that the lunch menu at Ancora was short. Well, the dinner menu is not much longer. Each night there is a bruschetta on Jeff Talbot’s marvelous Italian bread. There is a market salad. There are two contorni (side dishes). There is the Affettati Misti or selected salumi plate. There are six pizzas plus a “pizza of the day.” There are two desserts – biscotti and the special dolce or sweet. Pretty simple. But what the restaurant does with these few items is anything but simple.
On the evening of our visit, the offered bruschetta was topped with Swiss chard, bacon, and mushrooms. The market salad contained greens, beets, and grapefruit with a citrus vinaigrette. The contorni were roasted turnips or roasted cauliflower. And the pizza special was the Marinara with pork meatballs. The dolce was listed on the board as figs and walnuts.
We knew we would be ordering the Affettati Misti and a repeat of our Diavolo pizza from our lunch visit. But what to go with them. Chuck left the decision to me. Would I order the bruschetta or one of the contorni? I know that Chuck doesn’t like mushrooms so that nixed the bruschetta. So which contorni? Let’s go with the cauliflower.
This was the first item to reach the table. (You will note that the lighting that evening has given everything an amber hue.) The plate was piled high with cauliflower florets which had been roasted with olive oil, a bit of garlic, and a bit of Calabrian pepper then tossed with black olive halves and topped with grated cow’s milk cheese.
I was well prepared to eat most of this dish. I was mistaken. “Just take a small taste,” I said to Chuck. I should know better. How often have these words gotten me into trouble? He loved it. He ate his share. He may have eaten more than his share. There is something about high heat roasting a vegetable that takes it into another dimension. Roasting sweetens cauliflower’s sometimes bitter flavor, and besides, what doesn’t taste better with olive oil and garlic.
Next was the Affettati Misti, that evening a selection of five pork-based salumi crafted by Kristopher Doll who is the salumist for Adolfo Garcia’s New Orleans restaurants (Rio Mar, La Boca, a Mano, Gusto, High Hat Café, and Ancora Pizzaria). The forty-one year old Doll is from Lafayette, LA. In an interview with Todd A. Price at nola.com, Doll explains how he became interested in the art of charcuterie: “Line cooking was not something that I felt was ever natural for me. I had to work very hard at that. The charcuterie thing, I just had a knack for it. And I've taken it upon myself to learn all I can, scouring old Italian books and recipes. I try to keep true to the way I was taught: Learn the basics and respect the traditions. You can do variations on a tradition. If it calls for pepper, it doesn't mean that it has to be black pepper. There is white pepper, there is cayenne. Everything hits a different part of the tongue.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t familiar with any of the five meat items and had to do some follow-up research. Starting at the top right in the photo , we were served Mugnano – hard peppery salami described at prosciuttopedia.com as “Mugnano del Cardinale (from) the province of Avellino, an ancient village founded around 1300 at the foot of the Partenio Mountains, an area characterized by light winds that blow south-southwest constantly, avoiding stagnant air and favouring the aging of the product that also acquires the aromas and fragrances transported by the wind that blows through beech, oak and chestnut forests.” I didn’t detect any aromas from the wind but this was a very tasty salumi.
Next was my favorite item on the plate, the Testa or hogs head cheese. This is “the Italian version of head cheese…It is a sort of sausage-meets-terrine made of cooked pork pieces and spiced broth set into a firm gelatin mold. Thinly sliced, you can eat it cold with crusty bread or warmed to release the gelatin broth's saucy goodness…” (menuinprogress.com). Now I have eaten German-style head cheese, that awful stuff made with large chunks of meat held together by rubbery gelatin. Instead, this was slices of a fine and semi-smooth product similar to patè.
On the bottom left is the Nduja (en-doo-yah) which is “The only spreadable salami, nduja originated in Spilinga in northern Italy (americansalumi.com). “Pork meat, lard, liver, and lights are ground together and stuffed into pig's bowels, then spiced with chili and aged up to 1 year; (it is) eaten as an antipasto, spread on bread, and incorporated in pasta sauces. (rusticocooking.com) The nduja was served on slices of Jeff Talbot’s Italian bread and was spiced with Calabrian peppers.
Then came the Lonza which comes from the shoulder and neck of the pig and, to me, closely resembled prosciutto. And finally there was a good, semi-hard fennel sausage.
In the tray’s center were slices of pickled mirliton (pronounced meela-tawns in certain parts of the state) which is a pear-shaped vegetable commonly used in Louisiana cooking. Chuck wasn’t overly fond of these, but I thought that the slightly acid taste helped cut the richness of the Testa and Nduja.
I was a little worried when I saw that someone other than Jeff was staffing the pizza oven. My concern was misplaced, and our Diavolo was the equal to that on our Saturday visit. As much as we both love the basic Margherita, we agreed that at Ancora the Diavolo was the favorite.
We had just concluded that, after all of that food, we didn’t have room for dessert. But that was before our server described the evening’s dolce—a toasted fruit (figs) and nut (walnuts) bread served on a mound of mascarpone cheese and drizzled with honey. Maybe we had room after all.
I find this restaurant amazing. The menu is short and the ingredients wouldn’t fit most people’s description of high end. On the menu that evening were Swiss chard, beets, turnips, and cauliflower and salumi made with heart, liver, and pig’s head parts. But what the kitchen does with these simple ingredients is astounding. As I said to our server, “The food is complex in its simplicity.” And the best testimony comes from my Favorite Traveling Companion. “I don’t believe what I ate tonight – cauliflower, heart, liver. And I enjoyed it all.” High praise indeed for this 5.0 Addie restaurant.
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.