April 29, 1998
Dana Pearson has recently returned from a weeklong vacation in Italy, and plans to milk it for as many columns as he can. So, without further ado, here is Part 1 of an x-part series:
The pizza we had in the ristorante tucked into the side of a castle on a hilltop in Chiusdo as the sun set over the Tuscan hills was, like the setting, out of this world. My first real taste of Italian gnocchi in the back-street trattoria in Orvieto was fantastic. The sweets I sampled at the pasticceria in Assisi were heavenly, and the wine I had with every meal went down as beautifully as the golden sun mentioned earlier in this paragraph. I believe it was the first sentence. I’m sure of it. But let me check. Yes, first sentence. I was right.
But the wet Danish. Ahh, the wet Danish. Can any of the dishes experienced on my wonderful vacation in Italy with my wife come close to culinary perfection achieved by the wet Danish?
Of course not.
And how could they? The people at Alitalia know how to put on a meal for the people who travel on their flights between America and Italy. With a certain mass-produced, pre-packaged, sealed-in-plastic je ne sais quoi (pardon my French), the chefs at Italy’s foremost airline serve up a tantalizing array of dishes to tempt the palate and foreshadow the food awaiting the travelers in Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria, and beyond.
Our non-stop flight to Rome left Boston at eight o’clock in the evening, leaving the attendants no choice but to wheel out a dinner at nine. We would continue to dine at such a late hour during the course of our stay in Siena and environs, but naturally, the impact of the food could not match that of our first meal aboard the plane.
It was a pork-type meat, porky in texture and porky in flavor, swimming in a delightfully porky sauce. With the aid of three teeny-weeny bottles of red wine, I downed the porky meat and accompanying potatoes, tinged ever so lovingly with the porky sauce. Oddly, I couldn’t find any pork-type meats on the menus in any of the restaurants we visited, but that may be because I don’t know the Italian phrase for pork-type meat. (The Italians have an annoying tendency to print all their menus in Italian.)
After catching a couple hours of shut-eye, during which I awoke to view three minutes of The Rainmaker, I was presented with a European breakfast consisting not of pancakes, not of eggs, not of waffles, not even of French toast, but to a fruit concoction and a Danish topped with cream cheese and half a cherry. It was a splendid Danish, flaky and moist…but not as moist as the Danish I would be treated to seven days later on the return flight.
That Danish, the celebrated dolce di pasta sfoglia, came in a simple white plastic dish. After a week of ravioli gnudi, pica ai funghi, and countless glasses of Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti, the wet Danish was the culmination of all that Italy had to offer the hungry tourist. In its minimalist setting, the wet Danish, with beads of Danishy moisture welling on its supple curves, stood out boldly and plaintively, as if to say, “Arrivederci!”
It nearly slipped out of my hand as I drew it toward my mouth, not so much because, having been subjected to the laws of condensation, it was dripping wet like a sponge immersed in a claw-foot bathtub for six hours, but because I was so anxious about experiencing the last real morsel of Italian cuisine.
I took one bite, and that was enough. Yes, the moisture element was unnerving to an American corrupted by decades of unwet Danishes, but what made me place the pastry down was respect for the artistry behind its creation. That, and a nasty bout of turbulence.