly B&B near the Colosseum, facing the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, and I could find its address for you, but I don’t want to recommend it (unless you stay at the same B&B), I want you to be able to find yours near where you’re staying. A bustling little bakery, freshly made sheet pizza (pizza al taglio) with simple toppings like ham and mozzarella or potato and rosemary, desserts, a few tables crammed into a space right in front of a door, traffic in and out, stuff like this in the morning:

And it cost nothin’ and I felt like a million Euros for being able to recognize it and direct my family there just a couple of hours off the plane. Same thing when we went to the Vatican, we stopped on the way for a coffee and pastries before our time in the Sistine Chapel (allow me to highly recommend going at Christmas, not because they do all that much different then— it’s not really a place that needs extra religious-themed decoration— but the crowds were a fraction of what they’d be in the high season). The place we stopped was just a little cafe, nothing special:

Luckily I didn’t see the Coca-Cola sign till after. Anyway, coming back at lunchtime we had a recommendation for a nice, if expensive lunch, and we got to it and they were still setting tables and vacuuming, wouldn’t open till 1 or 1:30, so we walked half a block back to the cafe to have something to tide us over for a half hour or so. And we sat there, and guys like this:

were feeding an obviously local crowd with stuff like this:

And it all smelled really good and was dirt cheap and I thought, are we chumps for waiting to eat a $100 lunch for four when this stuff is being served up all around us? Yes, we were. So we stopped being chumps and just had them make up plates of enough food for six or eight, and it was maybe $35 (and half of that was Cokes), and we dug in, and were happy as could be.

Or when we went to this place (again, because a lunch choice wasn’t open yet, after seeing Bernini’s St. Theresa):

And while we were waiting the guy came by with the fresh mozzarella and the mama opened the box and jabbed toothpicks in a couple of them and handed them to us to try:

And on and on like that. One thing I learned along the way: nobody knows how to microwave like the Romans do. Because that’s how a lot of this food was heated up in these little cafes and bars; they don’t have room or time for a big oven, they just pop it in the microwave, yet it was never hardened and rubberized like food is when American restaurants microwave stuff. I suspect part of it is that our microwaves are simply too powerful, compared to theirs; we death-ray our food by comparison. For once the fact that everything in Europe is smaller and underpowered was an advantage. Whatever it is, they know how to use technology without destroying the tradition the food comes out of.

* * *

Now, one place I would unquestionably recommend, just as it was recommended to me— actually, two different parts of the business were recommended to me separately, and I didn’t realize they were the same place until we got there. It’s Roscioli, which you might call kind of the Zingerman’s of Rome— a group of businesses devoted to presenting the best artisanal foodstuffs, which may seem redundant in Rome, but in a city where that humble bar-ball of mozzarella on a toothpick was something special, Roscioli’s are a cut or two above even that. Jared Van Camp recommended the main store for its stunning collection of cured meats from all over the region, as well as the chorus line of prosciutto and jamon iberico legs poised above the salume:

Looking at their website, I saw that Roscioli also served dinner— as it turned out, kind of a popup dinner spread throughout the store. Dining among the olive oils and salume was an irresistible idea, and so we went:

It’s not, I think, that there’s some great chef here, but there’s a good chef making the same stuff you’d have elsewhere, but with ingredients sourced at Roscioli’s level of quality, like a gooey alien-egg of burrata topped with shaved white truffle (you pick the amount by the gram):

Or this platter of mostly housecured meats, including a fantastic testa and a speck-like ham:

Cacio e pepe, the most everyday Roman dish, elevated by the outstanding quality of the parmesan:

Which brings us, though, to a conundrum. Roman pizza, wherever we had it, was great just because the bread was so fresh and simple and delicious, whatever you put on it got a gold frame for its own flavors. But I didn’t feel that way about Roman pasta at all. The best pastas we had were at Roscioli because the best things went in the pasta. Other pastas we had were fine, satisfying enough, but without Roscioli’s sourcing, they were no better than things I’ve had in many places in Chicago, and the pasta itself was always serviceable, not one of those things that makes you go, aha, so that’s why pasta. This was the case at Luzzi, a frequently-recommended-in-guidebooks spot near our B&B, where the wood burning oven’s simple products infinitely outshone our homey (in the not entirely flattering way)* pastas:

I frankly feel there’s more devotion to making great pasta in or about to unveil itself in Chicago (Nellcote, Balena, etc.— at least that’s what their press releases promise) than we saw anywhere in Rome; if there’s someone in Rome obsessed with making the world’s greatest authentic preindustrial pasta, a Poilane of pasta, we didn’t eat his stuff.

Anyway, meanwhile Michael Morowitz had recommended a place called Antico Forno. The trouble was, that just means “old-style oven,” there are “Antico Fornos” all over Rome. What he meant was just up a side street from Roscioli:

This was Antico Forno Roscioli, a bustling bakery with lots of food to go (and almost nowhere to eat). There was sheet pizza:

and an amazing array of baked goods for the Christmas holiday just a couple of days away:

We bought it and sat on the steps of this chapel a block away, like the poor with their crusts of bread:

Except we had this, the greatest ham sandwich of my life, as I mentioned in my ten best list for last year:

Another recommendation from Morowitz was a tiny bakery in the Jewish quarter— more the Jewish block— which he said specialized in a kind of chocolate ricotta cake. Alas, after standing in line for twenty minutes, crowded into it like a phone booth, the ricotta cake was sold out (not sure why the Jewish bakery was as busy as all the others right before Christmas, but it was). I came away with slightly burnt biscotti:

And the irony of remembering that I had seen exactly the thing I’d come here for earlier that day… at Roscioli.

I bet they do a great job with it, too.

Another pizza place that was widely recommended to me, notably by Tony Mantuano who says it inspired the pizzas at his new Bar Toma, was Pizzarium, which I wrote about more fully at Grub Street. It’s just a walk-up stand in a fairly modern neighborhood on the outskirts (easy to get to, though, since it’s just up the street from the Cipro metro stop), but renowned for the excellence of the sourdough crust, which more than Bar Toma’s, reminded me of Great Lake’s (and has a similar overnight retarding period before it’s baked).

There were all kinds of toppings— I regret passing on one that had mandarin orange slices on it— but again, simplest was often the best; the tomato bread with burnt spots was magical. Pizzarium, like Rome generally, demonstrated to me anew that the secret to eating well in Italy is to spend as little as possible… in exactly the right places.


A few extra notes:

* Better in all departments (especially the warm Italian mama welcome) was I Clementini in the same neighborhood:

That said, one night when we were tired we did return to Luzzi and stuck to pizza, and were all happy.

Gelato is everywhere, but everyone seems to agree that one place, off the Trevi Fountain, is a standout, Il Gelato Di San Crispino:

This despite being a bit surly and having few places to sit. I’d agree— for the fruit gelati, especially the pear (praised in the NY Times) and some of the fig ones. Dairy ones seemed less outstanding to me— fine, but not unique.

Here’s my list of ten best things I tasted this year, most of which you can still go out and have, though considerable airfare may be involved. As I did last year, I disqualified all the Key Ingredient dishes because they’re just one-offs made under unusual circumstances; I also decided not to count the one-night-only “Modern Midwestern Cuisine” dinner planned by Steve Plotnicki and Bruce Sherman at North Pond, although it was good enough to qualify and certainly has me interested in visiting North Pond again after some years since my last visit,not to mention some of the other restaurants involved such as Niche (St. Louis) and June (Peoria). (You can read more about it at Grub Street Chicago.) Michael Nagrant and I will delve into the year in far more exhaustive detail at some point this month, though we both took vacations at the end of the year rather than knock heads in time for Jan. 1.

10. My strawberry-mint-basil jam— For a party this year I made a Dale Degroff cocktail combining these flavors with gin. I liked the combination so much I made it into jam with good things I bought at the Green City Market, or even grew myself. It’s really good, you’re just going to have to trust me. Or make it your own self next year.

9. Corn cake and greens, Yah’s Cuisine— The least likely spot on this list goes to a south side vegan soul food restaurant visited after shooting an interview with Peter Engler for my barbecue video. Before the visit, I’d have said the soul in soul food inevitably came from pork; Yah’s deep, heartfelt food proves me wrong. (Or proved; there’s some reason to think that Yah’s is closed, though no one has confirmed that.)

8. Ham sandwich et al., Roscioli, Rome— We ate a fantastic meal one night at this artisanal deli/foodshop with a pop-up restaurant on its premises, full of great handcrafted Italian tastes, and had great takeaway pizza from its neighboring bakery a day or two later, but maybe the champ of all was the greatest ham sandwich of my life— as good a vehicle as any fancier dish for demonstrating how something can be even more than the sum of terrifically well-chosen parts.

7. Short ribs & spaetzle, etc., Perennial Virant— So, yeah, I said what the ad says I said, sort of, if you read this post it’s more or less there. But it’s not number one on my list, did I mean it? Well, yeah. I mean, there were other restaurants I loved on first visit (Vera and Telegraph and Bar Toma and who knows what), and they may well end up on a ten best list once I’ve been to them a few times, maybe even ranked higher. But Perennial Virant seemed like a culmination for Paul Virant as I’ve followed him over the past few years, his food a little more casual than in Western Springs, newly in a BoKa Group high-energy city setting, yet nonetheless fully realized out of the gate and perfectly attuned to my tastes. Even so, as successful as PV’s PV is, it seems half-overlooked already— there are so many openings, novelty smacks you in the face almost daily, and Virant has been such a familiar figure that you don’t think of him as having not been here all along and thus something new in town. So stop to smell the short ribs and spaetzle— Paul Virant, once out in the suburboonies, is now right down the street from you, buying from the market and cooking it that night to bring out all its smoky porky fresh farm flavor. Doesn’t that deserve as much cheering and insane hype as anything that happened this year?

6. Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebabi, Istanbul— Winner of this year’s Screw the Fancy Stuff, Just Give Me Meat Over Open Fire Award goes not to the latest barbecue joint I’ve discovered, as it usually does, but to Istanbul’s possibly unique old school cag kebap spot, located near the Sirkeci station where the Orient Express ended. The preindustrial ancestor of the ubiquitous doner kebap, cag kebap is handcut lamb stacked onto a giant metal skewer and roasted sideways over fire, then hand sliced and threaded onto skewers. More to come on this in an upcoming Turkey post, but suffice it to say that the owner is brother to any great BBQ pit master— picking out just the right mix of crispy and fatty bits and occasionally rounding out a skewer with burnt ends from the tray below.

5. Tarte flambee, Paris-Brest, Balsan— Will Balsan under chef Danny Grant be around next year to make anybody’s list? With the sale of the Elysian it’s an open question, and pastry chef Stephanie Prida has already moved on to L2O. So this choice reflects the ephemerality of the magic that comes together in high end restaurants, but the two visits I’ve made this year to Balsan all confirmed that— especially for a hotel— this is a great big city restaurant with high capabilities and the kind of cosmopolitan atmosphere that makes you feel cool for living here.

4. Pleasant House Bakery. If the video above doesn’t explain why I keep going back for that mushroom and kale pie, go here.

3. Dry chili fish filet, Chairman Mao’s Favorite Pork Belly, and others, Lao Hunan— I said somewhere that this was the best Chinese meal I’d had in some years, then had to think what that previous milestone would be— which, in fact, was probably Lao Sze Chuan. In any case, an overfamiliar cuisine (Chinese, in all its gloppy Americanized familiarity) came to new life at Tony Hu’s newest and so far best attempt to showcase a particular regional Chinese cuisine— and teach us how much more there is to Chinese food that what we know and take for granted.

2. Lots of skewers, Yakitori Totto, New York— “If there was a place like this in Chicago I’d become an alcoholic just to hang out there every night. Or a yakuza.” Well, maybe there is one now, given all our Japanese bincho grill openings. I haven’t found its equal yet, but I’m willing to give them time. And my liver.

1. Everything, The Butcher & Larder— As I said in the Reader’s best-of issue: “When Rob and Allie Levitt walked away from Mado to open an artisanal butcher shop and have regular lives as a family, it was hard to see how cold raw meat in a case could compensate for the loss of all the beautiful things at Mado. Which just goes to show how little we understood Rob’s vision, and how quickly he’d turn his butcher shop into one of this city’s most essential spots for food appreciation, education, and evangelism.”

No place in town has given food more respect and meaning in the last year, no place, not even Next for all its fertile creativity, has thought more about food and done more to convey that thinking to its customers and get them thinking too. And if these all seem extravagant claims to make about a place selling raw meat for other people to cook along with a couple of prepared sandwiches each day, well, I’m at work on a video to validate that claim, so give me a little time to make that case in full. Working at the most elemental level of cookery, with the most direct contact with farmers and animals, The Butcher & Larder is the food revolution people like Michael Pollan write about at the level of rubber meeting the road. And that people have gone so wild for it is one of the most encouraging things to happen on our local food scene in years. None of which, however, should be taken to suggest that their placement at the top of my list is because of anything other than food— than the ground beef and sausages I’ve bought there for hamburgers or pizzas, the roast beef or porchetta sandwiches I’ve eaten there; the top spot is more than sufficiently justified by the amount of deliciousness they brought into my life last year.


I don’t usually do worst of the year, but the greatest disparity between hype/acclaim and actual execution had to be Shake Shack in New York, whose rare-well burger (one side was one, the other the other), frozen Ore-Ida fries and lukewarm shake would get Danny Meyer run out of Wichita on a forklift. But then, Wichita is a serious burger town, unlike New York City, which is a trendy burger town.

Here are other things I enjoyed in the last quarter, most of which you could go have now; you can see previous quarters by clicking on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.

• Red snapper, bluefin sashimi at Arami, though didn’t like the cooked stuff nearly as much
• Chestnut and buttermilk doughnuts, Doughnut Vault
• Fish course, cider doughnuts, Madeira-maraschino cocktail, Next Childhood menu
• Chocolate frosted cake doughnuts, Zettmeier’s in Tinley Park
• Speculoos shake, Edzo’s
• Rabbit bolognese, octopus, Telegraph
• Pork belly, octopus, Vera
• Lentil (maybe) soup, Barwaqo Kebab
Bob Andy pie, made by me
• Duck sugo, fish & chips, Owen & Engine
• Low country oysters, Chicago Food Film Festival
• Sunchoke-hazelnut soup, Acadia (preview)
• Walleyed pike, Cafe des Architectes
• Olives, burrada, espresso at Bar Toma
• Shoyu ramen, Takashi
• Tequila manhattan at Trenchermen preview
• Potato pieroshki, Bai
• Honey Butter Fried Chicken at Dose Market
• Blueberry-bergamot preserves by Marianne Sundquist/Mess Hall & Co.
• Strawberry marshmallow, 240sweet
• North Shore Distillery Aquavit, at Ikea Julbord dinner
• Omelet full of lentils at Lula Cafe
• Side of blue cheese coleslaw, Knockbox
• Assorted dishes at Ciya Sofrasi, Istanbul, post to come
• Assorted pizzas at Pizzarium, Rome, post to come

Ten best for: 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003