Baby, It's Cold Outside. How About Some Bollito Misto? Il Grano Ristorante. West LA, CA.
What is with the weather lately? It's January and in New York the temperature has been warm enough for Britney Spears to tog up in her totally hot, signature micro, peek-a-scar skirt, and here in LA, where the winter can at times feel like summer, it's been colder than the proverbial witch's titty. Global warming is upon us and it's making a Bizarro World out of our world, switching around climates like an interior designer does paint swatches. The melting polar ice caps, the rising sea levels and the weird and extreme weather, these are all bad and inconvenient things (as Al Gore might say), but I personally try to look at the bright side (with my anti-UV ray sunglasses on, of course,) and make the most of this greenhouse effect dilemma.
Like, for example, Christmas whizzed by way too quickly this year and I hardly had a moment to soak it in. But, because of this freakishly frigid weather, I'm acting like it's still Christmas week. Now I have more than ample time to indulge in egg nog and send out photocards of the family with the Westfield Mall Santa. (The photocard's caption would beg the question: Why can't it be Christmas all year long? It should and that's why you're getting this Christmas card in January.) It helps that my neighbors have yet to pack up the gigantic inflatable snowman and team of bobbing, wire reindeer planted on their front lawn because it makes pretending that it's still Christmas so much simpler. Hello, it's MLK Day. It's time to melt Frosty...and, by the way, your dog's been crapping on my lawn.
But ultimately this unnaturally nose numbing weather isn't all bad for a tasty reason. It's a great excuse to tuck into something hot, cozy and delicious. I have vivid memories of these frosty evenings when the thermometer's mercury dips into Snow Miser territory and my mom's internal thermometer alerts her that it's time to serve something really warm. She'd slap together a hot pot feast faster than Rachel Ray can say, "EVOO. Extra virgin olive oil." Hot pot is a Chinese favorite and a hands-on, cook-it-yourself, sort of broth fondue experience. It involves dipping into an electric cauldron of roiling flavored broth with a menagerie of meats like beef, lamb and pork along with their miscellany of organs, a great variety of vegetables like spinach, napa cabbage, watercress and fungi, not to mention squid, fish balls and shrimp. The cooked food is then dipped into sauces which covers a spectrum of flavors from sweet to salty to spicy.
If my mother was Italian, she'd probably cook up something like bollito misto during these cold chillin' nights. Bollito misto in Italian means "mixed boil". Many aspects of this enormous meal is similar to hot pot except for the cooking time, the do-it-yourself part and the thinly sliced meats. Instead, bollito misto uses chunky, stew type meats consisting of beef, pork and chicken which are all boiled for a couple of hours by someone other than you. Each cut of meat is placed into the boil at different stages depending on its cooking time. This meaty medley results in a deep, robust broth, and rich broth is key to bollito. Quality bones, a nice variety of meat and vegetables ensure the broth's hardiness. It is then all served together and you take whatever cuts you want and dip the meat into the many sauces. But, my mom isn't Italian (although sometimes she sounds like she is, especially when she's badgering me to eat up whatever the rest of the family didn't finish). So if I want some bollito misto, I gotta go find me an Italiana mama. Or I can eat at a truly Italian restaurant like Il Grano.
I was invited to a press dinner at Il Grano in West Los Angeles. Before the dinner I didn't know a thing about bollito misto. In fact, I was even saying the word wrong. I was pronouncing "bollito" in more of a Spanish way, bo-yeeto. Instead it's correctly pronounced in Italian as bo-leeto, and "misto" is spoken like meesto. It also happened to be colder than a witch's titty that night which, as prefaced earlier, is the perfect weather for this Italian winter comfort food from the Piedmont region of Italy where the Italian Alps roost. Those folks should know warm food because it's freezing over there.
Il Grano is a warm, friendly restaurant run by the affable Marino Brothers, Mario and Sal. Mario takes care of the front of the house and Sal cracks the whip in the kitchen. The brothers greeted me as I entered from the cold and warmed me up with their hospitality alone. My dining companions for the evening represented various media from a television producer to a couple of editors from Bon Appétit. All six of my dinner mates were women. Suddenly it was getting really hot. Was I even sweating a little? One of the ladies suggested that I remove my wool scarf. Good idea. It must've been the scarf.
Chestnuts (soup) roasting on an open fire.
Just as we began warming up to one another with some help from a Lambrusco wine, the servers distributed white porcelain soup spoons each holding a mouthful of chestnut soup topped with fresh chestnut shavings. This was a fun, nutty and creamy way to begin the meal.
With our mouths now awakened and amused, we were presented with a savory salumi assortment on a wooden board called Tagliata del Contadino.
Salami is a salumi but salumi is not a salami. Got it?
Salumi is not just salami. In fact salami is a kind of salumi which is salted and then hung out to dry. Salumi includes a wide variety of Italian-style salt-cured, sugar-cured, preserved in fat, smoked, fermented or other form of preserved meats (usually pork) and even cooked sausages.
Paul Bertolli’s Fra' Mani Handcrafted Salumi from Berkeley, California is the source of Il Grano’s salumi. The board is loaded with Salame Toscano, Nostrano, Sopressata and Gentile. The textures ranged from moist to fatty to dry and the flavors from sweet to salty to clove-y.
Because we were special guests, Chef Sal rolled out a massive beast of a bone-in prosciutto. With the intimidating hunk of swine securely chained to its iron stock, Chef Sal began skillfully slicing off succulent, washi-thin portions of salty, sweet, sour, peppery and chewy prosciutto.
Big size. Big flavor.
He also very generously offered our table the Culatello, “the heart of the prosciutto”. This is one of the most celebrated member of the familia salumi and also quite expensive at a market value of $35 to $40 a pound. Culatello demands high quality ingredients, much time and lots of TLC. From the very best part of the pork butt, the ham is gingerly removed from the bone and skin so as to keep intact as much of the fat as possible. The pork is then seasoned, put into a pig’s bladder, massaged every now and then during the curing process and after several months of drying in a breezy yet moist environment, it is ready to enjoy. Il Grano’s Culatello was delicate and sweet and needed nothing else to enhance the experience, well, besides more booze. However, true Culatello is in danger of losing its rustica roots due to the strict laws of health authorities in Italy and in the U.S. (The Man has to ruin everything. Don’t they know the flavor comes from the funk? Everybody get footloose!)
Although our mouths were quite pleased so far, the salumi didn’t raise any of our internal temperatures. This was quickly resolved once the hot Tortellini in Brodo di Cappone made its silky way down our throats. The hearty and pleasantly unctuous broth is so full of cartilage due to the lovingly cooked bones that the soup practically solidifies when cooled in the fridge. The fresh tortellini is filled with tender beef taken straight from the bollito misto. As sort of a Cracker Jack prize, there are chunks of fresh, gooey parmesan at the bottom of the soup bowl. All of the elements melds into a velvety, piquant, succulent elixir and is fortified by the chunky tortellini.
The Mixed Boil.
When the Il Grande Bollito Misto came rolling out, (and it did literally roll out) it required both Marino brothers to wheel the service station. Mix Master Salvatore dished up plates full of animal protein and a few of pieces of veggies like a good Italian mama would.
Chef Salvatore Marino.
Some of the animal protein was in the form of sweet and tender short ribs and pork shank. The Pineland Beef Steamship, grass fed from Massachusetts, was tender and almost creamy. There was the Cotechino, a pork sausage full of tart, sweet and lusty flavors. The chicken wasn’t simply chicken; it was capon, a rooster that’s been castrated at 6 to 20 weeks of age. Capon meat is generally more ample, tender and juicy than that of a hen because of its higher fat content and larger size. (And, no, the rooster testicles were not part of the bollito. Thanks for asking.) Last but not least were the odd parts, my favorites, like beef tongue and veal pancreas sweetbreads. None of these meats are seasoned so this is when the sauces strut their stuff.
The “typical dipping sauces” or salse include salse verde, a bold green sauce fashioned from garlic, parsley and anchovies; salse rossa, a sweet and slightly spicy, tomato based red sauce; salsa barbaforte, a wicked horseradish sauce; and mostarda di cremona, a sauce that’s sweet with heat and made with fruit spices and pure mustard powder. With all these sauces and all this meat, one is in serious danger of becoming overly satiated before sampling all the potential sauce and meat combinations. I was content with the beef steamship and salse rossa team up which rewarded me with something tender and sweet (just like me).
Again, because we were V to the I to the P, which spells VIP, we got a little something extra and that would be the white truffle sauce decadently topped with freshly shaved white truffle. Somebody stop this bollito misto bus! I just can’t fit anymore food in my belly. The white truffle sauce tasted of the earth and a nice light perfume, good enough to spoon right into one’s mouth, and if it wasn’t for my lovely dinner companions, that’s probably what I would’ve done. Pure class, I know.
Thank goodness, the bollito misto was over because I couldn’t eat another morsel. But, of course, that’s when dessert is served. Out came the castagne, biscotti and dolci misti.
Wintertime or any time there’s cold weather is the right time for roasted chestnuts or castagne. By the way, this isn’t the stuff you smell several avenues away in Manhattan and then decide to grab a bag and end up being disappointed by how the flavor doesn’t come close to the unbelievably nutty and fragrant aroma. Fugedaboutit! The chestnuts we enjoyed definitely lived up to their delicious scent.
Death by dessert.
Next arrived some casis candy, nougats, cookies and mousse cups. I tried to lick each of them just so I could get an idea of their flavors. It was impossible. I was stuffed. Then, weirdly I began to feel this tremendous Catholic guilt. I'm not even Catholic. I knew I’d be wasting this food and had a crazy feeling that somebody’s Italian mom would come storming out of the kitchen yelling at me to “Mangia! Mangia!” Then someone else’s mom would come out and lecture me about the millions of Chinese kids who are starving. I know. I know. I feel terrible. You gotta cut me a break. At least find comfort in the fact that one Chinese kid won't go hungry tonight—because he practically ate enough bollito misto to feed them all. Not including dessert.
11359 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Los Angeles, CA
Bollito Misto Night is every Wednesday. Prix fix menu $49 per person. Magnums are 20% off on Bollito Misto Night.
Lunch daily from 1145pm to 215pm
Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 530pm to 1030pm