I drove up to Santa Barbara on Sunday to meet winemaker Luciano Sandrone, the renownedBarolo producer from northwest Italy. He was in town for a symposium on the Nebbiolo grape, and spent two days with fellow barolista Giacomo Conterno arguing the finer points of the grape with California winemakers. Conference over, Sandrone had the day free before flying on to Boston and New York to present his wines.
Where do you take one of the world's great winemakers who comes from a region that also boasts some of the best regional cooking in all of Italy? Not to an Italian restaurant, that's for sure.
Sandrone appreciates the authentic and the simple. He's the one whose advice I trust for good new trattorias or restaurants in Piedmont.
So when we arrived at his hotel at 2, I told him we were going out for a stuzzichino--a little pick-me-up. Something fresh and simple. Something Mexican.
At this point, most Italians I know would have endeavored to make their excuses. However much they've traveled, food-wise they aren't into the exotic. They live in mortal fear of anything picante. And if they miss their pasta for two days running they start to get a little hysterical.
Sandrone was game though. Just as I thought.
We pulled up at a little turquoise house and got in line at La Super-Rica. My Italian was rusty enough that talking, listening and translating back was like trying to pat my head and rub my stomach in circles at the same time. But I managed.
We were so busy watching the woman behind the counter patting out masa dough into tortillas that a few minutes passed before I spotted Julia Child in line in front of us. Stooping down to recite her order in that unmistakable flutey voice, she sounded as excited as a kid lining up for ice cream. Clearly, she loves this place.
I tried to explain to Sandrone just who this extraordinary-looking octogenarian was. She single-handedly introduced America to French cooking and changed the way Americans eat, I said. Just about every chef and home cook of my generation learned to cook from Julia's books and TV shows.
Sandrone was suitably impressed. He sucked in his breath, commenting, "This place must really be good if a grande cuoco is eating here." That's exactly what I was trying to convey.
"Show me how to eat the taco," Sandrone asked as he went at it with plastic knife and fork. No, no, pick it up with your hands like this, but first try a little condimento, I told him, this fresh salsa or that green tomato one made from a special Mexican tomato called a tomatillo. He loved it.
I explained that the tamale is maiz, or corn dough, steamed in a corn husk. "Ah, polenta," he nodded, taking a bite of the delicate tamale laced with zucchini and other fresh vegetables. The gorgeous black-green peppers we'd seen sizzling on the grill arrive as a soft taco too, strips of the charred chile with a mild, fresh cheese melted over.
The special that day was pozole, and since I'd never seen it on the menu at Super-Rica before, I had to try that too. It's a fabulous soothing bowl of dried corn, pork and red chile garnished with cilantro, slices of avocado, red onion and cabbage. Picante, but not as fiery as it looks. I dearly wanted another bowl, but it was already 3:30 and dinner was far off. Two more bites. I think we could have just kept eating and eating.
* La Super-Rica, 622 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara; (805) 963-4940. Open daily. Cash only. About $10 per person.