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 usually (if not always) wrong. 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 since being tipped off about Pepolino, I had harbored the hope that I could finally glide down to TriBeCa for a hearty Tuscan fare, sans the jet lag, swollen calves and missing luggage; and perhaps even one day, I had 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 - April 2, 2011
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 the epitome of hale and hearty. 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” food - it would have been described once upon a time, but there is seriously much worse fate than being a peasant if this is what they get to eat.
Carpaccio del bosco - Warm beef carpaccio with porcini and parmegiano
This was simply the best beef carpaccio I have ever eaten - 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 merry way down the esophagus. The olive oil, poured over rather than drizzled, released its green note and permeated every pole of my nose; then it went on to mellow out the saltiness of the parmegiano – a little too generously sprinkled – somewhat.
Farrotto – Blue cheese and sausage farro+risotto
The blue cheese was so tame that even someone who abhorred the smell would not have noticed. The slices of thick fennel would have provided a nice sweetness against a sharp blue, if the flavor had been there, instead it 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. A head of wild boar - dressed uniformly across Italy as a Santa Claus, albeit often with black-rimmed glasses – adorns every single butcher during the Christmas season. For two weeks during this festive season, I had papardelle al cinghiale (and truffle ravioli) every night and, of course, I came away with a couple of ropes of the delicious cinghiale sausages in my luggage (if not internally around my stomach). Talk about La Dolce Vita.
Thus eagerly awaited, the stewed wild boar turned out to be a big letdown: it could have been any specimen of the porcine family because it simply did not taste like a wild boar, the dense red wine reduction notwithstanding. It was competently stewed to a good texture – tender but not disintegrating – but that in itself was Cooking 101.
Strawberry Panna Cotta
Excited by the quality of the first ricotta cheese cake (which was the reason for the second visit; to be discussed below), I decided to order another dessert in my enthusiasm. In hindsight, I should have just left with my cup 90% full, rather than having it knocked over, but that is exactly what a hindsight is for. 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 strawberry sauce was just a little too sweet and a little too much.
Follow-up Examination - June 1, 2011
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
Not really "baby" anymore, since they surely looked big enough to navigate under the sea solo and eschew parental supervision. Despite its size, it was tenderly grilled from the head to toe (or something akin to it) with a slight char. The sweet and succulent flesh - ah, baby after all - was slightly under-seasoned, if eaten by it self; however, the sprinkle of salt on the fettunta - Italian garlic bread - underneath completed the saltiness of the dish. Saltiness of the fettunta was forgivable and even understandable, but not the fact that it was one-third blackened to carbon, whose bitterness even the excessive amount of olive oil could not cover up.
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 with more chew and body, it would have started disintegrating in the colander, instead of congealing on my plate after mere six minutes of arrival. Then, I looked to the side and realized that the knife was placed by the waiter not by a mistake: I needed it to cut the glued sheets. So, it is malice aforethought. The Pappardelle al Pepolino was so crucially under-salted both in the pasta and the sauce; and in this case, 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 sloppily, negating the care and time the pasta maker had put in. The addition of haricot verts and potatoes along with the pasta was is authentic, only the pesto lacked the authentic zeal of Genoa. 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. My sworn loyalty to Celeste wavered in the face of Pepolino’s absolute perfection. Dense, creamy and yet gently airy, the cheese cake possessed an easy elegance, which seemed to glide above any others in the realm of ricotta cheese cake. Not only the cheese filling, but 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. Although I can imagine some may prefer it this way - the myth of freshly baked - the consistency of the cake, due to the lack of the sitting time, was looser with stronger taste of eggs (or it could be simply that the golden recipe had not been strictly adhered to), and the crust was still as delicious, but again, warm and thus too crumbly.
It is time to book another flight to Italy.
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