Friday, October 31, 2008

Mangia! Mangia! Mangia!

Backdated post due to wonky internet access in Italy...

I've been proud of my successful weight loss for a little while now, but a day in Milan has pretty much blown my waistline back to its former proportions. I don't think I've eaten this much on a trip since the infamous month of eating Japan, and that was a lot.

The thing is, that's who I am and it's what I do. Other people travel to see landmarks and museums and great works of art - which I certainly love. But my preference, first and foremost, is to soak up the culture. And the best way to do it - if you ask me - is via food and drink.

Sure, I've been called the F-word before (uh, that'd be "foodie"), but I'm not a high-falutin' Michelin guide-totin' snob. In fact, while hunting for the elusive internet café this morning, we started the day with a coffee at McDonald's. Yes, in the land of cafés at every corner, we went to McDonald's. Really, it was in hopes of finding some Wi-Fi. In Japan, it was the only reliable place to get online, so I was hoping that might be the case here. No luck. And it was too early for lunch, so there'd be no trying out the Italian version of the menu. And for the record, their espresso was not bad at all.

If you're not too disgusted and have continued reading, you can learn about our next bit of masochism. While doing a little shopping (I finally found the ideal Bialetti espresso maker!) and heading back to our hotel to unload, Alannah and I passed by Caballo Loco which is, you guessed it, a Mexican restaurant!

Now, getting decent Mexican food in Europe is like finding a needle in a haystack - a very dull, rusty needle in a flavorless haystack. But after seeing that their menu included tacos with "prosciutto e formaggio," we knew we had to throw down. We also knew we weren't going to get anything close to Mexican food as a couple of taqueria-veteran Californians would know it. So we were pleasantly surprised by the colorful but not over-the-top atmosphere, complete with cheesedick Latin pop music... not to mention the good tortilla chips and *gasp* hot salsa that didn't taste like ketchup! So the tacos did disappoint - I had the aforementioned prosciutto and cheese and Alannah the chili con carne, both just wrapped in a soft tortilla and nuked with a slice of Kraft cheese on top. On the other hand, the shaved fennel salad on the side (WTF!?) went surprisingly well with guacamole and sour cream.

Having dredged the low end, we headed back toward the Duomo in the center of town and located Peck, the gourmet food hall associated with the Michelin-starred Cracco-Peck restaurant. Having not yet found a way to digest food and shit out money, we decided to just drool over the amazing collection of cheeses, cured meats, luxury goods, and high-end prepared foods to go. I was hoping to find (and try!) a traditional Milanese fritto misto that includes little bits like lamb's lung and whatnot, but no such luck. I'd have to gross out Alannah some other time. We wanted to eat every bit of every thing on display, from the gigantic French-style escargot to the saffron-infused peccorino cheese to the hideously overpriced vegetable flans. I felt completely out of my spending league, but wanted to order one of each. Unfortunately, Peck doesn't offer free samples, so we went upstairs to the tea room to splurge on a "light snack."

The two of us had Peck's signature cocktail - a bitter and tart blend of Campari, aranciata, various liquors, and some awesome little tomatillo-like tropical fruit we keep encountering at European markets. Some day I'll figure it out what it is. The cocktail miraculously paired magnificently with our cheese plate, loaded up with seven types of cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses. The hands down favorite: The very peccorino alla zafferana we'd seen earlier. Ensnared in their trap, it wasn't a difficult decision to go buy a kilo of the ridiculously opulent cheese on the way out.

I further proved my inability to control my gustatory spending by ordering a 14€ kopi luwak coffee to cap off our afternoon tea. Considering they sell the stuff for 457€/kg, I figured having one demi-tasse of the stuff would make me not feel like a complete pauper walking out of the place. "I just bought your saffron cheese AND your coffee whose beans have been shit out by Indonesian pandas," I could say as they sneered at my well-worn jeans, snowboarding jacket, and hiking shoes. But they were actually very nice, and I wasn't followed by security even once.

I rang up my mom, and it turned out she and my aunts were just a few minutes away, so we met up in front of the Duomo before heading back to the hotel. We reviewed what we'd done thus far, and I told my mom about having just had some of the most amazing cheese ever... Now, she loves cheese - probably more than she does myself and my sister. So I knew I could make her happy by promising her a bit of the prize that she loves more than her own flesh and blood. "We bought a kilo of the stuff! We'll totally have some when we get back to Paris!" I think it may have been one of the few moments I've seen my mom pleased with my poorly-formed spending habits.

Back at the hotel, Alannah and I tried to figure where we'd have dinner. It was just the two of us tonight, so I was hoping we might be able to have a romantic evening, providing we find the right venue. I pulled out my trusty maitre d's knife (no European should leave home without it!) and pulled open a bottle of Barolo I'd picked up earlier at the market.


"Damn, that uncorked like champagne. I hope it's still good," I said as I poured a couple of glasses of the stuff. "Is it just me or is it fizzy?"

Alannah tasted it. "It says frizzante on the bottle. It's supposed to be sparkling."

Now, I've heard of sparkling reds before, but had never bothered to try, figuring it'd be like red wine flavored soda. And for once in my life, I can say I was right. Of course, swinging from low end to high, gravity had to pull us back, and we drank it up.

If red wine soda was an unexpectedly oddball way of starting off our romantic evening together, it was a harbinger of things to come. We hopped on the dodgy Metro line 2 to go to the opposite end of Milan, the canal district near Porto Genova. Because nothing says "romantic" like graffiti-infested subways and dried out canals. But we had a destination in mind: Le Vigne restaurant, a highly-recommended practitioner of Slow Food with an old school Italian atmosphere. What's not to like?

The answer to that question: My navigational skills. Despite having studied the map and pinpointing the location and committing it to memory before leaving, we got to the canals and found nothing. I went to the very roundabout whose shape and orientation I had memorized to the point that I could recognize it through the driving rain - and still, nothing. As the rain grew heavier, we searched the area, and searched, and searched. The more futile our search seemed to become, the more rain-soaked our shoes most certainly became. My once waterproof snowboarding jacket was nearly saturated (and with it the passport in my chest pocket, which now resembles an overcooked blue sheet of lasagne). Things grew even worse when we threw in the towel, headed back to the Metro station and then realized - wait - this isn't the way to the Metro! I started to get the feeling of dread that when traveling can mean a ruined trip. I sensed Alannah becoming frustrated. I knew I'd just fucked up our night, bigtime.

And as I decided to admit that not only would we never find the restaurant, but that we might have to throw the Metro into that same category of despair, we walked right by it. Le Vigne. Nowhere near the point I'd memorized on the map. The warm room and warm hostess welcomed our sorry, rain-drenched asses, and we decided to abandon our earlier plan to just order light starters and a glass of wine - to save money and our waistlines.

In the classic but none too chi-chi atmosphere (hell, there was a big screen in the back room with Sky Tele-Giornale on showing the latest Obama/McCain numbers) we laid waste to a platter of fiore di zucca stuffed with some of the most fantastic riccota cheese to grace the face of the earth. We used our bread - manners be damned - to sop up the freshest pesto this side of Genova. We dove into zucchini wrapped with angler fish wrapped with pancetta sitting in a grape reduction. Some fantastic Milanese rice cake. And, deciding to throw reason out the window, a giant ribeye steak - delightfully bloody and not-so-delightfully priced al'otte (by the 100g). Oh well, at least the local wine we were guzzling was a ridiculous bargain.

Earlier in the day, Alannah and I were a little bummed that we were spending Halloween not doing anything Halloweeny. Sure, there were some youth running around in ghostface "Scream" masks and tons of places had pumpkin decor in their windows, but we lamented not going to any costume parties.

As we ambled toward the Metro (only 50m away, it turned out) after our post-dinner espressos, we forgot about Halloween. Hell, we were in Italy and just ate an insanely amazing dinner. And - as it turns out - a romantic one, at that.

Anyway, it's about midnight and we have to catch a morning train to Liguria. Time for bed!

No, really, to sleep. I've eaten too much today to think about anything else.

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