Tag Archives: #Italian

Pasta Fresca Barkia: The best of Italian cuisine and Greek hospitality in Mykonos

Greek cuisine is fantastic. Whether you prefer surf or turf, meat or vegetarian food, Greek cuisine has something for everyone. Yet in the Mediterranean food wars (I made that up), Italian food wins the global battle. I would argue that no other cuisine has such is represented by more restaurants or appears on more menus around the globe, or remade in home kitchens around the world. Its universal appeal makes it that sort of reliable go-to for travelers, too. Its pretty hard to screw up pizza and pasta – though I assure you, I’ve seen that happen. Mediocre Italian is everywhere also, so when you find something special, you remember it. And Europe tends to hold onto the best traditions, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, given the millennia-old, complicated brotherly dynamic between Greek city-states and Rome that some modern-day Roman conquerors found their place in the wealthy desert isle of Mykonos.

In a small town packed with an enormous amount of shops and restaurants per capita, Greek food and international fusion (often on the same menu) comprise the majority of restaurants, with a small army of slick fast casual shops selling anything from gyros to crepes and gelato joining the clamor for tourists’ seats and Euros. When you smell fresh pasta sauces, it commands attention.

So while spending another long stretch in Greece, after 8 days of Greek cuisine, the smell of pasta drew in a small group of colleagues and myself into the quaint, if not crowded, Pasta Fresca Barkia to try something a little different.
Pasta Fresca Barkia passed our test: good pasta, large menu variety, and even tzatziki to keep alive our daily streak of eating the delicious cucumber-yogurt-garlic concoction.

Walk inside and you may well find yourself in very close quarters as they cram in as many seats as possible (what fire code?). But what it lacks in allowing personal space or freedom of movement, it gains back in charm, Greek hospitality, and a great meal chosen from a veritable pasta catalog.


Our group started with a few appetizers, most of which had a decidedly Greek flair. A large, crusty loaf of bread formed the base for a Greek bruschetta that layered traditional crushed tomatoes atop the spicy, funky local Myconian cheese. 


Caprese and Greek salads continued the Greco-Roman fusion, and, finally, our tzatziki. 


Theirs had a stronger tang from citrus or vinegar than other versions but was nicely balanced with garlic and a hint of dill.

Now, decision time. When I say the menu choices were endless, I’m not exaggerating. It was more difficult than a Thai menu. The restaurant itself makes a wide variety of pastas, from spaghetti and tagliatelle to fusilli, penne, rigatoni, to filled tortellini and ravioli to al forno (baked) canelloni and lasagna. You can watch a daily pasta-making demonstration – if you can fit it into your shopping schedule and not lose your way in Mykonos town’s maze of alleys, that is. With all variety of shapes and styles, an equally ridiculous offering of sauces and accompanying meats vie for your appetite.


I chose the rigatoni pesto rosso (red pesto) after significant deliberation. I prefer ridged rigatoni to its sister penne, as I find sauce clings to its ridges much better, and I don’t find sun-dried tomato pesto often on the menu. It was fresh and delicious. Though it wasn’t quite as garlicky as I would like, it was delicious, and the pasta was perfectly al dente.
Two of my colleagues chose the spicy penne d’arrabiata – which turned out much spicier than expected. The culprit was their homemade blend of dried red pepper flakes. I sprinkled a very scant pinch of the flakes (brought upon another’s request) on my rigatoni, and wow. The tiny amount added an inexplicable amount of heat.


The other two chose a yin and yang – one a hearty and cheesy baked ravioli, the other langoustines (baby lobster-ish) with squid ink linguine. The latter was a more cosmopolitan take on a dish that is very typical of the Greek isles.

Everyone’s meal left us with no room for dessert, but in typical Greek form, we were served a lovely (complimentary) presentation of watermelon wedges over ice, served with a digestive, and tiny milk and while chocolate bonbons. To our pleasant surprise, the digestive was a homemade watermelon-infused moscato instead of the typical mastika. Mastika is a true digestive made from the sap of the mastic tree, which grows only on the eastern island of Hilos. Explaining the sap part goes a long way in giving an idea of its taste. To me, mastika tastes like sugar-laced wheat grass and weed killer. Occasionally, it can be infused with pleasant aromatics or fruit that help mask the musty mastika taste. I share this sidebar because mastika is presented at almost every restaurant after every meal, so to be given a digestive that actually tastes good – win!

Should you find yourself in Mykonos and in search of an alternative to the hoardes of Greek restaurants and tavernas, look no further upon Pasta Fresca Barkia. It was a happy accident when we stumbled upon it, and you’ll be grateful also.

Italian-Californian fusion: A hearty sauce Romanesca over roasted spaghetti squash

This classic, hearty Italian sauce adds some masculinity and depth to roasted spaghetti squash for a nutritious and satisfying low-carb, comfort meal. Customize by going meatless or pair it with your favorite pasta for a taste of Roman home cooking in your own kitchen.

 
I believe that Italian food is the world’s comfort food. Whether you have a taste for Mediterranean calamari, pasta, pollo Milanese, Genovese pesto, northern risotto, or Neapolitan pizza, Italy serves flavors that transcend culture. So after a trying day of wine tasting in Sonoma County, California, my Italian friend’s home-cooked Roman meat sauce (similar to a Bolognese) served over rigatoni and paired with one of our favorite Sonoma Zinfandels, was the perfect ending to one of those days that makes you grateful to be alive and for those around you.

  
The dish was so straightforward, not the sort of slave-all-day complexity that surprises and delights. Mushrooms and beef are better together than separately. The tang of ripe tomatoes, with fresh basil and a subtle heat create a combination you couldn’t imagine any other way. 

Personified, this Roman-Bolognese is that friend you haven’t seen in years, but you pick up right back up as if you’d been in touch all along. In other words, make it and you have an instant go-to dish.

a hearty Bolognese/Roman sauce featuring beef, mushrooms, and tomatoes that can be made meatless

After watching my friend cook this pasta dish. I realized that I needed to recreate it, but with a California twist. After months of transient living, restaurant food and perhaps a bit much wine have taken their toll on my body, so of late, I’ve been looking for healthier options. My philosophy is not to fear carbs or be overly restrictive (as you’ll see on my Healthy Diplomat page), but to load up on vegetables, fruits, and limit processed foods.

West Coast cremini and chanterelle mushrooms

In Northern California, the abundance of fresh, local produce is one of the secrets to the area’s culinary notoriety. Quality ingredients make quality food. So I turned to spaghetti squash from a local farmer’s market to carry its weight with this hearty Roman version of a Bolognese (meat sauce).  

It is an easy way to lighten a heavier, food-coma inducing dish without sacrificing the experience and texture of al dente pasta. It also is friendly to those on gluten-free, paleo, or low-carb diets. Substitute crumbled seitan or texturized vegetable protein for the meat in the sauce (or double the amount of mushrooms) to make it vegetarian or vegan (without cheese). If you don’t have dietary restrictions, try making it different ways to see which one you prefer!

  
I used local and almost exclusively organic produce for the entire sauce, including canned San Marzano tomatoes for that “authentic” (a word I generally hate to use in food speak) Italian flavor. Feel free to substitute whatever varieties you can find in your area.

This dish isn’t at its best without wine (so long as you are of age!). A California Zinfandel’s subtle sweetness and fruitiness are a perfect pairing for this sauce, but I’ve also had it with a bold, jammy Cabernet Sauvignon. Whichever you choose, the wine and dish play together very nicely, only enhancing the flavor of each.

Start to finish, it can be made in about an hour and fifteen minutes, but simmering the sauce for a few extra hours will deepen the flavors.

When using pasta, rigatoni is ideal, since its tube shape and ridges carry the sauce easily, though spaghetti or angel hair would be appropriate substitutes. Whole-grain wheat, spelt, or quinoa pasta are wonderful, more nutritious alternatives to “white” pasta.

Sauce Romanesca over Roasted Spaghetti Squash 'Pasta'

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • 1 large spaghetti squash OR 8 oz. (typically half of a bag/box) uncooked rigatoni or penne pasta
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and pressed or minced
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cups mushrooms, chopped (cremini and/or a mix of varieties)
  • 1 lb. (about 400 g to 1/2 kg) ground beef (ideally 15% fat) OR 3 cups of crumbled meat substitute
  • 1 cup fresh whole basil leaves, plus additional for garnish
  • 1 28 or 32 oz. can of crushed or diced San Marzano tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • Pinch of cayenne or black pepper – to taste
  • Parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast), grated

Directions:

Squash
To roast/steam spaghetti squash, preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place whole squash in a roasting pan with about 1/4″ water. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove temporarily; cool for 5 minutes. When cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise. 

  
Using a fork, scrape and remove the loose innards and seeds (usually darker than the bright yellow, edible flesh beneath) and discard. Leave the remaining flesh intact and return to the roasting pan, cut sides up. Brush or drizzle with olive oil. Return the pan to the oven for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until inner flesh begins to brown slightly. Remove and cool.

Sauce
May be made in advance of spaghetti squash or simultaneously.

If preparing the sauce and squash simultaneously, begin the sauce after placing the whole squash into the oven for the initial bake.

In a medium pot or saucepan (ceramic is preferable), heat the olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the crushed garlic. After about a minute, add the chopped onion. Close the lid and allow the onions and garlic to sweat and cook until tender (monitor constantly and stir as needed, especially with a steel or copper-bottomed pot).

Add meat or meat substitute and brown thoroughly. Roughly chop about 1/2 cup of the basil leaves and add them to the mixture. Next, stir in the mushrooms. Cook while covered, for about five more minutes. Add tomatoes, salt, and peppers, stir continuously for a few minutes. Cover. 

  
Allow sauce to come to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for at least 15 minutes. Add most of the remainder of the basil, reserving some for garnish. If you have time, reduce heat to low and simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally.

If using pasta, cook according to package directions. Drain, rinse with cool water, and drain again. Add pasta to sauce and stir to combine.

If serving with squash instead of pasta, top with sauce during – not before – serving.

Top with reserved basil and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, or if staying dairy-free or vegan, nutritional yeast.

Il Casaro – A cosmo-Neopolitan newcomer to San Francisco’s Little Italy

San Francisco’s Little Italy might not have the notoriety of New York’s. Within the city, it takes a backseat to SF’s more famous Chinatown. But newcomer Il Casaro is one example that proves it is worthy of the neighborhood monicker. It has added more youthful vibrance to a neighborhood steeped both in tradition and the trappings of tourism, which include several strip clubs.

When it opened in March 2014, Il Casaro attracted attention from the food media, including from industry powerhouse Eater. Public relations aside, Stopping in for a bite at this small but open, bright pizzeria, the true to form flavors and crisp, cosmopolitan ambiance will bring joy to your palate. 

  
The open dining room features a marble bar surrounding the visible oven and work area. This layout is perfect for watching the delicate clockwork with which the 3-4 cooks prepare everything from spiedini di calimari (skewers of calimari and zucchini roasted in the pizza oven) to bruschetta to fresh pastas to their signature Neapolitan pizzas.

Il Casaro serves Italian beer and an all-Italian wine list. On a hot day, the light rose I chose was perfection with both my salad and pizza.

  

Salad course

Needing a dose of vegetables, I chose the beets salad [sic] for a starter. This eye-catching salad pairs golden beets and goat cheese (the PB&J combination of the ’00s, but it still more than works) among spiky frisée and walnuts, all simply dressed in lemon juice and olive oil. It’s a synchronous combination that highlights the freshness and compatibility of each component of the dish. In my own case, I hit a stroke of good luck: My server informed me that the typical golden beets were supplemented by the fortunate purchase that morning of fresh purple beets. What a lovely, delicate plate.
Pizza Norma

Il Casaro’s menu is indicative of only small deviation from the purist’s Neapolitan pizza-making techniques. (I haven’t seen indication that any of their pizzas meet the strict standards for D.O.C certification). A fan of pizzas that skew vegetarian, I picked the Nonna (pictured in the featured image) for its eggplant and two cheeses. Its thin crust is layered first with a base of simple, but naturally sweet and tangy San Marzano tomato sauce. Salty, soft ricotta salata and fresh mozzarella offset lightly fried eggplant, the latter of which is kissed by a nutty extra virgin olive oil. Not a touch of excess grease remained, which made me very happy. Further, no single ingredient or flavor overpowered the others – a sign of a well-constructed pizza. The crust was nicely charred but not burnt, and the edges were nicely soft and chewy.
Il Casaro was a solo dining experience I more than enjoyed. For simple Neapolitan flavors in their natural habitat, and modern ambience, I’m hard-pressed to find anything for the restaurant to improve upon. I certainly will return.

Fontana di Trevi: Italian at its best in Frankfurt

Perfectly balanced beef carpaccio accented with chanterelles; ethereal angel hair pasta with shaved black truffles; gnocchi with tangy gorgonzola sauce. Those dishes were irresistible at Frankfurt’s Fontana di Trevi.

I have to admit that despite my German ancestry, I’m not a huge fan of German food. It’s too much pork and potatoes for my taste – at least in central Germany. Bavaria, with more poultry, is a bit more up my alley. I know others may argue, but in my opinion, throughout Germany, the best food is Italian and Turkish. Every city or town has both imports – and often so many restaurants, you’ll never run out of options.

 

Frankfurt’s contemporary skyline

 
Frankfurt is no exception. It has countless Italian restaurants – many of which are wonderful, but Fontana di Trevi is its best. I learned about it by reading reviews on a major travel website, and a review praising its black truffle pasta in a parmesan basket intrigued me. In my first weekend in Frankfurt, I wandered in for an early Sunday dinner – solo. Dining solo is always a bit intimidating for me, especially because experiencing food is such a social, interactive experience for me and best when shared with others.

Fontana di Trevi sits on a fairly quiet street corner in a residential neighborhood north of downtown Frankfurt. It would be easy to miss without planning and a good GPS, but I stumbled upon it with only a bit of either after a long walk from the Main river. It was perfect timing. As I was seated on the covered outdoor patio, it began to rain steadily. Having done my research into online reviews and arriving with an empty stomach – except for some eis (ice cream) and an apfelwein, I was ready to eat. I love beef carpaccio, so I ordered it as my starter. I was easily upsold into their souped up, Cadillac version if you will (it wasn’t listed on the menu) with assorted chanterelles and perhaps a hint of truffles. It was delicious, and the meaty, earthy chanterelles made it much heartier and filling. With a small carafe of the house red wine, it could have been a full meal.

I did not stop there. I ordered the off-menu, “special” angel hair with a parmesan and black truffle oil sauce. Hint: It is a house specialty, but it is always available. It arrived in a baked parmesan basket, topped with shaved black truffles. It was absolutely exquisite. I hadn’t had a dish like that in a long time, especially because I rarely eat pasta, so it truly wowed me. The parmesan basket itself added a rich, sharp contrast to the heaviness of the truffles and sauce.

I had no room for dessert, and honestly, after several subsequent visits, I have no recollection of eating dessert there, probably because the 1 1/2 mile walk home had a great ice cream shop en route. Without dessert, the experience was wonderful, and I had a nice chat with a Croatian traveler at a nearby table to feel a little less solo.

I never returned alone. Along with my friends and associates, we had the gorgonzola gnocchi and several other pastas and salads there. At times, the service was unremarkable, but it is Europe, and my expectations are low after years of eating in Europe. Several weeks and large entourages later, I can safely say that Fontana di Trevi never lost its crown as Frankfurt’s best Italian restaurant in my book, and it validated my hype.

As I mentioned earlier, Germany – and Frankfurt – have no shortage of good Italian restaurants and pizzerias. For ambience and perhaps a more contemporary, creative spin on Italian, I also recommend Frankfurt’s Ristorante Quattro, located near Konstablerwache, just far enough from the busy Zeil pedestrian shopping area to feel cosy and quiet. It has a lovely, secluded outdoor courtyard that made a large group feel as if we had the place to ourselves.

Nonna’s Kitchen at Alphonse: An Italian experience on Washington, DC’s U Street Corridor

When fine dining becomes a memorable and entertaining experience worth savoring and you feel that you aren’t simply a number at a table begging to be turned over to the next reservation, that’s when the bill is worth every penny. When foods you would just as soon avoid become bites you can’t get enough of, that’s a place worth endorsing.

Nonna’s Kitchen became one such spot for me recently. A colleague recommended it to me enthusiastically; it proved to be worth every word of praise. Nonna’s Kitchen is a 22-24 (depending on the source) restaurant above a more casual Italian market and eatery that opened in the fall of 2014. According to my sources, it was started by a partnership that included the former executive chef of Fiola, one of DC’s more coveted, trendy spots. While that chef and partner left the restaurant shortly after its opening, the food, service, and personalized attention to detail made it a must-try.

This restaurant is not for the spontaneous: Reservations are essential and require a credit card ($50 charge for cancellations less than 48 hours in advance). It’s not for the adventurous, yet I was impressed by the restaurant’s concern with food allergies and dislikes. One must choose a tasting menu – a fixed seasonal choice of 4 or 5 course tasting menus (a choice between two options for each course), or a 7 course Chef’s tasting – which is not predetermined. You get what you get. Wine pairings are $50; more for the premium tasting. But for those who enjoy sampling a new wine – one not on every mid-level restaurant in the city – and appreciate pairings – the art of savoring both whites and reds with food, I strongly recommend the pairings. My table chose the 5 course tasting menu, and two of us chose the pairings. Every bite of every course was worth it.

The small, single room restaurant features an open kitchen, which allows its demonstrative sous chef to entertain patrons, particularly those with the mystery 7-course menu. The sleek kitchen and lush, red walls might suggest modernity. The cliched mismatched china, which seems to be the mark of the hot urban chic, and eclectic furnishings look like someone remodeled their nonna’s (grandmother’s) kitchen and dining room. That might be a good way of describing the cuisine: dishes nonna might have made, if nonna then went to culinary school and apprenticed at a New York or DC restaurant…

I prefer to show photos of the exquisite food and wine, rather than do a blow by blow of each course. For those of you that may have trouble displaying the photos on your mobile devices and such, I’ll offer a few restrained descriptors.


Additionally, since the restaurant’s menus are subject to change, I don’t want to build too much hype for individual dishes. What I will say is this: I was overjoyed with Nonna’s versions of a few of my upscale restaurant favorites (raw tuna, foie gras, risotto), but more powerfully, they made me like and want to eat more cod! If you do not know me, you may underestimate that statement. I was turned off to fish after canned tuna and my mother’s monkfish as a child (sorry, Mom). It took another 15-20 years for me to retry fresh tuna, crab, scallops, and mahi-mahi. I still refuse to eat mussels, clams, and most ‘fishy’ fish. Yet this pan-seared cod filet was so un-fishy, with such fresh and tender meat sealed in a salty, crisp crust that I could have eaten it without a single sauce or accompaniment. Never mind that a trio of beans and an English pea broth were outstanding; I could have eaten cod on its own. Wow!

Of the five Italian wines (prosecco; two whites; two reds), the white and red pictured below were the best. The white wine, made by Cistercian nuns in Lazio, was complex and floral, with an almost Sauternes-like late harvest feel but with only the faint whisper of residual sugar. The Copertino red was full bodied, smooth, and not terribly mineral or acidic – my kind of wine. Homemade limoncello was smooth and somewhat light. It wasn’t distinct but tasty, traditional limoncello. It was gone well before I was ready for it to be gone.

Nonna’s Kitchen offers a fine dining experience in DC with few competitors, in my opinion. Though it requires a not insignificant investment, the impeccable execution and showmanship make it a worthwhile indulgence.