First of all…I am so unbelievably ridiculously sorry that I haven’t written in an entire week. Believe you me, my conscience weighs heavy that I’ve shrouded my recent life in mystery, hoarding my vegan lunchboxes and recipe experiments away from the blogosphere. Please forgive me?
Perhaps tantalizing pictures of my latest restaurant adventure will help ease the pain.
It probably won’t surprise you that this particular dinner outing was a birthday-inspired one, seeing as three of my last few posts have featured Harvest, the Bloom Bake Shop, and the Mermaid Cafe as proponents of my two-week span of birthday celebrations. This special occasion, however, honored the day my mother entered the world rather than the day she introduced life to me. Even though my birthday festivities finally came to a close, I still benefitted from those of my mother with a modern Italian dinner highlighting the best of farmers market late summer produce at Nostrano.
I’ll admit it: my fiercely Italian family harbors incredibly snobbish prejudices against American food. Upon returning to the states from our annual voyages to visit my aunt in Florence, we refuse to dine in restaurants with the notion that the simple, seasonal offerings we relished in Europe would vastly overpower the insipid, soul-less meals of chefs who lack native Italian backgrounds. And the mere inkling of choking down an overcooked plate of pasta drenched in saccharinely sweet marinara sauce—a monstrous interpretation of true Italian cuisine—inspires serious contemplation of packing our bags and moving to Italy for good. Extreme? Perhaps. Pretentious? Certainly. But why don’t you fly off to Europe and revel in the uncomplicated appreciation of fresh ingredients so dear to the aforementioned “true Italian cuisine” and then tell me how you feel. Now we can be pretentious together.
All biases revealed, my family clearly avoids so-called “Italian” restaurants in the U.S. (Italian chefs would not even recognize the American perceptions of Italian food such as spaghetti and meatballs or chicken alfredo). Thus, we first view Nostrano’s menu, obviously invocative of Italy, with skepticism. However, the newly opened eatery did not boast cheap knock-offs of eggplant parmesean or fried calamari. Their creative offerings of housemade whole wheat pappardelle noodles, grilled quail with blueberry agrodolce, and a radish salad with sunflower sourdough bread as well as their mission statement (below), tempted us to believe that perhaps “true Italian cuisine” finally resided in America? We eagerly awaited the verdict in the form of my mother’s birthday dinner.
“Nostrano Means Local. Welcome to our table. Here, the food is fresh. We use local, seasonal ingredients. We craft with simple pleasure. We have gathered what we need from places we know, and we are here to share it with you. Enjoy.”
A quick glance at the menu affirmed my assumption of a lack of vegan options. Luckily, I had once again employed my handy-dandy trick of calling the restaurant ahead of time to request dairy-free accomodations for the night. As usual, the friendly maitre d’ happily obliged and further expanded my burgeoning love for local farm-supporting restaurants in Madison.
Our feast began with a cupful of marinated olives in bright hues of red, green, and jet black accompanied by housemade sourdough focaccia. All sturdy and full of salty olive meat, each color offered its own unique taste: subtle brininess from the bright red monsters, soft savory succulence (yay, alliteration!) from the classic green beauties, and pleasing bitterness from the shriveled black salt-cured gems. While I opted not to sample the focaccia (white flour, doncha know), my mother assured me that it easily rivaled that of the neighborhood fornos (bread bakeries) near my aunt’s Florentine apartment.
After inquiring of our bespectacled waiter what vegan options the chef had concocted for me, he informed me (to my infinite surprise) of the already-vegan nature of their chilled fava bean soup for my first course. “No chicken stock? No cream? No butter?” I cautiously interrogated. To my great happiness, the waiter assured me of its freedom from animal products and I eagerly ordered the dish.
Garnished with pea vine, crisp cucumber slices, and a warm ragout of white beans and cipollini onions, the soup evoked the pure essence of fava bean in a thick, creamy form. The temperature contrast between the warmed beans and the chilled soup as well as the textural contrast between the crunchy pea vine and smooth puree provided an interesting dish both fun and delicious to eat. And look! A little present hidden beneath the pea vine of fresh fava beans.
My only criticism is that the pea vine should have been chopped into smaller pieces, for the long tendrils proved difficult and messy to cram into my mouth, creating quite a scene for my amused parents.
My mother and I also shared the salad special of the night: juicy tomato wedges, thinly sliced cucumber, a strand of pea vine, and mint leaves drizzled lightly in olive oil and sprinkled with black pepper. A perfect example of the fresh simplicity that gives “true Italian cooking” its gourmet reputation.
I hate to seem like an ungracious restaurant goer, especially considering that I already make special requests for vegan dishes, but I can’t help but wishing that chefs would use a bit more creativity that resorting to an easy vegan cop-out staple: dried pasta. Even as an Italian, my pasta enthusiasm waned after forgoing white flour in my diet. Whole grain pastas emerge in my kitchen from time to time, but frankly, I’d rather dive into a big bowl of brown rice or quinoa. That said, when my waiter informed me that the chef had planned pasta for my main course, I slapped on a smiled and fervently thanked him, making an “Eh…” face and shrugging my shoulders at my mother after our server’s departure. Upon tasting the dish, however, I became ecstatic that the chef had decided on pasta to complete my vegan meal.
Golden strands of cornflour tagliatelle entwined with thickly shaved zucchini lightly tossed in a mouthwatering sauce of cooked down sungold tomatoes, topped with more succulent halves of sungold tomatoes and freshly torn oregano. At first, I couldn’t decipher the lip-smacking, slightly sweet yet richly savory flavor of the tomato sauce. Upon inquiry, my waiter indulged the mind-bogglingly simple ingredients of only cherry tomatoes and olive oil. Further proof of the genial Italian assertion that if you start with high-quality, fresh product, there’s not much more you have to do to it in order to create a culinary masterpiece.
Thus, my family has gained a wee bit of hope for the future of Italian cooking in America thanks to our stunning meal at Nostrano.
Meal Checklist: Protein–fava and white beans in soup. Whole Grain–cornflour in pasta. Vegetables–olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and zucchini. Leafy Greens–pea vine (not as greenily satisfying as my kale extravaganza at Harvest, but fairly adequate).
On a side note, I finally picked up a bag of Vega Whole Smoothie Infusion that I’d been eyeing for a while now thanks to my Willy Street Coop gift card! (My mother refused to spend $30 on a bag of superfoods powder no matter how many times I whined “but it’s sooooo good for you!”)
For goodness sake, just take a gander at this list of power foods all wrapped into one convenient powdery vessel: Yellow pea protein, organic hemp protein, organic sprouted flax seeds, organic brown rice protein, organic green food blend (spirulina, organic wheat grass, organic alfalfa grass, organic barley grass, organic spinach, organic sprouted broccoli, organic kale, organic kelp, organic dulse), inulin (from chicory root), natural flavors, xanthan gum. I bought it mostly for the green food blend (!!!), but hey, a little more hemp and flax are always welcome additions to my diet. Man, I can’t wait to run my blender rampant with smoothies.
Comment Provoking Questions: Does your family hold pretentious world views based on foreign culinary experience? How do you feel about pasta? What’s your favorite vegan protein powder/green foods powder?