August 17, 2018
I remember these restaurants from my childhood, these cozy Village warrens that wind back and back, filled with people who all seem so much hipper than you are, so much more knowing. It’s so familiar that I am instantly happy to be at The Beatrice Inn.
Then the chef, Angie Mar, comes out and asks if we’d like her to make a meal for us. I’m a little apprehensive – I’ve heard the place is killingly expensive – but what the hell? – my book is done and it’s time to celebrate.
We start with oysters; the Shigokus from Oregon, all firm sweet plumpness, blow the drab east coast Blue Points out of the water. They’re almost chewy, with a haunting delicacy.
Then there’s caviar, with butter-soaked brioche. Who could possibly complain?
And this savory plum tart is an almost guilty pleasure. Despite that frill of peppery arugula with its rumors of Parmesan, it feels a lot like starting with dessert.
Then there’s that duck – at $100 the menu’s best bargain (it easily feeds 4) – with its coat of flaming cherries. The duck is aged, much massaged, roasted – and completely satisfying. We even get to take the carcass home, so there will be duck soup tomorrow.
The room is dark – great for romance, hard for photography – and I missed most of the subsequent dishes. But take my word that the milk braised pork shoulder is the other don’t-miss-dish. The pork, braised until it is more like pudding than meat, is so seductive you just want to put down your fork and purr. And the rice soubise – a perfect little puddle of deliciousness – is incredibly hard to stop eating.
Then we had beef, but by then my eyes were glazed, and this wonderful little tartiflette: it is a tiny island of richness, all potatoes and cheese, and a strangely wonderful thing to be eating on a hot summer day.
August 6, 2018
We didn’t sleep. We couldn’t. We sat up, Michael and Nancy and I, drinking wine, worrying about Laurie and the kids until the sun came up. Jonathan was gone, and it was hard to be half a world away.
And I still had the Basque Culinary World Prize ahead of me.
Michael, kindly, offered to drive me all the way from Umbria to Modena. It was a long drive. Passing Florence we said, “we should pull off and eat,” but we weren’t hungry. A couple hours later, however, we knew we couldn’t make it all the way without stopping for a bite. As we pulled off, in the little town of Sasso Marconi, we were feeling foolish: Jonathan would have had a plan, known exactly where to go – even if it meant a three hour detour along a goat path.
The streets were empty. Not a soul stirred, nor a breath of wind. And so we went into the first restaurant we found. To our astonishment the place was packed, alive with life, with noise, with music. The whole town was there, sharing food, indulging in a long leisurely Sunday lunch.
Let me just say that this was instant proof that every restaurant in Italy does not serve good food. Jonathan would have been amused to see me scoop everything into my (now soggy) purse and run outside to feed it to a passing dog. We drove on. To Modena, for the Basque Culinary World Prize.
The opening party for the event was at Hombre Parmesan – which not only makes extraordinarily fine organic cheese, but also houses an astonishing collection of vintage automobiles. This Mazzerati from the fifties is sometimes called the most beautiful car ever made. With good reason.
The food was fantastic. Huge shards of that fine parmesan splashed with Massimo Bottura’s private balsamic vinegar (you can see how thick it has become with age). Gnocco fritto cooked in great vats of lard, snatched from the cauldron and topped with prosciutto whose lacy began to slowly melt. Freshly made, still-warm ricotta. There was more – so much more – but I couldn’t stop eating those crisp, salty, warm gnocco fritti.
Still couldn’t sleep. Tossed and turned all night, wishing I were in Los Angeles. Spent the next day deliberating over the prize at the gorgeous Villa Maria Luigia, which Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore are soon to open.
The Basque Culinary World Prize, which is supported by the Basque Government, is dedicated to the notion of gastronomy as a transformative force. Every single nominee is doing something impressive; it makes me proud that we’ve come to a time in human history when we understand that food can be more than something to eat, a time when celebrated chefs do more than invent new recipes. I wanted to award the prize to every one of these impressive chefs, who are dedicated to feeding immigrants, eliminating waste, inventing new ways to feed the ill, and supporting indigenous populations. In the end the 100,000 euro prize went to Jock Zonfrillo, who is doing extraordinary work with the native foods of Australia.
Lunch and dinner were both provided by Osteria Francescana – and were both extraordinary. (Massimo’s “Tribute to the Amalfi Coast,” above, may be my favorite form of desert.) For a few highlights from the meals, read this.
The following day was dedicated to a conference called “Transforming Society Through Gastronomy,” a day of fascinating talks by a group of diverse people from the artist JR, talking about the table he set up on the US/Mexico border
to the always erudite historian Bee Wilson, chef Andoni Luiz Aduriz taking us on a stroll through history and filmmaker David Gelb with an interesting take on Chef’s Table. My subject was meant to be “an edible truth” but when I stood up to speak, all I could think about was Jonathan. Here’s an excerpt:
“I had a speech written for today, a speech in which I was going to talk about what is, in my opinion, the gravest danger facing food journalists today: the danger of telling the wrong stories. I was going to talk about how much we’ve muddied the waters by relating what seem like truths, only to find out a few years down the road that they were the wrong truths. That we’d been misled by science, by politics, by marketing. And that in the face of all the serious problems today, we have, perhaps, so confused the public that they’re no longer listening to us.
I was going to say that in these times, more than ever, people need real news, news they can use to fix our broken food system. I think we can all agree that there has never been a time in human history when we were in so much need of the facts each time we sit down to eat. We all keep asking the question _ what should we eat? Never have the answers been so confusing.
You all know the problems. They’re the ones many of the candidates for the Basque World Prize are trying to solve: food waste, food distribution, hunger, poverty, obesity, the devastation of the oceans, carbon dioxide in the air, water, climate change, overuse of antibiotics. Our food is being threatened from everywhere.
But I landed in Italy to such terrible news that I just can’t give that speech right now. I got off the plane to learn that my longtime colleague and friend, Jonathan Gold, was dying. That I’d never see him again. And so for the past few days I haven’t been able to think about anything but Jonathan. Which is probably appropriate to this conference. Because the mission of the Basque Culinary World Prize is using gastronomy as an engine for change – and I don’t think anyone has ever done that better than he did.”
I went on to talk about Jonathan’s legacy. And I ended like this:
“Jonathan not only showed us a new way of looking at food, but also proved that you don’t need television or a movie to make an impact. Every time he put pen to paper he proved the power of words.
I know there are a lot of writers in this room. And I hope you’ll all remember Jonathan’s most important legacy. What Jonathan showed us – more than anything – is what food writing can do. In the hands of a passionate, talented writer, words can become powerful weapons.
Last week I thought that what we needed were more investigative writers telling us the truth. And that is certainly true. But now I see that sometimes the softest words can make the biggest impact. Jonathan wrote about delicious dishes in far-flung neighborhoods. He did not write an overtly political word. And yet he touched millions of people and gave them a new way to experience their own city. Those of us who want to change the world would do well to remember that sometimes the stories that seem very small are actually the biggest ones of all.”
August 5, 2018
Bologna on a plate….
I landed at Marconi airport a couple of weeks ago – which is, incidentally, a very good place to go through passport control. Nancy and Michael were there to meet me, and we drove right off to Osteria Bottega. “Jonathan says its his favorite restaurant in Bologna,” they explained.
It was a hot night, and inside the restaurant it seemed like a thousand degrees. Or did it seem so hot because they’d said, the minute we sat down, “We have to tell you something”? While I was flying Jonathan had been admitted to the hospital, and things did not look good.
We ate then, with a kind of desperation. This time last year we were all together – Laurie, Jonathan, Izzy, Leon, Margy, Robert, Nancy – eighteen of us. We had been so carefree. Death had seemed so far away. And now we ate, thinking how much Jonathan would enjoy this meal.
Raw pork meatballs.
Taleggio – the best I’ve ever had – with a thick fig jam.
Truly extraordinary artichokes in oil.
Pasta with hare.
And fat, floppy tortelloni, a perfect balance of slightly tangy ricotta, sage and butter.
It was wonderful food, extraordinary food, but like everything I ate that week, it tasted mostly of the past. Every bite reminded me of some dish I’d eaten somewhere with Jonathan.
The next day we drove to the little walled town of Bevagna. First we found the most extraordinary fruit shop, the air filled with the fragrance of ripe peaches, apricots, strawberries. I kept adding more to my basket. Moving on we came to the Maccelleria Cariani; with its air redolent of hanging culatello, salamis and prosciutto it looked like something from the middle ages. Jonathan would have wanted everything; we bought too much.
The word was beginning to leak out that Jonathan was not just ill, but seriously so, and the gruesome business of obituaries began. Knowing that Nancy was a friend and that I’d worked with Jonathan on and off for more than thirty years we were both fielding phone calls from all over the world. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it was like, walking through the faux-medieval market they were setting up in Bevagna’s town square while answering questions about Jonathan. It consoled me that he would have appreciated the image. And when a man came over, to admonish me to stop leaning on a fake wood pillar, he would have laughed out loud.
We had dinner that night at Villa Roncalli in Foligno. “It’s my favorite restaurant in Umbria,” Nancy said, “but it’s going to be the most leisurely meal you’ve ever had. There’s only one woman in the kitchen, and she takes her time.”
This was the most astonishing frittata I’ve ever encountered. So tender it trembled, the powerful herbal flavor a lovely contrast to the delicate texture. Jonathan, who hates eggs, would have shuddered.
The chef, Maria Luisa Scolastra, grows her own vegetables, bakes her own bread, pasta and vinegar. This simple pasta with pesto shows you why her food is worth the wait: there’s nothing to it. Just pasta, olive oil, herbs. And yet it makes you want to forget every other version of the dish you’ve ever tasted. It’s a delicate dance of texture and flavor.
We’d been at the table three hours before the pasta showed up. And then, while we waited for grilled Chianina beef and pork we kept on drinking. We sat down to eat at 7:30, but it must have been 11 PM when Pete Wells called and the main course still had not shown up. Struggling to talk about Jonathan and how much he meant to me, I thought how he would have laughed to hear how deeply inarticulate I’d become.
We cooked the next day; Nancy had sold a home-cooked meal for charity. By then we knew that Jonathan had only hours to live, and while I helped Nancy make a dozen different vegetable dishes – grilled fennel, roasted eggplant, gorgeous white beans, roasted tomatoes, onions in balsamic vinegar, ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms, tiny potatoes – I constructed an apricot tart.
Once it went into the oven (the secret to all pies, I now believe, is to cook them more than you think you should), I went out to the garden and wrote about Jonathan. He would, I think, have liked the fact that I was cooking while I wrote. You can read it here.
Tomorrow, all about Modena and the Basque Culinary World Prize. We passed this car along the way. Would any other country have Lamborghini cop cars?
August 2, 2018
It’s been a hard time. Jonathan Gold’s death has been so shocking and terrible, I haven’t been able to think about much else. It’s a huge loss, not only to those of us who knew and loved him, but to the entire world of food.
I was in Italy when he went into the hospital. When I told Massimo Bottura, he burst into tears. And then he fed me the dish at the top. Could anything be more appropriate?
It’s fish two ways: the black biscuit is a smush of raw sardine. The liquid is the most intense, most delicious broth. Jonathan would have loved it.
Other dishes I wished Jonathan had been there to share with me:
Eel swimming up the Po River: we shared this dish last year, when we were in Modena together. The eel is flanked on one side by polenta, on the other by a wonderfully acetic apple reduction.
The yin to the yang of Burnt: Sole.
Five ages of Parmesan in different textures and temperatures.
A new dish: tortelloni of snails, hare and herbs. I cried eating this because Jonathan will never get to taste it.
July 18, 2018
Apologies; facing a lot of deadlines, I haven’t been posting a lot lately. And at the moment I’m at the airport, on my way to Italy where I’ll be on the jury for The Basque Culinary World Prize.
But my last meal in New York was so wonderful – in every way – that I can’t leave the country without giving a quick shout-out to Contra. The small, modest restaurant on Orchard Street is serving truly lovely food, and at $78 for 6 courses – plus an amuse bouche – it is, by city standards, a bargain.
Another note: the room is small, but surprisingly quiet. We sat, for hours, just talking and eating and enjoying ourselves. I could hardly believe it when I looked at the clock and realized we’d been at the table for more than three hours.
A little tidbit to start, a single raw shrimp, wrapped in shiso with a faint touch of fermented vegetables. One startling little shot of texture and flavor.
Could anything be lovelier? Raw slices of scallop nestled between crunchy little bits of lemon cucumber. On top of all this gentleness, a couple of loud shouts of hyssop.
I really loved the way the chefs didn’t try to draw these ingredients together. They just let the ingredients mingle, so that the Japanese uni, the various summer squashes and the nasturtium leaves stood alone, waiting to dance. It was up to you to start the music, introduce them to each other, and then experience how well they played together. This is very confident cooking which relies on the purity of ingredients.
This pollack was nearly translucent, and it positively reveled in the peas and peppers in that sauce.
Guinea hen is the loveliest bird – the flesh more texture than flavor – and here it’s paired with agretti – a Mediterranean herb, with a crisp saline quality that’s extremely hard to find in the States. Those creamy potatoes were the perfect counterpoint.
To end, a couple of perfectly cool and simple summer desserts. This is a semifreddo of blackberries and bitter almonds
And this the most delightful little ode to cherries.
I’m off. I expect I’ll be eating very well in Italy. I’ll let you know.