A taste to remember for all time

Cole with food
Cole at lunch with Kathy’s “Taste of Tuscany” spread out before her. She chose a glass of local Nebbiolo to accompany the meal.

Friday, June 30, 2017: One of the dangers of having a helpful, English-speaking staff like that at the Hotel Grifo is that you will become an English-speaking chauvinist, expecting that everyone in the streets of a foreign country has bowed to your perceived prevalence of the lingo your colonial power spread. My fall into that linguistic trap was checked by the driver who took us from the hotel to the car-rental agency at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport. He showed up in an immaculate, navy blue suit that matched his shiny Mercedes. We got in and I told him, in English, where we wanted to go.

“My name is Luigi, mister, and I speak Italian,” he retorted.

Those were his last words in English, but we pleasantly gestured and pidgin’d all the way to the airport where we got the car, a Citroen with a dashboard display in German. Viva la diversidad!

The main event of the day came after we arrived in Montepulciano, checked into Albergo il Rondo (thanks for the recommendation, Robin) and followed the innkeeper’s advice that sent us to the restaurant L’Altro Cantuccio.

Fortunately, we were given a menu in English, or the hour we spent trying to decide among all the good items on it would have stretched out even longer. The plan had been to stop by one of the recommended restaurants, have lunch and then explore Montepulciano, a Tuscan hilltop town known for its red wine. But this rainy day turned into one of those shape-shifting travel experiences that make being away from home worth the jetlag, crowds and expense.

Each of us found multiple items on the menu that sounded good to us, which is when the dining pre-game becomes strategic: “If you order that, can I taste it? I’ll give you a bite of mine. Or you could order this, and I could order that and we could share.”

The young waiter appeared several times, answered questions, filled water glasses and disappeared back into the restaurant.

It was raining and we were outside but under cover. A few tourists and locals were climbing the street to the upper parts of the village. We were happy to sit and watch them until the finally-decided-upon menu choices began to appear.

Brulee
Creme brulee with pecorino cheese and quenelles of blended capers

For me, the best came first, and it was something I had never heard of and took some courage to order: A savory crème brulee. Not the sugar-crusted dessert, but a pecorino cheese souffle with a balsamic reduction and delicious mounds of blended capers and herbs. If I could choose a taste to have in my mouth for eternity, it might be this.

This meal would turn out to be the best of the trip, relishing each bite, sharing tastes as agreed upon and occasionally chatting with passersby looking for a good place to eat. We were happy to recommend the table next to us.

Cheeks
Beef cheeks, crowned with crisp slices of Jerusalem artichokes and caramelized figs and  mustard cooked into a schmear of “jam”

The main course brought me beef cheeks with Jerusalem artichokes served with caramel mustard fig. Cole had grilled lamb covered with house-cut potato chips and served with mint-spiked white beans. Kathy chose the Taste of Tuscany: a saucepan of fresh roasted tomatoes and garlic, toast with pate and a jar of “crispy panzanella” salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and croutons in olive oil and wine vinegar. I hate to rate any U.S. agricultural product as second best, but the tomatoes in Italy were consistently the freshest and tastiest, second to none.

Dessert (cheesecake di ricotta and white chocolate) and espresso, and it was now late in the afternoon, still raining and the top of Montepulciano could wait for another time. It was nap time.

Lamb
Cole’s lamb was served artfully over splashes of a balsamic-wine reduction