Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Defense of Inferno’s Trippa: The Divine Chesterman Can't Stomach Stomach

Fig.1. A cow's stomach in its raw state.

Maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning but I’ve had just about enough of Lesley Chesterman’s restaurant reviews. My milk finally boiled over when I read her review in last Saturday’s Gazette on Restaurante Inferno, a review somewhat irresponsible and nonsensical.
As usual the first five paragraphs have little to do with the restaurant in question and reads more akin to a preamble of sorts, in Inferno’s case,  Chesterman’s introduction is filled with observations on Italian restaurants past and useless rhetoric steeped in stereotypes.
She doesn’t like the menu on the blackboard but I’ll bet you 50 liters of tomato sauce that her column once proclaimed blackboards as ‘in’ and menus a thing of the past. And in any case, what does the blackboard, or menu for that matter, have to do with the food? Indeed, a restaurant experience is more than just food, service and ambiance lend themselves to a greater experience, but negative nitpicking has no place in a review for it undermines the hard work cooks stoically preform in the kitchens.
As for the trippa, here’s part of what Chesterman had to say, “Trippa, aka, my most dreaded of dishes- tripe- is a specialty of the house.  Though I am sure I have tasted tripe before, I avoid it because to me, eating a bowl of tripe is like eating a bowl of braised caterpillars.”  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say tucking into a bowl of caterpillars might not taste good, so, it sounds to me like Chesterman has made up her mind regarding trippa before eating it. 
My issue here is not in defense of the restaurant (which I love by the way) but in defense of journalistic integrity and ethical food writing.  Slamming a restaurant with negative verse because you don’t like a particular dish even before you taste it is, in my opinion, irresponsible.  Slamming a restaurant after you tasted a dish you knew you were not going to like is grossly irresponsible and should have been edited out. I don’t like okra, can’t stand the stuff, as such, I’ll never order it in a restaurant because I know I won’t like it.  A pre-determined outcome has no place in a restaurant review!  And while I understand that restaurant reviews are nothing more than op-ed pieces seasoned with salt and pepper, the restaurant’s reputation, and consequently, its livelihood, is on the chopping block. 
The trippa at Inferno is not as hyper-palatable as say a poutine, but that’s to be expected from this staple of Italian ‘cucina povera’.  The fact that trippa has a “soft and springy texture”, as Chesterman suggests, is normal. You can boil trippa for a week and it won’t melt in your mouth.   It’s also normal for trippa to be warm and not piping hot, and trippa is not a bowl of intestines, as Chesterman points out, but of stomach. Trippa simply is what it is and the trippa at Inferno tastes a lot like the stuff I grew up with and God bless Inferno for making it. 
At one point in the article, Chesterman asks Inferno “where’s the love”? Well people, I can confidently tell you that the love is in the trippa. The love is in cleaning the stomach, which takes days. The love is in boiling the stomach for hours. The love comes from being in the kitchen with a pot of boiling trippa and fennel seeds that emits a smell that can honestly drive a person mad. Days of prep all to turn a piece of animal junk most people would throw away, into something so marvelous.  There’s love at Inferno. Keep making that trippa boys, it’s dishes like that that define us as a people.
Chesterman holds a lot of power amongst restaurants in this city.  She would do well to heed the advice Peter Parker has adhered to since that fateful day he was bitten by a radioactive spider: with great power comes great responsibility.  And if comic book superheroes don’t do it for you, let me end by quoting the greatest restaurant critic the world has ever known, Anton Ego. In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment.  We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.  But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating itself.  The "average piece of junk" Ego is referring to here is trippa, and it certainly is more meaningful, at least in this case, than Chesterman's review.

Fig.2. My own trippa. Never eat trippa without bread.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Simply Food: Fried Eggplant, Melanzane Fritti

Fig.1. Fried eggplant, or aubergine if you prefer.

Italian food is nothing if not simple.  I was reminded of that on a recent trip to Italy. The best food on the table was always the simple fare, the recipes that impress the palate rather than the eyes.  The unassuming dish that seeks only to serve it's purpose as sustenance fills not only the stomach, but the spirit as well, provided it can be appreciated for it's simple purpose. Amelia Barr said it best, "It is always the simple that produces the marvelous." And let's not forget simple food advocate Richard Olney, who said about food, "simple is the password in cooking today; if food is not simple, it is not good." As true today as it was in the early 70's, when Olney wrote these words in his book, Simple French Food.

Melanzane Fritti
Serves a lot

1 lbs Italian eggplant cut into 1/4" rounds (feel free to use other eggplants as well)
1 cup flour
2 large eggs, beaten
A good olive oil
Salt and pepper

Set a heavy bottom pan over medium heat and pour some olive oil in a pan until it reaches about 1/4" up the side of the pan
Dredge the eggplant in the flour, coating both sides. Shake off any excess flour and dip it in the egg mixture.  When your oil begins smoking, start adding the eggplant.  Cook until both sides are golden brown. Place the eggplant on a plate lined with paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Recipe can easily be doubled.

Note: You can coat the eggplant in breadcrumbs after it's dipped in the egg thus creating another Italian staple, Melanzane impanade. After the eggplant is coated with the breadcrumbs follow the same procedure indicated above. I also like to add a couple of spoon fulls of butter to the olive oil for extra flavour.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Sign Sign Everywhere a Food Sign

Fig.01. Love this one. Puts me in a 'pork' state of mind.

Food signs help sell food.  Different cultures use their words in different ways.  The way food is marketed reflects a country's culture, history, economic environment, legal regulations, demographic etc. In Italy, food signs are strictly informative: A salumi shop will typically have the name of the store and 'salumi' written on the window. In Quebec, we're accustomed to seeing our signs in two languages.  Because of this extra text, costs for signs in Quebec are more expensive, as a result, signage is usually kept to the name of the establishment.
While many food marketing studies have been conducted over the years (especially of late with regard to the fast food vs well being debate) it is not the intention of this post to analyse how Sofia Loren helped market Italian food or blame Coca Cola for inventing Santa Clause.  This post is about whether imagination and creativity, with regard to words and signs, lend themselves to a more satisfying eating experience.

Fig.9. Sometimes, I like my cooks domineering and forceful; but only if the food's good.

When I go to the United States I'm entertained by the signs hanging in restaurants, thus, the question is two-fold: are these signs affecting what I'm tasting and why do I need to be entertained when it comes to fulfilling one of my basic needs? (I especially find the English language to be exceptionally entertaining and well suited when it comes to food marketing; particularly when a population-specific vernacular is used, such as New York Italian for example.)
I don't really have the answer. I will, however, take heed in the realization that food is hedonistic in many aspects, and that signs which entertain me with the lure of food can equally be savoured and enjoyed within my mind's appetite... for now.  Here are some of my favorites.

Fig.1. New 'Yok' Italian. I'll have a spicy salami with Russian dressing please. 

Fig.2. A Chicago establishment (also in NY) with a suggestive name. Great oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies.

Fig.3. Made famous in an SNL skit, Billy Goat tavern uses suggestive words everywhere; from their front door to their drinking cups. 

Fig.4. To the point. (and delicious)

 Fig.5. One of the many such signs in Ed Debevic's Chicago. All of Ed's signs are rude and brazen, a concept Europeans would not be able to understand.

Fig.6. The Sausage Superstore, what else can I say.

Fig.7. Cafe Mexico in Naples. It's one of the oldest (and best) coffee bars in Italy but time hasn't affected their signs: The name of the establishment and a logo.  Inside it's the same; rather than put up posters, Mexico's walls are adorned with shelves selling coffee and coffee related products.

Fig.8. Would this lure you in or push you away?