The large wineglass is cool and inviting, the small rounded-ice cubes slowly melting into the deep, bright, clear, orange drink. As I swirl my glass, the ice cubes crackle against the thin frame of the glass. The first sip is cold and frizzy, sweet with a faint lingering sensation of bitter, and a persistent taste of syrupy candied orange. As the alcohol trickles down my throat, I know this will make me hungry.
It’s Aperitivo time in Bra, at around 7 PM, many students of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, along with local Braidesi find themselves on the cobbled streets of Bra’s historic centre. Our choice of location is most often Boglione, one of the most popular bars in town, and our choice of poison is Spritz, a concoction made of two parts Prosecco, one part Aperol or Campari, topped off with a splash of seltzer. I choose Aperol, as it’s less bitter than Campari, but to each their own.
Boglione, like most bars in the area, serve a bit of food with your drink during aperitivo time. Although the selection differs from bar to bar, you’re most likely to find some form of cheese as well as some focaccia, and some raw Salsiccia di Bra, if you get lucky. On our plate are small square morsels of pizza bread, with a tomato salsa topping, cubes of semi-hard cow’s milk cheese, and small squares of spring onion tortilla. The cheese is a welcome sight, as it cuts through the syrupy nature of Aperol. As I pop it in my mouth and crush it slowly, it’s soft, elastic, with a milky and sweet, almost hazelnut flavor. There is no bitterness at all, nor is there much salt. The oiliness left on my tongue makes me realize it’s sweated a bit under the heat of the late afternoon.
The spring-onion tortilla is not really much to look at, but it’s surprisingly warm, moist, melting, grassy and herbal, ever so slightly caramelised spring onions giving way to a persisting black pepper aroma as I swallow the bite.
Onto the main course
There are many reasons why I like Boglione, and end up at Boglione in one way or another. It may partly be due to the fact that their back door opens up into my courtyard, and it’s only about 10 metres from there to my door step. But I know that’s not the whole story. From the first day I got into Bra, which was on a dreary, dark, grey November afternoon, when an almost Monsoon-rain downpour was flooding many parts of Piemonte, Boglione provided a sort of a safe-haven.
It may have been the location, smack in the middle of Via Cavour, one of the main attraction points in Bra’s Historic Center, or the interior, late 19th century wood paneled walls and framed mirrors reflecting the inviting glazed wood bar, with its selection of Rums from Guyana to Cubaney to El Dorado, or it may have been the people.
Alessandro and Enrico are the current owners of the place, which they bought about four years ago. They’re both ex- Slow Food employees, friends who’ve known each other for over fourteen years, and both with a passion for good food, and good drinks. In 2008, at a moment when they were trying to figure out what to do with their lives, their work, and what would make them happy, they decided to buy up the place and turn it around.
Boglione is not just a bar, and it’s not like many of the others around town. Enrico likes to call it more of a bistro, as well as a spot where bar, food, and art meet. They have good strong drinks yes, Mojitos, Caipirinhas, Cuba libres, you name them, but they also have a strong wine and beer list. Comprised mainly of the great wines of Piemonte; Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetta, Barbaresco and Barolo; as well as artisanal beers from around the world, Belgian Ales, Italian beers – Birra del Borgo and Birrificio Citta Biunda among them – American IPAs, English Pale Ales, and Stouts, Boglione provides good stuff from both small and large producers with a reputation for producing good, clean and fair wines and beers.
And they have students of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the “Slow Food University”, cooking up the lunch and dinner service, the menu changing seasonally, and according to the cook’s strong suits. Alessandro says it was actually the students’ idea to start cooking at Boglione. They needed jobs, and we needed good cooks he explained. The first student to work in the Boglione kitchen was Ben (who now works at Noma), and lately it’s Marcello, a Roman with a passion for the Lazio cuisine.
While the menu changes seasonally, there is one dish on there that I’ve had on a regular basis ever since that grey November afternoon. The cheeseburger made with Piemonte beef, topped with glazed onions, bacon, home-made mayonnaise, and a side of cubed fried potatoes. The menu on the website of Boglione calls it “mythic”, and in most occasions I would agree. There is some rumour that I have forgotten to confirm, that the meat of the burger comes from the butcher shop of Alessandro’s father, one of the most well-known butchers in the Bra-Pollenzo area. I wouldn’t be surprised.
So, once I am done with my Aperol Spritz, and have had my fill of onion tortillas and cheese (I have a feeling it’s Bra Tenero, a DOP local cheese), I order my usual cheeseburger, not in a bun, but on a plate, although the burger paninis at 11 PM have a whole other charm. I decide to pair it with a hopped pale ale from Birra del Borgo called My Antonina, a collaboration beer with one of the most well-known artisanal breweries in the US, Dogfish Head.
As I pour My Antonina into the “Teo” beer glass (more on that in another post), the good head (foam) covers the cloudy, amber coloured liquid. The beer is unfiltered, as well as unpasteurized, so the cloudier the better in this case. The aroma of hops, herbaceous, citrusy, grapefruity reach my nostrils as I take my first sip.
As I swish the beer in my mouth, it’s cool, refreshing but with a good body. The alcohol is obvious, and when I turn the bottle around, it’s easy to see why, it’s got a good 7.5 Alcohol by Volume, a good strong ale. It’s cool, rich, thick texture gives way to similar aromas to the ones I experienced in the nose, grapefruit, herbaceous, with a slight toffee flavor. But there’s no sweetness, and little sourness. My Antonina is dry, with a persistent bitterness balanced by a low to medium acidity. As the bitter of the hop lingers in the back of my mouth, so does a bit of citrus.
The burger arrives as I finish nearly half of My Antonina. I inadvertently turn my head around towards the plate as it arrives, as my nostrils pick up on the whiff of fried crispy bacon. Sitting atop the melted Bra Tenero cheese, the bacon’s juices infuse the cheese and the Piemontese meat that waits underneath. The caramelized onions perfect the scene. But where’s my mayonnaise? I want to cut little bite-sized pieces of my burger, and drain them in that home-made stuff. Surely enough, after a small request, the mayo arrives, safe and sound, straw yellow, creamy, and dotted with mustard seeds. It’s more a Dijonnaise this time I guess.
As I chop my burger into pieces, I sadly realize that it’s slightly drier than the ones I’ve had previously. It’s full-on well-done. Oh, well. But the bacon is crunchy, salty, greasy, animaly; the caramelized onions supple and sweet. I can work with this.
It soon becomes obvious that the juiciness and taste of the burger is massively augmented by the mayo/dijonnaise concoction, but the bra tenero sandwiched between the bacon and the beef is too meek, too understated. A gruyere style, or even a more aged cheese like a Bra Duro would’ve made a better accompaniment.
No matter, the mythic cheeseburger as a general does not disappoint, it’s humble, satisfying, and ever-so-slightly addictive.
I’m not extremely satisfied with my combination skills though. My Antonina, though as a stand alone beer is great, messes with the flavor of the cheeseburger with its overly hoppy character, and persistent bitterness. Next time, I may go for a double malt instead. Nevertheless, it cleanses the palate perfectly after I’ve devoured the cheeseburger, and prepares me for the next course. As long as I wait a good ten minutes for the bitterness to die down!
The dessert is an old-fashioned Panna Cotta, dressed with drizzled caramel glaze. It’s wobblier than the ones I’ve had at Boccondivino (another good restaurant in the area, and they make the best panna cotta!), soft and melting, like a beached jellyfish under a hot sun. This ivory jellyfish smells faintly of crème-caramel, quite eggy. I slurp, rather than take my bite, as the gooey panna cotta almost drips down my fork. (I may blame the weather for this, a good 35 degrees Celcius, with high humidity at 8PM!)
Understated sweetness, egg and boiled milk aromas fill my mouth as the tender, slimy, creamy and cool panna cotta melts on my tongue. Toffee and boiled milk persist for moments after I swallow. An alright Panna Cotta, not very complex, and in need of a bit more structure, but it seals the deal. No Passito is served at Boglione, very unfortunate, so the Panna Cotta gets a tougher beating than the burger.
Next up is a bottle of a Friuli-Venezia white wine, ordered by friends, fellow students, out to enjoy the Friday evening. But after a glass of Aperol Spritz, a bottle of My Antonina, and the prospect of a cold glass of white wine, I put down my pen, close my notepad, and continue to enjoy, with a little less discerning eye. Salute!