29 April 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: La Cucina Deliziosa

COMO, Italy - Lake Como is not the place people usually travel to for the food.

 Via Balbianello, Lake Como
The lure of the sapphire blue water, seductive picture perfect landscapes and the heady scent of jasmine and honeysuckle tend to conjure up thoughts of love and romance, not fish and risotto. But in a 13th century stone tower in the medieval heart of the town of Como a small revolution is taking place, a culinary revolution led by Chef Stefano Visini. It is no accident that he chose such an old building for his restaurant for the 40 year old Como native is a traditionalist - of sorts.

 Chef Stefano Visini
The morning I went to Como to interview Chef Visini the sun was so bright sparks of light were jumping off the surface of the water. And as large white ferryboats transported locals and tourists up and down the Y shaped lake, Visini and his staff were busy in the restaurant’s tower kitchen prepping food for the mid-day crowd. The Chef was preparing swordfish, sturgeon and salmon that would appear on the lunch menu as a trio of smoked fish with a sauce of raspberry purée and fresh ginger. His assistant was busy shelling fresh fava beans and toasting pancetta that would be used later, along with pecorino cheese di fossa, in a fresh pasta dish.

“I use the classics as a starting point much the same way architects use basic construction principles,” he says, “but then my creativity kicks in and I’m off and running, or off and cooking actually. I totally enjoy what I do, and what I enjoy most is coming up with new and unexpected tastes for my clientele.”

It was at a private celebration at the legendary Villa Balbianello that Chef Visini had the opportunity to flex his creative culinary muscles. Often cited as the most magical residence in all of Italy, the villa was featured in the classic film ‘A Month by the Lake’ starring Uma Thurman and Vanessa Redgrave. Built at the end of the 16th century by an important Renaissance Cardinal, the loggias, terraces and buildings that cascade down the slopes of a lush, dark green promontory to the lake provided the perfect setting for the Chef to create his culinary magic.
 Lake Entrance to Villa Balbianello, Lake Como

“It was every chef’s dream,” says Visini, “a private party for 150 guests set in one of the most beautiful places in the world with the added bonus of an unlimited budget.”

The guests were ferried from Como on a private yacht, and as they climbed the torch lit stone stairway to the villa’s terrace, which is slightly larger than a tennis court, they were handed flutes of ice cold Champagne ‘Pol Roger Brut Reserve. Waiters dressed as sea captains then offered a selection of appetizers. Marinated salmon with spicy caramelized pineapple; a salad of shrimp, asparagus and tiny new fava beans; and a tomato gelee’ with mussels and spring onion are only three of the eight appetizers that were served, each on their own individual sterling silver spoon.

Handsome Waiters

When the guests were called to table, the multi-course menu started with an antipasto of sea bass filets flavored with Martini Dry, served on a bed of braised red onions and accompanied by river shrimp and a sauce of raspberries and fresh ginger. The two primi piatti were shrimp and lobster ravioli in a lobster sauce, followed by a creamy fish risotto served with tiny candied tomatoes and a puree of fresh peas. The secondo, or main course, was a rosette of veal wrapped in paper-thin slices of Lardo di Colonnata, served with Chanterelle mushrooms, and fresh asparagus spears drizzled with a delicate Madeira sauce.
Tomato Gelee' Appetizer
As the golden moon moved across the star lit summer sky, waiters began serving the caravan of deserts, one more sumptuous than the other. A dense chocolate cream with orange sauce came first, followed by an eggcup of wild strawberries marinated in 80-year-old balsamic vinegar, served with a vanilla and bourbon sauce and a miniature aspic of linden honey. Next came a mousse of fresh mangos, served on a bed of tropical fruits and garnished with fresh coconut curls. Crème caramel topped flaky little butter cookies, and that was followed by seven more delights plus an assortment of delicate miniature pastries.
 Ristorante Visini

"I used several classic Italian recipes in the Villa Balbianello menu,” says Visini, “for example, strawberries marinated in aged balsamic vinegar have been part of our cuisine since the dish was first served to Italian princes during the Renaissance. I added the bourbon, vanilla sauce and honey aspic just to give the dish an extra kick. And the candied cherry tomatoes are my version of a centuries old Sicilian tradition of serving the tiny tomatoes with honey.”

 Pastries from Ristorante Visini

As impressive as the menu was, I was even more impressed that all the food for the party was prepared in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen and transported to the villa by boat. But Visini assures me that it is normal operating procedure, and that he is used to working in tight spaces. “However, it can get a little tricky sometimes,” he admitted as he looked around his shiny second floor kitchen.
 Interior of Ristorante Visini
An amazing amount of food is produced in that small kitchen. Not only does it serve as the main kitchen for Ristorante Visini, but it is also the headquarters of Visini's catering operation and the heart of the rosticceria, which sells food to take out, and the pasticceria or pastryshop. Corrado Visini, the chef's brother, is the wine steward and keeps the operation stocked with a large assortment of really good wine.
 Chef Visini

Later that afternoon the Chef and I sat at an outdoor table in front of the restaurant and talked about food.

Travelers don’t really think about food when they are in Como,” he said, “they come here and eat pretty ordinary stuff. The draw is the beauty of the lake and the charm of the town. But I want to change that. I want people to go home with more than just wonderful visual memories of their visit; I want them to have wonderful taste memories as well. And years from now, when they are reminiscing about the great time they had in Como, I want them to say, “. . . . . and remember that meal we had at the Ristorante Visini, now that was really something special.

Ristorante Visini
Antica Torre dei Mercanti
Via Ballerini 9 (Around the corner from Coin dept. store)
22110 Como  Tel. +39 031 242 760
info@visini.it http://www.visini.it/

25 April 2010

LIFE: My Best Friend

My Best Friend and her husband

SARONNO, Italy - After a whirlwind two week visit my best friend flew back to the USA on Friday. The house seems strangely empty without her. The other day we figured out that we have been friends for more than 50 years. We met when we were just kids in school and have been sharing the changes in our lives ever since those long ago days. We promised to be "old ladies together forever", and so we are.

For me, she is the sister I never had, for her, I am the sister she never had to live with. As young marrieds our kids were the first in our town to have “two” mothers, although she did more actual mothering than I ever did.

Fisherman's Island, Lago Maggiore

We’ve been down many a long road together, often living miles and oceans apart, but always connected. From the onset I was the adventurous one, the one who always had to know what was around the corner and over the hill. She was more settled, content to stay and be nurtured by her family and friends.

But it wasn’t that she didn’t dream of far-away places too. California was high on her list. As far back as high school she talked about wanting to see San Francisco and years later when I moved there I was very disappointed that she never came to see me. I was living in the city of her dreams and yet the idea of flying across America, even with her husband, was apparently a bit too overwhelming. Knowing that, you can understand why making this trip to Italy by herself was such a momentous event - for both of us.

Milan's Cathedral

I remember how uneasy I felt when she moved from our home town to a house on a river in upstate New York and back again, and then, after her husband died another move, this time alone to Buffalo, New York to be near her youngest daughter and help out with the grandchildren.

Galleria, Milan

Without a doubt there was a little part of me that needed her to be in place, a touchstone that I could return to every now and again and maybe a little part of her needed me to bring the world to her. In the end it never really mattered. Our friendship has endured decades in spite of, or maybe because of our differences.

Santa Margherita Ligure, Italian Riviera

Through the years she has followed my moves from one town and country to another, most with unpronounceable names. She has tried to imagine what tapperelle look like, questioned why we have bidets and marveled at living in a place where you can go to Switzerland for lunch and be home before dark.

Rapallo, Italian Riviera

So now she has seen all of those things and more. She has traveled to the Italian Riviera and stood at the edge of the Mediteranean Sea. She has walked the shores of Lake Como and understands why George Clooney bought a house there. She's ridden on buses and trolleys, funiculares that go up steep hills, subways that whizz along the underbelly of a city, boats that skim along deep blue lakes and trains that take you along the edges of the snow capped pre-alps of Switzerland. With constant good humor she experienced just about every form of public transportation known to modern man and survived. No small feat for someone who hasn't been on public transportation since she was 14 years old. 

Lake Lugano, Switzerland

In my heart I know she will never make this trip again and she knows I probably won’t make it back to the States any time soon, so this is a very difficult moment for both of us. I'm going to miss her. She makes me a better person and I, hopefully, expand her world. But it’s more than that. We have a deep and lasting connection that will endure no matter where we are and when we are no more.


“This is our last day,” she said to me on Thursday morning, “we have to enjoy it.” And so we did. 

Photos: Some of the places we visited.

22 April 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Porta Palazzo Market

TURIN, Italy – With the sky still an early morning pink, crates of dark purple eggplant, yellow pears and fragrant fennel are stacked willy nilly, cluttering the streets as fruit and vegetable vendors at Turin’s great food market, Porta Palazzo set up their market stalls for the day. Brawny butchers in white coats and blood stained aprons pull large beef hindquarters and pork carcasses from rumbling refrigerated trucks and carry them to their market stalls in the immense glass and wrought iron building nearby.

But even before the butchers start to sharpen their knives and price cards are stuck into the produce boxes, local chefs are on the prowl, menu ideas running through their minds. How many crates of Swiss chard do you have? Never mind, how about the beets, will you have more tomorrow? The day’s menu depends on what they choose. The only thing certain is that the food they’ll prepare is unlike any you have ever eaten in Italy.

Chef Roberto Donna of Washington, D.C. knows first-hand how creative the chefs in his hometown can be. He’ll tell you that with such incredibly voluptuous and seductive ingredients as white truffles, porcini mushrooms, Piedmont beef, fresh brook trout, and an abundance of game, and locals are ever really surprised when first time visitors can barely keep from swooning at the dinner table.

Turinese cuisine is unlike the food in any other part of Italy. Local dishes incorporate a much larger variety of savory sauces which are more traditional in French cuisine than in Italian. And chefs tend to reach for butter and lard rather than olive oil, which is also more French than Italian. Olive oil has only been used in local cooking since the 1950’s when it was brought north by southern Italians who immigrated to Turin to work in the automobile industry.

Another difference is that appetizers play a much larger role here than in other parts of Italy, both in the size of the portions and in their sheer creativity. In Chef Donna’s definitive cookbook, ‘Cooking in Piedmont’, he offers twenty-six recipes for appetizers including such non-appetizer sounding dishes as rabbit salad, stuffed roasted peppers, veal tongue in a spicy red sauce, a duck liver flan and spicy polenta served with fried quail eggs.

Probably the best known Piedmontese appetizers are bagna caoda –literally a hot bath -of oil, garlic, anchovies and butter served as a dipping sauce for winter vegetables, and fonduta (from the French fondre, to melt) a fondue of creamy Fontina cheese flavored with white truffles. Truffles are used extensively in Turinese cooking, and when they are in season – between November and February – they are generously showered over just about everything.

Two of Turin’s most popular pasta dishes are tajarin, golden egg noodles served with melted butter and a shaving of white truffles, and Chef Donna’s favorite, ravioli del plin, (del plin means to pinch in Turinese dialect) which are often served with a reduced veal stock and a delicate veil of grated parmesan cheese. It is interesting that the Turinese prefer fresh egg pastas, rather than pastasciutta, dried pasta, that is so popular throughout the rest of Italy.

The best rice in Italy, some say the world, grows in the wide flat lands between Milan and Turin so in addition to pasta you may find a rich and creamy risotto, rice served with meat sauce, and/or a rice and chick pea dish on the menu. Other non-pasta choices are chestnut flour gnocchi served with a cheese sauce called fonduta di Castelmagno (Castelmagno is a town southwest of Turin famous for its cheese), and baccalà (salted cod), served with saffron flavored polenta. And then, as the Italians say, Coraggio! – Courage! It’s time to move on to the main course.

The city’s signature dish is bollito misto, a mix of boiled meats served with three sauces: bagnet verd, or green sauce made from parsely, anchovies, garlic and olive oil; bagnet ross, a red sauce of crushed tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers, and saussa d’avije, a yellow mustard sauce sweetened with honey and crushed nuts.

In the past, traditionalists insisted that bollito misto contain seven vegetables, seven types of meat, and seven types of ornamenti, i.e. tongues, tails and dangly bits, but today the more exotic dangly bits are slowly being eased out. You'll find bollito misto on the menu at least once a week in most Turin restaurants. The boiled meats are served from a rolling stainless steel cart and each type of meat is kept warm in its own broth filled compartment. If you are squeamish about eating dangly bits you can ask for only the meats that you want.

Other classic Piedmontese dishes include brasato al Barolo, Piedmont beef slowly braised in Barolo wine, and finanziera, a stew of cock’s crests, chicken livers, veal, peas and porcini mushrooms. In the fall and winter you’ll find venison, roe deer (a small European deer), quail and even tagliata di renna, slices of reindeer meat, on some menus along with beef and veal, free range poultry and freshly caught fish instead of fish farm fish.

In a country where no culinary rock has been left unturned, isn't it nice to know that there is still a small corner where you can find new taste experiences? The food of Turin may just change the way you look at Italian food forever.

Photos: (1) food truck at Porta Palazzo; (2) Chef Roberto Donna; (3-6) exterior and interior views of the Porta Palzazzo market

For more information about Chef Donna visit his web site: http://www.robertodonna.com/robertodonna/bio.php

18 April 2010

ON THE ROAD; Weekend in Tuscany

This is the fourth in a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track which, for me, makes them all the more interesting.

 LUCCA, Italy - On a late Friday afternoon in April the big blue Lazzi bus pulls into the old walled city of Lucca and stops. Through the window I can see Sam leaning up against his car, waiting for me. He waves. Making his way through the crowd of middle aged signoras and backpack toting students who shared the hour long bus ride with me from Florence, he pulls my bag from the belly of the bus and puts it in the car.

Lucca: Piazza dell'Anfiteatro 

"Nice to see you kiddo," he says as he puts the car in gear and circles Piazza Verdi. He drives through Porta Santa Anna, and once outside the city wall he heads home. He tells me Becky has made lunch reservations for the next day at a country restaurant that specializes in truffles. "You do like truffles?" he asks. I nod. Twenty minutes later we are driving up the bumpy unpaved road that leads to the 300 year old farmhouse where Sam and Becky live.

The next morning Becky and I take our coffee out to the garden. We duck under the tight bunches of acid green grapes and sit down at an old marble topped table under the grape arbor. The morning air is filled with the sweet scent of flowers and fat bumblebees who must think they have died and gone to heaven. But the tranquility of the morning is broken by the unrelenting howl coming from the dogs penned up in the backyard of the villa, directly across the shallow valley formed by the soft Tuscan hills.

View from Becky and Sam's backyard

Putting her hand to her forehead Becky sighs and says the barking drives her nuts. And the worse part is that there doesn't seem to be a solution. The owner turns a deaf ear to their complaints and the local authorities say their only recourse is to get a lawyer and sue the dog owner. But given the speed of the Italian justice system, they'll all be in nursing homes, dogs included, before the case is heard, she says. She wishes one of the neighbors would go over and talk to him, maybe the message would be more effective if delivered without an accent. With that she stands and says we'd better get dressed as Sam will be coming in soon.

Sam has been up for hours. He is busy pruning the 170 gnarly olive trees that grow behind their house. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to prune each tree and he is behind schedule. The pruning needs to be done soon otherwise there won’t be enough olives to make olive oil, and that would be a shame.
By mid-morning the tree pruning has been put on hold and we are on the road heading south toward the FiPiLi (FeePeeLee) the Firenze-Pisa-Livorno highway. We are in the Lower Arno Valley, halfway between Florence and Pisa. The countryside is lush and green, the fields systematically marked off by rows of trees, a practice developed by the Romans. Many of the towns we pass are built over the ruins of old Etruscan and Roman colonies and you can almost feel the essence of all those thousands of years of civilizations past hanging in the air.

The next thing I know we are in a town called Bientina and Sam is looking for a place to park the car. Bientina is small and quiet, and the main piazza is deserted even on this warm and sunny Saturday morning.


Becky and I head for the closest bar for a second breakfast of frothy cappuccino and brioche. Sam heads in the opposite direction mumbling something about having to go to the hardware store. Just as we are wiping brioche crumbs from our mouths, he rushes into the bar and motions for us to come with him to an antique dealer across the piazza. They have been looking for a small table to put next to the sofa in their library for a couple of years now and he wants Becky to take a look at something he's just found.

Bientina is well known in the area as an antique center and the shop Sam leads us to is stacked with rustic furniture, sturdy, practical furniture, sawed, sanded and put together by hand. For the next twenty minutes I stand by as they talk price and appear to be interested in a 200 year old wooden chest. Then, with a "we'll measure the space and call you" we leave the shop and get back on the road. Direction: San Miniato al Tedesco.

Sam takes a narrow two lane road out of town. He knows the territory well. This is the pure heart of Tuscany, the territory of olive farmers, wine producers and truffle merchants. About one-third of Italy's prestigious white Tuber Magnatum truffle crop come from this area and every November the town of San Miniato al Tedesco hosts an important international truffle fair.

Overview of San Miniato

My stomach is starting to make growling noises but lunch seems to be the last thing on Sam’s mind. Instead, like a shark on a blood trail, he hones in on a small antique shop directly across the street from one of San Miniato's best known landmarks, the 16th century Palazzo del Seminario.

Unlike the shop in Bientina, the furniture here is a mélange of rural simplicity and European sophistication. The owner, Signora Bellini, tells us she often scouts the antique markets in France, and if we don't see anything we like she has another storeroom nearby that is full of other treasures. I believe her.

Sam circles the shop once, twice. Then, without a word he leaps up on a dusty landing and pulls out a small table partially hidden in the dark nook. Signora Bellini is visibly disappointed. She tells him the table is from one of the town's government offices and isn't very old, probably no more than a hundred years or so. No doubt visions of dollars have been dancing in her head listening to our American accented Italian, and the table is a small fish compared to other pieces in the shop. Sam jumps down, brushes the dust off his slacks and begins turning the table this way and that.

"How much," he asks.

She hesitates. "125 euros."

"One hundred," he says.

Before she finishes nodding her head yes, he is out the door with the table tucked under his arm. Becky and I can hear him chortling with glee as we head for the car finally on our way to lunch. Apparently he’s bagged a bargain.

The restaurant, La Giocanda, is in the tiny borgo of La Serra, a couple of miles southeast of San Miniato and 5 miles south of the prestigious leather tanning district of Santa Croce sull'Arno. Becky and Sam are regular customers and when Vittorio, the owner, sees them he greets them with open arms. Hearing their voices, his wife Valeria pokes her head out the kitchen door to say that she has just gotten in a fresh supply of white Marzoli truffles. Becky, who is somewhat of a truffle expert, tells me Marzoli are spring truffles.

“These are not the mythical, white Tuber Magnatum truffles that sell for $1,500 a kilo (and up) at the annual San Miniato truffle fair,” she says, “but they are delicious nonetheless.”


We sit down. I open the menu. Within seconds Vittorio is at the table putting down bottles of mineral water and wine. Then he begins to recite the daily specials. I look over at Becky and then at Sam. "Ravioli filled with cheese, herbs and shaved truffles", says Becky picking up a piece of thin, crispy Schiacciata bread.

"Gnocchi with sweet gorgonzola, butter and shaved truffles,” says Sam.

I'm uncertain, torn between wanting what they've ordered and wanting something different.

"The fettucine with cream sauce and truffles is nice,” says Becky.

Sam nods his head in agreement. They want me to make up my mind so we can eat.

"Okay,” I say. "The fettucine it is."

Sensing my uncertainty Vittorio comes to the rescue. He suggests putting a bit of all three on each plate. It's a good idea. The offered tris will also prevent us from squabbling later over who's primo was best.

The pastas are so exquisite we practically lick our platters clean. Then Vittorio brings on the main course. A succulent, juicy Florentine steak that has been seared over a wood burning grill, sliced, sprinkled with olive oil and herbs and blanketed with a cloud of truffle shavings. And just to round things out Valeria sends out a bowl of white Tuscan beans topped with, you guessed it, more truffles and their own home made extra-virgin olive oil.

Desert? Mmmm, oh my, well . . . only if you insist.

As we waddle out the door my cholesterol count on its way to the moon, Vittorio presses two bottles of red wine into Sam's hands. "For tomorrow," he says. And all for less than $30 a head. Satiated, I seriously question the wisdom of my decision to live in Milan.

Ice Cream HeavenWith the sun getting low in the sky we start back to the farmhouse. Sam makes one more stop, this time at Torri, a gelateria in Lucca. Once home we make sandwiches with the left-over steak we doggy-bagged and then sit out in the garden savoring spoonfuls of Torri’s heavenly gelato, marveling at how we can still eat after our massive mid-day feast at La Giocanda.

Sunday starts full of bright sunshine and after a leisurely lunch Becky and Sam drive me to Florence just in time to catch the late afternoon train to Milan. Through the train window I watch the Tuscan landscape roll by. As the train travels north the country side starts to flatten out, the hilly Tuscan panorama diminishing with every tunnel we go through, the light fading by degrees. All too soon I arrive in Bologna. Next stop, Milan.

Via San Regolo, 84 - La Serra 56020

San Miniato (PI) Tel. +39 0571.460318

16 April 2010

AUNTIE PASTA; Sweet Artichoke Dreams

SARONNO, Italy - Four out of the five fruttivendolos I passed walking around Saronno this morning had baskets of artichokes sitting out in front of their shops. It's the end of the season so the prices were good, but even so it didn't look like many people were buying them.

It stunned me to learn that there are about 90 different varieties of artichokes that grow in Italy. Some are smooth and fat, others are thin and have sharp thorns.The smooth ones grow primarily in Lazio and Puglia and are the type I used to eat when I was a kid. The prickly ones grow in Liguria, Sicily and Sardinia and the first time I saw them was when I lived in Genoa.

One Ligurian variety that has won the approval of the Slow Food movement comes from Perinaldo, a small hill town in the province of Imperia, near the border with France. The town is so small there are only 400 families who live there and out of those there are seven artichoke producers.

On the second Sunday in May Perinaldo hosts a food fair featuring their famous artichokes and the other local products, Taggiasca olives and olive oil.

I’m not an artichoke connoisseur, all I know is that the prickly and non-prickly artichokes are prepared in different ways. The fat, smooth ones, called Mammole, are often deep fried, as in Carciofi alla Giudea, or stuffed, like my Grandmother used to make them. The prickly ones, which are very tender, are often sliced very thin and eaten raw.

I remember the first time I cooked artichokes. I was using a recipe from my memory bank, based more on taste than technique. What I remembered was that my Grandmother cooked artichokes in the oven. She would cut the bottoms so the artichoke would stand up straight in a low baking dish. Then she would slice up a clove of garlic and slip the strips down in between the artichoke leaves. Next she would sprinkle the artichoke with the dried mintuccia her sister Mary had sent her from Italy, drizzle them with olive oil, add a little salt and pepper and into the oven they would go.

How long they cooked was anyone’s guess. I was only 5 years old so my little kid concept of time and actual time were not exactly in sync yet. But oh how I loved those artichokes. I remember peeling the leaves off one by one, oil all over my hands, my face, bits mintuccia stuck in my teeth, and my eyes rolling back in my head at the delicious flavor.

Fast forward to the part of my life when I was married with children and living in Philadelphia. One week I found artichokes at the Italian market and decided to cook them. I knew I was missing a key ingredient, the mintuccia, but I thought I would give them a go anyway. I brought them home, cleaned them up as much as you can clean up artichokes, sliced the bottoms, put them in a baking dish, stuck in the garlic slivers, drizzled them with olive oil, salt, pepper and closed the oven door. Then every half hour or so, I would wander back into the kitchen and peek into the oven to see if they were cooked yet.

An hour passed, then two. I fed the kids, gave them a bath and checked the artichokes. Nope. Not ready. Read the kids a story and put them to bed and checked the artichokes again. Nope Not ready yet. Nor were they going to be ready - ever. I finally went to bed at 11 PM, the artichokes brown and shriveled and as hard as a rock.

I don’t know when or how I finally discovered the crucial step I had missed in the care and cooking of artichokes. As it turns out you have to boil or steam before you put them in the oven. So now I know. Wednesday is market day in Saronno and I will go and buy artichokes. I will boil them and bake them and love every minute I spend eating them, even with oil on my hands and mintuccia in my teeth, and it will all be worth it.

If you would like a less messy way of eating artichokes you can prepare them like the Perinaldesi do. Their traditional recipes are relatively simple. They either cook them in the oven with Parmesan cheese and mushrooms, or fry them with a little garlic and parsley.

Or you can try this recipe from Chef Roberto Donna, adapted by StarChefs.com

Potato, Artichoke and Parmesan Cheese Tort
4 large artichokes, cleaned and thinly sliced at the last minute
4 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, thinly sliced
4 ounces melted butter
1 medium onion, sliced, cooked and caramelized
2 fresh thyme sprigs, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

To prepare the tort:
Preheat the oven at 350°F. Take a 6-inch non-stick pan, grease the bottom and sides.

Alternate layers of potato, artichokes and Pecorino cheese; sprinkle each layer with onions, thyme, butter, salt and pepper, until you fill the pan entirely (go over the top if you want, it will shrink).

Place in the oven, cover with foil and cook for 1 hour. Let it sit for 10 minutes. Unmold from the non-stick pan and serve warm.
Buon Appetito.

11 April 2010

LIFE: By the Sea Side, By the Beautiful Sea

GENOA, Italy – This is the weekend of the Garibaldi Tall Ships Regatta 2010. It’s the kickoff event for Italy’s 150th anniversary (in 2011) as a united country.

When the ships set sail today out of Genoa for Trapani in Sicily, they will follow the historic sea route Giuseppe Garibaldi and his 1,000 Red Shirts took back in May 1860. Regardless of your politics, the journey and its political consequences was a turning point in Italian history, the beginning of a new and different Italy, a unified Italy.

The tall masted sailing ships that are taking part in this year’s Regatta will be open for on-board visits. That’s always a lot of fun. The sailors are adorable, eager to please and even more eager to try out their English on visitors, especially American visitors. 

This is just another one of those times I wish I still lived in Genoa. How anyone who grew up in land locked New York State could develop such a bond to the sea a mystery to me, but it happened. I can’t even be cool about it as a spontaneous and melancholy ohhh always slips from my lips at any mention of Genoa, or Liguria.
It was on a tall masted Italian ship one balmy summer night that I first had my hand kissed by a handsome Italian naval officer. It was a magical moment in a magical setting with the Mediterranean Sea spread out before us and the stars twinkling high above. He smiled, bowed from the waist and said "buona sera Signora." Then he took my hand and brought it up to his lips.
I say kissed, but it wasn’t actually a kiss, it was more of a close encounter. Apparently hand kissing protocol requires that the gentlemen’s lips never actually touch the lady’s hand. It would make a better story if I had been on that ship alone, but truth be known I was part of a group, the American Women’s Club of Genoa. Most of the ladies of the Club were married to men with juice in Genoa so we were always invited to the big events; it was one of the perks of belonging to the Club.

The ship we were on was beautiful, much like the Italia, one of the ships in the Regatta. The Italia is owned by the Yacht Club Italiano and it is the largest brigantine sail ship in the world. It was built in 1993 using an historic 19th century design which produces an incredibly agile and fast ship with excellent maneuverability. 

The Brigantine design is so good that the ship soon became a favorite with pirates. It's hard to imagine now as you look out over the peaceful Mediterranean Sea, but during period between 1519 and 1780 Barbary Cosairs prowled the waters of the Mediterranean in search of ships coming back from the New World, their holds filled with silver and gold and other treasures the pirates wanted to get their hands on. 

Another Italian ship in the Regatta is the schooner Oloferne. The Oloferne was built in Messina (Sicily) in 1944 and did service as a cargo vessel carrying different kinds of goods between Sicily and the small isles of the south Tyrrhenian Sea.

In 1967 she was transformed in a gaff schooner yacht, sailing between the Ligurian and Aegean seas. With a very narrow hull and shallow draft, the Schooner also has all the features the pirates that sailed the North American Coast and the Caribbean had on their wish list. A 100 ton schooner can be loaded with eight cannons, 75 pirates and four swivel guns, make up to 11 knots in a good wind and be small enough to navigate shoal waters and hide in remove coves. Who could ask for anything more.

It is always a party when the tall ships are in town. Genoa comes alive with music and entertainment, sailors in summer whites parade up and down Via XX Settembre, other groups in medieval costumes carry tall banners through the streets of the historic center. At night there are firework displays down in the Old Port. Food and wine will flow, the Italian Navy Band will play, the kids will eat focaccia and oooo and ahhhh at the model ship exhibit at the Galata Museo del Mare. the sea museum, and a good time will be had by all.

The event is organized by the Sail Training Association-Italia, a non-profit association founded in 1996 by the Italian Navy and the Italian Yacht Club. http://www.garibalditallships.com/
Photos courtesy of Sandro Bagno, Garibaldi Tall Ships

08 April 2010

AUNTIE PASTA - Pearfectly Wonderful

SARONNO, Italy - A dear friend of mine is coming to visit next week. It’s her first trip to Italy. It’s always difficult to have first time visitors because there are so many things to see and do here, and I never know where to begin.

Do I take her to Rome, Florence, and Venice, the holy trinity of the tour companies? Do I concentrate on the Lake Region and take her to Fisherman’s Island on Lago Maggiore for lunch? Or how about an afternoon boat ride on Lake Como with an aperitif in Bellagio? A day in Lugano, Switzerland? Or maybe a couple of days on the Italian Riviera? And I can't forget about Milan. There’s so much to see: the Duomo, the Galleria, the Duke’s Castle, the Last Supper, the shopping, oh my.

And when we get back from our outings, be they long or short, what are we going to eat? I’ve been working on a menu for the past few days but it is still very much a work in progress. While my refrigerator is standard size for Italy, it really isn’t very big. And the freezer, well if it weren’t for my coveted stash of Crisco that fills the entire bottom drawer, there would be a little more room in there but….

What I need are recipes I can prepare in advance that actually improve in flavor as they sit. Right this minute two things come to mind: the first is a Spring minestrone. By the time she gets here the primizia, or first little vegetables of the season, should be on the market. Baby zucchini, tiny green beans and baby carrots are all good candidates for a Spring minestrone.

And to make my minestrone even more Spring like, I’ll probably top it with a small dollop of pesto just before I serve it. It’s a Genovese thing. An Italian thing is to serve minestrone at room temperature – tepid, not cold – when the weather is warm. In fact you have probably seen bowls of minestrone sitting out on buffet tables in trattorie when you visited Italy, especially in Tuscany.

As for desert, I just may make poached pears before pears disappear for the seaon.

During the winter months I like to serve pears poached in red wine, a good full bodied red wine from Piedmont is usally my first choice.

The pears turn a deep reddish purple color, are beautiful to see, delicious to eat and perfect for a dinner party because I can make them ahead of time. I like to serve them with vanilla gelato or thin wafer cookies, but even pound cake is good with them.

For Spring I can use the same recipe for poached pears and just change the wine. I like Prosecco because it isn’t too sweet or too dry, and it gives the pears a wonderful flavor without overpowering them. You can use a dry Spumante too.

It’s important to pick pears that are not too ripe. I like to use Bosc pears because they have a good flavor and they hold their shape well when poached. Sometimes you have to shave a little off the bottom to get them to stand up in the poaching liquid, but you would have to do that no matter what type of pear you used. Just be sure the poaching liquid covers them all the way up to the stem or they won’t cook evenly.

The perfect topping for pears poached in white wine is melted chocolate. That combination is called Pere al Cioccolato Fondente in Italian and Poire Hélène in French.

The chocolate topping is super easy to do. Just break up a bar or two of good quality chocolate, dark chocolate is best, and let it slowly melt in a bagno-maria, which is nothing more than a pot or ceramic bowl set over another pot of simmering water.

That sounds really good. I think I’ve just decided the menu for one day. Now if I can only figure out what to do for the other twelve.

Photos:(1) pears poached in white wine; (2) pears poached in red wine; (3)the pear stands alone.

04 April 2010

LIFE: Shroud of Turin

TURIN, Italy - The Shroud of Turin, arguably Italy’s most famous holy relic, will be on display from April 13 to May 23 at the Cathedral of Turin, in northern Italy. This will be the first public showing of the Shroud of Turin since it was restored in 2002.

As many as 2 million people are expected to view the Shroud over the 44 days it will be available. So far, almost 1 million requests have come in to reserve the three to five minutes each person will be allowed to admire the cloth that has fascinated pilgrims and scientists alike for centuries. 

According to tradition, the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus, but even with the use of special carbon dating techniques, experts have been hard pressed to date it much before the 14th century. Even though French crusader Robert of Clari mentions seeing the cloth in 1203 in Constantinople at the imperial palace, the first actual records trace it only to Lirey in France in 1354. 

There are historians who believe that the shroud was taken by French knights of the Fourth Crusade during the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. The basis of this belief comes from a letter written in 1205 to Pope Innocent II which says in part, “The Venetians partitioned the treasure of gold, silver and ivory, while the French did the same with the relics of saints and the most sacred of all, the linen in which our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after His death and before the resurrection.” 

There is also some evidence that on August 15, 944 CE an image bearing cloth known as the Cloth of Edessa, was taken from Edessa to Constantinople (now Istanbul). It had been in Edessa since it was found hidden behind some stones above one of the city gates sometime in the middle of the 6th century. According to legend, the cloth, with a miraculous picture of Jesus, was brought to the King of Edessa sometime between 13 –50 CE by a disciple known as Thaddeus Jude, who claimed to have been sent by the apostle Thomas. 

If the Edessa Cloth is the Shroud of Turin, then written record of its existence goes back to the sixth century. But is it? The controversy continues. And while no new tests are officially scheduled, scientists at Oxford University, where the original tests were done, are taking another look at the data and methodology of the original tests to see if any mistakes were made and if the Shroud could actually date back to the time of Jesus. 

Groups dedicated to researching the relic argue that the shroud has been handled so many times that it could easily have been contaminated, altering the chemical makeup of the carbon in the linen which in turn would affect the results of the carbon dating. To avoid further contamination the Shroud is now kept in a covered, bulletproof, climate controlled case inside the Cathedral of Turin. 

If you are planning on going to Turin I can tell you from my own experiences to see the Shroud in 1998, the city is well organized and even though there are a lot of people, lines move quickly and you never feel lost in a sea of humanity. And if you do have a chance to go I strongly suggest staying a few extra days. Turin is one of the most historically interesting and architectually beautiful cities in Italy, albeit not traditionally Italian. It was the city of Italy's royal family, the French Savoy, and they turned the city into a spectacular European capital. Vale la pena, as they say. You won't be sorry you stayed. 

Reservations to see the Shroud of Turin can be made on the Internet (www.sindone.org) During the Exposition period there will also be a booking service for same day visits at the reception point that will be set up in Piazza Castello, near the Cathedral.

More Information is available on the following sites:

Photos: (1) Pilgrims viewing the Shroud of Turin 1998, (2) Cathedral of Turin, (3) Interior Cathedral of Turin

For more on Turin see Auntie Pasta: Italy's Dark (Chocolate) Secret published Feb. 10, 2010.

01 April 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Eataly Easter

TORINO, Italy - Is it possible to lust after a food market slash eatery? I certainly hope so because I am head over heels in love with Eataly, Turin’s latest food wonderstore. I knew I would be, it doesn’t take much to get me going about food, so when my cousin Ginny asked me if I knew anything about Eataly, my little ears perked up.

She said someone she knew had just come back from Turin and told her Eataly was fabulous. Was I interested in checking it out?
What kind of a question was that? Does a cat like catnip? Does a bear like honey? Am I not already standing by the door ready to go? Oh yes.

Eataly is a sprawling new-wave food market in Turin where you can buy fresh fish, meat, vegetables, bread, pasta and rice, coffee, spices, chocolate and sweets, housewares and dozens of other food related things, including wine from a fully stocked wine cellar where you can taste the wines before you buy, and a food university for dedicated foodies.

The beauty of Eataly, apart from the physical beauty of the products and their packaging, is that everything sold here is in season, grown or raised near-by. The store specializes in finding small Italian producers, who you can often see at Eataly delivering their goods, meeting customers and participating in one of the market’s two teaching kitchens. And if it is an imported product, it is protected by the Terra Madre group of the Slow Food organization.

If you get hungry while you are looking around, and you can’t help but get hungry, you can sit and eat at one of the nine areas serving food within the market. Ginny tends to forget about little things like eating but when my stomach started to make nasty growling sounds loud enough for people to notice, even she figured out it was time for lunch. 

While she went off to see what pasta dishes looked interesting I twirled around for another five minutes or so trying to decide what I wanted. It was time to declare my choice. It wasn’t easy. Up to this point every food counter we passed was like an encounter with the Sirens Ulysses was warned about, those seductive nymphs who so charmed the sailors of old that the besotted boys threw them-selves into the sea to follow them, only to die. In the end I dove into a large plate of the steamed mussels in white wine with garlic and parsely.

After lunch we wandered over and watched how the large chocolate eggs Italians favor for Easter are made. The eggs all have ‘surprises’ in them, and I always wondered just how they got those things in there. And since the Italians are, well, so Italian, more than one romantic young Romeo has proposed to his fidanzata with an engagement ring slipped into an innocent looking chocolate Easter egg. 

Before going back to our hotel, we stopped at the Eataly bookstore where Ginny bought a couple of beautiful children’s books for her granddaughters and I sat in one of the easy chairs with a pile of cookbooks on my lap, dreaming of all the things I could make if only I could put my bed in a corner and live in Eataly forever. 

Eataly: Via Nizza,Torino Lingotto, Italy http://www.eataly.it/
Photos: (1) Eataly: Cousin Ginny and her Easter egg, (2) Eataly: part of the meat section, (3)Eataly: one of the many food counters, (4) Eataly: Wrapping up Easter Eggs; (5) Buona Pasqua a tutti.