I went to Italy once. My travel companions and I spent a few days each in Venice, Florence, and Rome and took day tours to Verona, Assisi, and Pisa. It was all about beautiful scenery, incredible architecture, and classic art. I was not yet into exploring food (beyond gelato), so I have a deep yearning to go back one day. It was my first time in Europe, and I think I was too excited to be away from home on such a big trip that I didn’t put much thought into anything that I did. This could also be due to the fact that I was 14 years old and on a school trip.
At my junior high school, ninth graders had the opportunity to go on a Europe trip over spring break, which was organized by the Social Studies department. They usually alternated between France and Germany, but for the first time, Italy came up when I hit grade nine. Jackpot for this leather shoe and spaghetti lover. (I can’t remember the details of how I got my parents to pay for it, probably something to do with my impeccable marks.) But going to Europe as a teenager and given copious amounts of free time meant that I did little actual touring beyond the required morning tours with our guide. Afternoons were usually spent eating gelato, window shopping, and scoping out Italian boys. To be expected, of course, but I often curse my younger self for not getting more out of the trip.
We always ate dinner at a restaurant relatively close to our hotel, and while I don’t recall them being overly touristy, they had to accommodate a group of 20+ and be willing to put up with a bunch of Anglo teens. Out of everything we ate, the dish I remember most was a lasagna we ate once as our primi. Up to that point, the only lasagna I ever knew was the three-layer version filled with a hearty meat sauce, cottage cheese, and brick mozzarella. With crispy corners and blistered spots of cheese, this was “lasagna” to my friends and family. You might see ricotta instead of cottage cheese if someone was trying to be fancy, and you definitely started seeing a chicken version make the rounds at dinner parties once The Best of Bridge published a recipe affectionately considered “death to dieters.”
I remember the lasagna because it was nothing like one I had ever had before. It was easily made up of at least five layers of pasta, with each separated by a light touch of cheese and a thin pool of tomato sauce. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was receiving some schooling in Italian simplicity. I’m glad that I remember this more clearly than any boy we may have ogled.
Bar Ciccio Alimentari on the edge of Soho reminds me a little of those restaurants we visited: small, slightly cavernous, bustling. Perhaps it feels like Italy because I know it’s run by Italians. A friend and I discovered it about two years ago and had a wonderful dinner one night. But as can be the case here, I never returned until recently. So little time, so much food. On my return, it ended up being the perfect respite from a cold night, with an easy reservation, a full house to provide a warm atmosphere, and plenty of carbohydrates to help with cold weather padding.
And to return to what I was talking about before—I had the lasagna, and it reminded me of that which I had in Italy. While it certainly wouldn’t be considered restrained, this lasagna is still lighter than the casserole I grew up with. The ample amount of sauce adds a lot of bulk to the presentation, but when considering the lasagna on its own, the layers of pasta with artichokes, leeks, and stracchino cheese did not push the boundaries of indulgence too hard. It being a vegetable lasagna probably helped with this. It did push those boundaries, though, in being a multi-layered cheese and carbohydrate dish, and I was very satisfied.
We started with a salumi board and a notable serving of burrata. Neither of us had ever had burrata served atop sautéed winter greens, and we ended up loving it. The milky flavour of the cheese paired well with the bitterness below. A salty bite from the board added to that, and our metabolisms revved quickly.
I decided to have the non-Italian option for dessert: apple strudel. It worked. Anything with whipped cream usually works for me.
Now that I think about it, maybe I chose the strudel because on some subconscious level I was connecting to my Italy trip—I think our tour guide was from Austria.