Editor's note: We are thrilled to welcome back Serious Eats Italian bureau chief and Babbo pastry chef, Gina DePalma. Not only is she one of the best pastry chefs on the planet but a gifted writer as well. These days she's back in New York City but needed to channel her inner Italian spirit at the Met, followed by a Milanese meal at Via Quadronno nearby. Take it away, Gina!
More than ever I am pining for the Italy I left behind seven months ago. The post-holiday lull left a void in my head that has been filled with a tidal rush of vivid memories from my recent Roman life. I miss the faces, the smells, the sounds, the chaos, the light, and the many friends I left behind. But what I miss most about Italy is the astounding ease at which I could indulge in sublime food and breathtaking art, practically side by side. Art and food were the constants of my surroundings, waiting for me around every corner and in within every context.
I often enjoyed my two passions in tandem. A visit to see Filippino Lippi’s frescoes in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was always followed by lunch at nearby Enoteca Corsi; a run to the market at Campo de’Fiori often included a detour to the Galleria Spada for a quick look at Borromini’s perspective. Evening strolls involved slurping gelato alongside brilliantly illuminated fountains, or sipping an aperitivo opposite the magnificent façade of a palazzo.
Yearning for a similar experience, I headed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to catch the exhibit, Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. It is a spellbinding collection of paintings, drawings, ceramics, manuscripts, and other objects of daily life from the Renaissance connected by themes of romantic and familial love, such as courtship, marriage, childbirth, and parenthood.
Food-related objects play a role in much of the exhibit—there are bowls, dishes, and drinking glasses created to mark the occasion of a betrothal, for use in wedding banquets, or as gifts to the bride and groom. A childbirth tray, or desco da parto was part of a set of and bowls and dishes traditionally given on the occasion of a birth. They would eventually become household treasures, but only after nourishing the new mother with broth, salt, and water after her ordeal.
I emerged from the Met only half sated, ready for my lunch. I wanted to stay in the neighborhood not just because it was insanely cold outside, but also to see if I could re-create that art-food connection I used to enjoy so much.
On the fly, I decided to visit Via Quadronno, a restaurant and paninoteca on East 73rd Street just off Madison Avenue. Steeped in Milanese traditions, the dark wood, rich red fabrics, and big, shiny espresso machine were enough to keep me feeling the love.
After nearly freezing my eyelids off on the way over, I needed a bowl of the house special soup in order to thaw; the minestra del lavorante is a chunky purée of vegetables served so piping hot, the Parmigiano-Reggiano grated tableside instantly melted into a creamy swirl. It was savory, satisfying, and light; a perfect starter.
In addition to a full dining menu, Via Quadronno has an impressively large selection of made-to-order panini; they are offered semplici, simply composed of a single ingredient on freshly baked “Francesino” bread, as open-faced sandwiches called le tartine, or the panini di Via Quadronno, special sandwiches served alla Milanese with a combination of ingredients.
From this last category we chose lo spazzino, a crisp, long roll stuffed with slices of tender, rosy pork, fresh arugula, provolone and a snappy red onion and caper sauce. The open-faced tartufata is a luxurious combination of minced mushrooms bathed in truffle and spread over melted Fontina cheese. It’s a good idea to order from among the different categories and then split things up; it is a great way to try the variety of high-quality meats, cheeses, vegetables, and condiments offered.
My homesickness was tamed as we lingered over our food. The crowds had bolted down their lunches and departed, and the room suddenly felt cozy and more personal. Leisurely glasses of wine were followed by espresso crowned with a thick layer of crema.
We decided to cap things off by sampling tiramisu di San Dona, touted on the menu as a unique, Venetian-style version of what is now everyone’s favorite Italian dessert. I have to admit I was a little confused by this one. What arrived was a deconstructed version of modern tiramisu: a pile of sugary savoiardi, or lady fingers, some chilled espresso, and a bowl of cocoa-dusted, zabaione-flavored custard. My friend’s presumption was to dip, but I chose to drench the lady finger on my plate with the espresso and spoon some of the cream on top. It was tasty because the components were all good, but the entire presentation was clunky and a bit weird. Which is a good description for the way things sometimes went back in Italy.
My little excursion reminded me that I should be ever thankful to be in New York if I can’t be in Rome. It might not be as obvious, but I can still indulge my passion for Italian art and Italian food, spontaneous and side by side.
25 East 73rd Street (b/n Madison and Fifth Avenues; map)
Art and Love in Renaissance Italy is on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 16, 2009.