Thursday, April 17, 2008

Taking a limoncella for the team

Ah, the things we have to do to make a living. Today, for instance, I’m sitting in Lucca, Italy, getting ready to eat and drink my way through local specialties. I’m on a tour to learn what foods and wines—and let’s not forget cigars and coffee—could be feasible for restaurants back in the States that want to differentiate their menus with authentic regional Italian cuisine. Man, what a grind.

The tour began last night with dinner at one of the city’s most historic restaurants, which is saying a lot. Among Lucca’s distinctions is the retention of a wall that was built around the city for its defense back in the time of the Roman Empire (but updated twice, most recently during the Renaissance). Our guides explained that they wanted to start off our visit with dinner at Buca di Sant’ Antonio because it features the foods they ate at the family table while growing up. These were the dishes made by their grandmothers, who in turn learned them from their grandmothers.

We were steered toward the 226-year-old restaurant’s specialties by the crackerjack staff. Meanwhile, our guides, both from companies that promote Lucca business and tourism, selected local wines. My meal started with sautéed chicken livers served with a specialty bread that had a coarser grain than usual. It had almost a nutty taste, like the nut and whole-grain breads you see in health food stores back in the States. Several of my fellow visitors tried the “pies” that were offered as antipasti—one with leeks and ricotta, the other with asparagus and ricotta. All were terrific.

My second course was a pasta and rabbit dish with a very robust sauce—one of the highlights. Something about it was very familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I might’ve had it before. Later, one of our hosts noted that the chef of New York’s Beppe restaurant was from Lucca. I realized that’s where I’d enjoyed a similar dish, though I doubt it was made with rabbit.

My meat course consisted of roasted baby goat, with a simple accompaniment of roasted potatoes. It was delicious--juicy, flavorful, yet mild. The meat had a slight but pleasant musty flavor, like amplified dark meat turkey. It was as tender as a braised pork shank, but deeper in taste.

The meal wrapped up with a local specialty: Cookies that are made with olive oil in place of butter, lard or other shortenings. They were a bit heavy, but tasty. And just perfect with the dessert wine that our hosts chose. The wine was made with the local grechetto grape. The vintner later explained that the grapes are dried on mats for two to three months, until they’re largely dehydrated. Then the pulp is pressed, yielding a wine with extraordinary depth. The sweetness was more of a highlight than the sugary backbone of the wine. And as my wine-centric colleagues noted, it had great fruit.

The experience wiped out the surpisec we got when we saw our first restaurant in Lucca--a McDonald's.

Okay, I’d better rest up before I move to the next sampling. I’ve heard that we may actually have to heft more wine glasses this morning.

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