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Trip Report March 2012: Northern Italy (Mantova, Florence, and Venice)

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Featured: (Dal Pescatore, Trattoria dell’Alba, Trattoria Mario, Il Profeta, Osteria alle Testiere, Il Ridotto)

It all began with a Quest: where is the best region in Italy for food(ies)? Invariably, all roads pointed to Emelia-Romagna- Italy's breadbasket of cured meats and cheeses. After that, pragmatic tourist planning and a watchful eye over the best places for a gastronome were set in full motion. And, thanks to everyone on this board for sharing their experiences as they shaped our planning and choices throughout the trip. Here's what we found!

Just a quick pre- amble, we planned the starting point of this trip around a specific destination, Dal Pescatore (near Mantova) and then sought out a variety of recommendations within Florence and Venice, respectively.

Trattoria dell'Alba, Piadena
Recommended by the inn keepers (at B&B, 9 Muse), this Michelin Bib rated trattoria was one of the best finds of the trip. My wife and I arrived as the first guests of the evening (tourists just arriving from a transatlantic flight). Omar, one of the owners welcomed us as family- and took great joy in explaining and talking through everything on his menu. He humbly describes his place as a simple trattoria but the effort is anything but. At the start of the meal he asked what wine we would like, if any. I explained that we would like to have a different wine with each course and solicited his recommendation. The wines were mostly local, and were mostly simple- but perfect with the smorgasbord of 'salted pig parts' et al that were about to arrive. We started with the salumi platter for two. Little did I know on the first meal of our trip that I wouldn't find anything as skillfully prepared (as far as salumi goes) again. The course arrived with one platter, then another and so on until the four-top table (occupied only by my wife and I) were covered in platters. From parma proscutios, spec, copa ,to beef, and selections with more pronounced mouth-watering-salted-pork-fat, the range of flavors was phenomenal. As well, there were some anti-pasta ornaments to pair with the mustards (jelly-like) toppings. One was herbaceous and the other 'picante', a hot- mustard varietal. The quantity wasn't as much as I imply, only because everything is so finely sliced and ribboned up upon the plates. Nonetheless, it was evident we were going to be here for a few hours! Next, was a homemade pasta with "un-cured salami" - aka pork/sausage. Very simple- presented in the aus-jus of the meat. The flavor of the pork is what's on stage with this dish as its delivery vehicle is handmade, al dente ribbons of pasta. By now the place is packed- every last seat. The secondi course was a braised goose leg. Presentation was very ' rustic' and served only in the broth it was slow-cooked in. The meat was mostly dark and succulent - owing more to a duck-like richness but requiring deft used of knife and fork to separate from the sinewy threads attaching it to the bone. Dessert was grandma’s recipe for a Zabaglione. This rendition was not as thick and shiny as it’s stand-alone cousin, but the velvety, rich, and "eggy", topping created a pool of yuminess from which to soak up the cake desert pieces placed under it.

With each course, Omar would land the next bottle of wine on the table with a brief explanation and remove the partially consumed prior bottle. All in all, we tasted and enjoyed about 5 different wines. And, finally, he shared a special pour from his homemade brandy- right out of the shiner bottle. What's interesting is that the wine portion of our bill totaled $30 Euros for two people! Some guests ( from our hotel) traveling from northern Europe were also dining at the same time- they discovered this place on a Dal Pescatore visit years ago and routinely return here, to Trattoria dell'Alba, to dine and purchase (takeaway) several cases of wine. Apparently, Omar has a unique selection of small-lot , hard to find treasures in his cellar for quite a steal!

Dal Pescatore- Canneto Sul'Oglio
The next day was the main event, Dal Pescatore. I've been to my fair share of Michelin three star restaurants in North America so I wasn't expecting another expensive and routinely well-executed meal - I was expecting nothing short of divine culinary perfection. After all, we had travelled nearly 6,000 miles to begin this food-wagon tour across Northern Italy. Dal Pescatore delivered in every way. The dining room houses about 6 tables (more or less). It has one of the most exquisite dining spaces I've encountered- understated in many ways and consistent with it's out of way country-side location. Yet the seriousness of the hard work and pride happening in the kitchen persists in the atmosphere. Nearly undetectable from the small road running through town, its main dining area opens up into a backyard garden and large panes of glass and mirrors adorn the inside. The walls are a soft yellow and a small fire whispers in the dining room, yet lent nothing of its existence to the aromas of the dining fare.

Shortly after arrival and enjoyment of an aperitif, the sommelier greeted us with a wine list. Perhaps he was expecting another trophy-wine purchasing foreigner. No such luck, I was going to put him to work. With no published wine pairing and a list of (somewhat) vaguely familiar 750 ml bottles all well out of my budget - I took a step back to reconnoiter 'the ask'. After all, it is his job to tap his knowledge, maintain a broad and varied wine list - and simplify its attributes to those of paying good money to enjoy the overall experience. So here was "the ask": "we're each going to have about 5 glasses of wine ( one with each course). We're having both tasting menus and you have up to $150 Euro to work with." Incidentally, we're both adventurous wine connoisseurs (in fact, we own a boutique winery in Napa Valley) but are admittedly inexperienced with the smaller producers in Italy and the nuisances of what traditional Italian varietals can produce on the palate . So, I offered, " you can divide up the wine budget however you see fit - between large bottles, half bottles , or whatever else you can invest in" (sommeliers will often open a bottle of wine and charge you for what you consumer knowing that they can sell the remaining by the glass...). "But, respect the budget and show me something that isn't necessarily on Robert Parker's or similar rating. Our sommelier expertly conducted a symphony - the soft prelude was a sauv blanc followed by a more heady white from Lugano Superiore DOC. This was followed up by a light spicy red, and the grand finale was a more pronounced Macarico from southern Italy. FYI, before we get into the courses -the wine portion of the bill came in well under budget and we additionally had grappa and desert wine in the parlor immediately following supper.

Both tasting menus we're fabulous. One of the highlights was a terrine of lobster and caviar that I had. Three bites of bliss- the sweetness and brininess nearly "popped" through my ears when splashed with the white wine on the palate. I've been thinking about that dish ever since. We also had one of the most flavor packed yet delicate tortellini’s I’ve had in recent memory. Formed more in a dumpling shape, the soft pocket of pasta was filled with a pumpkin “mostarda” – which is a true Northern Italian technique of creating ‘fruit conserves”. Soft and voluptuous and heightened by the light bodied red wine. Other highlights included a Risotto I had, touched with hints of saffron and white balsamic.

What’s more is that proprietors Antonio, Nadia and entire family are on site – delivering the experience day in and day out – which is much more than many other “Michelin” counterparts commit to across the pond. And it shows.

Nerbone, San Lorenzo Market - Florence
The boiled beef sandwich at Nerbone inside the Mercato Centrale is a local institution of sorts. It certainly did not disappoint. Before noon, your options are mainly roast beef and boiled beef. After noon they add soup and some pastas. It's cooked right there, the portions are large and the condiments steal the show! I chose the boiled beef as that's what the locals we lining up for. The two toppings are a green ( parsley based sauce - sort of like a chimichurri but much milder (no garlic), and a red (picante) sauce. I chose a dollop of the green on the center of the sandwich and the red sauce [' ring of fire'] around the circumference. Add a splash of house wine for two and the bill is 7 Euro. That's divine!

Il Profeta, Florence
For dinner, we ate at Il Profeta. It seemed to be well trodden by tourists like ourselves and quite honestly, it was convenient after a day of exploring the streets. Nonetheless, it was a basic trattoria with its share of house specialties. One of my bucket list foodie items was Florentine trippa (tripe). I ordered it not having it before albeit I've begrudgingly tried chitlins and other 'near-intestinal' delicacies. All in all, a pleasant surprise. The dish arrived as a baked ceramic cauldron of cheese and tomato sauce. The barnyard like undertones of the tripe barely escaping through the sealed cheese lid. Upon gently lifting the edges with a fork, the steam and essence fills your nose with the intense odors of tripe. The texture of the tripe itself was very delicate - there were large flakey chunks similar (in texture) to the body-meat of a dungeons crab and smaller strands more thoroughly integrated into the deep saucy mixture. For me, it presented quite a juxtaposition - the deep saucy flavor of the tomato purée along with the delicate texture of the tripe kept me coming back in for another bite while the sheer bluntness of the cows stomach flavor regulated my interest in actually taking the bite without serious contemplation. A bottle of the mediocre house red wine was the most expensive item on our bill and certainly a disappointment.

Trattoria Mario, Florence
Not to be confused with a restaurant with a similar name, Trattoria Mario is only open for lunch. I was in search of a fabulous bistecca and many reviews pointed to Sostanza which wasn’t open on this day. However, this tiny lunch spot – very informal, crowded, and lively was known for its daily changing menu, good local/simple eats, but also a fabulous bistecca. I was in. My research indicated that the only way to truly arrive at the traditional Bistecca alla Fiorentina -prepared as seared on the outside, with (at least a 2 inch thick) rare succulent meat on the inside - was to start with a 2 pound T-bone. So, I wasn’t about to cheap out on a smaller alternative (which seems plentiful around town) just to be disappointed. The waiter brought out the raw material for my inspection – and yes, it was every bit of 2 lbs+ or (1 KG). Certainly enough to share with another, but what arrived was absolutely tender and luscious on the inside, seared to perfection on the outside. At 35 Euros was probably a better value than many other restaurants save for the fact that this lunch spot is definitely more minimalist than other recommended bistecca destinations. My wife started with a simple ragu pasta and salad which was very good. This place is hard to find – so Google-Map it on your phone as you walk there. You have to arrive early to get a seat and as we sat there we witnessed dish after dish being 86ed off the chalkboard menu. A local stranger insisted on sharing a glass of brandy from the special bottle sitting on his table. His English about as good as my Italian – a simple nod said ‘thank you’ and I was ready for a nap as we departed!

The Rialto Fish Market, Venice
When you hang round this working fish market long enough good things start to present themselves! Let me tell what I found here one Saturday morning.

Pronto Pesce at the Rialto Fish Market, Venice
As I wandered around the fish market, I began talking with one of the proprietors of a non-descript stand-up eatery called ProntePesce. I discovered he was about 25 minutes away from setting up a stand outside his storefront and serving up freshly caught and shucked raw oysters. Now that’s what I’m talking about! The Venetian oyster seemed to be a cross from what’s familiar to me – a Drakes Bay (near San Francisco) and a Washington State Kumumoto. Not particularly a stand out on sweetness or brininess- but a nice, delicate balance of the two. This was a good find- so then I learned they were working on one pot of freshly harvested mussels – about 6 or seven servings would be sold. I got the first one. But wait, there’s more – they also prepared one large pot of Risotto (I counted about 15 servings would be sold) and it was made with a saffron and fish broth from all the day’s bounty. The mussles and the risotto were just remarkable! The key with the risotto is to get not the “first” serving – but one in the middl. They’re basically dished up and set on the counter as customers start jockeying for position to purchase one the few select prizes. The ones in the middle had “set” just perfectly for just the right absorbtion of the warm ladels of fish broth. The last ones – perhaps set to slightly more rigid consistency.

Rialto Fish Market Continued…
Just around the corner, another vendor had set up a ‘fish fry’ in the square. Actually, they cooked it just inside their restaurant but served it outside under a tent. For about 8 Euro – they dished up a plate of freshly caught and fried calamari, shrimp, and other crustaceans and added a glass of sparkling wine. This was starting out to be a good day!

As well, there are a handful of bacari within a stone’s throw of the market (wine bars that sell freshly made brushetta’s and homemade two-bite dishes – many freshly acquired from the lagoon) that seemed to be my favorite’s of Venice just based on the variety and originality of some of the mouth-watering finds. They were (Cantina Do Mori, Do Spade, and Ostaria Ai Stortie) to name a few.

Osteria alle Testiere, Venice
Well there’s certainly enough positive (Chowhound) commentary on this place which is the main reason we came here. It’s inexpensive (relatively speaking for Venice) and great care and technique are employed in the kitchen overall (with one small exception below). The potato gnochetti with calamari and cinnamon were so delicately prepared and well executed. The flavors sent a rhythm of surprise across the palate as the cinnamon danced with the flavors and texture of dish – bite after bite. For the main, we ordered the mixed grill for two. I gotta tell you - this was in fact a bit of a disappointment. I was assured the dish was a varied selection of the fresh seafood served that evening – from sea bass, monk fish, bream, and so forth. What arrived were some tired looking prawns and a spattering of white fish pieces. The fish itself was in fact delicate and flavorful, but where was the variety of expertly prepared morsels of sea bass or even monk fish - or even a preparation of mostarde or sauce – something, anything, to heighten the flavors and experience? Nonetheless, the front-of-the-house is famously attentive, the wine selection picked out for us worked very well, and the experience overall rated highly. I would like to give it another try.

Il Ridotto, Venice
Certainly Il Ridotto is a dining gem in Venice. This is one city where it is so very easy to go ‘wrong’ - where its restaurant solicitors beckon the crowds in for a (rather expensive) meal. So, well worth it to make a reservation here. The gnocchi, clams w/ green mustard first course was delicious. The seabass with mustard greens main course was completely original, obviously, very fresh, and was ‘complete’. My wife had the braised beef cheeks, in a Pinot Nero sauce with red radicchio and raspberries. This was a stand-out dish and one of the best I had in Venice. In fact, my guess is that you simply couldn’t go wrong here on the menu with Chef Bonaccorsi at the helm. The service was just a little less polished than the fare – but who cares when the food is this sublime!

Aciugheta Restaurant is adjacent to Il Ridotto and features one of the more memorable wine by the glass selections I encountered. I only sampled selections of the cicheti on several occasions and found the wine and bites of food just fabulous. And, it was closer to our hotel then the bacari over by the Railto Fish Market (my favorite area for these). Service is definitely a bit brusque so be sure and throw ‘em a big smile and you’ll get the attention you deserve.

Happy Eats and thanks for all the reviews and commentary that helped us have a great Food Wagon adventure in Italy!

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  1. Great report; thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. it's easier to post a question then to report afterwards.

    1. So great to see this report. I spent a lot of time last summer trying to plan a solo day trip to Dal Pescatore but in the end I just could not work out how to do it (taking the train and walking down those country roads in the boiling sun? In the end I spent a day in Cremona instead. Anyway, I greatly enjoyed enjoyed your account of your wonderful meal, as well as all the other meals, at Trattoria d'Alba, da Mario, etc etc..

      Thanks so much for taking the time and sharing about your wonderful trip.!

      1. I'm planning to be at Dal Pescatore in five weeks. What was the cost of the meal per person and any great hotels nearby or do they have rooms on the property? emailed them but no answer
        mel/dog21

        1 Reply
        1. re: dog21

          Looks like our total bill was 450 Euro (that included a small [ <10%] gratuity which isn't essential since service is included). As well, the wine/aperitif portion of the bill was about E100. So, the food portion was about 300E give or take for two people. We had both tasting menus (there are two - same price). You can order off the standard a la carte menu as well and probably comes out a little less (with less variety of course).

          The only very close hotel is 9 muse (www.9muse.it) - it is a fabulous B&B very close to Dal Pascatore. Proprietors Caterina and Alberto are excellent hosts. Alberto used to work in the kitchen at Dal Pascatore which comes in handy for breakfast!. The rooms are < 80Euro - are big, w/ tile floors, large bathroom etc. Some have a balcony. As well, they'll shuttle you back and forth from the restaurant for about 25 Euro round-trip - which can ease any tensions with driving late at night after such a grand experience (wine included)...

          There is a grocery store about 2 blocks from Muse 9 that had the most expansive selection of salumis that I saw on the trip (and a fraction of the price I found in other touristy markets in say, Florence). With my iPhone translator in hand , I basically had the person behind the deli counter cut me up a smorgasbord of various tastes of salumi for about 10 Euro (if that interests you).

          Have fun!
          Mark