Tag Archives: blog tour

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

An Island Wonder: Tradition & Innovation at Ventotene’s ‘Il Giardino’ Restaurant

a tour de force

a tour de force

There are so many reasons to visit the tiny Italian island Ventotene. To convince you, I could talk about the island’s fascinating history—of the tufa-carved port that served the structure known today as Villa Giulia, Emperor Augustus’s luxurious vacation villa that would become his daughter, Julia’s, place of exile. I could post pictures of the endlessly stunning seascapes, or recount my experiences with some of the island’s uber-friendly locals (fewer than 900 in off-season).  If you’re anything like me, however, the one aspect of a place sure to hook your interest will be its food. And on this count, Ventotene will not disappoint.

Recently I met the two skilled and charming cooks at Il Giardino, Candida and Christian.

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Christian is from Ecuador and has lived in Italy for 13 years. He moved to Ventotene after living six years in Rome, during which time he was chef assistant to Giovanni Passerini at Uno e Bino, an acclaimed establishment in Rome’s San Lorenzo quarter that closed about five years ago (Passerini went on to start Rino in Paris). Today Christian works alongside the restaurant founders, Candida and Giovanni, who opened Il Giardino over thirty years ago, and their children.

In the kitchen, Candida’s extensive cooking experience and knowledge of the island—its abundance, its limitations—pair perfectly with Christian’s flair, innovation, and hard-won expertise, resulting in dishes that are at once harmonious, delectable, and beautiful to behold. Per Giovanni’s vision, Il Giardino strives to use only products available on Ventotene. This means no or very little meat. As Candida explains, birds are protected on Ventotene, a migratory stopover; so birds are ‘off the menu’. There are no livestock farms here, and while the cooks could pick up some pre-packaged meats delivered from the mainland to the island grocer, doing so would not be in line with the restaurant’s philosophy. There is no game to hunt on Ventotene, save the occasional rabbit, which local hunters might sell to Candida from time to time. Yet outside sporadic windfalls of this kind, the menu at Il Giardino is based exclusively on fish and seafood—selected each morning at the port by Giovanni himself—and vegetables grown on the island, fairly bountiful: onion, tomato, zucchini, eggplant, peas, artichokes, lentils, potatoes, and more.

Working within the limitations of this island life must surely be a challenge, and no doubt lesser cooks would falter. These two have absolutely flourished. Have a look at the two astonishing dishes Christian kindly prepared for me, using local, fresh ingredients favored by the restaurant.

Carpaccio of Marinated Ricciola Fish

The ricciola, marinated in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, is served with an orange emulsion, fresh fennel, bean sprouts, and capers. You will be forever dubious of cooked fish after tasting this melt-in-your-mouth delicacy.

vento5

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Tomato Confit & Capers

The flower is stuffed with ricotta and pecorino and fried to perfection. But what renders this dish a tour de force is Christian’s trademark confit, made by oven-cooking Pachino tomatoes low and slow (100 °C for 3 hours) with clove, lemon zest, and powdered sugar.

Ventotene is reachable by ferry from the town Formia, located on the Gulf of Gaeta and roughly halfway between Rome and Naples. In summer the island bursts with visitors, and the season peaks with ten days of festivities leading up to September 20, feast day of the island’s patron saint, Candida. When I arrived on Ventotene, the celebrations had concluded by just a few days, and the atmosphere was thrilling and blustery yet calm, with few tourists in sight. Just the odd sea view or two to whet your appetite (I couldn’t resist!):

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

Frittelle di Alghe: Nonna Luisa’s Seaweed Fritters

seaweed for breakfast. why not?

seaweed for breakfast. why not?

I tasted seaweed fritters on the first morning I woke on the island of Ponza, at the sweet and cozy Piccolo Hotel Luisa.  I almost missed them entirely. Tucked away on a corner shelf of the terrace where breakfast was served, the fritters caught my eye only as I angled for a photo of the colorful Ponza houses below. At first I thought they must be sweet fritters, but their aroma promised otherwise.  I could not identify the flavor, only that it was subtle, delicate, slightly salty, herby. When hotel founder Signora Luisa Mazzella, the 88-year-old spry and amiable woman known to all as ‘Nonna Luisa, The Rock of Ponza,’ arrived, I decided to ask about them. She was more than happy to oblige my curiosity.

Life on an island can be tough. What we tourists often fail to notice, dazzled as we are by the beauty of places like Ponza, are the challenges and demands island life entails. Resources are limited, and scrupulously managed—fresh water in particular, but also items like poultry and game, corn and wheat, and certain fruits and vegetables can be difficult to obtain on an island. Nonna Luisa explained that seaweed came to be used in the island’s cuisine given its abundance, nutritional qualities, and flavor.  Seaweed can be used fresh or dried (like an herb), and to find it on Ponza one need only head down to the port when fishermen are returning with their catch; or, it can be purchased weighed and packaged at the fish counter. These fritters reflect an astute exploitation of a readily available resource, a common theme of island life.  

Ingredients

This recipe is for a very large batch of fritters. You can reduce this recipe’s ingredients by a third, or enclose any unused dough securely in plastic wrap and store in the fridge for a couple days.

300 grams (about 10.5 ounces) cooked white rice, cooled
300 grams fresh seaweed
3 eggs
zest of 1 lemon
1 kilogram of flour (about 7 cups)
1 tsp salt
water

Instructions

Rinse the seaweed and cut into small pieces. Combine the rice, egg, seaweed, and lemon zest and mix well. In a separate bowl mix the flour and salt, then incorporate the dry ingredients into the rice and seaweed mixture until a uniform dough forms. Add water as needed. Shape the dough into balls about the size of a walnut and fry them in good oil until golden and crispy. Transfer to a paper-covered platter and dust with a little salt and pepper while still hot (test the saltiness first).

Nonna Luisa of Ponza

Nonna Luisa of Ponza

La Fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno: The Umbrian Resurrection of an Ancient Legume

la fagiolina

la bella fagiolina, whose multiple colors are a result of biodiversity

The fagiolina del lago Trasimeno is a tiny, multi-colored legume cultivated in the lands around Lake Trasimeno in Umbria since as far back as the third century B.C., an era in which it formed part of the Etruscan diet. In the mid-19th century, however,  the fagiolina faced near-extinction; at a time of increased production of profitable crops such as corn and sunflower, the fagiolina fields, which require manual labor from sowing to reaping, were all but abandoned. But today, thanks to the efforts of farmers such as Flavio Orsini of the Azienda Agraria Orsini, the fagiolina is making a comeback.

About 25 years ago, when many farmers were starting to incorporate new technologies and machinery in cultivation, the Orsini family farmers were looking to the past, to the ancient farming methods of their region. In doing so, they contributed to the resurrection, if you will, of not only the species but its traditional cultivation as well. The beans are planted by hand in the spring and harvested by hand in late summer. The harvest is complex, requiring a knowing eye and firm grasp of the plant’s natural progression: the pods are ready when crisp and pale yellow in color, yet only some pods will be ready at the time of the first picking, in July or August. Daily hand picking continues in this very selective manner until perhaps a week or even two after the first picking, when the final straggler pods are ready. Harvesting ends not according to a day on the calendar, but when the plant begins to weaken and transform. The picked plants are then rolled up like hay bales and used as feed for the farm animals, and the ground is left to rest until early spring. Meanwhile, the pods are sheathed—a manual procedure involving three persons and a machine once used to separate grape skins from pulp, today adapted to separate the legumes from their pods. Then the process of drying the legumes begins.

Cultivating la fagiolina is an arduous business. Little profit or glory can be gleaned from an enterprise of this kind, which makes the Orsini family’s work all the more admirable. While visiting the Orsini Farm during the This is your time Travel Blog Tour, we learned that a full hour of picking yields about a kilogram of beans. After a few hours at the farm, I needed no further convincing of the fagiolina’s special status, and yet it was not until we sat down to a lovely lunch prepared by our hosts that I truly understood what all this hard labor and dedication to old methods was all about: the fagiolina is exquisitely tender, savory, and so pretty to behold (biodiversity accounts for the range of colors). It is rich in fiber, iron, and protein, and when served with quality extra virgin olive oil, makes for a wholesome and tasty dish.

beans3

So those Etruscans were on to something, it would seem. And the Orsini have taken that something to new (lofty and tasty) heights. Bravissimi!

This is the simple, traditional method of making a pot of la fagiolina. Serve with an excellent evoo and grilled crostini. You can liven up the recipe by adding a bit of hot chili pepper (dried or oil) or truffle shavings. I decided to add the cooked fagiolina to a pot of zuppa di vongole, pictured below.

Ingredients for 5 servings

250 grams of fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno
olive oil
salt
water

Instructions

Place the beans in a large pot of abundant cold water and bring to a boil. Boil for about 20 minutes. In the meantime bring another pot of salted water to a boil. After 20 minutes drain the beans and boil them in the next pot for another 30 minutes. Drain, saving some of the water if you want a zuppa-type plate of beans. Drizzle with a top quality oil.

zuppa della fagiolina & vongole

zuppa della fagiolina & vongole

Gelato For A Muse

a cup of la musa, the gelato inspired by Maria Musa's beloved cake

a cup of la musa, the gelato inspired by Maria Musa’s beloved cake

During a special visit to Gelateria La Musa in Orvieto as a participant in the This is your time Travel Blog Tour, I was reminded of one of the things I love most about Italians— call it flair, or an ability to craft-create-design with an impeccable eye towards quality and authenticity. Especially when it comes to culinary matters, Italians seem to possess a kind of innate radar for what constitutes the real deal.

At the heart of this family-run enterprise is Chiara, a young Italian woman who brings together tradition, skill, and scrupulous standards in selecting raw materials for her gelato. Chiara studied Art History at university, yet she was so inspired by her uncle’s dream of making gelato, she chose to learn the craft rather than pursue a career in her field of study. Along with her bright smile and contagious enthusiasm, Chiara exudes a rare confidence for one so young, no doubt a result of her hard-won expertise.

Many of the gelato creations at Gelateria La Musa are inspired by traditional Italian desserts. One in particular is remarkable for both its backstory and pure yumminess. A cake made by Chiara’s grandmother, Maria Musa, is remembered fondly by the family and has become the basis for the  ‘house’ gelato, aptly named ‘la musa‘. It’s a flavor as whimsical as it is delightful, carefully crafted to recreate the harmonious flavor combination of nonna Maria’s beloved cake. Made with a blend of sheep and cow milk ricotta, Sambuca, cinnamon, and dark chocolate, gelato la musa is a taste experience indeed worthy of its name. If you find yourself in Orvieto, make time for a stop at this truly special gelateria, and be sure to ask for ‘the muse’.  

Chiara (right) with her mother, Elisa

Chiara (right) with her mother, Elisa