"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pepolino - Italy only exists in Italy (April 3, 2011 / June 1, 2011)

“It is cheaper than flying to Italy” – People always say; and people are generally wrong (if not always). The amount of money I have gullibly squandered, grudgingly shelled out and indignantly disbursed into the coffers of New York restaurants over the years would have earned me enough frequent flyer miles for the rest of my nomadic lifetime: Too bad I was not fond of Healthy Choice pudding as Mr. David Phillips was.* For a blissfully ignorant two months, I had harbored the hope that I finally could merely glide down to TriBeCa for a hearty Tuscan fare, sans the jet lag, swollen calves and missing luggage; and perhaps even one day, I dreamed that I could build a Gourmand’s Corridor linking my front door to Pepolino in the fashion of Cosimo I de' Medici. However, the problem with a dream is: You have to wake up.
*Apparently, he did not consume all the 12,150 of pudding.

First Examination

Ribollita Fiorentina - Tuscan bread soup with black cabbage, mixed vegetables, fresh thyme

Rich, thick and utterly edible, the vegetable soup – how low can the liquidity be and still be called soup? - was hearty and perfectly balanced. The ribollita, in fact, almost had the consistency of a ratatouille. The creamy beans, the fresh thyme, and the earthy carrots and sweet cabbage all melted nicely and harmonically. “Peasant” soup, it would usually have been described, but believe me, the peasants could not afford to have eaten a soup like this.

Carpaccio del bosco - Warm beef carpaccio with porcini and parmegiano

This was simply the best beef carpaccio, even if I cannot whole-heartedly endorse it as the perfect beef carpaccio. The generous use of the aromatic porcini assured that each transparent, pink slice of the sweet tenderloin would be accompanied by at least one mushroom to perfume its way. The olive oil, poured over, rather than drizzled, was warmed by the heated plate, and released its green note and permeated every pole of my nose, which lightened the saltiness of the parmegiano – a little too much – somewhat.

Farrotto – Blue cheese and sausage

The blue cheese was so tame that even someone who abhorred the smell would not have noticed. The slices of thick fennels would have provided a nice sweetness against a sharp blue, if the flavor was there, instead of merely providing texture. The sausages bits were found after shifting through the perfectly plump farroto for quite some time, which, not surprisingly did little to alleviate the creamy, bland dish. If I could only have had some parmegiano reggiano, I could almost convince myself that I actually ordered a different farroto; however, alas, no such self-delusion was available to me, as the cheese grater, called upon by my request, scoffed and proclaimed: “There is already enough cheese in the farrotto.” Was there, indeed?

Cinghiale alla Maremmana - Stewed wild boar with black olives and grilled polenta

We cannot talk about Tuscan fare without allocating an entire chapter on wild boar. So quintessential in the winter, a head of wild boar - dressed ubiquitously as a Santa Claus, but a serious one with black-rimmed glasses – adorns every single butcher. I had papardelle al cinghiale (and truffle ravioli) every night for two weeks while eating my way through Tuscany (and, of course, carried with me a couple of ropes of the delicious cinghiale sausages on my way back). Talk about La Dolce Vita.

However, this stewed wild boar could have been any specimen of the porcine family, not because the scent was hidden under the dense red wine reduction but because it did not taste like a wild boar. It was competently stewed to a good texture – tender but not disintegrating – but that was only the baseline that a stew had to clear, and a very easy one to do so at that. After all, it is not hard to leave the pot in the oven for a couple of hours, is it?

Strawberry Panna Cotta

Excited by the quality of the first ricotta cheese cake, I decided to order another dessert in my enthusiasm. I should have just left, however, with my cup 90% full, rather than knocked over. Grotesquely red, the texture of the panna cotta was on the lighter side and yet surprisingly greasy, perhaps due to the poor quality of the cream. The slightly too sweet strawberry sauce was poured slightly too much for the milky dessert.

Follow-up Examination

The food was selected to cover the items missed in the first examination – seafood and pasta.

Grigliata di polpo e calamari - Grilled baby octopus, calamari served with fettunta

Rather than “baby,” it should have been called “toddler” octopus since it surely looked big enough to navigate under the sea, defying parental supervision. Tenderly grilled from the head to toe with a slight char, the sweet and succulent flesh was slightly under-seasoned, if eaten by it self; however, the sprinkle of salt on the fettunta underneath completed the saltiness of the dish. The fettunta – Italian garlic bread – was one-third blacked to carbon, which even the excessive amount of olive oil could not cover the bitterness.

Pappardelle al Pepolino - Pappardelle with pepolino tomato sauce, fresh thyme

The namesake pasta was thin sheets of pappardelle with a light tomato sauce and a touch of cream. Despite the fact that “pepolino” signifies “thyme” in Italian, the sauce did not have a noticeable fragrance of the herb – the diminutive stick stuck in the pasta notwithstanding. The cooking time of the pappardelle was overshot by a full 90 seconds, if not more. Had it not been a homemade pasta, thus with more chew and body, it would have started disintegrating in the colander, instead of congealing on my pasta to my horror after six minutes of arrival. Then, I realized that the knife was placed by the waiter not by a mistake: I needed it to cut the glued sheets. The Pappardelle al Pepolino was so crucially under-salted both in the pasta boiling water and the sauce, which even the abundant shredded parmigiano failed to ameliorate.

Fusilli al Pesto – Haricot verts and potatoes

Similarly over-boiled, this time, by 60 seconds, the large fusilli had already started to roll open, negating the care and time the pasta maker had put in. The idea of adding haricot verts and potatoes into the pesto with the pasta was a smart one, had the pesto stood up for itself more. The color of the pesto was a little light, but the puzzling blandness could not have been purely attributed to the lack of number of basil leaves. Was it the garlic? Partially, yes, as there was not sufficient piquancy of the raw garlic. The mystery was solved, when I bit into the sole garnishing basil leaf – voila! The basil was just a ghost of what basil should be, as if it had drowned in a flood by drinking bellyful of water.

Ricotta cheese cake

The ricotta cheese cake I had the first time was simply divine. I was willing to sell my royalty to Celeste for a piece of Pepolino’s absolute perfection. Dense, creamy and yet gently airy, the cheese cake possessed an easy elegance, which seemed unmatched by any others in the realm of ricotta cheese cake. The crust was crumbly and buttery and was good enough to be sold as cookies by itself.

However, on my second visit, the cake was still perceptibly warm inside, which suggested that it was freshly baked and had not enough time to calm down from the heat. The consistency of the cake, due to the lack of the sitting time, was looser and creamier with stronger taste of eggs, or it could be simply that the golden recipe had not been strictly adhered to. The crust was still as delicious, but again, warm and thus too crumbly.

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