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In our recent week’s vacation in Rome, Beloved Spouse and I dined only in restaurants we’d known and loved for years. We really had meant to try new places – I had a list – but once we were there, we couldn’t resist our old favorites. In my last post I wrote about our dinners at three of them; now I’ll describe the other three.
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campana-menu

We’ve been dining at La Campana for more than 30 years. It never seems to change, which is a comfort in this very unstable world. The image above is from my copy of its paper menu of July 7, 1979, all handwritten entries, reproduced in lurid purple ink. We’ve always eaten very well there and did again this time. Extravagantly, we both chose fettucine with white truffles for our first course (€50 a portion: about $55).
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white-truffle

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These truffles were much whiter than the ones Tom had a few days previously (a good thing: the paler, the better). Though they weren’t strewn as lavishly over the pasta as in the other dish, their flavor was much more intense, almost intoxicating. Interestingly, I have another of La Campana’s paper menus from fall 1990, which lists fettucine with white truffles for 35,000 lire. That amounted to $28 then, which would be about $50 in today’s dollars, so the price has hardly gone up in all that time.

For our second courses, Tom had petto di vitello arrosto, roasted breast of veal, and I had abbacchio arrosto, baby lamb, both with roasted rosemary potatoes and a light pan gravy. Both were quite simple and quite delicious Roman classics. Baby lamb here really is baby lamb: a tiny, pale-fleshed animal with a lot of gelatin and cartilage where Americans expect bone. And veal here means a milk-fed young animal, not a half-grown steer.
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vitello

abbacchio-campana

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La Campana’s menus now are multi-paged, printed, and encased in leather binders, so I fear I won’t be able to expand my collection any further. But I do cherish the old ones I have.
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sora-lella

Sora Lella is the only restaurant on the tiny Tiber Island, which stands in the middle of the river in Rome. Still family-owned and -run, it offers a large menu of classic Roman dishes, ever-so-slightly lightened. We started with two of the house’s specialty fried antipasti: suppli (rice balls) and polpettini (meat balls).
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polpettini-suppli

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Uncharacteristically for us, we skipped pasta that evening and went on to secondi: trippa alla romana for Tom, pollo alla romana for me. The tripe was of several kinds, not just the honeycomb that’s all we get in the US, well cooked to tenderness in a tomato sauce flavored with celery and cloves and generously topped with pecorino cheese. My chicken was a free-range farm bird, stewed with luscious sweet red peppers and a little tomato.
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trippa

pollo

torta.
With just room for a little dessert, we shared another very typical Roman dish: a slice of ricotta torte with a bottom layer of sour-cherry preserve.

 

 

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ar-galletto-awning

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And now I have to report the one disappointing experience of our Roman dining week: Ar Galletto. We used to love this place when it was known as Da Giovanni ar Galletto, a scruffy, unpretentious, side-street trattoria, cheerful, noisy, and much frequented by locals. A few years ago it moved a short distance to large quarters on the Piazza Farnese, decorated its rooms in chilly Milanese-modern style, extensively upgraded its menu – and sold its soul.

It disappointed us on our last trip to Rome, but we wanted to try it again this time in case it had recovered. It hasn’t. Giovanni’s brusque charm and his devotion to quality have gone forever. The waiters now seem to see their role as jollying international tourists rather than intelligently serving their food or knowing their wine list. The kitchen turns out some good dishes, but also some bad ones, apparently aiming more to impress than to please.

For example, of our pasta courses, ravioli filled with oxtail (coda alla vaccinara) and dressed with the same oxtail sauce was excellent. Short pasta alla gricia (the sauce mainly rendered guanciale and grated pecorino) was thick and gummy, not much improved by the addition of cooked artichoke.
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ravioli-gricia

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And of our main courses, abbacchio arrosto was as it should be, but maialino arrosto was inedible. The pork seemed to have been cooked and sliced in the morning, left out to dry and harden, and then heated up in a microwave.
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abbacchio-galletto

maialino-galletto

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Finally, ordering the wine produced a textbook example of waiterly ineptitude: See Tom’s blog post “Wining in Rome” for the absurd story. So, here’s one name to strike off our list of Roman restaurants to return to. But the contrast in the experience makes us appreciate the other great dining places all the more. Maybe not everything is eternal in the Eternal City, but enough good survives to make us look forward to our next visit.

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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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fortunato-1

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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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fortunato-3

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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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checchino

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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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checchino-1-1

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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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padelotto.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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zi-umberto

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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

maialino-arrosto.

At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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After exploring new restaurants during our recent stay in the Lazio countryside, Tom and I were ready for old familiar places and old favorite dishes when we got to Rome for the second half of our trip.  Here are some that we enjoyed.

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Ar Galletto, just off the Piazza Farnese, used to be a simple down-home trattoria. We were dismayed to find it had moved just into the piazza and upgraded to a severe – not to say stark – modernity. That elegance took away some of the fun for us, but happily, the kitchen hadn’t changed. Since it was high porcini mushroom season, the highlights of that dinner were my primo of fettucini con funghi porcini and Tom’s secondo of porcini ai ferri. My pasta was lavishly adorned with the mushrooms, and Tom’s grilled caps were huge and succulent.

Rome 1

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Still in the fungus category, there were white truffles all over Rome. When we ordered tonnarelli ai tartufi bianchi at Fortunato al Pantheon, another old favorite place, the aroma of truffle when the cart was wheeled over to prepare our dish perfumed half the restaurant. We weren’t given all those truffles in the picture on the left below, but they didn’t stint. The picture on the right is a half portion (we shared the dish). Those truffles were even better than the ones Tom had in his white truffle menu in Lazio.

Rome 2

BTW: 2014 should be a great year for white truffles, because the north of Italy had a lousy summer – chilly and frequently rainy – which, though terrible for grapes, is just what truffles like. The subterranean beauties will be abundant and delicious, and maybe less expensive than in the past few years.

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La Sagrestia, near the Piazza Rotonda, for years was the only pizzeria in the centro storico that offered pizzas at midday. That’s not true any longer, but Sagrestia is still a must-stop place for us for a reasonably modest lunch. Roman pizzas are very different from Neapolitan ones: The crust is as thin as a matzoh and extremely crisp. (I’m speaking of individual round pizzas, not the very large rectangular slabs – pizza al metro – sold by the slice.) We had one pizza with sausage and one with lardo di colonnata. I was hesitant about a lardo topping – it’s pure fat, after all – but curiosity prevailed. It was amazingly good. I’m going to try it next time I make pizza at home.

Rome 3

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Roman dining used to be very tied to the seasons. Now it seems that many formerly time-limited delicacies are available year-round. For instance, abbacchio – milk-fed baby lamb – was always a springtime specialty. But I had it on Halloween this year at the Trattoria dal Cavalier Gino, and it definitely hadn’t been frozen. It’s a very rich meat, for all the delicacy of its appearance.

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BTW again: Gino is a tiny, hidden-away, deeply Roman trattoria, with this inscription in Roman dialect blazoned across one wall: Chi cia li sordi e se li magna e beve arisparambia er pianto dell’erede. What it means (translation from my friend Lars) is “He who has money and spends it on food and drink spares the tears of his heirs.” An encouraging if rather self-serving sentiment!

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Similarly out of season – or so we’d thought – all the restaurants were offering carciofi alla romana and alla giudia (big globe artichokes, braised or deep-fried), fiori fritti (stuffed fried zucchini flowers), and fragoline (tiny wild strawberries). We gobbled as many of all these as we could hold.

Rome 4

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Our last dinner in Rome was at La Campana, yet another old favorite. (I have a menu from the place dated October 28, 1990, which was far from our first meal there. Very little has changed except the prices.) As always, everything we had was delicious. The standout dish this time was my main course, maialino con patate al forno. The suckling pig had the perfect contrast between meltingly tender flesh and crisp, chewy crackling. Terrific potatoes, too.

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Our stay in Rome ended with a short walk to say goodnight to the Pantheon – for us the perfect emblem of the Eternal City.

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Tom and I are just back from ten days in Italy – half in Lazio (the part of that region south of Rome) and half in Rome itself. I indulged in lots of food photography, which I can’t resist displaying over my next few posts.

Starting in the countryside, our travels took us to some very different kinds of places for excellent midday meals.

Lo Scoglio

Our first lunch was at a modest beachfront restaurant in Sabaudia, a resort town on the Mediterranean about 60 miles south of Rome. We sat outdoors under a pergola and ate the freshest imaginable fish.

Top left: Penne con grancio (crab). Top right: Spaghetti alle vongole veraci (clams)

Lo Scoglio

Bottom left: Calamari arrosti (stuffed roasted squid). Bottom right: Pesciolini fritti (fried small fish)

 

Il Funghetto

I’ve written previously about my collection of souvenir plates from Buon Ricordo restaurants. This trip I added a new one from a quite elegant restaurant in a tiny townlet called Borgo Grappa. The special piatto is Coccio del Circeo con primizie dell’Agro Pontino. Coccio is a Lazio name for the fish known as tub gurnard – in the USA, sea robin. Most American fishermen regard it as a pest, but we discovered long ago that it makes a fine substitute for bouillabaisse’s indispensable rascasse. In this dish, it’s cooked in its own broth, with local olive oil and young vegetables from the plains of the region’s former Pontine marshes.

buon ricordo piatto

Another outstanding feature of this surprisingly sophisticated rural restaurant was its white truffle menu, to which Tom succumbed: three courses with truffles, plus desserts, for only €60. My antipasto was a zucchini sformato with buffalo mozzarella, but I also sampled all his dishes. Wonderful truffles! NB: The light was bad for these photos; the truffles were much paler than they look here.

truffle dishesLeft to right: Fonduta ai tartufi, Tagliolini ai tartufi, Dentice ai tartufi

 

Principe Pallavicini Winery

For one day Tom had arranged a professional visit to Pallavicini, one of the oldest and most esteemed wine estates in the Frascati hills. After a tour of the vineyard and cellars, and a formal tasting of nine wines, our hosts sat down with us to a delightful buffet lunch right in the tasting room.

Clockwise from top left in the photo are several kinds of local salume; little buffalo mozzarellas and pacchini tomatoes; roasted zucchini, eggplant, and peppers; roasted porchetta; vegetable couscous; and fresh buffalo ricottas.

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Il Giardino

The Abbazia di Fossanova is a 12th-century ecclesiastical complex near the town of Priverno. It includes the monastery where Thomas Aquinas is believed to have died, as well as an austerely beautiful church. After a fascinating morning’s visit, we stopped for lunch at the first restaurant we saw on our local road back to the coast. This was a time-warp of a rustic place: no décor, no pretensions, no tourists other than us, everyone (including us) drinking the house’s carafe wine, and very good simple food.

One of its specialties was this excellent dish of Cecapreti alla Capra. The pasta was homemade and the sauce was made with lamb (so they said; though capra usually means goat) from mountain sheep in the nearby hills.

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This and our other pasta dish, a classic bucatini all’amatriciana, were preceded by grilled scamorza, the local prosciutto di Bassiano, and fritters of rice, potato, and mozzarella. I wish I could show them to you, but my camera was acting up that afternoon and I don’t have photos.

 

And . . .

We had one more magnificent lunch in Lazio – in fact, the best meal of our entire trip. But I think this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll save that story for next week.

 

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Bruno Courrèges, chief of police in a small Dordogne village, belongs to the grand tradition of fictional detectives-cum-gastronomes, like Nero Wolfe and Salvo Montalbano. But there’s one big difference between Bruno and those others: Bruno cooks. While investigating crimes and unmasking criminals, Bruno always finds time to prepare meals featuring dishes of his region for colleagues, neighbors, and lady friends.

Author Martin Walker describes Bruno’s kitchen work so lushly and appealingly (it’s Perigord – think truffles and foie gras) that, reading along, I often feel I’d need no further recipe to make his dishes at home. So Tom and I and our friend Hope did just that for our latest cookathon, our periodic all-afternoon playings in our kitchen, followed by an evening of enjoying the fruits of our labors. Here’s the Bruno-style menu we prepared this time:

Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs
Truffle Omelets
Spit-Roasted Lamb
Sarladaise Potatoes
Asparagus
Perigord Walnut Tart

Lush enough for you? This dinner turned out to be truly caloric megadeath.

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Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs

This isn’t actually one of Bruno’s own dishes, and it’s not in any of the books. The Bruno website, which has a recipe section, tells us that Bruno’s neighbor Pamela (“the mad Englishwoman”) once served them at a cocktail party, which undoubtedly Bruno would have attended.

We steamed dried Turkish figs to soften them a bit, sliced off the stems, poked a hole in each one, filled the cavities with pâté de foie gras, and chilled the figs for several hours. For serving we cut each fig in half. They were, as you’d expect, rich and luscious, though the two flavors remained independent, not combining to create any amazingly new third thing. Still, who can quarrel with figs and foie gras?

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Bruno would have drunk a glass of the local sweet Monbazillac wine with this. I couldn’t find any, so we had a 1989 Sauternes, which comes from the Graves region of Bordeaux, just southwest of the Perigord. In France, this is a time-honored companion to foie gras. It went very well indeed.

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Truffle Omelets

To date, Bruno has made truffle omelets in two of the books, Bruno Chief of Police and The Dark Vineyard. Of course, he uses eggs from his own hens and local truffles. We, alas, had to accept commercial products.

We’d intended to spring for fresh black truffles, but the Urbani company didn’t have any this week, so we had to settle for two ounces of flash-frozen. They were better than the ones that come in jars but not as fully fragrant as fresh ones. We were extravagant with them, though, steeping about half in the beaten eggs for several hours, then slicing the rest over the top of the cooked omelets – cooked in duck fat, in the true Bruno manner. Not at all shabby!

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Since our cellar doesn’t run to Perigord wines, with this course we drank another Bordeaux, a 2008 St. Emilion.

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Spit-Roasted Lamb

Bruno and his friends roast two whole spring lambs over an open fire at an outdoor feast in The Dark Vineyard. It was somewhat perverse of us to choose this recipe, since we have no access to an outdoor grill, and an entire lamb was clearly out of the question for three people. But we didn’t let logic or common sense slow us down. We had half a boned leg of lamb, which we stuffed with bay leaves and rosemary sprigs before rolling, tying, and setting up on my open-hearth electric rotisserie.

In the book, the lambs were basted repeatedly with a mixture of vin de noix, olive oil, and honey. I couldn’t get the actual French fortified walnut wine, but we approximated it closely enough with nocino, the Italian version. We used equal parts of nocino, olive oil, and chestnut honey. To our regret, we also didn’t have a branch of a bay tree to brush it on with, as Bruno did. So there were some compromises in our version of this dish.

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Happily, the lamb came out very well – tender and flavorful, delicately perfumed on the inside from the herbs and sweetly savory on the outside from the intriguing sweet/tart flavors of the baste. Continuing with Bordeaux wine, we drank a 1999 Chateau Gloria St. Julien, which accompanied the lamb beautifully: Cabernet always loves lamb.

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Sarladaise Potatoes, Asparagus

In Black Diamond, Bruno makes venison stew for a dinner in the home of his friend the Baron. Three of the other guests prepare sarladaise potatoes. There’s a complete recipe for the potatoes on the Bruno website, which we mostly followed. We parboiled waxy La Ratte heirloom potatoes, sliced and sauteed them in duck fat until they began to brown, then stirred in minced garlic and parsley for the last few minutes.

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This has not been a great winter for potatoes in our part of the world – most have been almost flavorless – but these were lush from the duck fat and zingy from the garlic. Alongside, we had fresh asparagus spears, just boiled and drizzled with melted butter. Bruno usually dresses his asparagus with hollandaise sauce, but for a meal he makes in The Devil’s Cave he doesn’t – because, he explains, there’d already been eggs in the omelet. So since we’d had our eggs too, we left the asparagus plain. We needed something on our plates that was green and not heart-stoppingly rich!

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Perigord Walnut Tart

In the books Bruno doesn’t make desserts very often, quite understandably given the satiety level of his cooking, so we cast our eyes farther afield. Knowing that walnuts are a prized specialty of the Dordogne, we looked up walnut dessert recipes from Perigord on the Web and chose one that looked not too complex. It’s a tart shell of sweet pastry dough, baked with a custardy filling of eggs, cream, milk, sugar, and lots of chopped walnuts. (One caution if you look at the recipe: I didn’t trust its pâte sucrée technique so I used a different version, one I’d made before and had more confidence in.).

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The tart was very sweet, but also very pleasant: cookielike crust, creamy center, crunchy nuts. I might well make it again – after a simpler dinner! – just cutting back a little on the sugar. With it we enjoyed another glass of the Sauternes, so ending with a liquid reminder of where we began.

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As I said at the beginning, this was a totally over-the-top meal. I don’t know how Bruno and his Perigueux friends can get through so many rich dishes at a sitting. Maybe they do it only once a year? And eat only green salads for a week after? I’m sure that we’ll never attempt to do it all even once again. But it was a heroic and fascinating experiment.

Here are the Bruno books in which the dishes appear:

Bruno books

 

 

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I had hoped to bring home a white truffle from my trip, earlier this month, to Italy’s Piedmont. Truffles were everywhere, especially in Alba during the annual truffle fair, but prices for the whites were stratospheric. Much better bargains were the local black truffles – which I hadn’t even known occurred in that region.

(Click on the photo to see a larger image)

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Tom and I enjoyed both types with our meals during the trip. Many restaurants were offering to add white truffles to any dish on the menu: €35 for a grattata (8 grams; about ¼ ounce). We succumbed a few times. Here’s my appetizer of carne cruda at the Locanda del Pilone, near Alba. The little mounds of veal tartare are surrounded by a shower of white truffle.

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But, as everyone told us, the whites aren’t great this year. They need moisture to develop well, and it was a very dry summer and fall. We were more impressed with the quality of the blacks, which cost much less. Here’s Tom’s appetizer at Neuv Caval d’Brons in Torino: a delicious tortino ai funghi porcini con tartufi neri, topped with shavings of black truffle:

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So we came home with two plump black truffles, weighing a total of four ounces. They cost €75 (about $100) – still a considerable expenditure, but only about one-quarter of what they’d have cost if they were white.

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During the trip, we kept them in our hotel rooms’ mini-refrigerators, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, a styrofoam box, and four layers of plastic bags. Even so, every time the door was opened, the intoxicating aroma of truffles wafted out. At home, a week later, it was still the same thing. Those truffles definitely made their presence known!

Before we left for Italy, we’d invited six friends for a Piedmontese dinner party a few days after our return. The truffles were dedicated to that dinner, and we spent quite a bit of time deciding how to serve them. White truffles would have been easier – the classic preparation is simply to shave them raw over egg noodles that have been tossed with lots of melted butter. But black truffles show their best flavor when cooked. We decided to use them in the pasta course but with a more complex sauce, which Tom invented for the occasion.

We braised a piece of beef shin with some carrots, celery, and onion until it was tender, then pressed the veg to squeeze out all their juice, and shredded the meat and marrow back into the sauce. Separately we sautéed large slices of portobello mushrooms in butter and olive oil, poured the sauce base over them, and simmered it all for about 20 minutes. Just before serving, Tom peeled the truffles, minced the peel, added it to the sauce, shaved the truffles into it, and cooked for a few more minutes.

We tossed carried-home-from-Italy taglioline all’uovo with this sauce and then topped the bowls with more shavings of truffle. Here’s the result:

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You can see from this photo, as well as the tortino photo, that these truffles aren’t black all the way through. They’re more of a speckled tan. This was true of all the Piedmontese black truffles we saw, and I wonder if they’re not the same variety as the famous all-black truffles of Perigord in France. I never thought to ask anyone.

So, what did our taglioline al sugo di carne, con funghi e tartufi neri taste like? Pretty luscious, overall. But in retrospect Tom and I think the other strong, savory flavors in the sauce muted the effect of the truffles. They might have proclaimed their (extremely expensive!) presence better in a simpler preparation – perhaps just the broth and marrow, minus the meat, which was very flavorful but a distraction from the truffles. Sometimes less really is more: It all depends on what you’re aiming for. Our guests didn’t have any complaints, however.

If you’re interested in the rest of the dinner menu, here it is. In my next post I’ll write about the other dishes that we served that evening.

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