Tuesday, 20 January 2009
Cheese and Biscuits on tour - Trattoria Meloncello, Bologna, Italy
If it sometimes seems that my life revolves around eating and eating out, and that every activity in every moment of every day is dedicated to the search for the next great meal, well that's because it is. Other people may choose their holidays based on climate, attractions or architecture, history or culture, but I have one simple rule when choosing where to spend my leisure time - is the food any good? Emilia-Romagna was chosen specifically as an area of Europe that could boast a world-famous gastronomic reputation, and Bologna in particular because it had an airport I could reach in one hop from Gatwick, thus allowing us to cram in as much good eating as possible over the long weekend. Leaving nothing to chance, I had researched two of the best trattoria in the city for our two evening meals, and through the freezing fog of Bologna last friday, made our way to Meloncello in the south-west of the city.
It was, as we'd been led to expect, a cosy and unpretentious room, and the staff were merrily unconcerned with our non-existent grasp of the language. You couldn't imagine that kind of welcome in France, for example. There was no printed menu, and instead the waiter did a fine job of explaining the dishes on offer, most of which sounded relatively familiar to English ears but then maybe the point of this visit wasn't to expand our culinary horizons but to see, after all these years, how Italians cooked their own cuisine in their own country. I began with sage and butter gnocci.
Fluffy, fresh gnocci and just the right amount of sage. There's not really any more to say - it was a lovely little plate of food, as tasty as it was straightforward. Another primo of genuine Bolognese ragù sat on a bed of perfectly al dente pasta and was even better. It was apparently veal mince that they used in the ragù, which gave the sauce an extra meaty silkiness. I should also mention at this point the house wine, a Sangiovese (the same grape they use to make Chianti) which, whether it was the situation or the anticipation, seemed to punch far above its €20 price tag. I have been scouring the internet for suppliers in London since.
My main was a couple of slices of tender pork loin dressed in a creamy herb sauce, and was also delicious. Again, a simple and unpretentious presentation and nice enough on their own, but they were served with an extraordinary side of rosemary potatoes roasted in some sort of rich animal fat that we couldn't quite place - perhaps goose fat. They didn't last long, and neither did the pork.
Desserts were varied but of the same home-made style. Cakes and puddings, a rich creamy home-made ice-cream dressed in chocolate sauce, nothing unusual but all prepared to a very high standard and all very tasty.
I tried bits of everything on the table (of course I did) but was so stuffed after two courses of carb-laden loveliness that in place of my own dessert I thought I'd risk asking the waiter what he suggested as a digestivo. Not understanding any of the names he rattled off, I just picked one at random that sounded something like Pedrus or Pegrus. What arrived was a shot glass full of what I can only describe as a cross between liquorish, pure ethanol and scotch bonnet chilli. The effect of drinking it, to quote Douglas Adams, was rather like having my "brains smashed out with a slice of lemon, wrapped around a large gold brick". It's the first time I've ever tasted any drink that made me want to scream out loud and then go for another sip. Quite remarkable stuff, and any Italians out there please feel free to chip in and tell me what it was, because I'm going to see if I can get hold of a bottle in London to break the ice at parties - literally and metaphorically.
And so, warmed by the Italian firewater (or more accurately, feeling as if I'd swallowed a Molotov Cocktail and been set on fire from the inside) we headed home. Meloncello was exactly what I was hoping for from a traditional Italian trattoria and more or less what I expected. That the cooking there perhaps verged on the side of "safe" is forgiven given the quality of the dishes they put out - after all, when safe is this good, who needs danger?