Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Eating out in the Jewish Quarter of Venice

Grilled scampi or langoustines at Ristorante Al Faro in Venice, Italy.

The first Jewish ghetto was set up in Venice, Italy, in 1516. Today, most of the Jews have moved out, only to be replaced in the past 10 years by Orthodox from the United States, but you can still visit old synagogues and dine on some specialties of the Italian Jews.

I drove to Venice from Milan on Sept. 13, parked in a garage and took the first of many vaporetti (small passenger ferries) to Lido di Venezia, an island beach resort on the Adriatic Sea, where I stayed at the Viktoria Palace Hotel. 

For the next three days, I took ferries, walked and crossed many canal bridges to explore Venice and the Jewish Quarter, including three old synagogues, the first I've seen on the top floors of buildings.

One highlight was a big lunch of Jewish specialties in the courtyard of  Le-Balthazar, a kosher restaurant and caterer in the new part of the quarter.

The fixed-price, 20-euro menu started off heavy, with an appetizer of moist potato kugel, followed by vegetable couscous with raisins and pine nuts. 

My entree was a fish fillet in a mildly spicy sauce of fresh tomatoes, served with sauteed spinach. 

Honey cake was included, but I was able to substitute a small cup of espresso. The meal cost about $25.60 at $1 equals 78 euro cents. 

Le-Balthazar, Campo Ghetto Nuovo, Venice, Italy.

This restaurant is on a square with a memorial to a relatively small number of Jews who were deported to concentration camps during World War II. 

There were several metal reliefs showing scenes from the round-up, and some of the victims' names and ages were carved into wooden planks: Vittorio Moise Gentilli, 50; Eugenia Franco Pitteri, 62; Ida Morza, 72; and Alice Coen, 71.

Ristorante Al Faro (The Lighthouse) wasn't kosher, but I had a bountiful lunch of scampi (pictured above), followed by a large Mediterranean or Greek salad -- more than enough food to share with another person.

The grilled scampi were served on a bed of chopped arugula with wedges of lemon (18 euros). 

The salad was 8.50 euros, water was 3 euros and bread was 1.80 euros, for a total of 31.30 euros or about $40. 

Ristorante Al Faro, Campo del Ghetto Vecchio 1181, Venice, Italy; +39-041-716871.

My first meal in the quarter was at a table outside Ai Quattro Rusteghi, which is on the ground floor of one of the synagogue buildings. 

Here, I had thin pasta in a fragrant pesto sauce, fish and salad, with a glass of wine, water and bread, for 22.50 euros or about $29. 

Ai Quattro Rusthegi, Campo Ghetto Nuovo, Venice, Italy; +39-041-715160.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

We have Lodi, they have Lodi

We have E-ZPass, and the Italians have Telepass, plus unmanned booths where you can pay your highway toll with a credit card.

We have Lodi, N.J., and they have Lodi, Italy, north of Milan. They have really low rail fares, but pricey tolls on the autostrada, and filling the tank of the Alfa Romeo 159 turbo-diesel sedan I drove would cost more than $100.  

But they have full- and self-service, and if you pump your own fuel, you save money on each liter. And their tractor-trailer drivers are sweethearts, compared with ours.

Exxon is still called Esso there, and many Esso stations have On The Run convenience stores, as we do here. Each service area along a highway seems to have a service station run by a different oil company, as opposed to the uniformity on our toll roads.

I paid 1.24.9 euros to 1.30.9 euros per liter for diesel or 4.75 euros to  4.97 euros per gallon (3.8 liters equal 1 gallon). That's $6.08 to  $6.37 per gallon (at $1 equals 78 euro cents).

Yet, Italy seems to have an inordinate number of gas- and diesel-guzzling Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and Land Rover SUVs being driven at insane highway speeds and tailgating slower drivers, despite a speed limit of 130 kilometers an hour (78 mph).

We have mostly junk food at service areas and they have good and bad food at service areas, but their highway Autogrill restaurants charge high prices, especially for such regional products as ham, cheese, rice, chocolate and wine sold in adjacent stores. 

If you stop for an espresso (1 euro), you have to walk through the entire store to reach an exit. Usually, you pay the cashier first, then give the receipt to the espresso-machine jockey to get your coffee.

On Sept. 13, I stopped at an Autogrill on the A-1 autostrada to eat three cheese sandwiches I made from my hotel's free breakfast buffet, and stared incredulously at lighted signs above the grill that offered a meal consisting of two slices of pizza, french fries and a large soft drink for about $15.

A couple at the next table ordered a big lunch, including a small cup of fruit for $5.50, a Sorrento salad for $7 and a chicken entree for $15.25 (at $1 equals 78 euro cents). They left their receipt behind. 

The prices in the duty-free food store at Milan's Malpensa airport are even higher -- more than $10 for a pound of Ferrarini dried pasta from Bologna.

I bought an Italian leather bag for my wife at the airport, and got an immediate credit on my charge card for the tax I paid. Now that I am home, I wonder whether I could have gotten credit for all the tax I paid on restaurant meals.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Simply Vietnamese in Tenafly

Fresh New Zealand green mussels in glass tankImage via Wikipedia

On Saturday night, we got a refresher course in the wonderful pho soup and other dishes from the kitchen of K.T. Tran by visiting her new restaurant, Simply Vietnamese, in Tenafly.

The restaurant, a former pizzeria, opened one week before and has been greeted enthusiastically by residents of Tenafly, said Joe The Waiter, who followed Tran from Saigon R, the Englewood restaurant she closed this summer. 

Simply Vietnamese is a welcome addition to Tenafly, which isn't much of a restaurant town despite all of its wealthy residents. For example, I can't imagine how Mr. Wok, a mediocre Chinese restaurant, has survived all these years.

We shared two appetizers, miniature spring rolls ($5), served with lettuce for wrapping and fish sauce for dipping; and broiled New Zealand mussels (photo) in a wasabi-ginger sauce ($8.50).

Each of us ordered a bowl of pho -- garnishing the anise-flavored broth with herbs, bean sprouts, hoisin sauce and hot peppers. My son chose soup with spicy jerk beef, I had tofu and vegetables and my wife ordered shrimp ($12 and $14 each).

When my bowl was set down before me, I breathed deeply to capture that distinctive anise flavor. There's nothing else like it in the world of Asian soup noodles.

Joe The Waiter said Tran was going to raise prices after holding the line for three years in Englewood, and she has done so in Tenafly. 

Why did she move? She had only six tables in Englewood and the parking was impossible, the chef-owner said. In the window of the Tenafly restaurant, look for the neon "Saigon" from the old place, which she opened in 2001.

Tran also is the chef/owner of Mo' Pho on Main Street in Fort Lee. 

Simply Vietnamese, 1 Highwood Plaza, Tenafly;
201-568-7770. BYO. Free street parking.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dining out in Milan, Italy

I enjoyed three seafood dinners during my stay in Milan, the first at a restaurant called Noblesse Oblige, above left. 

I was told Italians eat dinner as late as 10. I saw them gathered at cafes in the early evenings, enjoying wine or another drink and a snack. It was convivial, but I was traveling by myself and couldn't hold out.

Noblesse Oblige was recommended by an employee at my hotel in Piazza Lima, and I walked over. When I arrived shortly before 7, I was told I had to wait 10 to 15 minutes until the restaurant opened. When I was shown inside, I was the only diner and had to wait some more for a waiter to come on duty, bring me the menu and take my order.

This was my first dinner in Italy and one of the most expensive -- two courses cost more than $45 at an exchange rate of $1 for 78 euro cents. There was no price-fixed tourist menu, and I paid extra for mineral water and bread.

I chose from a menu of specials headed "Return from the market." I ordered "surf fish" with porcini mushrooms and roast potatoes (25 euros), followed by a simple mixed salad (5.50 euros). I was surprised that the "surf fish" was, in fact, fresh swordfish, which I rarely order. (Noblesse Oblige, Via Gaffurio, 1, Milan, Italy; 02-669-2773.)

I did much better the next two nights, where I had dinner at Ristorante La Buca, another seafood place, this one a few blocks from the massive Central Station, the city's major railroad hub.

The first night, I was offered an 18-euro menu that included water, wine and bread. As at all restaurants in Italy, service (the tip) was included, but I left another 2.50 euros for the waitress.

I started with a creamy risotto and porcini mushrooms, which were in season. Each kernel of rice was firm but yielding, unlike any risotto I've had. My entree was a grilled salmon steak served with salad, which I dressed myself with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar brought to my table. It was a terrific dinner for about $26.

I went back the next night to order a plate of spaghetti with seafood I saw another patron demolish the night before, but not the big bowl of ice cream he ended his meal with. The mixed seafood was pristine and the fresh tomato sauce coated every strand of pasta without being in the least bit soupy.

I started the meal with selections from a buffet of seafood and vegetable appetizers. The pasta was 10 euros, the appetizers were 8 euros, so I spent about $25 for this satisfying and delicious dinner. La Buca also has a fixed-price vegetarian menu and special menus for several days of the week. (Ristorante La Buca, Via Napo Torriani, 28, Milan, Italy; 02-669-3774.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Food shopping in Italy and North Jersey

I had a chance to shop at an Italian supermarket and browse in a local butcher shop-deli, and compare them to my favorite food stores in North Jersey.

I was told the Billa supermarket on Lido di Venezia that I visited was part of a chain owned by Austrians, who once ruled Venice. (Lido is a beach resort on the Adriatic Sea, and one of the islands that make up Venice.)

This Billa market wasn't as big as a ShopRite, but all the promotions and sales going on gave the impression it is the low-price leader in Italy, just as ShopRite makes that claim here. But Billa is behind some ShopRites when it comes to providing antibiotic-free poultry and meat, and preservative-free cold cuts. I didn't see any fish.

I also couldn't find any organic milk, and in fact, no item I saw was labeled organic. That surprised me, because the Slow Food movement began in Italy and agriturismo is well-developed, with organic farms offering overnight stays and meals of naturally raised food.

At the checkout counter, one man was buying a dozen liters of Italian extra-virgin olive oil, which were on sale for about $4 each. The price of the large, plastic bottle of mineral water I had was cut in half, to 22 euro cents ($1 was worth 70 euro cents).

As I do in a ShopRite or other supermarkets here, I  had to make sure the item near a price or sale sign was, in fact, the item described on the sign. And the checkout counters moved as slowly there as they do here. If you want a plastic bag, Billa charges 6 euro cents for one.

A few days later, I visited Varese and walked through a crowded butcher shop. Chickens were being sold whole with some of the feathers still in place, and that seemed intentional rather than the result of a poor cleaning job.

In Gallarate, outside a cheese shop, I saw a vending machine selling plastic and glass bottles and unpasturized milk (latte crudo). The price was 1 euro per liter (3.8 liters make a gallon).

Back home, I went to Whole Foods Market in Paramus on Tuesday, and found large, whole whiting for $4.99 a pound. The store was having a one-day sale on wild-caught coho salmon for a low price of $7.99 a pound.

At H Mart in Little Ferry the next day, I bought fresh spinach and baby bok choy, and watched the fishmongers set up the counter, which usually has about 20 selections of whole and filleted fish on ice, labeled with country of origin and whether it is farmed or wild-caught. I also picked up prepared Korean food: stewed tofu, stewed Alaskan pollack and japchae or noodles.

At Jerry's in Englewood on Thursday, I limited myself  to Italian wine at $4.99 and $5.99 a bottle.

Although my exposure to shopping in Italy was limited, North Jersey food stores appear to be both bigger and better.

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(Photo: The window of a butcher shop in the city of Monza, Italy.)
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Thursday, September 23, 2010

How I lost weight in Italy

Fish display at restaurant, Milan, Italy.JPGImage by gruntzooki via Flickr

Today, for the first time since I returned from Italy on Monday, I weighed myself and was surprised to see I had shed four to five pounds on my trip Sept. 8-20. 

I was surprised, but also pleased that I had followed the advice of my trainer at the gym to cut down on bread, pizza and other carbohydrates. 

In the past, I've always gained weight. In Greece, I blamed the retsina wine and incredibly fatty yogurt. In New Orleans, I blamed just about everything in one of the great food cities of the world.

I ate well in Italy -- fresh fish and seafood, seasonal vegetables, a salad with almost every meal, pasta, lasagna, risotto, sparkling mineral water and wine -- but I didn't do that three times a day.

In fact, I tried to eat only two meals a day and relied on granola and soy bars, nuts and espresso to tide me over. I never had dessert. If I ate a big lunch, I'd skip dinner. Or I'd have a big breakfast and a big dinner.

Sometimes, I would tell my server I didn't want bread, and ate the bread sticks I found on every table or settled for one or two slices of the seven or eight in the basket. Bread sticks are "grissini" in Italian -- as in Grissini, the expensive Italian restaurant in Englewood Cliffs.

I ate pizza only once, on my last full day in Italy. The vegetarian pie was an oval, about half the size of a small pizza here in New Jersey, and had more vegetables than cheese on top of the soft, chewy dough, which was scorched by the coal oven. 

Pizza is brought to the table unsliced -- you use your knife and fork to make pieces as big or as small as you like, and in whatever shape you like.

I not only ate well, but I was full when I left the table, even of I had only two courses from a fixed-price tourist menu.

I also walked a great deal. From my first stop in Milan, I took a train north to the city of Monza and then a free shuttle bus to the autodromo -- the track where the Formula One race was being staged. I did that three days in a row, and on two of those days, I had to walk more than a mile each way to the race course.

The walking never stopped. I drove to Venice on Monday, Sept. 13; parked in a garage and for four days, relied mostly on ferries and my own feet to get around.

(Photo: Fish display at a Milan restaurant.)
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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lunch on a farm in Italy

Eating out in Italy is both leisurely and expensive, but it pays dividends in the freshest seafood and seasonal vegetables. Even if you're avoiding poultry and meat as I am, you'll still find a warm welcome and plenty of choices on menus.

This past Sunday, my last full day in Italy, I took a train from Gallarate, a bustling commercial center where I was staying, to Arona, a town on Lake Maggiore, in the lake country north of Milan. A five-minute ferry ride to the other side of the lake deposited me in Angera, where I began the long walk up to a hilltop fortress with a doll museum and gardens.

As I walked and walked and walked on this warm, sunny day, the town's name, Angera, reminded me of the word angina.

When I saw a small farm, I stopped to photograph the view and a couple of ponies. A dozen sheep were nearby. I began walking again and saw a sign that said "Agriturismo," and realized the farm took overnight guests or at least served lunch.

It was 11:45 in the morning, but if I waited until 12:30, I would be seated for lunch, a young woman in the restaurant said. I walked around, photographing chickens, grape vines, and an old oxen yoke.

The woman directed me to a table on the terrace, and soon the place was full, including a second level. She rattled off what was available -- antipasti, a starch course and entrees of fish and meat. I thought it was a set meal for a set price, but as it turned out, I was ordering a la carte and could have skipped the tagliatelle I ordered (photo).

In Italy, portion size varies with the restaurant. I often ordered three courses, fearing there would be too little food with two dishes. But sometimes, portions were big enough to share.

It was a wonderful meal, among the best I had. There were a dozen appetizers "della casa," only two of which were meat. I went back for seconds.

I enjoyed grilled eggplant, vegetable fritters, a plain omelet, fresh goat cheese, roasted red peppers; small, sweet onions; polenta with tomato sauce and anchovies, and then I enjoyed them again.

Risotto, gnocchi and pasta were offered, but I chose the tagliatelle with zucchini and zucchini flowers. An elderly server brought me an oval platter with enough pasta for two, asked me if I wanted grated cheese and then forgot to bring me any. The noodles, which could have been hotter, were dressed in cream and butter, which I never eat, yet I polished them off, and tried not to feel too guilty.

My entree were oven-baked salmon trout fillets from the lake I had just crossed, roasted potatoes and a sauteed green that resembled a cross between escarole and celery. I washed down my meal with a quarter-liter of wine and sparkling mineral water. Espresso was included, but wine, water and bread were extra.

The lunch took an hour and a half, and the Italians around me happily chatted away between courses. My bill came to 28 euros or $40 (the U.S. dollar was worth 78 cents when I left on Sept. 8, but  fell to 70 cents a few days before I flew home on  Sept. 20). 

Societa Agricola La Rocca, Via Rocca Castello, 1, 
Angera (Varese), Italy; 0331-930338.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I'm off to eat Italy

Mele Golden - Eataly #4Image by Montanaro Maurizio™ via Flickr

Chef Mario Batali and his partners have opened another Manhattan emporium of Italian food they call Eataly, but I'm going them one better with a trip to Milan and Venice.

I know the food will be fabulous in the north of Italy, but I've already had a great summer filled with delicious, wild-caught seafood and farm-fresh fruits and vegetables right here in North Jersey.

I plan to take notes and regale you with descriptions of my meals, and I'll try to drop into food stores to see what Italians are buying to prepare at home. I'll be back in under two weeks. 

Italy is where the Slow Food movement began, and the first Eataly opened there as a showcase for the many antidotes to fast food -- a combination market and cafes.
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Sunday, September 5, 2010

At Taverna Mykonos, we were flooded with memories of Greece

Sunset on Santorini, Greece.
Image via Wikipedia

The magical isle of Santorini, where we stayed in one of the cozy cave houses.

Editor's note: Looking at the menu in August 2017, when I re-edited this post, shows significant price increases, including the stifado, which is now $26.95 compared to $18.95. 


Dinner at Taverna Mykonos in Elmwood Park brought back warm memories of meals I enjoyed during a visit to Greece in the early 1990s -- extra-virgin olive oil, a profusion of fresh lemons, aromatic oregano, glasses brimming with ouzo and fish harvested with the help of dynamite.

This upscale taverna on busy Broadway has been open about five weeks, and shares a building with a nail salon. It seats 80 in booths and at tables. The modern setting includes photos of the islands and beautiful tiles used as framed art, as well as wall- and floor-coverings. A bar is at the rear, and there are wine cases here and there.

Panteleakis family

The restaurant serves traditional fare. It was opened by the Panteleakis family, which has operated Oceanos, a fish house, formerly Peter's Whale, in neighboring Fair Lawn for many years.

We started with hummus and Greek pita ($6.95) and horyatiki ($9.95), a salad of skin-on cucumbers, ripe tomatoes, sweet pepper, onion, olives and a block of feta cheese. 

The salad apparently was made ahead and refrigerated, robbing big, beautiful tomato sections of much of their flavor. 

The dressing, however, was delicious sopped up with the warm pita. In view of all the lemon used in Greek food, the creamy hummus sure could have used some.

Two entrees

We ordered only two entrees --stifado, a bowl of  slow-cooked pork chunks, onion and mashed potatoes ($18.95); and barbounia, a special of red mullet, a fish I haven't seen on New Jersey menus before ($19.95). 

We received five, small pan-seared whole fish in a simple lemon sauce and oven roasted potatoes. A wonderful, tasty, little fish. My son raved about the tenderness of the pork.

I also ordered a dish of horta ($4.95) -- sauteed dandelion with olive oil and lemon juice added at the table. This is a delicious green I enjoyed often in Greece.

Free dessert

We were walk-ins and were surprised when the waiter brought us three desserts on the house, including creamy rice pudding topped with coconut, and two gooey confections with whipped sweet cream, set on a plate covered in chocolate, cinnamon and powdered sugar. I guess all customers receive them during the restaurant's grand opening.

I tried a couple of spoonfuls of rice pudding, but it was too cold to really enjoy, and my wife and son were too full to finish the other desserts.

Prices, service

Prices are higher than at the Greek To Me chain, and portions range from skimpy (hummus) to good (the red mullet special). Service was excellent, but the dining room was only a quarter full when we left. 

Our meal, with two soft drinks (free refills) and a glass of retsina wine ($7), came to $76.75 with tax but not tip. I'll go back for the quality of the food.

After we were seated, we were brought a big loaf of indifferent white-and-dark bread  and some extra-virgin olive oil for dipping. I tried the doughy loaf, and immediately asked for toasted Greek pita, the only bread that should be served there.

We saw valet parkers when we arrived around 5 on Saturday evening, but I believe you can park in a small lot behind the restaurant reachable from Broadway. I parked on a side street.

Fishing with dynamite

Oh, about fishing with dynamite. On my early '90s visit to Athens, the Pelopennese and some of the islands, including Crete, Santorini and Rhodes, fish in restaurants was very expensive, and the explanation I saw in guide books was that Greek fishermen used dynamite to kill their catch, leading to overfishing. 


Taverna Mykonos, 238 Broadway (Route 4), Elmwood Park; 201-703-9200.

Website: Welcome

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Vietnamese restaurant in Englewood closes

Chef K.T. Tran in the kitchen of Simply Vietnamese, Tenafly, in 2012.

Chef K.T. Tran has closed Saigon R on Palisade Avenue in Englewood and will reopen it in mid-September as Simply Vietnamese in Tenafly.

The plate-glass window of Saigon R was covered with newspaper when I stopped there with my son and wife on Thursday night, and a sign on the door said an Asian fusion restaurant would be opening in that space.

It was called Saigon Republic when it first opened in 2001.

Tran also is the chef/owner of Mo' Pho on Main Street in Fort Lee.

Simply Vietnamese, 1 Highwood Plaza., Tenafly; 201-568-7770.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

'Why does my broccoli rabe turn brown?'

farmer's market find: broccoli rabeImage by urbanfoodie33 via Flickr

I was looking over the produce selection at DePiero's Farm in Montvale on Wednesday afternoon when I saw a woman picking up a bunch of broccoli rabe (photo) -- the dark green, bitter, Italian variety many people prefer over the standard vegetable. 

I tapped her on the shoulder, then asked, "Why does my broccoli rabe turn brown?"  She answered immediately, "You cooked it too long." Ah-ha.

She described how she prepares it: A few minutes in boiling water, where it turns bright green, "to remove some of the bitterness." Then, she adds it to hot olive oil with chopped garlic and a little red pepper flakes, cooking it for well under 10 minutes, until it is tender but not limp.

Over at the eggplants bin, another woman complains her husband is "a pain in the neck," because he insists she prepare it Italian-style, with an egg wash and breading. I say, "Do you fry it? The eggplant soaks up so much oil. I grill slices on the stove with a little olive oil and salt."

"I don't fry it. I bake it." Voila.

I stopped at DiPiero's for a cup of coffee with a friend after we left a meeting in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. The hilltop farm store is next to U.S. headquarters for Mercedes-Benz, where I once picked up new models to evaluate for my automobile road test column in The Record. 

I made sure I picked up four ears of bicolor Jersey corn for dinner, to accompany fried, wild-caught flounder from Costco in Hackensack and wilted, fresh spinach in garlic and oil from H Mart in Little Ferry. I steamed the corn, and it was so sweet, we ate it as is. 

I also found a large, stainless-steel pot with two steamer inserts at the Korean supermarket for $29.99. It will allow me to steam vegetables and frozen, wild-caught sockeye salmon in sake, soy sauce, sesame oil and lemon at the same time or prepare forty Korean dumplings at once.

DePiero's Farm, 300 W. Grand Ave., Montvale; 201-391-4576.
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