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Hog Heaven 

Wednesday, Mar 15 2000
There's an old joke about a GI who was stuck in an Italian prison camp for two years: "Well, at least he ate well." The punch line doesn't work if you substitute any other national adjective for "Italian." There's no sociologically savvy guffaw if the subject's a Chinese prison camp, an Indian prison camp, a Mexican prison camp, or even a French prison camp. It's gotta be Italy, where (common cultural credence has it) food, like love, transcends other, lesser considerations, no self-respecting paisano would let anyone in the immediate vicinity eat poorly if he could help it, and the deprivations of war can be overcome with a simple, soulful platter of pasta and olive oil.

The life force that is Italian cooking has healing properties, physical, emotional, and spiritual, that echo through the common consciousness. (In Ian Fleming's Thunderball, James Bond, trapped in a West County fat farm, daydreams over and over again of spaghetti Bolognese with lots of chopped garlic.) And if Italian food is the great culinary curative, the rich dishes of Emilia-Romagna are Italy's most comforting contributions to global gluttony. The region is to Italy what Burgundy is to France and New Orleans is to the U.S.A.: a place where people eat very well, often, and without shame, and health is a matter of simmering saucepans, not spinning seminars and carrot juice. While its neighbors to the north cook with butter and the southerners use olive oil, the commonest cooking fat of Emilia-Romagna is lard.

The region lies in the middle of the country's northern third, on alluvial soil so rich and fertile it produces more wheat, tomatoes, and beets than any other section of Italy. Until a couple of centuries ago, when it was decided the soil was too good to waste on the growing of olives, Emilia-Romagna's drupes set the standard for excellence, as its Rome Beauty apples, cherries, and asparagus do now. The profusion of wheat makes the region Italy's pasta capital, with lasagna, tagliatelle, and tortellini among the locally invented configurations (the latter based on the shape of a woman's navel and invariably served with butter, cream, eggs, and cheese). Balsamic vinegar was invented here, in Modena, around the end of the 16th century; Parmesan is just one of this cattle-friendly region's excellent cheeses; and the meandering Po produces fine sturgeon caviar, while the Adriatic, with its combination of pure Alpine water and Mediterranean saline, tidal pools and tempest-tossed seafood, offers up a profusion of fish unique in its variety and tastiness. The region's capital is known as Bologna la grassa -- "Bologna the fat."

Perhaps Emilia-Romagna's ideal symbol is the pig, a creature that appears throughout the décor and menu of Laghi, a Lower Fillmore ristorante dedicated to the region's dishes. More pork is processed in Emilia-Romagna than anywhere else in Italy -- so much, in fact, that much of the local provolone cheese is fashioned into the shape of a pig, as a sort of lacteal tribute -- and it appears throughout the region in the form of mortadella, cotechino, and, best of all, the sweet, delicate, air-dried prosciutto di Parma. At Laghi there are pig figurines, pig statuettes, "pig" and "piglet" signs on the restroom doors. But despite the porcine folderol's potential for cutesiness, Laghi serves food worthy in both richness and quality of its culinary origins.

As in Emilia-Romagna, the watchword here is "richness," a melting sort of richness that works with subtle flavors and superior ingredients to create a unified dining experience surprisingly lacking in lassitude, a richness that doesn't preclude tonic vigor. Take one of the starters, fritturina mareterra ($6.75). Fried calamari and zucchini usually kill appetites for miles around, but here the classic appetizer is crisp and feathery-light -- despite a seemingly redundant dressing of garlic butter -- and the zucchini has an extra zip of lemon that lifts it above the rudimentary. Similarly, the insalata agrodolce ($6.75) combines the bitterness of radicchio and endive, the sweetness of orange and mango, and the tangy fresh-ness of grapefruit and scallions into a complementary whole. And the romana alla bagna brusca ($6.50) is like a super-Caesar in which crisp hearts of romaine are dressed with a warm, garlicky vinaigrette and draped with the sort of impeccably cured, silky, supple anchovies you can't get out of any can anywhere.

Laghi honors Emilia-Romagna's noodle-making tradition with half a dozen richly textured house-made pastas, created from calamari ink, spinach, chestnuts, and other ingredients. With the trofie tutto funghi ($12.75), porcini pasta with three kinds of mushroom -- portobello, shiitake, and oyster -- it's hard to tell where the pasta leaves off and the mushrooms begin, so unified and integrated are the thick, earthy noodles with the julienned fillets of garlicky fungi. And the mezze maniche bella modena ($12.50) is a hearty tubular cornmeal pasta ribboned with sweet-smoky sausage meat and tossed with rich cream, delicate balsamico, and pungent pecorino: the region in culinary miniature, comfort food exponentialized. ("My God," said one of my fellow diners, tasting the pasta, "this is ambrosia.") Among the other entrees, the salmone affumicato ($16), lightly smoked baked salmon, is a tasty amalgam of lox and fresh fish with a hint of supple-smoky flavor and the moist succulence of a good grilled fillet, the whole drizzled with melted butter and lime. The petto d'anitroccolo con mirtilli ($16.25), however, is a dry, overdone duck breast with a mildly unpleasant sweet-ginger aftertaste -- the one culinary misfire of the evening.

Duck is better showcased in radicchio con anitra ($4 half, $7 full), a subtly flavored lunchtime salad in which smoky fillets of duck meat act as a foil for mildly bitter radicchio, a warm brandy-balsamic dressing, and pine nuts that seem to absorb, in concentrated form, the rich flavor of the duck. Lunch also features three elaborate sandwiches, including panino con maiale ($4 half, $6.75 full), a marvelous, self-contained meal in which tender pan-seared pork tenderloin melts into warm, truffle-scented pecorino cheese, which melts into chunks of sweet, bright-red tomato, which melts into pungently dressed greens, which melts, finally, into the restaurant's hot, fragrant house-baked bread.

For dessert there are, primarily, Ciao Bella's exemplary ice creams ($4) in hazelnut, stracciatella, vanilla, and triple espresso (as well as orange and apricot sorbets), smooth and dense as good gelati. The triple espresso variety also stars in affogato di caffe ($5), in which the ice cream and a healthy dollop of whipped cream are "drowned" at table in hot espresso; it's nice enough, with the coffee adding a good coarse consistency to the cream, but it can't touch Frantoio's benchmark rendition. Likewise, the pie di frutta ($5.75, $6.50 a la mode), pear pie in a ginger-edged crust, is stiff and rudimentary. But the dolcezza di limone ($5.25), a baked lemon-raspberry custard sloppily placed in a rich pastry, is as comforting and satisfying as a glowing hearth.

Almost everything on the 34-item wine list is available by both glass and bottle; it's all Italy and California, mostly reds with a dozen whites and three champagnes, most of the selections in the $5-7/$20-30 range, from Cascinacastle't Barbera d'Asti ($5/$18) to Gundlach Bundschu Vintage Reserve cab ($80, bottle only). You can enjoy them at the sleek marble-topped bar facing the entrance (if a bitter Campari and soda doesn't tempt you or, better yet, a Carpano-sweetened Americano). The rest of the establishment is big and cold, both in temperature and aesthetics, with tall picture windows and an open kitchen offering only a hint of warm respite. Service, too, vacillates from the quizzical to the downright vague (although it improved at lunchtime, when, interestingly enough, one person was handling the dining room instead of three). Is this any way to treat the creamiest, balmiest food in the world?

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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