I’m a little reluctant to write about Piola libri, because it is already always packed, especially on the Apero evenings. Eurocrats seem love to drink and socialise, yet the EU quarter in Brussels is anything but known for its abundance of charming little places to spend the evening. And consequently piola libri is always full to the brim. But don’t let the throngs of suits scare you away: the ambience always remains chic and cosy, often with jazz musicians accompanying the guest DJs. And the owner greets all the girls at the door with a large smile.
On aperitivi evenings at La piola, this Italian book shop-cum-bar serves up simple yet lovely, complimentary snacks at the bar. You just order something to drink, pay and then help yourself to a little plate of various snacks: feta cheese with chili, assorted olives, pickled onions, sticky rice, foccacia, crustini with various spreads, cold pasta with tuna and capers, and so on. It varies slightly from time to to time, but always hits the spot. There’s no strange ticketing system like in other aperitivi bars in Brussels, so you can go several times (although since it’s a system of trust, it’s one that of course shouldn’t be abused).
The wine is excellent, if a little more expensive than the average Brussels bar. But since you can skip dinner if you go here, that’s not really an issue. A good glass of spritzer is €5, and a glass of their very decent house red is €4.80. If you go a bit earlier, you can also browse their extensive selection of Italian literature and film, as it is a book shop during the day (with free wifi). Aperitivi is normally served on Thursday and Friday nights, but have a look on their website first, as they sometimes have live readings of Italian literature instead. And make sure to arrive early if you want a seat.
Piola libri can be found at 66-68 Rue Franklin, as seen below on the map:
I live with a dramatic Sicilian, and predictably, everything he touches turns into kitchen gold. I’ve stopped taking pride in my home cooking, as everything I make pales in comparison to the humble little dishes Peppe throws together. My favourite soup of his so far is very simple: it has courgettes, potato, onion and garlic. The secret is that it is thickened and made savoury with parmigiano, and has tons of aroma thanks to Peppe’s mother’s own olive oil.
I’m somewhat of an olive oil skeptic, as I feel it’s being used and abused all the time where it doesn’t quite belong. You need look no longer than Jamie Oliver for examples of that, and to illustrate my point I’ll just point you to this hilarious, simple montage from his shows. However, if strong olive oil belongs anywhere surely it is in Sicilian cooking. Of course, sourcing home-made Italian olive oil might be near impossible, but as long as you invest in a very good quality bottle, you should be on the right way. And spending a bit on the parmigiano and olive oil is worth it: coming home to this after a long night at the office and a damp walk home in uncomfortable shoes feels like the most wholesome experience ever.
- 3 large potatoes
- 3 courgettes
- 2 yellow onions
- 1 garlic clove
- half a cube of vegetable stock
- Good quality olive oil
- Grated parmigiano
- A blender to blitz the soup in the end
Start by slicing the onions, and then fry them with a generous splash of olive oil in a deep-bottomed pan. Add the whole, peeled garlic clove after a few minutes, and fry on medium heat whilst you peel and chop the potatoes, and chop the courgettes (keep the peel on). Add the courgettes and potatoes together with the stock cube, and add just enough water to make sure everything is covered. Boil for about 20 minutes or until all the vegetables have softened considerably, then take off the heat and spoon out a little bit more than a coffee mug’s worth of water (you can save and freeze this as stock to use on some other occasion). Take to the side and blitz with a blender for about a minute, or until you have a smooth, rather thick soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. When done, serve in bowls with a generous sprinkle of parmigiano and a few additional drops of olive oil, as well as some crusty bread.
Melanzane a la Parmigiana or aubergine parmigiana for us non-italians is one of my favourite dishes. While it is made solely of vegetables and may seem fresh and healthy it is every bit as decadent as its sister meat lasagna. Typically you deep fry the sliced aubergine before layering it in a casserole dish with tomato sauce, grana padano, and mozarella. Some even add a tad of bechamel sauce to thicken up the layers. While I love almost everything which is deep fat fried (I lived in Belgium for almost ten years…) during the week I have no desire or patience to deep fry aubergines! So I looked online for different parmigiana recipes and came up with a combination of all of them which results in a healthier and easier to make parmigiana.
You will need:
- 3-4 big purple aubergines, sliced.
- 1 can of chopped marzano tomatoes (or the best quality chopped tomatoes/passata you can find – it really makes a difference and they are not that much more expensive).
- 1 small onion, chopped finely.
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped.
- Fresh basil
- 2 mozzarella balls.
- 200 grams of grana padano (similar to parmigiano but milder and cheaper), or a mix of grana padano and parmiggiano.
1. Start by slicing and washing the aubergines and sprinkle them heavily with salt. Put in a container and let it rest for a while to get rid of the bitterness. While they are resting start preparing the sauce.
2. Fry the onion and the garlic in olive oil until translucid. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook in a medium heat for 5-10 minutes, then lower the heat and simmer for half an hour. Finish the sauce by adding the basil and wizzing it in a mixer or smoothie machine. Now it’s time to start layering!
3. Start with a layer of tomato sauce, add a layer of aubergine, another layer of sauce, a layer of grana padano and a layer of mozzarella. Repeat in the same order until you have used up the ingredients. Make sure to add extra cheese on the last layer so it crisps up on top.
4. Cook at 180 degrees in the middle of the oven for about 45 minutes. Let it rest for a bit before you cut into it.
Enjoy a healthy parmigiana which is as good as the time-consuming, deep fried version!
I must admit I knew about Franco Manca for almost two years before visiting for the first time last week. It’s not that I don’t like pizza or that Chiswick (or Brixton) is very far from where I live. What happened is that since I’ve moved to the UK I have not yet encountered a decent pizza, let alone a decent Italian pizza (there is an exception to this – an amazing butternut squash and caramelised onion pizza at bar room bar in Birmingham two years ago… unfortunately it was a special and I never tasted it again)*. I mean I lived in Brussels for almost ten years where Italian restaurants and amazing simple pizzas are a common sight in every neighbourhood. Even in Lisbon, a place not wildly known for its breadth of Italian restaurants, I can direct you to at least 3 very good pizzerias. And so… after three years of failing to find any good pizzas, I had kind of forgotten about it. The other day, while shopping around Chiswick High Road I passed Franco Manca and saw lots of people having what seemed like great pizza in their outside tables. My faith in pizza was almost restored and I decided to come back later in the week… and I am so happy I did.
We were greeted by a huge pizza oven and hams and garlic hanging from the ceiling and were seated quickly. We started with the two panouzzi (flame baked bread) – one with Serrano ham from Brindisa and the other with artichokes, mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. While the ingredients were fresh and incredibly tasty the bread was more flame than baked. However, I think I would have this again just for the toppings. This was followed by a glass of Madregalo Rosso (a combination of Sangiovese and Montepulciano, two of my favourite grapes) which was very good – if a bit too light – and great value at £3.30. We quickly moved on the main event of the night, the pizza…
Mr Salted Cod went for a tasty Ham, Mushroom, Ricotta and Mozzarella pizza, while I stuck with more classic flavours in what can only be described as puttanesca on a pizza – olives, capers, anchovies and tomato – with the addition of mozzarella. As you can see in the picture this pizza ticks all the ‘perfect pizza’ boxes: fresh and simple ingredients, puffy crust, charred bits and thin base. My ‘puttanesca-like’ pizza was incredible – a perfect mix of salty from the anchovies and olives and sweet from the tomato sauce and the cheese. While I liked the other pizza too, I prefer to stick to more classic flavours when it comes to a tomato-based pizza (I just think it goes better with the sauce). On top of this, this pizzas tick the extra ‘perfect pizza’ box, price! At less than £7 each this is what I expect a pizza to be – fresh ingredients, thin crust and an acceptable price tag, just like in Italy, Belgium or Portugal. So thank you Franco Manca for restoring my faith in pizza in the UK – I feel like this will become my local.
Franco Manca Chiswick
144 Chiswick High Road
Rating: 9 meatballs out of 10.
*Also I must admit that I have had some very good pizzas from
Osteria Basilico, but these are quite expensive and I only have them as a takeaway so don’t really count as a great pizza.
EDIT: Osteria Basilico and Basilico the delivery service are not the same, sorry for the misunderstanding.
EDIT: Amore no longer exists and has been replaced by what looks like a Mexican restaurant (but as of 21/08/2012 that hasn’t opened either).
Amore is a newly-opened Italian restaurant in Dalston with puzzlingly few customers as they serve delicious and good value rustic Italian dishes. (Although, rumour of their dishes may have spread as I spied it almost full yesterday). As the name implies, and the website clearly states, the theme here is romantic – Eros Ramazotti in the speakers, roses on each table, candles lit, dark place. In fact the romance is so exaggerated it must be a little tongue in cheek.
Puttanesca is a loaded name for a fiery pasta dish (Meatball and Salted Cod reject imposing stigmas on innocent pasta so won’t develop it more here. But there’s always google…). It is garlicky and rich with anchovies and tomato and has a fiery kick of chili, which blends with saltiness from olives and capers. It was supposedly invented in Naples or Syracuse, and I’ve been told it is good with tuna. In any case it is delicious as it is, makes your kitchen smell like an Italian restaurant and requires very few ingredients (if you substitute the fresh chillies with dry crushed ones it doesn’t require anything fresh, so it’s a good SOS-dish when you’ve got very little at home but all the stores are closed/too far away/it’s raining/can’t afford a take-away/all the local take-aways are overpriced rubbish/don’t fancy another night with packet noodles). In short, it’s a winner. Did we mention it is cheap? It is also super-simple to make, so another recipe for the kitchen-phobes out there.
For 2 persons:
- 4 heaped tablespoons of olives, roughly chopped (preferably greek calamata but cheaper stuff works too)
- 2 tablespoons capers (more if you like it salty, less if you want it milder)
- 1 can peeled plum tomatoes (chopped tomates are also good, but the peeled taste tomatoier)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 4 anchovies
- 2 red chillies (or chili flakes to the strength you fancy)
- Spaghetti or linguine
Start with slicing the garlic cloves thinly, and de-seed and chop your chillies. Fry this together with the anchovies in some oil for a few minutes until their flavours are released and the anchovies dissolve (it smells amazing together) and then add the can of peeled plum tomatoes. Make it simmer, then turn down the heat. Crush the tomatoes with a suitable utensil. After 10 minutes, start making your pasta. When the pasta is almost done, put the tablespoons of olives and capers into the sauce and let them heat up. Drain the pasta and mix it in with the sauce. Done!
(If you are into your cooking programmes, Meatball and Salted cod can strongly recommend the BBC French food fetishism that is Raymond Blanc: The Very Hungry Frenchman; it goes as well with a large plate of puttanesca as a full-bodied bottle of Primitivo).