On health insurance

A year ago, when we were telling our friends and colleagues that I was leaving my teaching job in order to return to full-time work on the farm, the first question they would ask was about giving up our health care benefits. Increasingly, health care benefits seem to be the critical issue for many people about employment. Both my mother and mother-in-law continue to work into retirement age because of the high quality medical benefits they receive, and I know several people who would love to give up working for someone else and enter the satisfying realm of self-employment, but fear of not being able to afford health care stops them.

So it seems like a good time to share our story about health care, not because our story is especially unique or exemplary, but simply because sharing such details often seems taboo, like so many important aspects of our life (income, marriage problems, parenting difficulties… you name it). Why we cut ourselves off from sharing some of the most important practical details of our lives when we have so much to learn from each other is a puzzling paradox indeed. In so many areas, we’ve cut ourselves off from the support and wisdom that we can offer to each other, choosing instead to go it alone, groping in the dark out of embarrassment or habit when what we really need is a little shared light.

When we moved to Pennsylvania eight years ago, we signed up the whole family (just three of us at the time) for my employer’s offered health insurance. It was good coverage, but expensive. Of course, expensive is a relative term. I think we paid about $300 per month for the three of us, with my employer providing at least as much or more, so the real cost was something like $600 to $800 per month for the three of us. Considering we used the coverage infrequently, it seemed like a lot of money. By contrast, our car insurance ($100 or so per month) and my life insurance ($50 per month) seemed like a real deal.

And even though $300 per month for health insurance would seem cheap to many people today, it was more than we could afford. We had one income ($30,000 per year) and our budget was really tight. We went into debt and knew that we had to trim our expenses. Health insurance seemed like an area we could cut because we were healthy.

Somehow we found out about the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Sort of like Medicaid for the slightly less poor, CHIP offered our first child (and later the next two) with high quality free medical insurance with no co-pays or deductible. Of course, to some, our enrollment in this program will be offensive. After all, why should someone else’s tax dollars be funding free insurance for our children? I’m not insensitive to this point. On the other hand, it was a real godsend for our family at a time when we could barely pay our bills without going into debt.

I stayed on my employer’s plan because for just me they paid the entire premium, which was generous. But enrolling Dillon would have cost something like $200 per month in addition, which we couldn’t afford, so we looked for alternatives. At the time, we found low cost, high-premium insurance for her for only about $60 per month. With a $5000 deductible, we would be paying for all of her medical expenses unless something major came up, but we had to weigh the costs and benefits, and it seemed unlikely that we would be spending more than the $200 per month which the insurance would cost us. Luckily, nothing major came up.

But the next year it did, because Dillon was pregnant again. Her low-cost insurance didn’t even cover pregnancy, so we would have been on our own. Except, now that Dillon was pregnant the income limits changed for Medicaid, and we just barely qualified. Dillon went on Medicaid, and like the kids, received coverage without copays or a deductible. Talk about a godsend. After the baby was born, she got tossed from Medicaid, and she went back on the cheap, high-deductible catastrophic insurance. We paid for bills out of pocket, but spent far less per year than we would have on my employer-offered coverage.

Two years later, when pregnant with our third child, Dillon once again went on Medicaid, and I can’t imagine what we would have done without it. Afterward, she went back on the low-cost, high-deductible insurance.

But even though it was a godsend for us, the interesting thing about Medicaid which few people know about, is that it is second-rate coverage. No doctor has to accept any given type of insurance, and since the government pays doctors less for Medicaid patients than most insurers pay, there is a serious disincentive for doctors to even accept medicaid insurance. What this means is that Medicaid patients have fewer doctors to choose from and might not be able to go to the best ones or those most in demand. In Dillon’s case, she received excellent care for her pregnancy, but I remember showing to a dentist I had been seeing the list of dentists in the area who accept Medicaid, and he thought so poorly of them, that he offered to see my wife and family for free rather than send us to one of them. So the reality about Medicaid, is that it is a second-class system and that the poorest among us often have to settle for second-rate medical care. And that’s a sad reality. It reminds me of VA patients who live in rural areas who have to travel more than an hour or two each way to see a VA-approved doctor. Is that really how we want to treat our veterans?

By this time, however, Obamacare was being enacted and we hoped that we would qualify for a subsidy to be able to afford higher quality insurance for Dillon. At the same time, we were thinking very seriously of leaving my teaching job so that we would be shopping for insurance for both of us. What we found was higher quality Blue Cross insurance, still with a high-deductible (about $5000 each), but with a monthly premium of $125 for two of us, after a government subsidy of around $200 per month. This was insurance we could afford, and we were willing to accept the risk of paying for most medical bills out of pocket, while having the assurance that if something catastrophic happened, we would be covered. If I was in an accident, for example, we would be out $5000 at the most.

What’s interesting to me is that even my employer-based insurance still had a deductible of around $1000, so even then I was paying most of my medical bills. I’d go for blood work and get a bill for $400. I’d go to a specialist, and get a bill for $500. So even though the school was paying something like $500 a month for my insurance, I was basically getting nothing for it and paying for everything anyway. The $120 a month insurance seemed like a great deal and made it much easier for me to leave my teaching job.

We now make about $50,000 per year, still modest by most standards but relatively comfortable for us. Our kids are still on CHIP (the income limit for our family size is $56K) and Dillon and I are comfortable with our low-cost, high-deductible insurance. Most years we spend about $500 each on medical expenses, for a total of about $2000 per year for insurance and expenses. Considering that many families spend triple or quadruple this amount, we feel blessed. It is true that we receive great generosity from the government from both CHIP and our subsidy, which (again) some would find objectionable. All I can say is that I don’t feel guilty, given that our economic system itself seems fundamentally unfair, weighted as it is in favor of those who have more. In our capitalist economy, wealth accumulation is exponential. That is, the more money people have, the more money they can make. The wealthy grow wealthier, and those with little have a hard time growing wealth at all, a strange economic system for a country that ostensibly prides itself on equality and social mobility. Is it not shocking that 15% of Americans are poor enough to be on food stamps? Of course, this is a reality hidden from us and made invisible since few of us interact much with the poor.

At the heart of our story and struggle with health insurance is another shocking fact: In our country, private health insurance companies are run as for-profit businesses. Of course, some would argue that such for-profit industry increases competition and keeps prices lower. I find this an ideological and rosy view. The truth is, to be for-profit, the insured have to lose out. The insurance companies have to take in more money than they pay out. For most people, insurance has to be a losing proposition. Perhaps this is the best way, but imagine if our police force were a for-profit business. What services would be cut? Who would be left out? Imagine if our road-building and paving were for-profit businesses. What areas would be neglected and left to decay? What if our military was a for-profit business? All of these government programs are deemed too important to be put under the forces of the marketplace. Is our health not considered as essential a benefit as police, or roads, or the military?

Of course, this raises the issue of why medical services are so expensive in the first place. This is surely a complicated story, but a major part of it is that doctors are compensated not by successful outcome, but by procedure. If a doctor orders an X-ray, he or she gets paid for the X-ray, regardless of whether it was necessary or makes a patient healthier. I have a friend who works in the ER who was once told by a doctor to perform an EKG on a dead man so that the hospital would be paid for it. Certainly that last example is a rare outlier, but still the system does nothing to discourage it. This is slowly changing. About 25% of payments to doctors are now based on quality rather than quantity of care. This percentage is increasing, but it is still a small percentage, and many hospitals and doctors resist it because it is less profitable for them.

Another reason for the high cost of medical procedures is insurance itself. Because insurance pays for many of our bills and keeps them somewhat hidden from us, there is a disincentive for us to shop around. If one hospital charges twice as much as another for an MRI, I’m unlikely even to know that. And since my insurance will probably be paying it anyway, there is little incentive for me to choose the cheaper MRI. In a way, hospitals can charge whatever they want for these services. What else do we pay for, only knowing the price after the fact? Do we buy a car, and then just get a bill in the mail? This is madness. If our car insurance paid for our gasoline, would we even look at the cost of gas at a given station before filling up? I’m sure if our car insurance started paying for our gas purchases, gas prices would grow exponentially. In this sense, I’m not sure we should even call it health insurance. What other insurance do we use on a regular basis? Car insurance we might use once every few years. Life insurance, hopefully never. Most insurance is cheap because it is rarely used. Perhaps we need a different term for health insurance since it’s not really operating as insurance typically does.

So in a way our health care system is shielded from market forces in certain ways, and based upon them in others. In both cases, it seems, we are the losers. Until Obamacare, we could also choose for philosophical or practical reasons to opt out of the system and not have coverage. Now of course it is mandatory. We were promised that costs would be lower under the ACA, but at least at the low end of the cost spectrum, costs have gone up. Before, we could get low cost insurance for $60 per person per month. Now, the cheapest unsubsidized covered is more than double that. Although average costs have risen more slowly since the law came into effect, costs are still rising, and it’s not clear what will keep them from rising in an unsustainable way.

Our family has been extremely lucky, especially in benefiting from CHIP and Medicaid during Dillon’s pregnancies. Those who make a little more than we do and don’t qualify for these programs have the hardest time of it. Those who make a lot more should have enough that these costs aren’t a serious issue.

To those who struggle with these issues as we have, I would offer the following advice. Look into CHIP if you have kids. Even if you make too much for no-cost CHIP, there is also low-cost CHIP, and the quality of the coverage is high. Second, look really hard at the benefits you’re receiving from your coverage. We could be paying a lot more for our monthly premium and yet not getting anything for it. As long as you have coverage for something catastrophic, I think buying the cheapest insurance possible makes sense.

Finally, although being bitter about the whole situation is never a healthy thing and is counterproductive, I do think we need to speak up publicly and to each other more than we do about the insanity of the system we have. One thing that characterizes our age is disempowerment. Rightly or wrongly, in the 1960s people believed the world could be made better by their efforts. Now, we cynically believe nothing will change despite our efforts. I think we need to return optimism to our basic worldview, not in the sense of glossing over injustices or problems, but in the sense of taking them on and calling them what they are. Even if a problem can’t be immediately changed, there is great health and liberation in identifying a problem and calling something what it is. Action is also an antidote for bitterness and disempowerment. The more we speak up and out about such things, the more chance there is of gaining a critical mass and of change actually taking place.

Bologna the Beautiful

It’s been a month since I was in Bologna, but I can’t get the place out of my mind. We were first there 10 years ago and I had been trying to get back since. I’m so glad I did!

Coming from Venice, one might think Bologna would be a let down. But it was anything but. As I’ve written, my first meal there was an amazing experience. And unlike Venice, which is exquisite but has either an overwhelming touristy feel or a sleepy, backwater feel, Bologna was pulsing with life and energy of an entirely local kind.

Bologna is home to the University of Bologna, which dates in its earliest form to the late 11th century, making it the oldest university in the western world. Indeed, compared to many other Italian cities I’ve spent time in, Bologna feels cultured, educated, and refined. It is elegant and affluent. Many Italian cities are beautiful but neglected. Bologna feels well cared for indeed.

People, actually stopping and listening to classical musicians performing in the street.

People, actually stopping and listening to classical musicians performing in the street.

Exquisite pastries

Exquisite pastries

And unlike Rome, where one needs to leave the center to get to first rate produce markets, in Bologna, there are excellent produce and fish markets just off the main square.

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Blood oranges

Blood oranges

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Lots of people lined up mid-morning to buy fish. My kind of place.

Lots of people lined up mid-morning to buy fish. My kind of place.

Indeed, it is the food of Bologna which is the main draw. Bologna is the gastronomic heart of the region of Emilia-Romagna, home to such astounding treasures as prosciutto di parma, mortadella, culatello, and true balsamic vinegar, not to mention the long list of egg pasta dishes such as lasagne, fettuccine, tortelli, tagliatelle, tortelloni, and tortellini, the latter traditionally understood as a shape inspired by the navel of the goddess Venus.

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Tortelloni

Authentic aceto balsamico tradizionale, always sold in perfume sized bottles, and always for about $100 US dollars.

Authentic aceto balsamico tradizionale, always sold in perfume sized bottles, and always for about $100 US dollars and worth every penny. Sipped from a teaspoon, it is like liquid gold.

Bologna even has Venice-like canals, built in the middle ages but mostly now buried under the modern city.

One of Bologna's "hidden" canals.

One of Bologna’s “hidden” canals.

The main square in Bologna (piazza maggiore) is dominated by the Basilica of San Petronio, begun in the late 14th century. It’s main door (port magna) and arch contain sculptures by Jacopo della Quercia, which inspired work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo, whose own early sculptures are located nearby in the church of San Domenico.

Basilica of San Petronio with its unfinished facade.

Basilica of San Petronio with its unfinished facade.

Tragically, this church has been under serious terrorist threat for years, as it houses a large 15th century fresco, inspired by the poet Dante, of the prophet Mohammed being tortured in hell. Indeed, it was closed under heavy police presence while I was there.

Sculpture of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore

Sculpture of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore

One of the most delightful features of Bologna is its miles of covered colonnades, which one quickly comes to appreciate for their utility in addition to their beauty when it is raining out. Except for crossing streets, one can walk throughout the whole city protected from both rain and intense sun.

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Bologna is many things to many people. To some it is Bologna the learned, for its rich educational tradition. To others it is Bologna the fat, for its rich cuisine. To others it is Bologna the red, for the color that dominates the city (and for its Communist politics). But for me, it will always be Bologna the beautiful. It is a city I could imagine living in and to which I hope to lead culinary excursions in the coming years.

Roman pizza

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Margherita di Bufala at Emma Pizzeria

About 10 years ago I learned to make thin-crusted Tuscan pizza from Caleb Barber of Pane e Salute in Woodstock, VT, who had learned it in turn from a baker in Tuscany where he had apprenticed. So I was really excited when I first came to Rome five years ago to learn that Rome had a thin-crusted pizza tradition too.

I always enjoyed pizza in Rome, even though one felt the quality wasn’t all that it could be. So I was delighted when I learned a few months ago about Emma, which really pays attention to high quality ingredients, including carefully made, naturally leavened dough.

I’ve had a chance to eat there three times in the past two weeks and each time both the pizza and the suppli (rice croquettes with mozzarella) have been exquisite. The suppli were especially nice in a city which serves too many pre-made, pre-frozen suppli. Emma’s suppli are characterized by an especially intense, acidic tomato component.

Wood fired oven at Emma.

Wood-fired oven at Emma.

This type of pizza’s crust is so thin that it is rolled out with a pin instead of being stretched by hand. I’m not sure about the Roman version, but the Tuscan version I learned from Caleb is enriched by high-quality, aromatic olive oil, which keeps the crust tender, even while being shatteringly crisp.

I taught my students to make it this morning, showing everyone not only how to make and handle the dough, but also how to produce pizza sauce which tastes of perfect tomatoes rather than the heavy, sugary junk that too often passes for sauce in the US.

One of my students doing a great job.

One of my students doing a great job.

The other focus of the class was high quality mozzarella, which unfortunately is extremely hard to find in our part of northeastern PA, but which is ubiquitous in Italy. While the highest quality mozzarella is made in the countryside around Naples from the milk of water buffalo (mozzarella di bufala) there is also plenty of high quality cow’s milk mozzarella (fior di latte), both of which work well for pizza.

I stressed the importance of balance and moderation, such a critical component of all good Italian cooking.

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This one got a little too charred, but in some ways it’s even better that way.

After all of our breads and pizzas were made, we sat down to a delightful and leisurely lunch.

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all’amatriciana for one

IMG_6296 Bucatini all’amatriciana is one of the holy three pasta sauces in Rome (also alla gricia and alla carbonara) based upon guanciale. Guanciale is cured pig jowl, and though you might not have heard of it or eaten it, trust me that it is the very finest thing one can do with a pig. Yes, better than American bacon or even prosciutto (at least for me). The flavor is wonderfully rich and distinctly porky in a way unique to guanciale. People offer say to substitute pancetta in the states, but please don’t do that for this dish, especially since most pancetta available in the US is absolute junk. Real guanciale from domestic producer La Quercia can be purchased in New York from Eataly or Philadelphia from diBruno brothers. It freezes fine, so go out of your way to buy some and keep it for several months in the freezer, cutting off a little here and there as needed. If you can’t go to the trouble of obtaining guanciale, just don’t make this dish. There are other lovely things to eat. Though I have long made alla gricia and carbonara, amatriciana had always troubled me a bit. After consulting numerous recipes, I just couldn’t get it to taste just right, like the best version in Rome from Arcangelo Dandini, which he uses to dress his heavenly potato gnocchi. But last week I was eating at Armando in Rome, and they were publicizing their new cookbook with a little pamphlet, and in the pamphlet was their recipe for amatriciana! I made it tonight, and though I might tweak it just a bit, it was better than my previous attempts, some of which included onion and too much tomato. Armando’s version keeps tomato to a minimum, uses wine, and uses no onion. Tonight I’m cooking for myself at Casa Sinibaldi in Rome, awaiting my new group of students to arrive tomorrow for a week of culinary and cultural immersion, and so here is Armando’s recipe for amatriciana, scaled down for one! Spaghetti all’amatriciana Most traditional is actually bucatini (thick, hollow spaghetti), but I prefer spaghetti, or better yet, small rigatoni since I have an idiosyncratic dislike for tomato sauces with spaghetti. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and properly season with 2 tablespoons salt. Add 50 grams pasta and cook about until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, brown 10 grams of pancetta in a pan with a little olive oil, then remove from heat, remove the guanciale, and add a splash of white wine. Add 2 tablespoons tomatoes (fresh or high quality canned and crushed) and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Cook for about 5 minutes. When the pasta is ready, drain and add it to the sauce along with the reserved guanciale. Add generous grindings of black pepper and about 10 grams grated high-quality imported pecorino romano cheese. Plate and serve at once, with additional pecorino, black pepper, and olive oil. Note: Although Armando doesn’t use it, Marcella Hazan includes a little butter in her recipe, and I have a suspicion that Arcangelo might do the same, though I’m not sure. Although butter is not traditional in most Roman cooking, it’s worth a try.

A night of abandon in Bologna

IMG_6232I love Bologna, in the heart of Emilia-Romagna. The rich cooking of that region has always been at the heart of my interest in Italian cooking, and Dillon and I spent a few wonderful days there ten years ago. And although this sounds obnoxious, after 48 hours in Venice I was ready for a change of scenery. I was looking forward to eating meat and fresh pasta and mortadella! But I was exhausted. Between lack of sleep, eating too much, walking everywhere, getting lost, and more, I was ready for a night off. I arrived in Bologna at 6 pm and seriously thought of canceling my 8 pm reservation at da Fabio and staying in. Thank god I didn’t. I went for a pre-dinner walk to the center of town (about 10 minutes), and by the end of the walk, my exhaustion had disappeared and my appetite returned. Bologna was pulsing with life and my own energy was resurrected. By 8 pm Venice seemed dead, thankfully free of tourist traffic but also free of much life or energy. Quiet and reserve marked Venice after dark. But although I find myself drawn to quiet and reserve, I was ready for some life and I found it in Bologna. People were everywhere and energy pulsated all around me. This is partly because Bologna is a college town, with the oldest (1088 AD) university in Europe and one of the most respected in Italy, but it wasn’t just college students lighting things up. Here it was a Thursday night with work and classes the next day, but everyone was out. Old, young, babies in strollers. Stores were all open with music thumping from within. This was an Italy I was missing in Venice, and it felt pretty irresistible. By the time I arrived at da Fabio at 8, I felt revived. I was excited about the restaurant because although it had made no one’s top 5 list, I was intrigued by the fact that they had no menu. Dishes were simply brought out, or if choices were allowed, they were delivered orally. But nothing prepared me for what was about to take place. 8 pm is still early to dine in Italy, and the early reservation marked me as a tourist. I was the first one there. But my server was as gracious as could be with my imperfect Italian and his eyes burned with a kind of fire. He was talking a mile a minute and clearly amped up. He explained that he would just bring out every appetizer they were making tonight and I could try some of each, then I could order the rest of the courses as I chose.

Yep, all on my table.

Yep, that’s all on my table.

I was expecting four or five antipasti, and thus they came. Celery with parmigiano, onions in agrodolce, grilled bread, a frittata, chicken liver pate, grilled zucchini. Everything was great. But then to my astonishment, more arrived. Three huge balls of mozzarella di bufala, a platter of exquisite mortadella, fried pork milanese. I ate what I could, but things were quickly getting out of hand. IMG_6236 The Italians began to arrive. I was the only non-Italian in the place, and they were on fire too. Another server appeared, equally amped up, and soon the whole place had erupted in a cacophony of exuberance and joy. Here was no dining room of timid tourists or reserved Venetians. These people were overflowing with joy and life. Gone was the exquisite but understated cuisine of Venice. This food and these people were overflowing with lusty passions and abundance. My neighbors at the next table (a local couple from down the street) starting talking to me, and went so far as to take a card and promise to visit our restaurant some day! They shared other restaurant recommendations for Bologna and were eager to know what I thought of the food I was being served. At another table, a couple was joined by a third man who showed up gesticulating like a maniac walking his dog in on a leash, which he promptly tied to his chair. Servers were moving fast, driven by some invisible source of boundless energy, nearly hitting each other coming in and out of the kitchen, my guy still with flames in his eyes. Fabio, the chef himself, alternated between yelling at his servers in the kitchen, wagging his finger at them, and smoking a cigarette, right there in plain view of everyone. My neighbors got up to smoke outside, and perhaps as a reflection of my own exuberance, I thought of asking them if I could join them, but that seemed a little too personal and in the end better judgment prevailed.

Beautiful, spritsy, high quality, dry lambrusco

Beautiful, spritsy, high quality, dry lambrusco

I had asked for a glass of local lambrusco, but the next thing I knew a whole bottle had been put down at my table. I did ask for a glass, right? Slowly it began to disappear, my fear of drinking too much outweighed by the irresistible impulse to give in to abandon like everyone else in the place. IMG_6237 I ordered my next course: the classic tortellini in brodo, tiny packages of hand-shaped pasta in the traditional shape of Venus’s navel. They were excellent, and so I ordered another dish of pasta which I found irresistible: tagliatelle with sausage and artichokes. Excellent again, even better than the tortellini. IMG_6244 By this time, I was very full and rather tipsy. In the meantime, a server had brought in a bowl of water for the dog. My friendly neighbors had gotten cuddly. IMG_6245 I knew I had reached the end of the line and simply couldn’t eat or drink any more (the bottle was empty). I told the server that I couldn’t eat anything more and just needed my check. But the next thing I knew, the piece de resistance of the evening, he brought out gelato. Not just a bowl, but a whole damn tub with the dasher still in, just thrown down on the table like it was nothing to be served a whole tub of custard gelato. I took my bowl. It was exquisite. He threw down the tub on my neighbor’s table and continued to talk to them for 10 minutes, like he had no other customers to help and while the gelato slowly melted. Hell, maybe they had ten more tubs back in the kitchen. IMG_6246 I finally said my goodbyes and headed to the door. Somehow, though it was now past ten, it seemed like the spirit of the evening called for a walk back to town rather than an early bed time. Things had quieted down a bit, but there were still people everywhere. I realized at that moment, that a move to Bologna might be in my future, if only I can convince my wife and kids.

Native Venice and Her Islands

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The islands of Mazzorbo (foreground) and Burano (background), connected by a wooden foot bridge.

In addition to Venice proper, there are a number of large islands in the lagoon, some well-known, others less so. Perhaps the best known is Murano, famous for its glass making. Another is Burano, famous for lace making for hundreds and hundreds of years. In fact, the first Venetian settlements after the collapse of ancient Rome were on some of these outlying islands, with Venice proper being settled later. The outlying islands are easy to reach by public water bus from the north of Venice proper, which offers a gorgeous, expansive view which is a wonderful contrast to the claustrophobic nature of much of Venice.

Expansive view of water and mountains from Venice's north shore.

Expansive view of water and mountains from Venice’s north shore.

I decided to visit Burano, both for a quiet respite from busy Venice and also because one of its restaurants, al gatto nero, was recommended by both Katie Parla and Luca of alle testiere. Like alle testiere, al gatto nero is a restaurant dedicated to preserving Venice’s traditional dishes and agricultural and fishing practices in a sustainable way. The movement to preserve these traditions is known as “Native Venice”, and it is very much connected to the outlying islands which are so essential a part of traditional Venetian cooking, not the least because several of the islands produce much of the produce for Venice and its islands, especially the island of Sant’Erasmo, famous for the quality of its vegetables, supposedly because of the saline nature of the soil, which puzzles me. I would love to see a soil test someday!

Venissa's walled vineyard.

Venissa’s walled vineyard.

After a 40 minute water bus ride from Venice, I disembarked one stop before Burano on the island of Mazzorbo, which is very quiet but is now home to an exciting restaurant/hotel/winery called Venissa. Venissa has resurrected wine production on Mazzorbo and although its production is only in its early stages (one or two vintages I believe), this will be an exciting one to watch. Within its walled property, Venissa grows grapes and vegetables. Just outside the walls, there is a wooden foot bridge from Mazzorbo to Burano.

Burano's beautiful pastel colors.

Burano’s beautiful pastel colors.

I was hoping for a quiet respite on Burano from Venice’s intense tourism, but sadly I did not find it. Although there were locals everywhere (many of them quite elderly), Burano has been in guide books long enough that it has been discovered, on this day mostly by Chinese and Japanese tourists, traveling in packs and taking videos of themselves with their iPhones attached to long, golf-club like rods. Sigh. Crushingly, there was no shortage of junky snack shops selling hotdogs, crappy pizza, and coca-cola. Sigh.

Is no place sacred?

Is no place sacred?

But my meal at al gatto nero was excellent. I didn’t experience the same level of mastery as I did at alle testiere, but it was still excellent and I’m so happy to support any institution devoted to sustainable, local agriculture.

Lovely baby scallops and razor clams at al gatto nero.

Lovely baby scallops and razor clams at al gatto nero.

Da Fiore

Da Fiore Restaurant Venice Review 480x337 (2)-93e77533-3251-46fa-a030-da620a073ac1-0-479x337I’ve been reading about osteria da fiore for years, first in the writings of Marcella Hazan, and then in a cookbook published by the proprietors of the restaurant itself. So I knew when planning my trip to Venice that da fiore would figure prominently.

Da fiore was a little casual place when Mara and Maurizio Martin took it over in 1978, when I was one year old. It was a time when many young people were being drawn back to Venice and the Martins were among them. But although Mara had learned to cook from her grandmother, the cuisine of her upbringing was not the fresh from the Lagoon fish cuisine of Venice. She felt like she knew nothing of how to cook in the city. But she learned. Among other things, she befriended Victor and Marcella Hazan, who were living in Venice, and both Mara and Marcella have written about how much they learned about cooking from each other.

Although the Martins’ original aspirations for da fiore were to keep it simple, the cooking became more refined over time and is now one of just a handful of michelin starred restaurants in Venice. This actually concerned me because what I want from an Italian dining experience is cooking which is the comforting and simple but delicious cooking of the home, as I learned from Marcella’s writing so many years ago. My knowledge of the Michelin star system is shaky at best, so please take my opinion with a grain of salt, but my impression of the system is that it rewards restaurants which are more formal and whose cooking is more rarified than I care for.

And such was the case at da fiore. The service was stiff and formal, though more friendly the friendlier I became. It was the one place I’ve eaten on this trip where my imperfect Italian was not met with encouragement but discomfort and confusion, which didn’t put me at ease.

In fact, perhaps my biggest criticism of such formal dining is that often no one seems to be at ease. Some of the servers at da fiore, while trying to uphold a certain standard, seemed rather uncomfortable, as if they were playing a part and not being themselves. Nothing is worse than someone pretending to be someone they’re not, and while I have no criticism of anyone who loves formality, I expect it to be a sincere love, not an act or a job.

The food at da fiore was impressively executed and beyond reproach, as one would expect at a starred restaurant. But was it better than my meals at alle testiere? Did it have the personality and soul of so much cooking in Italy? I can’t say that it did. Is it the best restaurant in Venice, as some would have it? I can’t say that it is.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Da Fiore is an excellent restaurant worthy of a visit. And please understand that my comments should not be taken as any sort of professional review. Among other factors, a professional review should be the result of several visits over a period of time by those trained in the art of restaurant criticism.

I’m simply reporting on my impressions as a cook and lover of traditional, home-based Italian cooking.  I love the story of the Martins and da fiore and I am happy for their success. But da fiore left me a little cold, and I wish that it had been content to remain a simpler place, free from the pretensions of formal dining and free to focus simply on the quality of cooking.

A crisp dumpling filled with whipped bacala, with squid ink and ginger.

A crisp dumpling filled with whipped bacala, with squid ink and ginger.

Antipasto of capelunghe (razor clams).

Antipasto of capelunghe (razor clams).

Gratin of tagliolini with radicchio and scampi.

Gratin of tagliolini with radicchio and scampi.

Fried squid, shrimp, and mixed vegetables.

Fried squid, shrimp, and mixed vegetables.

After dinner sweets.

After dinner sweets.

alle testiere

Casual but elegant table setting at alle testiere.

Casual but elegant table setting at alle testiere.

I struck gold on my first meal in Venice. Having been mentored for years in Roman restaurant and food culture by Katie Parla, I was a bit discouraged not to have the same sort of guidance for Venice. And so I contacted Victor Hazan, husband of the late Marcella Hazan and former twenty-year resident of Venice for advice. His first choice was alle testiere.

Through unbelievably good fortune, alle testiere was all of two minutes from my lodgings in the Castello district of Venice. Victor has written about it here, and my high expectations were not disappointed. Alle testiere is a tiny twenty-two seat restaurant, one of the smallest I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. Although size is no inherent proof of quality, it’s more likely than not that an establishment content with 22 seats is more interested in quality than quantity. I was also encouraged by the menu, in Italian only, another likely predictor of quality.

In Venice, one dines on fish, and at the best restaurants, one dines and pays a premium for the local fish of the lagoon in season purchased that day at the Rialto fish market. At alle testiere I was greeted by Luca, who manages the dining room with the help of one or two servers. Luca is good-natured and friendly, and he immediately put me at ease and encouraged my attempts to speak only in Italian. He recommended two wines. The first was Fiano di Avellino, a classic white from Campania, near Naples. produced by Vadiaperti. And the second was a wine closer to Venice, a traditional blend from Friuli in northeastern Italy produced by Denis Montanar. IMG_6100I began with an appetizer of mixed steamed shellfish. This is the most exposed cooking one can experience, one in which the quality of ingredients is the chief factor in the quality of the dish. I was not disappointed. Although I could not identify each and every type (and couldn’t perfectly understand Luca’s description in Italian), every bite was perfection. Tender, full of flavor, perfectly seasoned, dressed with aromatic olive oil. This is the sort of cooking some would find plain, but which was so perfectly executed that it provided nothing but joy. The sort of dish worth a flight to Venice to enjoy. IMG_6105As a first course, I chose little gnocchi with scampi and pesto. This dish was also very good and perfectly executed, though they weren’t the ethereal gnocchi of Arcangelo Dandini, which I’ve written about here and here. Still, the dish was balanced and delicious. IMG_6109As a second course I chose sole with aromatic herbs and juniper accompanied by a contorno of mixed vegetables (which I forgot to photograph). The filets of sole were as delicate and moist as they should have been, and the choice of juniper was an intriguing and successful one. The highlight of the contorno was the local radicchio. IMG_6113In general, dessert is my least favorite course. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been served a dessert at a restaurant in Italy that I was ecstatic about. But the choices at alle testiere and the confidence I had in the kitchen, made choosing dessert difficult indeed. There was panna cotta with raspberries, an apple tart, a chocolate flan, tiramisu, and two types of gelato. In the end I chose tiramisu, perfectly executed once again, with little or no alcohol to distract from the mascarpone and coffee.

The meal was so good, probably the best I’ve ever eaten in Italy, that I immediately made a reservation for lunch the next day. Despite my inclination, however, I had eaten so much the night before that I knew I couldn’t order every course and had to skip the secondo piatto. IMG_6133As an appetizer I chose sea scallops with orange and herbs. Once again I was confronted with the most perfect expression possible of this dish. I had long looked forward to eating scallops in Venice, where the scallops are purchased live with their orange “coral” attached.IMG_6136One of my favorite things to eat in Italy is clams, because the clams are so tender and delicate, the sort of clams which are simply unavailable in the US. And so I ordered the classic spaghetti alle vonghole. It was exquisite. Please note the size of the clams, with shells about the size of one’s thumb. IMG_6138For dessert, I ordered the pistacchio gelato, which we have on our own menu at the farm when I return in March. Although slightly melted by the time it reached my table, it was perfect, like every other dish I was served at alle testiere. I have a taste memory of exactly what I want our own pistacchio gelato to be.

Just look at that luminous dark golden color.

Just look at that luminous dark golden color.

After dessert I ordered a sweet dessert wine, a recioto di Soave from producer Pieropan. After late harvest the grapes are allowed to dry until Easter and then vinified into rich, liquid gold. The producer only makes 1000 bottles a year, and I was lucky enough to share one of them.

Without a doubt, these two meals were some of the finest I’ve ever had, and certainly the finest fish menus I’ve ever enjoyed!

My introduction to Venice

The noble Rialto Bridge

The noble Rialto Bridge

When Dillon and I were first in Italy ten years ago, we had planned to go to Venice at the end of our six-week trip. But six weeks came and we were just bone tired and ready to go home, deciding we’d save Venice for next time. Next time never came, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. So I’m thrilled to find myself in Venice now for the first time, though sadly on my own while Dillon stays with our boys (with plenty of help from family).

When I arrive in Italy, my first impression (which will surprise many) is usually just how cheap things feel. This trip isn’t the first one where a shower door has broken on me and it seems like too many everyday items in Italy are of a quality worse than IKEA. But this initial impression is quickly replaced by a deeper impression of things that matter more. In Venice, my first impression was wonder at the effect on my soul of a car-free city. Other cities have car-free zones, but Venice is the largest place I’ve ever been which is completely car free. It reminds me of just how much we’ve lost as a car-centric culture, and I wonder if the vices of the car don’t outweigh the convenience?

Many people describe Venice as one big museum, feeling like a place without a real, modern identity, merely a place of tourism. While there is certainly a lot of truth in this, I haven’t found it to feel that way as much as I thought I would. Partly this is because I chose against staying in a traditional hotel, opting rather to rent a room in a religious guest house which also includes a primary school. I chose this lodging precisely to avoid the feeling of being in an alternative realty, which too often comes with hotel rooms and restaurant meals after a few days. This morning I left to explore the city just as parents were dropping off their children for the day. Real lives amidst the craziness that is Venetian tourism.

Piazza San Marco, nearly empty in early morning.

Piazza San Marco, nearly empty in early morning.

And crazy it certainly is. Countless shops selling the most nonsensical trinkets. Burger King and McDonalds. Countless restaurants serving “tourist menus” with things like American french fries and low-quality versions of Venetian classics. Countless tourists looking bored and walking through the Gallerie dell’Accademia because a guide book says to. It makes one feel like screaming.

And yet, it seems like 75% of tourists see only about 25% of Venice. There are residential neighborhoods still on the island where one can escape the thronging crowds. This is especially true at this time of year before the huge cruise ships arrive, a practice which thoughtful Venetians are trying to ban though I doubt it ever will be. And as Victor Hazan (who lived in Venice for twenty years) has recently written, the overwhelming Venice of the daylight hours is replaced by the exquisite Venice of the night.

The bridge at night just outside my front door.

The bridge at night just outside my front door.

Of course, I can’t escape the fact that I am a tourist too. Though I try to be respectful of the native culture and try to speak only Italian, I’m sure I stand out in all kinds of ways. It raises an inevitable problem of tourism: how can a place with much to offer and an interesting identity not have that identity destroyed by the desire of others to visit and experience it. I have no easy answer for this problem, though it is one which affects Venice more than almost any other city in the world. I suppose that all one can do is to allow a place to be what it is while listening quietly to absorb all it has to offer of itself.

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