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Turin: Historic Cafes, Chocolate & Aperitivo

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If ever reasons were needed to explain why Travel Gourmet has fallen in love with the city of Turin (apart from it being in Italy, of course!), there are three excellent ones: it’s home to some of the most wonderful historic cafés you’ll find anywhere; it’s the home of chocolate (yes, even before Switzerland); and it is (arguably) the home of aperitivo.

Six of the Best Historic Cafés in Turin

Like the historic cafés of many other European cities, such as Vienna and Paris, the cafés of Turin are steeped in political, cultural and intellectual history. It is said that part of Italy’s history was written in Turin’s cafés and indeed the city was the first capital of a unified Italy in 1861. Stepping into them today is a little like stepping back in time; it seems as if nothing much has changed over the last hundred years or so. Given I’ve spent only six nights in total in the city, over two weekend breaks, I’ve managed to sample a good number of these famous cafés.

The oldest café in the city is Caffè al Bicerin, founded in 1763. I sought it out last weekend but there was a long queue so I didn’t wait. It takes its name from the famous Turinese drink, bicerin, which is a mix of espresso coffee and chocolate, topped with a layer of milk froth (sometimes whipped cream). Here, however, are six cafés I did become acquainted with, all in the centre and within easy walking distance of each other. I’m listing them by age – oldest first! Remember also that in Italy the price difference between standing up at the bar to drink a coffee and sitting down is often big – you might pay around just €1 to stand up to drink a coffee but more like €4 or €5 to sit down.

1. Stratta

Stratta was established in 1836 as a pastry and chocolate shop. You can get good coffee here but be prepared to stand at the bar – al bar – Italian style as there aren’t tables. It was one of the first cafés I passed, on walking into the beautiful Piazza San Carlo, on my first trip to Turin. I was drawn to the window full of the most glorious cakes and although I didn’t go in then, I went back another morning for coffee and pastry.

2. Baratti & Milano

Established in 1858, this too was originally a confectionary shop. It’s particularly famous for its gianduotti, a mix of chocolate and Piemontese hazelnuts. You can also buy the most amazing chocolate and hazelnut cream spread (far superior to Nutella – which also comes from the area).

Today it’s a good place to stop for an excellent coffee and delicious pastry but you can also sit down to something more substantial.

3. Caffè San Carlo

Established in 1842, this opulent and grand café sits on a corner of Piazza San Carlo. I went there on my first trip and liked it, though didn’t get back this last time. I considered eating there on the last day as they have a full menu and there are lots of tables outside on the square if the weather is good enough to eat outside.

4. Pasticceria Abrate

Established in 1866 this café, on Via Po, specialises in cakes and pastries and officially supplied pastries to the House of Savoy. I went to it for the first time on my recent trip and had a cappuccino (made with Lavazza, the local coffee) and delicious croissant. It looks small from the front but opens at the back where there are quite a few tables. I also thought that it looked a good place for aperitivo because of the gorgeous snacks in the window, but didn’t manage it this time round.

5. Caffè Torino

This café opened in 1903. Its Belle Epoque decor makes it a great setting for either coffee, lunch, dinner or just a drink. You can sit outside in the galleria and look over Piazza San Carlo or inside, where there’s also a more formal restaurant area. (For more on Caffè Torino click here.)

6. Caffè Mulafsano

I’ve been to this café, established in 1907, a couple of times – for morning coffee and had a great aperitivo there this last trip. It opened earlier in another location. It’s famous for inventing the sandwich – or least an Italian sandwich known as tramezzini. These sandwiches are made with light white bread and have their crusts cut off. You’ll often see them piled in glass-fronted counters in Italian cafes where they are popular for lunch.

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Chocolate

I’ve always associated chocolate with Switzerland but actually chocolate – as we know it – originated in Turin when in 1678 Madama Reale, queen of the Savoy State, granted the first chocolate licence to a Turinese chocolate maker. Cocoa had been brought by Spain from its colonies in South America but it remained the privilege of the rich nobility to enjoy it until Madama Reale issued the first licence. The production of chocolate took off in a big way and Turin began exporting it to Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany. It was the Swiss who came up with the idea of putting milk in it to make milk chocolate.

Chocolate was threatened when Napoleon put restrictions of the importing of cocoa. The inventive Turinese though came up with an alternative plan: they started blending chocolate with the local sweet hazelnuts to make it go further and thus gianduiotto was born. Traditionally gianduiotti are triangular shaped.

Today in Turin you’ll find all things chocolate: chocolate bars and sweets to eat, chocolate cake, the famous dessert called Bonet, which is a kind of chocolate crème caramel with crushed amaretti biscuits in it. You’ll also find the chocolate drink I mentioned above, bicerin. I tried this for the first time last weekend at Baratti & Milano.

I’d thought I might find it too sweet for my taste, but it wasn’t, it was really delicious with gorgeous gooey chocolate at the bottom to finish up with a spoon.

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Aperitivo

Aperitivo is a wonderful Italian institution, which I discovered by chance a few years ago when in Rome with a friend. We’d gone for a drink before going to a concert and I left Kate ordering while I sought out the Ladies. When I returned there were two glasses of prosecco and a plate of snacks. ‘Did you order food?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she told me, they’d just come with the drinks. Afterwards this became a nightly ritual for us, stopping somewhere for a drink and sampling little gratis snacks. You’ll find aperitivo all over Italy. Generally it occurs early evening, around 5-7pm. However, in Turin over the weekend I noticed that it seemed to happen at lunchtime too. I enjoyed one in Caffè Torino on Saturday (click here). On Sunday, in search of a snack lunch, I went to Caffè Mulafsano – well, wouldn’t you try where the sandwich was born! Then, before the sandwich came, the friendly waitress set before me olives, peanuts and a plate of the most gorgeous little snacks with my glass of wine. The snacks were wonderful. I have to say the sandwich – a simple toasted ham and cheese – was slightly disappointing in comparison!

Some say aperitivo originated in Turin in 1786, started by Antonio Benedetto Caprano who created vermouth (Turin is also home to Martini). It didn’t really take off in a big way though, and as we know it today, until the 1920s in Milan. Traditionally the snacks will come with drinks like Aperol or Campari spritzer, a Negroni cocktail. But in practice you just need to order a glass of wine or an ‘aperitif’ drink to get your aperitivo treat.

Lunch at Caffe Torino, Turin, Italy

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Caffè Torino became a favourite haunt on my first trip to Turin last September. It’s situated in Piazza San Carlo in the heart of the city. This beautiful piazza – square – was built in the early 1600s. Caffè Torino was opened in 1903. With its Belle Epoque interior it offers a glimpse of a glamorous bygone age when film stars like Ava Gardner, James Stewart and Brigitte Bardot frequented the café.

I ate lunch there twice during my recent trip – two different kinds of lunch. On Saturday, with a table booked for an evening meal at Tre Galli, I wanted just a snack lunch. At home and away, I prefer to eat something light at lunchtime and have my main meal in the evening. I headed to Caffè Torino and sat outside at one of the tables in the galleria. This is a great place to enjoy the view across the piazza and watch the world go by.

I could see people were being given little plates of snacks as happens at aperitivo time in Italy. Aperitivo is a wonderful Italian institution of offering a plate of gorgeous little snacks at what we in UK would call Happy Hour, usually between about 5-7pm. In Italy you order a drink and snacks come with it, their quality obviously depending to a large extent on the quality of the bar you are sitting in. I saw in Turin that it appeared aperitivo happened at lunchtime too. I ordered a white wine spritzer and asked the waiter if it came with snacks. It did. So I didn’t order anything else and waited.

It really was just a snack but plenty for me for a light lunch (though I did go to a gelateria for an ice cream afterwards!) and much more special than just a sandwich. My drink cost €7, which is a reasonable price and the snacks were gratis.

One of the problems with going to Turin (as many continental cities) for a Friday to Monday weekend, and which I need to remember for a future trip, is that lots of restaurants and cafés close on Sunday evening and some on Mondays too (many shops are closed on Monday morning, and most of the sights are closed on Monday). Happily, Caffè Torino is open every day from 8am until midnight. I thus decided to go there for my last meal before heading home on Monday afternoon. I didn’t want just a snack this time but more of a meal before heading to the airport so I was directed to their restaurant area once inside.

I wanted a meal but not a huge meal so decided to just have a pasta or risotto with a salad. I chose Risotto al Barolo con Fonduta.

Barolo is one of Italy’s most famous wines and comes from the Piemonte region. And fonduta is an Italian version of fondue. It really was fabulous; a gorgeous flavour. And I liked the fonduta on top. They’d put enough to add a creamy cheese flavour but not too much to overpower the risotto. The rice was cooked to perfection with that famous al dente bite to it but cooked all the way through.

My mixed salad was excellent – a nice variety of ingredients all crisply fresh. It was also quite large and I didn’t eat it all. So I finished my meal with just an espresso. It was a perfect way to end another lovely weekend in Turin.

 

 

Restaurant Review: Scannabue, Turin

Scannabue is a caffe-ristorante in the buzzy, multicultural area of San Salvario, south of the city centre. I was in that area this morning and stopped by to take a look. I liked what I saw and went in. It wasn’t open but I managed to find someone to book a table.

It’s interesting considering the meaning of a name. When abroad, I know I often tend to just take in a name without thinking about what it means. So – my Italian didn’t stretch this far and I consulted my Italian dictionary app: scanna comes from the verb scannare meaning ‘to slaughter’ and bue means ‘ox’. This seems to sum up the Turinese cuisine well for they do like their meat and meat innards.

The decor is of a sophistcated cafe-bistro kind. They are listed in the Michelin Guide and it showed. I like to have a glass of fizz when I arrive and there was a choice of prosecco or Franciacorta from Lombardy, slightly more expensive at €5.50 a glass but described by the waiter as ‘more elegant’. It came with a good basket of bread so I was able to nibble on this and sip my delicious fizz while I waited for my food.

Then came the delightful surprise of an amuse bouche – a lovely cheese panna cotta with buttery breadcrumbs on top flavoured with Parmesan.

I decided to start with a pasta dish. There is no way I can follow the Italian traditional meal of antipasti, pasta or risotto, main course and dessert. It’s either antipasto or pasta for me and I realised I’d been in Italy since Friday and hadn’t had a single pasta dish. Squid ink pasta with baby calamari, tomato confit, Pantelleria capers and taggiasche olives (€13) sounded very good.

It was wonderful. I’ve eaten some very good food this trip, but this was exceptionally good. So too was my main course of Tender veal cheek slow cooked in Barbera wine served with potato purée (€16).

They rcommended a glass of Nebbiolo wine (€8) from the Piemonte region to go with it.

There were some good desserts to choose from. I went with a Hazelnut trio of ice cream, cake and zabaione covered in chopped hazelnuts (€8). Hazelnuts are grown in the area and used in many recipes.

What a lovely dessert for my last dinner this trip. I also ordered  dessert wine (well Italian glasses of wine are quite small compared to those in London) and asked for the local Passito which I had on my first evening.

I finished with coffee. It came with a little cantuccini biscuit.

It was a fabulous meal; a great ending to my trip. I paid and then it was a gentle 15-minute walk back to my hotel.

Restaurant Review: Tre Galli, Turin

In the historic quarter of Turin, Quadrolatero Romano, near the huge market at Porta Palatina, are two sibling restaurants – Tre Gallini, a restaurant and Tre Galli, a vineria, wine bar. They have good reputations but I thought the wine bar, a more laid-back and informal place was more my thing so booked a table there for tonight.

This area of Turin has undergone a facelift in recent years but there’s still a sense of stepping out of the now gentrified centre into somewhere less salubrious, especially at night in the dark and pouring rain, with the market closed up and having to negotiate narrow deserted alleyways. The arrival though was warm and welcoming.

Furnished with old tables, chairs and stools at the bar, the decor belies the sophistication of the food and wine sold. It’s truly excellent.

Water was brought and I ordered a glass of champagne (prosecco wasn’t on offer, though a couple of Italian sparkling wines were but one was a rose which I didn’t fancy. It wasn’t summery enough for rose!). The generous basket of bread contained some wonderful grissini that were so tasty I had to restrain myself from eating too many and filling myself up before the main food arrived. The menu was very meat based as is typical in Turin and I decided to give the calf’s head a miss. However there were other good things and I chose a homemade ricotta  with seasonal vegetables to begin.

It looked amazing and tasted superb. Ricotta can be very bland but this was creamy and tasted wonderful – some of the best ricotta I’ve ever tasted.

I opted for the only fish choice as my main: Croaker fish, chickpeas cream and broccoli. It was really good. I asked if I’d need a side and there was some uncertainty so I ordered a salad.

As it happened I didn’t really need it and didn’t finish it (it was quite large). However, it was a good salad and contained some datterini tomatoes that were gloriously flavourful and the salad was almost worth having just for those.

The wine bar was quite full now and there was a good buzzy atmosphere. I hesitated over ordering dessert but finally went for it. I’m on holiday – and only here for three nights! Chocolate pie turned out to be chocolate fondant.

This is a dessert that is much abused but Tre Galli’s was excellent. Served hot, of course, the sponge slightly crisp on the edge but light and soft inside with a gorgeous gooey chocolate sauce in the middle that oozed across the plate.

I finished with espresso, paid my bill and slipped back out into the rain. It was raining so heavily I momentarily considered getting a taxi again, but decided a quarter of an hour walk after a large meal was a good idea. And Turin looks as beautiful in the night and rain as it does in the day and sun.

So I enjoyed the walk back to the hotel and managed anyway to find a route that allowed me to walk through the lovely arcades-gallerias where I could keep dry.

Restaurant Review: Dai Saletta, Turin

I arrived back in beautiful Turin yesterday and am staying at the lovely Grand Hotel Sitea again. As British Airways is still on a winter timetable I couldn’t get a flight until mid afternoon which meant arriving in Turin at 6.30pm. The taxi ride to the centre is about half an hour so I reckoned I wouldn’t reach the hotel until about 7.30. Thus a plan was needed for dinner; no wandering leisurely round trying to find somewhere. Especially since rain was forecast. A search on the internet led me to book a table at Dai Saletta, a simple trattoria serving typical Piemontese dishes. This was exactly the kind of place I wanted, what I like. And I wasn’t disappointed.

As it was raining and google maps reckoned it would take me 20 minutes to walk to the restaurant from the hotel, I discussed getting a taxi with the receptionist. He thought it was too far to walk. He was right. As I sat in the cab (€8.70) I was so pleased I hadn’t tried to walk.

The welcome as I went in was warm and friendly. I looked round and it was indeed just what I think of as a typical Italian trattoria. I ordered a prosecco and discussed the menu with the waiter. For a starter a mix of typical Piemontese antipasti was offered (€12). I asked him what it was and then said it sounded a lot. But no, the waiter said, it was just little tastes, so I went with that.

It turned out to be quite a lot but all wonderful and indeed all typical Piemontese dishes: vitello tonnato, Piemontese sweet peppers, carpaccio of veal with lemon and Parmesan, fresh cheese, Russian salad and veal tongue with green sauce. It was hard to know where to start and what last gorgeous mouthful to save until the end!

Having escaped into the cosy trattoria from the horrid weather outside, the typical Piemontese dish of Brasato al Barolo (€13) – braised beef with red wine – was very inviting, although there were other dishes I liked the look of too, especially roast veal with a hazelnut sauce. I had some seasonal vegetables with it and it was all delicious and perfect for my first evening. I had a glass of red wine too.

There was an appealing choice of desserts and I chose zabaione. When the waiter told me they served it cold, I almost changed my mind. I’m so glad I didn’t. It was wonderful; one of the best zabaione I’ve ever had. Rich, thick and creamy, served with gorgeous little homemade biscuits to dip into it. The waiter suggested a little glass of local dessert wine to go with it – Caluso Passito.

It was excellent, a lovely sweet wine but not too sweet. It’s made from Erbaluce grapes grown to the north of Turin. I’d never have thought to order it and am pleased the waiter suggested it. I finished with an espresso.

I always order espresso after an Italian evening meal but this definitely wouldn’t be a place to make the faux pas of ordering a cappuccino! (In Italy, cappuccino is only for the morning, up until about 11am.) I was surrounded by Italians in the restaurant, which was great. The only other English voices – American, I think – across the other side of the restaurant.

Dai Saletta was just the kind of place I like to eat: simple, honest food in simple traditional surroundings; friendly service and a relaxing and comfortable place to eat. It’s definitely on my list for a return visit sometime.

Restaurant Review: Rosetta, Covent Garden

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It was an Italian-themed afternoon and evening. I was meeting my friend Annette at the National Gallery to see their new major exhibition – Michelangelo & Sebastiano, which explores the friendship and later rivalry of the two artists.

Annette isn’t Italian but we did meet through the London Italian Language Meetup Group. I’d like to tell you we practised our Italian but have to confess we didn’t. We did however very much enjoy this exhibition of two famous Italian artists. Our viewing was interrupted for a time by a minor drama when an alarm went off in the gallery. Nearby security people looked baffled and we all stood for a minute or so, wondering what to do, before a loudspeaker announcement told us a fire had been detected in the gallery and it was being evacuated. We were guided out and everyone moved in an orderly fashion; there was no panic. I couldn’t help hoping though that we didn’t suddenly come face to face with fire. We didn’t. It was over half an hour before we were let back in. No one seemed to know whether or not there had been a fire.

When we emerged from the gallery at 6.00pm, we headed to the nearby Rosetta restaurant/café in William IV Street, which cuts across a corner from St Martin’s Lane to the Strand, and is thus very close to the gallery and Trafalgar Square.

Going to Rosetta had been Annette’s suggestion as she’d heard good things about it from a friend. Rosetta is more of a café-deli than a restaurant and is only open until 7.30pm, so not a place to head to for an evening meal. The decor is more café-like too; wooden floor, simple furniture but attractive and cosy.

The idea behind Rosetta is to offer Italian agri-cultural food – much of the produce comes from their farm in the Piacenza region of Italy: top quality cold meats and cheeses, organic fruit juices. Their wines come from small Italian producers and are specially chosen.

There are home-cooked hot dishes and desserts.

It’s a great place for an early evening supper either post-gallery, as we did, or pre-theatre. They actually close at 6.30 on Monday but there was no sense of hurrying us as we arrived at 6.00, nor as we passed the 6.30 mark. In fact we were in there until just gone 7 – as were a handful of others, including (good sign!) some Italians – and everything about the two guys in the café was friendly and helpful. It was so cold and blustery outside we both chose hot dishes. Annette chose a Melanzane Parmigiana and I had a vegetable lasagna.

I have to say they were served in a rather ‘rustic’ way; no carefully cut slices laid on the plates. But the important thing was the food was absolutely delicious and we enjoyed it. We both wanted a glass of red wine and the waiter was really helpful, suggesting a couple and telling us the difference. It was done in a nice way; no sommelier pomp. And the wine when it came was excellent.

We were by this time past the 6.30 ‘closing time’ but the waiter came and offered us the dessert menu – so how could we refuse. Especially since Annette had spied some gorgeous looking tiramisu on the way in. The waiter told us they were the best, so we ordered them and espressos.

  

The tiramisu was as gorgeous as it looked and the coffee very good too. We paid (£43 for the 2 of us before tip) and set off home. It had been a perfect, simple early evening supper. I’m sure I’ll be back and it’s great to now know it’s there in an area of London I visit a lot. During the day there’s a good choice of panini and soups as well as the hot dishes; or it’s a great place for morning coffee with perhaps some of their home-made cake. Every Thursday from 5.00pm they serve a traditional Italian aperitivo: a buffet of meats, cheeses, pickles, focaccia, polenta, and filled rolls, which are free – all you have to do is buy your drink, perhaps a typical Italian aperitif of Aperol or Campari spritz, Italian wine or beer. Sounds like a good plan! To find out more or book, visit their website.

Food Highlights of the Week

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It’s been a typical March week of weather that has roller-coastered from the hottest day of the year so far (17C in London) to the arrival of the last gasp of Storm Stella, which has crossed the Atlantic, to bring strong winds and rain this evening. Fortunately my week of food has been more reliable – old favourite restaurants out and old favourite recipes at home.

Saturday – Here Comes Summer

You know summer is coming when a long queue winds out of Gelateria Danieli in Richmond and along the narrow passageway of Brewer Lane, which conveniently leads out on to Richmond Green where, having bought your ice cream, you can find a bench to sit and enjoy it – and the view. The gelateria is known as one of the best in London (which actually now boasts are vast array of glorious ice cream parlours). For me it’s a regular summer treat and it was on the spur of the moment, walking through a warm and sunny Richmond last Saturday afternoon, that I decided to divert from the high street and treat myself to some gelato – dark chocolate sorbet and some frozen yoghurt with fruits of the forest.

Sunday – Barbecue & Birthday Cake

My brother Adam came over with Clara and Leo. Clara had turned 14 during the week so I made my lovely niece a birthday cake. It was the same chocolate and vanilla marble cake I’d made Freddie only a couple of weeks before but I thought some pretty rose decorations (that I bought in Waitrose – my creative skills in the kitchen don’t go as far as making flower decorations like this) would be more appropriate than the Paw Patrol ones I’d used for my 2-year-old grandson. But first we’d eaten a great barbecue of kofte and marinated chicken, all from Moro recipes, prepared by and cooked by son Jonathan. My savoury contribution was some labneh to go on the table with the meats and salads. I love making labneh because it’s fun to produce home-made cream cheese so easily and know it contains nothing more than good Greek yoghurt and a little sea salt.

I left it draining in the fridge overnight then served it simply, tipping it into a bowl and drizzling over a good amount of extra virgin olive oil, then sprinkling with za’atar. Sometimes I flavour it with spices or rolled into little balls and preserve in oil – click here for recipes.

Monday – Mushrooms & Cream

I had a little cream left over from making the chocolate ganache icing for the birthday cake and some mushrooms that needed using up. So I made a pasta sauce with them, plus some bacon from the freezer and parsley from the garden that remarkably has lasted all through the winter (click here for recipe).

Tuesday – Lost in Location

It was a rather manic day of rushing around, which included unexpectedly heading over to deliver Freddie to nursery very early as Jonathan called to say he was too ill to take him. I treated myself to one of Stefano’s croissants and some coffee in Your Bakery Whitton for breakfast before heading home. I then managed a couple of hours of work before heading into Richmond. I grabbed a quick little egg roll in Paul (almost like an old-fashioned bridge roll, filled with egg mayonnaise) then dashed into Richmond station to meet friend Elsa. She’d crossed London from Hackney in the morning for an appointment and suggested meeting on the train back into central London, knowing I’m currently doing a basic art history course at the National Gallery on Tuesday afternoons. We stopped for coffee and muffin at Waterloo station then went our separate ways. By the time I eventually got home I couldn’t summon the energy to head out again to book group, even though I love it, and took some aubergine & tomato sauce from the freezer to go with pasta and a glass of red wine!

Wednesday – Joe’s and Covent Garden

I headed into Covent Garden in the evening to meet my good friend Annie at our favourite and most frequented restaurant – Joe Allen. After about 20 years of going there it’s a bit like an alternative home and the welcome matches the feeling. We always meet in time for their early evening set menu that at £14.95 for 2 courses is one of the best and best value around. But that’s not why we’re there, though it’s a bonus – we’re there because we love Joe Allen.

Thursday – Raiding the Freezer Again

It was another busy – though very lovely – day of Freddie in the morning and a work meeting in the afternoon. Come evening I took some frozen kofte from my freezer and made a spicy tomato sauce with tinned tomatoes, sliced onion and red peppers and chilli. I browned the thawed kofte in oil then added them to the sauce and let it all simmer for about 15 minutes while I cooked some rice. Perfect and easy supper! Whenever I make kofte I make extra to freeze – either for the barbecue on another day, or to griddle, or to go into a sauce like this.

Friday – Neopolitan Heaven

I suggested to my lovely friend Jane that we go to Masaniello for lunch. She’d read about it on my blog and was talking about the holidays she used to have south of Naples. Well Naples might be too far for lunch but Masaniello has to be the next best thing. As it was lunchtime and neither of us wanted anything too heavy, I suggested we ordered a couple of dishes and a salad to share – small plate style. I thought Jane couldn’t go away without having tried Livio’s wonderful Napoli pizza, so that was a definite choice. We had a Margherita, a gorgeous Melanzane Parmigiana and a Rocket & Parmesan salad. What a great end to the week.

My Week in Food

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It’s quite fun to do this occasional series and look back on my week in food. Or at least it is for this food blogger who has to confess she spends a lot of time thinking about where to eat or what to cook. It’s been another week of family favourites and also going back to a Thai restaurant I hadn’t been to for a time. Here’s how it went:

Saturday – Sunny Moussaka

Last Saturday was actually quite sunny but of a cool English springtime kind; the sun I was thinking of was in beautiful Greece, blazing from a cloudless azure blue sky, and sitting by the edge of the Ionian Sea with a plate of moussaka. Moussaka is one of my family’s favourite dishes and I’ve been using Claudia Roden’s recipe in her A Book of Middle Eastern Food, first published way back in 1968 (click here for recipe), for many years. When I make a big one for the family, I’ve recently taken to making a couple of small, individual ones at the same time, layering it all up in a small dish, and then freezing. It’s such a treat to be able to lift one out of the freezer on another day, let it defrost and then bake for the easiest of suppers.

Sunday – Lunch at Corto Deli

Jonathan was away on the ski slopes and so Lyndsey, Freddie and I headed off for a treat of our own – lunch at Corto Deli. I’ve written about it many times; it’s one of our very favourite places, from morning coffee where you’ll be served a very authentic Italian cappuccino (no US or Australian influences here); lunchtime salads, focaccia or ciabatta sandwiches or perhaps one of Romina and Marco’s home-cooked hot dishes like lasagna or melanzane parmigiana. We ordered Freddie a child’s portion of pasta with tomato sauce, which he loves, while Lyndsey and I chose to share one of the big antipasti plates, all the meats and cheeses cut freshly straight onto the large wooden board. There were bruschette, little treats of bresaola wrapped round fresh asparagus, and a basket of breads. We finished with home-made cake (they make the most gorgeous cakes) and coffee.

Monday – Aubergine & Tomato Pasta Sauce

I make this sauce quite often, usually freezing a portion for another day. I sometimes serve it with polenta (click here) but on Monday ate it with pasta. I made it early in the day because on Mondays I pick Freddie up from nursery in the afternoon and I decided to be organised and have something ready to warm up for supper when I got home.

Tuesday – A Surprise Visit

I was due to visit my daughter Nicola in Worcestershire this weekend but because the installation of their new kitchen was behind schedule, and would be only at the ripped out stage with not much chance of cooking going on, Nicola suggested coming down to London to visit me instead. It was a nice surprise to have her for Tuesday evening and we decided to walk down Twickenham high street to Masaniello in Church Street for a meal. Another favourite haunt, regular readers will remember I go there a lot! We shared some starters and then both chose paccheri (short, fat pasta tubes) with a seafood sauce for our main dish. It was gorgeous!

Wednesday – Thai Day

When I meet up with my friend Tina it’s usually in Guildford. She lives to the south of the town and I come from the north. It’s not exactly halfway but it’s the best place to meet, a lovely town and plenty of places to eat. She introduced me to Rumwong a few years back and we hadn’t been there for a time. I like Thai food but rarely cook it myself so it’s a treat to go to a good Thai restaurant.

Thursday – An Italian Day

When I look after Freddie on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, we always go to Your Bakery Whitton (less than 5 minutes from their house) for our morning elevenses … although generally because of my very early start it’s nearer 9! Foodwise, the bakery is one of the best things in my life. Stefano did his pastry chef training in Switzerland and so while there’s an Italian base, there’s a touch of French coming in too, especially with his pastries. The croissants are the best I know anywhere and are certainly more French than Italian; my flat white of course has an Antipodean background and is very good indeed. Freddie and I shared the croissant and he had a babyccino. Then it was time for the park! I buy my bread at the bakery, the cakes are glorious and at weekends there are invariably some extra treats to tempt you.

Still in Italian mode I made a mushroom risotto for my supper. I always use chestnut mushrooms for the nutty flavour; sometimes I actually add real chestnuts (click here). What I often like to do is add some dried mushrooms, soaking them for a while (at least 20 minutes) before cooking, and using the soaking liquid as a stock. I love cooking risottos. They’re the ultimate sophisticated comfort food but also I find it so relaxing to gently stir, adding stock slowly and doing it all properly. It’s a great way to wind down at the end of the day.

Friday – Bolognese Night

Well after my post earlier in the week about Mary Berry and the great Bolognese debate, I had to eat some Bolognese myself! Actually, when home on a Friday night, either alone or with company, it’s almost always Bolognese on the menu (click here). It’s a nostalgic hang-over from when I always made Bolognese on Fridays once my kids had hit their teens and were going out on a Friday evening. They could eat some early before they went out, leaving their parents to eat at a more sociable and less hurried hour later on; the ragù only had to be reheated. I had a portion of my ragù in the freezer last Friday night, so I only had to defrost and heat, but I bought some tagliatelle in the morning so I could eat it in Italian style with their preferred pasta!

The Great ‘Bolognese’ Debate

Oh dear, Mary Berry. Since Mary offered her own version of Bolognese sauce a couple of nights ago in the second episode of her new BBC series, Mary Berry Everyday, it’s been less of a storm and more of a volcano erupting on Twitter, TV and in national newspapers with fiery, incensed remarks flying in her direction. I was a bit taken aback by Mary’s recipe myself (I even discussed it with my daughter Nicola while eating in a favourite local Italian restaurant last night), but in Mary’s defence – and even Giorgio Locatelli has risen to defend her with the same argument – there is no authentic recipe for a Bolognese sauce. Her mistake was to call it ‘Bolognese’ rather than ‘ragù’, or even, simply, a meat-based pasta sauce. What she did get right – again as Giorgio points out – is not serving it with spaghetti. She chose pappardelle, though the more popular Italian choice is tagliatelle. These are both ribbons of pasta and that’s the correct kind of pasta for a thick meat sauce so it can cling to the pasta.

I was less concerned about Mary adding white wine (which is common anyway) instead of red, than to see her put it in so late, after the tomatoes and passata, whereas I would say you have to add it after the meat has browned and allow it to be pretty much absorbed (for a full, rich flavour) before adding anything else. Another thing she got wrong – if she was claiming any Italian heritage to her dish – was just spooning it on top of her pasta. I have to confess that my own Bolognese ragù post from 2011, just a couple of months after starting the blog, shows me doing the same – hence photo above! (For which I apologise to all Italian friends, but especially Antonio who suggested I write about this.) Now, I would never plonk any kind of sauce on top of pasta but follow the Italian way of adding the sauce to the cooked pasta in a pan and stirring it through well before serving. But I’ve learned a lot in the last 6 years of food blogging! I also know that the Italians would put in much less sauce that we Brits traditionally do – it should be more pasta with some sauce rather than sauce with some pasta. This makes sense when you remember that simple traditional dishes like this were created as ways of making a little meat go a long way to feed a big family for little money.

Antonio Carluccio made a big fuss last year about the Brits ruining Spaghetti Bolognese. But then if the dish doesn’t exist as such, how can we ruin it! His grievance was the adding of herbs, but then other people get upset about which colour wine – red or white – is used or the addition of tomatoes (the northern Bolognese wouldn’t add tomato but further south they probably would). Ragù, a meat-based sauce, varies according to the part of Italy you live in or are eating in. Italian food is very regional and the Italians tend to be very passionate about their own regional version, for example, see my post on different kinds of focaccia (click here) or even pizza (click here). I wouldn’t claim my own version of Ragù Bolognese is authentic at all (click here), although I did do a fair amount of research when writing about it. What I do claim is, like Mary, I think of it as an ‘everyday dish’, something I cook frequently and think of as a favourite family meal. It’s turned out to be one of my 2-year-old grandson’s favourite things so whenever I make it, I freeze little portions for him. But I’d be rather wary of serving it to an Italian!

Revisiting Italian Favourites

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Life has been a bit full-on of late and so I’ve not had much time to write on the blog. Then a lingering cold led me to cancel a couple of visits to new restaurants that it would have been good to write about. The last week or so though has seen me returning to three Italian favourites; places I go to a lot and love. And each visit has its own little story that I thought it would be fun to share.

A Cena, East Twickenham

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I written about A Cena many times; it’s an old favourite going back many years. But I haven’t written about it in a while; in fact, I haven’t been there a lot in a while. Now that’s nothing to do with the quality of the food and service and nor is it anything to do with the fact that original owner Tim Healy has moved into central London (to another old favourite, Joe Allen, and other restaurants). A Cena was bought – a couple of years ago or so – by the manager Justine Kemsley and the team are the same, including their wonderful head chef Nicola and waiter Bart, all of whom have been there for years. So really there’s no obvious difference.

I used to go to their regional dinners regularly with Jonathan and Lyndsey in pre-Freddie days but the arrival of my gorgeous grandson has meant we don’t go out so much. And there are other factors. But just before Christmas I suggested going there to some friends and we had a lovely meal, then about 10 days ago I suggested to a local friend we meet there. A bonus on Mondays to Wednesdays is that for locals with a Richmond Card you can get a 20% discount. The Richmond Card is a card given to locals by the council which gives parking discounts and some shops and restaurants offer discounts too. Anyway, Liz and I decided it would be good to go to A Cena. We both like it. It has a nice touch of sophistication, the food is great – and we can hear ourselves talk!

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Homemade focaccia is always brought immediately. It’s really good and nice to nibble on with an aperitif while deciding what to choose from the menu. To start, Liz had buffalo mozzarella served with hot lentils, creme fraiche and basil oil, which was very good – she gave me a taste!

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I chose Fritelle – radicchio, Parmesan and lemon fritters. They were wonderful.

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Liz chose fish for her main course – some pan-fried sea bass with a chicory salad and olive oil mash.

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It’s an upside down photo really as I took it from my seat! But she said it was delicious. I could have eaten anything off the menu but opted for pan roasted salt marsh lamb rump served with capers, mint and roasted cauliflower.

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It was fabulous. The lamb was gorgeous, cooked to perfection: deep pink and wonderfully tender. And I loved the taste of the roasted cauliflower that came with it.

We were too full for dessert but had really enjoyed our meal; lingered for while with coffee for me and peppermint tea for Liz. I’ll definitely not be waiting too long before going back.

 

Masaniello and a Birthday Celebration

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It was Freddie’s 2nd birthday last week. As his mum and dad were at work during the day, I suggested picking him up from nursery a little early and then we could all meet at Masaniello in Twickenham for an early evening birthday meal. My son Jonathan likes to say that the service at Masaniello is beyond excellent and they certainly proved this was true last week. I turned up with Freddie and explained the birthday and that Freddie’s mum and dad would soon be with us. The waiter Stefan offered to show Freddie the fish tank towards the back of the restaurant and let him feed the fish. This was such a delight to Freddie he kept wanting to go back to the fish – until the olives arrives; he loves olives. A child seat was brought, a plastic cup for his water. The waiter brought a pad and pen and drew a rabbit for Freddie. We discussed the menu. They don’t have a special children’s menu but can do things like pasta and pizza in a smaller version for little people. Now the first time we took Freddie to Masaniello his dad chose a plate of pasta with tomato sauce for him – our ‘go-to’ choice in restaurants for Freddie. Freddie was perfectly happy with his pasta – until he saw our pizzas! So, this time we ordered him a pizza. We all imagined a child-sized pizza would be … oh I don’t know … I suppose about 16-20cm in diameter. But no, really this pizza was HUGE (it cost £4.95).

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The birthday boy was very excited by this and tucked in immediately. But even his enthusiastic appetite couldn’t manage to eat it all; there was about half left. But the waiter again stepped in kindly, offering to package it up to take home. We ordered desserts, chocolate fondant for Jonathan and Lyndsey, a fig tart with walnut ice cream for me. We thought we could all share with Freddie. Freddie who was starting to get a little restless was bribed into staying in his seat by the promise of cake. When my dessert came they’d put a candle in it and it was put in front of Freddie who surprised himself by actually blowing it out. Then came the sharing … a small plate was brought for him. Luckily for me the chocolate fondant was a bigger hit with the birthday boy than my fig tart. The Italians are always so great with kids; Masaniello is always great; but it all came together to make a memorable and lovely birthday for the two year old.

 

Orsini Ristorante, South Kensington

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I’ve been going to Orsini for years, since friend Rona introduced me to it when we met at the Victoria & Albert Museum ages ago and she told me there was a lovely little Italian restaurant opposite where we could have lunch. I’ve been back many times, sometimes on my own, sometimes with family or friends; my daughter loves it and has been a number of times too. Yesterday I was meeting my friend Lucia at the French Institute in South Kensington at 6.30 to see two Italian films. Slightly surprisingly the French Institute has an Italian Film Festival at this time of the year and we’ve met there for it in previous years. Lucia was coming straight from work with no time to eat; the second film would finish late. I’d been snacking all through a busy day and decided food, real food, a proper meal, an Italian meal!, would be a necessity before sitting through three and a half hours of Italian film. And Orsini was in the perfect location. It was quiet of course as it was early and I immediately noticed it had had a makeover – new chairs and tables, freshly painted. It looked different but not too different; it looked good. And the food and service was as good as ever. I ordered a glass of prosecco to sip at while I waited for my order of a risotto to come. It was a special of the day with radicchio and Gorgonzola – a lovely combination of one of my favourite Italian cheeses which is rich and creamy with the slightly bitter red radicchio leaf. It was gorgeous.

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Afterwards I had an espresso, talked a little to manager Francesco, and then slowly made my way back towards the Cine Lumiere. With a bit of time to spare I diverted into Snowflake, an excellent gelateria that I’ve been to before, right by South Kensington station. Well, I was being Italian … prosecco … risotto … espresso … and how could I miss out the gelato!!

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Then it was on to the films and meeting my friend. And over the space of about 10 days I’d managed to revisit some of my favourite Italian haunts.