The Lazzaroni Link  “My Italian Cookie Connection”

 

The handsome red and orange Lazzaroni Amaretti di Saronno tin is perhaps the most recognizable packaging of any foodstuff in Italy and from the first time I saw one on the shelves of a specialty market I was fascinated.  It was bold.  It was handsome. It caught my eye. Since then I have used the distinctive bittersweet flavored cookies for countless recipes including the crust of a ricotta cheesecake I made even before I opened my Italian market; crushed and sprinkled over my favorite peach ice cream served at my North Shore home during a summer dinner party; and even as an unexpected finish to a risotto dish we served at my downtown Chicago Convito in the 80s.  And like almost everyone who has bought these cookies, I have also re-used the tin to hold any number of items from dried pasta to office supplies.   So imagine my delight when I was actually introduced to Dottore Luigi Lazzaroni – the reigning patriarch of the Lazzaroni family – himself.

 

 

It was January 1985.  I was having dinner with my dear friend Roberta Lai at Conoviano, a chic Milanese restaurant owned by Eugenio Medalgiani.  I had  previously met Eugenio at his restaurant supply house, but tonight was different. Coming over to our table after we finished our meal, Signore Medalgiani inquired about how the gelato dishes I purchased from him were working out at my new Chicago Convito.  He also asked if he could introduce us to a friend of his who had joined him for dinner that evening.  “You might carry his products,” he said.

A tall, elegant, aristocratic gentleman made his way to our table, pulled up a chair to join us and introduced himself as Luigi Lazzaroni.  “THE Luigi Lazzaroni?” I inquired.   I was thrilled to meet someone with the famous Lazzaroni name, a name of biscotti fame that dates back to the late eighteen hundreds. “Of course I carry Lazzaroni products”, I exclaimed.  “I have been using them for years – even before I opened my Italian market.”

After getting past what I’m sure was my profuse “gushing”, we had a very lively conversation about a whole variety of things – Eugenio’s desire to elevate Italian cuisine (he is the head of the cook’s association in Italy), my new Italian market and restaurant in Chicago and Luigi’s famous company.  I had a million questions about his products.  When it was time to say goodbye, Luigi insisted that Roberta and I visit his factory in Saronno the following week after I returned from a scheduled trip to Liguria.  We happily accepted the invitation promising to phone one another to make final arrangements.

Little did I know that this purely accidental meeting would be the beginning of a friendship that would last until Luigi’s death in 2012 as well as a close and enduring connection to the extended Lazzaroni family- a connection that survives to this day.

The next morning Paolo Volpara – my business partner – and I left for San Remo, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Liguria. Our trip, however, was cut short by the horrific and now famous 1985 snowstorm that paralyzed many parts of Italy. Horrendous driving conditions added hours to our journey back to Milan.  [my blog Liguria II: “Expect the Unexpected” tells the story in detail]  Streets became impassable. Airports and train stations were closed.  Milan surrendered.  So naturally I assumed my visit to Saronno would be canceled, but since our hotel phones no longer worked I couldn’t know for sure.  Amazingly, at the appointed hour, Sig. Lazzaroni’s driver appeared at the front desk of my hotel and the game was on!  With snow chains fitted to the tires of his vehicle, he drove Roberta and I through the deserted streets of Milan, slipping, sliding and bumping our way to meet Luigi Lazzaroni in Saronno some 28 scary kilometers away.

Breathing a sign of relief, we happily arrived safely in Saronno and met Luigi in his award-filled office.  Before we began our factory tour, Luigi insisted on learning more about my business.  Compared to his company, which was established in 1888 our five-year old business seemed embarrassingly insignificant, but nonetheless I outlined the details of Convito’s 1980 founding and brought him up to the present with both our Wilmette business and the 1984 opening of a new and larger Convito market and restaurant in Chicago.  He was gracious and complimentary, both a true gentleman and a smart businessman.

Luigi’s factory tour began with a journey through a labyrinth of huge vats of butter, oil, eggs and flour.  The ingredients in each tub were automatically piped into central locations to be mixed then baked into various kinds of biscotti.   White-jacketed men and women diligently supervised the highways of steadily moving assembly lines all covered with sheets of pastry that were eventually cut or formed into different shapes and fed into large ovens that would bake them to perfection.  The smell was heavenly.  Luigi tasted a biscotti every now and then and encouraged us to do the same.  What a thrill – we were literally eating a Lazzaroni biscotti hot off the assembly line.  The final destination was the packing area where each type of biscotti was wrapped and boxed in handsome cardboard boxes or in the famous, classy Lazzaroni tins.

 

Nancy with one of the plant managers during tour of the Lazzaroni factory #9

 

Saving the best for last, Luigi led us to another area of the factory, which made what he referred to as a “proper” Amaretti, the most famous of the Lazzaroni products.  I was surprised to learn these flagship biscotti  are made with only three ingredients – sugar, apricot kernels and egg whites.  The aroma of the freshly baked Amaretti filled the air with an almond-like scent.  After completely cooled, the Amaretti were wrapped in pairs in the iconic lightweight green, blue or red patterned paper.

Luigi related the – now legendary – story about the “lighting of the wrappers” – a tradition, which dates back to before he was born. No one is certain of its origin but after an Amaretti is consumed, the wrapper is twisted into a long cylinder, placed on a plate and the top is lit. The wrapper will burn down to the end and then whoosh the skeleton of the paper will gently waft into the air with no trace of the paper left.  The tradition dictates that as the paper is lit, a wish must be made and the higher the paper floats into the air, the more likely the wish will come true.  I have always loved the ritual and never missed a chance to help nudge my wishes along their path to fruition.

Amaretti

Our tour concluded with a stop in the impressive (and huge) computerized storage area, after which we adjourned for lunch to the Lazzagrill, a Lazzaroni market and café, a short drive away.  I had been to this market before with Paolo on our way back from a trip to Switzerland and had purchased many beautiful Lazzaroni tins, but this time being here in the company of one of the owners felt somewhat surreal.

Luigi’s son Mario and his brother Paolo had joined us for lunch, appearing handsome and aristocratic as seemed to be the case with the whole Lazzaroni family. I always felt like I was in the company of Italian aristocracy when I was invited to a Lazzaroni table!

We enjoyed a simple pasta lunch and discussed the Lazzaroni business. There had been a recent split – biscotti and liqueur. The biscuit branch (the D. Lazzaroni & Co.) was sold to an American multinational firm and Paolo kept the liqueur arm of the company “Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli”.

At this point I was very familiar with the biscotti side of the Lazzaroni empire, but less so of their liquor business.  Over lunch the Lazzaoni’s explained the process by which the Amaretto liqueur is made.  The secret formula was created in 1851.  I was amazed to learn that the recipe calls for an infusion of their famous Amaretti di Saronno biscotti.  “So Lazzaroni Amaretto is the only ‘liquid cookie’ that has ever existed,” Paolo pointed out. Of course, we had to sample the Amaretto after learning all that interesting information so Paolo ordered ice cream for dessert, which arrived with the liqueur drizzled on top and sprinkled with crushed Amaretti.  It was delicious!

It is a refreshing and simple dessert.  I also love to add sautéed Amaretto soaked peaches when the fruit is in season.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Sautéed Amaretto Peaches
Serve over 6 dishes of ice cream

2 peaches, halved then pitted, then sliced into thick wedges
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup Amaretto liqueur
½ cup brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the Amaretto and the brown sugar.  Cook and stir until the sugar has melted and the mixture comes to a boil.

Place the peach wedges in a baking dish and baste with the sauce. Bake for 5 minutes.  Peaches should be somewhat soft.  Cool then slice and put onto the ice cream.

Drizzle with Amaretto liqueur and sprinkle with crumbled Amaretti biscotti.

 

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Luigi invited us back to his “house”, a 15thCentury monastery, for a coffee.  We walked through a charming courtyard to Luigi’s half of the monastery (Paolo and his family shared the other half.)  A warm fire greeted us burning on one side of a huge fireplace in a room with high ceilings and wooden beans, old creaking wooden floors and rustic antiques and collections everywhere.  It was magnificent yet strangely not at all pretentious – definitely a home.  After coffee by the fire served in delicate demitasse cups, we said our goodbyes and walked to the train with Mario to go back to Milan.  Mario was going to be in Chicago in one week working at the A.C. Nielson Company so I invited him to stay with me for a few days and promised to introduce him to some of my Convito employees who were of a similar age.

Karen Brussat Butler painting in Luigi Lazzaroni’s den with Luigi’s son Mario on the right

Soon thereafter I left Italy so inspired that all I could think about was how to possibly show my appreciation to this kind and generous man for the incredibly perfect day he provided for Roberta and I.  After I got home, it wasn’t long before I decided on the appropriate gift – one of the watercolors my sister had painted for our first Convito – Karen Brussat Butler’s painting of three whimsical onlookers admiring the Amaretti di Saronno tin, which was in the center of the painting.  As difficult as it was to part with the painting, I carefully wrapped it and shipped it to Saronno.  Luigi telexed me immediately to tell me that Karen’s painting was now hanging on a wall in his den and that he could not have been more thrilled.

 

 

 

 

After my exceptional day in Saronno with memories of Amaretti still on my mind, I was inspired to make something using these tasty “cookies”.  I chose a risotto dish using crumbled Amaretti as a finishing touch.  The recipe was based on a risotto I had at a Milanese restaurant – an autumn risotto with butternut squash and sage. I thought the sweet nutty taste of the butternut squash topped with crumbled Amaretti was a lovely combination.  It was – and is!

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Risotto with Butternut Squash, Sage & Amaretti
(Serves 6)

1-pound butternut squash
4 sage leaves
1-cup chicken broth
Salt & freshly ground pepper

Peel the squash.  Dice it into ½ inch cubes.  Place the cubed squash, 4 sage leaves, the chicken broth, salt and pepper into a heavy bottom pot.  Cook over medium heat until tender but not too soft – approximately 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

5 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
1-tablespoon olive oil
9 sage leaves – 3 chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt & freshly ground pepper
6 to 8 Amaretti biscotti crumbled

In a saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a steady simmer.  Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat.  Add the chopped sage and sauté cook for 1 minute. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until soft.  Add the rice and stir until coated.  Add the wine and stir until absorbed.  Begin adding the simmer broth ½ cup at a time. Continue stir-cooking always making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and yet not adding too much broth at a time.  This process should be done over medium heat.  (approximate cooking time is 30 minutes)

At the same time gently fry the remaining 6 sage leaves in a little olive oil until crisp.  Drain on a paper towel and set aside.

About 20 minutes into the process, add the butternut squash and stir into the rice.  Continue adding broth.  The rice is done when it is firm but tender.  You may need more broth or if you run out, use hot water.

When you estimate the dish is a few minutes away from being done, turn off the heat.  Add the Parmesan, stirring in to the rice.  You may want to add another tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve on individual plates or bowls topped with the crumbled Amaretti and a fried sage leaf.

 

I returned to Saronno many times over the years, including two more factory tours. It is always interesting and each visit reveals something new – a detail or nuance I had not noticed during my prior visit.  The history and culture enveloped within their compound will always fascinate and amaze me and I feel very lucky to count the Lazzaroni family as friends.

Early on in this friendship I recognized that both Luigi and I had many things in common besides our love of his family’s biscotti.  It was apparent in visiting his home that we both had inherited the “collector” gene.  For both of us, art represented one of those collections – art in all periods and styles.  My own particular love of art began in college with my very first acquisition of a watercolor painted by my sister Karen. Eventually – and when I could afford it – I began to collect all periods; everything from 19thcentury British landscapes, to abstract modern oils and of course many more of my sister’s watercolors.  It appeared that Luigi’s taste in art was as eclectic as mine.  His home reflected that diversity and his interest in art and artists was quite deep.  He even opened a three-room art gallery for an artist friend, which he installed in a street side section of the monastery.

 

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After enjoying and admiring the whimsical watercolor of the Amaretti tin that I had sent him, Luigi was most anxious to meet the artist who created it, so in 1988 when my sister Karen and I were in Milan for the last leg of our Italian journey, he decided to hold a party in her honor at his home in Saronno.  Karen remembers the night as quite an “international affair” with the guests standing around in intimate circles all engaged in animated conversation about a wide variety of topics; current events, travel, fashion and especially art.  At least three languages were spoken – mostly Italian but also a smattering of French interspersed with English translations for Karen and I.   The guests included Luigi’s lovely daughter Gwenda, his handsome younger son Giulio, his beautiful wife Pucci, restaurateur Eugenio Medalgiani, a woman affiliated with the House of Krizia, a most sophisticated woman from Venice and a funny businessman who provided many a laugh that evening – to name just a few.  We were entranced!

It was that evening I also discovered that Luigi’s friends called him Gigi not Luigi.  Although he invited me to do the same – which I did occasionally – I mostly reverted back to his more formal name Luigi, the name I had come to know him by from our first meeting.

Luigi gave Karen a tour of his home commenting on the art and pointing out the many paintings of biscotti that he had commissioned from various artist friends over the years.  We then settled in for a delicious 5-course meal including two pastas, a fish course, Beef Wellington and gelato.  After returning to the U.S. Karen decided to add a painting to Luigi’s collection of biscotti art naming her contribution “The Six Stages of Growing Biscuits”.  The idea came from “The Six Stages of Wine Tasting”, a series she had painted for our wine list (blog – Lombardia IV “An Education in Wine Tasting”). Again Luigi was thrilled to receive Karen’s playful interpretation of how biscotti are made.

 

“The Six Stages of Growing Biscuits” – a painting by Karen Brussat Butler

 

Collecting for Luigi – and for me as a matter of fact, extended beyond collecting art.  It was quite clear from my first visit that Luigi was an extraordinary and dedicated collector of many things.  You couldn’t enter his home without noticing that fact.  During a 1989 trip to Italy with my friend, the late (great!) Leslee Reis (award winning Evanston chef/restaurateur) we were invited to stay the night at Luigi’s home.  Leslee was somewhat of a collector herself so, of course, she was most anxious to meet Luigi and view the collections she had heard so much about. She was also fascinated with the whole psychology of collecting.

 Arriving in Saronno after a two-week journey through Friuli and Veneto, we were ushered into his living room by the housekeeper to await Luigi’s arrival.  His collections were everywhere – a basket of marble, crystal and china eggs, a cupboard filled with antique toy trucks, a shelf overflowing with duck decoys, an array of dressing table mirrors in the upstairs room I was to stay in – not to mention his amazing collection of antique cars – real ones stored in a large garage in the monastery complex.  Luigi finally arrived “gracefully sweeping into the room”, as Leslee would later describe him in her travel journal, “like the claimant to the throne of Norway”.

After warm greetings, introductions and a brief catching up, Leslee began to ask a barrage of questions about the amazing collections displayed all around the room.  She was especially interested in an assortment of old corkscrews lying on an antique oak table.  “What was your reason for collecting these?” she asked.  “History,” Luigi answered.  “Some date back to the beginning of bottling wine.  They tell a story!  All collections tell some kind of story,”

 

Luigi and Leslee discussing “collecting” in his courtyard.

“Nancy and I are also collectors”, Leslee stated. “Although not on this scale! Does that mean we all have obsessive personalities – that something is missing deep down inside?” she asked laughingly.  After a long “collector’s mentality” conversation we all concluded that at least for the three of us, much of our reason for collecting was wrapped up in the actual “hunt”, the thrill of discovery.  And as for me, my reasons are mostly tied up in the exercise of “savoring memories” – reminders of past good times.  I still love to review each piece in every collection I have and recollect the place where I discovered it and the people I had been with during that discovery.   It’s a combination of nostalgia and celebration.

Before we left for dinner that night to the nearby town of Como situated on Lake Como, Luigi wanted to show us the gardens of the monastery.  They were enchanting – complete with several fountains, a swimming pool, an assortment of statues and even an aviary with quail and thrush twittering about.

The next morning the occupants of that aviary awakened us with a lovely chorus of mixed bird tweets reminding us that it was time to get up and get on the road.  We met for a quick coffee – and biscuits, of course – served with a delicious local honey and blackberry preserves and an equally quick tour of the newly restored church of the monastery – a project the Lazzaroni family had helped to fund.

Once again upon my return to the U.S. the Amaretti biscuit and Amaretto liqueur served as an inspiration for some new recipes. This time is was Leslee’s turn. She decided to give Convito her rice tart recipe made with Amaretto liqueur.

 

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Caramelized Rice Torte

recipe by Lesee Rice

 

Giulio with Candace and friends at our house in Glencoe

After being welcomed in Luigi’s home so often over the years I was always thrilled when I could welcome him to Chicago.  Both sons, Mario and Giulio visited my Glencoe home – Mario in the eighties and Giulio in the nineties. After I moved to Chicago, Luigi visited several times – once with his son Guilio using my Chicago townhouse as his headquarters when I was away on a trip to the east coast.

 

During one of his visits we dined at my French bistro Betise and discovered that our ”art connection” went even deeper than we realized.   Much of the ambience of my restaurants comes from the art I have purchased.  Many were my sister’s watercolors, some were by other artists I had commissioned and some were whimsical mixed media photographs from my son-in-law, Rob Warner.  Luigi was especially interested in the drawings and painting from a contest I had sponsored at the local high school.  He too had sponsored art contests and commissioned artists to do paintings for him – recently paintings of half moons (mezzaluna) for the newly opened restaurant Mezzaluna, which was housed in his Albergo della Rotonda in Saronno opened in 1992.

 

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Sesto Calende painting Karen Butler painted after our stay at Lazzaroni home of the little village where we had our morning coffee

My very last visit with Luigi was in 1999 when friends and family stayed with me at his lake home near Lago Maggiore in the small village of Oriano Ticino.  The house and the location were perfect and a great starting point for travels to visit winemaker friends in both Piemonte and the Veneto.  Luigi and his wife Pucci came over our first night in residence to give us the lay of the land – nearby restaurant recommendations, top sights and activities in the area and the name of a close by village – Seste Calende – which they highly recommended for a morning coffee and the ideal way to begin the day.

Luigi and Pucci showing us the “lay of the land” during our stay at their lake home

Our host could not have been more helpful during our stay – he and Pucci treated us to dinner at a local restaurant the first night then later in the week took us on a motorboat ride on gorgeous Lago Maggiore (see blog Lake District II Lago Maggiore – One Grand Package”) to the Borromeo islands secretly arranging to have tea with his friends, the actual residents of the palace – the Borromeo royalty.  It was quite magical – and regal – to say the least!

boat trip with Luigi & Pucci on Lago Maggiore

 

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Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in the Alps situated between Switzerland and Italy (Piemonte and Aosta Valley) was the location of my last adventure with Luigi.  He wanted to share this stunning area of Italy with us – an area which brought back so many memories of his childhood – mostly times with his mother during what he referred as his “coming of age” camping trip.  He picked us up in Oriano and escorted our group of eight from Lombardia to Piemonte to the very base of this huge ice-covered massif.  Most of the group decided to take the chair lift up the mountain with Luigi while those of us with a slight case of vertigo (especially me), remained behind enjoying the view and the crisp mountain air while comfortably sipping on a cappuccino – both feet firmly planted on the ground.

Monte Rosa in the background with Luigi and group

 

We ended our journey with a stop at one of Luigi’s favorite cafés to have what he described as the “best cup of chocolate” in the world.  It was heavenly but we all agreed that it was more like chocolate pudding than hot cocoa.  The spoon could almost stand up in the cup all on it’s own!  However, it was a warm and very sweet note on which to end our trip up the mountain as well as our visit with Luigi – though I did not know it then, this would be the very last time I would ever see him.

When I read the news in 2012 that Luigi had died, I was not only distressed personally but also saddened that the world had lost such a creative and inspirational spirit.  His intelligence and generosity had enriched my life in so many ways and even though I had not seen him in many years we corresponded frequently.  We also kept abreast of the latest Lazaronni family news during our annual trip to the Fancy Food Show in New York City stopping at the Lazzaroni booth to chat with Luigi’s brother Paolo.

It was during these shows that we first met Paolo’s son Luca –yet another striking Lazzaroni.   Luca is the other half of Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli – 7th and 8th generation members of the family who run the company.   Although the liqueur business still operates under the Lazzaroni trademark, the biscuit, panettone and bakery division operates with the Chiostro di Saronno trademark, which now includes many of the products from the original company as well as many new items.  Candace and I were especially interested in their new line of panettones which are an incredibly popular holiday item at Convito.  Everything from the original Milanese recipe to Sambuca and Coffee to Limoncello and many different fruit combinations like Pear and Chocolate and Fig and Chocolate all come packaged in the classic handsome Lazzaroni style.

Luca and Candace began corresponding through email about the best way for Convito to order all these wonderful new products, but it wasn’t until they met in person when the details (and perhaps a next generation friendship) truly began. Luca visited us at Convito during one of his business trips to Chicago and it was on then when the Lazzaroni panettones became officially entrenched as Convito’s flagship holiday product.

We continue to see Paolo and Luca from time to time; once for dinner in the Village in New York after a long day at the Fancy Food show and again with my whole family on the way to our rented villa on Lake Garda when Paolo and Luca treated us all to a lovely breakfast at their Saronno home. (blog Veneto III “Food, Family and Traditions”)

 

Luca and Candace in the Saronno archive room

 

I continue to be inspired by this little cookie. Both the Amaretti cookie and the Amaretto liqueur are delicious all on their own but they make great additions to many different dishes – both sweet and savory.  Following is a recent recipe created for our café menu – bacon wrapped pork tenderloin using the Lazzaroni Amaretto liqueur.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Honey & Amaretto
(Serves 4)

 

10 slices bacon
1 pork tenderloin (1 pound) trimmed
salt & pepper
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons Amaretto

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Lay the bacon next to one another on a flat surface slightly overlapping each piece.  If 10 bacon slices are not long enough to wrap the pork, use more.

Season the pork with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in an ovenproof skillet over high heat.

Sear the pork on all sides until nicely browned.

Place the pork on the bacon slices and wrap around the pork finishing with the seam side down.

Transfer back into the skillets.

Brush honey all over then drizzle with the Amaretto

Roast for 20 to 25 minutes basting several times with the pan juices

Remove from oven and baste again.

Let rest for 5 minutes then slices into 8 slices and serve 2 slices per person.

Note:  This pork tenderloin delicious served with the risotto with butternut squash (above) or the peach and almond risotto (below).

 

Risotto with Peach & Almonds

Make risotto recipe above without the squash and sage but instead use the below 3 ingredients:

Flesh of 3 yellow, ripe peaches, cut into cubes (approximately 3 ½ cups)
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup blanched slivered almonds

Add the peaches, basil and almonds at the end of the risotto cooking time – approximately 10 minutes before it is done.  You don’t want the peaches to disintegrate and lose their flavor by adding them too soon.

 

It is impossible for me to sell or taste a Lazzaroni product without thinking back to that cold January evening when I first met Luigi .  It was truly the beginning of so many things – a rewarding business connection, a friendship that brought other Lazzaroni family and friends into my life and many years of great adventures, interesting conversations and – always – those cookies which burrowed their way into my creative psyche, always begging to be used in yet another sweet (or savory!) dish.

As times goes on my appreciation of the Lazzaroni business has only deepened.   Beyond just their award-winning products, I have come to understand the value of this family’s kindness and generosity – qualities that are absolutely critical to the longevity of both a friendship, as well as a business.  That extraordinary friendship has added a dimension to my Italian travels and to my life that I would not have experienced had Luigi not sat down at my dining table all those many years ago.  I am indebted to the Lazaronni’s for this friendship, for their products, and for the model of graciousness and kindness which I have aspired to emulate in my own stores and restaurants here in the United States.

My family with Paolo and Luca Lazaronni at their Saronno Monstery in 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lombardia V – “A Tourist of a Different Sort”

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I began my journeys in Italy as a tourist, but a tourist of a different sort.  Rather than trying to check off every major city (Rome, Milan, Venice…), the celebrated landmarks (the Colluseum, the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza San Marco…) and all the culinary highlights (Roman Carbonara, Neopolitan pizza, Ligurian pesto, Amalfi coast seafood…) my goal instead was to embrace and absorb the uniqueness this country had to offer from a regional perspective.  Yes, I eventually wanted to have all those bucket-list Italian experiences, but more important to me was finding the places, the people and the moments that were truer to what I considered to be “real” Italy.  I wanted to personally encounter Italy from the point of view of the people who lived there every day.

First I acquainted myself with its canvas.  Rural Italy is as varied as all of the rest of Europe combined.  It is a country where majestic ice-capped mountains descend into romantic, rolling vine-clad hills with sprawling marshes only a few miles away in the lower altitudes and swaths of wheat and corn fields lacing their way through the flatter parts of the country.  It is a place where steep dramatic cliffs and soft sandy beaches dominate the Adriatic coastline, while on the opposite side of the country the Mediterranean coast is lined with some of the most inviting and stunningly beautiful resorts in the world.  The urban parts of Italy hold completely different treasures.  Its charming villages, seaside towns and bustling cities are filled with a multitude of museums, cathedrals, town centers, picturesque piazzas, monuments and artistic treasures that make each region unique and worthy of a visit.

And I intended to see them all.

 

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Most tourists pay for pre-arranged tours or invest in piles of guidebooks.  They then consume those experiences as fast as they can in order to quickly move on to the next one so they can maximize their time spent abroad. I’ve been guilty of that travel philosophy before, and while you do get to cross a lot of things off your list, what you miss is the opportunity to really engage in the culture of wherever it is you are visiting.    When it came to Italy though…I got lucky. My guide was a real live Italian, Paolo Volpara, my friend and business partner, who was steeped in the culture and traditions of most of Italy’s twenty diverse regions.

Consequently, my role as tourist quickly morphed into that of full-fledged student.  Italy became my thesis project.  I immersed myself in all aspects of Italian regional exploration, essential I believed to the authenticity I wanted to bring to my Italian café and market.   It was an intellectual pursuit not matched since my university days spent with lectures, classes, reading assignments and copious note-taking dominating my waking hours.  However, this was a syllabus that was much more fun: international travel, road trips in vintage Italian sports cars, time spent with Italian people of all stripes and the best food and wine Italy had to offer.  I had always loved my time in school, but it was hard to beat this real world seminar on all things Italian.

Primary instructors in that pursuit were my two partners Paolo Volpara and his mother Wanda Bottino.  Wanda assumed the role of culinary mentor.  Not only was she an excellent cook, but also she was extremely knowledgeable about the culinary history of each region.  Her military husband and engineer father took her to many parts of Italy where she had the good fortune to experience firsthand the great diversity of her country’s cuisine.  Her tiny Milanese kitchen was our classroom where we cooked, chatted and ate our way through iconic meals of each region, sometimes cooking up to fifteen dishes during one session.  It was the most comprehensive and totally unique (not to mention delicious) curriculum of any class I have ever taken.

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Wanda and Nancy in Milan

On the days we weren’t cooking, we visited food and wine markets.  Product display was especially interesting to me and Italy’s international reputation for originality and excellence in architecture, interior design, and fashion made even the smallest shop or the most mundane product the canvas for some of the most inspiring packaging and displays I had ever seen.  Most impressive was the sophisticated minimalism that I found so frequently.

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Milan store window

I was always amazed at how nothing but a paper-thin white tissue, half-wrapped around a panini or a few sprigs of rosemary strategically placed on a platter of glistening pork sausages could by their very simplicity, elevate those products to works of arts.

 

Cooking and shopping with Wanda was a hoot. She spoke minimal English and my Berlitz Italian was of the “il cane sotto il tavolo” (the dog is under the table) variety.  But somehow we got along famously and despite the language barrier seemed to understand one another perfectly.  Not only was she a fabulous cook and teacher, but her sense of humor and fearlessness brought me to places and people that I otherwise would not have gone.   She arranged meetings with many local culinary bigwigs – Pasticceria Biffi (the famous panettone makers) and Peck (Milan’s temple of Gastronomical delights) among them.   When our meetings were conducted in English, all was fine since most of the gentlemen we met with spoke better English than my Italian.  But when on occasion we met with someone who did not speak English, the meetings became quite comical mainly because Wanda decided she would translate what our host was saying.  Since she didn’t speak English but decided momentarily that she did, the dialogue became quite mystifying (not to mention hysterical), confusing everyone in the room.  Those are the times I remember most fondly.  She had such a big heart and was determined that one way or another I was going to learn as much of culinary Italy as possible under her tutelage.  And I did.

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Paolo in Villa d’Este on Lake Como instructing Nancy about the history of this beautiful hotel

My other instructor, Paolo, was quite different.   His classroom was conducted in whatever village, city or country road we happened upon in our travels.   His subject matter ranged from impossibly detailed background on Italian history to my favorite subject, the myths, legends and (supposed) origins of the food we were eating and the wine we were drinking.  Far-fetched as many seemed, they always added flavor, intrigue and a good laugh to our journey – and confirmed the fact that Italians really are the very best storytellers.  Paolo in particular! He loved to embellish as well as tease me, so it was incumbent upon me to sort out the facts from the embellishments.  I was not always successful, but that is part of what makes my Italian history uniquely mine and I choose to keep it that way!

 

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Some regions like Calabria and Puglia I traveled to only once, so those stays were usually very intense, the line between student and tourist intertwined as we crammed in as many sights and ate at as many regional restaurants as possible in whatever time we had allotted to those visits in order to experience the variety a region had to offer in one trip.  I’ve always believed there is something to embrace about travelling outside of your comfort zone: unfamiliarity stimulates the brain.  And each new region did just that.

But new sights and sounds in abundance can be exhausting, so Lombardia – and its capital Milan – became my comfort zone.  Milan was the resident city of my two partners so I traveled there as many as five or six times a year in the early eighties.  Because Paolo and I were always going from or coming back to Milan on our regional journeys, I got to know Lombardia quite well by driving through its countryside and many of its little towns as we traveled to other parts of this great country.

Milan became my second home, a place to relax in-between visits to new regions.  I got to know its nooks and crannies, its many layers.  I did not always need a pencil and paper in hand to jot down the details of whatever new food, sight or tradition I had just learned. It felt good to just kick back and enjoy the experience – a new role for me in my Italian journeys.

Other levels of discovery are frequently made once a place feels like home.  Eventually Milan’s most popular districts became as familiar to me as my Chicago neighborhood, so I began to expand my horizons and wander through lesser-known quarters.  It was during these boundless meanderings that I tripped upon many of the little shops, cafes and trattorias that helped me know that Milan was becoming my own personal city.  Sant’ Ambrogio with its charming old houses was a favorite area of exploration.  Many examples of Art Nouveau, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century movement so much a part of Milan’s history and a favorite period of mine, were laced throughout the narrow winding streets of this district.  Coming across an ornate stained glass door or a wrought iron gate with flowing designs of animals and birds was always a thrill and felt like my own personal discovery.

Meru, a little gem of a jewelry store, was another find.  I had never seen such interesting and unique jewelry – especially their signature necklaces and earrings created from the remolding of antique pieces.

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Fornasetti tray

And what can I say about the small Fornasetti shop I came across one day on my way to Paolo’s office?  It became a favorite haunt.   Piero Fornasetti, the Italian painter, sculptor and interior decorator is considered one of the wittiest and most imaginative design artists of the 20thcentury.  At the time I discovered this little shop (which is now much larger) he was still alive and living in Milan.  I loved all of his whimsical home décor – but especially his trays and tableware.  Fornasetti died in 1988 but his influence and sense of play endures to this day.  His pieces can be found in many department stores and shops around the world, as well as in my own collection.

 

 

I also made other kinds of discoveries during these solitary strolls.  Often they were little out-of-the-way trattorias or cafes where I could just sit by myself and enjoy a delicious panini or a bowl of pasta and a few moments of reflection.  Alone is when I do my best thinking, or steeping as I referred to it in an earlier blog.  I clearly remember one particular lunch when I brainstormed (with myself) about an appetizer I wanted to serve at an upcoming event.  The American Institute of Wine and Food had asked Convito to participate in the opening night of their upcoming Chicago conference.  The event was to take place at the Four Seasons hotel.

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Convito’s table at Four Seasons displaying our polenta squares

Each participating restaurant was to provide a signature appetizer for 400 people; displayed and served at their own station.  I had three requirements in mind for Convito’s contribution. For both ease of transporting and serving I wanted them to be room temperature and already assembled.  The third requirement was that the appetizer must clearly represent Italy as an Italian would recognize it.  I didn’t want to serve the usual bruschetta or mini pizzas that I had previously provided for other events and that – though delicious – were more of an American take on traditional Italian fare.  Instead I wanted something new – maybe a reinterpretation of Italian ingredients.   So after considerable thought I came up with an idea of a room-temperature polenta appetizer.

Convito’s savory little squares that were made with polenta, cheese, tomato and basil were the result of that “brainstorming” lunch.  They remain on our catering menu to this day.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Polenta Squares with Goat Cheese
on a Fornasetti tray
(Makes approximately 66 squares)

 

2 cups milk
2 cups water
1 ½ cups cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
1-teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
8 ounces goat cheese
8 ounces cream cheese
22 cherry tomatoes, sliced into thin round, seeds removed
15 basil leaves, finely julienned

 

Bring the milk, water, butter, salt & pepper to a boil in a heavy bottomed stockpot.

When boiling, slowly add the polenta whisking constantly until it is thick and begins to boil.

Remove from pot, spread onto a greased ½ sheet tray (12×17) and bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes

Remove from oven and cool completely

While cooling, combine the goat cheese and cream cheese in a bowl with a mixer

Mix until creamy and smooth.

Spread the cheese evenly on top of the cooled polenta

Cut into 2 x 2 inch squares and garnish each square with 1 cherry tomato round slice then sprinkle with julienned basil and a drop of olive oil

 

Innominato (in Italian it means ‘Without a Name’) was a restaurant I came to know well.  Close to Paolo’s agency in the Brera district, it had become a hangout for company employees; for a business lunch, a relaxing after-work aperitivo or a cozy dinner with friends or fellow employees.   It didn’t aspire to be the quintessential Lombardian restaurant nor was it was aiming for a Michelin star or seeking an award for its wine list.  Rather Innominato was a low-key, casual kind of place – a place where the wait staff was friendly and welcoming, where the food was good typical Italian fare (at times leaning toward the trendy) and where the ambiance was designed to make guests feel comfortable no matter the reason for their dining; a romantic dinner, a quiet business meeting or some kind of celebration.

I loved going there. Not as a tourist.  Not as a student.  But to simply enjoy the experience as a true Italian might.

I usually ordered pasta.  But occasionally I would order one of their many versions of carpaccio.  Although not a new dish by Italian standards (it was invented in the 1950’s by Giuseppe Cipriani from Harry’s Bar in Venice) it is a dish now considered a part of the Italian culinary vernacular.  I like the original which is served with a simple drizzle of Dijon mustard sauce, but the one I love the most was Innominato’s version: hand-sliced beef drizzled with extra virgin olive oil then sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and arugula.

Carpaccio Scottato is another dish I enjoyed at this restaurant – especially as a second course on a warm summer night.  It is thin slices of raw beef seared in the oven ever so slightly.   Only the edges are browned.  Below is a version with sautéed mushrooms, a little rosemary and shaved parmesan.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Carpaccio Scottato
(serves 4)

1 (10 ounce) piece beef tenderloin from the tip end of the roast
1-pound cremini mushroom sliced
¼ pound Parmesan shaved
1 ½ teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
olive oil

 

Wrap the tenderloin with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 2 hours.

Then heat a little olive oil in a heavy skillet over high heat.  Remove the beef from the freezer and rub all side with salt and pepper.  Add the beef to the skillet and sear on all sides. Beef should just be barely seared so inside remains rare. Freeze the v=beef until it is almost frozen (about 1 hour).  Remove from the freezer and slice the beef as thinly as possible with a sharp carving knife.

Sauté the mushroom briefly in olive oil.  Set aside.

Heat oven to 400 degrees

Grease a little olive oil on four plates that can go into the oven.  Lay the beef slices onto the four plates and season them with a little salt and freshly ground pepper.  Divide and arrange the mushrooms on each plate.  Sprinkle each with rosemary and shaved parmesan. Drizzle all with a little olive oil.  Place the four dishes into a 400-degree oven for 1 minute.  The meat should only be cooked at the edges.  Serve immediately

 

Regional Lombardia offers as much diversity as its capital. Starting with Valtellina’s snow capped mountains and lush green valleys in the north, down through the sparkling wine producing district of Franciacorta, all the way to the Po Valley with its meandering rivers and fertile plains, this region has am embarrassment of riches.  To top all that, some of the world’s most astoundingly beautiful lakes – Como, Garda, Maggiore and Iseo – lie within partially or completely its borders.  Being from the Midwest I am used to long distances of sameness so it was always astounding that each of these distinctive areas were all a part of the same region.

Many of the little Lombardia towns I visited were stops made just because the occasion arose, with no grand plan or pre-set itinerary.  One time we decided to make a last minute trip to Vigevano, a town not far from Milan, just because we wanted to flee the heat of the city and enjoy a morning coffee in someplace less crowded.  Sitting for hours in its Renaissance portico-lined Piazza Ducale I was certainly aware of the beauty of my surroundings but once again I was not there as a tourist or as a student, I was there to read the Herald Tribune and sip my coffee and just enjoy the experience.   On another occasion – a wintery one – we returned to this historic city for nothing more than a warming aperitivo before driving back to Milan for dinner.   At night the town was transformed.  Lit by a soft glow from the lampposts surrounding the piazza, it was the perfect setting for the classic aperitivo, Compari and Soda, a cocktail invented by Gaspare Campari whose Milanese Caffe Campari is often given credit for creating the world’s first cocktail.

Nancy in Piazza Ducale in Vigevano

Another occasion for a journey outside of Milan was the last minute decision Paolo made to attend the wedding of a daughter of one of his clients.  It was held in Cervesina in the Province of Pavia on the lower Ticino River about 50 miles south of Milan.  Unlike the much more formal ceremonies I was used to, this was the most relaxed wedding I have ever attended. Guests casually ambled into the rustic little chapel – many just several seconds before the bride came down the aisle.  There was much chatting and coming and going throughout the ceremony.  Photographers seemed to outnumber the guests.  Lights flashed constantly.  One photographer leaning down to get a better view, abruptly stood up and cracked his head on the protruding niche that contained the statue of Jesus – a slapstick moment that made me stifle a chuckle for fear of offending the assembled family and friends. In America during a serious wedding ceremony laughter would almost certainly have been frowned on.  But here however, a great roar ran through the congregation including guffaws from the bride and groom who seemed to take much delight in the humor of the moment and made the whole ritual feel kind, familiar and genuinely celebratory.

It was such a happy wedding.  It was what I have always assumed was a typical Italian wedding experience though I’m not sure if it was.  Either way, I do know that I will fondly remember it forever.  We stayed briefly for the reception buffet after the ceremony.  Although we ate very little because of a previously planned dinner engagement, one item I liked in particular was a risotto cake. Wanda had made a version in her kitchen during one of our Lombardia cooking sessions.  It’s a great buffet item because it holds so well.

Risotto is a typical dish of the region and we were smack dab in the middle of risotto territory. Over time growing rice spread to every corner of Italy but it never took on the prominence it does in this region, especially in the area around the Po where the wedding took place.

Today we make risotto cakes for our market. They are great all on their own or served as a side with a veal chop or a piece of chicken.  Also risotto cakes are a good way to use leftover risotto (though who ever has leftover risotto!).

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Spinach Risotto Cakes
(makes 12 cakes)

 

risotto cakes
6 cups cooked rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)*
1 cup grated parmesan
1-cup breadcrumbs
2 cups chopped fresh spinach
4 eggs (2 whole and 2 yolks)
1 tablespoon lemon zest
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
canola oil (enough to cover bottom of a skillet large enough to accommodate 6 of the patties – oil should come up to the middle of the patty)

breading
1-cup breadcrumbs
½ cup grated parmesan

 

Mix the risotto cake ingredients together and shape into balls using ½ cup of the mixed rice. Flatten into patties.

Combine breading ingredients and pour onto medium size plate. Press each patty into the breadcrumb mixture on both sides

Heat the canola oil over medium high heat. Sauté 6 of the cakes sautéing for approximately 2 minutes per side then carefully turning them to cook another 2 minutes. Remove and drain on paper toweling. Cook the next batch of six.

Put all on a baking sheet and bake in a 325-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes.

 

Because the area around the Po – the Oltrepo Pavese (literally meaning “behind the Po”) was in such close proximity to Milan, we returned many times over the years, sometimes just to check out some new trattoria Paolo had heard about in some little town or village he wanted me to see.  Known as the Tuscany of the north, the Oltrepo Pavese offers a wide variety of reasons for coming; medieval villages, beautiful panoramic views, out of the way castles and delicious local wines.

Paolo near the Ticino River in Oltrepo Pavese

“This is one of Italy’s best kept secrets,” said Paolo.  He was right.  I was surprised to learn that this particular district produces more wine than any other Lombardia area including Valtellina and Franciacorta.  Often neglected by wine enthusiast tourists in favor of the more familiar regions of Piemonte and Tuscany, Lombardian vineyards offer many things – incredible panoramic views but also peace, quiet and tranquility especially when compared to those other more popular wine destinations. “Authentic” was Paolo’s word for it and I fully agree.

We continued to visit towns and villages around Milan simply because we had the time and the inclination.  Our explorations were frequently a result of simply passing through a new place upon returning to Milan after a visit to another region. Lecco, a city on the southeastern shore of Lake Como, was one of those stops.  We were on our way back to Milan from our weekend visit to the northern district of Valtellina. Our stomachs told us it was dinnertime.  We chose a restaurant with an outside terrace and sat at a table overlooking the lake just as the sun tucked itself into a torn pocket in the sky.  Old tile-lined roofs framed the walls of the garden around a terrace glistening in the setting sun.  That night I was reminded that one of my favorite colors is terracotta, (the color of Convito’s logo) especially in the evening when the sun begins to slide into the west and the sky turns a dusty, powdery blue.  The contrast of those two colors still takes me back to that time and place; a very good – but unremarkable – restaurant in a town I only visited once, but will never forget.

 

A certain Sunday sadness always accompanies me at the end of a productive and activity-filled weekend and this particular one was no exception.  But of all things, on this day a dog lightened my mood.  People who know me well would probably all say that I am decidedly not a “dog person” but this particular beast was incredible.  He was a large dog with straight white (tending toward blond) hair, a large head and kind, somewhat soulful deep brown eyes.  I learned from his master who was also the owner of the restaurant, that the breed – Great Pyrenees – was considered a livestock guardian dog.   His demeanor, said the restaurant owner, was very gentle and affectionate. He certainly didn’t tend livestock this particular night (then again maybe he did!) but his gentle nature was on full display as he went from table to table – just like a great host should – making sure his guests were happy.  He was definitely the star of the restaurant.

After petting our host who seemed to appreciate every pat, I perused the menu and decided upon a Veal Milanese, a Milanese specialty of breaded and sautéed veal scaloppini.  This dish, however, was a reinterpretation of that classic.  The breaded veal scaloppini was topped with a glistening salad of arugula dressed in lemon and olive oil.  It transformed a somewhat wintery dish into light summer fare. It would not be the last time I saw this item on a menu.   Frequently using breaded chicken instead of veal, it has become a very popular item featured on tratorria and bistro menus throughout America and has become a staple on Convito’s summer menu.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Chicken Paillard with Arugula Salad
(serves 6)

 

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1-cup flour
1-teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
3 large eggs
1 ½ cups breadcrumbs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
arugula for six
12 cherry tomatoes halved
lemon wedges

vinaigrette
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Pound the chicken breasts between 2 pieces of plastic wrap to an even thickness of approximately 1/3 inch thick

Combine flour, salt & pepper in a wide shallow bowl.  Beat eggs in another wide bowl.  In a third bowl combine the breadcrumbs and the cheese.

Coat the chicken on both sides with the flour mixture then dip both sides into the eggs then into the breadcrumb cheese mixture pressing the crumbs into the chicken to adhere.

Heat 1 tablespoon of butter with 1-tablespoon olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat.  Sauté two to three of the chicken breasts 2 to 3 minutes on each side until cooked through.  Add more butter and olive oil and sauté the other 3 chicken breasts.  (Add more butter and olive oil if needed)  Chicken breasts should be golden brown.  Transfer chicken to a baking dish and cover with foil.

Toss the argula with the cherry tomatoes (as many as you like).  Make the vinaigrette whisking the olive oil, lemon juice and Dijon together with the salt and pepper.  Toss with the salad.  Place a mound of salad on each hot chicken breast.  Serve with extra lemon wedges

 

After our dinner, dark threatening clouds soon appeared on the horizon ominously signaling an upcoming summer storm. We ordered a dish of chocolate gelato for dessert thinking we could finish before the rains arrived. No such luck.  Just as the gelato was served, the skies opened producing torrents of rain accompanied by ominous bolts of lightening and loud ear-shattering claps of thunder.  It was very intense and frightening, an end-of-the-world type of storm.  As we raced inside the restaurant amidst the chaos, Paolo shouted “This is not the way I pictured my death – hit by a strike of lightening while eating chocolate gelato!”

As we drove back to Milan after the storm had passed I thought about all the wonderful things I had seen and been a part of in this strong and beautiful region. I felt that I was beginning to get a true sense of Lombardia.  It was a serious region with serious work to do.  Its capital, a global center for finance and fashion, the whole region known for its strong agricultural and industrial presence as well as the amazing diversity and beauty of its landscape made it, in my mind, one of the most incredible regions in all of Italy.

However, as much as I had discovered on my journeys to all four corners of Lombarida, I realized that this region still had much to reveal: little towns I had yet to visit, countryside I had not driven through, wines I had not tasted and monuments and museums worthy of hours and days of observation.  At first this seemed daunting to me.  After so many journeys and so many nights on the road how could I have barely scratched the surface of what I thought was my Italian home turf?  How could I ever truly know this country if there was an impossibly long list of things to visit and explore?  But quickly I realized this was instead a gift.  Because I didn’t want any of this to end.  Yes, Italy was becoming a place where I felt very comfortable.  But it was also still a stranger, one who held innumerable secrets and treasures for someone like me who was willing to invest the time and effort to discover them.

So I would once again make myself a little uncomfortable by rushing headlong into another unfamiliar setting.  With great pleasure, I would again resurrect my role as student researching and reading about whatever little village or museum was on my agenda. But the best thing about coming back to Lombardia was that I could have it all, the tourist role, the student role and the relaxed, kick-back-my-heels role where I was simply hanging around familiar haunts, visiting old friends, and returning to places and people that had been an integral part of my regional exploration.

In other words, I would be coming home.

 

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Abruzzo – “The Last Loose End”

Tying up loose ends has always been a priority with me. This (occasionally) compulsive behavior of mine was especially evident when I opened Convito Italiano – our original name – in 1980. As a first time business owner, I couldn’t believe all the details that demanded my attention before we could open our doors for business. My partner at the time, Colleen Houlahan and I were driving ourselves – and each other – crazy trying to get ready for the big opening party and the arrival of my Italian partner Paolo Volpara and my culinary mentor (and Paolo’s mother) Wanda Bottino. They were coming to Chicago not only to join in the celebration, but also to support us during our first week in operation. Invites were out, a huge tent was rented and plans were in place. But we somehow couldn’t get past the details. There were what seemed like a million loose ends still “hanging” all around us, both to get ready for the party and for the actual opening of our market.

Opening party photo – Paolo and I with VIP – our banker

One day while sitting in our tiny office taking a break from all those details – hooking up the phone, training the staff, getting insurance, ordering all the food, stocking the shelves, etc – I put my head in my hands and said to no one in particular, “My god, life is a series of loose ends – except (taking a deep breath) for the knot in my stomach!”   Colleen laughed at that somewhat over-the-top-declaration, as did my husband at the time, Bob. And because he so liked the metaphor, he later submitted it to Life Magazine’s annual “quotes catalogue” delivered at the beginning of each year to Life magazine subscribers. The calendar contained quotes about life for each day of the year. Mine made the cut and sits indelibly in Life’s 1983 Calendar right next to a quote from Nietzsche (“Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?”) Hmmmm…was there some sort of message there?

 

Colleen stocking shelf with wholesaler Bob Rubinelli and I looking on

Years later, I found myself wrapped up in yet another situation where I felt compelled to tie up a loose end, this time regarding my research and travel to Italy. Convito had been open for six years now and all the while I had been travelling back and forth to Italy trying to understand the vastness of this country’s culinary tradition by visiting each and every region. Six years into this project and Abruzzo was now the only region I had not explored. I clearly needed to change that!

Background and research have always been important to me in that understanding the basics tends to give me a conceptual structure on which to build and create. It is certainly possible to open an Italian market in America without having visited all of Italy’s 20 regions, but to understand the how and why regional cuisine developed and to absorb it first hand was a priority for me. It was the process through which I gained the confidence to go beyond simply copying Italian cuisine, but interpreting it and giving it my own signature. And I was lucky enough to have quite a few Italian colleagues and friends who were happy to assist me in accomplishing that goal.

My dear friend Roberta Lai (formerly one of Paolo’s associates in his advertising agency) volunteered to help me tie up the loose end of completing this final regional visit and would escort me to Abruzzo.   So one beautiful October morning in 1986 Roberta picked me up (along with my then-partner Colleen) at our hotel in Rome to begin our journey to region number twenty.

 

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Abruzzo is divided into a mountainous area to the west and southwest (the Apennine Mountains) and a coastal area (the Adriatic Sea) to the east.   Our destination was L’Aquila – the capital of Abruzzo – approximately a two-hour drive east of Rome. As we entered the region, I was struck by a uniquely soft grey palate that I hadn’t seen before in Italy. The colli (hills) were rocky and rugged though not particularly steep. As we traveled further into the region, the color green began to assert itself, first in the moss that began to cover the grey rocks and then in the trees and shrubbery that spread over the increasingly mountainous landscape.  Roberta explained that national parks and nature reserves take up almost one third of the Abruzzo region and the area is often referred to as the greenest region in all of Europe. It was all so lovely and unspoiled and in sharp contrast to the very urban, very cluttered city of Rome that we had just left behind.

Roberta and I – Abruzzo landscape in background

A wild, sparsely populated place, Abruzzo remains isolated to this day mostly because of the mountains and hills that cover much of its surface. That isolation is one of the main reasons its cuisine has remained true to its original regional character. Actually two cuisines exist in Abruzzo – one mountainous and the other coastal. The shepherding culture of the mountainous area is known for its robust peasant dishes that almost always feature locally available meats from the very animals that roam the hills and mountains. Lamb, mutton and goat dishes – especially lamb ragu – are found on almost every restaurant menu.  Although meat dishes can also be found in the coastal area, fish and shellfish from the Adriatic dominate menus near the sea. Both areas, however, share the tradition of rustic pastas; rich cheeses (many made from sheep’s milk); chewy, delicious breads and hearty red wines.

Lago di Scanno, a tranquil, heart-shaped lake surrounded by dense greenery was a welcome break in our drive. We were struck both by the crisp clear mountain air and the impressive and imposing sweet-chestnut trees with their oblong-toothed leaves that were scattered about the fringes of the lake. Unfortunately, we had just missed the Chestnut Festival where chestnuts are roasted in villages throughout the area. But despite that fact, we still found an abundance of shops that sold those nutty, delicious treats, even if we had not been present for their roasting (and thereby missing one of the great smells of the season).

After another short drive we came to the medieval town of Scanno; a ski village in the winter and a resort in the summer. October was off-season here and old women clad in the traditional black dresses of the region leisurely strolled down narrow streets, some of them knitting as they walked with strands of yarn hanging over their neck like a sling. Some wore printed aprons over their flowing black dresses in various shades of grey and black. It was a strikingly monochromatic but oddly sophisticated look that reminded me of some of the styles I had seen in high-end clothing stores in Milan. Perhaps Georgio Armani came here and was inspired by these peasant women?! It was certainly not impossible.

We stopped at a small hotel for directions and a restaurant suggestion for lunch. To our delight, a little grey haired man came out from behind the reception desk to deliver a passionate lecture on the glories of hotel food and the sometimes-unfair reputation that category of food receives. “Non e vero” (it’s not true) he declared using theatrical hand gestures (that reminded me of the way I talk!) to emphasize his point. He told us that most Scanno restaurants were closed now, that we had simply missed “the season”. His little diatribe was so convincing (and the man so beguiling) we decided to stay at his hotel for our first Abuzzo meal.

 

Knowing we were in saffron territory I scanned the menu for any dish that contained that precious ingredient which has been cultivated here since the 14th century. Abruzzo was famous for growing an extremely high quality saffron in the nearby Navelli Plain in the province of L’Aquila and I was determined to find out if its reputation was deserved.

 

I ordered pappardelle with a creamy saffron and pancetta sauce. Sipping on a glass of an Abruzzo white wine (Trebbiano) and waiting for our food to arrive, I pulled out my trusty Abruzzo guidebook and read about saffron. We had all ordered dishes featuring it. Saffron we learned is the most expensive spice in the world, which didn’t surprise me since I was now selling it in our market. The high cost is mainly because the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus cannot be harvested by machine. Human hands are required to pick out the delicate red threads.   It takes about 100,00 flowers and 500 hours of labor to yield one kilo of saffron. No wonder the expense. Fortunately, it takes very little saffron to flavor a dish, which I had learned (the hard way) from cooking with it. Using too much saffron in any recipe can result in an intense bitterness. However, my hotel pappardelle was perfect. It was creamy and succulent and highly flavorful without any bitterness whatsoever.   Our hotelier watched us eat from across his dining room and the wry smile he could not hide betrayed his satisfaction with how pleased we were with our meal.

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Pappardelle with Saffron & Pancetta
(serves 4)

 1-pound pappardelle pasta
¾ cup cream
½ teaspoon saffron threads
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1/3 pound pancetta, diced into small pieces
1½ tablespoons butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
½ cup grated parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Steep saffron threads in 2 – 3 tablespoons hot water for at least an hour.

Mix the cream with the saffron in water. Add a pinch of salt. Mix well.

Heat the butter with the olive oil in a large pan over low heat. Add the shallots and sauté until soft. Add the pancetta and sauté over medium heat until brown but not crispy. Add the cream and saffron mixture. Cook for 2 – 3 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper and part of the cheese. Mix well making sure cheese has melted.

In the meantime boil the pasta in plenty of salted water. Follow directions for al dente. Drain well.

Mix the pasta with the sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and the rest of the cheese.

 

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We decided it was time to get on our way as we had more towns to visit and more places to see before reaching our final destination for the day, L’Aquila. Sulmona, a small town of ancient origins often described as “the prettiest town in Abuzzo” was the next stop on our journey. We parked our car and walked to Sulmona’s Main Square, Piazza Garabaldi, close to the very well preserved ancient aqueduct built in 1256. Relaxing in a small café near the Palazzo Annunziata we absorbed the Baroque splendor of the Saint Annunziata Church and enjoyed a quick espresso before getting on our way. Dark skies were approaching and we needed to get to our hotel in L’Aquila in time to change for dinner.

Roberta and I in front of Aqueduct

We arrived in L’Aquila after dark. We made a quick stop at the hotel and then immediately made our way to Tre Marie which turned out to be a dream restaurant experience combining excellent atmosphere with great service and delicious food. Dating back to the 18th Century, the décor was fit for the kings, queens and great statesmen that had dined here over the centuries. Beautiful paintings framed in soft polished wood covered the walls under an incredibly splendid ceiling made up of intricate mosaic designs. It was all quite regal.

Our waiter could not have been more attentive, which for me sets the tone of the meal. He was helpful in selecting both the dishes we would enjoy that evening and the local wine as well. Of course, we had a bottle of Abruzzo’s most famous wine – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a medium-bodied, low-acidity red that pairs well with a wide variety of foods. It is made from the grape Montepulciano, which grows quite easily in this region – even in the mountains. Softer and more accessible than either Nebbiolo or Chianti, it is very affordable wine that also ages well.   It continues to grow in popularity in the U.S. At Convito it is – and always has been – one of our best sellers.

We savored many excellent dishes that evening, but the one that stands out in my mind is the “Lo Scrigno Delle Tre Marie”, a house specialty.   Scrigno means jewel box, and that was the way it was presented – a crespelle-lined bowl filled with a combination of diced chicken, ham, artichokes, scamorze cheese and seasonings that after baking came to our table turned over on a plate like a precious little jewel box. Most people associate crepes (crespelle in Italian) with French cuisine but many traditional Italian dishes feature them – especially in Abruzzo.

We enjoyed another crespelle dish that evening – one with more of a traditional presentation – a rolled crepe filled with a combination of wild mushrooms and spinach. Crepes are so versatile; they can be stuffed, folded, stacked, rolled or even presented like a little jewel box – although I still haven’t figured out that particular trick. Being a house specialty I know the technique was closely guarded and didn’t even ask how they managed to do it!

Today we make several versions of mushroom crepes at Convito. The one below features spinach and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce. Crepes make for a great brunch item as well as a main course for lunch or dinner.

© rob warner photography 2017

Crespelle con Funghi
(serves 2 or 4)

This recipe is the filling for 4 crepes, which will serve one crepe for 4 people or 2 for two people. To increase the number of filled crepes, increase the stuffing amounts.

Make 4 crepes from a basic crepe recipe before you begin. Set aside.

 

1 cup of sauce – can be tomato, tomato cream, béchamel or four cheese sauce
1 ½ tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons finely diced shallot
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
10 ounces mushrooms, thinly sliced regular mushrooms or cremini)
2 ½ cups baby spinach leaves
½ cup grated parmesan

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and thyme and sauté for approximately 2 minutes until shallot is soft. Add the mushrooms, turn the heat to medium-high and sauté for approximately 5 minutes until the mushrooms have softened and are beginning to brown. Add the spinach and sauté until the spinach wilts – approximately 3 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and set ingredients aside. Save a small amount for garnish.

Smear a small oven proof-baking dish with butter. Turn broiler on.

Place 4 crepes on a working surface. Distribute the mushroom combination between the four crepes arranging in a long line on each crepe. Sprinkle the filling with the parmesan then roll crepe up to form a cylinder. Gently arrange the crepes in the buttered baking dish and place under the broiler for approximately 2 to 3 minutes until the crepes are hot.

Tomato-cream sauce should be hot.

Remove and place crepes on individual plates. Drizzle with tomato-cream sauce and garnish with mushrooms and spinach.

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We began yet another discussion on regional cuisine over dinner that evening. Roberta, our real Italian, was fascinated with my interest in studying the regional distinctions of her country’s cuisine. Since I was visiting my 20th and final region I was in a mood to reminisce about the superb education I received under the tutelage of my partners Paolo Volpara and Wanda Bottino. Roberta was especially curious to know how we used all that regional knowledge in Convito’s restaurants and markets.

Colleen explained how the market side of our business benefited from that knowledge. “We don’t organize all our grocery products and deli items regionally but with some products like extra virgin olive oil, regional distinctions are relevant – like olive oil from Tuscany, which has a very peppery taste – distinctly different than the buttery olive oil from Liguria. We describe those regional distinctions in our signage and our olive oil pamphlet to help our customers decide what oil best fits their taste or the dishes they will be using it in.”

Tasting Olive Oil with Stan Kennedy and Heidi Vorhees – both former Wilmette City Managers and faithful Convito patrons

Some applications of this acquired knowledge have been more successful than others. Detailed descriptions of olive oil and of Convito homemade sauces fall into the successful category. Organizing our wine department by regions, however, turned out to be too confusing for customers. When a customer wants a hearty red wine and doesn’t know Italian regions, they were overwhelmed in their search. So eventually we decided it was much more efficient to organize the wines by types – hearty reds, medium-bodied reds and so on. It is now possible to find a Piemontese Barbaresco or Barolo sitting next to a Veneto Amarone or a Tuscan Brunello di Montelcino – all hearty reds. Different in taste but in the same category. We identify particular flavors and characteristic by descriptive signage just below the wine. And we still identify the region in that signage for those customers who either know Italy well or are simply interested in where exactly the wine comes from.

Our daunting regionally-organized wine department curated by Seth Allen

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The next morning we awoke to a spectacular view of the Gran Sasso, the highest peak in the Apennine range of mountains. L’Aquila, a city built on the bed of an ancient lake right in the middle of the mountains, was still in the throes of restoring buildings and monuments affected by the seismic activity of 1985. Abruzzo is very susceptible to earthquakes. In fact Italy is one of the most seismically active countries in all of Europe and we were in the very heart of that susceptible territory.

After a long leisurely walk around town, our first stop that morning was the fountain of 99 conduits; a 13th century landmark that had recently been restored to its unique trapezoidal design with a whole line of stone faces spouting water.   The walls surrounding the fountain were of handsome polished pink and white stone. That same pink and white stone was the material that also covered the façade of Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio considered one of the greatest gems of L’Aquila – a masterpiece of Abruzzese Romanesque and Gothic architecture. We spent much time admiring its beauty.

Roberta and Colleen at Basilica

Near the end of the day we visited the Basilica of San Bernadino. It was built in honor of Saint Bernadino of Siena between 1454 and 1472. Behind the Basilica in a somewhat dark lower area of the building, monks sat busily painting some extraordinary ceramic platters. The images they painted were copies of old pastoral or religious scenes. I couldn’t resist. I purchased a large platter of a peasant woman with a lamb at her side in muted tones of greens, blues and earthy browns. It now hangs on my living room wall and is a constant reminder of my journey to this most lovely, serene region.

After a long day of touring this fascinating city, we sat down for dinner that evening to enjoy another delicious meal and to continue our very intense and interesting discussion on regional cuisine. But first things first, it was time to order. Of course, I chose the lamb ragu served on chitarra pasta – a classic Abruzzese combination. Chitarra pasta, which means “guitar” in Italian, and is another signature of this region. It is basically square-cut spaghetti that has been rolled over a box strung with metal guitar strings creating the strait-sided strands.

Abruzzo’s valleys and plateaus provide some of the country’s finest hard durum wheat and semolina. Pasta from this region is exported to all parts of the world. Convito sells chitarra pasta as well as many other different cuts from one of this region’s excellent producers – Rustichella d’Abruzzo, a family business that was established in 1929 in the small town of Penne in Abruzzo. It continues to this day making fantastic artisan pasta as well as other fine products like sauces and holiday items like their excellent panettone.

The lamb ragu was as delicious as promised. The deep, intense flavor of the lamb made for one of the best meat sauces I have ever had.   “Nothing says Abruzzese more than a lamb ragu” my guidebook stated.

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Chitarra with Lamb Ragu
(serves 4)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ pound lamb stew meat – cut up into 8 – 12 pieces
1-teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper
½ cup carrot, finely chopped
½ cup celery, finely chopped
1 cup onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
2 teaspoons fresh thyme. chopped
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup red wine
1 28-ounce San Marzano tomatoes, broken into pieces
1-pound chitarra pasta cooked al dente
grated pecorino cheese (parmesan can be substituted)

 

Heat oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat.

Season lamb pieces with salt and pepper

Add lamb to olive oil and cook, searing all sides, for approximately 5 – 10 minutes

Transfer lamb to a platter

Turn down heat to medium and add the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, parsley, thyme and red pepper flakes. Sauté for about 4 minutes, scraping up all the browned bits as you sauté. (You may need to use a little more olive oil)

Return lamb and any lamb juices to the dutch oven

Add wine and turn heat to medium-high. Reduce for about 4 – 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and bring to a rapid simmer. Turn heat to low and simmer for approximately 2 hours until the meat is tender.

Using two forks shred the lamb in the sauce and stir well to combine.

Cook the pasta and mix with the ragu.  Top with grated cheese and a little olive oil.

 

 

We continued our discussion – this time focusing on how regional diversity came about. Not just in Abruzzo but in all of Italy’s 20 regions. Geography, I believed, is one of the main factors affecting a region’s cuisine. Roberta also reminded us that a region’s proximity to another country- like Valle D’Aosta’s border with France or Trentino Alto Adige’s with Austria, significantly impacted flavors and ingredients as well. The culinary cuisine of France and Austria would naturally have an influence on the culinary identity of the Italian region that each country touched.

Especially interesting to me as I traversed Italy over the past six years with my partner, Paolo Volpara, was the effect that invaders from other countries factored into the overall identity of a region. Over the centuries almost every corner of Italy had been occupied at one time or another other. Some invaders just passed through while others stayed for longer periods of time (some permanently), substantially impacting not only the cooking of the invaded area but also its traditions and culture. Many different peoples – the Etruscans, the Romans, the Greeks, the North Africans, the Phoenicians – to name just some – had an influence on Italian cuisine.

Of course product availability is another factor in regional culinary development. Foodstuffs grown or cultivated in a region naturally become a part of that area’s cooking. It was certainly the case with the delicious saffron lunch that we so happily devoured at our first Abruzzo meal in Scanno – a product cultivated very near to that village.

All of those influences made for amazing regional diversity and for a most interesting cuisine. “We’re not just about pasta and pizza,” Roberta commented. “Certainly not”, I replied.

We finished our last drop of wine and I realized my visit to Abruzzo was coming to an end. It had been such a pleasurable trip filled with great food, great sightseeing and marvelous conversations about my favorite topic – regional Italy. And it was also a personally significant one because it had tied up a “loose end,” the completion of my quest to visit explore, taste and try to understand all of Italy’s twenty regions.

There is something cathartic for me when I finally tie up a “loose end,” even though I know that another one lies just around the corner. Putting a project to bed is incredibly satisfying, but in this case I also felt a little melancholy. Though my culinary education was far from complete (in some ways it was just beginning) and I would return to Italy many times, this regional project fundamentally changed me; perhaps even more than opening my business, which was the reason for doing it in the first place. I had travelled extensively during the years I lived with my family in the UK, but I had never immersed myself in a place (or a topic) as comprehensively as I had in this regional Italian exploration. That sort of deep intellectual pursuit is not something that happens often once you’ve grown up and left university, and I knew I would miss it dearly.  I like to think of this particular “loose-end-trip” as a sort of final exam, the conclusion to an incredible history, cultural and culinary class that any university would be proud to have on their roster. It really was quite a ride!

 

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Puglia “My Tre Colore Journey”

To this day, whenever I think of Puglia, a vision of the red, green and white of the Italian flag is what immediately comes to mind.

It was 1983 and I was visiting this southern region that forms the heel of Italy’s boot for the first time with my partner Paolo Volpara. It was the middle of summer and everything was in a heightened state of color and freshness. Succulent, juicy red tomatoes were in abundance. Aromatic leafy green arugula and basil accompanied almost every dish. And I was surrounded by white– not only the beautiful sun-bleached and whitewashed buildings of Puglia’s rural villages, but also the glistening white cheeses so typical of this region. Fresh ricotta, mozzarella and the regional specialty burrata were ubiquitous and in the peak of their flavor.

Paolo and I flew into Bari, the capital of Puglia just in time for dinner. The weather was glorious, so we chose a restaurant where we could dine al fresco. Thus began what we would refer to as our “Italian Flag” dinners. Its no wonder that many Italian dishes are described as “Tre Colore,” Italian for three colors. A similar name – Tricolore – is also used by many Italians to refer to their flag. It was these same three colors that dominated the ingredients in the dishes we enjoyed during our lovely summer journey.

We relaxed with a glass of a local white wine and ordered a plate of burrata, which arrived interspersed with slices of fresh tomatoes lying on a bed of arugula. Drizzled with the nutty, buttery extra virgin olive oil of the region it was the perfect simple summer dish to introduce us to this sublime season.

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Simplicity is what drew me to Italian cuisine in the first place. Good Italian cooks are all about restraint, about knowing that adding ingredients is not always going to result in a better dish. Wanda Bottino, my original partner and mentor, always emphasized the importance of using fresh, seasonal ingredients and doing as little to them as possible. She understood the “less is more” concept and this dish clearly exemplified that concept: three main ingredients with the addition of a sensational liquid condiment.

This approach most certainly applies to one of the regions iconic foods, Burrata. This handmade cheese has always been one of my favorites. Burrata means “buttered” in Italian and is created by taking very fresh mozzarella and forming it by hand into small somewhat oblong pouches and then filling them with soft, stringy mozzarella curd and lush rich cream and resealing the pouch, thus creating a little pocket of rich creamy deliciousness! Both are frequently served with fresh sliced tomatoes – a perfect combination. In my opinion, quintessential summer dishes.

Like all fresh cheeses, burrata has a short shelf life. Some “cheese puritans” claim it should be eaten the same day it is produced, though I find that a little dogmatic. Because importing this cheese from Puglia is so costly, recently U.S. companies have begun to produce a domestic version, especially in areas that have a large Italian-American community.   But the imported variety can still be found in many gourmet markets around the country. Convito tries to keep either the imported or the domestic burrata in stock especially in the height of the summer season when tomatoes are at their best, though its popularity makes keeping it in the case a real challenge!

© rob warner photography 2017

Burrata Antipasti

 Depending on the size of the burrata pouch, slice the cheese into ½ inch thick slices and intersperse with ½ inch slices of fresh tomato. Serve on a bed of arugula (as pictured here) or with fresh basil. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

 

My Italian journeys are always a combination of food, wine and culture, which always made them so educational and so mind-expanding. On this particular trip I not only looked forward to visiting some of Puglia’s unique villages but I was also very interested in the land itself. I had traveled to so many mountainous areas of Italy, I guess I expected more of the same. It surprised me that Puglia was not at all mountainous. It was very flat with lots of level spaces in-between towns and hills and beaches most overflowing with flourishing crops of tomatoes, eggplants, artichokes, almonds, olives and citrus fruits making it clear why this region is considered the breadbasket of the south.

Bordered by the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, Puglia has the longest coastline of any region in mainland Italy. Beautiful sandy beaches, picturesque fishing villages and lovely little towns dot this mostly rocky, seemingly never-ending coastline. On our second day there, we would have lunch in one of those lovely little coastal towns Polignano a Mare at a seafood restaurant called Da Tuccino. Sitting on the terrace with a spectacular view of the marina we leisurely perused the menu while the sea distracted us with a ballet of dancing waves in all their aquamarine glory.

Da Tuccino is known for its fresh-caught fish so naturally we inquired about the catch-of-the-day. Branzino (sea bass), we were told. Of course that was the dish we ordered. Sautéed in the region’s olive oil, it came atop a fresh red tomato sauce laced with the region’s green cerignola olives (also called bella di cerignola). Another tre colore treat.

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Branzino con Salsa Pomodoro e Olive
Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
1 clove garlic, finely minced
3 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved and seeded
½ cup green olives, pitted & chopped
¼ teaspoon dried crushed chili peppers
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
4 (5-6 ounce Branzino or Sea Bass fillets (or other white fish)

In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and olives and chili peppers and cook for another 3 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Set aside.

In a large non-stick skillet heat the remaining 1-tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the fish and cook until opaque in the center. Turn over and cook the other side – approximately 2 – 3 minutes per side.

You may want to rewarm the tomato sauce. Spoon a ladle of sauce onto 4 plates and top each with a sautéed fillets.

 

Puglia’s cerignola olives are mild and large and one of the favorites of the region but they are not the only olives grown here. There are a great many varieties — Coratina, Provenzale and Ogliarola just to name a few — all growing in groves throughout the Puglia. It was astounding to see the sheer number of olive trees that blanked the landscape. Some estimates put the number of trees at over 60 million, so it was no surprise to learn that more than forty percent of Italy’s olive oil comes from this region.   Much of the oil, however, goes into mass production which means it does not go through the very carefully monitored process which results in the “extra virgin” designation. Instead it is used in lesser blends, combined with other domestic and imported oils or is simply sold under the “virgin” label (a lesser grade).

There are still a number of estates in Puglia that produce the high quality extra virgin variety and Convito currently carries two of them: Masserie di Sant ‘Eramo, a delicate, smooth and wonderfully fruity oil and Gallentino, a more complex oil with a distinctive bite and a somewhat spicy flavor. We also carry Gallentino’s flavored oils: garlic, lemon and basil.

Convito has always prided itself on our olive oil selection. Like wine, it is a product that deserves careful attention and understanding its complexities requires study. Sofia Solomon, owner of Tekla Inc. (importer and wholesaler of top quality products) has introduced Convito and our customers to many excellent Italian olive oils and a great percentage of our selection comes from her company. Because of her passion and her depth of knowledge, she has helped to educate Convito staff and customers to the wonders and many uses of these extraordinary olive oils. All of this information is extremely helpful to customers when Convito conducts their biannual olive oil tastings. I invited Ms Sophia to share some of her knowledge to this blog which she was gracious enough to do.

 

OLIVE OIL AND WINE:  AN APT ANALOGY
by Sofia Solomon

Throughout many parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean basin, vineyards and olive groves have been planted closely for millennia. Olives, like grapes, come in many different varieties. Many varietals are indigenous to a region, and many more may be grown in areas foreign to their origins. Like certain wines, certain olive oils may also be offered protections and designations, such as D.O.P., and A.O.C., relating to their geographical areas and cultivars. Some wines may be single varietals, or, single estates, so too olive oils. And like many wines, both exceptional and common, they may be blended, their quality dependent upon cultivation of the fruit and artistry of the blender.

 Just as one may have a “house wine”, one that’s very versatile, will go with most foods, and is reasonably priced to be able to drink every day, so one should have a “house olive oil” with the same attributes. As wine is classified, so too is olive oil. In the case of olive oil, this means the designation of extra virgin. It is both prudent and beneficial, in wine and in olive oil, to know the producers. Caveat emptor! * (That’s another story).

 However, just as one needn’t drink the same wine with every food and every meal, so too, one should have a selection of olive oils for various foods and occasions.

 Some suggestions:

  • Peppery Tuscan olive oil like Capezzana, an unfiltered estate production, is exceptional as a finishing oil for poached, roasted or crudo fish.
  • Buttery Ligurian olive oil like Ceppo Antico enhances pestos.
  • Redolent of grass and tomatoes, with a long peppery aftertaste, elegant Ravida, Sicilian estate oil, is delicate enough to fry a farm fresh egg to perfection.
  • Olio Verde also from Sicily, with its assertive grassiness brightens salads, vegetables and pulses.
  • Badia a Coltibuono, a Tuscan blend, adds flavor and texture to a hearty soup or stew.
  • Complex, flavorful Laudemio Frescobaldi, a Tuscan estate, elevates grilled and roasted meats.
  • And, of course, all styles of olive oils suit all types of pasta.

There is nothing simpler and more delicious than excellent pasta dressed with parsley, black pepper and a very good extra virgin olive oil. A touch of Parmigiano Reggiano and some lemon peel gild the lily!

* caveat emptor: the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.

 

gnarled Puglia olive tree

Since extra virgin olive oil is one of my favorite products, I was thrilled to be in this region where one is surrounded by olive groves. Row after row of olive trees proudly shimmering their silver green leaves in the bright summer sun gave the groves an almost ethereal appearance. As we drove into some of the more accessible areas, I was especially fascinated with the large number of ancient trees we came across – all gnarled and twisted looking like wizened old souls. Some looked like the kind of sculpture art one might find at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Astonishingly, they were still producing olives. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of olive oil came from these ancient trees? Did they produce oil infused with wisdom? Paolo laughed at my musings but did concede that adding “wisdom” to the already long list of olive oil benefits would be a great marketing tool.

 

After our olive oil adventure we drove towards the lush woodland setting of Hotel Sierra Silvana in Selva di Fasano. Located in the province of Brindisi, it is the highest elevation in the area with a view of many of the charming villages we would visit over the next two days. We arrived in the late afternoon and found ourselves surrounded by a bustling staff making preparations for a wedding that would take place late that evening. The hotel I learned is a popular location for weddings – especially those of the chic, glamorous and wealthy. Though the scene was festive, we sought quieter surroundings and decided to head to a nearby restaurant for dinner.

The words fresh and succulent appear over and over again in my Puglia journal and perfectly described the meal I had that evening called Orecchiette alla Crudita. Orecchiette literally means “small ears” in Italian and is the signature pasta of Puglia, this time served…tre colore! Ripe red tomatoes, bright green basil, and fresh ricotta all atop the orecchiette pasta echoed the ever-familiar colors of the flag. All those lovely ingredients were mixed with the extra virgin olive oil of the region – probably from one of the groves we had driven through that morning.   In this particular dish an excellent extra virgin olive oil is essential. It is not a part of a sauce. It IS the sauce.

I have tried to duplicate this dish over and over again and somehow it never lives up to my memory of the one I had that evening. So simple. So delicious. Even making it during the height of the tomato season when mid-western tomatoes are at their succulent best, it’s never quite the same. I guess eating al fresco, surrounded by lush woodlands, enjoying soft summer ocean breezes is not so easy to duplicate. And atmosphere – I have always felt – will always influence the taste buds!

© rob warner photography 2017

Orecchette alla Cruda
Serves 4

2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ pounds tomatoes, chopped*
½ cup fresh basil, chopped
pinch of chili pepper flakes
¾ tablespoon salt
freshly ground pepper
1-pound orecchette
¾ cup fresh ricotta

basil leaves for garnish

In a bowl, mix together shallots, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, basil and chili peppers. Add salt and pepper. Mix well. Let marinate for approximately 30 minutes.

In the meantime cook pasta in a large amount of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain pasta well and toss with the tomato mixture. Adjust seasonings. Place in individual bowls and top each with dollops of fresh ricotta and a basil garnish.

*This is a dish best made during the height of the tomato season when plump tomatoes are available (I recommend seeding the tomatoes)

 

Though the white in my tre colore meals tended to be represented by the white of Puglia’s fresh cheeses, there is another white that also comes to mind when I recall this visit – the white of Puglia’s many charming towns and villages. Set against the shimmering, rippling turquoise sea and cerulean skies, the starkly sun-bleached homes and whitewashed buildings gave off a magical aura.  Walking through their winding, cobbled streets one feels a kind of purity that is unique to my memories there.

Further up the coast in an unusual little town called Alberobello we spent a whole morning wandering amidst a sea of nearly identical white stone huts topped with gray conical roofs that filed up and down the hilly slopping streets of this village. Looking both picturesque and at the same time totally bizarre, these pyramidal structures are called trulli and date back to the 14th century. They are scattered across Puglia but Alberobello is truly the trulli capital of Puglia (pun intended!) and of the world. I was fascinated with both their shape and their history.

 

Paolo in front of Truili

Our guide informed us that their unusual shape is a result of the economic conditions at the time – a time when peasants were not allowed to build anything without the permission of the king. Supposedly, that permission was very difficult to obtain. Property taxes were also extremely high.   So as the story goes, because the stones of the trulli had no cement and could be dismantled quickly, their owners could easily move them to another location in order to avoid the king’s inspectors. Once the coast was clear, they could also be easily re-assembled. Very tricky these truilli owners!

 

Paolo in Martina Franca

 

 

 

Another charming “white village” was Martina Franca, described in our guidebook as “a memorable maze of winding alleys where whitewashed simplicity sits side by side with baroque extravagance”. Martina Franca used to be a fully walled city but some of the towers have been removed. Four Renaissance and Baroque gates still exist – all in white or shades of white.

 

 

 

 

Paolo in Ostuni Citta Bianca

 

 

 

Of all the many white villages we visited during this trip, my favorite was Ostuni where we stopped for a mid-morning coffee at a small café near its splendid piazza. This city is literally called the Citta Bianca (white city). Bright blue or green doors added a touch of contrast to many of the houses lining the town’s streets – as did the charming terra cotta pots of bright red geraniums or exotic succulent cacti positioned in front of the entryways.

 

 

 

We spent our last morning driving along the beautiful coast heading back to Polignano a Mare where we would have another lunch before we flew back to Milan. This time we dined at Grotto Palazzese. The restaurant juts out some 74 feet above sea level and is carved out of magnificent limestone rocks. Paolo ordered grilled octopus simply prepared with fresh herbs and olive oil and I ended as I had begun, with a plate of succulent tomatoes, burrata and this time instead of arugula – fresh basil. I thought it appropriate to end on the same note I had begun.

The most interesting part of our lunch, however (besides the magnificent view of the sea) was our conversation about Italian cooking. I was always in complete rhapsody when I talked about Italian cuisine whether it was during my cooking sessions with Wanda or dining with Paolo. Although simplicity dominates the best Italian cooking, I realized that not every Italian recipe consisted of just a few ingredients. Some were much more complicated like Calabria’s Lasagna Calabrese (see Basilicata and Calabria – “Behind Closed Doors”) and Liguria’s Cappon Magro (see Liguria II – “Expect the Unexpected”). However, many of those more complicated dishes were usually not everyday food but rather holiday fare – dishes for special occasions.

My only dining disappointment during that summer journey was that I was not able to order one of my favorite regional dishes in the region it is from – one that Wanda had cooked for me both in her Milanese kitchen and in my Glencoe home when she visited the U.S. The dish is called Orecchette con Cima di Rape and it is the region’s most famous pasta dish. But it was not on the menu because its main ingredient – broccoli rabe (cime di rape) was not in season. So when I returned to Chicago and broccoli rabe came in season I made it for dinner one night and reflected on my amazing Pugliese journey. It is a dish even non-anchovy lovers love.

© rob warner photography 2017

Orecchiette con Cime di Rape
Serves 4

1 bunch broccoli rabe (approximately 1 ½ pounds)
2 – 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or more)
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
¼ teaspoon hot crushed chili pepper flakes*
1-pound orecchette

Thoroughly clean the broccoli rabe, cutting off tough parts of stems and any yellowing leaves. Chop into pieces about 1 inch long. Rinse again thoroughly, drain well and set aside.

In a small skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook just until the garlic is soft. Add the chopped anchovy and mash into the hot oil. Add chili pepper flakes and stir into mixture. Remove the skillet from the heat.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of slated water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook halfway through (approximately 6 – 7 minutes). Add the broccoli rabe to the pasta and stir to mix thoroughly. The broccoli rabe should cook for approximately 6 minutes so the pasta and the broccoli will be done at the same time. (Check the cooking time for the pasta and adjust accordingly remembering that the broccoli should cook for only about 6 minutes)

When pasta mixture is just about finished reheat the anchovy mixture.

Drain the pasta and broccoli well. Place mixture in a large bowl and add the anchovy mixture. Mix well distributing the pasta, broccoli and anchovy sauce adding a little more oil if you wish. Season with freshly ground pepper.

*Depending on how spicy you like your food, more chili pepper flakes can be added.

 

Over time I have reflected on my Italian journeys with Paolo and have only recently come to fully appreciate his impact on my life then and now.  He after all was a real Italian. This was his country.  This is where he grew up eating, and in a household with a mother who was also an extraordinary cook!  Wanda was the best. So all my rhapsodizing must have at times seemed over-the-top to him. But he always seemed happy to indulge me; never scoffed at my ravings over a particular dish, a bottle of wine or some ancient building that in retrospect must have seemed ordinary to him. I like to think that maybe he was seeing regional Italy and its splendid, diverse cuisine again through my eyes.  I dream that I was able to reinvigorate a passion for his country that one can often only experience through the eyes of someone discovering culinary, cultural and social wonders for the first time, much like a parent revisits experiences through the eyes of their children.  I will never know for sure whether I had that impact on his life, but I like to think that in some small way I helped both he and his mother appreciate their Italy a little bit more than had this particular American woman never wandered into their lives.

I felt lucky to have traveled to Puglia during the summer season.  If there is ever a season when simplicity in cooking is at its peak, it is the summer when produce itself is at its peak – when zucchini is thin and tender, sweet basil is bright green and extremely aromatic, tomatoes are firm and plump and everything is just gorgeous and so damn good.  But every season has its “stars” – dishes that reflect the season of the moment like the delicious broccoli rabe pasta dish I just described; a vegetable available in the colder months of the year.  A different seasonal dish. And I have often wondered, if tomatoes were succulent and completely delicious all year long, would I appreciate them as much?  So even though my Tre Colore journey was sensational I am sure I could return to this region in another season and still be enthralled with the many other ingredients it has stored in its plentiful breadbasket. And of course, the charming white villages and the glorious sea would still be there waiting to be rediscovered.

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Trentino-Alto Adige “Diversity and Drama”

Italy as we know it today is a relatively young country.  Before its unification in 1861, it was a collection of independent city-states and republics all with very distinct characteristics.  Geography, climate, foreign invasions and proximity to other countries shaped the culture and cuisine of each of the twenty regions that exist today.

Their complexities make Italy such an interesting and layered country.  How lucky I was to have two such knowledgeable and talented partners to guide me through the history, the culture and the cuisine of each of those regions.  Wanda Bottino was my culinary instructor and Italian language teacher (the later by default since she neither spoke English nor had any real interest in learning it) and her son – and my business partner – Paolo Volpara was my travel guide who accompanied me to each region, many of them multiple times.  Discovering those regional complexities was the best part of my Italian journeys.  There is nothing – no lecture, no book, no cooking class – that could have given me a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of Italy’s diversity than actually being there with the two of them at my side.

As the history books state, the unification of Italy is considered one of the most impressive political and military achievements of the 19th century.  That process, called Risorgimento, started in 1815 and was completed in 1871.  The obstacles to unification were as many and varied as the leaders of the movement.  Garibaldi, Mazzini and Cavour were only a few of the famous names who sought to unite these very different factions into one country.  Finally after years of revolutionary movements and failed negotiations, Italy became the united, richly layered country it is today.

That diversity, I discovered, could even exist within a region.  Trentino-Alto Adige, a region in the northwest corner of Italy, is comprised of two distinct autonomous provinces very different from one another.  The southern province of Trentino reflects the Italian cuisine and character of its regional neighbors, Veneto and Lombardia while the northern province of Alto-Adige (also known as South Tyrol), strongly exhibits the “Germanic” characteristics of neighboring Austria and Switzerland.  I was amazed to learn that Trentino-Alto Adige was not even a part of the original Italian unification of 1861.  Before it was annexed in 1919 after World War I, it was a part of Austria-Hungary so it is no wonder that many areas still remain distinctly German.

Our visit to this region was two-fold; one to experience the dual nature of these two provinces and the other to explore the Dolomites, the mountain range that forms a part of the Southern Limestone Alps and according to Paolo, features some of the most beautiful and dramatic mountain landscapes in the world.

We arrived in the city of Bolzano, the capital of the Alto Adige province, on a very cold February day in 1980.  It was dusk and the sun was slowly slipping behind the crest of the mountains casting a blue and violet light over the city.  Since our hotel was near the center of the city and close to the restaurant Paolo had selected for dinner, we decided to quickly unpack and take a leisurely stroll through the town.  Walking its narrow streets lined with buildings of a very Tyrolean character, I knew without being reminded that we were in the more “Germanic” of the two provinces.

Bolzano (or Bolzen as it is referred to in German) has a distinct Austrian flair.  German was the language I heard both in our hotel and on the streets.  Occasionally it mixed with the more lyrical, musical Italian, but mostly German dominated.  Its throaty, harsh tone always sounds so reprimanding to me.  To this day it makes me want to be on my best behavior.  Or else!

The restaurant we chose was known for its wild game specials and classic German dishes.  Rabbit, the guide stated, was one of the restaurant’s frequent specials.  Rabbit is a favorite of mine and I always order it when I see it on a menu (which is infrequently).  I looked forward to choosing it that night as my entrée.

The warmth of the restaurant embraced us as we entered.  Flickering candlelight combined with the subdued light from the brass wall sconces cast a welcoming glow over the restaurants’ soft green walls and lovely German lace curtains hanging in each window.  As promised, the menu offered a wide assortment of German specialties although, as Paolo noted, the German names were “Italianized”.  Crauti, the Italian word for sauerkraut was paired with pork spareribs.  Canederli, the Italian word for knodel (dumplings) came with a hearty tomato sauce.  Both tempted me but I was holding out for rabbit.  But alas – no rabbit on the menu.

The waiter arrived at our table exhibiting a decidedly superior air, both in the way he held himself and in his manner of speaking.  Paolo inquired if by any chance coniglio (Italian word for rabbit) would be one of the specials that evening?   The waiter offered nothing but a cold rather haughty stare tilting his head to one side in a quizzical gesture.  “Lepre?” Paolo then asked. (another Italian word for rabbit – the larger variety).  Still the same look.  Did this guy speak Italian, I wondered? Certainly he lived in Italy.  Even if it was the predominately German part of the region and even if his main language was German, he must understand Italian food words.  He was, after all, a waiter…in a restaurant…in Italy.

Paolo quickly understood the game – this very conspicuous vie for superiority – a veritable “pissing contest.”  But for what?  The German language over the Italian language?  Was the waiter still holding a grudge against his city’s annexation into Italy back in 1919 and taking it out on Paolo?  The annexation was, I learned later, controversial and unpopular with some of its citizens – but come on!  This was some sixty plus years later.

Whatever the reason – Paolo was determined not to use the German word for rabbit (hasenpfeffer) even though he clearly knew it.  It was the “principle of the thing.”  So instead Paolo very carefully, very deliberately “air drew” a rabbit dramatically emphasizing a rabbit’s long ears.  Would this finally make it clear what we were asking for?  I could not suppress a laugh.  The waiter, however, did not appreciate my laughter or Paolo’s “theatrical” rabbit drawing.  Whatever finally motivated him to acknowledge Paolo’s question – whether it was his desire to tend to his other tables or his realization that it was becoming increasingly apparent that he was not winning this contest, the rabbit question was ultimately answered.  No there was no coniglio on the menu that night.

That issue resolved, we went back to studying the menu in front of us.  I wanted something cozy and comforting – something that might ameliorate the negative, very unwelcoming rabbit “discussion” that had just occurred.  I finally decided upon what seemed like a nice winter-friendly dish – Rindsgulasch served with Spatzle.  How can one not be comforted by spatzle?

Rindsgulasch is basically goulash, a peasant dish (my favorite category) that comes from the medieval Kingdom of Hungary.  The story goes that when the herdsmen would go on long cattle drives all over Europe to sell their famous Grey cattle, their own sustenance came by butchering the weaker cows in the herd.  That meat was used to make stew, which they cooked in kettles over an open fire.  Those herdsmen were called gulyas, thus the name goulash.  Goulash is a dish found all over Central Europe especially in Hungary, Germany and Austria and in two Italian regions that were originally a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Friuli-Venetia Giulia and the region we were visiting this cold February weekend, Trentino-Alto Adige.

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Rindsgulasch
(serves 4)

2 ¼ pound beef (chuck), cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1-tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1-½ cups chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 ounces pancetta, diced
3 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika
½ cup tomato paste
5 – 6 cups beef broth
zest of 1 lemon
salt & pepper to taste

In a large dutch oven, heat the butter with the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the beef and brown for approximately 15 – 20 minutes. Make sure meat is well browned on all sides.

Remove the beef and set aside.

Add the onion, pancetta and garlic to the same pan and continue to sauté for another 5 – 10 minutes.

Return the meat to the pan and sprinkle with the paprika.

Whisk the tomato paste with 1 cup of the beef broth then add to the ingredients of the pan, stirring constantly, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Add the remainder of the broth, the lemon zest, salt and pepper. Cover and turn the heat to low. Simmer for 1-¼ hours until the beef is tender and the broth has thickened to a dark reddish brown sauce.

Note: you want enough sauce to ladle over the accompanying starch so you might need to add a little more broth or water if sauce gets too thick or reduced too much.

Serve with spatzle, polenta or potatoes.

Spatzle
(serves 4)

2 ½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup milk
½ cup water

Combine flour, salt & baking powder in a bowl. Mix together the eggs, milk and water. Gradually add to the flour mixture. Mix well. Dough must be firm enough to retain its shape.

Bring a large pot (3 – 4 quarts) of salted water to a boil. Using a spatlze maker place the dough in the holding cup and slide back and forth forcing the dough through the holes into the boiling water. Or place dough in a colander and force the dough through the holes or place dough on a wooden board and cut or break off small pieces with a spoon into the boiling water. Cook in boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes. Drain into a colander or remove from the water with a slotted spoon.

Toss with a little butter or olive oil so they don’t stick together.

When ready to serve the goulash, place goulash on each plate or bowl with spatzle on the side or in the middle (as pictured in photo) and ladle spatzle with the sauce from the goulash.

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Over coffee the next morning Paolo and I had a good laugh about our “rabbit evening.” Even though I never so much as took a bite of rabbit during my trip to this town, rabbit is the first food that comes to mind whenever I remember my night in Bolzano.

During our weekend, I also recalled my Trentino-Alto Adige cooking session with Wanda that had taken place in Milan the previous month. Wanda’s views were never wishy-washy!   She had rather indignantly stated “This region is not very much like the rest of Italy!   Their food does not appeal to me – it actually does not appeal to most Italians.”   I had to agree that what I had seen and eaten so far was certainly not the typical Italian food most of the world knew and loved. But its appeal? Unlike Wanda, it did appeal to me. I loved that rich, flavorful goulash with the warm savory spatzle I happily consumed the night before. Actually, many of the dishes on the menu looked appealing. Sauerkraut (described as crauti) is one of my favorite German dishes and one that Wanda and I had tested in our Trentino-Alto Adige session. Maybe it’s my German roots. Sour is my thing – from sauerkraut, to pickles, to German potato salad to the classic German sweet and sour cabbage rotkohl, I love them all. But of course I agreed with Wanda – who would think of those dishes as Italian?

Certainly my perception of Italian regional cuisine was changing with each region we visited. Italy, I discovered almost immediately, was not just pasta and pizza. I encountered dish after dish of incredibly delicious but unexpected products and preparation. Only a year prior to this journey I had visited another region whose culture and cuisine surprised me – a region in the opposite corner of Italy – Valle d’Aosta right on the border of France. Valle d’Aosta also did not feel like the Italy I knew. Like Trentino-Alto Adige is a bi-lingual region. But instead of German the second language is French. Street signs are in both French and Italian and almost all place names and local surnames are French in origin. The cuisine doesn’t feature much pasta – it is known for being hearty, full of filling starches and rich dairy. (See blog Chapter 2 – Valle d-Aosta “You had to be there”)

 

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Our discussion of diversity would continue throughout the weekend. It was now time, however, to explore the Dolomites. As we drove out of Bolzano (often described as the gateway to the Dolomites), we first encountered the rolling hills that led up to more dramatic mountainous landscape. The hills were blanketed with row after row of vines and orchards all organized in orderly patterns reminding us that we were in an area of the world that clearly exhibited the neatness of Germany and Austria – even in its agriculture. Wine and apples are two of this region’s most important products. Rust-colored roofed chalets dotted the hillside and lovely glistening lakes hidden in between rocky, rugged cliffs seemed to pop out of nowhere.

 

Paolo near an Alto Adige lake

Further into the mountains, the landscape became more varied. Pinnacles and steeples inserted themselves alongside steep vertical snow covered peeks. We stopped for lunch at an unpretentious Alpine Chalet sandwiched between a rich green valley (still green even in February) and a sheer icy vertical wall. The crisp, clear blue sky dotted perfectly with small white clouds completed what felt like a scene out of an idyllic winter wonderland.

Alto Adige

Next to a welcoming fireplace, we relaxed with a glass of Gewurztraminer, one of the great wines of the region. I was surprised to learn that this wine originated in the Alto Adige winegrowing village of Tramin. “Traminer” was a word known since the thirteenth century throughout the German-speaking world. Its aromatic, slightly sweet-spicy flavors went perfectly with the plate of Speck I ordered to begin my meal.

 

Speck, the most prominent cured meat of the region, has an intriguing taste. Unlike prosciutto which is air-cured, speck is smoked, but in a most interesting way – first marinated in brine flavored with black pepper, pimento, garlic, sugar and juniper berries then dried and lightly smoked for two to three weeks. Next comes the air curing (just like prosciutto). It is hung in a cool place for up to five months. Both speck and prosciutto are made from the hind leg of a pig but speck is deboned before curing. In my opinion, I find speck to be more flavorful and less mushy than prosciutto. I love both but my preference is speck. For some reason it has not developed the same popularity in America as prosciutto.

 

The plate of speck I ordered for lunch was drizzled with a horseradish cream (called cren) and garnished with thinly sliced cucumbers.

© rob warner photography 2017

For my main course I ordered canederli (also known as knodel in German). Canederli are bread dumplings served either in broth or with sauce. They had been served in a tomato sauce at the restaurant the night before. This version was studded with pieces of speck and served in a rich beef broth sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese and chives.

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Canederli
Serves 4

10 oz. stale bread, diced
1-cup milk
3 eggs, slightly beaten
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped (approximately 1 cup)
3-tablespoon parsley, minced
½ cup flour
¼ grated Parmesan
2 oz. speck, diced
12 cups broth – vegetable or chicken
Beef broth
Grated Parmesan
Chives

Place stale, cubed bread into a large bowl. Add the milk, eggs, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix well and let rest for approximately 2 hours, covered with a towel, in a cool place. Stir occasionally making sure liquid is absorbed evenly.

In the meantime, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions for approximately 5 – 10 minutes. Let stand until cool.

After the bread mixture has rested for 2 hours, mix again. Then add the flour, the parsley, the cheese, speck and the cooled onions along with the melted butter and olive oil from the onion sauté pan. Mix well.

Press into balls with your hands (2 inches in diameter). Mixture should make about 14 balls.

After making each ball, roll it in flour to prevent the canederli from sticking to one another. When all canederli have been formed and rolled in flour, re-roll them in the flour and mold them a second time.

Bring the broth to a boil. Place the canederli gently in the boiling broth. When the broth has resumed a boil, boil them for approximately 15 minutes. (They will be floating the whole time) Drain them gently.

In the meantime bring beef broth to a boil. Add the canederli and boil gently until heated through (if they have cooled). To serve, put 3 canederli in a bowl and ladle beef broth over them. Top with grated Parmesan and chopped chives. Serve immediately.

Note: Canederli can be made ahead and refrigerated.

 

Though somewhat less dramatic, our drive through the southern province of Trentino was still breathtakingly beautiful.  I was amazed at the vineyards that covered many of its steep slopes making viticulture, I imagined, incredibly difficult.  But just as in other Italian regions that face similar challenges, there is an emphasis on high quality wine in this region.  I guess when anything is that difficult; you want to make certain that your efforts produce the very best.

The province of Trentino tends toward wines made in large co-operatives whereas Alto Adige has many smaller producers. Amazingly – even though Alto Adige is Italy’s smallest winegrowing region it leads Italy in wine meeting the DOC designation. Its climate naturally suits white wine making – the bright alpine sunshine mixed with the heat of the valley floor during the summer results in rich, ripe styles of white wines. Convito has carried many over the years – especially the whites. I very much like the Sauvignon Blanc from Tramin, a winery located in the Alto Adige province. Sauvignon Blanc has been my favorite wine for a long time. This one exhibits the aromas of grapefruits, melons and cut grass that I love so much about this varietal.

 

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Time constraints prevented us from staying another night in the region (Paolo had an early morning meeting back in Milan) so we stopped at Riva del Garda, a town located at the southern extremity of the Alps – still in Trentino-Alto Adige but on the edge of the Italian Veneto region and on our way back to Lombardia.

It was still rather early in my regional journeys but I was certainly getting a very clear picture of the culinary diversity of this country.   “You will see as we visit each region, “ said Paolo, “all the many well-known civilizations that impacted Italy – the Etruscans, Romans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs. I could go on and on.”

In Riva del Garda, we chose a trattoria tucked away in a backstreet just off the main square with a warm and bustling atmosphere and a menu filled with some gutsy flavors. It was clear that we were in the more Italian part of the region – not a German sauerkraut dish or a canederli to be found. But still speck was on the menu mostly as an ingredient in several pasta dishes. I chose one with a cauliflower and speck sauce.   The lightly smoked flavor of speck combined beautifully with the distinct nutty, slightly bitter taste of cauliflower.

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Pasta with Cauliflower and Speck
Serves 3 – 4

1-pound pasta cooked al dente
1 head of cauliflower (approximately 1 ½ pound, cut into small florets (end result after trimmed and cored, will be approximately 1 pound or 4 ½ cups)
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chopped onion
1-tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 oz. speck diced
pinch of chili pepper flakes *
¼ cup dry white wine
zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Garnish
minced Italian parsley
Grated Parmesan

 

Melt the butter with the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and the cauliflower and sauté for approximately 10 minutes until cauliflower begins to brown. Remove the cauliflower and onion and set aside

In same pan, add 1-tablespoon olive oil

Sauté speck until browned – about one minute. Add garlic continue sautéing for one more minute. Add chili pepper flakes. Mix well. Deglaze pan with the wine. Add cauliflower back into pan. Add lemon juice and lemon zest.

Serve mixed with pasta

*for those who like a little more spice in their food, increase the pinch to a larger pinch

 

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At this point in my regional Italian journeys I had visited enough “traditional” regions to be able to embrace the diversity of some of the less traditional ones. It had been both Paolo’s and my desire that our café and market represent the cuisine of all regions of Italy. But eventually I would discover that many dishes – like those of this region in particular – were not always well received by our customers. “Crauti” with spareribs, which I prepared for the market hot case on many occasions just didn’t sell. After several attempts we dropped it from our selection. And” Jota”, a cabbage and red bean soup from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, went down the same path. When offering it as the soup of the day in the café there were very few takers. Even though I usually described those items and others by their regional history, customers simply did not recognize them as “real Italian”.

However, as time has gone on, the love for Italian food and wine in America has increased exponentially. American tastes have become more sophisticated and more adventuresome which has allowed some of our more remote regional Italian dishes to catch on. Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmesan) from Campania (a dish also claimed by Sicily), could be enjoyed as well as Lasagna Calabrese (meat, egg & artichoke lasagna from Calabria; or Risotto alla Milanese (risotto with saffron) from Lombardia and Trenette col Pesto (noodles with pesto) from Liguria.   Spaghetti and meatballs and Fettuccine al Fredo were still wildly popular (and are to this day) but customers began to be more adventuresome and order risottos, polentas and pasta dishes with other compelling sauces like Matriciana (tomato and pancetta) and Carbonara (egg, cream, and pancetta) – two dishes from the central region of Lazio.   So on one hand, there was a widening acceptance of Italy’s diversity but on the other – some dishes still crossed the line for American taste. Sauerkraut on Convito’s menu was just never going to make it.

 

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Our dinner in Riva del Garda was an incredibly satisfying meal to cap off an incredibly satisfying trip. Though brief, I was happy to add it to my ever-expanding appreciation for Italy’s diversity. Wanda’s words of wisdom often came back to me during my intense Italian learning experience; “La ricchezza della cucina italiana risiede nella sua diversita?” (The richness of Italian cuisine lies in its diversity). This I realized more with each new journey. Peeling back those layers to discover who and how and why a region’s culinary dimensions came about appealed to both my love of history as well as my love of food. It is the layering of a region, actually the layering of the world that makes everything so compelling – so very interesting.

With the mountains rising in back of us, we drove along the shores of the great Lake Garda, finally reaching the highway where Paolo stepped on the accelerator and took me on yet another of his infamous high-speed rides back to Milan. Viva Italia!

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Marche “What’s In A Name?”

bob_b_via_fed_barocci-ccvers-17-01-10A desire to connect to our past is a part of all us, no matter who we are or where we come from. To know where our ancestors called home, to understand what their everyday lives were like and to appreciate what they achieved during their lifetime allows us to paint a picture of the seeds of our own selves and is a natural step in trying to finding meaning in the brief time we spend on earth.

That desire was most certainly present in my then husband Bob when we traveled to the Marche (mar-ké) region back in 1981. The origins of his surname had generated considerable discussion in the Barocci household over the years, but the family was aware of only one other Barocci (other than immediate family) that bore their surname. That was Federico Barocci, the famous Renaissance painter and printmaker born in Urbino, Marche. We were in the area, so why not visit the painter’s birthplace? Even if we discovered nothing in particular about the Barocci name we could at least wonder at his paintings housed in the famous Palazzo Ducale, long considered one of the finest collections of Renaissance paintings in all of Italy.

Bob, Paolo and I were visiting close by Ravenna so the drive would be under two hours. I had never seen any original Federico Baroccis, but my ex-mother-in-law – Mary Barocci – would send a card every Christmas with a reproduction of one of his religious paintings on the cover. I incorrectly assumed that this gesture indicated evidence of a family connection but later learned that sending those cards was nothing more than a sincere appreciation of the artist’s work (and perhaps some wishful thinking!). So on to Urbino we went. Bob joked that he wanted to walk its cobbled, narrow streets to feel the presence of what he presumed would be some ancestral murmurings. We were all game and a little excited to be included on what felt like a familial treasure hunt.

Urbino is an imposing Renaissance town sitting on a high sloping hillside. It was quite cold that morning with threatening clouds looming on the horizon so it was not to be a leisurely stroll. We parked at the base of the village, but to get to the center of this village perched high in the mountainside we had two choices – either to slog up the very steep main street or to take the lift inside the information office to the top of the town. We of course, chose the latter. It was too cold for long slogs.

Paolo and I in Urbino

Paolo and I in Urbino

Urbino’s vibe of historical importance became clear to us as we made our way through its narrow streets. My partner Paolo – always the well-informed guide – briefed us on the history of the town especially highlighting the cultural flowering in the 15th century under the most famous of the Dukes of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. He was a passionate enthusiast and patron of the arts and his influence defined the city under his rule and is still felt all these decades later. A diptych of the Duke painted by Piero della Francesca is one of the most famous works of art of the Italian Renaissance. It depicts the Duke and his wife Battista Sforza staring deeply (or so it appears) into one another’s eyes. It still hangs to this day in the renowned Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Double portrait of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, Piero della Francesca, c. 1465-72. Galleria degli Uffizi.

Double portrait of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, Piero della Francesca, c. 1465-72. Galleria degli Uffizi.

Federico Barocci "Virgin and Child with Saints," circa 1567

Federico Barocci “Virgin and Child with Saints,” circa 1567

Our first stop was the Palazzo Ducale, A UNESCO World Heritage site and the town’s most important monument. We were especially interested in the National Gallery housed in the Palazzo where we could view the Federico Barocci paintings hanging in the context of other famous painters like Raphael and Titian. Barocci mostly painted religious works especially alter-pieces and Madonna figures. I was certain I recognized some of his paintings from the Christmas cards Mary Barocci sent.

Fortunately (and characteristically) for us, such intense cultural appreciation stirs not just the imagination but also the appetite. Before we continued our “Barocci search” we decided it was time for a little lunch. Down a quiet side street not far from the Palace we discovered a cozy rustic restaurant whose name I cannot remember, but whose atmosphere warmed us up and fit our contemplative mood.

I ordered a soup called Lumachelle all’Urbinate and according to our waiter, the soup was also referred to as Piatto alla Beatrice Sforza Duchessa d’Urbino named after Beatrice Sforza, the daughter of the famous Duke of Urbino (1475-1497) considered one of the most beautiful princesses of the Renaissance. Many Urbino dishes he told us were named after the Duchess; “perhaps her beauty inspired chefs to name dishes after her…” Paolo whispered in my ear “…because I’m certain she never came near a kitchen”.

This soup was delicious. The pasta Lumachelle (little snails), along with an assortment of Italian sausage and chicken livers typical of the region, made for a satisfying but still light lunch. Of course, we required lots of bread to mop up every drop of the soup, so maybe it wasn’t such a light lunch in the end!

 

© rob warner photography 2017

© rob warner photography 2017

Zuppa all’Urbinate.
Serves 6 – 8

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon finely minced onion
1-½ cups diced carrots
2 cups cabbage cup into strips
2 mild Italian sausages squeezed out of their skins and coarsely chopped
2 – 3 chicken livers chopped into small pieces
1 cup of diced tomatoes drained
4 cups beef stock
salt and pepper
small pasta like small shells, lumachelle or cavatappi- any small pasta could be substituted.
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Melt the butter with the olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the onions and sauté until soft – approximately 1 minute. Add the sausage and sauté another 2 – 3 minutes until it has lost its raw red color. Add the chicken livers, carrots and cabbage and sauté for approximately 5 minutes mixing and stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes. Continue stirring and simmer over low heat until all ingredients have melded. Add the beef stock, salt and pepper and continue simmer for another 10 – 15 minutes.

In the meantime cook the pasta al dente and set aside. I prefer not to cook the pasta in the soup but rather cook it in water and add it to the soup right before serving. If pasta is left in soup for any length of time it gets mushy. I cooked 2 cups of dry pasta for this recipe then added about 1/3 cup into each soup bowl. Then grated the soup with freshly grated Parmesan.

 

While there, we also ordered a bottle of one of the region’s best wines – the pride and joy of Marche – Bucci Verdicchio Classico Dei Castelli di Jesi. The Bucci family has owned the estate since the 1700’s and are known both for the great beauty of their vineyards and the enduring excellence of their wines. The estate is also recognized for preserving the best of classic wine traditions while at the same time revolutionizing the industry with many pioneering wine making methods. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the vineyard on that trip, but I did have the good fortune to meet the owner, Signor Bucci when he visited Convito during one of his marketing trips to the U.S. He tasted out his lovely Verdicchio, which we have sold consistently since our opening 37 years ago. Customers loved the wine and were charmed by Signor Bucci. It is one of my favorites – perfectly balanced with a distinct finesse and very elegant just like the man himself.

During lunch Paolo continued to read to us more of the Federico Barocci history. Most of his life we learned was spent in Urbino but he traveled and worked in Rome during two periods of time. During his second sojourn there he became quite ill. Suspecting that he had been poisoned by one of his rivals, he returned to Urbino for good working only two hours a day due to constant pain. In spite of his frail health he produced many great works and was considered the greatest and most individual painter of his time in central Italy.

Two of the artists that most influenced Barocci’s work were Raphael and Titian – Raphael for his grace and elegance of line and Titian for his sensibility of atmosphere and color. Most importantly we learned from Paolo’s trusty guidebook that Raphael was also a native of Urbino and lived just up the street from Barocci.

Fueled with good food and wine, we were determined in spite of the cold, to visit that area of Urbino. With whistling winds at our back and the sky continuing to darken, Paolo lead the way through the steep narrow streets of this lovely idyllic town as we rushed to find these famous landmarks. At points I think we were almost running and am certain we looked like a bunch of crazy people to the locals.   We were on a mission but we were also cold and running out of daylight! We eventually located Raphael’s house, but serendipitously along the way we spotted a street named Via Barocci. We weren’t sure if the street was named after the painter, but it didn’t matter. Our “photography session” began.

 

Paolo and I on Via Barocci

Paolo and I on Via Barocci

Paolo laughingly commented that, “Never have so many photographs been taken in this dark little passageway.” Everyone passing by looked at us quizzically, probably wondering what historic landmark they had missed in their travel guides. All of a sudden the darkening sky began delivering the large snowflakes it had been threatening all day. As conditions quickly turned toward a blizzard, we hastily put away our cameras, buttoned up our thin jackets and raced to the warmth of our car. It had been a fun and invigorating hunt – each step accompanied by much laughter – but now it was time to go!

Not long after we left town, the snow eventually stopped and the skies cleared revealing the multi-faceted beauty of one of Italy’s hidden gems. Our drive through what was known as “bucolic Marche” was spectacular. We went from twisting roads high up in the dramatic Apennine mountain range to a coastal highway skirting the Adriatic Sea in less than an hour. In between was rich, fertile unspoiled farmland blanketed primarily in olive trees and grape vines. Every so often we would catch a glimpse of a rosy colored medieval village or an ancient rustic farmhouse.   As we approached sunset, rims of gold encircled the pink and grey clouds. The sun’s last rays twinkled magically on the rippling waters of the Adriatic then finally slipped behind the soft undulating hills of this incredibly picturesque region.   I was surprised I knew so little about Marche. “Undiscovered” is how Paolo described it. Not for long, I thought.

 

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It is amazing how nothing more than a name can elicit such deep feelings in people. Trying to discover the origins of one’s last name can be a real challenge, but once found the roots of that name can help give the searcher a sense of who they are, an understanding of identity. A business name can also communicate a type of identity. The right name frames that business’s concept and provides a certain image. Or at least I believe it should. Over time the name becomes your brand. In some strange way the name Convito – though only 18 months old at the time of this trip – seemed like it had been around forever. However, selecting that name took more time in the end than we expected.

Paolo and I decided to start a business together to bring Italian food, wine and culture to the United State long before we knew exactly how we would do it. We knew there was untapped potential in this country that I had fallen in love with, but we didn’t know what the business would become, let alone what we would call it. So first we needed a concept. In the beginning we thought we wanted to become a boutique importer of Italian wine. Wine from Italy at the time Convito opened was considered cheap and a distant cousin to French wines. We imagined we could become liaisons to the United State and introduce this country to the under-appreciated, under-valued and at-the-time hard-to-find world of fine Italian wines. In a previous blog (Lombardia II “Milano: Street Smarts”) I outlined those beginnings. Well…that idea was quickly discarded as way too complicated the moment we started investigating the tangled, impenetrable world of alcohol importation regulation and taxes.

Our next thought was the “Capitolo” concept. We knew we wanted to somehow integrate Paolo’s mother Wanda’s cooking skills into our business plan so we came up with the idea of a “club” where each member would receive a newsletter describing the wine and food of a particular region. It would include the recipes Wanda and I tested in her Milanese kitchen along with a list and description of three wines from that region that would also be sent to each member. These publications were called Capitolos (Chapters in Italian).

What Convito eventually became is an evolution of that idea. Although we ended up publishing nine Capitolos, we eventually decided that what we really needed to do was to open an actual market where we would sell all the wonderful Italian products we were writing about (and that were very hard to get!); wine, cheese, deli meats, groceries as well as sauces and salads that we would make on premise. We wanted our business to be a place where customers could actually smell, taste and buy all the ingredients for an Italian meal, and receive authentic guidance on how to prepare them.

Not only did our concept evolve but so did our choice of a name. The original name we chose was Il Fattoria Italiano (The Italian Farm). That name selection, however, was short lived. When we reviewed our concept and name with my sister-in-law Katherine Catalano during a visit to her Connecticut home, her reaction made us re-think our choice. “Not everyone knows what fattoria means”, she commented. “The word association will be FAT – not a image you want for your business.”

Hmmm… good point Katherine! Back to the drawing board we went – as did Katherine, a most sophisticated wordsmith. She recalls a research session she had at her local library with three books open in front of her searching for the perfect word to describe our concept.   As soon as she came across the word Convito, she felt it was the ideal match. Convito is an ancient Italian word signifying banquet or feast. The noun means banquet, the verb convitare means to invite to dinner. We were, as she pointed out, essentially selling all the ingredients for an Italian meal.

logo001square-CC120717After we all enthusiastically agreed to the name Convito, Paolo went back to the art director of his company for a re-design. The final artwork for the logo features two hands crossed over one another – one holding a glass of wine and the other a fork.   Both are centered under a stylized grape leaf. The ancient Renaissance octagonal pattern encases the center design.   It certainly conveyed our message about Italian food, wine and culture. To this day it remains our signature.

Katherine also helped to write our concept statement printed in all nine Capitolo introductions:

“Convito Italiano has been founded to accommodate the increasing American appreciation of the subtle pleasures of classic Italian cooking. Convito will make available Italian products of the highest quality – food, wine, seasonings, recipes and utensils – a unique combination of all essential elements of the Italian meal generally not available outside of Italy. Complimenting our products will be an extensive educational program including history and customs, assuring our customers and society members the joy of the experiencing, in their own homes, the total spirit of the Italian meal. Convito Italiano.”

 

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So much had happened in such a short period of time. Driving through Marche only 18 months after we opened our market, I thought about how my responsibilities at Convito had also evolved. As our business grew and our name and identity became firmly established, my time seemed to be dominated by day-to-day recipe creation and execution (amongst a million other details familiar to any business-owner). I decided to drop the stand-alone Capitolo concept and concentrate on integrating that philosophy into our ever-expanding marketplace.  We had grown from a little shop selling a limited variety of groceries, a handful of baked items and a slowly growing list of salads and hot dishes to an extensive market including a wide assortment of prepared foods, enlarged wine, cheese, deli and bakery departments, and eventually a café.

Vanda, Paolo and I in the original Convito Italiano

Vanda, Paolo and I in the original Convito Italiano

However, at that point in our development, I was still learning about this country I had so grown to love. I thought it was important to continue my research testing recipes with Wanda (more for the market instead of the Capitolos) but I also recognized how critical it was to Convito’s regional concept to continue visiting as much of Italy as I could to better understand the diverse nature of this very complex country.  I would eventually visit every one of Italy’s 20 regions (many multiple times) and I always found that it was on these trips that I was able to best reflect on our goals and plans for the future.  Distance is always good for reflection, especially when marinated in good food and wine

 

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Reflection had been center stage during our drives on that long crazy day and it was again time for more sustenance; more good Marche food! After checking into a hotel in Pesaro, a bustling beach resort town right on the Adriatic, we had dinner that evening on the boardwalk at a restaurant that featured Filetto alla Rossini, the famous dish invented for the town’s favorite son Gioachino Rossini born here in 1792. Rossini, known for his musical acumen, was composer of some 39 operas (including the famous Barber of Seville), religious pieces and chamber music. He was also appreciated for his culinary skills –known as a very knowledgeable gourmet and accomplished cook. He mostly indulged this culinary passion at the end of his career especially during his Paris years.

Like Beatrice Sforza Duchessa d’Urbino and her eponymous dishes, there are also many that include “alla Rossini” that were either created by him or by the chefs he supported and admired. He, unlike the Duchess, was actually a gourmet cook. The most famous dish bearing his name is Filetto alla Rossini also entitled Tournedoes Rossini. It is still served in many restaurants today.

Though many variations of this dish exist, I recently asked Convito Chef Eric Hammond to create his own, which ranks among my favorites.  Depending on the chef, ingredients change with each recipe, but the overall look of the dish is the same; a handsome piece of beef fillet stacked on a crouton garnished with either foie gras or white truffles or sometimes both.  The sauce is made with either Marsala (one of Rossini’s favorite ingredients) or Madeira. Chef Eric’s version substitutes mushroom caps for white truffles making it a much more affordable recipe, while his white truffle oil preserves the incredible flavor of Rossini’s version.

 

© rob warner photography 2017

© rob warner photography 2017

Filetto alla Rossini
Serves 1 (multiply all the ingredients for 2 or more)

1 8-ounce pc Beef tenderloin
3 large Shiitake mushroom caps, 3 sliced and one whole
1 slice brioche bread, cut into a circle as large as the diameter as the filet
½ cup red wine
½ cup veal or beef broth
Salt & pepper
4 ounces melted butter
1 pc compound butter
White truffle oil, optional (but recommend!)

 

Preheat oven to 375⁰

With a piece of butcher twine, tie the filet so it holds a round form, reserve.  Brush the brioche with melted butter and toast until golden brown, remove from oven and reserve.

Season filet, and in a sauté pan, heat oil until smoking hot.  Carefully put in filet, let sit in hot oil for 1 minute, then place in oven.  Cook for about 4 minutes and flip and add the whole mushroom cap cook another 4 minutes and remove. Let rest and remove the twine.

While filet is resting, start the sauce. In the same pan, add a little melted butter, add the sliced shiitakes.  Sauté for one minute and add the wine, reduce by 1/2 then add the stock. Reduce by ½ and add the remaining butter, cook until sauce consistency.

Put the crouton on the plate, top with the filet. Top the filet with the whole shiitake and then with the compound butter.  Arrange the sliced shiitakes around the filet and then circle with the sauce.  Drizzle with the truffle oil

Another typical Marche dish we enjoyed that night was Pollo in Potacchio – very simple, homey and incredibly tasty.  Potacchio is really defined by the sauce.  Its basic ingredients are garlic, onions, tomatoes,wine, olive oil and rosemary.  Very simple, yet always fantastic.  Whether ladled on top of chicken, rabbit, fish (or anything else), this distant cousin of Cacciatore sauce is the main event of any meal, and the protein simply a vehicle for its deliciousness.

My recipe uses dried chili peppers to add just a little heat.  The slow braised, incredibly flavorful chicken thighs are so tender the meat falls off the bone and the smell of this sauce permeates the kitchen –actually the whole house.  Potacchio derives from the French word potage.  When seen on a menu, Potacchio promises that what you are about to put in your mouth will be something succulent, savory and extremely delicious.

 

© rob warner photography 2017

© rob warner photography 2017

Pollo in Potacchio
Serves 4

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 cup diced onion
8 chicken thighs with skin on – trimmed of excess skin
salt & freshly ground pepper
4 fresh rosemary sprigs
¼ teaspoon chili pepper flakes
½ cup white wine
1 cup tomato puree
1 tablespoon tomato paste

 

Heat butter with the olive oil in a dutch oven or deep skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, onions and sauté until soft. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add to the Dutch oven skin side down. Add the rosemary and chili pepper flakes. Cook over medium high heat until golden brown all over – approximately 10 to 12 minutes. Discard the garlic. Add the white wine and deglaze for 1 – 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and the tomato paste. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 20 minutes until cooked through. Add additional wine or water if the sauce gets too dry.

Season to taste. Serve with roasted potatoes, polenta or pasta – anything that will soak up this glorious sauce.

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Although our trip to Marche didn’t really shed any light on the Barocci name in relationship to Bob’s family, the discussion it had provoked about names and their meanings had been most thought provoking. Discovering the history and meaning behind a family name I would eventually learn is often harder than it sounds. Huge data sets, wrong turns, misspellings and dead ends are common with any genealogical name search and were even more problematic back in the pre-internet eighties. Even today, with a plethora of genealogy websites available to would-be genealogists, the search for one’s roots is compounded exponentially if one’s grandfather was a foundling.

Bartolomeo’s three grandchildren: Bob, Katherine and Tom

Bartolomeo’s three grandchildren: Bob, Katherine and Tom

Friend and former-sister-in-law Katherine Catalano was the best source for Barocci family history so when I began writing this blog and reminiscing about my trip to Marche and our crazy search in Urbino for Barocci “connections,” I called her to remind me of the ancestral findings her family had gathered over the years. According to Katherine, Marche was never thought to be the region of her grandfather Bartolomeo’s birth. Rather the family thought it to be the northern region of Emilia Romagna – right next door, however.

Her aunt Kate (her father Louis’ sister) made some headway back in the early seventies when she unearthed a record of a baby named Barocci found on the steps of a town hall in Parma, a city in the northern part of that region. The date on the document was close to the date thought to be the birthday Bartolomeo celebrated. However, no one is still alive to verify that record or the details of that find so the family is still not positive that Parma is their grandfather’s place of birth. Further complicating things is the Barocci name itself.   It remains unclear if Barocci was the birth name of Bartolomeo or that of the adoptive parents?

Katherine also remembers family discussions about other birthplace possibilities – in particular Piemonte, another northern Italian region. But in the end, with the discovery of that document and the many family conversations throughout the years, Emilia Romagna – specifically the town of Parma – seemed be to be the most probable birthplace. Interesting I thought that both Marche and Piemonte border Emilia Romagna. One could only imagine where that little foundling came from before he was placed on the steps of the Parma town hall. Like much of ancestral research, often more questions are raised than answers provided.

The importance of a name, in my opinion, is incalculable.  It establishes both identity and history and is far more than just a label.  And although Marche did not deliver any ancestral Barocci connections, it did produce stimulating discussion and enlightening food, wine and artistic experiences.  It also made me wonder what a dish named “alla Convito” would be.  Which region would it hail from?  What ingredients would it include? And what would it represent both to my business and to our patrons?  It’s a daunting mission to develop something worthy of a name that has been a defining part of my life for many, many years.

I think it might be time to head back into the kitchen…

 

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Tuscany III “A Region For All Seasons”

 

tuscany3cc-tuscan_hills_-160920Beautiful cities, villages and hilltop towns are scattered throughout this amazing region drawing travelers from all over the globe to one of the most glorious and historic locations in all of Italy. But what has always drawn me to this region are the unpopulated places. Its seductive and mesmerizing countryside; the soft, rolling hills, lush vineyards; shimmering olive groves; and country roads lined with regal cypress trees – their elegant foliage piercing the Tuscan sky – is where I find the magic in this extraordinary (if no longer unknown) place.

A symbiosis with the land runs deep in the Tuscan soul. Enjoying food at its seasonal peak when it has just popped out of the soil or ripened on the vine is a part of normal everyday life in all of Italy – especially in Tuscany where so many local ingredients inspire their own celebration. Fettunta, for instance, (the colloquial Tuscan word for bruschetta) takes place each November in celebration of the olive oil harvest. After the farmers have picked, pressed and processed the last of the olives, friends and family gather to taste the results. Luscious emerald green, herbal, peppery Tuscan olive oil – arguably the finest in the world – is drizzled on crusty pieces of grilled bread that have been rubbed with cloves of fresh raw garlic. With this simple act, the celebration and appreciation for olio nuovo (new oil) begins – an observance in recognition of all the care and hard work that went into producing such a glorious product.

Embracing local, in-season ingredients is synonymous with “regional cuisine” in Italy. Farm-to-table, the buzzwords used today to indicate the use of locally sourced ingredients, is old hat there. What a home cook or chef was able to find locally and in-season was what was put on the table, and not because it was en vogue. Italians cooked this way because it is both cost effective and infinitely more delicious to use what your neighbors farmed, raised, or processed themselves. It only followed that those dishes took on a regional identity that continues to this day.

It was in Tuscany that I was reminded of my own childhood connection to the land – a connection that had begun to fade in my memory at the time. Growing up, I too experienced farm-to-table, I just didn’t realize or appreciate it. I suppose it was actually more like “garden-to-table;” my father’s garden. He was not a farmer but his summer garden provided our family with an abbondanza of good things to eat.   Actually, he was a teacher, coach and junior high school principal. Summer was his time off from educational duties and even though he had several summer jobs, he was somehow miraculously able to keep up with his very large and very lush garden.

Ray and Thelma (aka Mom & Dad) in the garden

Ray and Thelma (aka Mom & Dad) in the garden

I grew up with my dad, mom and two sisters in a small town in Southeastern Wisconsin. Cold weather prevented the state’s population from enjoying local produce all year long, but summer was different. In my family, summer was a particularly exciting time. We had a “Farmer’s Market” right in our own backyard where our father grew everything from gooseberries, strawberries, rhubarb, raspberries and grapes to kohlrabi, lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes and zucchini. My mother became his co-conspirator, especially at harvest time when our garden was overflowing with produce. Together they made grape jelly, raspberry and strawberry jam, rhubarb sauce and jar after jar of canned tomatoes.   All were eventually stored in our basement pantry and enjoyed throughout the cold Wisconsin winter.

in Dad's garden

me posing in Dad’s garden

When I look back on those years, I now understand that at the time I might not have consciously understood that a plump red raspberry would never taste as sweet as it did after plucking it from the raspberry bush the very minute it turned bright red. Or that picking zucchini when they were young and their seeds still soft and immature would make such a difference in their flavor and consistency. Or that my mother’s rhubarb pie baked in the late spring and early summer when the rhubarb had just sprung from the ground would taste so delectably tangy and so different from one baked off-season. But unconsciously that appreciation for fresh and local (and in the case of my father’s garden, very local), ingredients was something I would always value and would eventually put to use in my career as a restaurateur.

But despite how important those lessons from my father’s garden were to what I do today at Convito, it is the small recollections that still resonate with me. I remember how much my sisters and I looked forward to our father’s homemade grape juice, especially before bedtime and especially when accompanied by heaping bowls of freshly popped popcorn. Then there was his rhubarb wine, and though I don’t think I was ever allowed to drink it, I’m fairly certain that my memories of the sour faces of my neighbors indicated that it was not one of his triumphs. But his zucchini pickles became legendary in our family. They were tangy, somewhat sweet and sour and unlike anything I have tasted since then. Convito even sold them in our market for a period of time. But adding the burden of canning to an already busy kitchen became too difficult.

tuscany3cc-raypickles-160920

Ray Brussat’s Zucchini Pickles

2 pounds small, firm zucchini
2 medium onions
¼ cup sea salt
1 pint white vinegar
1-cup sugar
1 teaspoon each celery seed, mustard seed, turmeric
½ teaspoon dry mustard

Wash unpeeled zucchini and slice into thin rounds

Slice onion into very thin slices

Please both in a bowl and cover with water. Add salt. Let stand 1 hour. Drain.

Place vinegar, sugar, celery seed, mustard seed, turmeric and dry mustard in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Pour over zucchini and onions. Let stand for 1 hour. Put all back into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 3 minutes. Pack in 3 hot sterilized pint jars and seal. Process 5 minutes in hot water bath.

Note: Can be stored in refrigerator without processing for about 2 to 3 weeks.

 

Francesco Bonfio, chef of Arnolfo, Nancy (left to right), Candace in foreground

Francesco Bonfio, chef of Arnolfo, Nancy (left to right)

Another zucchini recipe I remember well was one I had at a Michelin-starred Tuscan restaurant called Arnolfo in Colle di Val d’Elsa with renowned winemaker Francesco Bonfio, owner of a boutique Chianti winery near Siena. The restaurant is housed in an elegant sixteenth century palazzo and we sat on a spectacular terrace overlooking the Tuscan hillside enjoying the glorious summer breezes and one of the most impressive multi-coursed degustazione lunches I have ever had.

Each course was a work of art and just as delicious as it was beautiful – so much so that my son, Rob and I sketched every dish in my journal.

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The dish I remembered so well was basically paper-thin raw sliced zucchini placed in a circular pattern on top of paper-thin slices of delicious beef carpaccio. The dish was finished with a fine dice of fresh tomato in the center then drizzled with Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive. Arnolfo is known for its inventive but unfussy cuisine using local Tuscan ingredients and this was a perfect example.

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

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Francesco Bonfio had visited Convito several times in the early eighties and now it was my turn to visit him. After lunch he took us to his wine bar in Siena just off the famous Piazza del Campo. He wanted us to see the elaborate preparations being made for the upcoming medieval horse race, the Palio, famous throughout Italy and much of the world.

The race takes place in the Piazza del Campo. The competition is between the 17 contrada of the town. As Francesco explained, contradas are districts within Italian cities. Each contrada is represented by a different symbol. Most are animals but some are mythical creatures taken from nature. In Francesco’s contrada, Onda (translated as wave), dolphin lanterns lined the narrow streets. The dolphin is the Onda’s symbol, its colors are white and blue representing the colors of heaven and the sea. The impending race would take place just a week after our visit, but extensive preparations were already underway. We were sorry to miss it, but as Francesco warned it is an absolute mad house and very difficult to get close enough to see the actual race anyway. Regardless, we were at least happy to have seen the preparations and feel the excitement in the air, though I strongly suspect my son would have preferred to experience the real thing!

Rob and I in Piazza del Campo

Rob and I in Piazza del Campo

After a tour of Siena we drove to Francesco’s vineyard – Il Poggiolo. We met Federico, Francesco’s father then walked together through the lush green vineyard to their home for a tasting of the winery’s most recent releases. The Il Poggiolo’s Chianti we tasted that afternoon was light in style, very fragrant and brimming with berries.

Most of my vineyard visits in Italy were in the fall just before or during the harvest. “Is the harvest your most stressful time?” I asked. “No,” Francesco replied, “spring and early summer are much more stressful for the winemaker. We are constantly evaluating and changing strategies based on the weather. It is actually a relief when the summer comes to a close and it is time to harvest. There is not much to worry about after that – whatever has happened has happened. It is simply time to pick the grapes, celebrate and look forward to the results of another harvest.”

Nancy with Francesco and Federico Bonfio in the Il Poggiolo vineyard

Nancy with Francesco and Federico Bonfio in the Il Poggiolo vineyard

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Candace & Rob on rocky coast of Tyrrhenian Sea

Candace & Rob on rocky coast of Tyrrhenian Sea

We continued to enjoy the rich assortment of summer fruits and vegetables for the remainder of our trip. My family and I were staying at Il Pellicano, a lovely rustically chic resort near Porto Ercole right on the Tyrrhenian Sea. This particular section of the Tuscan coast was very rocky and dramatic revealing yet another dimension of Tuscany’s lyrical landscape.   The drama was especially apparent when we took the resort’s cliff elevator down to the sea where the steep rocky cliffs provided a refuge from the world. The fierce wind off the sea tricked you into thinking the sun wouldn’t burn.   “Be careful,” I warned my kids. “Don’t stay too long or you’ll be sorry!” Of course, as all mothers are by their teenage kids, I was ignored!

 

Candace and I at Terrace restaurant at Il Pellicano

Candace and I at Terrace restaurant at Il Pellicano

The resort had several restaurants. We preferred the more casual grill or the outdoor terrace where we spent many lunches and dinners taking pleasure in the restaurant’s seasonal local ingredients; fish from the sea, vegetables and fruits from the land and delicious organic meats. As anyone who reads this blog already knows, I can never get enough of tomatoes in season. I order them at every opportunity, in salads, sauces or just plain drizzled with peppery Tuscan olive oil. For me they are the embodiment of Italian cuisine.

 

 

 

 

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Despite my experience with my father and his bountiful garden, fresh produce and buying from local farmers was not a priority in America when I was growing up, particularly not in the restaurant business. You could almost always buy and savor a juicy tomato from a farm stand or pluck it from your garden, but enjoying it in a restaurant was not at all a given. Today with the burgeoning of local farmer’s-markets and the vocal proponents of locally grown produce like Alice Waters (owner of the famous restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley California), it is finally becoming a part of the American culinary philosophy. Alice advocates that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally. That was always apparent to me in any good Tuscan restaurant. But now thanks to the passion of Alice Waters and others like her, it has become apparent in restaurants across America. The best restaurants in this country (and I count Convito as a very early adopter of this philosophy) now take pride in the relationships they form with local growers and suppliers. And those relationships do make a difference in what you find on your plate. A restaurant without the flexibility to adapt to what is fresh and in-season is one whose food will perhaps be consistent in what they offer, but not necessarily in quality and creativity. Convito has always tried to present a menu that has a consistent roster of dishes that we know we can make no matter what the season or local availability, but to also offer cuisine that can react to change. To me that is the mark of a successful restaurant: one that can both feel familiar to its clientele, but also fresh, current and occasionally challenging. I know for a fact that over the years I have lost customers because we didn’t have something that they had grown to expect every time they came to the restaurant. But if we can’t get the right ingredients (fresh, local affordable) to make it the right way (delicious!), then I don’t believe we should serve it. Most people understand and even appreciate this philosophy, but not everyone has the same priorities we do. To those rare customers who’ve left us for our “transgressions” I implore you to come back and try us again with this concept in mind!

 

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I had previously visited this part of the Tuscan coast in 1982 with my partner, Paolo Volpara. That particular visit however took place on a dreary, rainy day in late February, very unlike the glorious weather we experienced in the summer of 1989 when I was there with my family. Paolo’s and my destination was further north in Viareggio, also a dramatically beautiful seaside resort, but one that boasted more traditional beaches than the rocky cliffs of Porto Ercole. Besides those beaches, Viareggio is also famous for its carnivale celebration which had just taken place two days before we arrived. It is celebrated with a parade of giant papier-mâché floats many of which were still resting on the promenade near the sea, waiting to be dismantled and reminding me of Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” after Max has sailed back to his bedroom.

Paolo at Viareggio’s Carnevale

Paolo at Viareggio’s Carnevale

To avoid the rain we ducked into a cozy little restaurant on the outskirts of town. Since we were so close to the sea, the menu was naturally focused on fish, but I was in a different mood and decided to throw caution to the wind and order a sautéed pork chop topped with a seasonal blood orange relish. Meat rather than fish somehow seemed to match my mood on this dark winter day. It was delicious.   But what really caught my attention was the cannellini bean and potato accompaniment to the pork chop. I had tasted similar side dishes at several other Tuscan restaurants, one of which was in the Grill Room at Il Pellicano where I would dine years later with my family. There it was served with the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a steak made from the region’s Chianina breed of cattle known for both tenderness and flavor.

The citizens of Tuscany are often referred to as mangia-fagioli (“bean eaters”) because so many of the region’s traditional dishes are built around beans. If that is what defines a Tuscan, I suppose I am also a Tuscan in (at least spirit) and am appropriately drawn to any dish on the menu that lists beans as an ingredient. Because most beans are dried before they are cooked, seasonality doesn’t really enter the equation when serving them, so they are always on the menu and can be savored during any time of the year; in summer with a grilled steak, in winter with a pork chop, in fall as the starch in a fish stew, or any time as the main ingredient in pretty much any soup you can dream up! I am a big fan of their taste, texture, versatility and endurance.

I was determined to recreate this recipe. After much experimentation, one summer evening back in Chicago I had a small dinner party and served it (along with a grilled steak) to famed food writer and journalist Bill Rice and his wife Jill Van Cleave (culinary consultant and recipe developer, and now a dear friend). Of course I was nervous with two such culinary luminaries at my table, but at the end of the meal when Bill asked me for the bean and potato recipe I knew I had nailed it. Whew! The recipe was eventually included in his Steak Lover’s Cookbook. A real honor!

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Tuscan Beans and Potatoes
(from Bill Rice’s Steak Lover’s Cookbook)
Serves 5 or 6

1 pound new potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
5 tablespoons olive oil, preferably Italian extra virgin
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 ounces pancetta, finely diced
¾ cup chopped shallots
¾ cup chopped red onion
2 cups cooked or canned white beans, such as cannellini
½ cup beef broth
6 fresh sage leaves, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pat the potato cubes dry with paper towels. Line a baking pan with paper towels

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil, the butter and garlic in a large, heavy skillet – preferably cast iron – over medium-low heat until the garlic just begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Pat the potatoes dry again and add them to the skillet. Sauté until the potatoes are golden brown on all sides and cooked through, about 20 minutes, stirring and shaking the pan from time to time to turn them. Transfer the potatoes and any garlic that clings to them to the prepared baking pan and set aside.

Pour off any grease and wipe the skillet clean. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil and place the skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the pancetta until crisp, stirring often. Add the shallots and onion and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook until the shallots and onions are very soft but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes. (This recipe may be prepared to this point several hours in advance.)

Add the beans (rinsed and drained if canned), broth, sage, salt, pepper and potato cubes to the skillet and cook over medium heat until hot, stirring to evenly distribute the ingredients. Serve hot.

 

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My favorite season in Tuscany is the fall. Beginning in late September, harvest time is when all the tastes of autumn arrive; mushrooms, chestnuts, olives, wine – in other words all the best stuff! Visiting a vineyard during this time when everyone from the pickers to the vintners are involved in the most crucial step in the winemaking process – the actual picking of the grapes – is astonishing. It is an extremely important, dramatic and taxing time for any winemaker and to watch it happen in close proximity allows one a revelatory perspective. It is certainly stressful – but in a different way. As winemaker Francesco Bonfio said – “what has happened has happened”. But even so, there are other priorities and other deadlines to make adding a pressure of another sort.

 

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I was able to feel much of that harvest excitement during another trip I took in the autumn of 2000 with my daughter, Candace, her husband, Rob and good friend, Nancy Harris. We visited three different vineyards: Cappezana in Carmignano (described in blog Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”); Terrabianca in the hills of Radda in Chianti; and Monsanto in Poggibonsi. All estates were involved in some way in the harvesting of their grapes when we were there.

Though it would be impossible for me to visit the estate of every wine we sell at Convito, I have made it a mission over the years to visit as many as possible, and to this day those that have impressed me the most are the ones we feature in our store. After a winery visit I invariably come away with a deeper understanding of philosophy, the creative perspective, the passion, the hard work and the care that went into growing a particular grape, and in so doing gain an appreciation for how a vintner will change that grape into a wine with a character and history I can then recognize and comprehend. The same goes for olive oil and in some ways a lot of other products – like amaretti biscotti made by the famous Lazzaroni family. I wanted Candace, my daughter – and now Convito partner – to experience that same thing – that deep appreciation that makes the selling of wine or olive oil or biscotti so much more meaningful. So a trip where we had the good fortune to visit three different outstanding wineries was especially memorable.

Since our home base was located smack dab in the middle of the Chianti Hills close to the town of Castellina in Chianti, we became very familiar with the winding roads, the woods and the mesmerizing Tuscan countryside as we navigated through them each day to whatever charming Tuscan village or vineyard visit was next on our packed agenda.

 

tuscany3cc-terrabiancacampaccio2-160921One of those visits was to Terrabianca, the estate owned at the time by Switzerland-born Roberto Guldener one of the newcomers to the region arriving in 1987*. As we approached the vineyard, we noticed that our car looked like it had just gone through an old-fashioned Oklahoma dust storm. We learned later that the soil of the area is a combination of chalk, clay and sand giving the earth a whitish look – thus the name terrabianca – translated as “white earth.”

Everything about the estate from the labels to the tasting room reflected the very stylish, chic taste of the Guldener family. I especially loved the simplicity and class of their wine labels.   The red seal in authentic red lacquer, which takes the place of a label on some of their wines, is the height of good taste matching the lovely wine in the bottle.

 

Terrabianca estate: Candace and Nancy with Roberto Guldener

Terrabianca estate: Candace and Nancy with Roberto Guldener

After a tour, Roberto conducted a tasting of some of his wines in the upstairs tasting room. Most memorable was the Terrabianca Campaccio – unbelievably rich and complex. A blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, it was according to Roberto, the wine most representative of his estate. “It was created to express the Terrabianca philosophy – a taste of Tuscany and a taste of the world today,” Guldener explained proudly. I couldn’t have agreed more.

We ended our visit with a delightful lunch hosted by Roberto’s fashionable and lovely wife, Maja. Roberto stayed behind for the “working” – as he described it – of his vineyard’s harvest.   My favorite dish from that lunch was a simple salad of sliced fresh porcini mushrooms and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with the Terrabianca estate’s extra virgin olive oil. Fantastico! It was the height of simplicity and sophistication all in the same dish. But as I noted, it was mouth-wateringly delicious but impossible to recreate at Convito without the fresh porcini of the area. Molto dispiace! (Very sorry)

*The estate was sold in 2009 to Baron de Ladoucette

 

After driving away from Terrabianca, Candace, Nancy and I were almost immediately lost. I like to blame the spirited conversation that rehashed our experience with Roberto and his winery, the dust clouds that we couldn’t avoid, and (perhaps) even the wine, but whatever the reason it worked in our favor. One of the bonuses of getting lost in the Chianti Hills was the discovery of little gems you would never find if you tried to plan it. This time it came in the form of a little restaurant that we serendipitously stumbled across near the charming hilltop town of Panzano called Osteria la Piazza. The outside terrace overlooking the vine-clad hills of the area, was delightful. Sitting under earth-toned umbrellas we not only enjoyed the beginnings of a crisp autumn season, but delicious early autumn food as well. I so loved their farro mushroom soup, that we actually returned a second time at the very end of our trip to taste (and perhaps take some notes!) it again. The earthy taste of the mushrooms combined with farro was especially significant since we were in Tuscany, the region that helped to revive farro’s use.

Nancy Harris, Candace and I at Osteria la Piazza

Nancy Harris, Candace and I at Osteria la Piazza

Sometimes confused as a pasta, farro is actually an ancient grain that was used for thousands of years in North Africa and the Middle East and was brought from there to the Roman Empire. Farro is not spelt or barley, nor is it a wheat berry. It is complex and nutty and lacks the usual heaviness of whole-wheat grains and is to me the perfect soup ingredient.

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Mushroom Farro Soup

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped approximately 1 cup
3 carrots, peeled and diced into ¼ dice approximately 1 cup
1 large leek, white part only, chopped approximately ¾ cup
4 ounces diced pancetta
1 clove garlic minced
1 pound Cremini mushrooms, rinsed, stalks removed – ¼- ½ inch dice
2 sprigs thyme
¼ cup red wine
1 cup farro
6 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sauté onions, carrots, leeks and pancetta for approximately 10 minutes until tender, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, sauté for 30 seconds then add mushrooms and sauté 5 – 7 minutes until the mushrooms have released some of their liquid. Add the thyme and wine and deglaze the pan. Add the farro and the beef broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 35-40 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper. Discard thyme.

 

Getting lost seemed to be predictable whenever we made our way to a scheduled winery appointment in the Chianti Hills. Castello di Monsanto was no exception. I had long looked forward to visiting this estate – ever since I first savored a glass of their Chianti Riserva. It was like savoring all that is elegant and magnificently complex about Tuscany. It is, as one reviewer described, “a regal expression of Sangiovese,” the grape most closely identified with the region.

tuscany3cc-monsantochianti_classico-100508But it was the winery’s label that actually caught my attention before I even tasted the wine. The label in itself is regal – a soft hued painting of the estate’s sienna colored stone buildings overlooking undulating vineyards set against a crisp blue cumulus clouded sky. To me this seemed to capture the very essence of Tuscany.

Laura Bianchi – winemaker and ambassador of Castello di Monsanto – met us as we entered through the handsome gates of the estate. She is the daughter of the estate’s innovative winemaker, Fabrizio Bianchi. She now works side by side with her father and though biased, regards him as a “a genius winemaker,” a description which at the time seemed perhaps dismissible given her relationship with the man, but one that – after I met him – I would later whole-heartedly agree with. We first toured the impressive state-of-the-art winery and then – the real treat – were led into an unreal cellar that houses alcove after alcove of Monsanto vintages and special wines bottled and labeled for noteworthy occasions like “Laura’s wedding” or the birth of her children. Each alcove – some with iron gates – was beautifully lit creating a magical space.

After walking through a lovely salon where we signed the guest book (I was excited to see Andrea Bocelli’s name several pages prior!) and a stroll around the enclosed Renaissance-inspired gardens, we made our way to a small intimate room for lunch. Along the way, we met Chuck, their whitish blond dog – only 6 months old. He seemed like an old member of the family who proudly escorted us to our table. We would be reminded of Chuck throughout our visit by the tufts of blond hair he deposited on all of his favorite resting places, many of which were in the room where we dined. Like everything else about this lovely estate, the room – dripping with antiques and other curiosities – emanated a romantic Tuscan atmosphere.   Even the bathroom, where bunches of dried purple heather and goldenrod had been artistically arranged in an antique basket just to the side of the sink, was remarkable. How lovely, I thought and proceeded to sketch it in my journal. A possible ornamentation idea for me? Hmm…somehow repeating this atmosphere anywhere else might prove impossible to recreate. I never even tried.

Lunch began with a glass of Monsanto Chianti Riserva served with fresh porcini mushrooms simply dressed with Tuscan olive oil and freshly chopped parsley. Again – the taste of autumn! Before our next course Laura announced that her family loved fried foods, “so be prepared!” And so we were. What followed was an impressive parade of fried foods – rabbit, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes and even bread. How did she stay so thin I wondered? The batter, however, was a tempura-like batter – light and delicious.

We ended with a divine green lettuce salad simply dressed with the ubiquitous Tuscan olive oil and red wine vinegar, a combination that never failed to enhance anything it touched. The accompanying wine was Monsanto’s Nemo – a great Tuscan Cabernet. As one critic wrote, “To say that this wine tastes like Cabernet doesn’t do it justice. The bottle is Tuscan through and through and if you haven’t experienced it first hand, you’re doing yourself an injustice”. And here we were, tasting it first hand along side one of the winemakers sitting right across the table from us. I had to pinch myself.

 

Laura is a warm, talented woman – a former lawyer, athlete (five sports – including running – account for her svelte figure in spite of her love of fried foods) and mother of 2. She loves to sing the praises of her mentor father, the great Fabrizio Bianchi who we met at the end of the meal. Through him we learned more about the history of the estate. Aldo, Fabrizio’s father had purchased the property in 1960 after falling in love with the enchanting view from the estate’s terrace. Not long after that, Fabrizio fell in love with the wines he found on the estate and began his own journey down the difficult but rewarding path of learning the secrets of what transforms grapes into wine – and especially what makes a great Tuscan wine. “He was way ahead of the times”, Laura pointed out, “so I benefited from that.”   She joined him in 1989. Under his tutelage and alongside winemaker Andrea Giovannini, Monsanto has become one of the most respected wineries of Tuscany.

Laura, Fabrizio, Candace and I

Laura, Fabrizio, Candace and I

Fabrizio spoke about as much English as I speak Italian, but we managed to somehow have a warm and informative conversation. Lots of hand gestures! And translations by Laura. Always he had a twinkle in his eyes – just like his daughter. They are both known for their sense of humor. The visit was enchanting – just like the two of them. We said our goodbyes to our new friends, and were then escorted to our car by our new four-legged friend Chuck. He already knew how to be a great Monsanto ambassador.

 

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Fall may be my favorite season – both in Tuscany and in Chicago where I live – but I really love all of the seasons and what each represents. I couldn’t live in an area that did not have a clear seasonal cycle, even if at times I want to shoo away the dreariness and cold of a long Chicago winter.   Transition and transformation bring new things – new activities, new state of mind, new foods. I love those changes.

My Italian journeys have always reminded me of that fact. They have always emphasized the importance and delight of eating local foods in season. And though almost all Italian regions embrace that same philosophy to one degree or another, it is never clearer to me in than when I am in Tuscany. Maybe it’s because Tuscans celebrate the results of the wonderful products that sprout from their very lush, very fertile soil. Or that so many vineyards celebrate the harvest. Or perhaps it’s the ever-present olive growers. Whatever the reason, I find the combination of Tuscan ingredients and the Tuscan people to be a truly distinctive one. And that blend of people, tastes and perspective keeps me coming back here time and time again.

 

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