City wanderings - and a pilgrimage to some of the best eating and drinking spots in Brussels. Or maybe not eating or drinking - ah, oh well.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Monte Bianco

It's Friday evening and I'm seated next to cookery books in various languages, jars of pesto and dusty wine glasses.  I move one of the books beside me to reveal a copy of Harry Potter and then start reading the first chapter of a sinister German children's book with a murderous character called Mouse.  On the walls are a still from la Dolce Vita, murals of an Indian priestess and ancient Eygptian, and a wheel. Who invented the wheel, the Romans or the ancient Eygptians?  It seems the right answer is not that obvious: Wikipedia says "the question of which culture originally invented the wheeled vehicle remains unresolved and under debate".  But it's not worth arguing over someone's choice of wall decoration.  This doesn't feel like a restaurant though: I'm in someone's front room, surely?

It was quite successful really, Friday night.  I walked past bars that I didn't know existed, many of them interesting-looking, and I made mental notes to return.  Then we came across this Italian trattoria in a non-descript street off the Boulevard Anspach, with shutters up and chalk-scrawled blackboards listing pizzas, along with the phrase "nous sommes ici pour vous."  There must have been a front door too, somewhere, one of those ingenious ones that fold away so the whole front of the room stays open to the balmy Brussels night.  Inside to get to the toilets you walked past the kitchen in the back, which was open, crowded with tomatoes, pizza dough, and piles of washing up in the sink.

It soon becomes obvious that we will not need to supply our own entertainment for the evening.  Our hosts are two Italian brothers, dressed in black.  One moves slowly around the dining room taking our order; the other works noisily in the kitchen shovelling pizzas into the oven.  We order a selection of home-made pasta and a pizza, and sit back sipping our wine.  Suddenly, disaster strikes.  A newly replaced tome on Italian cooking slips from its propped up position on the shelf and skids over our side table, sending wine glasses across the table and glass to the floor and over us.  In moments such as these I realise that I would not be the best person to thrust suddenly into an emergency, as for several moments I am incapable of doing anything.  There is silence, all heads turn, and our neighbouring table decide that now is a good time for a cigarette break.  The waiter brother seems paralysed, preparing to run out and leave us there with glass around our feet.  Suddenly the cook in the kitchen springs towards us with a broom, balancing our pizza on his other hand.  He shoos us quickly to another table, sweeps up the shards of glass, and returns moments later with my pasta selection.

Anyway "Ils se prennent pas la tête!" Says my friend, in some relief.  I was half expecting a scolding.  Instead we are left to eat as ring-side spectators, while the cook seats himself among the other customers and pours himself a glass of wine.  He is one of those fascinating people who cannot stop talking: his stream of words do not seem addressed at anyone in particular: they tumble out fast; combining Italian with some strongly accented French, and a perplexing range of subjects, which seem to include the Karma Sutra, Lenin, Libya, football and Berlusconi.  Meanwhile his silent brother sits at a table watching him like a docile creature waiting to be stroked.

One of the customers jokingly observes that the chef has poured himself a better glass of wine than is on his table.  The chef waves his hands in mock exasperation and tops up the glasses of the people around him.  We customers have long given up talking to each other, and the focus is on the noisy brother.  As one man puts it, "In whatever language you speak, it's always Italian!"  The trattoria  is discussing football again.  I can only try to listen, my stomach swelled with pasta and my brain slowed by wine.

Forget the pristine starched white tablecloths, over-sized pepper pots, sterile service and pricey pizzas of some Italian restaurants in the EU district.  Well, perhaps there's a place for those too if you do business lunches.  But I'm coming back here once memories of the wine glass incident have faded, to pretend I'm eating in a trattoria in a small Italian village.  In any case the jovial chef is not mean with the tasty ingredients: I am unable to finish my selection of pastas: samplings of mushroom gnocchi, spinach lasagne, tomato pasta and pesto spaghetti.  And the pizza has plenty of mushrooms, proper ham and a good base.  The tiramisu was homemade too, but sadly I didn't have space.

The brothers have been serving pizza and pasta in this location for five years - before that they were somewhere else in Brussels.  You can enjoy a pasta dish, a pizza and a bottle of house wine for around 35 euros.    

rue des Pierres 24,

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