And now for the Top 10 - my favorite meals, all from fantastic restaurants that feature the best of the land, the sea, and the field!
Set within the Park Hyatt in Chicago, NoMI's innovative offerings feature fresh, crisp, delicious ingredients. The "Garden Sushi" is among the best that I've had, with crunchy asparagus, soft avocado, and tender mushroom complemented with bright squash and the flatbreads are an explosion of flavor.
9. Salento Salato
This tiny restaurant overflows with vivid conversation and thick accents; the menu features perhaps eight items - tops. I remember best the packed spinach "meatballs" drowned in a steaming, deep red tomato sauce. Two other members of our party devoured a dish composed of penny sized pasta with a traditional sweet tomato and onion sauce. Simplicity rules here - and in this instance simplicity equals sweet perfection.
8. Ristorante La Forgia Maurizio
During a stay in Vulcano, we ate at "Maurizio's" for five nights in a row. Grandfatherly Maurizio manages the restaurant - front and kitchen - with a brilliant smile and vivid tales. The meal begins with a completely vegetarian sampling plate complements of Maurizio. After that, I recommend you put yourself in his hands - for us, he brought out steaming pastas of peas and smoky cheese and of eggplant alla Norma or zucchini; his years in India yield a fabulous curry risotto. For dessert, dip his almond biscotti into delicately sweet Malvasia.
7. La Parrala Paella Resto Bar
If you are in Spain and crave the quintessential paella experience - with or without the traditional meats and seafood - visit La Parrala for the best vegetarian paella in Spain. They also serve huge salad bowls with carefully dried tomatoes and figs and gently cooked zucchini and aubergine. But of course, the star of the show (for me) is the vegetarian paella with crisp rice and perfect spice and a menagerie of vegetables cooked to perfection in the huge paella pan.
White table cloth - without pretense - Allosteria is a delightful new restaurant nested in the ancient walls of Luca. The pastas are fresh and dressed in luxurious gowns of sauces and jeweled with vegetables; the breads are crisp and buttery; the wines are fresh and deep.
5. Gam Gam
Set in the lively Jewish quarter of Venice, Gam Gam proves a constant favorite when in the "City of Bridges." The hummus is the best I've had anywhere - as are the falafel, crisp with sultry nutty flavors that beg a second helping. The potato latkes are perfectly cooked with spiced homemade applesauce. With every bite, the tongue begs for the next.
4. Chez Vrony
The husband and wife team of kind Vrony and grinning Max run Chez Vrony with passion and flavor. An hour hike from Zermatt to 2100 meters into the Alps, Chez Vrony looks out upon the stunning vistas of the Matterhorn and warms guests with hot drinks, velvety risottos, vivid salads with the hues of an artist's palate, flavorful sandwiches accompanied with spiced potato crisps and bitter olives, and creamy desserts complemented with tart berries.
Amidst the winding streets of Florence, beneath the hill where the church of Santa Maria Novella sits, Zeb occupies a long thin room with an open kitchen in the center - its sides lined with bar stools. Their fresh pastas are a revelation, bursts of flavor emanating from the dually unique and simple combinations: delicate spaghetti glimmering with olive oil, slivered truffles earthy against the strands, deep pear ravioli with soft cheese - each paired with the perfect wine to complement the flavors.
2. Osteria Di Giovanni
Over my past three trips to Florence, I have eaten at Osteria Di Giovanni many times; this lovely osteria stands among the restaurants that I dream of. Each dish is cooked to perfection, every meal begins with a crisp glass of prosecco and steaming bowl of crisp bread and finishes with melt-in-your-mouth biscotti. The in between is equally divine: fresh and creamy burrata mozzarella nestled amidst bursts of tomato, thick strands of pasta dressed lovingly, tender fried zucchini blossoms, perfect tarts and cakes.
1. The Artist
As the name suggests, every dish is a work of art, each plate a canvas to deep tomato reds, velvety fuchsia creams, soft asparagus dabs, and painted eggplant slabs. Although the "Mains" section of the menu holds no vegetarian options; the chef was all too happy to create a new dish without meat or fish when we called ahead. The desserts are the cherry on top of this fabulous restaurant featuring sweet and bright cucumber sorbet, fluffy doughnuts, and ambrosial apple crumble.
*Photo courtesy of author