New York, New York Steak

I just ate 10 steaks in one hour!

Recently, I was asked to evaluate 10 different cuts of steak from two different beef suppliers for an upcoming restaurant opening. All of the beef was Certified Angus or Prime and all the steaks were prepared the same way (salt and pepper over a flame grill) by chef Tommy Chavez. I paired each steak with three of my wines, 2014 Cab Franc, 2014 Superstrada (Sangiovese/Cab Sav) and 2015 RWSC (Bordeaux Blend).

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What did I learn?

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First, that I consumed about 3 pounds of beef! More importantly, not all steaks are created equally and no two steaks paired equally well with the same wine. All the steaks were delicious, as it’s difficult to go wrong with prime steaks expertly cooked, but there were differences in texture, density, ‘meaty’ flavor, chew, tenderness, and fat content.

The most dramatic difference in flavor, texture and wine pairing was a prime bone-in New York strip (Club steak) versus the prime boneless NY strip.

My 2014 Cabernet Franc and 2014 Superstrada paired nicely with the boneless NY strip. Complimentary flavors, the steak was lean and well textured, my wines integrated well with this classic restaurant cut.

Change gears to a longer cooked bone-in NY strip a.k.a. Club steak and suddenly the integration of the wine with the steak changed. The bone itself was flat and nearly 2 inches wide and covered the length of the strip, which effected cooking time. Whatever the bone and cooking time did to change the flavor profile of the steak was dramatic enough to favor a more tannic and heavy-weight wine. The Cab Franc didn’t have enough heft or tannin to hold up to the Club steak. Superstrada was good, but showed better with other steaks.

Enter the 2015 RWSC.

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The 2015 RWSC is my 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc from Dry Creek and Alexander Valley, with a 50% new Minnesota 36 month medium toast water bent oak and 50% neutral oak profile. Yes, I’m being very specific about my oak. Simply calling it “American oak” is an inadequate generalization.

While the 15 RWSC paired well with nearly every steak in the line-up (except perhaps the filet mignon where the wine overwhelmed the lean cut), it shined with the Club steak. This is where some combination of alchemy, meat sweats, and badly needing a plate of fries might be affecting my palate, but it was an enlightening moment in the tasting. How could one wine and one steak pair so well together? Why is this pairing so outstanding? This isn’t just me bragging about my wine. I’m sure other wines would have paired wonderfully, but in that moment, with those selections, the RWSC shined bright.

Next time I’m asked to evaluate steaks, I’m bringing more wine.

The Shameless Winemaker

Winemakers the world over can write manifestos and mission statements until their heads explode, but in the words of Mike Tyson, "everyone comes into the ring with a plan, until they get hit."

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So imagine getting hit with requests from consumers to add lemon lime soda to your wines? Sound crazy? It's not. In fact, it happens to me at nearly every large event.

How about a wine glass filled full of ice for a $50 Cabernet? It's happened. Not everyone lives in a cool climate. Take my hometown, Fresno, California. It gets hot, real hot, in summertime, 110 degrees hot and it 'cools' down at night to 92 degrees around 11pm. Who wants to drink Cabernet for dinner? Virtually no one.

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People pay good money for my wines at tailgates, festivals, events and parties throughout the year. As much as I like my wines without residual sugar or sweetness, not everyone does. What's the easiest way to add sugar to a finished wine? Add your favorite lemon lime soda. What's the easiest way to cool down some wine? Add ice.

I now come equipped with both Lemon Lime soda and a couple bags of ice to almost every event I participate in and I'm making more people happy.

Listen up winemakers, we all have a plan, until we get hit.

Pescheria, Lecce, Puglia

Pescheria

For my Fresno readers, if “Bulldog Grill and Pismo’s” had a love child in Italy they would have named it Pescheria. Pescheria is a restaurant where you order at the counter and have food delivered to the table; in this case, the counter is an open fish counter full of fresh fish. More Pismo's prices than Bulldog Grill prices.

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The ‘order at the counter’ model might work for apertivo, gelato, and panini. This concept is probably a stretch for many Italians, as prices are that of a sit down restaurant. My gut says the concept was created to cut costs on staff, so higher level of product, fresh seafood, can be served.

Squid “noodles” tossed with celery, hazelnuts and olive oil, crudo style. Raw squid body, sliced into ribbons, just like a pasta and tossed with raw celery of similar thickness along with some salt and olive oil. Garnished with some crushed hazelnuts and presto, squid crudo. Unlike Pismo’s, this calamari was not deep fried, breaded, or sautéed, it was raw. This might be a stretch for some people. I happened to enjoy it.

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Pachierri (oversized rigatoni) stuffed with bacala (salt cod) in a red sauce. Straight up, classic Pugliese style cuisine. A couple ingredients, some red sauce, salted fish; it doesn’t get any more traditional. Plenty of ways to cook salt cod in Italy and it seems popular in the winter. Several restaurants incorporate some form of bacala on the menu, I’ve already forgotten how many times I’ve had it.

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I thought the food quality was high and the execution solid. Most Italian restaurants I’ve been to generally don’t have lots of staff to begin with, one person can generally work the entire front of house even in a busy restaurant, so I didn’t feel like I had a lack of attention, but I’m not a native Italian either, just a traveler making an observation.

Mamma Elvira Double Down, Lecce, Puglia

I enjoyed both Mamma Elvira Cucina and Enoteca. The Cucina provides a more classic sit-down restaurant experience and full menu of Puglian specialties. The Enoteca also has an indoor area to eat, but the real action is on the patio (even in Winter). And when I say 'patio' I mean to say the dozen or so tables that are positioned on an active street in Lecce. Let me reiterate, an active street in Lecce. Several other adjacent restaurants and wine bars do exactly the same thing, perfectly Italian and wonderfully busy.

Mamma Elvira Cucina

Mamma Elvira Cucina is a full service restaurant, a newer place in Lecce, spun off from their wine bar (which I dined at on night one) in the center of town. They helped me find some of the Cantine Imperatore I liked so much.

I was offered an amuse of fried blooming onion without the heavy breading. A local tiny onion that was not harsh, however a hint bitter, similar to the braised onion I had at Elvira Cantina. The onion was well fried, not heavy on the seasoning; likely this dish is for an apertivo to be eaten with Aperol or Campari based cocktails. Not the best pairing with my wine, so I drank sparkling water.

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Baccala fritters. Solid. This is basically the Puglian version of fish and chips, without the chips. If you're hungry, need protein and gluten in your life and some deep fat fryer grease, this is Nirvana. It's filling and I probably shouldn't have ordered it at 9pm, but I did, because I haven't had this version on my trip and it sat like a brick with me through my night terrors 5 hours later. And yes, I would order it again.

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Pasta was straight forward Puglian frutta di mare. Octopus was tender and the sauce was a simple pan sauce, fresh. Notice the seeds and connections were removed from the tomato; I love that attention to detail down here. Pasta was buckwheat, traditional for the area. This pasta to me is a Wednesday night, home cooked meal. It's served without pretense but beautiful. 

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Dessert was a tiramisu type of dessert, but richer in flavor. Could have been a yogurt base or some type of thicker cream. Dried fruit is a staple in Puglia and provides some texture to the dessert experience.

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Mamma Elvira Enoteca

On my first night in Lecce, Marco showed me around town and suggested Mamma Elvira as one of his spots to eat. So I did.

Meatball 1: Bombette di Martina Franca, pork meatball filled w scamorzza cheese and sautéed more like a pork involtini as it's a pork cutlet rolled up and sautéed. It did not seemed like a braised piece of pork. The only sauce was a quick deglaze of the sauté pan with caramelized onions and probably a splash of wine.

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Meatball 2: A flattened meatball, quickly sautéed and finished with a red wine reduction and braised little local pearl onion. The beef didn’t seem to have the heavy seasoning of a sausage patty, more as billed, a flat meatball. The onion is a hint bitter, like bitter greens. Dark flavors here, braised meat flavors that actually make wine #2 a lot better.

I'd go back to both restaurants upon my return to Lecce, great wine lists at both.

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00 Doppiozero, Lecce, Puglia

00 Doppiozero

Another restaurant recommended by Marco, 00 Doppiozero was another favorite in Lecce. Easy to pop in for an espresso, pastry, amaro, or light lunch. Here's the highlights.

Lunch of some of the best selection of breads I've had to date, followed up by an oversized bruschetta of a light, creamy blue cheese with bitter greens, tomato and anchovies with olive oil and some red wine of local flavor. Easy and tasty.

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My Jedi Restaurant senses tell me this is a new model for Italian bar/restaurant/cantina in Puglia. It's open all day starting at about 730am, they do not close until midnight or 1am. You can buy a bottle of wine to take home at a discount to the dine-in cost. You can grab a espresso. You can buy bread. You can buy cured meats to take home. You can order at the counter or order at the table. You can have a full, sit down lunch or dinner (at 12 noon or 6pm), or you can do the Italian thing and have apertivo and sip Spritz and nosh on goodies.

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I've popped in for an Amaro, a coffee, a pastry on different days at different times. I like the access and the quality. I was even greeted by a regular after the third visit. The breakfast croissant filled with pastry cream is outstanding. I could have eaten one each day.

When nearly everything is closed at 3pm, "00" in Lecce is open. They are open on Sunday. I want them to be open when I return here. They do close at about 3pm on Monday though, otherwise open.

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Osteria dal Manzo, Lucca

Osteria dal Manzo in Lucca, Italy

I missed this restaurant on my 2016 trip to Lucca, they may have been closed for part of the winter. I’m pleased to say they were open for Tour D'Italia 2017.

Manzo Night 1

To start, artichoke confit and finished in bacon fat, additionally there were bacon crumbles and a small piece of bacon as garnish. A Parmigiano fonduta was at the bottom of the plate as an anchor and provided a textural contrast to the al dente nature of the artichoke. While looking back on the entire trip and the number of artichoke dishes I consumed, this rates highly on the list.

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Pappardelle anatra, was a simple dish of ground duck, long cooked in broth (something I've recreated at home). While I couldn't detect any pieces of onion, carrot or celery, there was a whole bay leaf as garnish. This is no nonsense Italian food, part of the reason I love pasta so much, minimal and traditional. Pasta was silky and a bit more thin than the previous two days. A shout out to my friend Hillary in Vincenza, her dish was better. Pasta was thicker and al dente.

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The tordolli in meat sauce was outstanding and I think, better than any other I'd tasted in Lucca by a wide margin. There was substance to the pasta, real depth. The noodle was al dente and a hint thicker than most American style stuffed pasta. Tordolli is a round ravioli to translate into easy to use American. Of the generic, ubiquitous tordolli in meat sauce, I found the pasta at Manzo to be a highlight.

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As a second course, the classic grilled steak over greens with some lightly marinated artichoke pieces. The artichoke wasn't dressed heavily, if anything a bit more acid than oil, which was purposeful as you want acid with the steak. No off artichoke flavors when consumed with the wine. Steak was a spot on mid-rare, tender and simply seasoned. No mistakes, just wonderfully complete.

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Brownie with cream. As billed by the server, dessert was an American style brownie not made from a box you picked up at Costco. Moist and chocolatey.

As an addition, Antonio, the proprietor came to the table to talk. Great guy. We spoke about all things wine, politics, food, tourism and agriculture. 

Manzo Night 2

To start, Fegatini over creamed spinach with Mandarin orange. This could be one of the finest examples of wonderfully cooked chicken livers I’ve experienced. These chickens were raised right, I didn’t get a single piece of connective tissue or fiberous material in a single bite. Texture and flavor were the best in memory. The play to use a creamed spinach (I’m a sucker for creamed spinach) paired well. The addition of citrus brought the whole dish together. Great preparation on a classic dish.

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Ravioli with bacon and peanuts in a light cheese fonduta. I don’t recall ever having peanuts with Italian food. Usually it’s hazelnuts or pistachio nuts with the Italians. The peanuts weren’t a focus of the dish, but rather a texture element. The ravioli were of a size and texture similar to what I grew up on, small and densely packed with filling. The bacon added both crunchy texture and salt to the dish. Overall, wonderful and I would like to recreate this dish at home.

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Grilled pork with crispy potato (the potatoes were best I’ve had this trip, they were actually crispy, not sitting in a steamer tray). I’m leading off with the potatoes because I’ve had roasted potatoes several times and each time they seemed to be pre-cooked and holding somewhere in a steam tray. Manzo was making these potatoes fresh, as there was only crispy golden goodness and not an once of moisture on any potato.

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Manzo Night 3

Beef Tartare. Yes, I know, I’m pushing my luck like I did last year. Italian beef tartare can be boring. Light in flavor and salt and no egg yolk. Manzo’s preparation was with balsamic vinegar, which helps bring out flavor. Add the base of artichokes and a little horseradish cream on the side and this dish is a good play on tartare.

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Spaghetti with a creamed spinach and nuts, not a pesto sauce, there was also some anchovy in the base of the sauce. Using what seemed to be the creamed spinach base from my chicken liver dish, it coated the pasta completely and beautifully. I was preparing something close to this spinach style sauce with arugula, walnuts and cheese back in Mammoth last year. Using the anchovy changes the sauce into something more mouth-coating and full palate than using greens alone. Also, I didn’t taste any heavy or even moderate garlic flavors as you would in pesto. It's powerful flavor would work with bretty wines, acidic white wines, and fruity reds.

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Duo of fried rabbit and chicken. Each breading was different, the rabbit used rosemary and the chicken used garlic. The chicken was fried a bit longer. I liked the rabbit best. Tender, juicy white meat and the hint of rosemary. I could have eaten three more pieces. I’m not complaining about the chicken, it was just an easy second place for me, albeit, well fried and well salted. 

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Dessert was a no cook cheesecake, with what tasted like a mix of creme fraiche and cream cheese, maybe some mascarpone. Great crust and I think an easy dish to recreate and serve for people at a dinner party.

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Wine was Bordocheo house wine, which was a bit high in acid for me this season. Certainly, the best pairing was with the duo of fried food.

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Finished with Amaro with pine nuts in it.

I'm incredibly happy to have eaten at Manzo three times and look forward to my return. Thanks to Antonio and the whole crew that took care of me each night.

Eat, Drink, Repeat 

I revisited three restaurants from my Tour d'Italia 2016 trip, Zeb in Florence, Zingaro in Parma, and Punto in Lucca.

Zeb in Florence

A repeat from last year's Florence trip and only because Cousin Vince and I talk about it whenever we hear anyone is going to Florence, Zeb Gastronomia is run by a mother and her son at the base of Piazza Michealangelo on the other side of the Arno.

First up, pasta. Spaghetti with shaved truffles is all about simplicity.  It's all about fragrance and depth of flavors. Pasta noodles are al dente and you’ll be smelling like truffle for the next couple hours.

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Tortellini with pumpkin and ricotta in a fonduta of French cheese and garnished with poppy seed. Big stuffed pasta! Flavors were good, with the tang of a stinky French cheese to round out the dish. The dish makes an impact on the plate.. It’s big and contrasting colors of yellow, white and black get people looking and since it tastes great, it’s a winner.

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Rabbit stuffed with a GRIP of fennel seed, cheese and herbs (an outstanding dish of rabbit). No bones to mess with, just moist rabbit and stuffings. The outer skin was crisp texture. Flavors were deep and complimentary to the wine. I remember having rabbit in Siena back in 2009 that rivals this dish. Great flavor and I could probably do it with chicken breast, since people think eating Thumper (or Bambi for that matter) are creepy.

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Dessert was tiramisu, not overpowering with coffee, liquor or sweetness. I don't know if this would sell well in American restaurants as it lacked the over the top nature of an American style tiramisu (you know, the "welcome to flavor town” American style). That said, I liked it. As the pasta and rabbit were incredibly savory, even a touch of sweetness is welcome at the end of the meal.

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I haven't a clue what wines were served, as I knew better from last year that if I asked to take a picture of anything, I'd be scolded. Suffice it to say, the wines paired with each course and white and red were served.

Zeb still gets top marks for great food in a casual environment. Remember, Italians tend to eat at about 1:30, so get to Zeb when it opens as they don’t take reservations.

Zingaro, Parma

A return to the first restaurant I ate in Parma in 2016, Osteria dello Zingaro, and a repeat of what I ate last year, a plate of cured meat, pasta and a trio of horse meat (so I won't take up space with pictures). The meal was wonderful and the owner and his son were just as they were last year, proud of their food and their restaurant.

I could simply re-post the exact same blog post from last year. Everything was exactly the same and I still think the cavallo tartare with picante is a delicious version of steak tartare. However there is one addition, a sausage risotto that was lovely.

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Punto, Lucca

I'll say, it was pretty cool to be greeted with a smile, handshake and "welcome back" when I walked into Punto Officina del Gusto after almost one year to the day of my first visit. 

I was so impressed with the food and wine program at Punto last season, I was really looking forward to coming back. Since last year, Punto has opened their apertivo bar next door, however, this dinner was in the main restaurant.

Amuse of radicchio with tartar sauce. I didn't know what to think about this combination as in all my travels, it had never come up before. Perhaps a play on a veggie bowl with a ranch dip or onion dip. Tack it up to whimsy.

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Artichoke with quinoa and coffee infused mayonnaise. Last year, I also ordered an artichoke for my first course and loved the result, this year in no different. Wonderful presentation, well prepared and fun. The quinoa add dimension and texture.

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Risotto with tangerine, olive oil, Parmigiano and ponzu. Again, I repeated my risotto order from last year with the latest incarnation, tangerine risotto. The innovation here is the use of ponzu, not a typical Italian ingredient. The tangerine is not dominant, like the celery last year, I found the risotto balanced, delicate, and flavorful and a good pairing with the Pinot. Stronger flavors, bacon, beef, even poached fish would overpower the risotto. This risotto is a solo act IF you want subtle flavors, If you'd rather have this risotto in the background, I think it would pair with fish, game, or beef rather well.

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Spaghetti with squid ragu and chili. Well constructed, good heat from the chili and the pasta. had good tooth on it. This dish almost seems tame for Punto. I have no complaints and would happily order it again, but perhaps I expected a 'spin' on the dish, an innovation that Punto does so well; taking tradition and offering an update.

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Desserts were a lemon cream and meringue on sweet cracker and the cake of the day, beet juiced soaked with cream and chocolate. Both were welcome sweet treats after a savory meal.

I was pleased to return to Zeb, Zingaro and Punto and would happily return to all three again.

Sale Grosso, Bologna

Sale Grosso in Bologna is a Southern Italian styled restaurant in the heart of Bologna and it was one of my favorite places to eat in Bologna.

Cream di Fave with cooked chicory and breadcrumbs with olive oil. Could this be just a big bowl of hummus? Yes. So you better like hummus. I’d say a little less dense than a typical hummus, this creamy bowl of beans is about as filling as it gets. This dish is Puglian and came up on several Lecce menus. If you like hummus, with less garlic and some wilted greens on top, this is your dish.

Orecchiette with broccoli and shrimp. One of the pasta highlights of the trip. Very Puglian in design, not Bolognian. Shrimp was cooked exactly right, plump and fresh. Hints of chili pepper flakes dotted the sauce, not overpowering. No butter, just olive oil and garlic. Post Script: As I'm in Lecce, I’m sticking with my assessment in Bologna that this dish was one of the highlights of the trip. A wonderfully fresh pasta, when most people think to do orecchiette with red sauce or rapini.

Salad with smoked Buffalo Mozzarella and anchovy with paprika. I ordered pasta, but received a salad. While my Italian is horrible, I did order a spaghetti dish, not something I'm going to pronounce poorly. Maybe the waiter sensed I needed more fiber in my Italian diet. What was presented was a welcome surprise. The smell of smoke is what I first noticed coming from the cheese, a smoked mozzarella. Each piece of Mozzarella was topped with anchovies, a combination I've never had. Normally, that many anchovies would be unwelcome; however, when combined with the smoked Mozzarella, they tasted great and didn't repeat on me an hour later. Genius.

For dessert, fresh ricotta with a generous portion of mixed berry coulis. Albeit this is a simple dish, I loved it. Plus, it was pretty on the plate.

I’d say for a fast lunch by Italian standards, less than an hour, the meal was one of the tops of the trip; eating Puglian food in Bologna. Go figure.

Restaurant Triple Play, Lucca

Osteria via San Giorgio, Lucca

I knew nothing of Osteria via San Giorgio, other than I had walked by it the last two years several times on my daily and nightly walks around town. A “fancy” patio with lights and color, the interior is much more seasoned and typical rustic Italian.The crowd during my visit was 100% Italian, with a large family party celebrating a birthday. It gives me some comfort to know that the place is frequented by locals.

To start, raw artichoke salad. The salad was spot on for flavor, texture and depth. Raw artichoke sliced on a mandolin and hit with a good punch of Parmigiano, olive oil, salt, lemon, some herbs and pepper. Simple and wonderful. Loved the dish and one of the best of the trip, even up against Manzo and Scacco Matto.

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Pappardelle with venison, but it wasn't the venison that made the dish, it was a combination of pine nuts and raisins as garnish that added texture and less sweetness than you'd think. The raisins were plump, but not over-sweet or hard nuggets; they added acid and character, rather than detracted. The venison was stewed first and that cooking liquid was used in the dish.

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Antica Drogheria Pizzeria, Lucca

Antica Drogheria Pizzeria sees everything from students to families. It has a smart and inexpensive local lunch as well as a take away counter if you're looking for something quick. I sat down to eat the smart lunch.

Polenta cake with truffle. As billed, with a strong residual truffle flavor, more like a truffle salsa as the truffles were preserved in some way. Polenta has a good sautéed texture to the outside. Simple appetizer to make and serve for a party.

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Beef cheek, with potato. Delicious cut, not overcooked. Had to be a bay leaf base sauce, plenty of that flavor in the meat. Dark brown sauce, simple and delicious preparation.

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Pappardelle with a wild boar meat sauce. Thick noodles with good chew, I would have preferred a slightly less watery sauce and allowed the noodles to release a little starch, but the overall profile was good.

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Wine was red, local, a hint stinky, and easy to drink and cheap. Have no clue what it was. What did we learn from this wine? Clean your barrels.

Osteria Baralla, Lucca

Osteria Baralla is THE restaurant that is probably a huge tourist spot during the summer, due to its proximity to the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, its large space, and air conditioning. It's big, has a larger menu and a staff that speaks English. Our server didn’t even offer the normal Italian pleasantries in Italian, just jumped right into English.

Breseola of water buffalo over arugula. Perfect start to things. Simple construction, albeit elegant for a plate of cured meat and greens. Garnish your own salad is the way of things in many Italian restaurants, the server offering olive oil and balsamic, along with salt and pepper. Salt and pepper were offered in preground shakers, rather than fresh cracked or course grain salt, like many other places.

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Tordolli in meat sauce was a good representation of what many Lucchese restaurants claim as "the best in town". Most restaurants here have this dish, a stuffed pasta with a meat sauce. The issue here was too much residual pasta water on the final plate. I'm looking for a red sauce without water in the final product. A quick toss in the sauce pan should eliminate any water as the pasta will release starch and thicken the resulting meat sauce. Otherwise, a good plate of pasta.

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Tripe in red sauce. No nonsense, tender and without excuses. I'm eating stomach lining in red sauce and it was good, not the best I've had, but not rank amateur either. Wine was of the local variety without much consequence.

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Gelato, Gelato, Gelato

Who doesn't like gelato?! I love it, but it's not easy to find high quality gelato in Italy during the winter time. Most of the places that are open, are not good. I’m highlighting three places with a high quality gelato during my recent trip

Gelateria la Crema Matta, Lucca

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Matta just opened when I returned to Lucca in February. Went back two days in a row for fiore di latte/chocolate combo, then a triple of hazelnut/pistachio/crema. Nice density and creaminess on par with the Ferrara gelato. The other gelato location open in Lucca during the winter is Grom, which isn’t much of a gelato to write home about.

Rizzati Gelato, Ferrara

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Outstanding density. No air, no ice crystals. They have a portable commercial mixer on premises and scoop the gelato directly out of the mixer. I saw the process at Rizzati and the machine and ingredients were the same I used when I made gelato in Florence. I had almond gelato and it was some of the best I've had.

Venchi Gelato, Bologna

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Venchi is near the Mercado di Mezzo in Bologna. Pistachio, which is not my normal selection was a winner. The color is actually what attracted me; it was not neon green like so many gelato places, it was slightly brown or olive tinted, which is what happens when you grind whole pistachio. Great scoop.

Much of the inferior gelato I had this trip was light and airy, not dense and rich like the ones I highlighted above. Are the inferior gelato places whipping the gelato to fast? Are they cutting some corner? Who knows. Many of the inferior places are chain stores or getting the gelato from some commissary, rather than making it onsite.