Lowbrow, highbrow, beanbrow

We went to Vermont over the Thanksgiving weekend to visit friends and to get in a bit of country living. On Saturday evening we drove over to Hartland, VT, for the Unitarian Church’s “famous roast beef dinner.”

The fame is deserved – the meal was old fashioned and delicious. We sat at folding tables set for ten and were served large bowls of mashed potatoes, green beans, and cole slaw, along with pitchers of gravy and heaping platters of roast beef that would put Magnan’s to shame. Afterwards there was an extensive list of pies to choose from, all home made.

It was a delightful meal in what was, for us, an unusual location. The people around us were friendly in that pleasant, if slightly reserved, way of country and small town folk. That is, with the exception of the people who sat at our table (not visible in the photo below) who were more like a family of trolls. They fell on the bowls of food like boarders at the table of a stingy rooming house. Fortunately it was an “all you can eat” deal, so the bowls were eventually refilled. Their crude behaviour didn’t bother us though, as we all knew it would give us something to laugh about later.

Church dinner, Vermont

After the church dinner we went for a drive through the dark and rainy back roads of Vermont and then over into New Hampshire to the town of Hanover. I’m not sure how or why, but we ended up in one of the arts buildings on the campus of the august and highly civilized Dartmouth College. There was a dance performance going on downstairs, and the art gallery was still open. Plus there were many workshops and other fascinating rooms to look at.

But first we had to dry off, dripping wet as we were after dashing from the parking lot through the prodigious downpour. We stood in a large open room filled with wide panoramic windows, sculptural fixtures, an enormous modern fireplace, and various works of art on the walls, including expensively framed pieces along with more modest efforts that were tacked up by students as a temporary exhibit.

The view out the window was extraordinary as sheets of rain pounded the pavement in the foggy light of the street lamps while the interior of the room reflected off the glass. I stood there, still dripping from the deluge, watching spider webs struggle to survive the rain and the wind. I pondered the fragility of things.

A few minutes later we were on the other side of the room, near some of the paintings, discussing the weather. At some point I realized I was leaning slightly against the wall, which I thought was probably not a good idea given how wet my jacket still was. As I moved away I heard the slight rustle of paper, and turned to see that I had, in fact, been leaning on a painting; a mixed media abstract thing of pastels and other materials.

I also saw that the pigment bled off the paper and onto the wall, which I though was rather creative until I noticed that the bleed was still wet. Uh-oh. As calmly as I could I said to my friend “Um, is there a bit of paint on my back?” to which he replied “Why yes, you have a perfect imprint of that painting on your jacket.”

Fortunately he was exaggerating, but just barely. Realizing I had just pulled off the ultimate Mr. Bean move, I calmly took off my jacket, folded it over my arm, and rather pointedly suggested to the others that now would be a good time to take a closer look at that studio we saw on the way in, that one way, way over at the other end of the building.

Trudeau Airport Sucks

Brief historical preamble for those who either don’t live near Montreal or have been asleep for the last 30 years: Montreal has two main airports; Pierre Elliot Trudeau (formerly called “Dorval”) and Mirabel. Mirabel opened in 1975 and was supposed to replace Dorval, but although it’s really big (the second largest in the world in terms of area), it’s also inconveniently located. It’s way outta town. Mirabel handled all International passenger air traffic in and out of Montreal from its opening up until 1997. At that point, a “phase out” plan went into place, with international passenger traffic shifting to Dorval, which was undergoing expansion. As of October 31, 2004, all passenger traffic was moved to Dorval, with Mirabel relegated as a cargo-only airport.

All that means that Dorval, which was recently renamed to “Pierre Elliot Trudeau,” or “P.E.T.” (prompting me to refer to it as the “fartport” as “pet” is French for “fart”) has been in constant expansion mode for more than ten years. They’re shifting lots of things around and pouring lots of concrete. But one thing they seem to have been forgotten is planning.

OK, I’m being mean. Of course they’re planning. But it’s planning by people who seem to have never been to an airport. Planning by people for whom Byzantine signage and rules are not just normal but desirable. Planning by people who bought into the Segway hype and think it is OK to make people walk for hours between their arrival gate and the baggage checks because soon no one will ever have to walk again.

I’ll spare you my report on the insanity of our departure to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. Suffice to say that we were impressed at being able to do things like print our own boarding passes from home and pre-register our luggage, but were disappointed upon arriving at the airport to learn that nobody there seemed to know what we were talking about. At best we saved about a minute (or more accurately, traded off five minutes at home to save one minute at the airport), and in fact we might have lost time as the people using the old fashioned method were passing us in the line as we tried to negotiate an interface between what we did on the Web and what really happens at the airport. It was like trying to print a Windows file on a Mac in 1989.

I’ll skip the by now tedious lamentations about the endless long walks to and from the gates. I’ll not say a thing about the massive customs clearinghouse that experienced some big delays this summer (one report had people waiting in line for four hours to get through). Instead I’ll just mention the problem with taxis.

Getting a taxi at the fartport used to be easy. You come out of customs, cross to the exit, and bingo; taxi stand. Sometimes there might be a few people waiting head of you; usually no big deal.

When Martine and I landed from San Francisco a few nights ago, we noticed that the fartport was very quiet, almost deserted. When we got to customs we were pleasantly surprised to see there was no lineup at all. We, and the people from our flight (at least those who survived the long march from the gate) zipped right through. Then came the baggage area, which was like a graveyard with only a few dozen zombies from our flight standing around waiting for the conveyor to start up.

This is excellent, I thought. We’ll be out of here in no time. As our bags came into view it was 7:45, and we had the option of being picked up by a relative who was getting out of a class nearby at about 8:00. I figured that meant we’d have to wait about half an hour, so I convinced Martine to decline the pickup.

We got our bags and went out to the taxi area. Except… there were no taxis. Not even signs for taxis. Just one forlorn looking woman who said she was waiting for a bus.

So we went back inside and found that the fartport designers had re-jigged the taxi experience for us. Oh boy. Instead of getting a taxi from the area where you exit the arrivals area, you now follow a blue and white checkered line on the floor way, way down, half the length of the building. We did so dutifully, which was easy on that oddly quiet night, and arrived at… the lineup for taxis. The big, huge, insane lineup for taxis.

There were, quite literally, about 100 people in line for a taxi.

WTF??? I have never in my entire life seen such a lineup for taxis at an airport. And that was a quiet Wednesday night, at a time when the airport was almost deserted. It makes you wonder; what the heck is it like when the airport is busy?

Eating pizza in San Francisco

Loyal readers know that I like my pizza. As I get older and as my experience with pizza broadens, I find myself drawn into the elusive search for so-called “authentic” Neapolitan style pizza. (No, that doesn’t mean a pizza made with three flavors of ice cream; it means a pizza like they make in Naples.)

The quest for the authentic Neapolitan style pizza is one of those things that annoying foodies pick up on quickly because it’s so easy. Everybody likes pizza and nobody seems to be able to make an authentic Neapolitan one. Therefore it is the perfect foodie inquisition, and for this I hate myself.

For the record, I don’t really consider myself a “foodie” and my quest for authentic Neapolitan style pizza has as much to do with the pleasure of the research as it is an honest belief that I really like that kind of pizza and therefore should try to find some.

Also for the record, many non-foodies – which is to say, people who haven’t done the background reading – might be disappointed by an authentic Neapolitan pizza. After all, such a thing – were it to exist – would tend to be light on the ingredients (particularly the cheese), and unlikely to be delivered in a cardboard box. It would be thin-crusted, a bit burnt in spots, use simple but very fresh ingredients, and would likely not be cut into slices. (I found that out in Rome; Italian pizzas generally come in one size and are not cut.)

I, unfortunately, have done the reading (although because I am not a “foodie” it hasn’t really tainted me). That said, the pizzas Martine and I ate in Italy last year raised the bar. Also, some local research has revealed some interesting twists and turns on the rocky road to finding an authentic Neapolitan style pizza. In short, I have learned to use the search as nothing more than a loose framework; it gives me a reason to look a little harder and to save myself for pizzas that are deserving of my time, palate, and calorie count.

So naturally, when I caught wind of a highly regarded pizza joint in San Francisco that makes references to Naples in its folklore, we had to check it out. It’s Pizzeria Delfina on 18th Street (near Guerrero), which is an adjunct to a much larger and swishier restaurant called simply Delfina (which does not serve pizza). We arrived at around 8:30 on Monday night and the small room was already packed, as were the four or five tables that spilled out onto the sidewalk. As is the custom in San Francisco, I added my name and number of parties (Ed – 2) to the chalkboard and we settled in to wait. Which is to say, we leaned on a utility pole outside to wait.

Outside Pizzeria Delfina

Some 40 minutes later we sat down to order. I’ll cut to the chase; it was worth the wait. I got a classic Margherita with mozzerella di buffala cheese, and she had the salsiccia, with peppers and house-made fennel sausage. (We shared.) As you can see by the photos, they looked excellent. Some day this blog will come with scratch & sniff, but until then you’ll have to imagine the aroma.

Delfina's Pizza San Francisco

You can see that the pies were thin crusted (not paper thin, but thin), nicely blistered, and a bit puffy around the perimeter. The crust was crispy and the interior soft and heavenly. For that alone, these rank among the best pizzas I’ve had. Although the pies were sliced American style, they were otherwise quite Neapolitan-like. To me, this represents the best of both worlds; inspired by the kitchens of Naples, but assembled and presented with, shall we say, “California improvements.”

Additional kudos to Delfina for placing a small plate of fresh oregano, dried chili flakes, and grated Gran Padano cheese on each table, allowing for a small degree of personal customization.

My one suggestion, had I been asked in earnest, would be to put more basil on the Margherita, and to add it after the pie comes out of the oven but is still scalding hot. That is one of the magical tricks that my local favorite, Prato on Boul. St. Laurent, does to keep me coming back.

It was a lot of pie, so we took some home. The crust was so well structured that it still held up the next day when I warmed up a couple of slices in the oven.

On my next trip to San Francisco, whenever that may be, I will definitely return to Pizzeria Delfina. We only went the one time on this last trip because we had something to do or somewhere to go pretty much every night. But on our last night in the city we found ourselves, post-wine bar, in the general vicinity of Delfina and with a convenient petit creu (hunger). As we trod down Valencia with Delfina’s in mind, we happened upon Pauline’s Pizza. It’s a bigger space, and there was a table for two available, so we decided to skip the waiting and try something new.

But that, dear readers is another story.