Monday, May 02, 2005

...but I really heart al di la

Oh, bread! and butter! Oh, floury crust and holey crumb! Bread is a very, very good thing, and all you Atkins types who recoil from a baguette as if from a snake, I spank you! Spank, spank, spank!

Broke the Passover bread-fast at Park Slope's al di la vino, the wine bar around the corner from Al di la. (Since Al di la doesn't take reservations, cooling your heels in the wine bar is inevitable, no matter what time you arrive.) Jane and I were waiting for a table with a couple glasses of wine and a thick bruschetta, deeply grilled (ok, actually burnt) soaked in fantastic olive oil and topped with a heap of new-green slippery fava beans, shreds of mint and curls of pecorino cheese. Mmmmm.

By the time we'd licked up every black oil-sopped crumb, we were summoned to the main restaurant, and we went back outside to claim our seats. In one of the those small-world moments that make living in a city of some 10 million people actually bearable, the other 6 places at the long communal table were filled with a posse of charming Texans that I'd met at a dinner party at Julie P.'s a few months ago. Hi Lisa (and baby-to-be)! Hi Conrad! Hi Becca! They recommended the lemon risotto (not on the menu, but available with a little special pleading), the beet ravioli, the pear chocolate cake, the gianduotto--basically, everything. And they were right--as far as I can tell, you can't go wrong here.

Al di la's menu is seasonal but deeply rooted in real, mostly Northern Italian cooking. A lot of the dishes were things E. and I saw all the time when we lived and traveled around Bologna--tortelli di zucca (winter squash ravioli) in sage butter; tagliatelle in ragu (fresh egg-based pasta--never spaghetti!--in a nubbly meat sauce, the quintessential Bolognese dish); Venetian-style calves' liver; braised rabbit with polenta. The risotto with ramps, pancetta and peas sounded like a perfect Italian-Hudson Valley mix, but we opted instead for a gutsy, very Roman puntarelle salad with kick-ass anchovy dressing; fat little bundles of "malfatti" (light-as-air ricotta gnocchi green with chard); beefy, chewy, delicious hanger steak with arugula salad; and a simple plate of spaghetti alla vongole (spaghetti with clams in the shell) that was second only to one I had in a wine bar in Venice. Despite the busyness of the restaurant, we never felt rushed, and the mismatched, living-room decor--huge Venetian chandelier, wooden tables, flickering candles--is a welcome change from the usual generic-minimalist look of so many new restaurants.

For dessert, a crumbly, warm slice of delicate cake dotted with chunks of pear and melting pools of bittersweet chocolate. We could have sat there all night.

1 comment:

sugarkill said...

Another cherished memory from Enrico's in San Francisco—their bruschetta. So yummy, and so very naughty! Especially for the Atkins crowd…

Heat up some olive oil in either a sauté pan or a cast-iron skillet; which ever is handier (but something with some metal to it; you don't want to use too cheap of a pan). You ideally want the oil not too far below smoking hot, so pay attention!

While that's happening, take a loaf of good bread, say, sourdough batard, and slice off a few three-quarter inch slices (one for each object of your desire!). I usually slice them diagonally across the loaf, for more room for toppings.

When your oil is hot enough (a small drop of water will spatter noisily) but not too hot (don't want to see any smoke!), lay down as many slices of bread as will fit in the bottom of the pan. You want the oil to soak evenly into the bread, so you need a fair amount of oil (this is not a low-cal seduction technique! and don't be afraid to add extra oil if the tide gets too low).

Fry the bread until it's a nice, even golden-brown color. You can let it get pretty dark, because you want the bread to be extra-crispy. Once it's fried to perfection (see, even the French will occasionally fry things!), flip it over to do the other side the same way.

Once your bread is nicely browned and crispy, take it out of the pan, and let it cool down enough so you don't inflict unnecessary pain on your fingers, but not too much; you still want it pretty hot for the next step.

And here's where it gets fun. Take a clove of whole garlic, and rub both sides of your fried bread vigorously. The bread will act like sandpaper and quickly reduce your garlic clove to a stub. But Mmmm! That garlic fragrance! How entrancing!

Once your bread is lovingly garlic-infused, it's ready for just about any topping you want. If you're in a hurry, a little schmear of basil pesto works, possibly dandied up with a little shaved reggiano. Or perhaps some sliced cherry tomatoes, bocconcini, and chiffonnade of fresh basil. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, some mushroom, sundried tomato, and onion ragoût. Just about anything will work.

Slice your bruschetta diagonally into a couple of pieces, and work your magic with your dinner date!

[Note: due to the rather intense garlic flavor, this might not be the best choice on a first date. Try it out on someone who already likes you and knows you're a food freak.]