Tuesday, March 13, 2012

You’re Never Too Old…

to try something new. More on this later.

It was our first full day back in New Orleans and it was time for lunch. In a city known for great food and numerous restaurants (Trip Advisor has reviews on 927), we didn’t have to think twice about our first meal—it would be Ancora Pizzeria and Salumeria.

In our blogs on January 10 and 11 of this year, we introduced you to Ancora’s co-owner Jeff Talbot and salumist Kristopher Doll. Our two meals at this restaurant were among the most memorable of our five-week stay and we left longing for more. So on Friday (one of the two days when Ancora serves lunch), we arrived anticipating a great lunch. Needless to say, Ancora didn’t disappoint.

When I was writing about Saint Street Inn in Lafayette, I quoted Carolyn Wright at whenfoodworks.com: “I have heard the expression that a certain food was so ‘thoughtfully’ prepared many times, on food shows, books and in discussions…but never quite understood (really understood) what that meant…And if ever there was thoughtful food…, this was it…carefully plated, freshly assembled and you just knew that a lot of heart and soul went into the selection and preparation of every single ingredient…” The same could be said—no, shouted from the rooftop—about Ancora. The simplest and most rustic ingredients are elevated to new levels.

Let’s start with beets. When I was growing up, my mother would make a concoction called Harvard Beets. These were prepared with vinegar, sugar, and cornstarch and my father loved them. I loathed them. Since then I have had a bad attitude about beets. I would eat them, but never with gusto.

The lunch menu at Ancora is simple—four pizzas each of which come with the day’s lunch salad. The salad that day was arugula and beets with a citrus dressing. That could have been a problem given my orange allergy, but the kitchen kindly substituted an olive oil dressing for the citrus. I took a bite of beet and exclaimed to Chuck “Wait until you taste these beets!”

“They’re really good,” he replied. “Is this the way beets are supposed to taste?” Yes, he had never eaten a beet before that moment.

But this simple salad illustrates what I would call thoughtful food. There is the peppery arugula. There are the sweet and tender—but not soft—beets. And the salad was topped with a shaving of slightly tart and slightly salty quartirolo cheese. Each ingredient complimented the others and was in perfect balance with the others.

When our server came to remove the salad plates we both remarked on the beets. And a few moments later a surprise came to our table—an off-menu bruschetta with Jeff Talbot’s marvelous crusty housemade bread, beets, and burrata cheese lightly drizzled with a red wine reduction and olive oil. Since we had enjoyed the beets in the salad, the chef thought we might also enjoy this.

And right he was.

Burrata, along with leeks and pickled onions, would be used on that evening’s special bruschetta and is a menu item that has just begun to appear on Italian restaurant menus in larger cities. “Burrata cheese is an Italian specialty cheese which was developed in the 1920s. Although the cheese remained largely confined to Italy in the 20th century, in the late 1990s, cheese fans in other regions of the world started cultivating an interest in burrata, and today it is available in many specialty shops and restaurants. Some people maintain that the best burrata cheese still comes from Italy, although some cheesemakers may disagree.

“This cheese is derived from mozzarella…When cheesemakers create burrata, they make mozzarella and then shape it into a pocket, stuffing scraps of mozzarella into the pocket along with some cream, and then packing the cheese into a ball. It has been suggested that this cheese was probably developed as a way to use up scraps of cheese” (wisegeek.com).

It should go without saying that both of us developed a new and improved attitude about beets following this lunch.

Now it was time for pizza and our choices were the same as at our last lunch visit. We began with a classic Margherita with tomatoes, fior di latte (fresh cow’s milk mozzarella), and basil.

Ancora makes you rethink the whole concept of pizza. As Jeff said during our later conver-sation with him, we have all grown up eating pizza and have a good idea of what we think pizza should be. Eating at Ancora encourages you to discard your preconceived ideas. With most pizza, the crust is merely the vehicle to move the toppings—often many, many toppings—from tray to mouth.

Here, the crust is the focal point and the toppings accessories. Jeff’s dough takes three days to prepare and he has been “babying” his starter for over six years. The result is a crust that—while thin—is flavorful and is nicely chewy without being tough. And with a good wood fired brick oven pizza, the charred bubbles on the crust are to be savored.

And the “sauce” is not really sauce at all. It is crushed San Marzano tomatoes with a bit of sea salt. Nothing more. “San Marzano tomatoes are grown in the Campania region of Italy, near Naples, where pizza originated so these folks know their tomatoes. It's said that the tomatoes are special because they grow in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, famed for destroying Pompeii, in fields that are rich in volcanic soil. The warm sunny weather, stable climate, and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea probably don't hurt, either” (thecitycook.com). San Marzanos have a slightly tart acidic flavor that is counterbalanced by the creamy mozzarella cheese.

Our second pizza was the Diavola made with the same crushed San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella and a spicy Naples salumi which is made in-house. Later Jeff took us into his special temperature and humidity controlled salumi room where all of the meats served in the restaurant are aged.

Each evening, one of the menu options is the Affettati Misti, a selection of five of Kristopher Doll’s pork-based salumi. The menu board at the back of the dining room announced that evening’s selection.

One of that evening’s contorni was Price Edward Island mussels in a wine and tomato broth. Jeff told us that they have served a lot of mussels this Lenten season, and I am hoping that Easter doesn’t come too soon since I want to return some evening for mussels. Who knows. Maybe I’ll get Chuck to try mussels.

In a city of great restaurants, this 5.0 Addie restaurant is one of my favorites. In my January 11th blog, I described the food as “complex in its simplicity.” I still can’t think of a better description.

Our table was next to the wood for the oven, and we found Kitty Humbug enjoying himself from a seat in the woodpile.

We are off to St. James Cheese Company on Magazine Street who provides Ancora with all of the cheese products. I have a new recipe for mac and cheese and Chuck wants cheese for an ultimate grilled cheese sandwich.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.


Carolyn said...

I love your Blog! I was, also, very suprised to see a quote from my blog...whenfoodworks! Quite thrilling to see that you knew what I was trying to say about a new phrase "thoughtful" food! Will be following your blog...Happy wandering! Carolyn

Carolyn said...

I love your Blog! I was, also, very suprised to see a quote from my blog...whenfoodworks! Quite thrilling to see that you knew what I was trying to say about a new phrase "thoughtful" food! Will be following your blog...Happy wandering! Carolyn