"If I won the lottery…" has always been a precursor to what-if conversations involving fantasies we've had about buying that special little pied-a-terre in Paris or taking a trip around the world.
Tasca D'Almerita Regaleali bianco.
The well-documented downside of a sudden change of circumstances notwithstanding, one recurring theme of these flights of fancy is to fly a group of friends to an exotic locale for a sumptuous dinner involving tuxedo-clad waiters, sparkling glassware and a world-class menu. Maybe tropical breezes. Yeah, that, too.
Let's see…where was I? Oh, yeah, dinners with friends in exotic locales.
An opportunity to do just that arrived recently, not in the form of unearned millions, but from friend and fellow blogger, Josh, of PDXploration. And the locale, at 21st and SE Division, while it might seem at first glance a tad prosaic, turns out to house a secret doorway to the delights of Italy in the form of the cooking of Stefania Toscano and her husband, Lawrence McCormick.
Stephania Toscano, introducing a course.
Their place, Taste Unique, is almost invisible from the street and is right next door to Bar Avignon, making it the ideal secret getaway. With only four tables and a narrow stand-up counter, it's dominated by the open kitchen, which is where Stephania puts out the amazing take-out menu of fresh pastas, raviolis, lasagnas, cannelloni, sauces, cream pastries and tiramisu plus salty Roman-style focaccia baked every hour.
They also open the place on select nights for private dinners, and that's where Dave and I headed for a mind-blowing four-course Sicilian dinner paired with wines from the region. We sat down at a long table (no doubt the four café tables pushed together) and were immediately poured a glass of Tasca D'Almerita Regaleali bianco, a wine made from the native Inzolia, Catarrato and Grecanico grown in Sicily. Icy cold and with a smooth but fresh taste, this is a food-friendly wine I could spend a summer with.
Stephania preparing the pasta.
It was followed quickly by an appetizer of Sfincione Palermitano, a special focaccia made with onions, Pecorino, breadcrumbs and tomatoes. The crust is a 50-50 mix of cornmeal and durum flour, and makes for a cakey base for the light but flavorful tomato sauce and browned pangrattato topping. This I'm going to try here at home.
I went into the kitchen to watch Stephania finish the pasta course, a spicy Pasta 'Ncatenata Rigatoni with broccoli, crushed peppers and anchovies. After patiently cutting the blanched broccoli florets, she then folded in grated pecorino, salt and added some of the pasta water until it was the perfect blend of soft pasta and cheesy filling. Kevin Sandri of Garden State, who remembers his grandmother making this dish, said it took him back to the occasions when she would make it for special family gatherings.
Sarde Beccafico ready to go in the oven.
The pasta was amazing enough, but then I went back to the kitchen and saw a baking dish ready to pop in the oven. It turned out to be Sarde Beccafico (top photo), is one of Sicily's most famous traditional dishes of baked stuffed sardines. It requires much preparation, and Stephania said they spend most of the afternoon carefully filling and rolling the tiny sardine fillets.
With the filling giving a grainy, moist sweetness of raisin and cinnamon to the delicate fish, this was a stunner, made more so by the accompanying Bastaddu Affucatu, cauliflower "drowned" in red wine with olives, anchovies and pecorino. At this point we were more than two hours in to the meal, and Lawrence offered another Tasca D'Amerita wine, this time a 2007 Nero D'Avola called Lamuri that was an amazing balance of tannins and fruit. I thought it matched the sardines and cauliflower perfectly, and is one I'll be asking my brother about.
As with the other courses, Stephania introduced this dish with a story. She had found an elderly Sicilian woman who had said she would teach Stephania to make this very traditional dish, but after showing Stephania the steps involved the woman refused to give up the written version of the recipe. Apparently many traditional recipes are considered heirlooms to be passed down only within families in a village, and it wasn't until Stephania moved to the United States (and was at a non-threatening distance) that the woman was felt she could send photocopies of the recipe from her notebook.
Stephania filling the cannolis.
We were expecting dessert to be a Cassata Siciliana, and by way of apology Stephania said she regretted that she couldn't find the fruit that was needed and had to substitute cannolis stuffed with chocolate chip-studded cream and dipped in pistachios. So, in the spirit of politeness (and because we were too stuffed to move by that point) we (not so) begrudgingly plowed our way through the delightfully munchable shells served with the customary slightly sweet cups of espresso served in Sicilian cafés.
Feeling a food coma ready to take us down one by one, we reluctantly waved goodbye and headed home to dreams of Sicilian beaches populated by happy and well-fed travelers. For that, who needs the lottery?
Details: Taste Unique, 2134 SE Division. Phone 503-206-7059.