Samuel Johnson, rest easy: I will NEVER tire of London…or Paris…or Rome…or Madrid!
However, very frequent touring of Europe for decades has put in me in a great position to say that there are other food-thrill cities out there. And I’m not even talking about secondary or tertiary food-thrill cities (like Lyon, Bologna, Sevilla, etc.)
I’m talkin’ ’bout places you’d probably never visit unless someone told you to.
So I’m telling you right now! Here are five off-beat cities in Europe that bring me enormous food joy. I hope they do the same for you!
Right at the top of my list is Greece’s second-largest city, way up north—and therefore usually overlooked by American travelers to Greece. But it is a great port town, featuring a unique Cannes-Cambridge (big college town!)-South Beach-Athens-souk kind of vibe.
And the food! Everytime time I’ve told an Athenian taxi driver I’m catching a plane to Thessaloniki, he has immediately coughed up this observation, not without chagrin: “Oh. The food is better there.”
Damned right, taxikos!
Seaside Thessaloniki, with big-city commerce, is one of the best places in fish-mad Greece for fish variety. And the freshness!
But don’t miss the “ethnic” fish opportunities…like the various kinds of smoked fish, in Thessaloniki’s old Jewish neighborhood!
In fact, throughout Thessaloniki—one of its foodie charms!—you will see lots of Middle Eastern and Turkish influence.
Throughout Greece, I count on certain places for fish…and certain places for meat. But one of the special joys of Thessaloniki is that has a wonderful tradition of both…so you can stay for a week, alternating!
It all starts with lamb, of course.
But there are wonderful little places all over Thessaloniki to eat not only lamb, but a diverse array of pork products, offal, sausages…
One of my favorite eating spots is in an alleyway right across the street from the old meat market, and used to be called “The Stomach Doctor.” I returned in May, and found new ownership…
…and a new name: Sta Orthia…or…”The Feeder!” Whatever you call this place, and whoever’s running it…the fabulous array of cheap street meat just can’t be beat. Try everything, but try especially the soutzoukaki, long sausage, or the special sausage from Tzoumagia.
There are also great gyros in Thessaloniki (I love the little place near The Feeder, at Vas. Iraklioy 33, called “The Brothers”) and great specialties—like kokoretsi, which is a grilled twining of liver, lungs, intestines, and other verboten things that are ACTUALLY DELICIOUS if you try them!
I love Porto, in northern Portugal, for many reasons. It has a mighty river running through it, the Douro, that for centuries has been the watery pipeline to the inland Douro Valley, where Port is produced. The system has changed, but special boats called barcas have historically delivered the goods in barrels down the river to Porto. I love the old lodges on the Vila Nova di Gaia side of the river, where Port is received and stored. I love the fierce Atlantic ocean towards which the Douro is flowing; some of Porto’s beaches can compete for the title of world’s crashingest waves.
But of course I love the food and wine the best. I think of Porto as the capital city of Vinho Verde (which region is a bit to the north)…a great place in harvest season to get young, non-Americanized, crackling crisp and dry fresh Vinho Verde out of casks. Wine like this is one of the great global matches with hearty fare, such as northern Portuguese caldo verde, (a lovely kale soup with sausage), and tripas a moda do Porto, the fabulous tripe stew that is everywhere and cheap.
Seafood? Oh yeah. Right on the ocean is a municipality called Matosinhos, which is teeming with seafood restaurants (you can almost hear the clatter of shells being handled and slurped as you walk past the open doors!)
There is also exceptionally good high-end dining, based on local traditions but elevated to 2012-style. The sprawling Yeatman Hotel, opened just three years ago on a ideal hillside overlooking the heart of Porto’s Douro, is one of the most breathtaking new luxury hotels in the world…and now has a Michelin-starred restaurant to go with it.
But my #1 treat in Porto—the one thing I cannot miss on a visit—is what I consider the most delicious sandwich in the world: the francesinha (fran-ses-SHEEN-ya). It was invented by a Porto restaurateur around 1900 as a tribute to France’s croque monsieur…but it is so much more. This crazy creation contains a steak, chorizo, ham, cheese, can have an egg on top, and is surrounded by an orange sauce made from beer and paprika.
I know…this ain’t exactly an obscure city…especially since the emergence of the restaurant Noma, owned by my old friend Rene Redzepi, which in 2011 reached #1 on the London-based RESTAURANT magazine chart of the world’s greatest restaurants (topping, at that time, both El Bulli in Spain and The Fat Duck in England).
Noma is definitely worth its own trip—both for the crazy obsession with food from that part of the world (I LOVE “Greenland Musk-Ox!”), and its growing obsession with what you might call “primitivism.” Note this photo that was given to me by a Swedish food-writer buddy in Spring 2012:
But reservations are hard to come by…and who can eat three-star food every night? So my usual plan is to come to Copenhagen for a week, savor a mind-blowing dinner at Noma, check out a few other stellar Redzepi-influenced spots…but mostly tuck into Copenhagen’s most exciting traditional specialty at lunch: smørbrød, a dish with baffling obscurity on the world stage!!!
This is the Danish name for open-faced sandwiches—a slice of rye bread smeared with butter and topped with your choice of hundreds of things. Absolute heaven with a cold glass of Danish draught beer! It’s a treat you will find all over Scandinavia…but the sandwiches can be quite skimpy in a place like Norway, even in Sweden. In Copenhagen, I’m delighted to say—where they take their open-faced sandwiches most seriously of all—even the very traditional ones are full of flavor.
But the trick in Copenhagen today is finding what’s “hot” in smørbrød. It is the passing of a generation right now: for fifty years the scene has been dominated by the goddess-like “smørbrød virgins,” a generation of ladies who are culinary rock stars in Copenhagen—such as Ida Davidsen, whose vastly creative smørbrød lunch spot is still open and crowded.
But will there be a new generation to follow them? I hear mixed reports.
Hmmmmm…maybe it’s best to go to Copenhagen right now and sample the last sandwiches of the old virgins! And at the end of the day…late-summer nights listening to ethereal music with your children at Tivoli Gardens!!!
4) Aranda de Duero
Yeah, yeah, yeah…Aranda de Duero has lots of old churches, monuments, castles, etc…the perfect northern-Spain touring spot for normal tourists. But I warn you: the town has gotten a little business-y for me (the new GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical installation isn’t helping)…and I am years past dreamy drives from Madrid to Aranda de Duero just for the quaintness.
But…please note carefully…I AM NOT OVER THE LAMB in Aranda de Duero! Oh…my…God!!! This could well be the best place in the whole world to consume lamb, if that’s your passion! Let me ‘splain…
First of all, Aranda de Duero is the main town of the Spanish wine region Ribera del Duero, in the province of Burgos (the best place in the world for blood sausage, but that’s another story). Rich red Ribera del Duero wine has gotten very famous in the last 30 years, and wine tourists help to support the restaurant industry in Aranda…where approximately 30 restaurants serve approximately the same menu: lechazo, roast baby lamb, green salad, torta bread, and stout bottles of local red wine (many of them sleeping in inter-connected cold medieval cellars beneath the town of Arande de Duero!)
The meat’s the thing. In huge, wood-fired hearths, the specialist roasters of this town long-cook baby lambs, giving you a choice of cuts.
But the thrill is the leg, much smaller than you’d ever imagine—served for one person as lunch or dinner. The skin is supernally crisp, like the skin of a well-prepared roast duck; the meat inside is grey-brown, slippy-slidey, velvety, saturanted with the flavors of the pasture.
Santiago de Compostela is just a few hours down the road…but this is MY piligrimage site in Spain!
Noto, about 20 miles southwest of Siracusa in eastern Sicily, is a strange addition to this list. I do love Noto, and go there all the time just to gaze at the Sicilian Baroque architecture—a city rebuilt, with lots of money, just after the devastating 1693 earthquake, into a rather small space (people have called it the “Stone Garden” because of the mind-blowing volume of squeezed-together grand edifices in this small town).
But here’s a confession: I find only good food in Noto. I’m still waiting for great food.
Here’s another confession: the last confession doesn’t matter at all. For there’s one comestible that will draw me to Noto until the day I put down my spoon: gelato.
OK, here’s a third confession: I don’t have an active sweet tooth. Once again: matters not! For the gelato in Noto is the best in Sicily, which means it’s the best in Italy, which means it’s the best in the universe.
Let me put that plainly: the ice cream you eat in Noto will be the best ice cream of your life. THAT’S worth a detour.
Why is it so good? One reason is tradition: there are proud ice-cream guys in this town, who know they’re the best…and work hard every day to keep that true. Sample a round at the Café Sicilia, and you’ll see what I mean.
But one other form of local pride also affects the product. When you drive into Noto, you will see orchards for miles and miles around the town, bearing all kinds of fruit. There used to be a gelateria in Noto (the owner, Costanza, died about 5 years ago), that didn’t sell gelato in the winter! They waited until the summer/fall harvest of local fruit, and made their gelato only with that. Today, from what I can see, the high-quality places will use non-Noto fruit out of season. But the best places insist on local fruit in season—and this is a crazy version of the “locavore” theme that I support 100% percent!