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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

GOURMET'S NOTEBOOK: Verona




They say working on a daily newspaper makes you bitter and twisted. All that dependency on the lives of people more famous and interesting than yourself, that fruitless quest for the mirage of objectivity, the endless churning out of hackneyed formulas, the insidious atmosphere of news room backbiting, the fact that you'll probably never make it as a real writer, the fact that you see your stories twisted up the next day to hold floral bouquets in the subway at Pushkin Square ...


But I don't agree. No, what really gets my goat is when, after a year of living in Moscow, I stumble on a place like Verona two weeks before leaving. And the worst thing is - this cafe/restaurant has been here all this time. In fact, it's been here for four years. They just didn't want me to know about it.


Heaven take it, there was no need for me to spend 12 months migrating between Rostiks and the Metropol, occasionally pretending to be a food critic while stopping off for a hot dog at Steffi's on the way home. I could have just got on the subway every time I was peckish, headed to metro Proletarskaya and entered - if you'll excuse the hackneyed formula - my own little corner of Italy.


Well, not strictly my own. The entire Italian expat population has also set up camp at this affordable, unpretentious locale. For a people that generally equates Russia with the end of the earth, it's probably the only thing keeping them here. They order plates of Parma ham piled sky high, liters of house wine which they mix with Sprite because they know it ain't that special, and seem to be on pretty good terms with the very affectionate waiting staff.


What's so good about it, I hear you say. Well, on the gastronomic side, I can give a vague account, although I have to say I blatantly misordered again: eggplant with parmesan, fusilli al tonno and five tiger prawns allegedly in a cognac sauce - chosen on the basis that it was the most expensive item I could see on the menu.


It was all delicious, the pasta al dente, the tuna sauce not too rich, the tiger prawns fresh.


But I knew Verona was still hiding its finest. My suspicions were confirmed when I was halted in midchew on my third tiger prawn by the sight of the Parma ham on the opposite table.


"Sei Italiano?" I was asked by a Roman with few scruples about using the familiar "tu" form. Yes, I said bashfully, at least part of me is. He said he could tell by my Latin leer as I stared at his ham. Then he offered me a glistening slice. No, I said, that half of me's English. My main course must be followed by dessert.


To the left of me, another blow to my salivating glands: a crisp, perfectly-formed pizza that looked like it had just been baked in Naples.


To the right, a waitress more beautiful than the Mona Lisa. She'll even hold your hand when she shows you the way to the bathroom.


Shellshocked by all these new impressions, I signed the bill ($50 for two with the restaurant's best wine) and staggered out, tripping on the doorstep.


Was it all a dream?


Verona, 32/39 Vorontsovskaya Ul. Tel. 276-4150. Metro: Proletarskaya. Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard.


- Oliver Ready