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San Domenico, Imola, Italy, tasted on March 23, 2004 There is simply no doubt that Italy is a superior country when it comes to food. And the beauty is that the quality is expressed at every level of the food "chain". But to be honest, our experience at the high end wasn't superlative, until that is, we arrived in Imola to eat at San Domenico.

With two Michelin stars we weren't exactly finding a hidden gem. But being well-known didn't detract from what a great meal we had. And in fact, unlike our experience at La Pergola in Rome, San Domenico was relaxed even amid its high standards. Imagine a home cooked really refined meal. That's what we had at San Domenico, and it was fantastic.

We started off with a series of amuse, a tray-full in fact. The salmon amuse was a bite of pure and solid salmon flavor that was delicious. The olive oil on top was a great complement. The bite of eggplant with tomato and cheese was an enjoyable collection of warm and honest flavors. My favorite (surprisingly) was the small plate of deep fried olives. The flavor was meaty and delicious and not overly olivey. Really quite good. The croquette on top was also fried perfection. The series of amuse was rounded out with some salt cod with little salt bursts dotting the cod landscape, and a deviled egg. The egg was surprisingly smooth and had a deep eggy flavor that was not grainy. The balsamic on top, of course, was beautiful to behold and taste. All in all a pretty solid start. We had to keep reminding ourselves of it as we ate the dry and flavorless bread. One of the pieces tasted stale to me. What is it with bread in this area. So weird.

Not to worry, soon after big bowls of potato soup arrived. The first spoonful was the best. It was smooth, beautiful, with a velvety savory flavor depth. The first spoonful was so complete and wonderfully textured, that it was the best. Nothing could beat the contrast of your mouth pre and post the potato soup. The foie gras that followed was excellent (and beautiful to look at). On it's own the foie was superb, creamy with a delicate savory goodness. The apple sauce and gele were good, but ultimately I preferred just eating the foie on its own. I was assured the raisins were excellent.

Perhaps my favorite dish came next. It's simply hard for me not to love combinations of pasta, egg, cheese, and truffles. I admit that bias. That said, I am not unable to distinguish your run-of-the-mill yummy pasta-egg-cheese-truffle combo from one that's world class. And this one was world class. Imagine a large raviolo filled with ricotta pesto. An orange colored egg yolk surprises you on your third or fourth bite. The raviolo is showered with tons of parmigiana reggiano and white and black truffles. I'm close to running out of superlatives to describe this dish. Suffice to say, it was warm, luxurious, and delicious. The gorgeous yellow brown buttery surface looked incredible and tasted better. If there was a complaint, believe it or not, it's that there too much. I forgave them for the large portion.

When you eat at a sushi restaurant it's good to try the tamago - the egg sushi. It's in some ways the simplest to make, but also a kind of benchmark of the quality of the restaurant. The thinking is that if they focus their attention on making something as simple as tamago perfectly then you're in good hands. I think you can consider risotto in that category when it comes to Italian restaurants. It's a deceptively simple dish to make, but ultimately getting it perfect is quite difficult. Most of us thought the risotto passed the tamago test with flying colors - it was creamy with a light sharpness, rich and straightforward. It had a subtle meaty richness. There was some dissent. Debbie and DebDu didn't love it. Peyman thought it was very good, but again, too big.

Lauren of course asked for a veggie menu. Given the quality of everything we ate, we were semi-surprised when her meal started off with a lame salad with a mealy tomato. The fact that some restaurants fall off a cliff when it comes to vegetarians is actually not that surprising. The fact that we got a mealy tomato served in a restaurant in Italy was very disappointing and unexpected. Luckily the salad/tomato incident seemed to be an anomaly as what followed was quite good. Specifically, the veggie gnocchi and parsley risotto were both excellent. The ravioli with ricotta and cinammon were better than excellent. They were unique, interesting, and according to Lauren, one of the best pasta dishes she'd ever had.

Then our main course arrived. Beef. Brilliant as it was so simple. Medium rare beef drenched in a butter sauce. Three perfectly caramelized onions with balsamic tanginess and gentle smoky bacon accents. Amazing! You just can't help but feel lucky to eat a dish like this.

Cheese course followed. Pecorino di Pienza - nice but not special. The mucca was cow cheese in herbs - its flavor was somewhat bitter. Ahd finally Pecorino Cenare - shockingly strong for a pecorino - sour, slightly antiseptic, not exactly enjoyable but super interesting. While the cheese plate wasn't a home run, it was certainly interesting.

Dessert came to the rescue though to end things on a very positive note. My personal favorite was the almond brittle. It had an intense almond flavor, very light, and not sticky. The candied almonds sat perched on a delicate thin cookie shell. Super yummy, as were the perfect raspberries on cookie with cream, the super light cream puffs, and the assorted chocolate items. The melty chocolate cake on a banana disc with a thin candied top was amazing as well. Our tour of the kitchen and the wine cellar that seemed 1000 years old - super cool, were very neat as well.

Imola was yet another adorable little Italian city. And on this lazy afternoon with the restaurant less than half full, San Domenico came through for us and gave us a meal that was unassuming and unpretentious, but refined to an incredible degree. And ultimately everything just tasted great. I still think about this meal. Often.











Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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