Monday, April 2, 2012

“Hard to Believe, Harry”

For years, Harry Kalas and Richie “Whitey” Ashburn were part of the broadcasting team for the Philadelphia Phillies. Both – alas – are no longer with us and both were inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And, as points of home town/state pride, Harry Kalas was born in Naperville, IL (just a stone’s throw from Chuck’s hometown of Plainfield, IL and was a graduate of the University of Iowa, our common alma mater). Along with Harry’s signature “outta here” whenever a Phillie hit a home run, a favorite phrase was Richie Ashburn’s “Hard to believe, Harry” whenever a spectacular or unusual play occurred.

So what do two baseball announcers have to do with a food blog? Well, first, do you think it’s easy coming up with original blog openings? Second, here we are at one of our two favorite pizzerias—Ancora Pizzeria & Salumi—in the country, and we didn’t eat pizza. “Hard to believe, Harry.”

As I have mentioned earlier, Ancora’s menu is as minimalist as its sleek décor. The regular menu offers: one bruschetta—with ricotta, salt, and olive oil; five pizzas; and one dolce – assorted biscotti. But there is a chalkboard menu that changes regularly and on this visit everything we ordered came off the special menu.

We started with the day’s bruschetta which was burrata and beets on Jeff Talbot’s grilled bread. We had sampled this dish at our lunch the previous week (see 3/13/12) and it was a “no brainer” that this would be part of the meal.

We next moved on to the Affetatti Misti or cured meat plate. Each evening, Ancora offers a different selection of four or five of their house-cured meats and this evening the offerings were (clockwise from top right) calabrese, mugnano, anatra, soft napo, and fennel. The calabrese, mugnano, and fennel were all hard salumis. The soft napo, served again on Jeff’s grilled bread, was—as the name implies—a softer salumi with a texture not unlike a cooked German sausage. The final item on the plate—the anatra—was new to both of us and was truly amazing. This is air-cured duck breast whose texture is similar to prosciutto and, like prosciutto, has a layer of fat intact. And again like prosciutto, the fat is as flavorful as the meat. Rounding out the tray were a kumquat and mustard chutney and a mild house-made red cabbage kraut.

There were three contorni (sides) on the menu and we chose two as additions to our meal. The first was roasted shrimp with a garnish of warm green olives and slivered garlic. Although the shrimp’s heads still remained, the tails had been peeled. The grilling imparted a slight smoky taste and the briny olives and sweet garlic harmonizes with the shrimp.

And now came the contorni that blew us out of the water—the gnocchi with Brussels sprouts and pancetta. Gnocchi are small dumplings that can be made from semolina, wheat flour, or potatoes. These were potato gnocchi and the lightest potato gnocchi I have eaten. I even needed to ask Bren, our server, because I couldn’t believe these were made from potatoes.

Again, Chuck is no lover of Brussels sprouts. I don’t know if he has objected in the past to the sulpheric smell that comes from boiling them or whether he disliked them on general principles. What I do know is that we watched each other carefully to make sure the other didn’t get more than his/her share.

We finished with the evening dolce—house made and fire grilled fruit and nut bread served with sweet mascarpone cheese and drizzled with honey. This is a prime example of why I so love this restaurant. The concept here is so simple, while the finished product is so refined. This is a dessert that we could all make on some level—as long as you can bake bread as good as Jeff’s—but few of us would think of.

Our meal was over, but that wasn’t the end to our evening at Ancora. But that will be the subject of tomorrow’s blog.

So we are going to fast forward one week. It was an iffy weather day, but as we got to late afternoon it seemed to clear. Let’s go out to dinner! Where? Where else? Back to Ancora.

We started with the Affetatti Misti which on that evening included (clockwise from top right) Genoa salami, toscano, soft napo, and calabrese—again with the kumquat mustard chutney and mild red kraut.

Next was the bruschetta—duroc rillette. (Duroc pig is an older breed of American domestic pig that forms the basis for many mixed-breed commercial hogs []). This was a coarse spread of pork slow cooked in its own fat. It got me to wondering. What is the difference between confit and rillete? After some on-line research, I still really don’t know the answer. It may be—as in the case of duck confit—that after the meat is cooked in its own fat it is shredded and made into a rough paste and then becomes rillette. This presentation had the rich pork spread topped with a small amount of house-made sauerkraut (sharper in flavor than the red kraut on the meat plate) that minimized the richness of the meat.

Gnocchi was again on the contorni menu—this time in a rich cheese sauce with sweet sautéed onions. I would give a small edge to the Brussels sprouts/ pancetta gnocchi from the previous week, but this was still delicious. I only took a small taste and left the remainder to Chuck. The reason for my generosity follows.

There on the board as a contorni was one of my favorite foods—mussels. And not just mussels but Prince Edward Island mussels in a tomato sauce with house-made sausage. I think that mussels have a more pronounced flavor than clams and this stronger taste makes them perfect in more aggressive dishes. This is why you often find mussels in black bean sauce on Chinese restaurant menus. And here the mussels held their own against this sauce of tomato, sausage, and garlic. And on the bottom of the bowl were a couple of slices of Jeff’s bread that soaked up all of these tasty juices. I did give Chuck one only mussel. His response: “It’s good but you should feel free to eat the rest yourself since I know how much you love mussels” told me “Don’t push it, Kate.”

We finished with the dolce—apricot and walnut bread that was again served with honey and mascarpone cheese.

As we are driving home, Chuck asks “Can we go back again next week?” So hang on, you may well be reading a weekly blog about this 5.0 Addie restaurant.

Oh, again no pizza. “Hard to believe, Harry.”

No comments: