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I was amused to read in the International Herald Tribune that Mario Resca (who has recently taken on the task of ‘adding value to the nation’s museums’) claims to have helped promote the slow food movement.  His notoriety comes from having turned around the McDonald’s franchise in Italy, overseeing a spectacular expansion from 10 restaurants to 378.

Not one to shun the spotlight, he cites the success of McDonald’s as the impetus for Italian pride in local cuisine.  “I take credit for that,” he says.  “Slow food became relevant because McDonald’s became relevant.”  He may have a point, however convoluted.

In her remarkably popular book, “Eat Pray Love,”  Elizabeth Gilbert writes about choosing Italy because of the food and the language.  I read the book long before it made the best-seller lists.  If memory serves, she gained 35 lbs (16 kilos) in four months!  Fortunately, she was heading for an ashram in India on the next jaunt of her odyssey and the weight just dropped away.

I’m not sure why the Italians are not all as heavy as heifers, but I suspect it has to do with walking.    Every evening, the citizens of Turin are out on the streets, walking, talking, shopping, generally ignoring the inane programs on T.V.  You don’t see that in North America or Australia.

Oddly enough, my wife and I haven’t dined out very often here despite the temptation.  It is partly an attempt to to save money, and partly a question of habit.  I usually have dinner on the table by 7.   Restaurants here don’t open until 7:30, and no self-respecting Italian would be caught dead in one before 8.  If we were in Rome it would be 9.  Eating habits die hard, but we are eating Italian food, even “at home.”  It’s a wonder I still fit in the Brioni suit.

We decided awhile back that we would celebrate my 64th birthday with a long lunch at a restaurant rated among the top 50 in the world– Combal.Zero.  It just got its second star from Michelin.  It is situated alongside the stunning Art Museum at Castello Rivoli.  Check out my post called Art Attack.

The chef is Davide Scabin.  He is considered a true innovator, exploring the very essence of what food represents.  He has been known to present food in books, glass jars and “cyber-eggs,” cellophane enclosed surprises filled with caviar, vodka, egg yolk, shallots and pepper.  His utensils include Xacto knives, mallets and even plastic cutlery.

Our degustation menu was more subdued, but still delightful.  It began with a deconstructed pizza, a “zuppizza,”  in which the tomato topping forms a soup, with mozzarella in the middle and toasted bread chips on top.  It is delicious.

A little champagne or sparkling wine always gets things off to a fine start.  For the next two hours we indulged our taste buds at the hands of a master.  If I could write about food like Ruth Reichl, who actually used to feed me every so often at the University of Michigan, then this post would be as long as our lunch.  While she has gone on to become editor-in chief at Gourmet magazine, I have ignored whatever talents I may harbor in that area.  Pictures will simply have to do.

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The restaurant is a long, luminous architectural echo of the “long sleeve” in the adjacent castle,  a room that was designed to house the Savoy art collection.  The space  has an air of meditation, an atmosphere of studied grace. Our black T-shirt clad waiters and waitresses seemed as if they were floating from the kitchen to our table, engaging in Tai Chi as they brought our dishes.  For the first half hour, we were the only guests.

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My wife and I and our friends from Toronto allowed ourselves to be as pampered as people can possibly be, enjoying the peace and quiet and the gastronomic delights of a long afternoon.

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For readers who are foodies, we had:  trout in green pea sauce with sour cream; codfish croquette with violet potato chips; thinly sliced veal with hazelnut and anchovy sauce; ‘acquerello’ rice with foie gras and artichokes; pumpkin soup with ‘soncino’ root and ‘quenelle’ of fresh cream cheese; pork shank with puree; and chocolate cake with double milk cream.

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Not to mention the chocolates and coffee.  I guess this answers the question posed in the title of this post.  The two of us will still feed each other and Davide will do what he does best at Combal.Zero.  Here’s to the wonderful markets and Italian cuisine.  Thanks to Pam and Marianna, I won’t forget this birthday anytime soon.

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I was already 22 years old back when the Beatles’ tune in the title of this post was released on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I remember being charmed by the whole album, but I couldn’t make the big leap into the future and imagine myself with grey hair, actually turning 64.

It was one of the best album covers to come along in an era of great ones.   My friends and I pored over it like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out who each person was and why he or she had been picked for the cover.  We had no idea the artwork on it would become a classic. If you’ve never seen the short section of “Yellow Submarine ” where the song appears, check it out at  — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJ8kMbMpQbo.

If it were not for the Beatles, I doubt if this particular milestone would have had much resonance.  One birthday is pretty much like another once your odometer hits fifty.  But our presence in Torino and a visit from an old friend (and her friend), made it very special.

January 30 was the last day of class for a month-long session of Italian that I had joined a week late.  After the last test, a group of about twenty students and teachers from Italiano Porticando sat down together for a late lunch at a local restaurant in the neighborhood.  We ate good pizza and pasta, exchanged email addresses, took photos, and promised to keep in touch.

But one last passegiata was still on the agenda, and it attracted more students than all the other outings I had joined previously.  It was a visit to an artisanal cioccolateria, an award-winning chocolate maker–bottega Guido Gobino.

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Our tasting room was long and narrow, ultra modern-looking under some ancient wooden beams.  For the next two hours, it would be our new classroom and the subject would be chocolate.  Our host was gracious, passionate and fun.  Torino is the birthplace of gianduja chocolate, (a mixture of hazelnut paste, cocoa and sugar), bicerin (a drink of chocolate, espresso and cream), and chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick.

Although he was open to any and all questions, including the inevitable one about Ferrero Rocher and the phenomenal success of Nutella, his main mission was to educate our taste buds, to encourage us to discover what tastes were elicited by the carefully prepared blends of cocoa from around the world.

It soon became obvious that a more concentrated blend of cocoa did not necessarily translate into a stronger taste.  He compared the production of chocolate to that of wine, conjuring up the terroir of Java as if it were something you could taste.  He asked us to listen to the snap of the chocolate and lick our fingers like bambini.  There were chocalates that tasted like smoke, some like herbs.  The final confection literally melted in the mouth, leaving a delicious, lingering aftertaste of a key ingredient– salt.

We were all buzzing as we stumbled out of the chocolate boutique.  The sugar rush had kicked in and we had been sitting far too long.  I parted from my classmates one last time.  We said our goodbyes and floated home.  The next day was my birthday. We had booked a tavolo for four at noon at a renowned restaurant located on the grounds of the Castello di Rivoli.  It is called Combal.Zero.

Stay tuned for Part Two.  In which yours truly gets stuffed.  In an elegant way, of course, in the Brioni suit!

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