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American-born travel journalist and guidebook author Heather Stimmler-Hall created the Secrets of Paris in 1999 to share the hidden side of the City of Light. Discover what you've been missing:

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Calendar of Paris Events

October 8-12
The theme for the 81st annual Fête des Vendanges, the grape harvest festival, is Montmartre Fête les Poètes. Events include a parade, grape stomping, the food & wine tasting village, cooking demos, live music, and tons of other fun stuff. Check out the entire program, the online boutique (get your commemorative bottles of wine!) and other info about the festival here.

October 12 
Stock up on fall reading material for a handful of euros and support the English-language SOS Helpline at their Autumn Book Sale today from noon-4pm at Orrick Law Offices (31 ave Pierre Ière de Serbie, 16th, M° Alma-Marceau). Paperbacks €1, hardcovers €2, all categories for adults and kids, as well as bake sale items. Those who want to donate books can drop them off during the sale.

October 16-17
Blending culture with social, Sinfonietta Paris brings you an evening of Mendelssohn and Brahms exquisitely performed by a brilliant ensemble of young professional musicians. At the Institut FInlandais (Latin Quarter, 60 rue des Ecoles, 5th) from 8-11pm. Tickets €25 (wine and hors d'oeuvres included). The address will be mailed once confirmed; the performance on the 4th December is in the 17th; on the 5th December it's in the 1st. Register on the website; places limited. 

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« Comptoir des Belettes | Main | Café Med »
Thursday
Mar052009

Il Naturale

74 avenue de la Grande Armée, 17th
M° Porte Maillot
Tel 01 40 55 04 73
Hours: 11am – 11pm every day.

Breadstick-free Italian
Written by Graham Cooper

I’d used a bad word: ‘Pizza’.

I realized I was toying with a grenade pin by even mentioning it as a potential dining option. On a previous occasion, my better-half, ‘The Gape Monkey’ reacted to 'pizza' as instinctively as an animal will to a polluted water-hole.

To her the only Italian food worthy of the prefix is pasta. But I was jonesing bad for something doughy and Latin and I knew just the place to go. Somewhere that does both.

Also, I figured that even if the pasta wasn’t up to her culinary standards, the place has a secret weapon I just knew would win her over.

Thankfully, Il Naturale isn’t your classic ‘state of the ark’ Italian restaurant, complete with phony-accent waiters toting huge semi-phallic pepper-mills from table to table. TGM would lash out with the business end of her stiletto heel if a waiter even tried to wave one of those things suggestively at her plate.

Neither is it one of those soul-less fooderies that pulls pizzas from an indifferent oven and bangs them out into a fluorescent-lit canteen with signed photos of Sinatra and Dino on the walls.

The general ambiance is far more modern, relaxed and almost lounge-like. If your lounge is full of strangers scarfing down Italian food, that is.

The pizzas at Il Naturale either come ‘full-plate’ or ‘light’. The light option covers half your plate with pizza and the other half with salad. And in this case it’s an Italian salad that for a change is worthy of the description - a meal in itself, lavish with peppers, buffalo mozzarella, and an array of other suitably vegetal goodies typically found in a good trattoria.

And amazingly, not a breadstick in sight. Although they do supply a hearty basket of olive bread kept warmed in an oven in the centre of the room.

However, Il Naturale isn’t one of those new-fangled joints where you specify how thick you want your dough and choose your own bizarre combination of utterly incompatible toppings. Like me, you’ll probably only screw it up. Besides, these guys already know what works. That’s not to say that there are not a few adventures to be found amongst the regular choices. I ordered the ‘Oriental’ and as advertised, it was festooned in spicy ground beef, sweet peppers and small slices of Italian sausage - all covered in a fried egg. As good as anticipated.

As predicted, the gape monkey spurned the pizza as she would spurn a rabid dog and went instead for the Bolognese. Despite my entreaties to throw caution to the winds and opt for perhaps the breaded veal escalopes or even the spicy ‘penne a la Arrabiata’, she resolutely insisted on ‘Spag-Bol’.

“It’s the basics that expose any weaknesses in the kitchen. If they can’t correctly execute a simple pasta accompanied by a sauce my dog could make, - then the rest of the menu is probably not even fit for my dog”.

She had a good point, but happily for her, myself, the serving staff, the poor guys slaving in the kitchen and possibly even the pooch - it was pronounced ‘good’. Not ‘great’ but ‘good’. Apparently an authentic Bolognese contains surprisingly little tomato sauce - and in this, the Bolognese at Il Naturale had passed her critical tasting. Just.

For lubrication, a young, cheerful and attentive staff recommended a Belgian Blonde for myself and a half-bottle of Bardolino for Madame. TGM was visibly animated to discover that her favorite mineral water ‘Ferrarelle’ was also available. In her eyes,this made the place authentically Italian. According to Madame, Ferrarelle mixes so well with Italian wine that during WWII, Italian troops would happily imbibe all day with no visible side-effects. Apart from occasional confusion regarding ‘sides’ I guess. How she knows these things, I have no idea. Turns out the ‘axis’ was right - it mixed very well with the wine.

Almost sated, it was finally time for Il Naturale to unleash its secret weapon.

Nestled almost innocently on the desert menu amongst the inevitable profiteroles and fruit salads lies shock and awe. Tiramisu ‘a la maison’.

Six different options including a classic vanilla accompany more esoteric choices such as pistachio or red fruits. All of them surprisingly light despite the heady mix of cream, sponge and booze.

But the true maniac will order the Tiramisu Nutella. Yes, you read that right. Some evil mastermind in the kitchen had decided that all their already deliciously decadent Tiramisu was lacking was a metric tonnage of sticky, toffee-caramel spread. Genius!

I was happy, The Gape Monkey was visibly less tetchy than usual after her close shave with the dreaded pizza, and our bill came to just a shade over fifty Euros.

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