Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Crazy for Calzagatti

Via Emilia, at 47 E. 21st St., serves the cuisine of Modena, the city that gave us balsamic vinegar, tortellini, and its big brother tortelloni. Modena is in the province of Emilia-Romagna, not far from Bologna. Much of the cuisine is similar to Bolognese, but there are a number of Modenese local specialties that are not easy to come by in restaurants in the U.S. Via Emilia is known for their pastas, but for me it's the antipasti that make it a destination.

I had heard that they make a great lasagne, in the true Emilia-Romagna style, with green pasta and bechamel, so I ordered it for my main course. It was good, but it couldn't hold a candle to the two versions I had in Bologna. There was something a bit two-dimensional about the meat sauce, and the pasta was too soft for my taste.

Desserts were excellent, especially the traditional Modenese warm amaretto cookies with Zabaglione gelato.

I'm talking out of sequence, I know, but I'm saving the best for last, the antipasti. Gnocco frito is a specialty of Modena, a fried dough that reminds me of both Indian poori and New Mexican sopapillas. It's served with a plate of excellent assorted salumi. One can order it with only prosciutto di Parma, but I can't imagine foregoing all the other goodies, especially the mortadella.

Another Modenese specialty is calzagatti, and for me that's Via Emilia's superstar offering. It's a fried cake made of polenta, beans, tomato and pancetta, served at Via Emilia with sweet gorgonzola and coppa (a cold cut that falls somewhere between capicolla and prosciutto). I'm wild about polenta, and the combination of polenta and beans is magical. In fact, after sharing this appetizer twice, I'm going to have a whole order to myself next time.

I haven't been bowled over by the pastas (I had the chicken tortelloni with truffle oil the first time), so next time I think I'll make a meal of antipasti. There are a number of other enticing starters on the menu.

Via Emilia keeps their prices reasonable by not taking reservations or credit cards. The no reservation policy is less of a problem in their new, larger quarters (the building that housed the old restaurant was torn down about a year ago). The new room has a sleek, contemporary look, a change from the small, nondescript predecessor. It's also much less noisy. My meal at the original Via Emilia was marred by the din.

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Speaking of appetizers, I recently stumbled upon a nice encomium to the first course on a blog from the U.K., Gastro Paradiso. What I really like about this blog is the quality of the writing: engaging, witty and charming.

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