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In a state of hibernation. My backlog has long become unsustainable. Will probably tweet more and write less full-length stuff.

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Monday
Feb252013

Arthur Full?

This notice is a bit overdue, but I figured I should put something here. I'm sad to say that I've mostly retired from food blogging. I just don't have the bandwidth to give Arthur Hungry the time and attention it deserves. Go big or go home, as they say.

That said, I'm not really full... I still love traveling and eating, but I'm more focused on enjoying the experiences and the people I'm sharing them with. There are amazing photographers/writers out there documenting meals more thoroughly and eloquently than I ever did. I'll leave it to the pros.

I'll probably tweet more and perhaps occasionally write a full post. Thanks to those who have followed my blog in years past. It was great fun while it lasted, and I'll keep everything online. Keep in touch via @CheDigital.

Tuesday
Oct042011

Agata e Romeo

We had our final dinner in Rome at Agata e Romeo, a Michelin 1* near Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. The restaurant is a husband-and-wife operation, with Agata Parisella doing the cooking and Romeo Caraccio running the front of house.

Agata is known for her sophisticated renditions of Roman classics, and it seemed like a good option to finish this leg of the trip. The dining room is small, with a welcoming yet fancy vibe. The decor and service are upscale and homey at the same time - it's as if Agata and Romeo are hosting you in their home, but made sure everything was nice before you arrived. It's a great example of my vision of Michelin 1-stars - excellent food in a more modest, less over the top environment.

The menu has an a la carte section divided into antipasti (€35), primi (€30), and secondi (€40), and also offers two set menu options. The longer €130 "Agata e Romeo" menu offers what seem to be changing seasonal dishes, while the €110 "Signature dishes" menu offers some of Agata's well-known classics. They were flexible - I wanted to try most of the stuff on the Signature menu, but asked to switch out my secondi for one that was on the a la carte (and also the other tasting menu), and it was no problem.

 

CHEESE BEIGNET, PUFF PASTRY WITH RICOTTA & PEPPER, MUSHROOM PUDDING, CUTTLEFISH WITH SCAMORZAA nice set of variety of bite-sized amuses arrived first, each quite savory and appetizing. Agata has a deft hand with pastry.

 

HOUSEMADE BREADSI tend to crack on bread quality at the average restaurant in Italy - I'm always shocked by the prevalence of pre-packaged breadsticks and dry, lifeless loaves. So it would be unfair to ignore Agata e Romeo's delicious collection of breads. I'm always torn when encountering such plentiful bread options... I feel like I need to try them all but I get worried about being too full. Oh well, I tried them all, and it was worth it.

 

TURBOT MOUSSE WITH PUMPKIN DUST, BASIL, AND SAFFRON SAUCEA second amuse came in the form of this turbot mousse. It was like a fancified quenelle de brochet, with a silkier texture and more concentrated flavor. Very nice.

 

FLAN OF AGED PECORINO CHEESE FROM SOGLIANO, BALSAMIC VINEGAR ICE CREAM, FRESH FIGSThe first real course was this flan made of Pecorino di Fossa, a prized sheep's milk cheese from Sogliano al Rubicon. The balsamic and figs were a nice contrast to the sharp tang of the flan - an interesting set of flavors overall.

 

SPAGHETTI CACIO E PEPEThe main reason we chose Agata e Romeo was to try Agata's reknowned version of spaghetti cacio e pepe. I generally think of myself as a carbonara kind of guy, but in recent years I've grown fond of the pure simplicity of cacio e pepe (just cheese and pepper). I've been on a mission to find excellent renditions, and Agata e Romeo came up frequently as a top contender.

I can say without hesitation that this was the best cacio e pepe I've ever tried. It was tremendously rich, as you can see, and the cheese and pepper played off each other beautifully. The spaghetti was toothy and perfect for mopping everything up. Simply awesome.

 

HONEY-GLAZED PORK IN HAZELNUT CRUST, MUSTARD SAUCEI subbed this pork for the original secondi in the menu, salt cod cooked in tomato sauce. The cod was good (I tried my dad's), but I'm glad I made the switch. The pork was moist and tender, with just a tinge of sweetness from the honey. The hazelnuts provided a nice textural contrast.

 

CREPE WITH LEMON CURDThis was a semi-palate cleanser - a small crepe with a nice, citrusy lemon curd. Simple but well done.

 

"IL MILLEFOGLIE DI AGATA"Agata is also very famous for her version of millefeuille, and deservedly so. The custard was smooth, refreshing, and not too sweet, while the pastry was crumbly and delicate. Nothing unusual going on here, but a very well executed classic.

 

MIGNARDISESWe finished with a pretty impressive set of mignardises. Again, very good - I particularly liked the little cream puffs. It seems anything pastry-based is a strength here.

Overall, I thought this was a great meal, and Agata's famous dishes are definitely worth trying. It's still a splurge, though the food has a more rustic feeling than La Pergola. Well in line with its 1-star rating, possibly into 1.5 range.

Friday
Aug122011

Girarrosto Fiorentino

Girarrosto Fiorentino is another one of those old-school restaurants in the heart of Rome. It's got some recognition on the tourist circuit, and supposedly has played host to many Hollywood movie stars over the years. Its heyday was probably back in the 70s and 80s, but it remains a pretty popular spot for a traditional Tuscan meal in the city.

As the name would suggest, they specialize in Florentine cuisine, and are known for their bistecca. The menu is long but fairly basic - a huge list of simple pastas, grilled meats, and so on. Given that we had just come from Florence, we weren't really looking to eat Tuscan food specifically. Instead, we went to eat their tagliolini al limone, a simple pasta dish I had here when I was a kid. Along with the risotto at Il Galeone, it was the most memorable thing I ate back in the day.

The decor at Girarrosto Fiorentino is standard traditional Italian joint. Heck, you could swap its dining room with North Beach Restaurant in SF and no one would be the wiser. The lunchtime crowd seemed to consist of older Italian guys having business lunches, a handful of tourists, and most hilariously, Italian Seth Rogen (he's Seth Rogen, but slimmer and better dressed). I hope I didn't violate any privacy laws by posting that spy photo.

 

WHITE TRUFFLESWe were happy to find that white truffles were on offer that day. Girarrosto does basic pastas very well, so we were eager to have some truffles on a plain tagliolini. I took a ghetto shaky-cam video of the truffle shaving in action. I promise I'll switch to HD widescreen videos after this.

 

As you can see, our friendly waiter used the awesome technique of shaving a few small bits onto the pasta first, tossing it together a bit, then shaving on a bunch more. This strategy is totally and absolutely Arthur Hungry Approved.

 

TAGLIOLINI WITH WHITE TRUFFLES - €50The finished product was great, as expected. The truffles had good flavor and fragrance. The tagliolini was well-cooked, with just a little bit of liquid to blend everything together. There are few things I love more than simple fresh pasta with white truffles.

 

TAGLIOLINI AL LIMONE - €12The reason for our visit was this taglioni with lemon cream sauce. It doesn't look like much, but the subtlety of the sauce allows the noodles to be the highlight of the dish. The cream has a smooth, fresh, lemon flavor that complements the pasta without overpowering it. When I tried this years ago, I learned that more often than not, the simplest pastas end up being the best. This tagliolini is the perfect example.

 

RISOTTO AI FUNGHI PORCINI - €15We also opted to try this classic risotto preparation. Pretty good, with some tasty chunks of porcini, but a little heavy-handed on the parsley in my opinion.

 

SCALOPPINE DI VITELLA AL MARSALA - €20For a main, I went with this simple veal marsala. Tender veal, tasty and slightly sweet marsala wine sauce. Not much different than what you can find back home, but still good.

 

ROASTED POTATOES, CARCIOFI ALLA ROMANAThe mains came with some choices of sides. The roasted potatoes were excellent (a trend - roasted/fried potatoes seem to be delicious throughout Italy). The artichokes were quite large and very tender.

 

FRAGOLINE DI BOSCO WITH VANILLA GELATOWe saw some of our favorite wild strawberries going to another table and got a little bit to share. I'm no expert on these, and surely there must be some variance in quality, but it seems like these are always sweet and delicious.

It's a little funny looking back that we were having all these big lunches, with pastas followed by main courses. When in Rome, I guess. I was very happy to experience the tagliolini with lemon once again... I'll probably return for it on future trips. Definitely a good way to spend a valuable meal.

Wednesday
Aug102011

Corsetti Il Galeone

Corsetti Il Galeone, family-run since 1922, is a low profile restaurant along Piazza San Cosimato in Trastavere. I first went there maybe 12 years ago when I visited Rome as a young lad. It holds a bit of a special place in my heart - one of my fondest memories of Italy for the past decade has been eating risotto at Il Galeone. It was a required stop for this trip because I had to figure out whether my memory of that risotto was just nostalgia, or if the risotto was really that good.

While the restaurant looks the same on the outside, we were surprised to discover that the ground floor has been renovated into a modern dining room. Before, the entire restauranted was decorated like the inside of a galleon, and it turns out just the upstairs dining area has kept the kitschy old ship theme. I recommend you sit downstairs.

The food is generally Roman and leans toward seafood, and from the looks of it, the menu hasn't changed much since I was in high school. As usual, there were too many things (mostly pastas) we wanted to try, so we ordered more than 3 people probably should...

 

FUNGHI PORCINI ARROSTO - €18We started with these hearty grilled porcinis - flavorful with a good char. Deliciously simple.

 

FRITTURA ASSORTITA DI PARANZA - €20Next was this assortment of the day's seafood, including calamari, shrimp, various small fish/sardines, and more. Lots of crunchy items which I enjoyed. Overall, not quite as good as Al Porto, but still tasty.

 

TAGLIOLINI CON GAMBERI, VONGOLE VERACI E FIORI DI ZUCCHINA - €15First in our parade of pastas was this tagliolini with shrimp, clams, and squash blossoms. We wanted to sample one of the fresh ones as our other selections were all dry. The noodles had nice body and bounce, with light flavoring from the seafood and blossoms.

 

RISOTTO ALLA CREMA DI SCAMPI - €18At long last, the scampi risotto. This is one of the more legendary dishes of my life, and as soon as the beautiful fragrance of scampi hit the table I could tell my memory wasn't being glorified. This risotto is what I feel risotto should strive to be. The rice was perfectly cooked, al dente but not raw, with each grain individually distinct from the others. The sauce was silky smooth - creamy but not watery (with absolutely zero coagulation), and intensely flavorful. Also, there wasn't much actual scampi in the dish, but it wasn't about the meat. The taste of the scampi dominated the rice, surely thanks to some giant pot of scampi shells in the kitchen being reduced into the sauce's base.

Despite the huge advances in quality we've seen in SF Italian cuisine, I've still yet to have a risotto here that comes close to this. It's the best I've ever had. Perfect risotto. Worth noting: the reason the lighting is better in this photo is because Geoff and I went back to Il Galeone for lunch on our last day, and I snapped a picture in the daylight. This had to be eaten twice.

 

BUCATINI ALLA'AMATRICIANA - €12The Roman favorite, featuring thick, hollow bucatini with guanciale, tomato, and pecorino. A great rendition with savory pieces of pork and very sweet tomatoes.

 

SPAGHETTI ALLE VONGOLE VERACI - €12We're always looking for a good vongole, and Il Galeone's version is excellent. Nice, briny clams, expertly-handled spaghetti, and just the right level of garlic/olive oil. Best of all, no extraneous liquid to speak of.

 

TAGLIATA DI MANZO - €20We finished off with a little bit of meat. I generally love tagliata (steak cut into thin slices), but despite how juicy it looks, it was just so-so. The meat was a little tougher than expected - stick with the seafood, I guess. It also came with a great side of roasted potatoes which I neglected to photograph.

At this point we were completely stuffed, and decided to skip dessert.

I love Corsetti Il Galeone... it's the kind of restaurant that has been around forever and just keeps on doing what it does (and doing it well). The service is friendly and welcoming. It has zero international profile and no buzz around it, and the nondescript storefront would seem like a totally random place to walk into. Yet it delivers straight up delicious food. I know there are restaurants like this hidden all over Italy, and I'm just glad we found this place. It's all about the food here, and the risotto makes it a must-visit any time I go back to Rome.

Thursday
Aug042011

La Pergola

It was with some definite excitement that I approached our highlight dinner at La Pergola. Highly acclaimed and universally loved, La Pergola is frequently heralded as Rome's best restaurant. Michelin considers it the only one in town worthy of 3 stars - amazing for what one would think should be a major European eating capital.

Strange as it may sound, Rome's most famous restaurant features a non-native chef. German-born Heinz Beck has been running the ship there since 1994. Despite that, Beck is well recognized for his contributions to Italian cuisine.

 

Nested atop Monte Mario, Rome's highest hill, La Pergola is on the 9th floor of the Roma Cavalieri hotel, about 15 minutes northwest from the city center. The setting certainly matches the restaurant's lofty reputation. Professional, bow-tied waiters roam the luxuriously decorated dining room. Classical art lines the walls, while panoramic glass windows overlook incredible views of Rome and the Vatican.

The vibe is pure old world power. One could imagine colluding billionnaire soccer club owners negotiating their fixture results over a pre-season dinner in a place like this. Nothing so sinister on the night we were there, though. We were seated next to a large table comprised of what seemed to be 3 generations of family casually celebrating multiple birthdays. It was interesting to see kids from around 7 to 15 behaving and enjoying steaks at a Michelin 3*. Although, based on the fancy gifts being distributed, it's entirely possible that they were heirs to a soccer team...

The menu options are fairly straightforward. They offer a 6-course tasting for €175, a 9-course tasting for €198, or an a la carte menu where courses mostly cost €40-€60 each (though some involving truffles went up to €95, quickly outpacing the cost of the tastings). There is plenty of opportunity for excess - in addition to a vast wine list, they also have a water list that tops out at €200 for a bottle of Filico, some kind of premium Japanese water from the sake-brewing mountains of Kobe. I think it comes in a fancy bottle. We declined on the uberwater and stuck with some Acqua Panna, but we did opt for the 9-course tasting.

 

TUNA WITH BLACK PEPPER AND TUNA SAUCEThe amuse was this barely-cooked tuna served with a tonatto-like sauce. The two versions of tuna each focused on different aspects of the fish, combining the focused flavor of the sauce with the delicate texture of the meat.

 

DUCK FOIE GRAS IN LEMON AND MINT GELATINEThis superb foie gras preparation was next. Rich and velvety, the liver was well balanced by the refreshing gelatin sandwiched in the middle.

 

INFUSION OF PARMIGIANO WITH AVOCADO, HERBS, AND POACHED QUAIL EGGQuite literally painted onto the bowl, the parmigiano in this demonstrated a true distillation of the cheese's flavor. Mixed with the creamy quail egg, the bits of quinoa and greens became a nice vehicle for the savoriness of the entire dish. A beautiful course to look at, and equally great to eat.

 

"CRESTE DI GALLO" PASTA FILLED WITH CELERIAC AND VEGETABLES IN SEAFOOD SAUCEThe only pasta dish of the meal, these stuffed "cockscombs" (named after the fleshy red crest of roosters) were impossibly light with a crisp, refreshing center. The seafood sauce, powered mostly by the tiniest yet tastiest clams, was briny and delicious.

 

GRILLED SCAMPI WITH SMOKED POTATO PUREE, FENNEL, AND PINK GRAPEFRUITQuite simply, these specimens were pristine in quality and perfectly cooked. The ingredient was clearly the highlight here, and Beck was sure to keep the focus on the gorgeous scampi, adding just subtle flavorings to brighten the dish.

 

WARM EMINCE OF SEA BASS WITH OLIVE OIL MARINATED VEGETABLESWhen originally researching La Pergola, I had come across this 2005 review from Gastroville, in which Vedat artfully describes the exceptionality of wild sea bass. I'd forgotten about it leading up to my trip, but when I took a bite of this that paragraph immediately came back to mind. It's not rare to find branzino done simple with some olive oil, but this rendition was the peak of that simple kind of preparation. A fantastic piece of fish.

At this point, it was also becoming clear how much Beck pays attention to color on the plate. On the restaurant's website, Beck is quoted as wanting "to transmit emotions through a balance of aromas, flavours and colours." I sadly didn't quite capture the brightness of the vegetables on this plate, but it was striking.

 

TERRINE OF RABBIT WITH ARTICHOKES AND BEETROOTSA good dish with subtle flavors, though not as memorable for me as the others. The variety of textures, from the smooth rabbit to the crisp beets and flaky artichokes, was nice.

 

LEG OF LAMB ON TOMATO SAUCE, SALTY RICOTTA AND BASILAn absolutely stunning lamb course to wrap up the savory dishes. I think you could say this was a fancified version of classic meatballs with marinara, but using perfectly-done leg of lamb with an electric, explosive, party-in-your-mouth tomato sauce. This was easily one of the most delicious meats I ate on the entire month-long trip.

 

CHEESE FROM THE TROLLEYI have no idea where I put my notes on the cheeses, so sadly I don't have the names. We asked for a good variety, and most of the popular Italian cheese categories were well represented - a soft cow's cheese, a couple of strong hard cheeses, a nice Taleggio, and a blue. The parmigiano was excellent, and we got to sample some of the wonderful balsamic vinegar they had on hand (I want to say it was 50-year, but I can't remember for certain).

 

RASPBERRY SORBET WITH ORANGE JUICEOur palate cleanser was this tart sorbet-juice combination. Very pure flavors and extremely refreshing.

 

RASPBERRY ON A BOAT, LICORICE SOUFFLE, CHOCOLATE AND COCONUTLa Pergola follows with a plethora of little dessert portions. I love eating this way, but they sure are hard to photograph. Each dessert was nice and light, and not overly sweet.

 

PINEAPPLE/RUM/COCONUT FOAM, WILD STRAWBERRIES AND CHAMPAGNE JELLY, CHOCOLATE CANNOLI WITH MANGO MOUSSE, TIRAMISUMore desserts - each carefully thought out with a nice balance of fruit flavors and chocolates, and on the whole presenting a wonderful variety of textures and forms.

 

PETITFOURS, COOKIES, TREATSFinally, we were presented with this miniature treasure box of drawers filled with cookies and treats. It was tough, but I managed to try one of each kind. As you would expect, the pastries are all top-class.

Service was superb. It was a little less personal than Pinchiorri, but absolutely smooth and professional throughout. The entire operation really evoked the synchronized, seemingly-effortless teamwork needed for an establishment at this level. The folks here know what they're doing. It's a true Michelin 3*, no doubt in my mind. I think that because Italian food as a whole can excel so beautifully in much more casual circumstances, it can be easy to overlook the fancier side of Italian cuisine. I'm guilty of it, especially when comparing to French fine dining or modern Spanish cooking. Heinz Beck proves that he can easily hang with the big boys, and his reputation is well deserved.

Plus, there's no setting grander than the La Pergola's decked out dining room... after dinner, you can step outside to the patio and see St. Peter's Basilica gleaming in the distance.