Monday, April 8, 2013

La Bella Italia

Next to France, my favorite country to visit, in large part for the food, is Italy. Granted, many countries I’ve not yet traveled to may rise to the top of this list in the future, but for now Italy takes second place. I can honestly say that everything that passed my lips in the birthplace of the Slow Food movement was delicious, a claim I can’t even make for France (not a big fan of kidneys, glands, or brain). And if you’re interested in art, architecture, history, and design like I am, then Italy is a dream destination. Not to mention the wine.

I’ve been to Italy a few times, the first two trips when I was studying in Europe my junior year of college. For Thanksgiving weekend I traveled to Venice to visit some friends who were spending a semester there and we all celebrated the holiday by sharing a big bowl of Pasta Carbonara made by some Italian guys that they knew. I had never had real Carbonara before this and it was transformative, like many things were that year.

About a month later during Christmas break, my mom and sister Lynne came to visit me and the three of us traveled again to Italy, this time to Florence and Rome—with a side trip to the Swiss Alps for a crazy skiing adventure. We were in way over our heads and nearly got lost in a white out. The Italian part of the vacation was much more enjoyable.

About five years ago we went back to Italy—my family, my mom, and Lynne and her two kids Trey and Megan, who are around the same ages as Isabel and Faye. This trip to Italy was the best of all. We went back to Rome and Florence, 

hiked the trails between the villages of Cinque Terre and swam in the Ligurian Sea, 

explored the Medieval towns of Lucca and San Gimignano, 

went to wine and olive oil tastings,

and, of course, we ate very well.

A highlight for the kids was getting gelato every day. 

They made sure we didn’t forget.

I don't mind gelato, but my favorite culinary aspect of Italy is all of the fresh fish, homemade pasta, and locally grown vegetables. Our best meals were those in which the quality ingredients were minimally prepared: just a sprinkling of herbs, a swirl of fruity olive oil, a grating of pungent cheese. This kind of meal isn't too difficult to approximate at home in Vermont using our abundance of local produce, herbs, and cheese (not much in the way of fresh fish, though, unfortunately).

When we're craving an authentic Italian meal at a restaurant, we're lucky to have a few excellent options in the Burlington area. Recently we went farther afield and tried Pane e Salute, an osteria located in the village of Woodstock—not to be confused with Woodstock, New York, and the Summer of Love. These two towns couldn’t be more different—picture perfect Woodstock, Vermont, is where the Rockefellers summered along with other billionaires. It still draws a high number of second homes owners from out-of-state, and its historic center epitomizes charm.

Tucked off of the main drag, Pane e Salute would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. In fact it’s so small that last year when we tried to eat there, we arrived to find a note on the door saying that one of the owners had injured her knee so they were forced to close for the night.

Husband-and-wife team Caleb Barber and Deirdre Heekin are both graduates of Middlebury College and have studied food and wine extensively in Italy. Based on the principles of Slow Food, their menu features traditional Italian regional dishes made with Vermont products. Because the restaurant is so small, there are only a few choices, but I would have been happy ordering any one of them. I was also pleased to find that they offer a four-course tasting menu with smaller portions than the full à la carte options so you don’t end up feeling uncomfortably full at the end of the meal.

I went with the tasting menu, starting off with an antipasti of grilled radicchio topped with warm Vermont goat cheese. Yum.

The primi, pasta with wild mushrooms, was so good that I had eaten half of it before I remembered to take a photo. Oh well, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

My secondi was roasted local pork with braised escarole, a hearty and warming dish that was perfect for the chilly evening.

We washed all this down with a bottle of dolcetto di dogliani, an earthy but light red that was an ideal accompaniment to the rustic fare. 

Finally, and this scored major points in my book, dessert was a sampling of dark chocolate truffles and bark. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked a waiter if there's any dark chocolate back in the kitchen only to be told that there's not. To me, it’s the perfect way to cap off a meal.

Pane e Salute’s menu also features a variety of extra thin crusted pizzas—with crust so thin it’s almost like a cracker. Some of us ordered these as an appetizer and they were outstanding.

The Quattro Formaggi alone was worth the almost two-hour drive back home.

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