Un Giro a Siena

This past weekend I took a trip to Siena.

While I wish I could say that I was in the Tuscan city that is world-famous for the Palio horse race, its neighborhood rivalries and cuisine, I spent this Saturday evening in a local restaurant, imagining myself transported to the Italian province.

Located in Rhode Island’s Little Italy area known as Federal Hill, Siena restaurant promises diners “authentic Tuscan cuisine in a warm, inviting and lively atmosphere.” Having spent the last semester in Tuscany, I have been on a search for someplace where I could taste the flavors I fell in love with overseas.Despite the raised eyebrows of some, I left the nation’s capital this weekend to celebrate the Fourth of July with my family in Rhode Island. Anticipating a family barbecue, a Saturday Waterfire, a sunny beach day and Italian food, I knew that this holiday weekend would be worth spending New England.

With my late afternoon flight to Providence Saturday night, my mom decided to treat me with a day off from the stove . As much as I love cooking, I also love trying out different restaurants and sampling new dishes that inspire own creativity in the kitchen. After inquiring about my cravings, my mom made a reservation on the Hill at the Tuscan restaurant Siena.

Before I even stepped into the door of the restaurant, my expectations for the food were high, and my stomach was growling from the increasing hunger that built after five-plus hours without eating. Though our party of four had a reservation, we spent a few moments lingering in the doorway as we waited for the hostess to organize herself and decide where to seat the family.

At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening, the place was buzzing with activity, making us feel very fortunate that we had booked reservations in advance. After some minutes sizing up the crowd, the hostess guided us to our table in the back of the restaurant. Initially I felt disappointed with our spot, feeling hidden from the activity and conversation, but as the night wore on, I enjoyed the intimacy that the table allowed us.

Once seated, each of us opened the menu and began analyzing the choices for the night. The menu offers an assortment of antipasti, pizzas, insalate (salads) and entrees to create a well-rounded Italian meal. Among the menu items are the traditional, such as Pasta e Fagioli, pasta and beans, and Veal Saltimbocca, to the more refined, including Pollo con Miele e Tartufo, chicken with honey and truffle oil, and Cresto di Gallo, crest of the rooster-shaped pasta with asparagus chicken in a lemon butter sauce.

With so many enticing options, each of us ordered something different for our meal. Although none of us agreed on entrees, we all did approve of sharing the calamari appetizer. While Siena does offer the typical Italian restaurant dish of Calamari Fritti, we chose to go with the Calamari all’Aceto Balsamico, calamari with balsamic vinegar. Within ten minutes of ordering, a waiter brought us a heaping plate of fried squid rings doused in balsamic vinegar reduction and tossed with hot cherry pepper rings. Although the balsamic added sweetness and acidity to an otherwise simple fried dish, there could have been more of it. The calamari were very crispy, but there was a part of me wishing I had something other than ice water to cool my mouth after the bites of the fish and hot pepper rings.

In addition to the calamari, the four of us devoured the breadbasket and olives that arrived prior to our meal. This is one area where the restaurant fails to follow Tuscan tradition. In Tuscany, bread is typically a salt-less, bland tasting product. The bread’s simplicity and lack of flavor is purposeful so as to not compete with the strong, complex flavors of the foods it usually accompanies. Although I understand why Siena would substitute salted Italian bread and Focaccia squares for the Tuscan slices, the decision is a balk at tradition.

When our calamari plates were cleared, our main courses arrived soon after. Sticking to her favorite, my mom ordered the Penne alla Vodka con Pollo, penne and chicken in a pink vodka sauce. My dad, always the carnivore, decided on the Maiale con Pere, pork tenderloin marinated in amaretto and garlic and topped with a pear, amaretto glace. My sister, a very unadventurous, oftentimes boring eater, chose the Pollo Milanese. With the promise of four jumbo shrimp and a Parmigiano-Reggiano risotto, I chose the Gamberi con Timo, shrimp with thyme.

The moment I saw my dish I knew I was about to taste something untraditional. My risotto was white as could be and its creamy texture easily outrivaled all my attempts at the rice dish. My shrimp surrounded the rich mound in a vegetable and thyme purée. Upon tasting, there was no doubting butter as a main ingredient in the purée, yet there was a lightness to the sauce that successfully complemented the sautéed shrimp.

Intrigued from the onset, my fork eagerly sunk into the risotto. What I tasted was one of the creamiest, most luscious risottos I have ever eaten. The contrasting lightness of the purée to the richness of the risotto was wonderful for the palate. Traditionally risotto is made by gradually adding chicken stock to a pot of rice until the grains are cooked until al dente. I knew, however, that this risotto took a page out a different cookbook. Although most risotto recipes say that the desired final product should have a “creamy” consistency, this risotto took that adjective to an entire new level.

Save for a few last bites, I devoured the entire dish. When the waitress arrived to clear the table’s plates, I inquired about what made my dish so unique. “Butter. And cream. And Parmigiano.” As I heard this I thought of Julia Child’s words, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” Although the Siena risotto is far from the purist and traditional risotto I enjoyed in Tuscany, I enjoyed it sans guilt.

Because I fell so hard for my dish, I had little room to sample the dishes of the other diners at my table. Even so, the nearly empty dishes suggested that everyone else had enjoyed their meals as much I did. While the breadbasket shudders tradition and Gorgonzola cheese from the Lombardian region makes an appearance on the menu, the dining experience at Siena makes it easy for anyone to imagine him/herself in the Piazza del Campo basking in the Tuscan sunset and overhearing advice about which horse to bet on in the famous Palio.

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