Category Archives: Italian for Beginners

The ‘Crunchy Artichoke’ at Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba

the (crunchy) artichoke of your dreams

Easter is always a time of feasting and friends, yet Easter 2017 will go down as a personal record on both counts, thanks to some wonderful new people in my life and the chance to discover some of the extraordinary food, wine, and traditions of Umbria. This eno-gastron-amica weekend extravaganza, as I’m calling it, had my heart bursting, my waistline bulging, and my culinary curiosity on overdrive. Too many for a comprehensive list, the flavors and stories I encountered across that idyllic swathe of Italian landscape stretching from Perugia past Assisi and on towards Montefalco included Vernaccia di Cannarra and a funfetti cake called ciaramicola, made specially by a local pastry chef for Easter breakfast; Sagrantino and Grecchetto (enough said); the chance witnessing of a quirky tradition involving locals of all ages cracking eggs in the Montefalco piazza as part of an ancient local tournament of sorts (stay tuned); a gorgeous, sinfully creamy pâté (nonna’s cherished recipe, naturally); and an Umbrian Easter specialty called torta di pasqua that about changed my life (imagine the fluffy, soft sponge of a pandoro but savory and filled with cheese!). Oh, and then there was the whole ‘Christmas at Easter’ thing, a feast, well….precisely as its name suggests! Complete with Christmas pudding and secret santa.

Though not easy to label any one of the dishes I tasted in Umbria as the ‘best’, an indisputable contender was an intriguing and lovely-to-behold starter served at the Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi. The carciofo croccante, or crunchy artichoke, caught my and my friend’s attention as we sat outside in the tiny piazza where once a small yet thriving vegetable market was held, now reduced to a lone vegetable vendor named Novella, known and by all accounts beloved by locals (I wanted her to adopt me).

Novella, vegetable vendor in Assisi’s Piazzetta dell’Erba

The solemn Good Friday procession making its way along the nearby medieval thoroughfare had dominated my attention until the moment that artichoke arrived. At the first bite, I knew it was something to consider more closely (and taste again), so the next day we returned to the Osteria, where chef Matteo Bini kindly took a few minutes from his busy day to tell me about this dish.  As its name promises, this artichoke is, firstly, crunchy. But then, like any masterful texture combination must do, it moves from an outer crunchiness to the tenderness of an artichoke cooked to perfection in the alla romana fashion: seasoned and steamed, in this case with the addition of capers and garlic. It is then filled with a potato mash flavored with anchovy, wrapped in filo dough, baked until the dough turns crunchy and delicate, and served on creamy pecorino fondue with pretty aromatic petals and herbs.

Nothing pleases me like young Italians succeeding in the world of food.  With this one delightful dish—which achieves that rare and brilliant balance of superb flavor combination, pleasing texture contrasts, esthetic flair and artistry—Chef Matteo, together with wife Francesca, brother Daniele, and the Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba team, managed to catch and hold my attention. I will certainly be returning for my third (and possibly fourth!) carciofo croccante.

osteria in the little ‘greens square’

Meet Hugo, The Alpine Spritz

mystery child Hugo the Spritz

mystery child Hugo the Spritz

The ‘Hugo’ (or Ugo, as our h-sound-challenged Italian friends pronounce it), sometimes called Hugo Spritz or Alpine Spritz, originated in the northern Italian region Alto-Adige, an area intimately familiar with herbal use in both culinary and medicinal matters, and one where the elderberry plant thrives in summer. From the genus Sambucus, elderberry is a hardy, fast-growing flowering bush widespread throughout Italy and Europe. Sambucus nigra—European elderberry or simply Sambuco in Italian, among other namesbears edible-once-cooked berries used in making jams and sauces; while from their small white flowers a delicious, delicate cordial is obtained—this syrup being the star ingredient in the Hugo Spritz, which I had the fortune to learn about and taste last night at fabulous Borgo San Lorenzo wine bar and restaurant Passaguai, thanks to the knowledge and generosity of a lovely new acquaintance. As she explained, elderflower cordial is not to be confused with (that bottled nastiness known as) Sambuca, similar only in name to sciroppo di Sambuco. To demonstrate her point, she ordered up a Hugo for us to taste (yay!):

IMG_20160503_210351

As with so many Italian specialties, a touch of rivalry characterizes Hugo’s birth-story, particularly intriguing given that the two barmen in contention for inventor credit both hail from South Tyrol, and neither seems ready to renounce his claim on Hugo. Was it Roland Gruber who, while working in a wine bar in Naturns near Bolzano created the Hugo some 10 years ago? Very possibly, yet apparently Gruber named the Hugo without any particular reason, a fluky bit of inadvertence I find a little dubious, frankly. There’s also some debate as to whether Gruber originally used elderflower or another type of herb cordial. Could it have been Filippo Debertol of the Val di Fassa area, who has said he started mixing elderflower cordial with wine, seltzer, and mint around the same time? Debertol’s story would seem to hold up better under scrutiny: young Debertol named the drink after an elderly gentleman who would visit the family’s Alpine cabin, always bringing with him a gift of his own homemade elderflower syrup. The old man’s name? Hugo, of course.

(An aside: While researching today, I came across a discussion (in Italian) on Wikipedia from late 2013, in which Debertol’s attempts to modify the Italian entry for Hugo (cocktail) were repeatedly removed, with the explanation ‘your changes reflect something completely different from what the sources indicate, and for this reason I have restored the prior text.’ See below)

Wiki

Italians love their food (and drink) debates, and this one is not going away any time soon, I imagine. No matter. The important thing is someone invented this delightful concoction, which I highly recommend adding to your summer cocktail repertoire.

hugo3

Ingredients per drink

6 cl Prosecco
6 cl seltzer
3 cl elderflower cordial
fresh mint leaves

Instructions

Put ice in the glass. Pour in the Prosecco and cordial, followed by the seltzer. Stir gently. Garnish with fresh mint and a lemon slice (optional).

a bottle of elderflower cordial

a bottle of elderflower cordial

Asparagus With Boznersauce, A ‘Sauce from Bolzano’

'salsa bolzanina'

‘salsa bolzanina’

Boznersauce is a springtime specialty from Bolzano in Alto-Adige, the Italian province that together with Trentino forms one of Italy’s five autonomous regions, Trentino-Alto-Adige. Annexed from Austria by the Kingdom of Italy at the end of World War I, Alto-Adige—Südtirol in German or South Tyrol to English speakers—has retained its culturally Austrian identity in the decades since, despite an aggressive Fascist-era ‘Italianization’ program and a significant influx of Italians in the post-WWII period. Officially part of Italy for nearly a century, today Alto-Adige is still comprised predominantly of native German speakers, though Italian and German are both official languages.

The intersection of Italian and Germanic influences in South Tyrol characterizes many aspects of local culture, including cuisine. Further shaped by Viennese and Hungarian traditions, Alto-Adige’s culinary scene has earned a reputation in recent years as a gastronomic mecca, with 23 Michelin stars as of 2016. Interestingly, many non-Italian dishes, items like speck, würstel, strudel, and knödel, have entered the Italian national food canon via Alto-Adige.

The people of the Bolzano area enjoy this hollandaise-like sauce, whose name means ‘of Bozen’ (German for Bolzano), alongside fresh asparagus during Easter Sunday lunch.

Ingredients for 4

2 bunches green or white asparagus
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups water

For the sauce:
4 eggs, hard-boiled
100 ml ‘light’ olive oil or seed oil of choice
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp mustard
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
1-2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
3 Tbsp beef broth
¼ tsp white pepper
½ tsp salt

Instructions

To make the Boznersauce, start by boiling the eggs for 8 minutes and remove from the water immediately. Heat the broth and keep warm.

When cool enough to handle, peel the eggs. Slice them in half and remove the yolks, placing the yolks in a bowl and setting the whites aside. Add the vinegar, mustard, broth, salt and pepper to the yolks. Whisk until creamy (a few lumps are fine). Slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking continuously until you have a thick, smooth cream. Add the minced parsley and combine. Chop the egg white to a medium-fine mixture. Add to the egg cream and combine. Set aside at room temp while you make the asparagus.

Bring the water and wine to a simmer. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus and cook in the simmering water for 5 minutes and remove promptly. Arrange the asparagus on serving dishes and place generous scoops of the Boznersauce over them. Dust with the chopped chive.

IMG_20160304_151639

Figliata, or Egg Panzanella

egg panzanella, for your expanding 'litter'

egg panzanella, for your expanding ‘litter’

Towards the end of Julia Moskin’s recent article in The New York Times on Ischian cooking traditions, Enoteca la Stadera owner Ivo Iacono’s mention of an old family recipe caught my notice:

One of his childhood favorites was a dish called figliata — a word meaning “litter,” as in puppies — made of eggs, basil, cheese and stale bread. “When you had another child,” he said, “you could just add another egg.”

Up until that moment, reading this article had me in a familiar emotional state, one best described as a mixture of interest, appreciation, and a Schadenfreude-esque delight at any hint, however minor, of dilettantism. To be clear, the article is very good: aptly descriptive, engaging, informative. Why wouldn’t it be? Moskin is a pro food reporter and accomplished cookbook writer/editor. She highlights Iacono’s activities as a restaurateur and outlines Ischia’s intriguing history while staying astutely focused on the real star of the story—Ischia’s food, specifically long-practiced cooking methods that make use of the island’s natural heat sources (hot springs, sand). In truth, I felt only a wee bit superior when reading her explanations for the unversed—such as ‘Ischia (pronounced ISS-kee-ah)…’ or ‘a popular lunch dish called caponata,’ and the like. The truly gratifying moment, though, I’m not ashamed to admit (perhaps I should be) came when I realized Moskin had all but overlooked what for me is the most intriguing part of the story: the family recipe Iacono calls figliata (from figlio/figlia = son/daughter).

I could find no information on this dish. There’s no mention of figliata in any of my cookbooks, not even the unfailingly comprehensive La Cucina Italiana encyclopedia. (While searching the web I did discover something called pizza figliata, a sweet pastry reminiscent of strudel that’s popular in Campania.) I asked around, resisting a temptation to contact Iacono directly for a quote. Niente. So, based on Iacono’s description, I reasoned that figliata must basically amount to a kind of panzanella with boiled eggs. This is what I came up with:

Ingredients for 4 servings circa

400 grams of stale Tuscan bread (a stale ciabatta would work)
4 eggs
1 handful of fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
fresh chopped chives (optional)
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp white vinegar
salt & pepper

Instructions

Soak the bread in cold water for about 20 minutes. Strain and squeeze out all the excess water, then crumble the now-soft bread into a large bowl. Boil or steam the eggs for about 7 minutes, then cool, peel and roughly chop them. Add the eggs and basil to the bread and combine. Now add the oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and blend well. Garnish with more fresh basil and some chopped chive (my addition, optional).

Add one egg for each additional child, per Signor Ivo Iacono.

Viva Nonna Leo! Genovese Woman Opens Home Restaurant on her 96th Birthday

Leonilda Tomasinelli, who turns 96 on April 18, here pictured making pesto

Leonilda Tomasinelli, who turns 96 on April 18, here pictured making pesto

Home restaurants, similar to supper/dining clubs and underground/pop-up restaurants, have been taking off in Italy in recent years. While regulated by the Italian government, home restaurants are remarkably uncomplicated to set up here, at least for now. Home restaurateurs currently operate like freelancers; their profits may not exceed the yearly allowance for this earnings category (about 5,000 euros), yet no special permit or license is required. All you need is a kitchen, a means to promote your business and take reservations, and, of course, cooking skills impressive enough to draw paying customers to your home. The movement so far appears fuelled in large part by consumer demand for reasonably-priced, quality dining out options. Not unlike the sagra then, in a way home restaurants reflect that so Italian belief in food—good, tasty, inexpensive food—as a birthright. Although, one Italian media source did refer to them as typical ‘hipster’ nonsense. That made me laugh.

With at least a decade’s head start on Italy, the alternative restaurant movements in the U.S. and U.K., on the other hand, are today driven more by the desire of aspiring (or sometimes veteran) chefs to create and experiment in a restriction-free venue, while garnering a following of diners seeking novel, cutting-edge eating experiences. At times these rave-reminiscent food events beget an aura of exclusivity, as attested to by their secret or unconventional locations (think sleek renovated warehouses and chic flats over homely dining rooms) as well as the figure on the final check—and in this respect differ quite a lot from their Italian counterparts, generally. The press has described customers willing to overcome the obstacles required to dine at pop-ups and undergrounds as adventurous, novelty-seeking, avant-garde, and so on. Personally, I smell a touch of pretentiousness in the whole business, yet to be fair should withhold judgement until I’ve had a chance to attend one. No doubt they are a great opportunity for gifted chefs.

Back to the boot. Making headlines this week is a wonderful story about Leonilda Tomasinelli, who is launching her own home restaurant in Genoa’s Albaro neighborhood tomorrow, which also happens to be her 96th birthday. Born in 1919, ‘Nonna Leo’ was called upon to cook for the family from a very young age (she is the oldest of five sisters). It’s safe to say this gal’s got skills, in short. Her menu will feature Ligurian specialties such as le seppie con i piselli (a savory stew-like soup of squid and peas), lo stoccafisso accomodato (a kind of fish stew), la panissa (hard to describe—like cubes of cooked chickpea flour dough), il tocco alla genovese (a meat ragù), focaccia di Recco (cheese-stuffed focaccia), la farinata (chickpea flour flatbread), and la torta Sacripantina (a cream-filled soft cake). Nonna Leo makes her own pasta, naturally, and uses an old-fashioned mortar and pestle to make her pesto and walnut sauce.

Reservations can be made on Nonna Leo’s website. And here she is talking about why she opened her home restaurant: namely, because we no longer eat or cook like we used to in days past, she says. Everything is premade. Pasta, sauces, bread, soups, et cetera are no longer prepared as they should be—except at home. While holding a 19th-century cookbook of Ligurian cuisine that belonged her grandmother, Nonna Leo says she wants to leave these recipes and traditions to her grandchildren so they will live on. Viva Nonna Leo!

 

Italians at the Table 1860-1960

when Frascati ruled!

when Frascati ruled!

Italians at the Table 1860-1960 is a photographic exhibition on until the end of October at the Villa Pisani of Stra National Museum (about forty minutes outside Venice proper). The show documents over a century of Italians doing what they do—eating and drinking, yes, but also celebrating, growing, preparing, and vending—through a collection of original photographs capturing ‘food-related’ moments ranging from public banquets to intimate family meals. Themes of nutrition, wartime scarcity and hunger, customs, and innovations in food production are also addressed. The villa’s icehouse and orangery will be open to visitors throughout the exhibit.

Alici alla Scapece: Tiny Fish, Big on Flavor & Long on History

a method by many names

a method by many names

Alla scapece is the southern Italian term for an ancient preservation method, one used for centuries throughout the Mediterranean region, which consists of frying small fish such as sardines or anchovies then sealing them in a marinade of oil, spices, and lemon or vinegar. Alla scapece, together with the Venetian in soar (as in sarde or pesse in soar), pesciolini in carpione of the Lakes Region in Lombardy, and escabeche in Spain, Portugal, parts of Southern France, and Northern Africa, all derive from the Persian sikbaj (or al-sikbaj), described by John Dickie in Delizia! as ‘a sweet and tangy Persian stew […] that became popular in much of the Muslim world.’ In his book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Daniel Jurafsky traces the evolution of sikbaj from its origins as a centuries-long favorite in the Arab world to its eventual morphing into the classic fish & chips of today. The link, interestingly, between these two distant relatives is the method of frying (in the case of sikbaj it was meat, not fish) then marinating in vinegar.  Apparently this is why we serve batter-fried fish with vinegar!

Okay, history lesson’s over. I tried alici alla scapece for the first time last year on the breathtaking island of Ponza, as a guest of chef Oreste Romagnolo, who runs not one but two amazing restaurants on the island—Orèstorante and Orèsteria (both establishments’ names are plays on their founder’s first name + ristorante and osteria, respectively). In Romagnolo’s version, the anchovies are fried then marinated in vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, and mint. Served chilled, these anchovies were nothing like what you expect when…well, when eating an anchovy. Delicate, savory, not overly-fishy, and not too salty.

Romagnolo, an avid sailor, hails from Avellino. He’s been based on Ponza since 1995, the year he opened Orèstorante with his wife, Valentina, a sommelier and pastry chef. Some years ago he published a monograph, Orèstorante: Isola di Ponza 1995 – 2005 (out of print and virtually impossible to find) in collaboration with photographer Adriano Bacchella. Though a bit off topic, I simply cannot conclude this post without referring you to Bacchella’s site to get a glimpse of his stunning photography. And if you ever make it to Ponza, be sure to find one or both of Oreste Romagnolo’s incomparable restaurants. The man knows his fish.

A sign for Orèsteria, run by Oreste, who also owns Orèstorante, both located on Ponza

Alla Gricia: A Sauce With Many Stories

alla gricia with strozzapreti (don’t tell the purists!)

Alla gricia, considered by many the antecedent to all’amatriciana and alla carbonara, is a pasta sauce from Lazio made with three ingredients: guanciale, pecorino romano, and black pepper. Get your hands on quality versions of these items, and you can’t go wrong. The recipe follows below. In the meantime, some history.

Here are but a few theories about the origins of alla gricia: Is this the sauce that folks from Amatrice who immigrated to Rome modified with the addition of tomato, resulting in the now-famous all’amatriciana? For some, yes. Or could it be that the sauce comes from Grisciano, a small town in the Accumoli district not far from Amatrice? The locals would have us believe so.

The predominant theory, however, points to the word gricio, a Roman term for bread-makers used in the 15th century. I Grici came to Rome from the Swiss Canton of Grisons, or Cantone de’ Grigioni in Italian. (The canton, in turn, takes its name from the Lega Grigia, or Grey League, one of three 14th-century leagues that formed the canton whose members were known for wearing simple clothing, grey in color). In Rome, the word griscium also referred to the uniform worn by members of the arte bianca, the bakers’ guild—specifically to the coat, also grey, they wore over their clothes to shield against flour. In time, the term gricio acquired a negative meaning, something akin to oaf, hick, or rube—a shabby man, in short. Bakers apparently had a reputation in Rome for being poor dressers, with or without their trademark griscium. They wore pants that hit above the ankle, an unforgivable fashion faux pas that gave rise to the Roman ‘er carzone a la gricia’ (I’m guessing ‘gricia pants’?) and the Neapolitan ‘zompafuossi’ pants, which must be what we’d call ‘highwaters’ in English.

Though short on style, the Grici were unquestionably skilled bread-makers, and they maintained a stronghold on the Roman arte bianca for some time. By the 19th century, the term gricio acquired a broader meaning, used to refer to immigrants from German and Swiss regions generally, and even those from northern Lombardy. Having by this time expanded into other fields, such as the minor guild of the oliandoli—oil vendors who also dealt in all manner of kitchenware, food sundries, and provisions—the Grici saw their reputation in Rome degenerate further. Already considered crude mountain people, and resented for their independent, frugal ways, the Grici also gave credit in the form of small though very precise loans, and as meticulous creditors had the habit of nailing up credit slips in their shops. They kept later hours than members of other guilds, to collect the petty debts owed them; and a charcoal stove present in the bottega allowed them to cook and eat their meals without closing up shop. Perhaps this saying in Roman dialect best sums up the common view of the Grici: ‘Er Griciosi nun fosse rafacano sarebbe puro bbono.’ Roughly,This Gricio, he’d be all right if he weren’t such a miser.’

Back to the pasta sauce. Though I’ve not been able to substantiate this, I think alla gricia must be at least partly a result of the reputed Gricio parsimony.  Requiring as it does only small quantities of select ingredients to create a superb flavor, alla gricia certainly yields maximum returns.

Pasta alla Gricia

Use 80-100 grams of short rod pasta or 80 grams of long pasta per serving (purists will say either rigatoni or spaghetti, strictly).  For the sauce, I estimate a small handful, about 1/2 cup, of sliced guanciale per serving and about 1/4 cup grated pecorino romano. Start the pasta water, and salt it lightly as the sauce ingredients are very salty already.  Slice the rind away from the guanciale and then slice it into 1-centimeter thick slices lengthwise, then into smaller strips. Cook on very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat has melted and turned transparent. Grind in a good amount black pepper and add a ladle-full of the pasta cooking water. When the pasta is ready, scoop it out and combine well with the sauce and add in the grated cheese.

This video from Giallo Zafferano, in Italian but easy to follow, is a good visual aid, especially on how to slice the guanciale. Interestingly, here Sonia Peronaci recounts yet another theory about the origin of this sauce. According to Peronaci, alla gricia predates the arrival of tomatoes in Europe (which is most certainly true), but in her version it was invented by shepherds in the Lazio region.

Another Gastro Gaffe? Chef Carlo Cracco’s Scandalous Sugo all’Amatriciana

spaghetti all'amatriciana

all’amatriciana, sans garlic

Here we go again. Just weeks after a Star brand television commercial stirred a heated debate with its portrayal of a Sicilian housewife adding a bouillon cube to the classic dish caponata, Italians are once more up in arms over another publicized violation of a beloved dish—this time, the pasta sauce known as sugo all’amatriciana. At the heart of the heresy is Carlo Cracco, an accomplished Italian chef and restaurateur whose steely-eyed manner wreaks fear and trembling on MasterChef Italia contestants. This week, during a guest appearance on the popular (really horrible, actually) television show C’è Posta Per Te, Cracco stated that he adds aglio in camicia, or unpeeled garlic, to his amatriciana sauce.

The reaction? Well, for starters, a Google News search for ‘Carlo Cracco’ yielded over 120 articles in the Italian media today. And as one Italian journalist cheekily put it, Cracco is sure to be roasted for this ‘MasterChoc’ (choc being the Italianized form of the English loan word shock). Particularly piqued are the people of Amatrice, the town in northern Lazio from which the dish gets its name. The mayor of Amatrice—that’s right, the mayor—has, in addition to inviting Cracco to Amatrice to ‘learn’ how to make the true sugo all’amatriciana, responded by publishing the only ingredients sanctioned in his town’s namesake sauce on the main page of the city’s official website: guanciale, pecorino cheese, white wine, San Marzano tomatoes, black pepper and chilli pepper. Sans garlic, fool.

What’s more, don’t go thinking you can toss just any old pasta in an amatriciana sauce (I mean, do you have a death wish or something?) Spaghetti. Only spaghetti. It says so right on the sign for Amatrice, for Pete’s sake!—

Spaghetti City

Spaghetti City

Stewed Artichokes With Garlic & Mint

carciofi in umido

carciofi in umido

Prep several small, slender-ish artichokes (think morelli or violet, not globes): Strip away all the tough outer leaves, cut off the tops, and scrape the outer fibrous layer from the stem. Quarter length-wise and remove the fuzzy choke (which should be minimal) and soak in fresh lemon juice diluted with water while you mince some garlic and deseed and dice a few small tomatoes. Heat some olive oil in a casserole/tegame, add the garlic and cook for a minute or so, then add the drained artichoke pieces. Salt and pepper well, combine, cover and cook until the stems are tender, adding water if the garlic starts to stick or brown and turning the artichokes occasionally. About half-way through the cooking, add the tomato, and when just ready garnish the artichokes with mint, fresh or dried.