POP UP DINNER AND CENTRAL MARKET’S PASSPORTO ITALIA

Last night we went to a pop-up dinner put on by Randy Rucker.  The dinner, which was BYOB (yippee!), had an air of mystery to it — it was going to be “at an undisclosed location in Houston, Texas.”  The theme of the dinner was a “celebration of the arrival of the spring season,” and it promised to showcase “traditional and untraditional applications of the natural resources we all have available to us here on the 3rd coast.”  We were told we could count on the menu “being studded with lots of cultivtaed, wild and indigenous products that help provide a connection between the guests and their surroundings.”  We were intrigued.

The day before the dinner we received an email telling use the dinner was going to be held at 2231 S. Voss, which is the location of the recently-closed Mancuso’s Italian Table.  Chef Rucker had plenty of volunteer kitchen helpers and servers, including Jody Stevens from Jody-cakes (who makes a great armadillo cake) and Justin Turner from Bernie’s Burger Bus:

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The menu lived up to its promise.  Highlights included golden tile fish with a puckery citrus “serum,” garnished with jalapeno and delicate cilantro flowers:

IMG_4018Pan-roasted wood mushrooms and sugar snap peas with herbs and butter (really delicious):

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Air-dried venison that had been cured and rinsed, with minted peas, mint jelly, mint, and wild lettuce (foraged from the parking lot):

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And the favorite among our party, grouper with onion blossom vinegar over fideo cooked risotto style:

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It was a fun evening and a really interesting meal.  At the conclusion of the meal, Chef Rucker revealed that he was opening his long-awaited new restaurant this fall in the building we were dining in, and that the name of the restaurant was going to be Bramble.  You heard it here first!

Today as I was driving home from work, my car auto-piloted itself to Central Market, where Passaporto Italia is taking place from April 30 through May13.  I’ve been to previous “Passport” events there — Spain, France, and Brazil — and it’s always fun to see what special foods they have from the featured country.  There’s also culinary merchandise, in-store tastings, and cooking classes.

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The produce section was given an Italian makeover, complete with hanging garlic:

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I wanted one of each of the colorful olive oil cruets:

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As well as the ceramic serving dishes and garlic keepers:

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Throughout the store, there were lots of specialty items, such as packages of roasted and peeled chestnuts:

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And this fig ball (which I can’t wait to try):

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Lots of Italian coffees and espressos to choose from:

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There was quite a variety of tempting house-made Italian items at the meat counter, inclcuding at least 4 different meatballs and 10 different sausages

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As well as bistecca alla fiorentina (seasoned porterhouse steak) and salsiccia e pepe rosso (stuffed pork loin roast):

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There were also cheeses, honeys, jams, breads, crackers, wine, oils, salami, and probably scores of other items I didn’t catch.  But the thing that really fascinated me was the seafood counter:

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I just stood there staring at the octopus, the red shrimp, the giant calamari, and the 1-pound scallops that were the size of dessert plates, like I was at an aquarium, half expecting the octopus to wave at me.

Even the floral area had an Italian flavor, with big bunches of sunflowers, rosemary, and lavender:

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I came home with a few featured items that made their way into tonight’s dinner, including a blood orange, a head of Treviso radicchio, mini san marzano tomatoes, house-made pesto, a fra diavolo rotisserie chicken, and chocolate biscotti.  Passaporto Italia is a great opportunity to get a little flavor of Italy, and I’m looking forward to trying some more of the specialty items before it’s over.  If you go and buy the octopus, please let me know!

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