Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The "I's" Have It

On my first trip to Europe we went to Amsterdam. It was high season (though I guess that may be redundant), so the streets were crowded with tourists, mostly Europeans. I'd read a couple of guidebooks and travel websites and quizzed friends who'd already been to get a few ideas before we arrived. I realized after we returned home that we'd eaten, with only one exception, foods from countries that started with an "I".

The big food highlight seemed to be the Indonesian rijsttafel, meaning "rice table". It is an elaborate meal consisting of at least a dozen side dishes accompanied by different types of rice. Brought back to the Netherlands by former colonials following Indonesia's independence in 1945, the rijsttafel was predominantly popular with Dutch families with colonial roots that has now gained in popularity alongside Southeast Asian cuisine. We tried rijsttafel on our second to last night in Amsterdam. Our own personal buffet at our table was more sweet than spicy or savory, and almost seemed to lack in freshness. Overall, it wasn't as exotic or delicious as I'd hoped.

We returned twice to O'Reilly's Irish pub near a square and our hotel. They had at least twenty tables lined up on the sidewalk, and eating outside is one of my favorite things, so we enjoyed a couple of pints and some frites with mayo out in the sunshine one day and an Irish breakfast of eggs, beans, sausages, bacon, grilled tomato, toast and Guinness on another.

We had Indian food our last night in town right across the street from the hotel. They had my required outdoor seating and proximity, so they won out over other choices. I remember the food being good, though similar enough to the Indian food that we could get back home that the familiarity worked as comfort food but not as transportative.

We walked over several canals to Lindengracht in the Jordaan quarter and the highlight of our trip, Caffe Toscanini. The first night we had to wait an hour for a table, and the host seemed rather surprised that we were willing to do so. We were happy to sit at the tiny bar near the entrance, able to view the street, other guests arriving, and the open dining rooms and kitchen. Gnome had a couple of Peronis or Birra Morettis while I had the house red, which was quite inexpensive and delicious. They also have a huge wine list. The restaurant's interior had white walls, white tablecloths, sunlights, and light woodwork and chairs. At one point I asked the bartender, who appeared to be one of the owners or one of his sons, what was good there. "I am," he said, with typical Italian bravado.

Although I can't recall the exact dishes we ate, the menu changes weekly, I do remember that we had at least three courses each night: antipasti, pasta (primo) and a shellfish or meat (secondi), and that each was prepared within our sight in the open kitchen, with fresh ingredients and homemade everything, including the bread. A pasta with langostino stands out, as does a salumi made with figs and walnuts (noce). There was probably an insalata caprese made with tomatoes stacked with buffalo mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil (from their own Italian olive groves) and topped with fresh basil. It was insanely good from start to finish. View a sample menu here.

Though I didn't want to admit it for some reason, as I steered us back toward the Jordaan from our hotel the next night I'd hoped that we wouldn't come across another option on the way. Toscanini was just as good the second night, so much so that it planted a seed in me to want to eat an entire week's worth of this kind of food, which has finally, a few years later, culminated in our upcoming trip to Italy.


  1. Yippee! So when are you going to be there again? Maybe we should meet up . . . 8-)

  2. We'll be in Umbria near the Tuscan border the third week of September. Would love to see you over there!

  3. Did you have a Royale with Cheese? I would eat just about anything in Amsterdam (insert joke here). Seems like what you ate was from somewhere else. Did you eat any native dishes or was it pickled fish & fermented beets or some crap?

    Vic Mantolay

  4. Dear Vic: No, we did not have any Royale with Cheese or any other native dishes. Only those that started with an "I", see? We did have some yummy sammies that are Dutchesque. I don't remember their name, though.