Tales of a wandering lesbian

Lo Chef Consiglia

I never made a reservation for dinner while I was in Venice.  I’d just pick out one I liked based on a guidebook or a friend’s recommendation and head there to check out the menu.  If I liked it, I’d check for availability.  Tonight I was going to try for Casin dei Nobili, a place I’d passed virtually every day as I set out from the hotel to explore the city.  After the short walk, I examined the menu.  There was really nothing on the regular menu in the way of vegetarian fare, but at least one of the dishes listed on the specials sheet (entitled “Lo Chef Consiglia” – “the chef recommends”) had promise.

This place was clearly family run.  The grandmother behind the counter was a good indicator.  They had a table for me, but I’d have 90 minutes until they needed it for the next reservation.  Okay.  That should be doable.  Three courses, 30 minutes each.  The only thing that worried me was the phrase “slow food” placed proudly in the menu’s Italian description of the restaurant.

My table was in the corner, practically WITH a couple that appeared to be honeymooning.  The waiter pulled the tables apart about 4 inches to give us each some privacy.  I mean really I didn’t want these people listening in on my conversations with myself.  I put my little dictionary in my lap, and checked the time.  The race was on.

After the initial “hi, how’s it going, I’m sorry I don’t speak Italian well, and I’m a vegetarian” my waitress and I got underway.  Yes, there was something that I could eat.  Yes, the item on the chef’s recommendations (Girella di pasta in “cocot” fatta in casa con ricotta e spinacetti) was vegetarian – so long as I ate cheese.  I assumed the ricotta in the description was the cheese she was referring to.  I was blissfully wrong.

Giro pasta

The moat of bubbling cream and cheese was what she was referring to.  I don’t really know what this was, other than pasta, cheese, spinach and more cheese.  It was brilliant.  The thin maccheroni noodles had been laid flat, slathered with spinach and ricotta, then rolled, shaped and cut into sushi-style pieces, before being baked or broiled, or something, in the creamy cheesy mixture.  I was just a little disappointed that there was no parmegian on the table.

Next came the mixed vegetable plate that I’ve become accustomed to ordering as a secondi.  And tonight, I added potato croquettes.

The plate of vegetables was beautiful.  I’d been eyeing up my neighbor’s plate of peas, so I headed for these first, plunging my eager fork.  And stopping.  Pancetta.  Darn.  Ham is not a vegetable, people.  Even if it’s part of a vegetable dish.  Not a vegetable.  So, I pulled out the little bits, and thought of all my friends who would be yelling at me for leaving the salty, bacony pieces on the plate.

Verdura w ham

I ate every last piece of the vegetable plate, and wiped up the remaining oil and balsamic with the croquettes (fried, mashed potato sticks).

Potato croquettes

I checked the clock.  I still had 45 minutes to order and eat dessert, and to pay.  It was doable if we all worked together.    I looked around for my waitress.  She assured me she’d come back with a dessert menu and then talked with the couple next to me, telling them about the desserts in Italian.  I will know that I have mastered the language when I don’t have to have someone bring me a menu so that I can work it out with my little dictionary.

The menu took some time to arrive, but I was glad to have it.  The menu had some additional items that the waitress hadn’t mentioned.  A cherry Parfle “with crunchy bits”.  Interesting.  I was expecting a parfait, you know, some kind of a layered thing with cereal or something.  I got something even more interesting.


I’m pretty sure this was some kind of ice cream thing.  It had a lovely frozen, pink, creamy inside, the drizzle of winter cherry, and was rolled in – PEANUTS!  I hadn’t fully appreciated how much I like peanuts until that moment.  Peanuts, which are used in just about everything in the US, aren’t used that often in Italian cooking.  I’m used to eating my should-be-famous cookies twice a day, every day, but I haven’t had a peanut in 5 weeks.  The peanut crust on this dessert made it seem exotic, compared to the torta, tiramisu, and pumpkin pudding I’d been eating.  And that made me laugh.

(Please note:  directly after writing this, I went to have coffee at a restaurant above the studio.  There were peanuts on the bar.  Evidently, that’s common for bars, just like the US.  Maybe peanuts aren’t so common in cooking, but they’re common as bar food.)

I scarfed this thing down.  I think I had it eaten before my coffee arrived, which was a good thing, given the time constraints.  Two mouthfuls of espresso later, and I was ready for the check.  The check.  This can be a challenge.  Unlike US restaurants, that usually want to push you out the door and bring you a check before you’ve even ordered dessert, pretty much all the restaurants I’ve gone to in Italy will let you sit forever and never bring a check until you ask for it.

So I asked for it.  There were 10 minutes left in my allotted time, and I was getting nervous.  Five minutes later I was downright worried.  So I gathered up my dictionary, coat and bag and headed to the front to pay.  A man who looked like the husband of the grandmother at the counter calculated my bill and I left with about two minutes to spare.  The 90 minute rush added a little stress to my dinner that I didn’t especially enjoy, but the plates of excellent food made up for it.  Another 2 minutes, and I was back at the lantern, wondering how the city would change my plans for tomorrow.

Locanda lamp

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December 3, 2009   1 Comment


When my family gets together, we spend our days largely eating, and talking about what we’re going to eat at the next meal. I have no idea if this is a uniquely Italian trait, or just something that follows me.

Today was a planning day. We don’t have dinner plans, so we talked at lunch about dinner. We’ll likely make “jacket potatoes” with a bag of potatoes that Sandra’s mom bought from the local fields.

Yesterday was an eating day. Sandra and Deb are putting together a very cool exhibition in the region (I’ll post as soon as info is online), and every few days they have meetings to talk about the project with potential contributors, sponsors, collaborators. Last night was a dinner meeting in Castelnuovo, just up the road in Garfagnana.

The restaurant/shop had exactly two tables: one long one that seated 10 of us (and a couple others who wandered by or transferred from the other table when their party broke up) and a second one that could probably fit 6 if it needed to. We were first to arrive, and seated ourselves in front of three great slabs of wood placed as chargers. The first of Deb and Sandra’s friends arrived, and I was introduced half in Italian, half in English, as the English-speaking visitor. We all smiled at each other, traded what pleasantries we knew in each other’s languages, and then I sat back to observe and soak up as much Italian as possible. As others arrived, the routine repeated itself.


Being the only one at the table who doesn’t speak the language is one thing. I, apparently, seem the deep, exotic observer, snapping pictures, and not the mildly thoughtful, painfully self-aware outsider that I sometimes feel. Bonus. Adding to that the fact that I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t drink alcohol, and doesn’t usually drink coffee or eat sugar, and I’m like someone from Mars. Especially in a shop that has legs of dried meats hanging in the corner.

Fortunately, my hostesses are very kind, very thoughtful women, and they made sure that the shop owner knew I am vegetarian. I’d been looking forward to the type of meal that we were about to have – one where the owner of the shop just starts bringing food, plate after plate, specialty after specialty. And, this shop specializes in local dishes. Sacks of local potatoes and walnuts sat in heaps around the shop, and bottles of wine, honey and all other manner of things lined the walls.

PotatoesWall of honeyWall of spices

The shop owner, a man who clearly loved his work, and looked remarkably like the painting of Baccus on his wine cask, came over to speak with me in broken English about what, exactly, I do and don’t eat. Once we established ground rules (no fish, but yes cheese), he set to preparing dinner. First came focaccia. No, not like the kind in the states. Much, much better. Then a plate of farro (spelt) which is a regional staple.


This was prepared with oregano, olive oil, cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. It was really, really good. The meat eaters also had some kind of fish salad.

Second came smoked trout, lovingly carved at the table and passed from friend to friend.

Carving troutTrout

Every dish, even those I wasn’t eating were proudly explained to me, with questions of whether I was familiar with the ingredients; whether we have trout where I come from.

Next came beans on squares of delicious, toasted bread. The olive oil that was drizzled over the beans was intense and beautifully colored. As seems to happen at meals, the surplus food ended up next to the visitor. That meant not only extra beans for me, but access to the plate with gorgeous, green olive oil – perfect for more focaccia.


Then, two fantastic “cakes,” one with rice and one with spelt. Lovely and eggy and savory. Again these ended up at my end of the table for far too long. (Side note: last time I was here, I realized on the last day, that the fabulous pastries I had been eating in the mornings were made with rice. Rice is used in a ton of dishes. After eating the rice pastries, I feel like it’s really underutilized in the states.)

Farro and rice cakes

The owner then came by to make sure I was alright. He let me know that he would be preparing vegetables and then “pop beans” to make sure that I would get enough to eat – you know, because I was really feeling underfed at this point. Evidently my athletic frame is cause for great concern to most of the people who feed me. “Anchora? Anchora!” is a familiar phrase at meal time. “More? More!” Pop beans are something like pop corn Nobody else at the table knew what the owner was talking about, but we were all game to try something new.

The vegetables were beautiful. They included artichokes, which are known to be some of the best in the world, as well as fennel (which is something I never know what to do with when it comes in the harvest box. Turns out it is fabulous sliced, with a little olive oil and salt).


And then it was on to the pop beans. These were excellent. I don’t really know what he did to make them, but they were definitely “popped” open and contained a good amount of olive oil. They were a hit.

Pop Beans

After pop beans came a great wood slab of salami, sliced from various hunks of meat that still resembled the animals from which they came. And cheese. Everyone else, transfixed by the meats, passed on the cheese. I tried to decline, but Deb and Sandra know that I love cheese, and the owner wasn’t going to let me out of his shop without sampling his fabulous cheeses. Here’s a side-by-side. I really think I got the better deal.


The cheeses included a mozzarella coated in local herbs, a misto (cow and sheep milk together), and a couple of other sheep’s milk cheeses: one with balsamic reduction and one with something that resembled marmalade. These went perfectly with the several different kinds of bread on the table – including pane coto nel forno a legna.

Along the way, the table had several carafes of red wine poured from big bottles, and small amounts of an amber dessert wine.

As for dessert, we had an assortment of fantastic things. A chocolate cheesecake, some kind of pound cake that might have made me a bit tipsy, and the best thing: a nochi torta. Walnut torte. The walnuts were so delicate and the torte so fresh, I was totally absorbed.


From the other end of the table, where he was now sitting and smoking with the ladies, the owner caught my eye and asked whether I enjoyed the desserts. “Bella, i noci.” “Anchora, more!” he declared, over my objections, and the plate was passed down to my end again.

While we ate and drank, Sandra explained her project. Given over to the confidence that only comes with being surrounded by supportive friends, she smiled, joked, and commanded great attention. It’s amazing what you can understand even when you can’t comprehend. Sandra’s passion and vision were palpable – as were the enthusiasm and admiration in the room.

People continued to chatter, excited about the project, as the owner walked around the table, humming “here comes the bride” and handing out little, paper-wrapped bon-bons that he pulled from his apron pocket. He reminded me of an Italian Hagrid.


Coated in delicate dark chocolate, these little gems were an absolutely perfect end to areally great night of food. We had been eating for over two hours. We didn’t just sit and snack, we ate – for two hours. When we got home it was almost midnight – and time to plan for breakfast.

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November 6, 2009   4 Comments