“Ugly foods taste better.” That was the thought that came to me as I was walking in the square in front of Milan’s majestic cathedral in search of an ATM.
Once I found the ATM, I was going to walk to a pizza joint not too far from the Duomo that I had been researching for some time. The photos of their pizzas on the internet looked great. Not “great” as in perfectly tossed into perfect round circles with the perfect sprinkling of cheese, expertly placed toppings, and a precise ratio of cheese to tomato sauce. To the contrary. These pizzas were ugly and misshaped, with minimal amounts of unevenly applied tomato sauce, and random blots of buffalo mozzarella. Perfect imperfections. Bits of the crust were slightly charred and there was a light chiffonade of basil. They were real, and they were beautiful.
I have long contended that even bad pizza tastes pretty good. But over here, it’s the ugly pizza that tastes the best to me. My favorite pizza joint in the entire country is in the tiny medieval town of Barberino Val d’Elsa in the heart of the Tuscan region. The crust is wafer thin, the ingredients are minimal, and it’s never served in a perfect circle.
The ugly food rule works with tomatoes, too. Think about the best-tasting heirloom tomatoes you have ever eaten. They would sit — unchosen —on most supermarket shelves because they were not round and red enough. We have moved too far into looks-over-taste on many food items.
This past week, my friend, collaborator, and co-author, watercolorist Wyatt Waters and I have led 25 people on a food and art tour through some of our favorite haunts in Northern Italy — Venice, Bologna, and Milan. We’re also filming future episodes of our television show, “Palate to Palette.” We have eaten pretty food and we have eaten ugly food, and both were great.
It is my opinion that the food in Venice costs twice as much and is half as good as the food in Bologna, Milan, Florence, or the Tuscan countryside. The best meal we ate in Venice, was a few miles away on the island of Burano.
The two most visited islands outside of Venice are Murano, where all of the old-world and modern glass-making factories are located, and Burano, where artisans have made lace for centuries. Burano has one of my favorite restaurants in all of Italy — Da Romano. My wife and kids first visited there in 2011, where we had the best salt-crusted sea bass I have ever eaten. Seriously, it was so good, that — six years later — I consider that meal to be one of the best (out of hundreds) that I have ever eaten in Italy.
I wanted to take our group to Da Romano for salt-crusted sea bass, and they pulled out all of the stops for over two dozen Mississippians who were served by Danielle (the same man who served us years ago), who is a 30-year veteran of the restaurant. The sea bass was as good as ever, but the pasta that was served before the meal became one of only two recipes I requested on the entire trip. It was a baked pasta with shrimp and zucchini, whose secret was in a very rich and complex shellfish stock (recipe below).
I could spend my allotted column inches on that meal, alone. But for brevity’s sake, I’ll focus on one meal in each city. I am always in search of “real” food and “real” experiences. These were the best, and most real.
Many consider Bologna to be the food capital of Italy. My friend, David Trigiani, would say, “Therefore, the food capital of the world.” I hosted the group one night in an underground wine cellar that was built in the 1300s, with a floor made of glass (added a decade ago) with an impressive view of the extensive wine inventory below. The meal was the finest and most upscale meal we would eat on the entire trip, but the highlight of Bologna for me was a tiny little off-the-beaten-path restaurant we discovered last year. Trattoria Leonida is everything I love in an Italian restaurant. It’s small, it’s not pretentious, it’s filled with locals, and the food is excellent. The owner, Dante, began working there when he was 16-years old. Several years later he bought the restaurant. He’s been working the dining room for 61 years. The food is real, uncomplicated, and very, very good.
I typically don’t order lasagna in a restaurant over here. But, when I booked the group, the restaurant suggested lasagna to efficiently serve our large group. I trusted them, and they nailed it. Leonida’s was the best—by far, and I can’t even think of a close second— I have ever eaten. There was no red sauce, just multiple layers of béchamel, Bolognese sauce, parmesan cheese, and pasta. Like most great Italian food, simple and uncomplicated.
In Milan, I booked two restaurants for our group that I had dined in before. But the highlight, for me, was a restaurant that my Milanese friend, Alberto suggested — Taverna del Borgo Antico. It’s a place that I would typically pass by thinking it was a tourist restaurant. Though I would be very, very wrong. Our group sat on the sidewalk under heaters and under an enclosure and ate 12 courses of some of the best Milanese cuisine I have ever tasted. The highlight of the meal was the Pamigiana, which many of the guests thought was lasagna, but there wasn’t a sheet of pasta on the plate. It was a baked dish of multiple layers of eggplant, sliced paper thin and sweated with salt for an hour ahead of time, parmesan, tomato sauce, and a very high-quality mozzarella. The restaurant had served a focaccia earlier in the meal, that was so good that I requested my own personal basket, and finished it off.
The next day, during the group’s free afternoon, my wife and I joined Alberto and his lovely wife Barbara. They asked where I would like to have lunch and I replied, “You’re going to think this is crazy, but I want to go to that restaurant from two nights ago and just order the eggplant and focaccia.” We did, and it was every bit as good as I remembered. I have never minded double dipping on a trip if the food was extraordinary.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restaurateur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.