I’m really loving Orso Restaurant’s regional dinners. We’ve been to Piemonte and Tuscany and last night we were transported to Venice. As regular readers will know, Venice (aside from my hometown of London) is my favourite place and I go there about once a year. And, of course, the food of Venice is some of my favourite too: gorgeous, creamy Baccalà Mantecato, Fegato alla Veneziana served with polenta. The Veneto, lying in the Po Valley, is also the home of risotto – another favourite dish – often made in Venice with fish or ‘primavera’ – spring vegetables (as I had at Locanda Cipriani in April). And then there’s Tiramisu, that divine dessert of layered sponge fingers with coffee, brandy or Marsala and mascarpone cheese. Yesterday, after a day at the Hampton Court Flower Show in sweltering sun, the promise of Orso’s cool basement, some of my favourite food from my favourite city, plus the company of two of my best friends – Annie and Jerry – was a welcome delight. Then, added to the excitement, the evening was being hosted by the restaurateur supremo Russell Norman, known for his love and knowledge of Venice and his Polpo restaurants. His programme, The Restaurant Man, on BBC2 TV last year, in which he helped new restaurateurs build their business, showed not just his business savvy but a sensitive and thoughtful approach to truly helping people.
Russell brought our Bellinis and talked to us for a bit. It was nice that he was being truly a host and to feel so welcomed. That’s one of the nice things about these regional dinners. Not only is it a chance to get to know how the food of the regions of Italy differ but there is a supper club atmosphere. The restaurant is full of people eating the same menu, with the same enthusiasm for Italian food, and everyone having a good time. The Bellinis were wonderful, made with white peaches, and a welcome refreshing beginning to the meal. LIttle snacks – stuzzichini – came too. The Carta di Musica – music sheets – were thin, crisp flatbreads flavoured with garlic and rosemary.
They were delicious; wonderfully moreish. They’re similar to Sardinian carasau and their name is a reference to the size of the sheets of bread and their unusual thinness. And, of course, Venice being the home of Vivaldi and a city of music made them even more appropriate for a Venetian meal.
Then one of my great favourites, baccalà mantecato served on toasted bread. Salted cod – a speciality in the Veneto region – is soaked then beaten to a thick creamy consistency. I eat it at least once a day when in Venice! This was excellent and these two gorgeous stuzzichini had been a brilliant way to start the meal. Charles of Ellis of Richmond Wines had also come to our table to talk about the wines they’d chosen and how they matched the dishes. This input into the wines of the region is another brilliant thing about the regional dinners and last night we were given a little booklet with wine information too. Next our Primi Piatti. Jerry had chosen Bigoli al Ragu d’Anatra – bigoli pasta with duck ragu.
He said it was delicious and it was paired with Appassimento (2013), a rich raisiny combination of Merlot, Primitivo and Negroamaro. Meanwhile, Annie and I chose Sarde in Saor – a really classic Venetian dish of sweet and sour sardines.
I’ve eaten this many times in Venice and I particularly liked Orso’s version, the sardines dusted in flour and shallow fried, the onions with raisins and pine nuts adding a subtle sweet-sour flavour. Too often the sweet or sour notes are overwhelming but here the balance was perfect. This was matched with Soave Pieropan (2013), a beautifully fresh but fragrant wine. Come the Secondi – main course – again Annie and I went for the same thing: Fegato alls Veneziana – calf’s liver with onions, balsamic vinegar served with buttered cavolo nero and soft polenta.
This liver dish is another must-have when I go to Venice. I love it; it is one of my favourite dishes ever. Which makes choosing it slightly risky. Though of course I knew there wasn’t much risk involved at Orso! It can of course be ruined by overcooking the liver; getting the acidic balance of the onion sauce wrong. But this was perfection: gorgeous tender pieces of liver in a lovely sauce; nicely seasoned polenta and tasty cavolo nero. It was matched with a Ripasso della Valpolicella (2013), which is a wonderful wine with a great depth of flavour. Jerry had chosen Guance di Merluzzo, Lenticchie and Salsa Verde for his main – sautéed cod cheeks with lentils and salsa verde.
This looked good (unfortunately my photo is a bit out of focus) and Jerry said it tasted very good too. It was matched with a Pinot Bianco from Friuli-Venezia but Jerry opted to stay with red.
There were two desserts to choose from as well. On a note of pure indulgence I opted for Tiramisu. Well how could I not!
Although again, like the Fegato, the choice comes with risk for there are many bad tiramisus around and I’m not very tolerant of them! I make a pretty mean one myself, courtesy of an Antonio Carluccio recipe. Orso’s was brilliant; quite simply one of the best I’ve had. It came with Recioto della Valpolicella, a superb dessert wine. Annie and Jerry went for the more refreshing option of Sgroppino – prosecco, lemon sorbet and limoncello.
I was given a taste and it was delicious but I’m very glad I had the Tiramisu because it was so good. We finished with coffees. It had been an excellent evening. Good fun, wonderful food, great atmosphere. And what a great way to ‘travel’ around Italy!
The menu was priced at £39.50, including wines.
For more information about Orso and the regional dinners visit their website at: www.orsorestaurant.co.uk