11
Jul
11

Slow dinners in Ticino and Lombardy: part one

Ten days in Ticino and Lombardy served up several meals of delicious food at the vaunted leisurely Italian pace. This turned the food into an afterthought to the event—an effect I’m not sure I like.

I once read a criticism—perhaps Italian—of American foodies’ tendency to spend an entire meal discussing the food. The idea being that our focus on what we’re eating is proof that we still don’t get it. Our obsession with what’s on our plate is just another manifestation of our nation’s long history of food faddism. (I insist that my desire to know how the growers are treated, whether the ingredients are in season, how many polipi are left in the sea, is not a fad.) Or maybe it’s proof that we live in our heads, not with our senses; we analyze, criticize, curate everything. (We’ve been known to accuse Europeans of the same.) Or else the fact that we find good food so remarkable shows that it remains a rarity for us. (Might remarking be a way of showing appreciation?) Certainly it’s proof that we don’t understand the social structures that support good food in cultures where those haven’t been obliterated by the McDonald’s drive-thru and Campbell’s soup in a cup. (There’s truth in that, but choosing food as a topic of mealtime conversation is not proof of it.)

J-P and I are inveterate collectors and reverse engineers of the things we eat out. When we splurged at our hotel restaurant after a long Alpine hike, partially in a thunderstorm, on a holiday that made finding transit back to Lugano difficult, this was the basis for what conversation about food we could muster. Mostly we commented on how fabulous it had been to shower, and how delightful it was to be warm and dry. And on what a good idea the prix fixe suddenly seemed: If we let them charge a pre-determined amount of money to our week’s tab, they bring us a steady stream of good things to eat, with little decision-making involved on our parts, how wonderful!

My primo was a stand-out: a plate lined with beef carpaccio, piled with mache, ringed with grapefruit segments, and drizzled with olive oil. We’ve already partially recreated this one at home, substituting prosciutto (we’ve also got our eye on biltong, as I’m pretty sure my beef was cured, not raw), adding cherry tomatoes, and completing the dressing with a sherry vinegar. The secondo (we had the same) was also good: butterflied shrimp paprikash surrounded by a ring of rice with which to scoop up the sauce.

For the wine, we tried a white merlot, apparently a Ticiniese specialty. There were two on the list, and despite our ordering the other, the waiter brought us the one from the Terra di Gudo winery, insisting that it was by far the better. It was quite nice, dry and crisp and minerally. As you might have guessed from the rice ring presentation, this was the kind of restaurant where the waiter came by periodically to lift the bottle from its table-side bucket of ice and refill our glasses for us. The first time his service seemed too slow, he caught me reaching for the bottle and I was mildly abashed. The second time was toward the end of the meal, and considering how much was left in the bottle and what an investment it represented, I was not embarrassed at all.

And what would a hotel restaurant be without some quality people watching? Our desserts were a strange, faux-French mélange involving puff pastry, fresh berries, whipped cream, ice cream, and pistachios—you’ll note there’s nothing like chocolate cake in that list. We were eating those confections and sipping espresso when two small Indian children ran in from the patio to crash into the knees of the head waiter, yelling, “Mister! Mister! Give us chocolate cake!” He at first demurred, saying that there was no chocolate cake. As they continued to batter his patellas with their heads and caterwaul about chocolate cake, he remembered something that might pass and retreated to the kitchen get it for them. This led us to speculate whether the Ugly American will be replaced by the Ugly Indian, or if the Chinese will eclipse them before they really get their day in the bad-tourist sun. Reports from some of J-P’s better-traveled colleagues indicate the latter.

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