The Life in Your Years

"And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years" - Abraham Lincoln

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Exploring the Historical Italian Streets of Bologna

The ancient Italian city of Bologna was founded as an ancient Etruscan city as far back as 1500 BC and eventually became a Roman colony. The Via Emilia is a road that has connected Bologna to Rome since it was built in in 847 BC., and still runs through the city changing its name to Strada Maggiore, Rizzoli and a few others.

It sits about eight hours north of Rome at the top of the boot-shaped country, just an hour south of Milan. This Emilia-Romagna region is full of culture – art, music, industry, wine and food.

Tall, slender towers have become a symbol of the city. The most famous and prominent are the Two Towers – the Asinelli and Garisenda. It is said that during the 12th century there were more than 180 towers creating a unique porcupine skyline when viewed from afar.

Bolognese families have a foundation of wealth, which can easily be seen in the rich clothing donned by many of the city’s citizens, men, women and children. This is particularly the case in the area surrounding the luxury shopping center of Galleria Cavour that sits at the meeting of Via Luigi Carlo Farini and Via Giuseppe Garibaldi.

In the second picture you can see two barbers people watching outside their shop in the lavish neighborhood around Via Giusseppe. Throughout the city we walked under glorious archways decorated with ornate beam designs and sometimes paintings. The most impressive were found here (the blue and pink painted ceilings in the photos).

Between the endearing architecture, fantastic post work apertivo spots, the fabulous cuisine, vino and people watching, Bologna, Italy has a wonderful feel to it. We enjoyed it greatly, and I hope to have the chance to explore and experience its culture again – and for a longer time.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Magical Dining Adventure at Alinea in Chicago

'Just be here at eight-fifteen', said the female voice on the other end. And so we were. The entrance is unmarked for Alinea located in the charming Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park-Old Town, and we nearly walked right on by it, focusing more on bearing our weight against the wicked wind.

As we moved towards the door a young lady with an iPad stepped out to greet us. She confirmed our seating and directed us to enter and enjoy this seriously magical place. We stepped into a dimly lit hallway, the floor lined with squishy moss. Our eyes were wide investigating the plethora of hanging flowers set in narrow glass vases. They beckoned us to 'follow the yellow brick road'. Alinea would be no place like another.

Hidden within the center carpels of select blossoms were small cones of cotton candy. The airy candy was zesty, fruity and sweet. There was even a hint of cilantro for me. Maybe it was mango? My senses were on high alert. It felt like we'd walked through the forest of Oz or had traipsed through the story's vast poppy fields.

The spell was broken when a sliding door revealed the buzzing, bright kitchen. Alinea's troops were hard at work, moving in cadence about unique kitchen tools - a helium tank, a dry ice bin and slender glass test tubes. Their focus was obvious. Oh we oh, ohhhhh oh - we were in for something special.

Each creative delivery made us more and more excited for what would come next. Dining at Alinea is interactive and engaging; there's inventive thought given to every single detail.

And this hyper attention to detail is conveyed beautifully in Christian Seel's video showcasing the trail-blazing restaurant. The Alinea dining experience is extreme, surprising and drives impatient anticipation like a child. Are we there yet? Are we there? Are we?

In one of my favorite courses, Chef Grant Achatz and his team paid homage to the Classical Elements: Earth, Air, Water, Fire, which were developed by Empedocles and expanded by Aristotle. Playing with various types of fresh seafood, the single course was delivered in canon, each just as spectacular as its lead.

See the sushi floating in a clear glass cylinder filled with water, ice and fresh flowers in Seel's dramatic clip (:35).

We poached small bits of fish filet in boiling water (:39) and crunched on a crayfish head that had been deep fried and placed on the edge of a similar glass cylinder (:50).

My enthusiasm increased greatly while experiencing food in this thoughtful 'natural way'. It reminded me of Michael Pollin's book Cooked. The Achatz Army really impressed me when we seared a large scallop on a piping hot stone (1:04). It sizzled and smoked. And I thought fondue and raclette were fun!
In the Alinea video and at the top of the photo below, you can see slender white dishes featuring an assortment of rich duck prepared in five different ways - one seared, another more like paté.

The ultimate treat in this 'Infinity' course was the ability to combine the well-prepared duck options in any creative fashion. A gorgeous glass tray offered more than fifty dollops of this and that - a pistachio cream, blackberry sauce, a green olive slice, and some powdery white stuff (I didn't expect it to crumble the way it did. It was lighter than chalk and minty.)

There was traditional ground mustard, a gelatin like canned Thanksgiving cranberries, a fruit rind, a flower, current chutney, a green sauce that looked like wasabi and tasted like tea, and white cream.
We were told to take a piece of duck and match it with 2-3 of anything on the glass. At first we were strategic in our selections, almost afraid to create a poor combination. But that wasn't possible. With each bite our senses worked intensely to tell us what we'd concocted. The course was exciting and mysterious. I thoroughly enjoyed the seduction of the unknown, leaving our taste buds to search and unleash familiar flavors from our memory bank.

And just when we thought invention could be taken no further, and that our excitement with the Alinea show had reached its pinnacle, we were each given a floating, edible balloon (1:09).

The balloon was made of taffy, filled with helium and attached to a long metal needle. The string was taffy too. If I'd thought of the similarity then, we could have used the helium to make silly Wizard of Oz voices. Instead we announced our own names with high pitched flare - wah wah wah.

Alinea is one of The World's 50 Best Restaurants listed by San Peligrino and Acqua Panna. It has been reviewed by numerous magazines and industry experts. Tickets, similar to a play or sporting event, must be purchased in advance. It's a wholly enlightening experience and worthwhile surrendering to the adventure that we will not soon forget. I had no preconception and was so pleased to be surprised by the culinary magic.

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Fab Fabio's in Bologna

When Americans see the word Bologna, many of us are fondly reminded of Oscar Mayer's 1973 commercial featuring a little boy singing: 'My bologna has a first name it's O-S-C-A-R'. And while the city of Bologna in northern Italy is where mortadella, the pre-cursor to modern baloney, originates, the Emilia-Romagna region has plenty more culinary gifts to share.

It was at Ristorante da Fabio where we were able to try a bit, and more, of this prominent region's gastronomic pleasures: prosciutto de Parma, parmasean cheese, ragú bolognese and Sangiovese wine.

Dining at Fabio's place is done differently, starting with the constant presentation of aperitivos of all kinds to be shared; egg soufflé, stuffed tomatoes, liver pâté and ricotta cheese were delivered to our table by a handsome man with striking blue eyes.

Mortadella was prepared into a light paste that was delightful on a simple piece of toast. Ham salad is not my thing. In fact, it mortified me as a kid. You know, it was one of those food items that made my nostrils automatically flare out in denial. It was pink, and smooth, and what is it made of? Mom, no.

But 'mortadella surprise' scares me not anymore; I was going to try everything that came across my plate here. The 'meat fluff' had not a hint of miracle whip, was light and smooth, with only a hint of salt and smoke. It welcomed us in as the chef.

The walls were lined with knick knacks, old wine bottles, cds, cook books and US license plates, three from Wisconsin. As guests arrived they were greeted with a warm embrace and escorted with care to the back room where seats were still available.

Grilled zucchini continued our culinary embrace, the pieces delicate in olive oil and darkened just enough to punch up the taste.

For our main course I headed straight for the classic tagliatelle pasta with Ragú alla Bolognese. Bolognese sauce is famous. It's often seen on menus as far as Africa and Brazil described as spaghetti bolognese. This is the medieval city that gave the world this satisfying dish.

Tagliatelle is an egg pasta that is flat in shape and long. The sauce, or ragú, is started with a soffrito base, typically a mix of carrots, onions and celery sauteéd in olive oil and butter. This is a dish I love to try at well-known restaurants, and I've found that my favorite recipes include a good amount of carrots. A slow cooked pork or combination of meat is added to the mix. A good bolognese sauce is comfort food at its best.

Fabio's Tortellini in Brodo proved to be silky and inviting. The brodo, or broth, is made with various meat parts slowly simmered over a long period of time. Only with such care can a dish be so exquisite yet simple. It is rich like butter and nurtures in the same way, warm and smooth down the throat.

Desserts are served at Fabio in the same way as the starters. Like at the beginning of our meal, our table was once again loaded with dishes to share. We were surrounded by: fresh strawberries, dark chocolate cake, flan and apple torte.

And wow - the absolute highlight of it all - was homemade gelato made especially for our table. The cool creme custard had a real vanilla taste with a touch of anise.

The small slices of schaum torte were sweet and sour when saddled with cool fresh strawberries. And the hot chocolate sauce hardened into a shell when poured atop the frozen ice cream on my plate.

Nestled prominently in the tiny front dining room of four tables, the bar is stocked with fine cognacs, liqueurs and port wines. There are even a few props hanging around for when dinner's conversation needs livening-up.

To accompany the end-of-evening sweets, our server delivered us glasses with a small bucket of ice and a bottle of Sambuca, which paired very well with the homemade gelato. We laughed and remained in awe of the experience we had just had and continued to. Nestled in the Castiglione area of the city, Ristorante da Fabio impressed us, and gave us a dining memory we won't soon forget. Its certainly a place we hope to return to again.

Our laughter continued outside and down the old, winding stone street,'my Bologna has a first name, it's F-A-B-I-O.'

Did I mention that I wasn't able to finish my Bolognese? Amongst close friends I'm known as the 'Leftover Queen'. It can't go to waste - and I needed room for dessert.

Fabio gave me a weird look when I asked to take it with. Look, when in Rome or not, there was no way I was going to leave homemade pasta and sauce behind from the city that invented it if I could take it along with me.

It was eaten late night in Paris two days later - enjoyed again and wasted not. I added some Tabasco too - that's allowed the second time around.

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