Sunday, 20 July 2014

A meal at Il Mosaico, Ischia (NA)

When I visit Ischia (usually over a May bank holiday), I tend to mostly eat at local, typical restaurants to savour my childhood flavours and dishes I so seldom eat otherwise. Yet this year, my family treated me to one of the islands’s top restaurant and indeed, one of Italy’s best food destinations: il Mosaico, two Michelin stars venue within the uber posh Hotel Manzi, in Casamicciola Terme town. 

Il Mosaico, Ischia

It was my first time here, but my family have been here a couple of times before, hence they had reserved one of the two chef’s tables the restaurant offers. Once past the frankly pretty kitch hotel’s reception area (but oh, so opulent), we walked right through the dining area and into the kitchen, only stopping short of the pass where a table for three had been set up for us. This was a first for me, so much more used I am to British chefs. I did not know much about Nino Di Costanzo, a local chef who has trained with major names (Arzak, Marchesi) and has returned here, his home island, to create an incredible place where traditional flavours are developed and transformed into technically perfect creations. 
But I am getting ahead of myself. The first menu we were given was that of the waters (yes, water, around 15 choices); then we were given the wine list (massive tome) and the actual menus where a number of tasting options are available. We chose a la carte, and we were then given the choice of.. olive oil! 

Again a first for me, a trolley full of hand picked extra virgin olive oils from all over Italy for tasting. We each picked two oils, individually poured into tasting dishes (dark blue, of course) and offered some freshly baked focaccia bread. A fabulous and original opening to the meal. And at this point, an unbelievable eating journey began. Under the watchful eyes of Nino himself, we were served a number of amuse-bouche, out of which my favourite was probably the tiny but perfectly formed ‘buffalo milk and caviar’, launched a few weeks earlier at the Strade della Mozzarella festival.

Il Mosaico, Ischia
Buffalo milk & caviar
Also visually stunning was the chef’s smile’, a number of small and intense morcels, which included a ‘liquid parmigiana di melanzane’. After the amouse bouche we thought we would get the starter. Oh no – Nino started sending us dishes from the various tasting menus, served in between actual courses we had ordered. My official starter was a delicate dish made with buffalo meat, buffalo mozzarella and anchovies, while one of the dishes that Nino sent us was probably my absolute favourite of the whole meal: Blackened cod, spices, cooked in an olive oil bath at 65c, with a soft mousse of potatoes and buffalo milk. Incredibly delicate but intense at the same time, laid out on a vivid blue ceramic dish, it will be in my memory for years to come.

Il Mosaico, Ischia
Blackened cod
My main too – I had ordered the traditionally sounding ‘Paste e patate’. What arrived on my plate was a painting, or maybe a sculpture. Colours, textures, flavours, blended together to give me the obvious memory of my childhood dish but in a completely upside down presentation, which included purple potatoes and 25 types of pasta, all cooked to the same al dente point. A feat and a feast, for sure. 

Il Mosaico, Ischia
Paste e patate

A treat for the eye and the palate. I cannot even begin to describe the other dishes we had, or I would be writing a novel. They were all visually incredible and delightful to eat. Nino was introducing the dishes personally and was so friendly and fun, telling us that the more we asked him to stop, the more he would send more food to us. Busy kitchen but he took the time to joke and chat, which was great and confirms my view that 2* chefs are extremely nice.
Il Mosaico, Ischia
No smoking

Finally, he confirmed dessert was the only dish left to order, and he recommended one of us ordered Napul’e’, which I did.
He then escorted us downstairs, where there is another large kitchen completely dedicated to pastry and desserts. We were served the pre dessert (tiny tiny ice creams and sorbets shaped like vegetables in a miniveggie box) and then the dessert proper. Echoes of the Fat Duck landed on our table: for the smoker in the family, Nino had sent the ‘No Smoking’, ice creams and ganache shaped like ciggies and fag packets, complete with ‘smoking kills’ header; for the man of the family he had recommended a dessert dedicated to Campania’s most famous apple, Mela Annurca, served on an ipad where a clip on the apple’s history and characteristic, played. 
And for me, a shuffle to listen to the eponymous Pino Daniele’s song, and pieces of Napoli’s past and present, served over postcards of the city itself. For a Neapolitan who emigrated 20 years ago, this was a delight. Gorgeous flavours, textures of desserts and playful allusions. Yet it was when Nino invited us to watch a video he made, dedicated, to Napoli, in the next door cinema room that it really hit home and it was pure emotion. 

Il Mosaico, Ischia
Napul'e': Toto', Maradona, la cuccuma and coffee, munnezza, San Gennaro, spaghetti.

We took ours seats back at the table for the table side cabinet of petit fours (I could have eaten all, I limited myself to a delicious mini madeleine) and finally, we were accompanied back upstairs to the lounge where the chocolate cabinet was opened for us: damn, there were so many chocolates of so many flavours’ combinations, I could have spent hours there, but after such a meal I could only sadly manage one. 

We paid our bill (which came to around 120Euro each inc. wine), we thanked Nino, and we walked back to the fresh air of May, full of food and full of memories. Il Mosaico in an amazing place, run by a passionate and very welcoming chef. I cannot wait for next year’s bank holiday!

Sustainable? I asked about fish provenance, and it's all locally sourced via day boats (although no info on fishing methods). Most of the other ingredients are sourced regionally from Campania.

Dog friendly? Who knows!

Il Mosaico, Ischia
Matisse? Or raw shrimp, mandarin, passion fruit, ricotta.
Il Mosaico, Ischia
Chef assembling Il Coniglio dish
Il Mosaico, Ischia
Bufalo, Bufala, Alici - my starter
Il Mosaico, Ischia
Semolina risotto, carbonara, squid fettuccine

Monday, 30 June 2014

Brazilian night with Dhruv Baker and Rosana McPhee by Tilda Samba Rice

In the last few weeks Brazil is everywhere, of course thanks to the World Cup. Italy and England didn't exactly set the world alight and went out equally embarrassingly on the first round; thankfully some good Brazilian vibes were to be found last week at London Foodie’s beautiful London home. Sponsored by Tilda Rice and Wild Card, the event was a one-off dinner for a group of bloggers and friends which was going to be cooked by no less than Dhruv Baker, 2010 MasterChef winner and my friend Rosana McPhee of Hot & Chilli fame (and hosted by Luiz for once not behind the stove). 

Rosana serving the amazing cheese balls
The dinner was organised to showcase Tilda’s new limited edition Samba rice range and of course, let us learn more about Brazil culinary traditions. For me, it was all new and it was a great way to taste some delicious food while also learning about the country’s geography (north Brazil!)

We first enjoyed some canapés in the garden, while Dhruv was preparing the main course on Luiz’ full size BBQ (envy!). The Pao de queijo were just amazing, and the right size for me (as I am on a sad low carb diet); I even ventured to try chicken heart skewers and actually enjoyed them, surprising myself in the process. I also loved a cute vegetable mini pie. Rosana had done a great job and the canapés looked so professionally made, they were perfect.

Chicken hearts!
We then took our seats at the lovely laid out tables, where we each found a friendship bracelet – Rosana explained kids in Brazil ask their friends to tie them on their wrists, with three knots, each one having a wish to match. I made my wishes, who knows if they will come true!

The first starter was fiejoada, famous Portuguese sausage and black beans stew, served with Tilda Samba which I found also delicious. 

Feijoada and friendship bracelet
This was followed by another great course, a fish stew called Moqueca. A lot of protein for me, which was great. I loved this course too, the fish broth very rich and warming. It was accompanied by a fish stew, made with fish, onions and herbs and thickened with cassava flour.

Fish stew
Finally the main course, which we had been watching Dhruv cook: Picanha with pimenta de bico, a cut of beef which is seldom used in the UK but which is intense and very beefy and delicious. I opted for the ‘well done’ slices and added the palmito and tomato salad, and some incredible stewed cassava, known as yucca in Cuba, which I adore. So pleased Rosana had made it, and I so need to get the recipe off her! I refrained from trying another favourite of mine, fried plantain, sadly, but it looked great. The little Brazilian chilli peppers on the meat were a surprise highlight for me, so sweet and bursting with flavour.


Palm hearts salad
We then were served a trio of desserts, also made by Rosana. Here my good intentions crumbled completely! The little cute Cashew nut fruit sorbet was refreshing and sweet, the brigadeiro was divine and finally the egg and coconut quindim superb, with crunchy coconut and the gooey egg yolk. 

Trio of moreish desserts
Even the coffee, which I did not drink to avoid a sleepless night, was of course 100% Brazilian: the aroma was so tempting!

The Brazilian event was a success: the food was of high standard indeed, cooked by expert hands using top quality ingredients. It was a great opportunity for me to learn about a country I have yet to visit, its heritage, its geography, its culinary products and of course its people. I loved listening to Luiz and Rosana speak in Portuguese, such a beautiful language! It was also great to meet Dhruv, a lot of new people and see many familiar and friendly faces.

Thank you Tilda & Wild Card for inviting me and thank you Luiz, Rosana and Dhruv for hosting a fantastic night!

Dhruv, Rosana and Luiz

An article by Rosana on Brazilian food and culture for Morrisons magazine is here