30 September 2010


SARONNO, Italy - Back in the day when I wasn’t even old enough to go to school, I used to hang out with my Grandfather and his cronies. The men would sit under the shade of the grape vine pergola behind our house, sip wine and reminisce about the old country and how much better the food was there.

Simply Beautiful

One day one of the cronies was leafing through a magazine and came cross an ad for Wesson Oil. It said “Wesson Oil - light with barely a taste, or words to that effect. He scratched his head. Why, he asked, would anyone want to use an oil that doesn’t have any taste? Good question. But I didn’t realize just how good a question it was until I moved to Italy almost half a century later.

Over 500 varieties of olives are grown in Italy and millions of bottles of olive oil are produced every year. The southern provinces like Puglia, Calabria, Sicilia and Campania produce the most olives and olive oil, while up north the Veneto, Lombardia, Trentino and Emilia Romagna trail close behind.

Labor Intensive Work

In Puglia, for example, more than 2 million quintale (a quintale = 200 lbs) of olives were pressed for oil last year, while in Trentino there were fewer than 3 thousand quintale; and in Calabria, 1.5 million quintale of olives were pressed compared with Lombardia’s 8,000.

But those numbers represent commercial producers. What writers love to write about, and movie producers make films about are the small, family run olive groves, usually in Tuscany, where back to nature types harvest their own olives and make their own olive oil. It’s a great story, very picturesque and romantic. What they never show is the part where you have to rid your olive grove of weeds, especially the thorny wild blackberry that multiplies faster than a rabbit and climbs and smothers anything and everything in its path. And nary a word about the grasses that form a dense mat under the olive trees that have to be eliminated before they rob the trees of scarce summer rain.

You Go First, No - You Go First

Then comes the harvest. First the weeds must be mowed - again, this time right down to the roots. This is in anticipation of rolling out fine plastic netting under the trees to catch the olives. Netting has been used since the Fifties as a replacement for the more traditional “hands’n’knees” pick them up one by one method, and is a lot faster but only somewhat less labor intensive.
The olive harvest, which is in the fall, runs in ten day cycles. As the olives are collected they are transported to the olive pressing mill, the frantoio where owners usually require a minimum of 200 kilos of olives (about 30 buckets or 100 lbs.) before they will press your olives.

Sometimes it is difficult for small producers to reach the minimum weight requirements. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that once the olives are collected they need to be pressed within ten days of being harvested or they begin to rot. So sometimes Mother Nature need to be helped along by picking, stripping or banging the branches of the olive trees with a cane to coax the olives down. Often a picking ladder - a special ladder with a stabilizing third let – is needed, and for that of course you also need tree-climbing skills and a strong safety belt. But no matter how you do it, it is a slow process. For somewhat experienced pickers, 45 minutes per tree on average is a pretty good picking speed.

 Only the Best Will Do

Sometimes Mother Nature gets a little quirky and brings the olives down with a strong wind or rain storm. Then they must be gathered using the tried and true hands’n’knees method, which usually yields about one bucket per hour. A novice couple, working in-between rain storms can usually manage to make the 200 kilo limit in the allotted ten days.

Once the olives are at the frantoio they must be weighed, washed, pressed and strained before the golden green oil starts to come out of the spigot. But that is the moment of truth: how much oil will your olives produce, and how will it taste.

Olive Oil Tasting

Truly excellent oil is rendered by cold pressing – using the age old circular millstone presses that were once turned by beasts or picturesque water wheels, but now by electric motors – or by a modern process that used hydraulics to extract oil from the mash. A liter of oil per tree is considered a good yield

There are basically three types of olive oil: extra virgin, which is a low acid oil (less than 1%) made from good quality olives pressed the day they are picked; virgin olive oil, pressed the next day after picking and has less than 2% acidity; and pure olive oil which has been extracted from olive pulp, skin and/or pits and has little or no aroma.

 Delicious on Bread

Olive oil producers recommend that you store olive oil in dark glass bottles and not in plastic bottles because it will pick up the properties in the plastic. Keep the container tightly closed and store it in a dark place and preferably in areas slightly cooler than room temperature, but not in the refrigerator. They also suggest not buying oil that has been bottled for more than nine months.

You’ll find about 38 D.O.P. denominazione di origine protetta, or Protected Geographical Status olive oils in Italy. The D.O.P. label ensures that the product genuinely originates in a specific region. On a cultural note, one thing you won’t find are small plates of olive oil on restaurant tables for you to dip your bread into.

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

26 September 2010

LIFE: Passion for Fashion

SARONNO, Italy - You would think that after working for Women’s Wear Daily and all the other Conde’ Nast fashion publications for years and years, I would post more fashion oriented articles on this blog. There’s no real reason why I’ve stayed away from writing about it, especially since my tweets are  fashion oriented, it just happened.

Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, Milan
But September is fashion month in Milan, and like the elephant in the room – it is impossible to ignore. On Sept. 9th Vogue Magazine sponsored Milan’s Fashion Night Out, which simply means an evening of fashion extravaganza when the designer shops of Milan’s Fashion Quad stay open until the wee hours of the morning, bands play, people dance in the streets, it's a festa

The Quad, which is sometimes called the golden Quad, is the area between Via della Spiga, Via Sant'Andrea, Via Montenapoleone and Via Manzoni in downtown Milan. It  is where you will find glitzy boutiques like Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Versace, Prada, Krizia, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, La Perla, Bruno Magli and all the others.

From Sept. 21 to Sept. 26 Milan will be gasping in the grip of Moda Donna Spring/Summer 2011. It is one the biggest fashion events of the season and all the major fashion houses will be strutting their stuff on the runways. Milan is buzzing with fashion editors, buyers, photographers and gorgeous, long legged models, both male and female, crowding and pushing their way into the subways and onto the trolley cars.

Tickets to the private parties and backstage events sponsored by fashion houses are in great demand as everyone wants to feel they are part of the “in” crowd, the insiders who dictate what the rest of us will be just dying to wear come spring.

Daily Flower Delivery on Via Montenapoleone

Even before the madness started the Italian fashion magazines could talk of nothing else. One article I found interesting (more commercial than fashion oriented however) was in the weekly woman's magazine Corriere della Sera publishes.   

I thought you might find it interesting what Italian women are wearing this fall, and  the prices. I checked the internet (http://www.x-rates.com/calculator.html) for the most current euro to dollar exchange rate.

Here’s what I found:

1. Sunglasses by Borsalino: $295
2. Zip-up leather jacket by Caractere: $697
3. Silk blouse by Conbipel: $67
4. Leather gloves by Emporio Armani: $241
5. Stretch tube skirt by Max Mara: $226
6. Platform shoes in black and red by Love Moschino:$315
7. Leather handbag by Serapian: $603

The clothes in Io Donna are pretty much a cross section of what is in the shops now  here in Milan and Saronno, except for the Max Mara store. Every outfit, including coats, boots and gloves in their Milan store windows was black. That’s absolutely fine with me but sometimes even I like to get a little wild and step out in something bright and colorful, like beige. 

Here are a few of the other outfits featured in Io Donna.

Cashmere turtleneck, Lanificio Colombo, €290$369; corduroy pants, Incotex, €185/$235; handbag, Fendi, €908/$1,248, boots, Chloe’ €545/$694.

Denim shirt, MCS Marlboro Classics, €115/$146; jeans, Chloe’, €390/$497; leather moccasin Tods, €280/$356.

Alpaca and wool cardigan, Daniela Drei, €790/1,006; corduroy pants MCS €115/$146; snakeskin moccasins, Armani, €311/$396
Wool and tricot cardigan, Midali Toujours, €198/$252; silk plisse’ blouse, Sportmax, €249/$317, wool flannel wide leg pants, Stephan Janson, €500/$637.

You have to admit the clothes are beautiful, albeit expensive. I could do with a few new outfits myself this fall and if I could only find that sack of gold I hid somewhere in this apartment, I would go shopping. 

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

23 September 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: And Now Meet Nonna Stella

SARONNO, Italy - After last week’s post on the TV cooking program Nonna ed Io, I found another Italian Nonna demonstrating Italian recipes, Nonna Stella. But this cooking program does not take place in a television studio, it takes place in Nonna Stella’s kitchen in Bari. It is a typical Italian kitchen with no gourmet pots and pans hanging from decorative ceiling racks or an endless supplies of trendy serving dishes. There are no shiny kitchen appliances; in fact her food processor looks like it has seen better days. In other words, it is a normal Italian kitchen with a real life cook.

 Meet Nonna Stella
In one of the early videos Nonna Stella, who is 88 years old, explains why she is doing the series. It seems her grandson Michele wanted to learn more about her cooking techniques. So she cooks, he films, he eats and they are both ahppy. It’s obvious how much he loves her, and her food and I suspect he may have suggested the video cooking lessons just so he could eat more of it. But whatever the reason I for one am delighted that she agreed. Let me tell you what I learned just watching a few of her videos. You may already know these tricks, but they were new to me.

Tip No. 1. When you make orechetti with cima di rape, one of the typical dishes of Puglia, put the cleaned and chopped cima in the same pot as the orechetti when the orechetti are about half cooked and let them finish cooking together. I always cooked the cima first, taking it out of the pot and then cooking the orechetti in the same water, but her way is so much easier and it accomplishes the same thing.

Tip No. 2. If you put celery, parsley, basil, carrots and onions in a food processor and whiz it, adding a little olive oil about half way through the process, you end up with what Nonna Stella calls “pesto.” She calls it pesto because she mashes it together, and that is what the word pesto means, to mash together. She uses it as a seasoning for just about everything else she cooks, including spaghetti sauce. She puts the five ingredients in a blender and when it is liquefied she saves it in a canning jar with about a half an inch of olive oil on the top. Then she puts it in the refrigerator. The olive oil keeps the pesto fresh, and she says it will stay that way for up to three months.

 Orechetti with Cima di Rape

Since I just discovered Nonna Stella this week and love almost everything she makes, I was in a quandary trying to figure out what to try first. I finally decided to try the Pennoni Rigati alla Pizzaiola. It’s Video Lesson No. 1 on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnh-2xC-SjM) if you want to take a look at it.

Nonna Stella is so smooth the way she moves from one step in the recipe to another, you can see that she is a woman who knows her way around a kitchen. And because I too have been cooking since the Dark Ages I figured it would be a simple dish to try. It was. But it didn’t turn out to be quite as good as I thought it would. In watching the video again today, I see the mistakes I made. First of all I added parsley to the basil and garlic. Far too much parsley, as it turned out and it drowned the taste of the basil. Not good. And I didn’t mix the ingredients as often as she did which meant that the pasta and the tomato sauce were not as well combined as they should have been. Also not good.

 Getting Ready to Cook
 When I tasted my pasta dish I understood why she mixed the just cooked pasta with heavy cream. It cuts the acidity of the tomatoes. I could have used more cream. And in my opinion the tomato sauce could have used a little seasoning instead of being used straight from the bottle. It was my mistake. I should have tasted the sugo before I added it to the pasta.

Another thing I found very clever was her advice to only cook the pasta for 2 minutes instead of the 9 minutes called for on the package. She says on the video that the reason she does this is because the pasta will cook in the sugo, and it does. So now that I know better, I’m sure the next time I make this dish it will turn out just fine.

 My Version of Pennoni Rigati alla Pizzaiola
Another recipe of hers I like is oven roasted leg of lamb with potatoes Here she uses parmigiano, tomatoes and the basil, celery and parsley, (this must be where I got the idea to mix parsley in with the basil) mix it all together to season the lamb and the potatoes. It’s Lesson No. 23 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLKLq5-UOZg) if you want to watch the video.

You’ll find all of Nonna Stella’s videos on Youtube.com. Even though they are in Italian I think you can follow what she’s doing. Just make sure you get the Nonna Stella from Bari and not the Nonna Stella with the agriturismo in Tuscany.

It's Fashion Week in Milan. For the latest in news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

19 September 2010

LIFE: Where's That Chicken With the Map

SARONNO, Italy - It’s such a simple thing. Even chickens can get to the other side. But in Italy crossing the street is easier said than done.

As Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini points out in his book “Italians in Italy”, Italians think obedience is boring. They want to be the ones who decide whether or not a particular law applies to their situation. A red light is the perfect example. While in other parts of the world a red light means stop, here in Italy it is an opportunity to reflect on what kind of red light it is. Is it a pedestrian red? If it is, and at this hour there are no pedestrians, why bother stopping? Is it a red at an intersection? If you can see in every direction and there are no cars coming, no reason to stop here either.

I finally learned that pedestrians have to apply the same rules of the road when crossing them. Each situation has to be evaluated. For me, trying to get across the street in front of the white marble “wedding cake” monument to Victor Emmanuel II at the end of the Via del Corso in Rome was a nightmare.

I could never muster up the nerve to cross by myself. With cars zooming around the piazza and taxis swerving in and out of lanes, I would stand there terrified waiting for other people, preferably nuns or ladies with babies. After all I reasoned, this is Rome, the Pope lives here, they wouldn’t run over a nun would they? And with all the fuss they make about Italian mammas, I felt pretty safe with them as well. But even with my selected entourage I would scoot across to the other side as fast as I could, my heart in my mouth.

Happy Tourists Waiting to Do the Deed

But now that I have learned the secret of street crossing, I have a great deal of sympathy for my guests when I take them firmly by the arm as we are approaching a street. I hear them gasping as I step them off the curb right into oncoming traffic, and sometimes it is difficult to keep them from bolting across the street. But one of the secrets is to just walk at a normal pace, not to hurry and not to look to the left or the right. And when we do get to the other side of the street my guests always pull away from my grip and say: “Are you are trying to kill me?” Honestly, I’m not. It just looks that way.

One of the major difficulties with crossing streets in Italy is getting used to the fact that the cars are not going to stop, they go around you. Some may slow down, others may not, but it doesn’t change anything. Your part of this drama is to just keep walking.

Even the Ex-Prime Minister of Italy (the guy in the middle) Does It

If you are going to try this on your own, here’s what you have to remember:

 Rule One: Crossing the street in Italy is a lot like skipping rope with two friends. With your friends turning the rope, you have to gauge the exact time to jump in, otherwise it doesn’t work. It is exactly the same with street crossing. Do not step out in front of a car that is going too fast to react to you stepping out in front of it.

Rule Two: Once you start across the street, keep a steady pace. Drivers are adjusting their speed in direct relationship to how fast or slow they see you going. If you suddenly speed up or slow down you throw them off and your chance of being hit increases substantially. So calm and steady is the rule. Keep in mind that the traffic is not going to come to a full stop and allow you to cross. The cars will slow down so you can pass in front of them, or they will go around you if traffic allows.

Rule Three: Don’t look at the oncoming cars. Let them look at you. They will do just about anything and everything, including drive up on the sidewalk, to avoid hitting you. This is a truth you have to know in your heart for it takes courage to step off the curb and into oncoming traffic, it’s a little like a bull fighter entering the ring sans sword.

My Mama Always Told Me To Look Both Ways

Now I'm having second thoughts about advising you to step out into traffic. Maybe it's not such a good idea after all. Maybe it's the kind of thing you have to ease into instead of jump into, I'm not sure. Anyway the pictures in this video is worth more than a thousand words. In this video a young American couple is trying to put some logic to road crossing rules. The old guy you see at the end of the video is obviously Italian, maybe it's a gene thing.

Can you tell who is Italian in this video is and who isn’t? Warning: the music is horrible.

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

16 September 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: And a Good Ragu' to You Too

SARONNO, Italy - Now that summer is over I’m starting to think about cooking real food again and I happened to mention to my neighbor that I was thinking about making a fresh tomato sugo. She looked at me and said, “you mean   salsa, don’t you?”

Fresh from the farm tomatoes 

The whole idea of salsa and sugo has always confused me, but according to my neighbor salsa is sauce, like mayonnaise or Béarnaise, and sugo is juice. Which is all fine, but if that is true how come you put salsa al pomodoro on pasta but you would be run out of town if you poured tomato juice on pasta? She didn’t know the answer to that. “Some things just are,” she said.

In his cookbook “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” (1891), Pellegrino Artusi wrote that a sugo di pomodoro (tomato sauce) is made from tomatoes that are simply cooked and run through a food mill. At the most, he says, you can add a small rib of celery and a few parsley and basil leaves. Salsa, he claims, is made to accompany food like the salsa verde (green sauce) often served with boiled meat and the mayonnaise and salsa tonnata (tuna sauce) most often used in veal tonnata, both very popular dishes in Torino and in my house.

Yummy Pene all' Arrabbiata

To add to the confusion, there is also ragu'. Technically ragu' is a meat based sauce, and while sugo and salsa are often used interchangeably, sugo seems to be reserved for pasta.

In looking up ragu' recipes on the internet, there were a couple of things they all had in common. One is that they were all made with meat and two: they all required a very long cooking time, often up to six hours. And then I tuned into Nonna ed Io, (Grandma and Me) and watched Chef Adriana Montellanico teach Adriano Rosa, who in my opinion is not her grandson although I may be wrong, how to make ragu'.

Chef Adriana Montellanico and Adriano Rosa

There were a few things she did that surprised me. The first was after she chopped and cooked her soffrito, which is a mix of celery, onions and carrots, she set it aside. Then, in another pan, she began cooking her meat, which was chopped beef. If she added a little bit of olive oil to the pan before she started cooking the beef, I didn’t see it. When the beef was browned, she added the soffrito and mixed it into the meat. Then she added:
- about ¾ of a cup of white wine
- a couple of whole cloves
- and a bay leaf

In the meantime, the (fake) grandson put a can of whole tomatoes into a food processor and whizzed them. When they were almost smooth she added them to the meat mix, along with a few basil leaves, saying that the sauce/sugo now had to cook for at least a couple of hours.

 Italian Tomatoes

I had never heard of cooking the soffrito separately and adding it to the meat after the meat was cooked. I always cooked my meat in the soffrito. Another thing that surprised me was the idea of putting a couple of whole cloves and a bay leaf in tomato sauce, errr, sugo, and adding white wine. I always used red wine, but I was wrong about that. Italians do use white wine in tomato sauce, not red. But where was the garlic? Where was the oregano? I always thought those two ingredients were the backbone of the meat sauce, but I guess I am wrong again.

There were literally hundreds of sugo recipes on the internet, using all kinds of meat including lamb, duck, pork, veal, pancetta (bacon) and, of course, beef. Some recipes called for adding sugar to the sauce, others did not. I think it depends on how sweet your tomatoes are. And some recipes called for a few tablespoons of tomato paste, something my Grandmother always did. And she always used pieces of beef and pork, but Chef Adriana used plain old ground beef with no sugar, no tomato paste, no oregano and no garlic. Her (fake) grandson said it smelled yummy, so once again I end up more confused than when I started.


12 September 2010


This is another 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 are in Italy, and while most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track, this month’s article is on Milan, not small and definitely on track.

MILAN, Italy - The very fabric of Milan is Valentino red, Armani black and Versace gold. And as the glam models strut their stuff down the Milan fashion runways during Fashion Week, they keep the Made in Italy label on the front cover of every fashion magazine in the world. And even after Fashion Week is over and the designers have packed their collections away, the city rocks.

La Scala Opera House 

Milan is slick and snazzy and marches to the beat of a different drummer. It’s not like any other city in Italy, especially not the ones that are so absorbed with their past. No no, it’s nothing like them at all. This northern metropolis lives with one foot in the here and now, and the other foot in the future. It’s about art, it’s about design, it’s about fashion. Oh yes, above all it is about fashion.

Apart from a taxi, the best way to get around is on one of the orange trams that criss-cross the city. Board one going up Via Manzoni heading for super chic Via Montenapoleone, and chances are you’ll find yourself sitting next to the editor of an international fashion magazine or the marketing director for Prada or Dolce and Gabbana. Morning traffic is intense. Vespas zoom in and out, taxis honk and drivers stick their heads out car windows and mutter to themselves. What’s the hold up? . Everyone is in a hurry. No strolling allowed.

Milan is not an easy city to visit and it’s no wonder many first time visitors are disappointed. It is big, confusing and difficult to find your way around. Plus the city has a strange look about it. Yes, the massive Duomo is breathtaking. Topped with a crown of two thousand and two marble statues and a brilliant gilded statue of the Madonna, few visitors realize it is Italy’s second largest cathedral. Only the Vatican is bigger.

Milan's Cathedral

Yes, the Sforza castle is amazing. A thousand years of history right in the center of town, surrounded by a moat complete with drawbridges - but no water of course.

Sforza Castle

Yes, the Galleria’s soaring iron and glass arches were soaring years before Mr. Eiffel built his tower in Paris, imagine that! And every great Italian composer since the 18th century has composed for La Scala opera house. But alas the overall impression is of a city of drab, gray buildings, and not much more. For me, understanding the reason why, seems to make it less so.

The Galleria

If you turn the clock back to the years right after World War II, you find a Milan in shambles. The city suffered heavy bombing, and entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. When the dust finally settled, the massive job of reconstruction began. It was the intense need to rebuild in a hurry and get the city working again that gives Milan its strange look. Ultra modern, sleek angular buildings that were simple to design and quick to construct, sit next to ornate 17th and 18th century beauties disturbing the visual continuity.

“Is the city old or new,” visitors ask. Is it in the past, or in the here and now?
The answer is both, at least architecturally speaking. But for the rest, Milan has always been in the here and now. As soon as the war ended and the textile mills that dominated the small towns around Milan were up and running again, textile salesmen were off for New York. They soon realized that in addition to the American appetite for Italian fabrics, there was also a budding interest in Italian clothes.

Within a relatively short period of time Gucci, Pucci and Valentino became household names. Gone were the days when Italian women cut photos out of French fashion magazines and took them to their seamstresses to duplicate. Italian fashion had arrived. The Made in Italy label was successfully launched and on its way to the moon.

Click for a tourists view of Milan
Traders on the Milan stock market follow the fashion shows and the design trade shows. Milan’s financial newspapers run special fashion sections each week, and Milan is home to an international news service dedicated solely to the fashion industry. Who’s lunching with Krizia and who’s having dinner with Donatella are not just items for the gossip mill, but serious industry indicators.

In the spring and fall, when the city gears up for the all-important twice-a-year fashion shows, the trams and subways are crowded with tall, leggy models, male and female, carrying large black portfolios. They make the rounds of the booking offices, anxious to see if they are good enough to walk down Armani’s runway, or if they’re to be relegated to working the show rooms.

When they have an half an hour free, you will find them standing in awe in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which is in the Refectory of the church of Santa Maria della Grazie. There is more da Vinci at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the world’s first public library, and still more at the Pinacoteca di Brera, a world class museum in a 16th century palazzo. And oh yes, there’s also the Museo della Scienze e della Tecnica, where you’ll find models based on Leonardo’s original sketches. When they are not on the da Vinci trail, they haunt the shops for gifts to bring to the folks back home.

“Who pays these prices,” an American on his first visit to Milan once asked me, “I can get the same things cheaper back home”. And he is right. There are no shopping bargains here and he is not the first to be taken aback at just how expensive a plain navy blue sweater can be. Too bad he wasn’t going to be in town long enough to see the long lines that form in front of Prada, or Ferragamo when the sales are on. He would have been amazed the way the big designer names draw shoppers from around the world. So many in fact that many designer boutiques have started following Gucci’s policy of limiting the number of items an individual shopper can buy.

Shopping in Milan

Soon after I moved to Milan I discovered that while the tourists head for the Armani store on Via Manzoni, or the chic shops on Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga, and the other the streets of Milan’s famous Golden Shopping Quad, locals head for Brera, a small neighborhood behind the La Scala opera house.

Some of the narrow cobblestone streets in Brera, like Via Fiori Chiara, are pedestrian only and on weekends, fortunetellers set up their tables in the middle of street ready to gaze into their crystal balls, or let the Tarot cards tell your fortune. Not in the winter, of course.

Brera has always been a commercial area, harkening back to the days when the ladies of the night sat bare breasted in the windows of the houses plying the oldest trade in the world. Milan’s antique row is here, as are art and photo galleries, trendy boutiques, bars, restaurants, all very in and very arty, and very Milan. The prices may not be any better than those on Via Montenapoleone, but the goods are offbeat and one of a kind, just like Milan.

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

09 September 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Restaurants of Turin

CHIAVARI, Italy - There is no doubt in my mind that Turin has some of the best restaurants in Italy. After all, Piedmonte is the home of the Slow Food movement, so food is very much on everyone's mind. If you are lucky enough to be there this summer  here are some of the city's best restaurants and their specialties, and Chef Roberto Donna’s favorite Piedmontese dishes. But more about him later, let’s start with the restaurants first.

 Piazza San Carlo, Turin


Via Corte d’Appello 13
Tel: 011 436 2288
Closed Saturday afternoons and Sundays
Price: Euros 36/44

In the heart of the historic center, the restaurant’s cantina is built over tunnels which were used as secret passages (infernotti) by the Italians in the days when Turin, and most of northern Italy, was occupied by Napoleon and his troops.

Savoia Specialties: pappardelle noodles with river shrimp and bitter greens, filet of venison served on a polenta square with a cream of radicchio, and cardoon flan with fonduta. Savoia Restaurant is one of the participants in the annual spring chocolate festival, when they offer a special chocolate based menu.

Pappardelle with Fresh Tomatoes
Tre Galline
Via Bellezia, 37
Tel 011 436 6553
Closed Sunday afternoons, Mondays and two weeks in January and three weeks in August
Price: 28/42 euros

In a 16th century palace in the heart of the historic center, Riccard DeGiuli owns and runs this historic restaurant. The restaurant was named Tre Galline, Three Chickens, after an open air poultry market that was across the street when the first Tre Galline locanda opened in this location in the mid 1700’s.

Tre Galline Specialties: Agnolotti, a type of ravioli; bollito misto; fritto misto,deep fried bits of veal, beef, liver, brains, sweetbreads and vegetables, sometimes called fricia in Piedmontese dialect.
Traditional dishes are offered throughout the week: mix of roasted meats on Mondays and Tuesdays, bollito misto Wednesday through Saturday, fritto misto on Fridays and bagna caộda on Saturdays.

 Tre Galline Restaurant
Montagna Viva
Piazza Emanuele Filiberto 3/A
Telephone: 011 5217 882
 Price: 25/44

This down home restaurant is such a good idea you have to wonder why no one ever thought of it before. The restaurant is run by a group of local farmers and food producers, and as Master cheese taster Renato Biegi explained “some of us make cheese, others make salami, grow beef cattle, rice, fruits and vegetables, produce wine and grappa, make olive oil, honey and marmalades, all natural biological products. What we’ve done is bring the farm to the city.” The dining room looks like a farmhouse kitchen; terra cotta floor tiles, red checked tablecloths cover rustic tables.

Montagna Viva Specialties: The menu is what you would expect if you were invited to have Sunday lunch on Zia Rosa’s farm: homemade pasta flavored with home grown tomatoes and fragrant mountain herbs, veal stew or roast rabbit with oven potatoes, grilled Piedmont beef, and a large selection of cheeses. Desserts are all homemade and, like the rest of the menu, are based on what is in season.

 Risotto Made with Rice From Local Rice Fields
 Del Cambio Piazza Carignano, 2
Closed Sundays and three weeks in August
Price: 130/150

Founded in 1757 as a coffee house, this is one of the most historic restaurants in Italy. It is certainly one of the few that still has an in-house pastry chef, actually two, who turn out hot bread sticks (grissini were created in Turin), and pastries daily.

Two stories beneath the glittering red velvet benches and gold damask drapes, frescoes of cavorting cherubs and massive crystal chandeliers, there is a 680 bottle cantina, each type of wine held at the perfect temperature in its own section. There is even a special room for champagne.

The King of Italy and Italy's first Prime Minister used to meet here to discuss the affairs of the day. If the Prime Minister wasn't available, the King would come alone. The restaurant is within walking distance of the Royal Palace and across the street from the first Parliment building.

Del Cambio Specialties: Traditional Piedmontese dishes, veal tonnato, Barolo braised beef and mixed deep fried meats, are served every day, but savvy Turinese know that Del Cambio only serves bollito misto on Thursdays, just as it has done for hundreds of years.

 Corner Table at Del Cambio

And now for a few suggestions:
Chef Donna, a native of Tunin, is the author of Cooking in Piedmont, and the winner of many prestigious culinary awards. For more information about this chef check out his web site http://www.robertodonna.com/robertodonna/

“When I was growing up in Turin,” says Chef Roberto Donna of Washington D.C.’s four star Galileo Restaurant, “my two favorite foods were ravioli del plin and the chocolate and hazelnut cream pudding called bonet. My list is a lot longer now and I try to include some of my favorites in the food I serve in my restaurants.”

Here’s his list of dishes visitors to Turin should not pass up.

Acciughe al verde, anchovies served with basil and parsley pesto spiked with hot peppers
Vitello tonnato, razor thin slices of rare roasted veal served with a rich tuna sauce. This is most often thought of as a summer dish, but when the weather outside is frightful, the sauce is served warm.
Fonduta, made from fontina di Aosta, butter, egg yolks, milk and white truffles from Alba.

Taglierini al rosso d’uovo – rich egg noodles, (12 egg yolks to each pound of flour), served with butter and truffle shavings, or sometimes with a sauce of butter, oil, onions, tomatoes, and finely chopped chicken livers
Raviolini del plin – tiny ravioli may be offered with a creamy cheese sauce (fonduta) or a reduced veal stock, or even served in broth. The sauce depends   on what they are filled with.

Main courses
Brasato al Barolo – the classic Piedmont beef slow cooked in rich red Barolo wine
Bollito misto – a mix of boiled meats traditionally served with three piquant sauces
Fritto misto – a mix of flash fried bits of meat, fish and vegetables. The mix is made up of whatever is fresh in the marketplace that day.

Bonet – the Chef’s favorite chocolate and hazelnut cream pudding
Nocciolini di Chiavasso – a tiny cookie made of toasted hazelnuts, sugar and egg whites, traditionally served with a zabaglione sauce. These cookies were originally called “noisettes”, which is the French word for nuts, but the name was changed during Mussolini’s reign in the 1930’s.
Torta gianduia – chocolate cake with chocolate and hazelnut cream filling and frosting.

05 September 2010

LIFE: It's All About the Va Va Varoom

MONZA, Italy – As summer draws to a gentle end lush pink roses nod their heavy heads in the afternoon sun. Leafy trees sway in the gentle breeze cooling those trying to squeeze a few more hours of weekend from the lazy afternoon. It’s Sunday. In the great, green park of Monza the roads are closed to traffic. The only wheels on the hot macadam are foot powered; Dad slowly pedaling down the shady lanes, Mom right behind him, one eye over her shoulder making sure the kiddies are keeping up. They want to enjoy the tranquility while it lasts for the park will soon reverberate with the roar of high powered engines and the running of the Formula 1 Gran Premio San’tander d’Italia 2010.

Sunday in the Park

There is no question that Formula One is the king of motor sports. It's also the richest, most passionate, most complicated, most political, and most international racing championship in the world. And Monza, one of the most historic racing circuits on the Formula One calendar, is the most severe test a Formula 1 engine can encounter.

When the first Italian Grand Prix was held in 1921, but before the race could be run the organizers, the Auto Club of Brescia, had to get permission from the Fascist government. The course ran from the northern Italian town of Brescia down to Rome and back again, over 1,000 miles of Italian roads good, bad and indifferent, through dangerous mountain passes and mucky swamps. It was called the Mille Miglia. The race started in Brescia at 9 PM. The cars were flagged off at one minute intervals with the smaller, slower cars leaving first. Each car was numbered, the numbers representing their starting time.

The Good Ol' Days
The strategy was simple. Drive as fast as you can for as long as you can, for this was a race against the clock. If you were lucky you would finish with the leaders, if you weren’t, you ended up in a ditch somewhere along a winding mountain road. And all along the way, from the industrial towns of the Po Valley to the ancient villages that still cling to the ragged slopes of the Apennine Mountains, people gathered to cheer for their favorites, the roads often so narrow spectators were standing just inches from the speeding cars.

"In my opinion, the Mille Miglia was an epoch-making event…. The Miglia created our cars and the Italian automobile industry. It permitted the birth of GT, or grand touring cars, which are now sold all over the world … and proved that by racing over open roads for 1,000 miles, there were great technical lessons to be learned by the petrol and oil companies and by brake, clutch, transmission, electrical and lighting component manufacturers, fully justifying the old adage that motor racing improves the breed." ...Enzo Ferrari

1933 Mille Miglia
No one remembers the winner of that first race anymore, but just for the curious it was a 1921 OM, built by an Italian company that is no longer in     business. The company may not have survived, but the race made history, and it was the success of that race that spurned the Automobile Club of Milan to build the track at Monza.

The Monza race track first opened on a rainy September day in 1922. But don’t let its age fool you. It’s still one of the fastest tracks in Europe, a track built for speed, with Formula One cars routinely exceeding 360kmh/223 mph. But it isn’t always the speed of the cars that makes the race dangerous. This was especially true during the early years of F1 racing. During the 1958 Grand Prix, Ferrari driver Luigi Musso had to be brought to the first aid station several times during the race. 
He was getting dizzy and sick to his stomach from inhaling the gas fumes coming from his car. Unlike today, where drivers can talk directly to their crews, drivers in the 1950’s had to use hand signals to communicate. A twirling finger meant the driver was about to spin out, a motion like ocean waves signaled that the car wasn’t holding the road, and a thumbs up meant that there was something wrong with the motor. But what the signal was for I’m about to pass out from the fumes, is anyone’s guess.

Ferrari with top drivers Luigi Musso, Eugenio Castelloitti and Peter Collins

Right after World War I, Enzo Ferrari was hired by Isotta-Fraschini to drive their Tipo I 8 liter in-line 4-cylinder race car. Isotta-Fraschini, was one of Italy's first legendary luxury car companies and pioneered innovations like four-wheel brakes that were first used in 1920, and the Single OverHead Cam (SOHC) eight-cylinder engine. All admirable achievements but Ferrari found himself sitting in front of the gas tank, which in turn shared the space with a 40 liter oil tank, which was needed to lubricate the Tipo 4 cylinder engine and rear wheel drive chains. The air pump was located on the left of the passenger seat which provided pressure to keep oil and fuel flowing. A mechanic was always brought along for the ride, for someone had to operate the air pump.

Ferrari’s driving career didn’t last very long; he soon realized he didn’t have the nerve it takes to make a good driver. Nothing to be sad about though. If Ferrari had been a good driver, the Ferrari Scuderia would have never seen the light of day depriving hard core Ferrari fans the bone chilling thrills of watching a sleek red Ferrari win yet another race.

And speaking of Ferrari fans, they'll will be out in force again this year, waving red Ferrari flags with its prancing black stallion, wearing Ferrari tee shirts and caps, and cheering for this year’s Ferrari F1 drivers. And so on this Sunday afternoon, as locals stroll along the shady paths of the park, eating ice cream and enjoying the day, and bikers take pleasure in being the kings of the road, they know that today’s tranquility will soon be only a memory for on September 10th, more than 100,000 hard core Formula One racing fans will take over the park of Monza. After paying up to $3,852 for a three-day pass, you’d better believe will be making a lot of joyful noise as they wait for the starting flag to drop and that first great roar of the engines.

Race Date: 12 Sept. 2010
Number of Laps: 53
Circuit Length: 5.793 km
Race Distance: 306.720 km

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02 September 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Turin's Culinary Gold

TURIN, Italy – With the sky still an early morning pink, crates of dark green artichokes, yellow pears and fragrant fennel are stacked wily nily, cluttering the streets as fruit and vegetable vendors at Turin’s great food market, Porta Palazzo set up their market stalls for the day. Nearby, brawny butchers in white coats and blood stained aprons, pull large beef hindquarters and pork carcasses from the back of rumbling refrigerated trucks and hang them on large hooks behind their counters in the immense glass and wrought iron market building.

Porto Palazzo Market

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 these 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.

Just ask Turin native Chef Roberto Donna of Washington, D.C.’s four-star Galileo restaurant (more about Chef Donna in the March 11, 2010 Auntie Pasta: Bruciolo) He knows first-hand how creative the chefs in his hometown can be. He’ll also 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, no one is ever really surprised when first time visitors can barely keep from swooning at the dinner table.

The Vast Selection Boggles the Mind
In part it’s the luck of the location. Turin is in the extreme northwest corner of Italy, in the province of Piedmont. But while Piedmont, home of the Slow Food movement, has become a Mecca for food lovers, Turin seems to hover below the radar line. As gourmands track elusive white truffles in Alba and frolic through the vineyards of Montferrato, the tables of Turin are largely ignored.

Turinese cuisine is not like the food in any other part of Italy. For one, chefs tend to reach for butter and lard rather than olive oil. Olive oil has only been used in local cooking since the 1950’s, brought north by southerners who immigrated to Turin to work in the automobile industry. And more than in any other part of Italy, local dishes incorporate a variety of savory sauces.

Truffles Big and Small, Black and White
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 cookbook, ‘Cooking in Piedmont’, he presents 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 cauda –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 liberally showered over just about everything.

Ravioli del Plin

In a traditional Italian meal, appetizers are followed by a primo, usually pasta. Two of Turin’s most popular 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) often served with a reduced veal stock and a 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’ll find rich and creamy risotto, riso all piemontese, rice served with meat sauce, and riso e ceci, a rice and chick pea dish on menus. Other non-pasta choices are chestnut flour gnocchi served with a fonduta di Castelmagno (Castelmagno is a town southwest of Turin that is famous for its cheese), or 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.

Bollito Misto

The city’s signature dish is bollito misto, a mix of boiled meats served with three sauces: bagnet verd, a parsley sauce spiced up with anchovy, garlic and olive oil; bagnet ross, crushed tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers, and saussa d’avije, a 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. tongue, tail and dangly bits, but today the more exotic dangly bits are slowly being eased out. On the menu at least once a week in most Turin restaurants, the boiled meat dish is served from a rolling stainless steel cart, each meat kept warm in its own broth filled compartment, and you can ask for the meats that you want.

Other classics 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 menu, along with beef and veal, free range poultry and freshly caught fish instead of fish farm fish.

Elegant Dining in Turin

In a country where no culinary rock has been left unturned, it’s nice to know that there is still a small corner where you can find new taste experiences. The food in Turin may just change the way you look at Italian food forever.

In next week’s Auntie Pasta post you’ll find a preview of what’s on the menu at some of Turin’s restaurants, and some insider tips by Chef Donna as to the best Turinese dishes to try.

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