28 July 2013

LIFE: The Fairest of the Fairs

CHIAVARI, Italy – This past weekend Chiavari hosted the 156th Tigullio Fair. The fair was made up of artists and artisans of every type, including sculptors, painters, those who work with mosaics, those who create the designs in the piazzas using black and white cobblestones, people who make macrame’, lace, silk and velvet, transform blank walls into works of art using the ancient technique of trompe l’oeil, those who paint on silk, on porcelain, pottery makers, and even those who make the Chiavari chair, the number one product that put Chiavari on the map. And more.
 Raoul Cuneo' Castillo and Cinzia Caloma
The more included people who run small workshops making everything from boats to children’s clothing. It reminded me of the days before business became big business and everyone knew the town shoemaker, the dressmaker, the carpenter, and the guy who could fix your roof or shoe your horse.

 Cookie Maker
Italy has always been a country of small businesses, family owned, antique traditions handed down from father to son, generation after generation. And that included farmers and wine makers as well as those who produced olive oil.  

 I Miei Bijoux by Elena Augelli
The fair itself is a long-held local tradition. It was organized by the Economic Society of Chiavari, which was founded on April 15, 1791 by a local Marquis and a group of nobles and businessmen. The sole purpose of the organization is to promote and protect the culture, economic activities, art, education and environment of Chiavari. The Society is nonpartisan and does not favor or discriminate against any political party, religious, social or school of thought. That is straight from their web site and I must say, I’m impressed.

 La Buccia by Magdalena Mirca
I met some pretty amazing people at the fair, including a woman who makes children’s clothing, another who makes jewelry, one who makes handbags and yet another who makes wedding dresses – all handmade, all Italian and all top quality goods.  I didn’t have a chance to talk to the boat maker, but it looked to me that the boat on display was the type used to teach kids how to sail. This is a land of sailors, after all, and just about every town along the sea offers sailing courses for kids during the summer. The small boats are called ottimisti, or optimists, which is the most perfect name for them, as all the kids are optimistic at this stage of the game.  
 The Famous Chiavari Chair
Most of the time I get caught up by the food end of things and I confess this time was no different. The local products of this area are olive oil, wine and pesto, so of course there were a number of stands selling those products, but there was also a cookie maker and a few farmers selling fresh produce. And, oh, I almost forgot the fashion shows and cooking demonstrations, concerts and encounters with local writers. It was enough to tucker a girl out. 

 The Optimist
I'm sorry to say wasn't able to talk to everyone or get their name, but I wanted you to see them, or at least their product anyway. I'll try to do better next year. 

Vallelunga Cerimonie
I didn’t know what to expect from the fair, somewhere in the back of my mind were visions of guys selling slicer/dicer/cabbage shredders and miracle knives that can cut through steel, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was more like a ‘getting to know you’ party, with people happy to talk about how they spend their days producing things we actually need and use. It was nice.


25 July 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Besto Pesto Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy – Big doings in Chiavari last weekend, it was one party and event after another from Friday until Tuesday, none stop from morning till night. I confess I am all tuckered out. One of the most important events, at least from Auntie Pasta’s point of view, was the qualifying event for the upcoming Genova Pesto World Championship sponsored by the Palatafini Organization.
 2012 Pesto Championship Finalists
The Chiavari competition took place over a two day period with lots of contestants, all vying to see if they were good enough to move onto the next level. And then on Sunday – drum roll please – we had a winner: Pietro Bartalini of Chiavari.

 Pietro Bartalini
Make no mistake, this is the World Cup of Pesto and it is a very big deal for pesto lovers, which includes just about everyone in Liguria.  But not only. As I write this, people around the world are competing in local competitions just like Signor Bartalini did. He will be one of the final 100 chefs, professional and amateur, who will  complete in the sixth Genova Pesto World Championship that will be held at the Dodge’s Palace in Genoa on 29 March, 2014.

Last year Sergio Muto, an Italian chef who lives and works in Germany was crowned World Champion. Runners-up included a Norwegian woman, a French consultant and a Russian businessman. And a few years before that, Danny Bowien, a young Korean-American chef from San Francisco won the coveted title. Danny later confessed that he had a secret weapon, his executive chef, Paolo Loboa, whose family is Genovese. It was Chef Loboa who taught him how to make pesto, not just any pesto but the secret Laboa family pesto recipe that had been handed down from generation to generation of Laboa women, starting with the chef’s great-grandmother.

 The Pressure is On
The rules of the pesto competition are simple. Competitors, young and old,  have 40 minutes to prepare their recipes, all using the same ingredients and the same technique, i.e. pounding the bejeebers out of them. Pounding is what pesto is all about as the word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound, even in the sense of being beaten up.  
 The Judges
Since all the competitors use the same ingredients and the same techniques, you’d think they would all come up with the same taste, but the truth is most pesto makers claim to have “secret” techniques, so technically no two cups of pesto are ever the same. And there is a difference. Some pestos do taste better than others. I always thought it was the quality of the oil and  quantity of the cheese used, but if everyone is using the same ingredients, it must be some other kind of pesto voodoo. 

 A Little Basil, a Little Cheese, a Few Drops of Oil  . . . . and Magic Happens
If you’re thinking what’s the big deal, how hard can it be, here’s the official competition recipe for you to try. Who knows, you may be winning pesto maker too.

World Cup Pesto Recipe

4 bunches (60-70 grams) of fresh PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) Genovese basil
30 grams of pine nuts (2 tablespoons)
445-460 grams of Parmesan cheese,(a little less than 2 cups to – 2 full cups)
20-40 grams Fiore Sardo cheese (Pecorino Sardo) (4+ teaspoons – 3 tablespoons))
1-2 garlic cloves from Vassalico (Imperia)
10 grams coarse salt (Kosher salt) (2 teasp.)
60-80 cc PDO extra-virgin olive oil from the Italian Riviera (4 tablespoons – 5 1/2 tablespoons).


Marble mortar and wooden pestle are the traditional tools used to make pesto.

Wash the basil leaves in cold water and dry them in a kitchen towel, but do not rub them.

In a mortar, finely crush the garlic cloves and pine nuts until they are smooth. Add a few grains of salt and the basil leaves. Then pound the mixture using a light circular motion of the pestle against the sides of the mortar.

When a bright green liquid starts to ooze from the basil leaves, add the Parmesan cheese and the Fiore Sardinian cheese.

Pour in a thin layer of PDO extra-virgin olive oil to blend the ingredients   
Work as quickly as possible to avoid oxidation of the leaves.

It's best to use your pesto right away but you can keep it in the refrigerator for a few days if you float a little oil on top of it, or put it in the freezer. I freeze mine in small cups and just defrost what I’m going to use, and just as a by-the-way, it is better to let it defrost at room temperature than zap it in the microwave because pesto should never be heated.

Photos Courtesy of Associazione Palatifini www.pestochampionship.it

21 July 2013

LIFE: Notable Noto Redux

CHIAVARI, ITALY – There is something about Sicily that makes me break out in adjective-itis. Words like fanciful, fantastic and extraordinary seem to pop up out of nowhere and take up residence in almost every sentence I write about the place.
 Noto, Piazza Duomo
Take Noto for example. Strictly speaking it’s just another small town on a island full of small towns, but unlike my adjective heavy sentences that are forgotten as soon as they are read, there is something about the place that sneaks in and takes up residence in your soul.

It may have something to do with all those baroque nymphs, mermaids, lions, trolls and other mythical creatures that look down at you as you walk along the streets.

 A Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Balcony in Noto
Or it may be the way the town glows in the late afternoon as the sun slowly sets in the west, reflecting off of the soft limestone buildings. I don’t know. My only consolation is that I’m not alone in my unabashed admiration for things Sicilian, and Noto in particular. It seems to affect everyone who comes here.

“Go to Noto,” wrote the Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino, “it is a place where if one happens to come in, he is trapped and happy and never goes away.”

Bufalino was right. The danger is real.

 Via Nicolaci
The day I got to Noto, artists were on their hands in knees on Via Corrado Nicolaci, putting down the outlines for the various sections of a brilliant tableau of flowers.  Via Nicolaci is one of the prettiest streets in town, rising gently from Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Under the watchful eyes of the grotesque gargoyles that decorate the balconies of the elegant baroque buildings that line the street, artists were following patterns that resemble the canvases in paint-by-number kits. There was an aura of excitement in the air as the town prepared for the annual spring Infiorata, a week-long celebration of concerts, handicraft fairs, parades and special events.

The Noto we see today is a relatively new town, at least new by Italian standards. The original town, Noto Antica, is about ten miles away, up on a nearby hill. In 1693 Noto Antica was completely destroyed by an earthquake, and rather than rebuild over the damaged site, the survivors decided to try their luck elsewhere.

Earthquakes are a problem in this part in Sicily. In 1990, a minor earthquake caused a wing of Noto’s Jesuit College building to collapse, and a few months later cornices from building facades began to tumble to the ground. But the most tragic event of all happened in 1996 when the roof of the 18th century Cathedral of St. Nicholas fell into the nave, leaving a gaping hole and exposing the treasures within to the elements.

 Cathedral of Noto
I remember standing in the Cathedral shortly after it happened, looking up at the lions, winged horses, allegorical putti, bizarre Hellenic demons and grotesque stone masks that make up the interior. Pained faces frozen in time and space staring out at me through eerie, hollow eyes, as if to say, do something.

The roof is repaired now but it took more than ten years of plowing through bureaucratic paperwork and complicated maneuvers through the world of Italian and Sicilian politics. In the meantime, as the roof waited, Noto was added to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites. At least the world appreciates its treasures, and that’s good, don’t you think?

18 July 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Restaurants of Turin Redux

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 in Turin this summer here are some of the city's best restaurants and their specialties. To give you a short introduction to the food of Turin I’ve included some suggestions by a Turinese D.O.C., Chef Roberto Donna, and a list of his favorite Piedmontese dishes. But more about him later, let’s start with the restaurants first.
 Piazza San Carlo, Turin, Italy
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.
 Agnolotti alla Piedmontese
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 Restaurant
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.

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. 

 Corner Table at Del Cambio

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 Parliament 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.

And now for a few suggestions:

 Award Winning Chef, Roberto Donna
Chef Donna is a native of Turin and owner of Washington D.C.’s four star Galileo Restaurant and several other DC restaurants. He is also 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, 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.