Spain Vs Italy - Let The Gastronomic Battle Commence

Published on 7/2/2007 in Spanish Lifestyle

PizzaI like to think I know a thing or two about good food and wine. Lord knows I eat out often enough to give me at least some experience against which to assess the quality (or lack thereof) of this and that restaurant. Two restaurants I recently had the good fortune of visiting with friends have left a lasting impression on me, each for different reasons.

In early May, I was in Barcelona for the Spanish grand Prix and on the Friday night, dined with a group of about 17 friends at the Botafumeiro Restaurant. A very popular and traditional Galician seafood restaurant in the heart of Barcelona that seats 300 and counts the King of Spain and many celebrities amongst its loyal clients, this frankly massive venue impressed from the off, with its 'crew' of waiters and waitresses, decked out in nautical-type outfits, keeping the customers well plied with their very comprehensive range of fine Spanish wines.

The bread basket, for me the single most telling indicator of the quality of a restaurant) was excellent. Having ordered a variety of starters for the group to share, the meal was getting off to a very promising start, the Octopus Feira style topping the rankings. The main courses delivered the encore for the starters' quality performance, the fisherman's rice (Arroz Caldoso) looking particularly tasty. The freshest fish and vegetables and some rather fantastic sauces rounded out the whole gastronomic experience. The food, in addition to the wine (good choice made by one of our party though I forget what it was, a Diamante perhaps) certainly lived up to the grandeur of the place.

It was with much curiosity then that I overheard two friends, an Italian and a French man, discussing, sotto voce, that although 'ok,' the food was hardly anything to write home about, a sentiment which I could hardly believe I was sharing with them. They were, in particular, rather disappointed with the 90 EUR per head price tag, asserting that in Italy you'd need pay no more than 30 EUR to enjoy a meal not merely the equal of but, in fact, superior to the banquet I thought we had just enjoyed.

As luck would have it, I would be in Bologna the following week and so would have the opportunity of testing the theory!

Our arrival in Italy was beset by problems and delays and instead of arriving in Bologna at 1130hrs as scheduled it was all the airline could do to get us there at 2030hrs instead. We arrived at our country house accomodation, a few windy and hilly kilometres beyond the
Bolognese town of Monzuno and were informed by the mistress of the house that she had made a reservation for us in a restaurant by the name of Benvenuti in the next town, Loiano.

Upon arrival at Benvenuti after an exhausting day we were (no surprises here) 'welcomed' or 'benvenuti'd' by the owner of the restaurant who had been expecting us following a call from the mistress of the country house. Immediately we sat down we were treated to bruschetta and tomato, the freshest I had ever tasted and I took a moment to take in the rather lovely family restaurant feel of the place. I chatted in Italian (in rudimentary language of course, ably assisted by my phrasebook and an element of singing in Spanish which they seem to either understand or think is a dialect they SHOULD understand so just nod willingly)(maybe they just don;t want you to feel like an idiot) with the owner who suggested a couple of pasta dishes, one of which was taglioline in a pancetta and something (I think it was called heaven or puree of forbidden fruit or something) sauce. As a main I had a pancetta and bayleaf-wrapped fillet steak with oven potatoes and roasted tomatoes. Simple meal huh?

I was, until that day, a virgin of genuine Italian cuisine. I am glad to have waited to have my Italian pasta cherry picked at the ripe old age of 30, at a time in my life when I was best equipped to understand the marvel that meal would represent. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the main course as following the starter would be akin to following Michael Schumacher in the hot seat of a Ferrari F1 car (sorry Kimi). The main course, however, pulled a Lewis Hamilton out of the bag and was simply astounding. The steak, sourced from what must have been very happy, very satisfied cows, was cooked to absolute perfection and wrapped in delicious pancetta and bay leaves. The oven baked potatoes would literally melt in the mouth and the roasted tomatoes, well, simply tremendous.

Along with the chilled Lambrusco di Modena, it must come as no surprise that this meal actually had me trying to hatch an evil (well, not really very evil as such, but it woke you up!) for escaping my mortgage/job/life in Gibraltar and going to live in Italy! It was wonderful. The atmosphere. The food. The wine! And the price, the least important bit, 30 EUR per head! For the money I'd paid the Botafumeirans, I could have had my innocence taken three times!

My friends were right you know. The Italians do more than just fast, beautiful, exotic, pulse-racing cars better than anyone else. They are more than just football World Cup Champions and the nation that brought us the most successful F1 team in the history of the sport. They are the originators of some of the best food in the world and the Italian nation is, for all of the above reasons and despite their well-publicised and much maligned failings, far greater than the sum of its parts.

Written by: Selwyn Figueras

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