Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dinner in Munich

After a whirlwind visit in Italy with Mylène and Ryan, Gary and I drove to Malapensa Airport outside Milan, dropped off the rental car, hustled to the terminal with baggage akimbo, and flew to Munich. From the airport, we hopped the train into the city after getting directions from a helpful and knowledgeable representative at the ticket desk. The trip into the city, plus a full 24-hours of any other public transit we might use, came to a mere 11 euros total for both of us.

Gummi Bears on my pillow!
Trains into the city arrived at surprisingly frequent intervals, especially compared to the ones at Philadelphia International Airport, and in 41 minutes (yes, 41 exactly), we were in downtown Munich. Police officers helped us to figure out how to get to our hotel from the train station, although they seemed a tad incredulous that we wanted to make the 15-minute trek on foot. Was it because we are Americans? Was it because we are of a certain age? Was it because of the long, multi-use tunnel we had to pass through to get to our destination? Whatever the reason, we proudly trudged toward downtown Munich and checked into the TRYP hotel, which I would recommend. It is close to museums, churches, the famous town hall—plus they left mini packets of Gummi Bears on our pillows.

After driving the four hours from Pisa to Milan (that experience will be left untold, but let’s leave it at scary, especially after the GPS conked out because the cigarette-lighter-power things (yes, I know that is a highly technical term) were not working in our Ford rental), cooling our heels at the airport, and sitting cooped up in coach, we were both ready for a hike. We had walked 13 miles one day in Italy, and we needed to stay in practice. We figured we would have our choice of German restaurants along the way. We were wrong.

In Italy, you can’t take three steps without encountering a trattoria, a pizzaria, or some place that serves Italian food. Yes, we found restaurants in Munich, but they were Thai, Japanese, Italian, Indian, Mandarin. Where were the real German restaurants, with beer steins and schnitzel and men in lederhosen? The diversity says a lot for the cosmopolitan nature of Munich, but since we were only going to be in the city for 24 hours, I wanted real German food. I certainly didn’t want pizza.

With iPhone in hand and Yelp on my iPhone (yes, I finally splurged on an international data plan), we saw that the closest restaurant described as German was about 4 kilometers away, and we gamely headed in that direction, although we were fading fast. The most direct route took us through the aforementioned tunnel, a path I really, really, really did not want to take again, so we meandered.

The meandering led us into an area of Munich that looked much more promising, and when I saw a man in an apron leaning against the wall of a restaurant, I did what I do—I asked a question, “Do you serve authentic German food?”

He answered that he served German food, but we could also have Italian or... I stopped him before he could continue his list. “We just left Italy. We want real German food.”

He smiled and led us inside, where we found something between a sports bar and a trendy modern restaurant. Huge flat-screen TVs served up soccer over colorful banquettes. Our new friend seated us at a window table and disappeared. He returned with two foot-high glasses of “authentic German” beer (Reutberger Fass) to drink with our “authentic German” food. Our waiter explained what he was going to serve us: kraut, pork and kugel. The kraut was served as a cold salad, a blend of shredded cabbage, maybe onions, and red pepper in vinaigrette. We each received three thick slices of roasted pork with a crisp layer of fat and two kugel, each the size of a golf ball. When I asked how they were made, our waiter told me that they grated potatoes, added flour, egg, cheese, shaped them into balls, and boiled them. Hmm, they sound a lot like gnocchi, I thought, but in execution, they were very, very different. I don’t know that I can duplicate them based on his basic description, but they were wonderful.

We were stuffed, but our waiter was so happy that we Americans had done such a good job eating German food that he insisted we have dessert, an Austrian dish called Kaisershmarm. Fortunately, it took a while to prepare so when it appeared we were able to do it justice. The waiter told us it was “like a pancake,” so I imagined a clafouti, but instead it was a sweet batter cooked into a half-inch thick cake that was cut into bite-sized cubes, tossed with raisins and slivered almonds, and drizzled with warm chocolate. It was served with a side of tangy applesauce swirled with strawberry puree for dipping. It was a delicious balance of sweet and tart, soft and crunchy, warm and cool. After we had a chance to experience all these sensations, the chef came to our table to make sure we liked his specialty. We assured him it was perfect.

Mind you, we never saw a menu, so as we waited for the check, we speculated on just how much this authentic taste of Germany was going to set us back. We both agreed it would be a bargain at 60 euros (around $75). After all, we had three courses, beer, and coffee in a comfortable cosmopolitan setting. Given the economy, we were expecting German food to be expensive. When the waiter returned with the check, it was only 28 euros ($36). We were certain he had made a mistake, like leaving off the entrees, but a careful check of the bill showed us that we had stumbled into the best deal in town.

If you are ever looking for a restaurant in Munich with great food, superior service, and a friendly atmosphere, check out the City Lounge. We are certainly glad we did!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

September Italian Wedding

Pieve di San Marco a Rigoli

When we were invited to my cousin Max’s wedding in Pisa, I was honored but at the same time certain that we would not be attending. How could a pair of teachers swing a trip to Italy for a September 15 wedding? But fate intervened in mysterious ways. Gary was already set to retire in June, and I quit teaching in January. That set the stage for our trip, and our opportunity to experience nuptials that were absolutely spectacular.
Both the church and the villa where the reception was held date from 500. That is not a typo. We are talking 1600 years old. The ceremony was held at the Pieve di San Marco a Rigoli, a church built on a basilican plan with three arches. It is not just old; it is also quite beautiful in an elegant, unadorned manner.
The reception was an hour drive away, but still technically in Pisa. We would never have found the Villa Sonnino without following the caravan of cars from the church. Not only was it far (an Italian hour of driving seems much farther than in America, not only because we didn’t know exactly where we were going but also because Italians drive fast, even in a caravan), but the turn off led to a long, winding driveway to the parking area, and a good 5 minute walk from the parking lot to the actual villa. It was certainly not visible from the autostrada!
We were able to gain a measure of sustenance, though, in the parking lot. Right in front of our car was a hedge of fig trees full of ripe fruit. Now, if you are reading this post, you might have already seen my outpourings on figs, but Italian figs put my brown turkey figs to shame. These weren’t very large, but they were sweet as honey.
Did we need to worry about food? At any Italian gathering, food is central, but when it comes to a wedding, any stops that might have been employed were completely obliterated, and here we were at an Italian wedding in a villa with a history I could hardly fathom.
Upon our arrival, we were directed to a courtyard where white-gloved attendants were serving prosecco in crystal flutes. Soon an army of men and women in tailored white jackets began passing hors d’oeurves of every description. Fresh calamari salad on scallop shells, mini-bowls of pear soup, skewers with fried olives or arancini or sausages en croute, tray after tray bussed to each table with the servers gently encouraging us to “mangia, mangia.”
Once the bride and groom arrived, the tables under the white tents heaved under the weight of a buffet—a station where two chefs deep fried vegetables, fish, and, my personal favorite, balls of savory dough that were lighter than air; another table was filled with cheeses soft and hard, strong and mild, herbed and nutted; a third table held cured meats and savory pastries and bruschetti. The prosecco continued to flow.
Eleanora and Max
Max and Eleanora visited with us, thanking us for making the trip, and explaining that we should eat, eat, eat, because there were not too many courses. Courses? All the time we were accepting passed hors d’oeurves and piling our plates at the buffet, Ryan, Mylène’s fiancé, the least experienced among us about food served by Italians, kept warning us to pace ourselves, but we did not listen. Max said there would only be three courses. Hmmm. Gary and I realized we had made a huge tactical mistake.
Soon we were escorted into the main dining area, a long room with marble floors and a brick vaulted ceiling. The tables were set with white linens, chargers with the Sonnino coat of arms, crystal, silver flatware. In the center of the table were wines, white and red that seemed magical in that they were never empty—the servers were very adept at replacing bottles as we drained them! On cue, yet more servers marched from the kitchen with plates filled with piping-hot lobster risotto, and within a minute, every guest was served. Before we had done justice to the perfectly cooked rice, the waiters were back, offering us second helpings. This time, we were wiser. We knew there was more to come.
The next course was Max’s favorite, a chestnut pasta in a browned mushroom sauce, so rich and so delicious that it was both impossible to finish yet impossible not to take just one more bite. Again, the waiters offered platters of extra pasta, just in case we weren’t already too full to breath.
As day follows the night, so too came the main course—veal breast en croute served with roasted potatoes and a garden salad. I think the potatoes were roasted in duck fat, but regardless of how they were prepared, even humble potatoes transcended anything I have ever tasted. The tomatoes in the garden salad were the Platonic ideal of tomatoes, surpassing even the best fresh summer garden tomato. The only problem? I was so full I could barely swallow.
Once again, the timing was perfect. Instead of cutting the cake immediately, there was an intermission where the DJ played a video spoofing the courtship of Max and Eleanora. Then we were escorted to the lower courtyard to watch them cut the cake and feed each other a bite, graciously, mind you, no smearing of cake onto one another’s face. We toasted the happy couple with champagne then moved to perhaps the highlight of the meal, if it is at all possible to make that distinction.
Boxes of comfits
The final course was titled a “fantasy dessert buffet” and fantasy it was indeed. In addition to cake, espresso, aperitifs, prosecco and champagne in the main courtyard, there was a side courtyard with tables filled with exquisitely decorated boxes of comfits (no Italian wedding would be complete without those ubiquitous candied almonds), bowls with more comfits, trays of shot glasses filled with chocolate or vanilla mousse, topped with a rosette of freshly-whipped cream and currants or blueberries or raspberries or sliced strawberries. Another table displayed tiers of fruit, strawberries that actually tasted like strawberries, melon, pineapple, grapes, and a mélange of all of the above if one could not make a decision. Another table was filled with one-bite profiteroles, some filled with pastry crème, some with chocolate mousse, some with whipped cream. And the final table? It held an assortment of savory pastries, as Ryan said, to begin it all again.
Dessert fantasy
We ended the evening with a private tour of the villa before we headed back to our hotel to dream of the pleasures of Italy, the land of my family.

I am sorry that I did not return home with any recipes from the reception, but if you ever are invited to a wedding in Italy, by all means jump at the chance. You will have the experience of a lifetime.