Hotel Monteleon: meh.
Napolean Bar: yeah.
Hotel Monteleon: meh.
Napolean Bar: yeah.
4 states in 4 days.
The funny thing is, I have been biding my time for many, many months waiting for enough AMEX points to accumulate to pay for a really, really good set of noise-blocking phones. As you all know, the iPod earbuds are criminally, criminally incompetent, not to mention dangerous to use during air travel, since they invite cranking to counter their inherent crapitude. The Bose noise-cancelling headphones are de riguer for frequent flyers of a certain age. But they are, like all Bose products, not all they’re cracked up to be. While I have to admit, the phase-inversion soundwave cancellation is a neat trick, no one who cares about audio integrity would permit all that mucking around with the signal path. Not to mention another severe problem–noise cancelling headphones are designed to block out engine noise, not the wailing baby three rows back, or the inane conversation across the aisle. Shure has a much better approach; very simply, the earphones have noise-blocking foam surrounding them. They are equal parts ear-plug and ear-phone. Somehow, they manage to cram three drivers into that little package: a high-frequency “tweeter” and two low-frequency “woofers”. How do they sound? That’s easy, they sound like all good speakers sound: accurate. Dare I say, worth the 500 bucks. I enjoyed them for a whole week. Now, someone else is enjoying them, along with the iPod they nicked out of my hotel room in St. Louis yesterday. Gotta love that mid-western hospitality!
I fly a lot. About 70 segments last year. That being the case, I don’t waste a lot of time at airports. I get there when I need to be there, not any sooner. LGA is part of my extended nervous system. But JFK can still be a bit of a mystery. It’s the damn traffic, you see. Unpredictable. I can swing arriving at the gate at 6:00 pm for a 6:10 flight, like I did on Tuesday. But I don’t recommend you try it.
I love those moments. Those, “here I am in Seattle, eating dinner at the bar at Trader Vic’s, 10:30 local time, 1:30 am my time. Had another funny experience there two nights later. Ducked out of a (non-vegetarian-) catered business event to have some semblance of a proper dinner. This time, I sat in the dining room, which was packed to the rafters with wealthy ladies of a certain age. They were all dressed up, but everywhere I looked, people had their coats over their chairs. Washingtonians look somehow Canadian to me. I ducked back into my event. Later that night, I heard the most interesting story of the visit. Over a nightcap at the Westin, PB told me the story of how, 20 years earlier, he and his girlfriend had been attacked on a beach in the Caribbean. The two young attackers were after their passports, which they got and then started shooting, intending to kill the both of them. PB, shot, with more bullets flying at him, turned on his attackers instead, and probably would have killed them had he caught them. As the two teens were running away, they both emptied on PB, missing him a dozen times between the two of them. PB showed me the scars on his arm where the one bullet entered, then exited.
Some like it hot. And that someone’s a-gonna be me. I got my start with Thai food in Toronto, and back then it was the kiddie version. Pad Thai at the Queen Mother. Or sticky rice with a sauce that honestly could have been one of those President’s Choice “Memories of…”. Bland, bland food at Young Thailand. Canada’s first Thai restaurant (that what’s the food tasted like, too). At the time, Salad King, a little Ryerson hole-in-the-wall was our favourite. They had this spicy squid that really did it. NYC, on the other hand, is very different. An embarrassment of riches–so many smokin’ places to choose from. For a long time, Jaiya was the reigning champ. Naked Shrimp. The Tom-yung-koong is even hot to me. The “special sauce”. Wow. Zero ambiance and questionable service. But, wow. Recently, we found that Holy Basil was a worthy addition to the repertoire. But now, we have a new contender, Pam Real Thai. Two Clinton locations two blocks apart; the original 49th Street location has the decor of a typical IHOP, the 47th Steet Pam Real Thai Encore aims at a hip retro modern style and attracts a younger crowd. Either location could be the best Thai food we’ve ever had. On my first visit, I had a catfish fried in chili sauce. It had the kind of heat that I often plead for, but rarely receive.
Pan’s Labyrinth is excellent.
Professor Downie is coming to town.
PD sent me Mike Watt’s bass-eye-view of a tour with the Stooges. I think I just picked up some new lingo.
The Tait Ball Buster is a really nice value in a $20 wine.
Now we’re all caught up.
Bert‘s travel piece in yesterday’s Globe and Mail on seven deadly sins getaways has a nice resonance with Orson Welles‘ Lady from Shanghai. To represent the sin of greed, Bert picks the Chinese city of Macau. This immediately brings to mind the classic exchange between Welles and his real-life estranged wife, Rita Hatworth:
Michael O’Hara: I bet you l´ve been to the place you were born.
Elsa Bannister: Cheefoo.
Michael O’Hara: lt´s on the China coast. It´s the second wickedest city.
Elsa Bannister: What´s the first?
Michael O’Hara: Macao.
Elsa Bannister: I worked there.
Michael O’Hara: You worked in Macao?
Elsa Bannister: Here´s your dollar. How about Shanghai?
Michael O’Hara: I worked there too.
Many years since I was here,
on the street I was passin’ my time away
to the left and to the right,
buildings towering to the sky
it’s outta sight
in the dead of night
Here I am, and in this city, with a fistful of dollars
And baby, you’d better believe it
I’m back, back in the new york groove
I’m back, back in the new york groove
I’m back, back in the new york groove
Back in the new york groove, in the new york groove
In the back of my cadillac
A wicked lady, sittin’ by my side, sayin where are we?
Stop at third and forty-three, exit to the night
It’s gonna be ecstasy, this place was meant for me
Feels so good tonight, who cares about tomorrow
So baby, you’d better believe
I’m back, back in the new york groove…
We won! And thank goodness, because the only thing that could salvage the horrendous faux pas of scheduling a dinner during a France World Cup game would be the guys pulling out the requisite win. And not just winning the game, but scoring the two points needed to advance to the next round. Jubilation! R tipped the waiter to give us updates, and the food took a little longer because the game was on in the kitchen as well. I breathed a sigh of relief when the Bouillabaisse was pronounced “good”. It always takes some chutzpah to invite someone out to taste their own native cuisine. Of course, the flip-side is that NAM is now ruined for the N orth AM erican version (our guests were shocked and appalled to hear that it often contains shell-fish, which is just wrong). As for me, I’m almost satisfied just munching on those fantastic croutes and aioli. Le Dôme, btw, is great. Go there when you’re here. Roger and out.
We begin the evening with more superlatives. By all accounts, the best gelato in Rome is to be found at il Gelato di San Crispino. We almost miss the little hole-in-the-wall joint. Expecting to encounter a huge line, having arrived at 18:00, we find the place empty. Told by a sign to take a number, we decide to be anarchists and just walk up and order. My cup is filled with cocoa maringue and the signature “il Gelato di San Crispino”. The latter is a simple, but beautiful blend of honey, arbutus berry and vanilla ice cream. It’s good. NAM partakes of the pistaccio and Crema all’Armagnac. Enjoying the sumptuous ice cream, we slowly amble over to the Trevi and again marvel at its Bob Guccione-like overthetopitude. Followers of Audrey Hepburn are supposed to enjoy their gelato on the Spanish Steps, but we’re too mesmersized to bother finding them at the moment.
From there, it’s on to the best coffee in Rome, which everyone agrees is served by Sant’ Eustachio il Cafe. We take a seat in the piazza and order two of the Gran Caffe Speciale. That’s some good coffee. What makes it special isn’t so much the coffee itself as the opulent mousse resting on top. It’s luscious and at least a centimetre thick. The sugar and caffeine buzz was just what we needed to get us going for the next step.
Trastevere is, as its name implies, just across the Fiume Tevere. And, we found out, it’s where the cool kids at. Finally! Civilisation, instead of ancient civilisation. We arrived at about 9ish and the narrow streets, full of bars restaurants and cafes, were already filling up with the euro-hipsters and their navel-baring gfs. Wandered around a bit before settling on Paris, which features Roman and Jewish food. The latter was represented by the carciofi alla giuda that we shared along with fiori di zuccha. The artichokes were flattened and fried to a crispy diet-damning goodness. The fried zucchini flowers were also rather calorie-laden and even better. Each flower is stuff with a single anchovy, some mozzarella, battered and fried. Wow! Next moved on to some some grilled langostine-type critters and tuna for NAM. So-so. Not so for the wine, however. The place had a great list feauturing many 97 (the vintage of the century?) Tuscans. After some consultation, we settled on the col D’orcia Poggio Al Vento 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. Winespectator rates this one a 95 and writes “A fantastic, powerful wine with incredible richness of berry, plum and roasted fruit. Full-bodied, with silky tannins and a long finish. A real treat to taste a beautiful 1997 Brunello now. Drink now. 1,500 cases made. (JS)” Nothing really more you can have after a wine like that, so we just strolled along the Tevere for a while, hopped on a bus without paying, and headed back to the Flora.
After the requisite siesta, sorry, don’t know if that’s Italian or not and too tired right now to look it up, we went directly across the street to Harry’s Bar. What a fantastic bar and what a shame it attracts such a lame clientelle these days. If tonight was representative at all, that is. The opening gambit is a Manhattan for me, a Gibson for her. The Gibson seems fine by all accounts, although the number of onions is a bit overdone. I think any more than one is too much, but that’s me. The Manhattan is definitely of the sweet variety, and made with Seagrams VO, no less! This momentary lapse was more than made up for by the little crevette canapes they brought out for us. Deciding to let bygones be bygones, I moved on to a Negroni (on the rocks) while she sampled the Bellini, which is good, but not George V good. The bitterness of the Negroni more than compensates for the previous round.
And now for the main event. Is the best pizza in Rome, by default, the best pizza in the world? That’s what we set out to discover. Da Baffetto is just off the Piazza Navona and just down the street from where we had had the lovely lunch at Cul de Sac. Just like Grimaldi’s, there’s always a long line out front. (Party of swank, dressed-down-to-the-hilt bicoastals in line in front of us. I’d have to guess entertainment lawyer for the guy who seemed to be the leader.) And if there’s any other contender for the world’s best pizza, Grimaldi’s would have to be it. But here’s why I’m calling it for Da Baffetto. First off, everything else. A rocket salad that just rocked. Bruschetta that was beyond simple and rustic, just thick slices of great tomato on some toasted bread with olive oil. I though that for 13 ï¿½, the large Chianti would be a big glass or small pichet, but no, it was a whole bottle. Does-not-compute! It wasn’t bad, either. Quaffable pizza wine. But now for the pies themselves. Thin crust indeed! They make John’s or Grimaldi’s seem like deep dish in comparison. These are truly wafer thin. We went for two classics: a napoletana (always my fave) and a mushroom & onion. What to say? This is pizza.
Finished the evening having a nightcap on the Pizza della Rotonda, having a heated discussion on the nature of evil. My basic argument is that since humans have a concept of good and evil, but, in the aggregate choose the latter, they ain’t the former. For evidence, see the 20th century. Sitting in front of the Pantheon getting price-gouged at a tourist-trap terrace (but worth it for the mise en scene) is the perfect setting to have this conversation. But by the time we again pass the Trevi fountain, we’re too engaged to enjoy its marked stupidity. The fountain’s, that is.
(Backwards blogging until I get caught up.)
When Elizabeth and Richard were in town in 1963 filming Cleopatra, they used to eat often at Taverna Flavia. Good enough reason to try it out? Not really, but we wanted something in the hood that wasn’t lousy with Americans. This place fit the bill perfectly. Not a word of English in sight. NAM’s Elizabeth salad–buffalo mozarrella, shrimp, cherrry tomatoes (the kind with flavour, which is generally what they have in Roma) on a bed of arugala–was good, as was my swordfish & rocket. The swordfish was smoked and sliced thinly, (just like yesterday’s smoked tuna at Cul de Sac, but you’ll have to wait to hear about that. The Vermentino I ordered turned out to be gone, so we made do with a nice Collio Chardonnay instead. For primi, NAM had rigatoni with pesto and tomatoes, and I had a kick-ass cacio e peppe (which I have not yet had at the New York restaurant of the same name, but which I will now have to try). Fruit, coffee, perfetto. Back into the 31C furnace.