Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Osteria da Clara Revisited

"Few things are more tempting to a writer than to repeat, admiringly, what he has said before." John Kenneth Galbraith
Hard to believe, but it has been more than a year since we first visited Osteria da Clara in Vršovice. That was shortly after it opened.

It's a small, Tuscan-inspired place just around the corner from our flat.The British chef and owner, Glen Svarc, used to live and cook in Florence. But he has Czech roots.

We've eaten there many times over the past year, but the menu changes every few months, so it always stays interesting. Some things we didn't love. But there have been a number of dishes that I have severely missed after they were taken off the menu.

So, when I saw the menu once again had a couple of our favorites from when the restaurant opened, we headed over.

And we were turned away. This restaurant, with more or less eight tables, is quite often full now.It wasn't that way in the beginning when I first wrote about it, but it has gotten a lot of positive press, including from the very popular Czech food blog, Cuketka.cz.

I wouldn't advise showing up without a reservation, especially on the weekend.However, we did turn up without one on another night. We were lucky and scored the last free table.

Soon, the breadbasket arrived. It contained wonderful warm focaccia and some sliced quality bread.The focaccia, lightly sprinkled with salt and rosemary, came with an assertive olive oil.

This was not available on our very first visit. I find it irresistible and have a hard time not ruining my appetite by consuming too many slices while waiting for food.

Which leads me to another thing you need to be aware of. When the restaurant is busy, the kitchen and the service can really slow down. Patience is required.We started by sharing a bowl of the soup of the day, tomato bread soup (85 CZK). It was a large portion, and they thoughtfully split it into two bowls for us.It was creamy and the flavors were very balanced. Just the right amount of salt brought up the essence of the tomatoes nicely, along with the basil. The little pieces of soaked bread gave it a pleasant texture and substantial heft. It was almost a meal in itself.

On a second visit, I tried prosciutto, scamorza, pere e noci, otherwise known as Parma ham, smoked cheese, pear, walnuts, rucola, and radicchio with lemon and olive oil (115 CZK).Fantastic. The Parma ham was fresh, moist, and tender. It was a very generous portion. The buttery slices melted in my mouth. The warm, gooey mozzarella-like cheese was a decadently delicious companion.

Perhaps it was luck, but the pear was the sweetest I can remember. My biggest regret was that there were only four slices. I cut it into small pieces and rationed them out so I could have some with each bite.

On that visit, V had zuppa di cozze -- mussel soup (139 CZK). She said the mussels themselves were just OK.They were clean, but some were on the small side, perhaps because the season had passed. No "r" in the month of May.

However, she really enjoyed the tomato-based both under the shells. It was strong, very garlicky, and spicy. The soup had the flavor of the mussels and the sea. There was a slice of bread soaking at the bottom of the bowl.

For a main course, I had one of my all-time favorite dishes, the fettine di maiale in saor -- pork fillets with pine nuts, raisins, caramelized red onions and balsamico (259 CZK).It lived up to my fond memories. The three pieces of pork were pounded flat and very tender. They were dipped in flour and cooked in wine. Very rich.

I like dishes with sweet notes. This was perfect for me. But V's tastes don't always run in the same direction. As I was raving about how good it was, she teased me.

"It's a cake."

"Oh, come on."

"Flour, butter, sugar, nuts. Cake."

"Let them eat cake."

On the second visit, I thought ordering something I hadn't tried before might be better for you, the reader. But me, the eater, couldn't resist another chance to have the fettine di maiale.But this turned out to be an educational choice for us both because it came out differently than other visits. This time, the chef had a heavier hand with the balsamic, moving it more into the sour camp than the sweet. I preferred the way it was the first time.

Also the vegetables changed on different nights. Both times there were sliced potatoes and carrots. The carrots are some of the best I've ever had.

They were cooked in Marsala wine and have a smokey flavor that I think comes from pancetta. They still had some crunch. Good for the health, but I don't want to know how much butter and olive oil they go through every night in the kitchen.

One time, there was zucchini. Another time there was fennel. You never know what you are going to get. But I appreciate that the vegetables are included in the price of the main course. No extra add ons for side orders.

V ordered a favorite dish from a year ago, the spaghetti alla zingara (139 CZK).This pasta excited her the first time she tried it because of the fresh ginger in the mix, a non-classical but creative idea. Per the name, it has a spicy zing.

This time, she didn't love it. She wished for more sauce, there was too much olive oil, and it was slightly overcooked. That said, the portion was huge. She could only finish half at dinner and took the rest home.

But there have been pastas on the menu that were really terrific. One was on the menu a couple of months ago -- a penne with tomato sauce and Italian sausage.It was perfectly al dente. I had actually planned to save some of it for lunch the next day, but I enjoyed it so much, I finished the whole thing.

And I need to mention another penne dish from a previous menu that I still dream about. It was made with mascarpone cheese, pumpkin, and pancetta. Creamy, savory, and sweet.

"It's dinner and desert," was my enthusiastic assessment after I had cleaned the plate. I can't wait for it to appear again.

I usually drink Pilsner Urquell. They only serve it in .33 liter bottles (35 CZK).Bottles of Mattoni mineral water were 30 CZK each. V had one of the house white table wines (35 CZK per glass).

The wine list is one of the really great things about Osteria da Clara. It is all Italian, the prices are relatively low, and we've had quite a few good ones.

The cheapest on the list was 195 CZK and the most expensive was 595 CZK. But there were also wines by the pitcher -- .2 liter, .5 liter, or 1 liter -- that are even better bargains.

For dessert, we shared a house-made tiramisu (99 CZK). Loved it.The topping was so light, I was doubting that was mascarpone. The savoiardi or lady fingers were soaked in a strong espresso.There were chocolate chips and a drizzling of strawberry syrup.

Above all, it was not too sweet. What was most interesting is V does not like tiramisu. I expected her to take one bite and the rest would be for me. But she thought the flavor and texture were quite special. She ended up consuming her full share.

Not content with one sweet ending, V ordered us two shots of Becherovka as a digestif (60 CZK each).

Even though it is outside the tourist center, I regularly recommend Osteria da Clara. Two well-traveled colleagues raved after I sent them over. A diplomat and his wife loved it. My stepfather seriously wanted to eat there every night. After all my referrals, only one person came back not appreciating it.

Just don't raise expectations to unrealistic levels. As noted above, it is not perfect. Not every dish is a winner. Service can be haphazard. The kitchen is not always consistent. But there is a large share of quality.

It's clear the chef's heart and soul is in his work. I've found nothing else quite like it in the city.

And along with original and often delicious dishes, Osteria da Clara has one more key ingredient -- great value.

It's a place that this writer repeatedly returns to, admiringly, again and again.

Osteria da Clara
Mexicka 7
Prague 10 - Vršovice
Tel. (+420) 271 726 548

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sbarro Pizza at Flora Mall

“You better cut the pizza in four slices because I'm not hungry enough to eat six.” Yogi Berra
I just got back from Naples, where I had a truly amazing Pizza Margherita from the famed restaurant, Da Michele. I wrote about it on my blog -- it was so simple, and yet really something special.

That said, I grew up eating New York-style pizzas. And while I can respect and, occasionally, enjoy something different, I'll never love another pizza as I do my home slice.

Much has been written about pizzas in this town. The Prague Post used to have annual best pizza contests. So, I was surprised to find little has been said about Sbarro, which has been in Prague for a few years now.I'm not really sure why I'd never been to the one in Prague before. This was a natural for me -- a chain that started in New York and makes New York-style pizza.

I went to the food court at Palac Flora to check it out.The mall also has McDonald's, KFC, and a variety of quasi-Asian options. It's worth a trip to the bottom level to check out the French patisserie, Paul.Sbarro's serves a number of other kinds of food besides pizza such as pasta, meats, and vegetables. But I had no interest in those.They didn't look nearly as appetizing as what you'd find at an American Sbarro.

They did have a pizza man working out front for the customers to watch.But he's not always out there. A good number of regular pies had already been pre-made and awaited reheating.They also had a number of thick-crust and "stuffed" pizzas filled with meat or vegetables, with a crust folded over the top.I had a specific mission in mind. I told the girl behind the counter I wanted a whole pizza to take back to my office. Her eyes grew wide.

"A whole one?" she asked. "I have to ask." It seemed this had never been done before.

Permission was secured and a large box was found. It was 29 CZK per cheese slice and 39 CZK per pepperoni slice. I got two pepperoni for myself because they didn't have enough cheese slices prepared.The total was 252 CZK.

Back at the office, the response was generally positive. But in the 15 minutes it took me to get there, the pizza had lost almost all of its warmth.

One person liked the generous amount of cheese. Another, an American, admitted being a huge Sbarro fan and said he went as soon as they opened. He still goes regularly.One colleague compared it Domino's.

Here's my take.

This pizza had potential, the sauce and cheese were pretty good, but it suffered on one major count. I've tried it a few times now, and the crust has always been stale from sitting too long. That really killed it for me.

If freshly made, it could be so much better, but I've never had that. In fact, they always seemed to have been sitting around a long time.

Before leaving, I asked the manager if I could have their telephone number so I could call ahead and place an order for pick up.

"No, that's not possible," I was informed. Another strange and unusual request, it seemed.

On another visit, I tried a slice of the stuffed pizza with meat (77 CZK).I liked this the best. It was full of tomato sauce, sausage, pepperoni, and very bready sliced meatballs. Tasty, substantial, and filling.

My last time there, I tried their thick-crust pizza with ham and mushroom (62 CZK).I also stole a somewhat blurry shot of someone else's tray with a thick-crust spinach and mushroom pizza.Maybe it is the closest thing to pan pizza in this town.

I didn't really like mine. The toppings, cheese, and sauce were fine, but the counter girl failed to heat it properly. It was hot on the outer edges and cold in the middle.

Also, the crust was just too thick and bread-like and the topping didn't penetrate down into it. Proper heating might have done the trick, but it just didn't happen.

Call me crazy, but my favorite and most New York-like pizza in Prague is from Pizza Grosso, the small hole-in-the-wall in the nasty passage behind the National Museum. Only 30 CZK for a quarter of a pizza, with often a great, crispy crust on reheating and a well-seasoned sauce.

From some night owls, I've heard claims that Pizza Roma at I.P. Pavlova is better. But I don't buy it.

Places like Rugantino's can be OK, but it's just too European for me. My brain was imprinted from an early age to fly in New York pizza formation. There's little I can do about it now.

My feeling about the Sbarro at Flora is one of great disappointment.

With proper preparation and attention to detail, it could be quite good. But after watching the careless way they run it, I have a strong feeling it will never live up to its potential.

So, next time I'm at Flora, maybe I'll be hungry enough for just one slice. Just in case they've figured out how to do it right.

Sbarro Pizza
Flora Mall
Vinohradská 151
Prague 3

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Ego Restaurant (Closed)

“The ego is not master in its own house.” Sigmund Freud
I've been eating in a lot of fancy restaurants lately. But it's not all champagne wishes and caviar dreams for me.

Sometimes, we just want to go somewhere close to home that offers a few things outside the usual hospoda fare. One place that fits the bill is called Ego.It's a little spot across the street from the Bohemians 1905 football stadium in Vršovice.

There aren't so many tables, and sometimes they are full. You take your chances when showing up unannounced.There's just one long room below street level with brick walls and uncomfortable chairs and benches.The prices are pretty reasonable. Yet, despite my earlier claim to common tastes, I must confess my favorite thing there is also among the most expensive items on the menu.

I really like the "bull steak" with jalapeno pepper (360 CZK). It comes with a whole jalapeno jammed right in the middle of the filet.

On the last visit, I ordered it medium, but they undercooked it, perhaps because it was such a thick cut. It was very rare.The meat was quite tender. Warning: this thing will set your mouth aflame.

The steak sat on top of a sweet and spicy pool of barbecue-style sauce. But it is their own mixture that didn't come from a bottle. Not directly, anyway.

Unfortunately, the price does not include side items. Last time, I got it with "American potatoes."They offer a wide variety of fried and baked spuds for around 40 CZK. These were pretty greasy and cut too fat for my taste.

There's an online menu, but it was not up to date when I checked it.

V wanted to go healthier and ordered a whole trout with cream sauce (120 CZK).She was very impressed with the freshness and quality of the fish. She was not so happy with the sour cream-based concoction on the side. After one taste, she just avoided it.

She got some regular fries.They were a bit underdone.

Ego is a Pilsner restaurant -- it says so on the wall outside -- so that's what I drank.They also have Gambrinus.

I went again more recently and decided to try their "sweet ribs" (155 CZK). They were served in a metal enamel tray.These were big-boned ribs, so it looked pretty massive. The meat was first smoked before it was finished in the oven, giving it a redish color. But it was also on the dry side.

As the name says, it comes with a sweet sauce, but it is not very sweet and used sparingly. On the side, there was also mustard, chopped onion, and horseradish.I didn't use much of this -- it didn't work well with the sauce. The ribs also come "Buffalo style" but I haven't tried that.

On the side, I had potato rosti.This ain't haute cuisine. But I just love those crispy, crunchy things.

I'm not sure if it is fair to mention, but more than a year ago, I did try the ginger, honey, and lime wings. I throw this out there because I still have the picture.Despite the promise of the delicious-sounding preparation, they were lacking much of the hoped for flavors. And they left the tips on the wings, which is a turn off for American wing purists. If they've changed they way they do them, I'd love to hear about it.

I'd say this restaurant is nothing so special that you should go out of your way to try it.

Sure, a little Ego can be a good thing now and then. But I wouldn't call us regulars.

For that to happen, the proprietors would have to be better masters of their own house.

Ego Restaurant
Oblouková 25
Prague 10 Vršovice
Tel. (+420) 271 720 997

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Naples, Ischia, and Capri, Italy

“Traveling is a fool's paradise... I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there besides me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Naples is a city that is a pretty ugly, dirty, and chaotic on the outside.Hidden away on the inside, it is pretty, history-laden, and bursting with charm and flavor and art from the Renaissance to Roman times.It's a place where three 11-year old girls piled on a careening scooter will come close to taking your life, forcing you back onto a filth-strewn, construction-blocked sidewalk. The driver will give you a chirpy horn toot after the fact to remind you who is capo di tutti capi.

Naples is also where you will taste magnificently simple but wonderful food and see gorgeous church interiors.Basically, you go to Naples for something completely different.Which was what we wanted.

Lucky for us, a Neapolitan native was on the plane and gave us a ton of good advice. I'll give you a brief rundown on the food.

For pizza, we went to the famous Da Michele. People line up for a table at all hours. They only make two kinds -- margherita and marinara.

I discovered the wait for a table at this modest-looking spot was quite long. You take a number and wait outside for it to be called.However, you can put a takeaway order in straight away and get it in about 10 minutes.

We got ours and went to a pastry cafe across the street where they let us eat our pizza and order a few beers to go with it.

After all the hype about this pie -- it was in our guide book and a magazine article, as well -- I thought it should be great. And it was. Simple genius.I searched for a way to describe the flavors and the word that came to my mind was "bright."

The San Marzano tomato sauce really jumped out. The mozzarella, made from cow milk, not buffalo, had a clean, cream-like taste. The airy, almost fluffy crust had a char and smokiness picked up from about 90 seconds in the superhot oven. They say they've been doing it this way since 1870.

And this great pizza cost just €4.50 (a little more when you factor in airfare and hotel).

Not far away, just around the street from the Duomo, was another recommended place, which was our favorite.

Antica Osteria Pisano di Ippolito Anna had only eight tables, an open kitchen, and a great, cheap home-style cooking.I had the rigatoni a l'amatriciana for €5.Just Parmesan, pork, and tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes, but it didn't need more.

Their seafood pasta (I don't have a picture) was just terrific. The clams and mussels were the sweetest and freshest I can remember, and the pasta, which had absorbed the flavor of the sea, was perfectly salted.

Four dishes, plus house wine and mineral water came to €36.

We also tried the touristy Gran Caffe Gambrinus. It has a lovely interior.But the expensive cappuccino was nothing special.

The sfogliatelle, a beautiful filo-like pastry stuffed with orange-flavored ricotta was not so fresh -- a little too chewy.We had a beer, two glasses of wine, a coffee, an orange sorbet, and the sfogliatelle and the bill was €35.

Finally, we took a ferry ride out to Ischia.It took an hour and cost €16 per person each way. I rented a 125cc scooter (€30 for eight hours), put V on the back, and we circumnavigated the island.Apparently, according to EU law, you now need a proper motorcycle license to rent a bike like this. Which I don't have.

But as V said, "It's Italy, baby. Anything is possible." And it was. I just had to convince the woman I knew what I was doing.

Anyway, we stopped at a very nice beach in Forno, near the thermal baths on the side of the island opposite from the port.It's a place we'd like to return to someday.

We had lunch at La Sirena del Mare.It looked like a simple beach restaurant, but the food was better than expected. With the roaring sea in front of us, we had a very lemony plate of marinated anchovies (€7.50).I had a seafood risotto (€11), which was basic and just OK, a little gritty.The mixed salad (€4) didn't look like much, but it had fantastic tomatoes.They had the perfume of a fully seasoned tomato sauce all by themselves. It's just so rare to find that in tomatoes elsewhere.

Near the end of the ride, we stopped at the Castello Aragonese.But they wanted €10 to go inside, so we just admired the outside.

We also went to Capri.We enjoyed lying in the sun for a few hours on the stony beach at the harbor. But otherwise, it was way too touristy and crowded.There were lines for boat tours, lines for the funicular up to the town, lines for the funicular tickets, and lines for gelato.We had a bad, overpriced, tourist-trap lunch.

This was our second time on Capri, and we decided there was no need to return again.

Would I recommend a visit to Naples? I don't know. It's not for everyone. There's a lot not to like.

I'd just say that it is something of a fool's paradise. The stern fact is that you should expect the worst. But then you just might enjoy what's best.

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