Via Verdi Cucina Rustica – Miami, FL

Authenticity as it pertains to food, has become an increasingly important quality to bloggers, and even critics over the years. After all, as people become more adventurous in their taste, their quest becomes all about finding the “most authentic” version of the cuisine in question. This is in stark contrast to how we thought about ethnic cuisine 50 or 60 years ago, when immigrants had to tailor their dishes to suit our timid taste buds. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Chinese food, a cuisine that historically exudes bold flavor, vibrant color and generous use of spices. Sadly, here in America, our inexperienced palates have transformed it into a bland parody of itself.

No cuisine is immune to the changes that inevitably take place when a dish reaches our shores for the first time. Chef Ed Lee, in a recent “Mind of a Chef” episode, explained that this isn’t always a bad thing, and that we shouldn’t necessarily be chasing authenticity, but embracing the new cuisines that spawn from this metamorphosis. These are, after all, what make up “American food”, not only burgers, fries and apple pies.

While I agree with Chef Lee, I also feel that it’s possible to find truly authentic food here in the States if you care to look. It may use local ingredients, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine, as all the best food cultures adapt to new surroundings. The search for such food however, is important, as those who can’t afford to travel regularly, shouldn’t be deprived of the wonderful flavors from faraway lands. Even if you can pony up for a trip, you shouldn’t have to jump on a plane to get a taste of your favorite dish.

Via Verdi spread

Thankfully there are others who share my crazy Utopian ideals, and luckily for me, they’re Italian. A couple of years ago, the exuberant Carro brothers, Fabrizio and Nicola, along with mixologist wizard Cristiano Vezzoli, opened Via Verdi, with the simple goal of serving authentic Italian dishes, with quality ingredients and an exacting eye for quality. It’s a recipe touted by many, but executed by few. This trio however, succeeded, and has created a restaurant with the rare ability to transport its diners with a single bite.

I hesitated to write about Via Verdi after my first two visits, not because they were undeserving, quite the opposite in fact. The meals impressed me so much, that I feared this shining star would quickly burn itself out. So many times after having a great meal, I’ll return, only to find out the chef has left for greener pastures, or the owners, smelling success, have grown too quickly, leaving the quality lacking. This hasn’t been the case at Via Verdi. The team, experienced from their time at Miami mainstays, Quattro and Segafredo, have kept themselves focused on the original mission.

The menu is simple, no need for a paragraph when a handful of words will do, the ingredients speak for themselves. The polenta with truffle Parmesan sauce, in its tiny cup, commands attention as the wonderful aroma of truffles fills the air. Other fried dishes like the beautifully crisp arancini, or the sumptuous veal polpettine highlight Via Verdi’s mastery of tomato sauce. Take note other Italian restaurants, this is how you make tomato sauce. You can tell just by smelling that sauce is on point. Whether it’s their classic marinara, or fiery arrabiatta, the distinctive tang of San Marzano tomatoes is present and complemented with the perfect touch of sugar and spices.

Tonnato di vitello, a dish easily ruined by low quality ingredients and overpowering sauce, is a must. Via Verdi’s is a graceful rendition of the classic Northern Italian dish, light and refreshing, with hints of citrus and a briny pop from the capers.

Via Verdi pasta

Pasta of course, displays the same rigorous attention to detail as the rest of the menu. From herbaceous spinach gnudi covered in that wonderful sauce, to strozzapretti in rich and gamey braised osso buco, quality reigns. Even the vegetarian choices like a pecorino and beet ravioli in a zucchini sauce, are excellent. Naturally, all the pasta is made in house.

But it wouldn’t be a true Northern Italian restaurant without Piedmont truffles, the knobby little nodules that bring grown men to tears as they empty their wallets in the hope of just one fleeting taste.  People like to throw the word truffle on the menu, but few actually show you the goods, fewer still trust their diners enough to leave said goods on the table unattended. I was fortunate to pay a visit to Via Verdi on a night when white truffles were indeed on the menu. A delicious but simple risotto dutifully served to deliver the tasty tubers, as you wouldn’t want anything to overtake the delicate yet assertive flavors that every great truffle bestows.

White truffle spread

While dessert , sadly doesn’t come with white Alba truffles (although I didn’t ask), it’s absolutely worth saving room for. Panna cotta with passion fruit and strawberries should be on the table if it’s available. Another fantastic option is the Bunet, a chocolate amaretti flan with caramel sauce that doesn’t kill you with sweetness, but leaves you feeling cozy and warm.

Via Verdi dolce

Is Via Verdi authentic? Absolutely. Does it matter? Heck yes it matters! That’s not to say that every restaurant serving ethnic cuisine needs to stick hard and fast to the rules of the homeland, but for those that do, and do it well, I applaud you. As I’ve said time and again, a meal, when done right, has the ability to transport you, and the boys at Via Verdi are offering flavor trips to Alba with every  dish.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fiat Cafe – New York, NY

Despite what you may think, it’s actually quite difficult to find truly tongue tingling Italian food in New York City. You can’t just walk through Little Italy and choose one of the myriad establishments at random. Of course you could just go the safe route and stick with the high-end mainstays like Il Mulino, Marea or Da Silvano. While those may provide amazing meals, they’re painful to the wallet. So where can you go to get a satisfying Italian meal at a price that’s just as palatable? The answer is Fiat Cafe at 203 Mott St.

Fiat Cafe spread

As the name suggests, the interior is sprinkled with artwork, photos and knick-knacks of the famed Italian automaker. Like I mentioned last week with in my Leunig’s post, I got the sensation of being transported to a small cafe in Italy. Stephane, the owner, is a regular fixture. You’ll see him chatting with his customers which is a welcome site to see in a city where most restaurateurs manage their eateries at arms length. Both occasions I’ve eaten there, he has personally welcomed us and taken our order himself. It doesn’t hurt that he and my friend are quite close!

After we had taken our seats, my friend suggested we enjoy a couple glasses of Montepulciano. Of course I didn’t argue, as I figured it would go perfectly with the pasta I was eyeing, but we’ll get to that in a bit. I let me colleague select a starter, an excellent example of Insalata di Mare. It incorporated some of the freshest calamari and shrimp I’ve ever had, it was so tender I felt it necessary to comment on it. The seafood had the level of quality you’d expect from a fine ceviche. It was lightly tossed with a delicious olive oil, lemon, celery and grape tomato mixture.

The main course was up next. I went with a pasta that I had sampled once before, the decadent Pappardelle with Shitake, Oyster and Crimini mushrooms, duck confit, ragout and truffle oil. If that doesn’t hit all the right buttons I don’t know what does. It was silky from the duck fat and truffle oil, with a great acidity from the tomato. The three different mushrooms were a fantastic flavor compliment and the pappardelle was perfectly cooked.

Daniel chose the pork chop with favas, carrots and mushrooms with a healthy side of truffled polenta. It looked and smelled amazing, and while I was only able to sample the polenta, which was ridiculous, Daniel seemed to enjoy himself as the plate was spotless by the end of the meal! I don’t blame him since I greedily devoured my pappardelle without even offering a bite. 

It was just a fantastic experience all around. Fiat Cafe is one of those restaurants where you feel comfortable the instant you walk in the door. However you don’t necessarily have to carry yourself there if you’re feeling lazy. Luckily, my office is within the delivery radius, so when the weather takes a turn for the worst, but I still have a penchant for pasta, I can give them a call and have the exact same quality dish sitting in front of me as I would get if I were there. All three times I’ve ordered in I’ve been impressed with the quality. Usually the food suffers slightly from the trip between restaurant and your door, but Fiat’s pastas hold up quite well. The pappardelle has made an appearance here, as well as the Bucatini a Matriciana, one of my all time favorite Italian dishes. My most recent delivery experience, and another pasta staple for me, was the Spaghetti Carbonara. This pasta is easy to screw up. Often you’ll find it heavy and lethargic from too much cream, cheese or egg. This was anything but. The cheese and pancetta coated my tongue in a velvety layer of flavor. This was offset by a nice amount of red onion that added brightness and helped cut the fat so the flavors could shine through clearer. Totally luxurious and absolutely delicious.

So if you’re looking for an Italian meal that won’t break the bank, while not sacrificing quality, Fiat Cafe is a must. The owner, Stephane Iacovelli has been kind enough to indulge me by answering a few questions, so stay tuned in the days to come for a little more insight into this wonderful SoHo gem. Mangiamo!

Fiat Cafe on Urbanspoon

Antico – Atlanta, GA

Something interesting happened to me recently. Now I’ve had my fair share of fine dining experiences, eaten many delicious morsels around the world, but a certain phenomenon hasn’t made itself apparent until I moved to Atlanta, GA. I call it the Antico Effect. Antico is a pizzeria on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta in a worn and weathered old neighborhood. It’s unassuming, small, loud, there’s no parking, no fancy sign, no maitre d’, and they make the best (insert swear word here) pizza in the world.

I know, I can hear the crowds beginning to boil with non-belief, anger even, “What about Napoli?!” they cry, “New York can’t be beat!” they say, “Chicago is king!” they muster. Wrong my friends, so very very wrong. I’ve enjoyed many pizzas from all three pizza powerhouses, and I can say with absolute confidence that Antico trumps them all. Now there may be some grey area as the owners and chefs are all from Naples, but the fact of the matter is that the best pizza in the world is here, in Atlanta, in the deep south. Their hours are 11:30 am til out of dough, they ship all their ingredients strictly from the Campania region of southern Italy. Hand crushed San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes, Mozzarella di Bufala, and fine E.V.O.O, all shipped weekly by air from Italy. They even shipped by sea three Grande Forni (brick ovens) from naples, made from the volcanic rock of Mt. Vesuvius to evenly distribute the 900º temperature required to produce the amazing pizza in just around 60 seconds. Yes, yes, but what about the pizza?! Let me just say that everyone I’ve brought here has had a bit of doubt and suspicion that this could actually be the best pizza in the world, and each of those people have promptly overturned those feelings within the first bite. “My god this is amazing” are the only words they utter until the pizza is devoured. Antico has a small menu, comprised of 10 pizzas, 7 “Pizza Tradizionale di Napoli” and 3 “Pizza Specialita”. Of these 10 I’ve tried 3 over four visits. The tried and true Margherita D.O.P. with extra Bufala, the Diavaola with spicy sopressata, pepperonata, bufala, and crazy delicious sweet/hot red peppers, and last but by far not least, the San Gennaro, topped with salsiccia (Italian sausage), sweet red peppers, bufala, and sweet cipolline onions. Possibly the best thing about Antico, the price, these three pizzas ranged from $17 to $21, not really that much different from any towns local pizzeria, but you get so much more for your money.

Now, back to the Antico Effect. In short, this effect basically causes you to be unable to have the same cuisine at any other establishment without uttering, “well it’s ok, but it’s nowhere near (insert amazing restaurant name here)”. Now I’m not so aloof as to not have had another pizza somewhere else, and yes some were tasty, but in the back of my mind I always wish I was at Antico, as any other pizza I have now just can’t compare. I think back to my past food escapades to try and find another occurrence like this, and while some come close, like Burger Bar in Vegas for instance, none are as clear and dry as Antico. Every time I go, I can confidently say, this is the best pizza in the world. How can it not be the pizza served at Antico is highly endorsed by the Margherita Regina Associazione of Napoli, THE authority on authentic pizza Napoletana, who have only bestowed this great honor on a handful of pizzerias outside of Naples. Pizza from Antico was even specifically requested for Pope John Paul, and Bill Clinton for the G7 summit. All I can say is that if you’re in Atlanta, and you have time to eat at one place, for the love of bufala make it Antico.