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I See Italy: Florence was the site of some unforgettable Italian feasts.

Meal Culpa

A look back on an eclectic menu of memorable meals from 2001

By Christina Waters

IT WAS a hard act to follow, that pesky millennial year. But 2001 produced its share of dining surprises, and a few superb encounters.

After dining out the old year in Florence and Bologna, we traveled through the Alps to ring in the new year in the tiny medieval village of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Switzerland is not Italy. No one had told us, for example, that every single store, restaurant, Weinstub and laundromat would be closed tight on New Year's day. But such was the case.

New snow had fallen during the last night of 2000 and next morning the entire town was hushed under a thick coat of phosphorescent whiteness. Our hotel had mercifully laid out one of those serious, full-on Swiss breakfasts in which acres of cheeses, breads, hams, yogurts, jams and cereals are stretched out across the entire dining room. Very rapidly, breakfast suggested the answer to dinner. One for now, one for later, I murmured, stashing as many of the thick crusty rolls into my purse as would fit. No slouch in the carpe diem department, Jack lined his jacket pockets with little packets of ham, prosciutto and various cheeses, neatly wrapped in napkins. We still had a half bottle of Italian red wine and two chunks of Toblerone chocolate left in our room. It was going to be a decent year after all. Few meals tasted quite as choice as that unexpected hotel room picnic of "liberated" rolls, ham and cheese consumed in half-timbered splendor, watching BBC World and listening to the cathedral bells tolling the first evening of 2001.

Last year saw us enjoying consummate Italian cuisine, including a gorgeous veal chop at the durable Valentino's, in the Revolutionary War hamlet of Morristown, New Jersey. As the year drew to a close, we savored a remarkable pre-Thanksgiving meal at Shagwong Tavern in Montauk, on the tip of wildest Long Island. At Montauk Point--within spitting distance of Rhode Island--we watched guys fishing for striped bass and flounder. And a few hours later we were feasting on those unbelievably fresh fish, served with serious potatoes and a sophisticated salad of fennel and arugula. Seafood served on the shores of another ocean is a soothing luxury. Closer to home, we've enjoyed nothing but stunning dinners at tiny (12 tables) Buca in Campbell. Every meal--venison with chocolate and port sauce, fresh Dungeness crab and fennel salads--has been great, but it was an evening special of gnocchi with wild boar Bolognese that put this place in 2001's hall of fame.

Bella Napoli in Santa Cruz gave me one of the best food memories of the year in the form of an archetypal and earthy veal scallopine with marsala and capers, followed by a perfect caprese salad. Any one of our freestyle dinners of a shared cheese platter and a flight of red wine from Avanti qualifies as memorable. A flawless duck dish at Pearl Alley had me speaking in tongues a few months back.

Lunch last month at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with friends from Santa Cruz put me in touch with the true meaning of New York-style cheesecake. One guilty pleasure I'll admit to is a favorite Mojave breakfast of cinnamon donuts from the Jelly Donut, joined by a latté from the Finicky Coyote, after a three-mile climb to the rocks at Joshua Tree to watch the sunrise over the desert. We repeat this ritual as often as the blazing heat allows.

But in all candor, I confess that my favorite meal of the year was one we try to have at least once a week during the summer. It begins with fresh, local salmon filets we especially like from New Leaf Markets. After a light application of K Paul's "Seafood Magic," the salmon is briefly, very briefly grilled, and served with organic basmati rice, steamed broccoli from Route One farms (plus a squeeze of Meyer lemon) and a salad of Molino Creek dry-farmed tomatoes and tender greens grown on the UC Farm & Garden lands. Shun fast food--live long and prosper!

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From the January 2-9, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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