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The beautiful hack

Part 1 of a 2007 Italian travelogue

by Thor Iverson

[alps from plane]

Fog on the Barrow-Downs
The reduced-cost meal plan

For me and many others, vacations start with a plane. A long, uncomfortable trip in a cramped seat, the better to not quite succeed at achieving much-needed sleep after a few marathon, and thus sleepless, sessions of packing and preparation. The usual hassles and inanities of the security theater to which airline passengers are nowadays subjected. And, of course, the food. Oh, the wonderful airline food…

Today, on a Northwest Airlines flight that seems dragged from its early-eighties mothballs, it’s some sort of anonymous meat puck with accompanying slop. I think the latter might be gravy, but it’s unclear. Add some long-stewed canned tomatoes and a plop of watery applesauce, and the recreation of public grade school cafeteria cuisine would be complete. Thankfully, there are the excellent accompaniments – rock-hard roll, airy butter whip, mass-market “cheddar,” heavily-browned iceberg lettuce with oil from a squeeze packet, sugary and preservative-laden “cake” – to make up for the main dish’s deficiencies. To wash it all down, of course, there’s wine. Wine of a quality that can only be described as the perfect foil for the foil-wrapped food.

Doña Domingo 2006 Chardonnay (Colchagua Valley) – Sweet and vile. More descriptors would require keeping this wine in my mouth longer, a possibility too horrifying to contemplate.

Santa Domingo “Casa Mayor” 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley) – Stewed herbs and residual sugar. This isn’t just horrible, this is an actual crime against nature and all that is good and decent in this universe. Among the worst wines I have ever tasted.

And thus, I discover a new use for cinnamon Altoids: flavor-obliteration. Only a few dozen are required, though the queasy feeling in my stomach never quite goes away.

The long and the tall of it

As our plane starts its decent into the lush green lagoon otherwise known as The Netherlands, the man in the seat next to me strikes up a conversation. He’s wearing a…festive…ensemble of yellow cardigan and bright pink pants, and at about 5’9” must be a veritable dwarf among his countrymen. His flawless and idiomatic English is a fine introduction to the next few hours of my life, at the Schiphol airport, where virtually every advertisement, sign, and conversation is almost completely devoid of any other language. It’s all just as well for me, since I don’t speak a single word of their language, but it’s a little displacing as well.

And yes, the people are tall. The legends do not lie. Stealing an appreciative glance at an attractive passing teen that happens to be a good six inches taller than me is a strange feeling. I wonder if they sell lifts at duty-free?

I’m hungry – no surprise after that horrid excuse for a trans-Atlantic flight – and somewhat bored with my three-plus-hour layover, so I wander around the airport’s commercial interior looking for food. Noodle Bar strikes some sort of comforting chord deep within, and I enjoy a perfectly passable pork miso ramen (chief complaint: a little sweeter than I’d like, though that could be the miso talking). However, for the first time I also feel the painful sting of my country’s ridiculous currency, ladling out $23 for a bowl of soup and a bottle of water. Ugh.

Dressed for access

Fortified and less cramped, though still feeling short, I descend to some godforsaken bowel of the airport, where a sharp increase in volume and a general decrease in personal altitude indicates the presence of Italians. Lots and lots of Italians, in fact. They, like me, are milling around a locked door that separates us from the gate that leads to my next flight, a flight that leaves in less than thirty minutes. Well, it is one way to secure an airport…

Thankfully, the gate finally opens and we – my wife, fresh from a week of conferences at various locations around The Netherlands, has joined me – board. There’s still English in the air (mostly from Dutch business travelers), but plenty of smooth, sophisticated Italian coming from impeccably fashionable mouths. Indeed, Milan is our destination.

The mid-flight food is an improvement, though the bar has certainly been lowered as far as it can go.

[hotel méridien gallia]

The non-yellow hotel
Errors in yellow

Milan-Malpensa always feels smaller than it actually is, and the memories crowd ’round. This was the port of entry for my initial visit to Italy, many years ago, and that first tentative exploration comes flooding back…the excitement, the wide-eyed wonder, the edge of linguistic fear. But this time, I’m better-armed, with a head full of Pimsleur and a confident attitude.

Inevitably, then, I completely mangle my first interaction…buying bus tickets for central Milan. Not exactly a difficult sequence of phrases, true, but my old bugbear – a closed-mouth and under-pronounced Midwestern upbringing – rears its inaudible head, and while the vowels are intact, the consonants come out in a decidedly non-Italian mumble. Thankfully, enough is communicated to get us on board.

Deposited at the massive and forbidding Milano Centrale train station, we scan our surroundings. Where are we, exactly? The GPS unit we’ve brought in lieu of a pile of maps and endless Google printouts is less than helpful, taking an inordinately long time to acquire a satellite signal, and we can’t see a street sign from where we’re standing. Theresa trudges off in search of better directions. While she’s gone, I give it some thought, and realize we’re on the wrong side of the station. When she returns, we start the long walk, dragging heavy bags and a (blessedly) empty wine shipper around the seemingly endless station perimeter, underneath a Hitchcockian swarm of birds, and to our destination.

The Hotel Méridien Gallia (which, during our stay in the city, I will repeatedly refer to as “l’Hotel Méridien Gialla,” to the confusion and consternation of taxi drivers) is a beautiful, stately establishment, with rooms almost unimaginably large on the European scale. Better yet, they’re almost sinfully underpriced for their quality. A massive, lush bed with beautiful old curtains to mask light from the windows, high ceilings, a large and lavish bathroom…this is a room that should go for twice what they’re charging. Not that we’re going to complain. Perhaps it’s the location, though the usual worries about station-side hotels at night don’t really seem all that justified based on our single evening’s explorations. The staff is helpful and friendly, and one concierge (Paolo, who seems to work 16-hour days based on his near-constant presence) is indispensable, booking the train tickets for the next state of our journey when it became clear (despite all evidence to the contrary) that it was impossible for me to do so from the States.

We don’t have a great deal of time before our dinner reservation, which is just as well for me, as I’m still moving through a haze of time displacement and airline cabin confinement. Theresa, long-adjusted to European time, is fresh and lively; this is the complete reverse of our usual first-night travel situation. Soon, we’re bustling downstairs to grab a taxi, having decided to avoid the unfamiliar subway at night.

Our driver, to my surprise and delight, is a stunningly beautiful woman with a deep, sexy voice. I’m beginning to like Milan a great deal. Theresa just laughs and says, “I told you so,” referring to the people. However, she retains her conviction that, by tomorrow’s departure, I will have had my fill of the city. We’ll see.


Around and around, on increasingly tiny streets suffused with that beautiful, dusky golden glow that many of the wealthier Western European cities take on at night, we go, occasionally rumbling across tram tracks and stones, then snaking down narrow alleys. From time to time, we pass a majestic edifice or a stately piazza, but for the most part we’re hemmed in…almost embraced…by the city’s bending streets.

And then, after what seems like a much longer drive than expected, we’re here…a tiny sign over a small doorway on a largely empty street. At the exchange of euros, our driver gives me a cool, distant, expressionless assessment. So like a model. (Is that her day job? I’ll never know.)

[milano centrale]

Central ceiling
The Osteria dei Binari (via Tortona, 1) comes highly recommended by many trusted voices, and as soon as we enter we feel a surge of confidence…because the place is empty. If we’re the first diners at 8:30, that means that most of our fellow diners will be locals. We’re escorted to a fine table adjacent to the (empty) outdoor patio in the restaurant’s funky, elegant-clutter interior, and given a pair of well-worn menus and a wine list, which we peruse as the usual preliminaries – bread, grissini, olive oil – arrive.

Years ago, a Piedmontese friend with whom I’ve since lost touch introduced me to the glories of thin slices of salty pork fat. And thus, lardo from Arnad is an obvious, heart-healthy first choice. Theresa opts for an incredible prosciutto served with a creamy mozzarella that seems more like burrata in disguise. We then share the night’s specialty, a truly definitive and wholly flawless risotto of porcini…the absolute highlight of the meal.

Everything up to now has been perfect. But the meal takes a slight downturn with the secondi, thereby demonstrating an assertion that is, largely, a truism outside a small few Italian regions: most foreign diners would be better-served by stopping with their primi, or at least skipping ahead to formaggi and/or dolci.

Actually, “downturn” is a bit harsh. The problem is less one of quality than it is of expectations; palates raised on and used to American- or French-influenced fish and meat cookery will find much in the traditional Italian repertoire bland and, frequently, overcooked. My costoletta alla Milanese, for example, is perfectly authentic and, for a pounded and breaded veal chop, perfectly tasty. It’s just a little boring. True, the potatoes served with it are an over-crisped mess akin to canned shoestrings, but I ignore them. Theresa’s branzino with an overlapping envelope of zucchini is moist, tasty, and far better, though again it’s her least favorite dish of the evening.

And, in fact, after our secondi we’re served – without prompting – a plate of some of the freshest, most intense parmigiano Reggiano I’ve ever tasted. We devour its salty/creamy deliciousness down to the last crumb, leaving no room for dessert.

The wine list is long and reasonably regional, though as befits an international city there’s an inclusive pan-Italian feel to it.. The wine service is exquisite, with a tableside decanting (over a beautiful old candle) and an entirely proper rinsing of glasses.

Dessilani “Collefino” Spumante (Piedmont) – The house pour, this sparkling wine made from Greco is simple, floral, clean and quite nice. I could drink a lot of this and not notice…a mixed blessing, to be sure…but in a more contemplative setting it might be possible to discover something beyond these surface impressions.

Vajra 2000 Langhe Freisa “Kyè” (Piedmont) – Upon ordering, the sommelier suggests that the wine is closed (thus initiating the elaborate decanting ritual described above), and he’s right…this gets markedly better as the evening progresses. Grapey and purple, but quite firm, showing berries and black dirt with a gritty, almost angry complexity. The acidity is fine-grained and precise, though a bit sharp until the wine begins to unfold. Ultimately very pretty and versatile (in its response to different accompaniments), with plenty of development yet to come.

Gaja Grappa di Barbaresco (Piedmont) – Extremely elegant and smooth, which is (to my mind) a dangerous thing for a grappa; complexity must be there in force when the edges of this otherwise fiery elixir are shorn. There’s a surplus of floral and spice aromas but a general absence of a definitive foundation, to the extent that it’s highly reminiscent of some of the more internationalized Langhe blends from this house. In the end, elegance remains its primary quality.

By the time we leave, the restaurant is packed to and beyond its gills, reaching a point where it almost seems overcrowded (our peripheral table helps mitigate this effect). The service is uniformly fabulous, and – as we’ve always found to be the norm in this country – the language is Italian-until-you-need-help (with an unknown meat’s identity, for example), which I consider an enormously welcoming gesture. My closing espresso is dark with just the right edge of bitterness. Overall, this restaurant seems a very fair value, though I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it cheap…after all, this is Milan. We leave happy, satisfied, and tired (me more than Theresa), and pile into a taxi for the ride back to the hotel.

“The Hotel Méridien Yellow” I firmly announce (in Italian), drawing a confused and questioning glance from the driver. Visually, he’s not quite up to the standard of our previous chauffeur, but one can’t have everything. I give him the address instead. As we once more bump and careen around the city’s narrow streets, he suddenly nods, and softly but audibly mutters “Gallia.”

Oh, yes, right. Well, there are some things with which Pimsleur cannot help, and jetlag is one of them.



Copyright © Thor Iverson