Same same but different

You ever run into an old flame and things are just so different from how they once were that it kind of makes you feel a whole bunch of things? Maybe a little sad, relieved perhaps, mostly nostalgic?

You think about the good times, and remember how sweet they really were at their height, but then you snap back to the present and maybe you notice the former flame’s lost some hair, put on some weight, looks tired or just different. Maybe it’s you, maybe you’ve changed. Either way, it’s not the same and even if the experience of seeing that person is pleasant enough, and you’re ok where you both are in life now, you can’t help but miss how things once were.

IMG_6839Yea, well, that was the experience I had with one of the great loves of my life this week: a sandwich from Antico Noè. When I lived in Florence, Italy, what really does feel like a whole different lifetime ago, I went to Noè more than anywhere else. I tried different things a couple of times but for the most part I got the same panino every time: the # 4, stuffed chicken with prosciutto, mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms and rosé sauce. It was warmed up briefly in a press, wrapped in a couple of napkins and handed over to me by the same hunky Florentine who seemed to never have a day away from the shop.

A few years ago, Antico Noè opened a shop in midtown Manhattan of all places. (Apparently, some enterprising, panini loving Americans bought the rights to  use their name here and promised to keep it as close to the original as possible.) I’ve been a couple of times since they originally opened and always had a decent enough sandwich. This past week, I found myself in midtown and actually on the same street as Noè, so I thought I’d drop in for lunch.

Feeling ever nostalgic and wanting to recapture the magic, I ordered my usual, the # 4. Staring at a mural of Florence and the same painted logo from the original shop while an Italian pop ballad played in the empty shop (I was there later in the afternoon, after the lunch rush), I ate my sandwich alone.

IMG_6840It wasn’t bad, by any means. The bread was warm and had been pressed down just right to squeeze everything together and make it easy to eat. The mozzarella, warm and melted, oozed out in long strands. The mushrooms gave their earthy, subtle flavor and weren’t slimy or wet as the sautéed kind sometimes are. The meat was alright, flavorful enough and a nice contrast to the other ingredients, though anywhere else I probably wouldn’t have ordered stuffed chicken. The rosé sauce, my favorite, was tangy and creamy.

IMG_6841And yet… it wasn’t the same. As far as lunches go, I was satisfied yes, but I wasn’t raving. If I had friends visiting from out of town, I wouldn’t insist that they eat there, they way I do with every single person who’s ever asked me where they should eat in Florence over the last ten years. The ingredients were the same they use in Florence, but not the exact kind I’m sure. I doubt it was the exact type of mozzarella, or the same sauce, and the bread was baked here, not there, which has to make a difference. In fact, I had my sandwich on whole grain, which way back when in Florence, wasn’t even an option.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t even the sandwich. Maybe it was the fact that I was in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers and stressed office employees, I myself being one. Maybe the sandwich just tastes better in a city that’s looked the same since before the Renaissance, when you’re in your early 20s and worried mostly about where you’ll go out that night or where to travel next weekend. It’s likely that it was both.

I’m sure New York’s Noè outpost does just fine. I’ve been there during the lunch rush and business seemed to be thriving. Lots of framed articles and media mentions line the wall when you walk in, and I’m sure Instagram has no shortage of dedications from people who studied abroad and then came back to try and relive their Florentine lunches.

But for me it felt too different. Not bad, not good, just different. And since I’d like to keep the memory of that sandwich I loved so very much all those years ago exactly as it was, I think I’ll just hold out on Noè and the # 4 till the next time I’m back in Florence, whenever that might be.

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When only Italian food will do

Lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for Italy, specifically Florence, the city I called home for two years. I miss my Italian friends and my fellow American expatriate friends. I miss my old apartment and the street I lived on. I miss the espresso and of course, I miss the food. Always the food. With no vacation long enough to visit my old stomping grounds or enough money to even buy the ticket if I did  have the time, I get stuck going through old photo albums and reminiscing with the boyfriend about all the good times. (The funny thing about nostalgia is that it conveniently hides the bad memories too, but that’s a story for another day and a different post.)

So to get me out of my funk, I knew the thing to do was eat some good Italian food. My reasoning being that if I could have some good food, then really my two favorite things about Italy would both be here with me. (The other thing being the aforementioned boyfriend.)

When Flaneur mentioned that he had a sort-of relative (one of those people who’s not technically a relative but is more easily described as one) who worked at Morandi in the West Village I took it as a sign that it was where we should go. I figured it had two things working strongly in its favor: one, it was a Keith McNally restaurant and since everything he opens turns to restaurant gold it had to be good and two, no self-respecting Italian could possibly work at an Italian restaurant in America that wasn’t good, right? And as it always gives me great pleasure to say this: I was right.

The restaurant itself was rustic-casual with a lively, fun atmosphere and upbeat jazz pouring from the speakers and mixing with the chatter and clinking of dishes and glasses. The menu had lots to choose from and even several things that I hadn’t seen in months on any other menus.

One of the specific things I’ve been nostalgic for recently are fried artichokes so when I saw them on the menu I didn’t even think of starting off with anything else. I love most things that are fried but artichokes are some of my favorite and these did not disappoint. Fried to a nice warm brown, and sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice, they were light and crispy with an almost buttery after taste.

Carciofi alla giudea

Carciofi alla giudea

Flaneur got the burrata, which I was happy about because that would’ve been my go-to appetizer had the artichokes been missing from the menu. The creamy white ball of cheese came with three roasted cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, all of which quickly disappeared from the plate.

Burrata e pachini

For the entrée, I knew I wanted pasta. If a place can’t do pasta right then it shouldn’t have the claim to italian food, so I went with another one of my old favorites from when I lived abroad: pappardelle al cinghiale. The long, ribbon-like noodles and rich, meaty wild boar chunks were delicious, just as good as some of the best I’d had in Florence. With each forkful of the pasta and soft, juicy boar, I felt like I was catching up with an old friend.

Pappardelle al cinghiale

Although he thought about getting a second course (meat or fish), Flaneur took my route and went with a pasta dish: pici al limone. I was ready to be critical of these because pici (especially the ones I’ve eaten in Siena) are some of my most beloved noodles, but these left no room for skepticism or complaint. Simple and delicious, like the best italian pastas usually are, the thick, round spaghetti-like noodles were both tangy and cheesy under their blanket of parmesan cheese and lemon.

Pici al limone

As usual though, it was going to take the desserts to really seal the deal with me and steal my heart, and Morandi, with its dessert menu of vin santo and cantucci, budino di riso and other sweet treats, had pretty much won me over. I went with the frittelle di ricotta and sure enough, they were the perfect way to end the meal.  The five golfball sized ricotta fritters dusted in sparkly brown cinnamon sugar  were soft and warm, with moist, fluffy insides like little clouds of sugary perfection.

Frittelle di ricotta

Finally, because he loves pine nuts (and even kind of has a pinolo shaped head), Flaneur opted for the crostata di pinoli, a moist pine nut tart under a snowy layer of confectioner’s sugar, surrounded by a drizzle of spiced honey and topped with a dollop of creamy pear gelato (which was also, for the sake of continuity, shaped like a pine nut). The whole thing was subtle and light, with the gelato giving the warm cake below a nice cool creaminess.

Crostata di pinoli

So until I get a nice chunk of time and a great deal on a transatlantic flight, I think I’ve figured out the cure to the missing-Italy blues.  And based on my dinner at Morandi, I have to say, it seems to do the trick.