Sicily I “A Salvador Dali Weekend”

 

 

 

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Glancing out the window of an Alitalia jet on yet another of my regional trips across Italy, I was confronted with an image that was both unsettling and beautiful. Ominous puffs of steam and angry explosions of lava spewed out of the crown of an absurdly archetypical volcanic mountaintop set against an implausibly cerulean Mediterranean Sea that dominated the view from the airplane. I knew from the guidebook on my lap that this was Mount Etna, a perpetually active volcano that looms threateningly over this strange and spectacular island even during those rare periods when it is “dormant.” Full of contradiction, Etna helped create this island floating off the tip of Italy’s mainland a half a million years before I flew past it, but always reserves the right to destroy the land surrounding it. Both protector and enemy, its mineral-rich ash continuously feeds the local flora and shapes the taste of this great island’s indigenous food and wine, while its frequent rumblings never let the locals forget that a powerful force – one completely beyond their control – sits watch over everything on this island.

Needles to say…my Sicilian experience began in a surreal way.

I found myself at many points during my time there thinking of the famous surrealistic painter Salvador Dali who would have been inspired by many of the images we encountered during our long, strange weekend in Sicily. Dali was constantly blending the real world and his imagined version of that reality into remarkable paintings that defined surrealism. But the “reality” we saw and experienced in Sicily was bizarre on its own terms. And that was surreal enough for me!

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It was autumn. It was the weekend of “I juornu re Muorti” (the day of the dead) something we had not counted on, but that added a plaintive note to our journey. We drove from Catania to Taormina, a lovely hilltop town on the east coast where we would headquarter for the weekend. Every so often we could see twinkling candlelight in the cemeteries along the way where the living came to celebrate the dead by placing candles and flowers next to their loved one’s gravesites. “It is a very somber, yet joyful holiday,” Paolo stated. “By honoring the dead, we celebrate life.”

Green and grey were the colors that dominated my view from our car as we drove through the Sicilian countryside. The lush vegetation of the island was interrupted only by craggy, rocky hills; a scene I couldn’t help but associate with Copolla’s famous film, “The Godfather.”   I could clearly see Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone somberly walking the rugged, stony countryside with two imposing bodyguards always at his side.

The steep, winding roads leading to Taormina were too great a temptation for my former-racecar driver and business partner Paolo Volpara to ignore. Hairpin turns were his specialty. Ironic that my very first hair-raising drive with Paolo took place on this very island five years earlier during an advertising conference.   He and my then husband Bob had arranged a meeting with the European Manager Directors in Taormina. During a break in one of the meetings Paolo offered to take several of us for a ride through the village and into the hills around Taormina. I was invited to sit in the front seat. Thirty minutes of terror later we arrived back at our hotel all with white knuckles and clinched teeth. I was grateful we had not killed anyone – or ourselves. Little did I know that I would one day be back to this beautiful village with that same crazy racecar driver, now as my business partner and friend. By then he had convinced me that even though he drove fast that he was an incredibly safe and excellent driver. Excellent I agreed with. Safe – hmmm? I was never able to persuade him that a less excellent driver might come out of nowhere and it would be impossible to prevent a calamity. He’s still with us, however. So maybe he was right!

We had lunch in Lower Taormina at a restaurant by the sea facing Isola Bella, a tiny island and nature reserve tucked close into the harbor connected to the mainland by only a narrow stretch of land.   Our focus this trip was on Convito’s new bar, which was to be a part of our newest downtown Chicago location. So in addition to studying the regional food and the wine as we always did, we also wanted to sample some typical Italian cocktails that might become a part of our new bar menu – cocktails that would please the American palate while still remaining true to their roots in Italian culture.

We began our lunch with the Sicilian antipasto relish known as caponata. It consists of chopped sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, celery, onions and capers in a sweet and sour sauce. The name Caponata is thought to have derived from the Catalan word caponada – a similar relish from Catalonia in northeastern Spain. That makes sense since Catalan invaders came to Sicily as early as the thirteen hundreds. But as usual, there are several other stories about caponata’s origins. One suggests that it must have been a recipe invented on the sea as a mariner’s dish because of the large amount of vinegar it contained which was a quick way to keep food edible for extended periods of time.

 

Convito has a Caponata story all its own. We have been making it almost from the day we opened in 1980. The kitchen in our first tiny store was a 4-burner electric stove smack dab in back of our deli adjacent to our meat slicer. Waiting on customers, slicing meats and preparing salads all at the same time was difficult to say the least – especially the salad prep and cooking aspects of the business. From Convito’s inception, our plan was to offer customers an array of salads and antipasti that we would prepare each morning on premise. During those first weeks and months, I did the majority of the cooking with the occasional assistance of some of the more talented cooks on the Convito staff. But none of us had worked in a high volume professional kitchen and what I didn’t plan on was how popular prepared foods would be. It became impossible to keep up with the demand.

Quickly we decided we needed a real “cook” – someone devoted exclusively to that area of our business. Fellow restaurateur and friend Leslee Reis knew the perfect person.   Violet Caldarelli, a sixty-something housewife at the time and former owner of a Chicago school supply store was the answer. In addition to school supplies, Violet sold her student customers salads and sandwiches that she had prepared early in the morning. Her tuna salad was famous. She had also helped Leslee with her catering business so she came to Convito more than qualified. She actually turned out to be a godsend in more ways than one. Not only was she an excellent and efficient cook, but we also benefited from her outstanding customer service skills. One of the dishes she made each morning was caponata. Actually she made it several times a day sautéing up pounds and pounds of eggplant. “When they bury me,” she often said, “eggplant will be sprouting from my grave.” A perfect Salvador Dali painting! (Violet just turned 100 in March and Convito still sells her ever popular tuna salad named “Vi’s Tuna”)

 

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Caponata

1 ½ pound eggplants, roasted
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 red bell peppers, diced
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 – 3 heaping tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
4 tablespoons pitted black olives, sliced
2-½ tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Roast the eggplant. Chop coarsely. Set aside. Cool.

Heat 1-tablespoon olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion & celery and sauté until soft – about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, sauté for another minute then add the peppers. Sauté for another 5 or 6 minutes until peppers are tender. Add the eggplant. Add 1 more tablespoon of olive oil. Stir vegetables together and sauté for another 5 minutes. Taste salt to taste

Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the capers, olives. Mix well. Add the sugar and vinegar. Turn the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes stirring frequently. The dish should be thick and sweet. Season with salt & freshly ground pepper to taste. Allow to cool. Serve at room temperature.

Serving suggestions: with bruschetta or as a delicious relish on grilled fish.

Our headquarters that weekend was the San Domenico Palace Hotel, an elegant Renaissance-inspired hotel with beautiful terraces overlooking the Bay of Taormina and Mount Etna. It was built on the original structure of a former 15th century Dominican monastery transformed in the late eighteen hundreds to a hotel. Lots of “monk paraphernalia” was scattered throughout the lobby and hallways giving the hotel the strange feel of a fashion-conscious monastery that one might find in a Fellini movie.

Taormina itself is lovely. Often described as a Sicilian Monte Carlo, it was a nineteenth century favorite of the English aristocracy, a location where self-exiled author D. H. Lawrence was inspired to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is still a gathering point for artists and authors.

We walked through the winding medieval passages of the town in search of a suitable bar where we could begin our research on Convito’s new liquor menu. Until 1984 Convito had served only wine and beer. Our new bar would open almost immediately upon my return to Chicago, and I was anxious to make sure it had an authentic and unique character that matched what I had been doing with food for many years by this point. But not being a cocktail type – I was a wine girl myself – I was curious whether some of the local drinks might translate well to a Chicago audience.

My first was a Negroni, a famous pre-dinner cocktail made with Vermouth rosso, bitter Campari and gin. It was served on the rocks and garnished with a lemon peel and a wedge of orange. Too bitter for me, but the Italians love bitter drinks. “The bitter aperitivo”, claimed Paolo, “gets the digestive juices flowing.” Paolo ordered the Americano, also made with Campari (a dark red bitter liqueur), sweet vermouth and club soda. I was interested in the origins of the name. According to Paolo it was originally called a “Milano-Torino” and was invented in 1860 at Gaspare Campari’s bar in Milan. It became Milan’s signature drink, but it is said that in the early 1900s the Italians noticed that so many of the American visitors to the bar enjoyed this cocktail so it was renamed The Americano as a tribute to them. Whatever the story may be, it has grown in popularity over the years reaching an apex when David Niven as James Bond ordered it in the original 1953 film version of “Casino Royale.”

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Paolo at the shore in Messina

Paolo at the shore in Messina

Sunday was to be a day of exploration. We drove to Messina the 3rd largest city in Sicily known for its curved seaport (almost like a hook) and long and complicated history of power and conquest. Lunch at Pippo Nunnari, a restaurant with its own adjacent food store was especially interesting to me. I always get ideas from any food establishment that combines a restaurant with a market like we were doing at Convito.   My favorite of course is Pecks in Milan. (Blog – Lombardia II Milano – Street Smarts) First I was amazed that a store was even open on Sunday in Italy (back then almost nothing was open on Sundays in this very religious country) and then astounded at the number of people who crowded around the food cases making it almost impossible for me to even see what was in them. I did catch glimpses of pristine cheeses and a whole assortment of fresh and aged sausages. The food, the displays, the crowds of people reminded me of Zabar’s in New York, a food emporium that always seemed bustling even during non-peek hours, but in Pecks I found an authentic Italian perspective that I always sought to emulate at Convito.

We had lunch in the restaurant adjacent to the market.   The crowd appeared to be a combination of “after mass” folks and hungry tourists. I ordered the specialty of the restaurant and of the area – Pasta alla Norma – the famous tomato eggplant pasta dish. It is my kind of dish. Tomato combined with just about anything appeals to my “savory-tooth”. This very peasant, very simple item appears on almost every Sicilian menu.

 

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In Bocca cookbook

Whenever I write about a new part of Italy I always check the regional cookbook collection that Paolo gave me back in the early eighties – the “In Bocca” series. Each book contains regional recipes, wonderful art and priceless translations as well as great stories about the history of many of the regional dishes. In the “Sicilia e le isole” book it states – “the recipe for Pasta alla Norma derives clearly from Catania and maybe it has been called so in order to connect it with the highest lyric composition by Bellini (the tragic opera Norma)”.

I chose to use the Pasta alla Norma recipe (following) from the book instead of Convito’s more precise recipe.  It is much more vague and less specific than ours – sort of the way Italian home cooks cook – by feel and emotion. “Creativity should never be impeded by a mere recipe,” my partner Wanda Bottino would say.

 

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Rigatoni alla Norma
(from In Bocca Sicily)

The translated recipe follows: “Prepare a tomato sauce as usual and flavour it with basil. Cut 3 nice Sicilian eggplants into cubes, put them in a colander, salt them and leave them there for about 1 hour so that they loose the bitter liquid. Finally fry them. Boil 700 grams of pasta until chewy but not soft and season them with tomato sauce. Prepare the individual helpings and enrich them with some of the eggplant and a good amount of grated salted “ricotta”.

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After lunch we drove along the seaside through many tiny villages. The land was parched. The villages for the most part were poor with many of the houses displaying large patches of decaying walls where the stucco had worn away exposing old worn brick. Occasionally we would see a person or two standing in drab doorways looking out over an expanse of nothing. These pockets of poverty were sad to see but not unexpected. Sicily is one of Italy’s poorest regions, with low incomes and high levels of unemployment. Today even though tourism is increasing rapidly each year and adding to a growing economy, unemployment remains high.

© rob warner photography 2016 Chef Eric Hammond’s blood orange and fennel salad © rob warner photography 2016

Chef Eric Hammond’s blood orange and fennel salad

The first signs of fall color came into view as we approached the vineyards. A carpet of red and yellow leaves surrounded the vines and signaled the vineyard’s preparation for a season of rest. Now and then we saw a blanket of orange – the blood oranges of Sicily. Although blood oranges supposedly originated in China they are most closely associated with Sicily. They have a distinct raspberry-like citrus profile. A salad Convito has featured through the years is a classic Sicilian dish featuring seasonal blood oranges combined with shaved fennel and olive oil.   The licorice flavor of fennel works beautifully with the unusual sweetness of blood oranges. We have also at times added black olives that lends another color as well an interesting taste to the salad.

Novara di Sicilia, a small village nestled in the mountains was our next Dali-esque experience. As we entered the town we saw almost no one. The cobbled streets were empty and the stores closed. Silence dominated. We wondered if this was some kind of holiday or that most of the citizens of this small typical medieval town were elsewhere possibly celebrating the Day of the Dead. Slightly unnerved we hopped back in the car and shot out of town. Shortly after leaving Novara we noticed a portion of the road had fallen. No wonder there’s no traffic up here. The lane closest to the mountain was scattered with falling rocks. Strange, half finished houses – now deserted – appeared intermittently along the roadside. We went higher up the mountainside into the fingers of a cloud, which had deposited ripples of moisture on the surrounding roads and valleys giving the landscape an unearthly quality. I almost expected to see a limp Dali watch draped over the foggy mountainside. We were mystified by our findings – or lack thereof – so when we returned to the hotel, I looked up a description of this village in our travel guide and found a whole list of festivals celebrated throughout the year. We never returned and never figured out why the village was so deserted during our visit but chalked up the whole eerie experience to yet another strange occurrence in an increasingly strange weekend.

 

Back in Taormina we had a light dinner at the hotel then walked back to the center to sample a few more cocktails. This time we chose the Valentino Piano Bar, an upscale option not far from the hotel. It looked a little like a brothel – though a classy one – with velvet papered walls.   But instead of the usual red velvet these were blue.   I ordered a drink I knew I liked, the classic Harry’s Bar Bellini with peach juice and Prosecco. What is not to like? Later I ordered a drink with the juice of Sicilian blood oranges. It was divine. I can’t remember the ingredients (I neglected to identify them in my journal, an oversight perhaps attributable to the nature of this particular research!) so I asked my son-in-law (and this blog’s photographer) to invent one. He is our family “mixologist” always experimenting with different combinations of ingredients whether in new sauces or new cocktails. I’ve tried this cocktail and it is delicious!

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

The Palermo
Serves 1

2 to 3 ounces tequila
Juice of 1/2 lime
Juice of 1/2 blood orange
3 ounces blood orange soda
Lime wedge for garnish

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the tequila, lime juice and blood orange juice. Shake until well chilled. Strain into a glass filled with ice, top with the blood orange soda and garnish with a lime wedge.

Advice from Duke: “I use Silver Patron Tequila”

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Our last day was spent in Siracusa. I, a student of history, did not realize when I was studying Ancient Greece that the Syracuse I was studying was actually the Syracuse we were about to visit – on the island of Sicily – not in Greece. The traffic getting there was horrific. Several miles before entering the city we drove by the largest oil refinery I had ever seen – a whole city unto itself. Cathedrals of metal and steel penetrated the sky like a ghoulish Manhattan. The stench was terrible. Time to end the Industrial Revolution, I thought.

 

Nancy in Siracusa

Nancy in Siracusa

Ancient Syracuse, at one time one of the major powers of the Mediterranean, was a magical and powerful experience. Greek influence was not so much in evidence in the buildings near the port mainly because other invading countries had left their mark long after the Greek glory had faded.   Lovely billowy wrought iron balconies and buildings with Baroque facades revealed traces of Spanish invaders. Even though much of the port was in disrepair, I decided that if the graffiti could be wiped from the walls, a fresh coat of stucco applied on the now corroded houses and balconies repaired and refurbished, it would be possible to hear the whispers of a grand and elegant past.

Remains of ancient Greece, however, were spread over a tremendous expanse.

And what a past it was! Its ancient Greek theatre was especially impressive. Sixty-seven rows divided into nine sections with eight aisles is one of the largest amphitheatres ever built by the ancient Greeks.

We joined a group for a tour of the ancient castle Euryalus built initially by Dionysius I to defend Syracuse from the Carthaginians. A strange little man conducted the tour. He was clearly not a fan of “Americani”. His piercing looks at me as he said the word “Americani” sent chills down my spine. The American invasion of Sicily during World War II was a part of his lecture for some reason. It would have been difficult enough to follow his lecture if he spoke regular Italian but with his Sicilian dialect it was impossible – even for Paolo. I had a whole year course on World War I and World War II at the University of Wisconsin so I was familiar with the Allies’ Italian campaign. Their goal was to remove Mussolini’s fascist regime so as to divert Hitler’s attention from the northwest coast where the Allies planned their crucial invasion. It began in July of 1943 and lasted for 38 days. It was successful. I was sure that I had also read somewhere that the Sicilians welcomed the Americans. Maybe not? “Obviously,” said Paolo, “our guide doesn’t have fond memories of those days. It seems that he holds you personally responsible!”

Even so, the tour was fascinating. I stuck close to Paolo and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and just enjoy the scenery. The point on which the castle rested was incredible. You could see for miles in every direction. Certainly a perfect place for a fortress. We finished the tour, stopped at a beautiful baroque fountain in the center of town where many little makeshift stands were selling gifts and flowers for the Day of the Dead celebration. I bought a colorful little ceramic vase by the famous ceramic artist Giovanni de Simone who at one time studied under Picasso. Clearly you could see his mentor’s influence – as well as a little bit of the whimsy of Salvador Dali.  Later I learned that Picasso and Dali had influenced each other at certain times during their very prolific careers and that there have been exhibits and articles about their connection. Dali seemed to be following me around that weekend – even in my choice of a souvenir.

 

Our last morning in Taormina was gorgeous. We walked through the beautiful gardens of the San Domenico Palace Hotel before taking a final stroll in Taormina to view all of the ancient Greek-Roman sights and to have one last meal and cocktail before we left for the airport. We chose a lovely restaurant near the sea where we could hear the lapping waves of the Mediterranean brushing softly against the rocky coast.

Our cocktail research was coming to an end. After sampling many typical Italian drinks – and some not so typical – we narrowed our choices to three for our Chicago bar selection – the Bellini, the Americano and the Negroni. We also decided that it would be fun to invent a new cocktail each season – one based on Italian liqueurs. However, we surmised that the main draw to Convito’s bar would be Italian wines – red, white and sparkling – by the glass – a phenomenon that had not been around that long. In the fifties, sixties and early seventies, wine was not necessarily the drink of choice. Although wine was available in many restaurants, it was mostly sold by the bottle not the glass. Or if by the glass, the wine was simply described as white or red – usually neither very good. Cocktails like Martinis and Manhattans seemed to be the drinks of choice. Even with dinner. I love the old movies of those eras where everyone seems to have a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

But times had changed.   In the early eighties a wine culture was developing in America and Convito was on the forefront of that trend. An increasing number of restaurants and bars carried an assortment of wines by the glass exposing customers to wines from different countries and many different varietals. It was an exciting time for Convito and for wine in our culture.

Today our Convito Café continues the tradition of offering a seasonal cocktail as well as a selection of wines by the glass. We always have five whites, five reds and two sparkling wines available by the glass. Our wine list is comprised of mostly Italian wines but we also feature particularly fine varieties from France, California and other countries.

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Restaurant Manager Sarka Kalocajova with the cocktail our staff invented for Convito’s 35th Anniversary

Restaurant Manager Sarka Kalocajova with the cocktail our staff invented for Convito’s 35th Anniversary

Convito 35th Anniversary Cocktail

2 ounces Prosecco – Zardetto Private Cuvee
2 ounces Rosso Antico
Fresh Lemon Juice – from 3 lemon wedges

Garnish with a lemon twist

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I could not leave Sicily without ordering tuna, one of the fish most frequently found on the menu. Tuna fishing has a long history in Sicily. For hundreds of years, tuna fishermen used nets to capture the large Mediterranean bluefin tuna. Today the tuna are diminishing in size and numbers requiring certain restrictions and regulations on fishing but tuna continues to be the most popular fish in this region. The following recipe is another from the “In Bocca” series cookbook.

 “As tunny is a common fish here, we give you an easy recipe to prepare it. Cut 1 not thick slice of tunny per person and arrange them on the bottom of a baking pan greased with oil. Cover the slices with a layer of breadcrumbs and dot the surface with pieces of peeled tomatoes, salted capers, (previously washed) and chopped green onions. Salt, moisten with a drop of oil and bake for 35 – 40 minutes in a medium hot oven.

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Baked Tuna alla Siciliana
Nancy version; slightly changed (and much more exact!)
Serves 2

 

1 pound fresh tuna steak (3/4 inch thick
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (I used basil extra virgin olive oil)
sea salt
pinch of dried chili pepper flakes
1/3 cup chopped black olives
2 tablespoons capers – rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
¾ cup grape or cherry tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Dry tuna steak. Spread some of the olive oil on the bottom of a baking dish. Rub some of oil on tuna. Sprinkle with sea salt and chili pepper flakes. Place olives, capers, basil and tomatoes on top of tuna. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and drizzle with remaining olive oil. Place in oven and bake for 15 minutes or until the tuna is done to your taste.

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At dusk before we went to the airport Paolo decided our trip wouldn’t be complete without a drive up Mount Etna. The small hillside villages were soon left behind as we drove higher up the volcano. “Are you sure this is safe?” I asked Paolo as our surroundings became more desolate and foreboding. “Never know,” he replied concentrating on the road, which was becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. As we neared the summit I noticed there were no longer any streetlights to guide our way back down. Great! That would certainly be a perfect ending to our already completely surreal regional journey.

Looking out the window I was again struck by a surreal realization. Lava was everywhere. It had long since transformed from its initial red-hot, molten state and now took the form of the ubiquitous black stone that was used as structure: it paved the streets, arched the doorways, lined the sidewalks. Even vineyards featured black lava trellises. Black, black everywhere.

Shockingly, as we neared the summit we found ourselves driving over brand new roads that had already replaced those destroyed in the last eruption.   Oh, the optimism! The pragmatist in me found it hard to understand why people still live near this powerful, unpredictable volcano.   But the danger is not without benefit. Accumulated volcanic ash leaves a uniquely nutrient-rich layer of soil that has much to do with the fertile nature of this island. They grow citrus fruit, grapes, olives and vegetables in this enriched soil. Tourism also thrives as visitors come from all over to hopefully marvel at the fiery display Mt. Etna might provide. One is never certain. Mt. Etna is most certainly unpredictable and temperamental. But all things said, residents seem to have a strong personal connection to the area and a great love and respect for this volcano.

Looking out the rear window of the car, however, we could still see patches of twinkling candlelight scattered over the landscape way off in the distance – macabre leftovers of “I juornu re Muorti”.   Contrasted with the sea of black lava, it was an eerie, “Daliesque” sight.

As dusk gave way to night, Paolo and I found ourselves standing outside the car, lost in the eerie beauty of the scene at the summit. We might still be there were it not for the sudden realization that we were now in danger of missing our flight. So once again I was to destined to experience another “Paolo-Volpara-scary-drive.” This time it was reminiscent of the car chase I remember seeing in the 1971 William Friedkin movie “The French Connection” where oncoming cars were narrowly missed and traffic signals completely ignored. Its harrowing nature, however, seemed to fit the theme of the weekend.

Though most of the scenery flew by in a blur that night, one vision still stays with me. Not long after we left the summit, we passed a single wall of a house that stood amidst a petrified river of lava that had completely overrun the rest of it. Immediately next to it, another home remained completely intact – two huge streams of lava parting at the front door of the house as if some supernatural hand had diverted destruction from the doorstep. Etna’s power and cruelty became crystal clear to me with that one image. Rivers of recent lava (from an eruption just two months prior) carved its blackness into the mountainside.   Some areas of dense forest were spared while others were covered in blackness. The arbitrariness of it all was unsettling.

Somehow it seemed very appropriate that we would end our trip with this final surreal journey up and down Mount Etna – our fantastic and bizarre touchstone for the weekend. The events and images of our trip are forever emblazoned in my mind beginning and ending with this amazing volcano.

Ultimately we made our flight and back to Milan we flew relieved that we were in one piece and very pleased with our research and all the wonderful things we had seen on this strange and spectacular island. My surreal Sicily sojourn! One I would long remember!

In Bocca cookbook

In Bocca cookbook

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Emilia-Romagna I

“Assaggia questa e capirai la differenza”
(Taste this and you will understand the difference)

 

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Driving through the ancient town of Modena on a brisk, clear autumn day, I found myself scanning rooftops hoping to spot yet another one of Modena’s famous attics. I had been told that almost all of these dark, dusty spaces were crammed full of wooden barrels of varying sizes, all of which contained – but only after the appropriate aging period – Aceto Balsamico, aka Balsamic Vinegar. I had read many an article about the aging process of this illustrious “brew,” how each year the vinegar is transferred to a different wood barrel in order to obtain the flavor of all the different wood types resulting in a product of extraordinary complexity. Authentic, super-rich and syrupy balsamic depends on not only the quality of the grapes put into those barrels but also the length of the aging process, the timing of the transfer to the ever-smaller barrels and of course, the kind of wood being used which might be cherry, ash, chestnut, oak or mulberry. Ultimately, balsamic vinegar relies as much on the ingredients that go into it as the skill and care of the artisan making it.

The environment also plays an important role in the aging process. Modena’s hot, dry summers followed by humid and cold winters make for perfect conditions. I was fortunate to actually visit one of those attics with Neil Empson, esteemed exporter of fine Italian wine and a good friend of Convito.   The attic we examined – perched over a little rustic cottage right next to the restaurant we dined in that evening – was owned by the chef, an artisan himself. It was just as I imagined; a small dark space tucked under the slopping beams of the roof above it, smelling of the sweet and sour perfume so typical of Aceto Balsamico . To be labeled Aceto Balsamico Traditionale the vinegar has to be aged a minimum of 12 years, though some of the most highly sought after bottles are aged 25 years and beyond. In the dark, tight recesses of the chef’s private attic we tasted several different ages of balsamic each drizzled over slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano. The saltiness of the cheese combined with the sweetness of the vinegar made for a sublime partnership and I was hooked.

 

Modena, the home to Balsamic Vinegar, is located in a flat section of Emilia-Romagna that is considered one of the richest agricultural areas in all of Italy. Fertile fields yield sugar beets, hemp, and juicy red tomatoes, shafts of wheat, rice and maize. I clearly remember being mesmerized by the miles of grapevines lacing the countryside and the sea of rosy cherry blossoms whose trees would soon yield Amarena cherries – the finest, most succulent and intensely flavorful cherries in the world. A few miles from Modena is Bologna. It is the capital of Emiglia-Romano, but is probably best know as the home to Bolognese; a succulent meat sauce that you can now find versions of all over the world. A myriad of stuffed pasta dishes like lasagna, tortellini, cappelletti and cannelloni were also all first created in Emilia-Romagna. And a great variety of sausages also come from all over this region; Mortadella, the smooth textured delicate pork sausage flavored with spices, whole or ground black peppers and myrtle berries is one of its most well-known.   But perhaps most significantly, in just under an hour from Modena is the town of Parma, the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma both of which are staples in Italian cooking across all regions of Italy. There is clearly good reason that this region is considered the gastronomical and culinary heart of Italy. It has an embarrassment of riches born of the care and standards of the local artisans who continue to make this region so important to the country.

Nancy, Colleen and I tasting olive oil

Nancy, Colleen and I tasting olive oil

My partner, Wanda Bottino, loved and used Emilia-Romano products almost every time we cooked together. Parmigiano-Reggiano was a main ingredient (or at least a finishing garnish) in many of the dishes we cooked in her kitchen. And the uses for Balsamic Vinegar and Prosciutto di Parma were endless. Because of their popularity in the world today, all three have been copied – or at least there has been an attempt to copy them – though in Wanda’s opinion (and mine) mostly of those imitations are woefully inadequate replications.

True Parmigiano-Reggiano was her favorite.   “Assaggia” (taste it) she would say. “Casual” tasting would not do for Wanda. She wanted me to savor each and every bite – to concentrate on the flavors in my mouth. Throughout each session we tasted at every step of the cooking process making sure the dish we were cooking had the correct seasoning and was of the right consistency. Since my time was limited (I had to get back to Convito in the U.S.) we often cooked up to fifteen different regional dishes in an afternoon. Needless to say, it was sometimes difficult working up an appetite for dinner after one of those marathon sessions.

In addition to learning about taste, I loved learning product history. Emilia-Romagna had an abundance of fascinating stories to match each of its renowned products. Many dated all the way back to the Middle Ages where food was often more than just sustenance. Balsamic vinegar for instance began as a “miracle cure” for sore throats and even labor pains! Stories about intrigue and jealously particularly piqued my curiosity. Certain monk orders fiercely protected their cheese recipes from neighboring monasteries. They went to great lengths to keep secret the meticulous production techniques their order had developed through the years. The history major in me delighted in that kind of research – going back to the very beginnings of why and how an excellent product came about even though in some cases, the earliest stories were nothing more than folklore. However, folklore can sometimes give us a hint as to the true origins of a product. Great food accompanied by great stories makes eating so much more interesting.

 

I followed Wanda’s tasting advice when I opened Convito. Two to three times a year we open bottles of all our best Balsamic Vinegars and Extra Virgin Olive Oils (as well as other products), giving our customers the opportunity to evaluate the many oils and vinegars holding their secrets within those beautiful jars sitting on our grocery shelves. It is not so easy for anyone to pay $45.00 or more for a bottle of aged Balsamic Vinegar until they taste it and understand firsthand the difference between our offerings and something from a supermarket that costs a quarter of the price. An example is Villa Manodori Artigianale Balsamic Vinegar made by Massumo Bottura, chef of a restaurant in Modena. It is produced in very limited quantities with Trebbiano grapes aged in oak, chestnut and juniper berries. Why should it cost so much more than the bottle also labeled Balsamic Vinegar for $6.99? “Assaggia” – Taste it! The vinegar itself tells its own story.

Balsamic Vinegar Tasting

Balsamic Vinegar Tasting

When I first started traveling to Italy, the only Balsamic Vinegar I encountered was the “real” kind – an aged, slightly viscous liquid with a complex taste profile that was usually added to dishes by the chef before it hit the table or splashed on very upscale salads. Gradually I began to see bottles of what was labeled “Balsamic” vinegar sitting in the middle of restaurant tables – usually paired with Olive Oil – as the suggested condiments for dressing your own salad. It was not the good kind but rather a mass-produced vinegar with no aging – just added coloring. I was surprised. Traditionally red wine vinegar was the preferred partner to olive oil pretty much everywhere I had travelled in Italy.   I myself actually much prefer the tartness of red wine vinegar on my salad to the sweeter taste of balsamic, especially if it was not high quality. But as Paolo pointed out, the balsamic craze was new in Italy and was mostly found in “touristy” restaurants. He assured me it was in response to the demands of customers looking to be trendy, not real Italians who must have understood that this mass produced version was neither being used properly nor was the real thing.”

To this day I love to use fine, aged Balsamic Vinegar as a glaze for veal, rib eye or pork. Or sometimes I sprinkle a few drops over strawberries or as a finish to a stew. But I pretty much stick to red wine vinegar for dressing my salads. However, famous chefs like Mario Battali use it in his his fantastic Arugula and Parmigiano salad at Babbo in New York City. He actually names the specific producer in the descrption of the dish (Villa Manodori Artigianale Balsamic Vinegar made by Massumo Bottura). There is clearly room for personal interpretation when it comes to using this amazing vinegar!

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Nodino Di Vitello Alla Salvia e Balsamico
Serves 4

3 – 4 tablespoons olive oil
4 veal loin chops cut about ¾ inch thick
1/3 cup all-purpose flour spread on a plate
8 fresh sage leaves chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons butter

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Dry the chops and coat both sides of veal chops with flour. (Shake off excess flour) Place the chops and the sage in the hot oil and cook for approximately 4 to 5 minutes per side. Add the sage near the end of that browning time. (Do not cook too long or veal will become dry – should be a rosy pink and moist) When cooked, remove to a warm platter. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Add the wine to pan and raise the heat to high scraping up and brown bits and boiling until the sauce has thickened.

Turn the heat to low, add the balsamic and heat then whisk in the butter. Return the chops to the pan coating them with the sauce. Serve immediately.

 

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I visited the Emilia-Romagna region frequently with Paolo in the early eighties because it was close to his home turf, Milan. Bologna, its capital, is home to one of the world’s great universities. While Paolo attended a conference or a business meeting, I often wandered the handsome portico lined streets of the city – some 40 kilometers of arches and columns, Paolo pointed out. It was delightful to stroll around the center of the city under them – protected from any kind of weather – rain, sleet, snow or even extreme heat.   The buildings in restful colors of sienna, misty rose, faded reds and burnt orange emanated a calm, quiet intellect so representative of the city itself. Bologna also has a network of secret canals built originally as a source of water and as a major method of moving goods around the city. Though most of them have been covered over, some of these “hidden” canals remain. Unlike Venice, Bologna eventually decided that the fastest way to move people and goods around a city was with motorized vehicles. The city didn’t drain off or fill in its canals like many cities did but simply covered them to build roads and parking lots.   So many still exist (mostly running below the streets). You just have to know where. Some can be seen from a bridge or an alley or a secret window. Paolo took great pride in “uncovering” this charming part of Bologna for me. Never could I have found it on my own.

Nancy taking a rest in the “Hidden Canal” area of Bologna

Nancy taking a rest in the “Hidden Canal” area of Bologna

Perusing its many historic food markets was also a favorite pastime – especially the Quadrilatero market located off the main square in the central district of the city. It is an area packed with vendors of every kind all crowded into narrow little streets just like it was in medieval times.  Because I was a tourist and not looking to buy ingredients to take home to cook, my enjoyment of this incredible market consisted mainly of meandering down its cobblestoned streets gazing at the abundance of high quality food stalls all brought together in one spot. Smells of pastries, great cheeses and sausages wafted through the air, whetting my appetite and encouraging me to pause at one of its outside cafes to order a Salami Panini and a glass of Lambrusco (Emila- Romagna’s famous floral fruity red wine). It was also a chance to sit and admire the interesting mix of people dressed in everything from jeans to formal suits all in pursuit of great food. My kind of people!

 

Mortadella sandwich

Mortadella sandwich

It was impossible not to be tempted by the cured meats in this region. One lunch in particular in the heart of Bologna, a huge mortadella was displayed on a grand wooden table in the center of the restaurant dominating the room and filling it with its unique spicy fragrance. How could I not order a few slices to begin the meal? Delicious – smooth and savory, we could not resist ordering seconds.   “Can you believe”, Paolo mused, “ that this sausage is the forerunner to your baloney?” Italian Mortadella is, of course, a more delicate, better-seasoned cured meat than our American boloney. No question. But I have to admit, having grown up in the American Midwest and still harboring a fondness for simple foods, I am a baloney-kind-of-gal. A couple slices slapped between two pieces of good bread with a smear of mustard and a leaf or two of lettuce may not be a gourmet lunch but regardless, it is still very satisfying none-the-less. And being from Wisconsin where we take our deli meats seriously, a good ring bologna with the right amount of seasonings and spices and high quality pork and beef makes for a delicious Sunday supper alongside fried potatoes and maybe a little sauerkraut. (It’s true – Italy hasn’t taken all of the German out of me! My Alsatian roots often rear their savory-sour head).

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The city of Bologna is often referred to as “la grassa” –literally meaning “the fat”. Ever since the Middle Ages Bologna was known for its rich food culture. “The fat” doesn’t so much refer to the fat content of the food but to its abundance, its variety and its high quality. The cuisine, though rich and succulent, is refined. Bolognese sauce is a perfect example. The authentic version is delicate, creamy and subtle – in other words, a refined meat sauce. However, Bolognese in America has become a generic name for “meat sauce”. One critic a few years back commented that they preferred a spicy Bolognese sauce to the one we serve at Convito. Really a complete oxymoron. Spicy meat sauces are great (we actually sell one in our market called San Marzano Napoletana Meat Sauce) but in no way should the adjective spicy describe authentic Bolognese sauce. Our Bolognese sauce recipe begins with the classic Italian soffritto, a mixture of chopped onions, carrots, celery and garlic (the foundation to many Italian sauces) sautéed in olive oil. The meat is added, then the spices and then the milk, Not all recipes call for milk but Wanda insisted that the milk coats and protects the meat from the acid brought in from the wine which is added next. Although tomatoes are an ingredient, Bolognese sauce is basically a MEAT sauce – a slow cooked, delicate and delicious meat sauce building on the basic soffritto – the classic Italian start of many a sauce bringing succulence and flavor just like the French mirepoix.

Convito’s Pappardelle with Bolognese Sauce is one of our most popular café items – one of those dishes we would not dare take off the menu.

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Bolognese Sauce
Six servings for approximately 1 ½ pounds pasta

 

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2/3 cup chopped carrot
2/3 cup chopped celery
½ pound ground chuck
½ pound ground pork
salt & freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf crushed
1-teaspoon rosemary crushed
pinch of ground nutmeg
1-cup whole milk
1 cup dry red wine
1-½ cups diced Italian tomatoes with their juice
1-tablespoon tomato paste

1 ¼ pounds pasta
freshly grated parmesan cheese

 

In a large skillet heat the olive oil with the butter until butter is melted. Add the onion and sauté until transparent. Add the garlic, carrots and celery and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the ground beef and pork with some salt and freshly ground pepper and cook until the meat has lost its raw red color. Add the bay leaf, the rosemary and a pinch of nutmeg. Stir into sauce.

Add the milk and let it simmer gently until evaporated. Add the wine and simmer until it has evaporated. Then add the tomatoes and simmer very gently for approximately 1 ½ hours stirring to make sure the sauce is not sticking and flavors meld.

Toss with cooked, drained pasta and serve with grated parmesan

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In the summer of 1985 when I was in Milan to work with Wanda on Emilia-Romagna recipes, Paolo and I made yet another trip to this region.   On our way back from Bologna we stopped for dinner at a small informal restaurant in Parma called Degusteria Romani. The décor was simple yet tasteful. Paolo chose this restaurant because he was told “you can’t go to Parma without eating there”. The restaurant is known for its authentic Emilia-Romagna cuisine. Our waiter insisted that we begin our meal with some paper-thin slices of Prosciutto di Parma reminding us that this particular prosciutto is produced in the hills around Parma.   Here again, curing a leg of pork correctly is a painstaking process requiring the instincts of a great artisan. – instincts like so many of the artisans in this region.   With this carefully controlled process, the ham absorbs only enough of the pure sea salt to preserve it. Just like balsamic vinegar, the product is reduced in size (with prosciutto – to a quarter of its weight). The reduction comes about through moisture loss and trimming. That process helps to concentrate the flavor and gives it that distinctive full-bodied taste and aroma. 

Prosciutto

Prosciutto

So buttery the slices were, they dissolved in my mouth leaving a fragrant and salty aftertaste. Paper-thin slices of prosciutto are often difficult to achieve. I should know – I had to be trained on the meat slicer when I first opened Convito. Too thin – the slices fall apart; too thick – even the best prosciutto will be chewy. A well presented slice will always be served with a ring of fat around it. This lends flavor and helps keeps the slices fresh. The perfect slice should be just thin enough that the prosciutto melts in your mouth. Sadly, I was never an expert slicer (I always erred on cutting it too thin and then ended up snacking on the detritus of my efforts) but fortunately for me, many of our Convito salespeople are.

 

me about to learn how to slice prosciutto. Yikes!

me about to learn how to slice prosciutto. Yikes!

Italy offers another excellent prosciutto – Prosciutto di San Daniele (blog – Friuli-Venezia-Giulia “A Second Look”). For me, most domestic prosciuttos have proved disappointing, but one produced in Iowa – La Quercia is a fine substitute for the imported ones. I suspect it has something to do with the whole curing process as well as the origin of the pork. The La Quercia prosciutto artisans understand that there is no short cut to excellence and they have single-handedly brought excellent prosciutto production to the U.S.

 

Parmigiano

Parmigiano

We continued our meal with another well-know product from the Parma area – Parmigiano–Reggiano.   Like Aceto Balsamico Originale and Prosciutto di Parma it is made with the same care and exacting standards. We started with a bowl of tortellini in brodo (little stuffed pasta pouches shaped like a person’s navel) and, of course, plenty of Parmigiano-Reggiano grated on top. Then came a simple pan-crisped chicken with rosemary served with baked asparagus. The baked asparagus had also been prepared with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was the essence of simplicity: only 5 ingredients; in-season asparagus, local Parmigiano, butter, salt and pepper.   A wonderful side dish or good enough as the whole meal.

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Asparagi alla Parmigiana
Serves 6

2 pounds asparagus
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiana-Reggianno
4 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Trim, peel and boil asparagus until al dente

Butter a rectangular baking dish. Arranged the cooked asparagus in the dish next to one another in slightly overlapping rows. Do not cover the tips. Sprinkle each row with salt and pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano and dot with butter.

Bake in upper part of the oven for 15 minutes until a golden crust forms. Serve immediately.

 

The first recorded reference to Parmigiano-Reggiano dates back to 1344 discovered in the purchasing ledger of a priory’s refectory. It comes as no surprise to many that this cheese comes from this region where the monks had been experimenting with cheese making for centuries. Reference to it can also be found in Bocaccio’s 1353 masterpiece, the Decameron.

Real Parmigiano-Reggiano, referred to as “The King of Cheeses” is highly regulated. It can be made only in specific regions from mid-April to mid-November. That specific timing ensures that the milk comes from cows pastured on fresh local grass. Finally the large cheese wheels laid out in long rows in temperature-controlled maturation rooms are aged to perfection producing a marvelous cheese that is hard and sharp with a rich deep flavor.   When grated over any pasta dish – really any dish – it transforms the dish into something extraordinary.

Most of our domestic cheeses generically called Parmesan are pale in color and nowhere near the flavor of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Is domestic Parmesan bad? No, not necessarily (though what I have occasionally found in many restaurants in this country bears more resemblance to sawdust that cheese). Because of the cost of the real thing, many dishes contain the domestic variety – pizzas, lasagnas, Caesar Salad and many more. If the real thing was used as a main ingredient the costs of those dishes would escalate dramatically.

But when you are looking to make a simple dish superb, buy the real thing. It can easily be stored in your refrigerator wrapped in a freezer ziploc bag for at least 6 months. Or you can also freeze it for even longer. Buy a big hunk, split it between fridge and freezer, and bring it out both for your most important occasions and to transform simple weekday meals into something special.

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Complexities abound in two-worded, hyphenated Emilia-Romagna. Both Emilia and Romagna contain numerous important cities each with their own personality, each with their own influence on the region. Although I made several visits to Bologna, many of the other towns and villages I visited only one or maybe two times. Since my focus was on regional cuisine I always tried to order the dish or dishes the city was most identified by.

In Ferrara I ordered the classic signature dish of the city – pumpkin cappellacci with a sage brown butter sauce (cappellacci are stuffed pasta squares or rounds). It was a perfect pairing – the sweetness of the pumpkin and the savory of the browned butter and sage still linger on my palate.   Another vivid memory of Ferrara is the Palazzo Dei Diamanti, a Renaissance-style building whose striking exterior walls are comprised of some 8,500 white marble blocks carved to represent diamonds. There are so many beautiful buildings in Italy but this building, for some reason, remains in my memory.

Paolo in front of Palazzo Dei Diamanti

Paolo in front of Palazzo Dei Diamanti

One of my last trip to ER with Paolo happened in the autumn of 1985. We traveled there on a weekend to visit cities closer to the Adriatic in the Romagna part of the region.   A taste of the sea prevails in this area especially in the towns right on the Adriatic like Rimini. Rimini is Italy’s premier party spot attracting holidaymakers since the 1800’s. Since we came in the fall, we didn’t see the ubiquitous array of brightly colored umbrellas that usually lace the 9 miles of prime sandy beaches. But we did see the blue sea and tasted it in many meals over the weekend.   A delicious fish soup called Brodetto was one that has always lingered in my memory. We have made fish soup at Convito (Liguria I “Poets & Pesto) that is more of a peasant dish, but this one was especially aromatic and fragrant using the fresh herbs famous in this area along with clams, shrimp and sea bass from the Adriatic. All along the coast of Romagna many types of fish are found on the menu (amberjack, mackerel, bonito, tuna, porgy) as well as seafood and eels from the lagoons in the Comacchio valleys, a series of contiguous brackish lagoons situated close to the sea.

The next day we travelled a short distance from Rimini to Ravenna where we marveled at the spectacular Byzantine mosaics in this Unesco World Heritage site. I was floored. Paolo told me story after story of Ravenna’s complex history, but I quickly realized one day would was not enough to take in the architecture, the mosaics and the culture of this amazing city. I would eventually return a few years later to further marvel at the city’s history, but spent hours studying it before I came back. This trip was one of the few times in my travels with Paolo where food and wine took a back seat to culture. We were so busy feasting our eyes on the many treasures of Ravenna that we only had time for a late lunch at a cozy wine bar. My memories of Ravenna are dominated by those early Christian mosaics and monuments, but I do remember being rejuvenated by an impressive fish antipasti spread featuring many gifts from the Adriatic and a fine glass of the dry version of the region’s Malvasia white wine – aromatic and perfect with our fish antipasti.

We had dinner in Imola just outside of Bologna on our way back to Milan. Although pasta is the favored starch of Emilia-Romagna, risotto is also a part of the region’s cuisine especially in the areas close to the Adriatic. I loved this particular risotto which to me defined the very taste of the autumn season. I have tried to duplicate the recipe – successfully, I think! It is hearty enough to serve as a whole meal by itself.

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Risotto all’ Imolese
Serves 6

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped carrots
3 tablespoons finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
4 ounces lean ground beef
3 cups finely chopped cabbage
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup water
5 cups beef broth
1 ½ cups Arborio rice or carnaroli rice
½ cup grated parmesan
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the carrot, celery and onion; cook until soft. Add the ground beef and cook until no longer pink. Add the cabbage and the tomato paste dissolved in warm water. Cook gently until the mixture thickens and the water has evaporated, about 20 minutes. (This can be completed earlier.)

Bring the broth to a steady simmer in a large saucepan. Add the rice to the vegetable mixture and stir until it is thoroughly incorporated.   Cook for 2 minutes. Add ½ cup of the simmering broth to the mixture. After the rice has absorbed the broth, continuing adding the broth, ½ cup at a time. Continue stirring over medium heat, making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and being careful not to add too much broth at one time. The rice is finished when it is firm but tender. The process will take approximately 20 to 25 minutes. If you run out of broth, add water.

When you estimate the dish is a few minutes away from being done. Add the parmesan cheese and mix well. Taste for salt. Serve immediately.

 

I am amazed at how many of the products of Emilia-Romagna are still an integral part of my cooking and eating repertoire. Grating Parmigiano-Regianno over my pasta occurs several times a week whether in my home or at Convito. Bolognese is my favorite meat sauce, which I happily devour a few times a month. Prosciutto is a product that always piques my interest whenever I see it on a menu, especially when paired with melon or figs. And although I may not have mortadella often, it is up there with my list of favorite sandwiches. My kitchen cupboard always houses aged Balsamic Vinegar, which I happily use as a condiment when I am cooking a chop or a steak. Even Amarena cherries preserved in syrup can occasionally be found in my household especially at the holidays when they serve as an excellent topping for ice cream or holiday panettone. But as much as I love all the specific products that I discovered in Emilia-Romagna, I think I may have been affected even more by the region’s ethics of production. The local artisans who create these essential Italian ingredients (both in this region as well as the rest of the country) consistently do so under self-imposed standards of care and excellence that I have rarely seen anywhere else. I have tried to bring that philosophy to my own life and to how we make food at Convito. I know that when we are at our best, it is because of this mindset.

Such a rich region with so many excellent products – all with great stories of their origins and history. A bonus to eating all of these delicious products is that I actually know their stories. What could be better? As author, journalist and activist Michael Pollan said in one of his many brilliant “right-on” quotes about food: “At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind.” It makes dining so much more interesting!

 

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Convito Café & Market: 35 Years of Our Love Affair with Italy

 

Inspired by passion and immersion in everything Italian, I launched Convito in 1980 along with my two mentors Milanese residents Paolo Volpara and Wanda Bottino. It seems like only yesterday! But when I think of what was going on in Chicago in 1980 with “take-away” food, Italian products and Italian wine and even Italian restaurants, it seems like another century!

with my two Milanese partners, Wanda Bottino and Paolo Volpara in our first shop in 1980

In 1980 with my two Milanese partners, Wanda Bottino and Paolo Volpara

The great Italian explosion had yet to make its way to the Midwest. In those dark ages of gastronomic exploration, many quality Italian products were yet to be discovered. Our original Convito staff – comprised mostly of good friends who were also good cooks – helped customers in that discovery process answering a myriad of questions like:

Q: What are those wrinkly red things in my salad?
A: They are sun-dried tomatoes (and in ten years you’ll be sick of seeing them in everything from pasta to salads to chip dip!).

Q: I thought you said you only carried Italian wine yet none of the bottles on your shelf are enclosed in woven baskets.
A: We carry wines from all over Italy, not just Chianti (and even our Chianti’s aren’t in baskets!)

Q: How is something “extra” virginal?!“
A: “Extra Virgin” olive oil is oil that is produced by a simple pressing of olives without added chemicals or cooking. It is the purest form of olive oil.

 

Janet alms, me, Colleen Houlahan (manager and partner), partner Wanda Bottino and Mary Nahser

Janet Alms, Nancy, Colleen Houlahan (manager and partner), partner Wanda Bottino and Mary Nahser

“Prepared foods” in the early eighties were either mayonnaise-soaked potato salad or wilted coleslaw picked up at the local supermarket. We offered an array of soups, sauces, salads and antipasti bringing customers from all over the Chicago area. Pasta Fresca was made right in front of our customer’s eyes.

Janet Alms, Wanda Bottino and me making fresh pasta

Janet Alms, Wanda Bottino and Nancy making fresh pasta

We were a revelation to many, though some friends remained skeptics. One commented, “Isn’t opening an Italian specialty market like a doctor specializing in knee cap surgery?” Though I had great faith in our mission, I have to admit, comments like that sometimes made me wonder whether I was crazy to be undertaking such a venture.

It turns out we were on to something. 35 year later sun-dried tomatoes can be found everywhere, Italian wine has the respect it deserves, Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a valued commodity and fresh pasta is no longer an oddity. Along the way Convito has adapted and changed priorities. We have continued to grow our award winning prepared foods selection and added scores of soups and sauces; we expanded our grocery department to include artisanal and specialty products not only from Italy but also from America and countries around the globe; we added an outside café. For 35 years we have been changing and adapting, adding and subtracting. Change is good for the soul. It has kept Convito relevant!

 

Celebrating 35 years has made me reflect on the many people who have been important building blocks on this journey. There are too many to mention in one blog, so I chose to remember the ones who were there at the very beginning of our journey:

Partners

Milanese residents Paolo Volpara (original partner until 1986) and his mother, Wanda Bottino. They still remain the essence of Convito. Milan is where it all began for me – where I learned about regional Italy – traveling with Paolo to all 20 regions and cooking the dishes of each region with Wanda.

Paolo and I in Lago Maggiore where we officially formed our partnership or Lazio – together in front of a lake – I think I like this one best

Paolo and Nancy at a lake in Lazio outside of Rome the first year of our partnership

CH29-35th-160211-sec_13_wanda_kitchen-2

Wanda and Nancy cooking in her Milanese kitchen

Colleen Houlahan (until 1990) GM in charge of operations and personnel.

Colleen Houlahan and me at our opening

Colleen Houlahan and Nancy at our opening

Candace Barocci Warner – 9 when I opened, GM in 1996, joined me as partner in 2008. She has become the essence of Convito 2016. “We cannot rest on our laurels,” says Candace. “ We need to constantly update and change with the times.”

Candace in High School working at Convito after school

Candace in High School working at Convito after school

Candace Warner

Candace Warner as GM and partner

Mentors

Leslee Reis – dear friend, owner of acclaimed restaurant Café Provencal who advised me on all things culinary.

Leslee and I

Leslee and Nancy

Maury Ross, president of the Wine House at Union Liquor who became my trusted wine advisor.

Maury and I

Maury and Nancy

Essential in my early journey

Violet Caldarelli – first Convito chef, catering director and master of customer service.

Violet Calderelli

Violet Calderelli

Karen Brussat Butler – sister and exceptional water colorist who provided the “Convito look”.

Karen Butler

Karen Brussat Butler

 

My original partner and dear friend, Paolo Volpara now lives in Turkey. He sent us congratulations and encouraging words for our anniversary celebration:

“Convito is alive because it is tasty, spicy, tender, sweet, robust and robust – but never flat. It has never been driven by fashion. It was Italian and European before it was fashionable to be so. Convito was – and is – curious at the table – and in life! That is why I believe Convito is still here!”

Trenta cinque e un centinaio di più

(Thirty five and a hundred more)

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Veneto III “Connecting the Dots: Food, Family and Traditions”

CH28Vento3-150727-DSCF9627-2

Contentedly sitting on the veranda of our lovely villa in one of my favorite regions of Italy – sweet, beautiful Veneto – I took a little time for one of my favorite activities, reflection. Surrounded by the ubiquitous vineyards and olive trees of this region, I sat in the warmth of the Italian sunshine considering the factors that brought me to this particular moment in my life and to this particular part of the world, and I recalled something that Steve Jobs once said; “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

The answer to why I came to this particular part of the world was easy. Family. It seemed only logical that the best place to share the feelings I have about food and its powerful and physical connection to a family’s story and traditions was Italy, the country responsible for crystallizing that awareness in me. Italy is a country that understands implicitly that enjoyment of an evening at the dinner table is more than just the mere ingestion of food. Food actually tastes better when accompanied by story telling, laughter, problem solving or just the simple act of reviewing the events of the day.

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Nancy and granddaughter Neko Barocci

For two years I had been planning for this moment – the idea coming one sunny afternoon when my 8-year-old granddaughter Neko and I were prepping ingredients for a pasta sauce we would serve for dinner that evening. She loves helping with all aspects of the meal.   She was especially curious about Italy and my connection to it. “Where did you go? Who did you meet?” she asked. At one point, she looked up at me with those big brown warm eyes and said, “I wish I could go to Italy with you someday Grammy!” Well, that was all I needed.   What could a Grammy do?

 

Immediately I began planning a ten-day sojourn to Italy with my son and daughter Rob and Candace and their spouses Angie and Rob W. and all four grandchildren: Rob and Angie’s Neko and Isis; and Candace and Rob’s Kingston and Kianna. This adventure would be an opportunity to share my 35-year “Italian Experience” with all of them. My four grandchildren loved eating pasta in the café and selecting candy from the market for their dessert. That was one kind of experience. But going to the country that inspired all that good food and wine was another. It would only enrich their Convito experience, I thought.

As with most young working couples, finding a time mutually agreeable to everyone was difficult. Once accomplished I began the fun part – formulating a plan that would be both interesting and enjoyable to a group whose ages spanned almost 5 decades – the youngest (Isis) only 4 years old.

Certainly the eating and drinking would play a large role in our travels, but my love affair with this country involved more than just my affinity for its food and wine (although that was a major part of the attraction!). The friendships I had formed over the years – as well as relationships with various Italian companies and wineries – rounded out and enhanced my experience.

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What better way, I thought, to begin our journey then a visit with the Lazzaronis, a family whose friendship dates back 30 years. My original connection with this famous biscuit family (Amaretti di Saronno) began in 1985 in the middle of a raging snowstorm in a nearly deserted Milanese restaurant.   Talking with one of the few remaining patrons, I soon realized it was none other than Luigi (Gigi) Lazzaroni. After establishing the fact that I owned an Italian market that carried his products, Luigi insisted I visit his factory in Saronno.   “Come tomorrow,” he said. “Do you think that’s possible?” I responded pointing to the accumulating snow outside. Predictions for the storm’s continuing intensity were pretty dire.

Unfazed by the elements and true to his word, I awoke the next morning surprised to find a car with chains on its tires waiting for me outside my hotel. Still snowing fiercely, the driver maneuvered me through the messy streets of Milan slipping and sliding all the way to Saronno where I met Luigi for a fascinating and informative tour of the factory and the Lazzaroni archive room housed in the 15th century monastery where he lived. Afterwards we had a lovely dinner in his quarters. That very memorable day began what was a long and very rewarding friendship. (Luigi passed away several years ago but I have kept in touch with many other members of his family).

 

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So here we were about to begin our journey at the very same 15th century monastery I had visited some 30 years earlier. Our visit this time was for breakfast with Luigi’s brother, Paolo and Paolo’s son, Luca. After a warm greeting we entered the lovely dining room. Several Lazzaroni family members occupy this beautiful, historic old building – each with their own quarters. Both Luca and Paolo and their families live here.

CH28Vento3-150725-DSCF9466The table was set with inviting platters of fruit, pastries and meats and cheeses. As Patriarch Paolo answered our many questions about the history of the Lazzaroni company (founded in 1888) and the family itself, he abruptly interrupted himself as he noticed that the slices of mozzarella on the platter of meats were still wrapped in cellophane. “Mi scusi,” he lamented. “You can tell that the men put this breakfast together (the wives were away on vacation) – the cheese is still dressed!”   We all had a good laugh.

After a delicious breakfast, the adults adjourned to the archive room while the children went for a swim in the outside pool. Seeing all those vintage boxes and tins brought me back to my visit 30 years ago when I first came to appreciate the genius this company had for design and marketing not to mention the quality of their products. It continues to this day. Convito still proudly carries Lazzaroni panettones and boxed Amaretti as well as an assortment of Lazzaroni biscotti. My daughter and partner Candace is now the buyer. Her contact is Luca Lazzaroni and it is my hope that the two of them continue this warm and rewarding friendship.

Nancy with Paolo & Luca in the Lazzaroni Archive room

Nancy with Paolo & Luca in the Lazzaroni Archive room

On the road again! Son Rob became the sole autisa (driver) for the duration of our trip maneuvering our huge white van through the highways, narrow streets and small villages of Italy with great confidence and agility. He seemed to be unfazed by the aggressive drivers on the autostrada and laughingly enjoyed the tollbooth salutation “Arrevederci” blasted loudly on a speaker after each toll was paid.   Responding with his own equally loud and dramatic “Arrevederci”, we all eventually joined the fun and added our voices to this Italian farewell rocking the van with much good humor. “Arrevederci” screamed loudly became THE Italian codeword of our trip.

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Rob with Van in front of Villa Costasanti

Two hours later we turned onto the long olive-tree-lined drive at the end of which stood our welcoming soft pink-stucco villa perched imposingly on a hill overlooking Lake Garda. Green rolling pathways led to various areas of the property. We explored them all while waiting for the villa’s owner to arrive and give us the grand tour of the inside of Villa Costasanti. On one side of the property was a vegetable garden overflowing with an abundance of produce just waiting to be picked. Next to the garden was a grove of more silver leaved olive trees laden with ripening green olives. Adjacent and flowing over the hillside was row upon row of vines dripping with clusters of lush grapes readying themselves for the impending harvest. And then came the most important pathway for the grandchildren – the one that led down the stairway from the terrace to a handsome and inviting blue tiled pool. The property was rich with the foliage so typical of Veneto – majestic cypress trees, pink blossoming oleander shrubs and a variety of other bushes and flowering plants all adding to the beauty of this soft, lovely region.

Lorenzo Boscaini, owner of the villa, arrived to welcome us.   Armed with information, brochures and an assortment of treats from a local bakery, he gave us a tour of all the beautifully appointed rooms inside the villa. We most certainly had hit the jackpot!  This was going to be a glorious week!

 

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Candace tasting an artisanal beer at Trattoria Villa in the hills above Lasize

Candace tasting an artisanal beer at Trattoria Villa in the hills above Lasize

After two days of travel, we decided to unwind and enjoy our first meal at a local trattoria recommended by Lorenzo.  Trattoria Villa was a charming little restaurant overlooking the rolling hills of Lake Garda, where we sat outside enjoying the soothing warm breezes of summer and happily allowing our travel anxiety to slowly slip away.   As the sun set the sky filled with twinkly stars. A sliver of a half moon hung plaintively above our table.

 

Many of our warm family moments that week coalesced around a dining table – sometimes on our terrace, sometimes at a pizzeria, sometimes at a restaurant. The long rectangular table on our terrace provided us with a whole range of eating experiences – casual breakfasts of fresh fruit and Italian pastries, equally casual lunches of savory antipasti – comprised of salamis and prosciutto (freshly sliced on our very own meat slicer), cheeses and vegetables from the garden – and more elaborate evening meals – some we cooked together – others cooked by a private chef arranged and orchestrated by our host, owner Lorenzo Boscaini.

 

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My best-loved meals were those cooked by the family. The cliché that “a family that cooks together stays together” – though corny – has a certain ring or truth for me. There is a magical camaraderie that prevails when each member of the family participates in a meal. Whether it’s filling the water glasses, stirring the risotto, washing the lettuce or just lighting the candles before everyone is seated, participation brings everyone together and prepares them for the meal at hand.

 

My son (who is an excellent cook) and I have spent many unrushed meaningful moments together in the kitchen. Focusing on the task of cooking somehow allows conversation to flow in a more organic way – especially with children. Maybe it’s because the food is the focus – not them and answering questions in this setting doesn’t feel as much like an interrogation. These are some of my favorite moments with my kids and their grandchildren.

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Our first full day in the villa was one of relaxation, getting organized and discussing plans for the week. I decided I would cook that night putting together a meal from groceries we had purchased on our way to the villa and vegetables from the villa’s garden. CH28Vento3-150726-IMG_1342After a leisurely breakfast I made my way to the garden accompanied enthusiastically by Neko and Kianna – always anxious to help. Tomatoes were sprouting from every vine just waiting to be plucked – juicy looking Plum and Roma tomatoes and an assortment of yellow and red grape and cherry tomatoes.   Neko and Kianna scurried between the vines hunting for the best, the plumpest – the ripest – and placed them in our garden basket. Kianna also collected some fresh basil leaves and Neko pulled a few red onions from the soil.

Perfect ingredients, I thought, for a fresh, barely cooked summer pasta sauce, one of my favorite summer meals.   “We like picking tomatoes,” Kianna said.   “But we don’t like eating them!” “It’s those yucky seeds!” Neko added. I quickly rethought my evening meal. I guess my barely-cooked-fresh-tomato sauce with the “yucky seeds” would have to be just for the adults. I would make another sauce for the grandchildren.

CH28Vento3-150726-italy_2015_250As planned everyone participated in the meal that evening. My son, Rob and my son-in-law – “the other Rob” acted as prep cooks. The main course for dinner was spaghetti with the “adult” fresh tomato sauce and penne with Amatriciana (a tomato pancetta sauce) for the grandchildren. Tomatoes from a can were somehow far less threatening to them.

Our spaghetti dish was the very essence of Italian simplicity and seasonality – something the Italians had been doing for years. Because it was our first evening meal at the villa and the ingredients for the most part came from Lorenzo’s garden as well as using olive oil from the property, I have named it “Spaghetti alla Villa Costasanti”.

 

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Spaghetti alla Villa Costasanti

1-pound spaghetti – cooked al dente
Extra virgin olive oil – start with ½ cup
1 medium onion sliced thinly in half moons
yellow and red grape tomatoes sliced in half – at least 8 tomatoes per person
fresh basil julienned
parmesan cheese – freshly grated.

Directions

Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until they are soft. Add the tomatoes and sauté briefly. (You want them to stay whole – just heated through) Add the basil. Stir well. You may want to add more olive oil. Taste for salt and freshly ground pepper. Toss with the freshly cooked pasta. Sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan cheese and serve

Isis cooling off in a fountain in Piazza Erbe

Isis cooling off in a fountain in Piazza Erbe

Eating was not the only item on our agenda. Sightseeing was another. Verona – just 30 minutes from our villa – was our first adventure – an experiment to see how the youngest of the grandchildren would endure. It was a test for the upcoming day trip to Venice – two plus hours away and not necessarily an easy city for a four year old to maneuver. After thirty minutes of standing in line to visit the Roman amphitheatre (security slows everything down these days) and much stair climbing and admiring of ancient history, (not very impressive when you’re 4) Isis near tears famously asked her father, “Why do we have to go up and down and up and down so much, Daddy?” How does one argue that case to one so young?

However, eventually there was a Verona highlight for Isis – a pasta lunch in Piazza delle Erbe (Verona’s most famous town square – the former forum during the Roman Empire) and a trip to the market where she very decisively selected a little wooden Pinocchio as her souvenir purchase. One of the highlights for all of the grandchildren – actually for all of us -in all of the cities and villages we visited – was a stop at the local gelateria. Italian ice cream is divine and what better way to end a meal.

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Lorenzo Boscaini

Lorenzo Boscaini

That evening we indulged ourselves with the first of two meals prepared for us by local chefs at our villa. Our host, Lorenzo gallantly spearheaded the whole evening making certain the table was set perfectly with printed menus tucked into beautifully folded napkins and a clear centerpiece water-filled-bowl stocked with a lovely assortment of flowers from the garden and floating candles. It was all quite luxurious! As much as I loved the meals we all cooked together as a family, there was certainly something to be said for dining under the stars looking out over the Veneto hills while just relaxing and being totally pampered. (And no cleaning up after!)

Chef Mauro Buffo and Chef Christian Montoli prepared many delicious courses that evening but my favorite was their simplest, Pinzimonio. Pinzimonio is raw vegetables with a simple dip, a Tuscan tradition that dates back to the Renaissance. Back then elegant formal meals and banquets featuring amazing grand centerpieces of raw vegetables were eaten at the beginning or ending of a meal. So decadent! Ours was not as decadent but I’m sure just as delicious. Emulsifying a combination of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, cider vinegar and Dijon mustard made this particular dip an absolutely perfect partner to the bowls of raw vegetables beautifully arranged on a table Lorenzo had set up to the side of the terrace.

 

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Chef Christian Montoli and Pinzimonio at Villa Costasanti

Chef Christian Montoli and Pinzimonio at Villa Costasanti

 

CH28Vento3-150728-DSCF9655My choice of Veneto as our Italian destination turned out to be an excellent one. I wanted so much to give my grandchildren the flavor of Italy without taxing their developing “sightseeing” skills. Short lakeside visits were most popular. The villages of Lazise and Bardolina were both close by and gave us our “sense” of Italy with plenty of time to get back to the villa for a swim in the pool. Delightful narrow streets lined with quaint little shops and lovely lakeside promenades offered an abundance of Italian charm and character.   We usually enjoyed a simple lunch – salad, pizza or a bowl of pasta – at a one of the village cafés.

 

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Venice remained on the agenda as the next big sightseeing venture but based on our Verona experience, it was decided that Isis and I would remain at the villa. The “ups and downs” of Verona convinced her that she would give Mommy and Daddy up for a day. Playing with Grammy was preferable. While the seven of them spent a very hot day exploring the canals, the intimate pathways and the exotic beauty of Venice, Isis and I had a jam-packed day of art projects, coloring, swimming and movie watching. The teacher in me even managed to fit in a “botanical” lesson. We walked around the property collecting examples of the foliage. Later we pressed them between two pieces of wax paper as remembrances of Veneto and our lovely villa.

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It was rare for me to make a trip to Italy without visiting a winemaker – very much a part of my “Italian Experience”. However, visiting a vineyard with children and participating in a tasting after a tour of the vineyards would not be appropriate. Since I already had the good fortune to visit the Masi winery on two different occasions and the owner, Sandro Boscaini, had visited Convito several times, I arranged for a tour and a tasting for the four adults while I stayed back at the villa with the grandchildren.

CH28Vento3-150730-italy_2015_719Masi is one of Convito’s favorite wine producers. We carry many of their fine wines and have since we opened 35 years ago. (see blog – Veneto I – “Fashion and Passion in Veneto”) Candace now oversees the wine buying at Convito so she was anxious to review the wines we now carry as well as to taste any new selections they might have. While the four of them spent a good part of the afternoon at Masi and Serego Alighieri (a prestigious Amarone winery affiliated with Masi), I spent a very enjoyable afternoon with my grandchildren. The adults were learning all about the nuances of several new Masi wines while I was learning the nuances of the Kid’s Club formed just days ago by my four precocious grandchildren. Not only did they inform me of their clandestine activities but they also told me the Kid’s Club password revealed only to members. I was, of course, honored but sworn to secrecy!

 

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My focus when I travel to Italy is always regional. I like to drink the regional wine and taste the regional dishes. So, of course, I wanted to cook at least one regional dish for one of our evening meals. That kind of diversity has always been reflected on our restaurant menus. I decided upon risotto with radicchio, a typical dish of the Veneto. In my version I added pancetta and toasted pinenuts.

CH28Vento3-150730-italy_2015_777Once again everyone participated in this meal, the last we would cook together in Italy – at least for this trip. Isis had already done her part that afternoon while her parents were at the Masi winery. She helped me pick more tomatoes from the garden and filled the centerpiece bowl with pink and rose flowers snipped from the oleander bushes. I knew I could easily elicit the help of the other three grandchildren. Happily I had witnessed their burgeoning interest in cooking over the past couple years.   Kingston, Kianna and Neko had even participated in a cooking class in the Convito kitchen. (see blog Liguria II “Expect the Unexpected”)

Son-in-law Rob resumed his roll as prep cook readying all the vegetables for the risotto and the salad while son Rob and I shared cooking duties. Co-chefs I guess you could call us. Candace formed a front-of-the-house labor force comprised of Isis, Neko and Kianna. They set the table, poured the water, took drink orders and sliced the bread placing it into a breadbasket on the table. Neko and Kianna then assembled one of Angie’s favorite Italian dishes, Caprese – arranging alternate slices of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella on a ceramic platter finishing with a drizzle of the villa’s extra virgin olive oil and fresh julienned basil.

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Kingston assumed the role of official “risotto stirrer”. As I added the simmering broth, Kingston made certain each cup was incorporated into the rice before adding another (the secret to art of making a good risotto). I used Carnaroli, rice that has a larger grain than Arborio (the rice most commonly used in risotto). Referred to as the “caviar of rice” it produces a deliciously creamy but firm risotto.

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The addition of radicchio makes for a delicious risotto. Radicchio, sometimes known as Italian chicory has a slightly bitter, spicy taste. It was cultivated sometime in the fifteenth century in the Veneto region but research indicates that a form of red chicory with white veins was also grown as far back as ancient Egypt.

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CH28Vento3-150731-DSCF9934While we were all performing our duties, Rob opened a bottle of Masi Oseleta he had purchased at the winery that afternoon. What a great scene I thought – the whole family working together, laughing and conversing about the events of the day. It was a scene I would not soon forget – deserving of a toast with this wonderful Masi selection.

 

Risotto Veneto

Serves 6

 

5 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoons butter
1-tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
1/3 cup chopped pancetta (approximately 1 ½ ounces)
1 ½ cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
2 cups radicchio chopped
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a saucepan, bring the vegetable broth to a steady simmer. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the shallots and pancetta and sauté over medium heat until shallots are soft and pancetta is somewhat crisp. Add the rice and stir until well coated. Add the wine and stir until absorbed. Begin adding the simmering 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) About 20 minutes into the process, add the radicchio 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 that the dish is a few minutes away from being done, turn off the heat. Add the Parmesan, stirring it into the rice. You may want to add another tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve in individual bowls immediately.

 

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Food and its connection to family and traditions was beginning to resonate in my grandchildren’s lives. I can still remember the moment that feeling began to resonate with me. I was around 12 and preparing a submarine sandwich for a family lunch piled high with meats, cheeses, pickles, tomatoes and lettuce. They were delighted. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary but they acted like I had done something extraordinary – especially my dad who lovingly dubbed it the “Nancy Sandwich”. It was then I realized that food could not only satisfy hunger but could also be a source of comfort and pleasure. From that point forward my dad encouraged my love of food and always sought to make food and family traditions a priority. I was happy that I might be playing a role in that discovery with my four adorable grandchildren. For that alone this trip was worth it!

Our “Italian Experience” was coming to an end.   Dinner our last night at the villa was once again orchestrated by Lorenzo and his private chefs. We could sit back, relax and enjoy our last moments in this magical place.   I contentedly watched the interplay of the children, the camaraderie of the whole group, the setting of yet another table around which we would all eat and drink well and converse about our lives and our wonderful sojourn to this wonderful country. It was all just as I imagined it back when Neko commented, “I wish I could go to Italy with you someday, Grammy!” And here we were!

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Epilogue

We did not fly back to the U.S. the next day as planned. Our flight was cancelled. So we scurried around making new plane reservations and decided to spend our “extra day” in Stresa, a town on Lago Maggiore (see blog Lake District II “One Grand Package” ) close to our hotel. Frustrating, as it is to have a flight cancelled, Stresa and Lago Maggiore and Isola Bella made the pain easy to swallow. And the “Crazy Pub” where we ate both nights (next to the hotel) was also a bonus. Good food (you could have anything from a hot dog to a good bowl of pasta) and an amazing selection of beer – was such fun. We decided we wanted to return again one day – maybe for our next trip!

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Lombardia IV “An education in wine tasting”

Nancy in Grumello wine region

The enjoyment of a good glass of wine was a part of my evening ritual long before I opened Convito. But beyond giving a bottle the thumbs up or thumbs down, I was unequipped to assess the more sophisticated components of the wine I was drinking. Terms like legs, nose, suppleness and mouthfeel were not a part of my vocabulary. That is, until I decided to open an Italian market in 1980.

The original goal behind my opening of Convito was to create a high quality Italian marketplace where Americans would have access to some of the more hard-to-get Italian foodstuffs that I had the luxury of being exposed to while living in Europe in the late 70’s. I wanted a small shop that featured a curated selection of all the essential elements of the Italian meal, one that imparted the many aspects of Italian cuisine and culture that I continued to acquire during my regional journeys. And since to the Italian people wine is culture; the inclusion of a small but fine selection of wine was an obligation.

When Convito first opened its doors, Italian wine had yet to be discovered in the Chicagoland area. Other than a couple of Chiantis, Verdicchio, Frascati, Asti Spumante and an occasional Barolo, good Italian wine was almost impossible to find.   My partners and I wanted to change that. Although it was not my intention to become a wine expert, I decided early on that I couldn’t very well fill my shelves with fine Italian wine and not at least be familiar with the secrets inside all those beautiful bottles. The teacher in me wouldn’t allow that. So I began my self-guided wine education by attending a series of tastings and classes sponsored by the area’s wine sales and marketing companies and occasionally – when I was lucky – by the wine producers themselves. Generally, these were huge events with upwards of 50 wines for retailers and restaurateurs to taste; way too many I thought for any palate to adequately process and intended more for local buyers who already possessed a more formal wine education than I did. But I faked my way through them and quickly taught myself the basics of the proper way to taste wine and which varieties most appealed to my particular taste.

As I made my way through these events, I became aware of some of the smaller and more intimate formats that became my preference. I also realized that my favorite learning experience came in the privacy of my own home where nightly I would uncork a bottle from Convito’s wine selection and enjoy it over dinner with my then husband Bob. We swirled and sipped capably, but we also auditioned many of the other professional wine tasting techniques I was now attempting to add to my repertoire. It was so much easier assessing a wine when there was only one wine to assess, and it was so much more enjoyable. “Somebody has to do it!” Bob would wryly comment.

As I made the transition from a neophyte student of wine to a practiced taster, I started to parlay Convito’s growing reputation beyond Chicago to gain access to what I found to be the best classrooms of all, the wineries themselves. A walk through a vineyard, a tour of a wine cellar or simply enjoying a glass of local wine with one of the typical foods of the region while actually being in that region, were unparalleled learning experiences. And when I was lucky enough to visit one of those vineyards accompanied by the winemaker himself, that was the ultimate classroom.

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As with so much of my Italian education, Lombardia was the region where it all began. Milan, the region’s capital was home to my partners, Paolo Volpara and Wanda Bottino and was my own particular headquarters for studying Italian history and culture, recipe testing and planning our itineraries for regional exploration.

Exploring Valtellina in 1981 was my first venture into Lombardian wine territory – and a complete surprise.   An alpine valley in northern Lombardia close to the border of Switzerland, it is considered one of the most dramatic and at the time one of the most unexplored wine regions in all of Italy. It was amazing to me that an area so close to the hustle and bustle of Milan could feel so remote and look so different. I could never get used to (but always loved) the short distances one has to travel in Europe to see such a completely different picture of the world. In the Midwest – where I have lived most of my life – it was necessary to travel miles and miles before having such an experience.

Images of light and shadow dominated our journey. The region’s mountain ranges – the Bernia Alps, the Ortles Mountains and the Orobie Alps – provided a variety of different sights along the way. Some mountain tops were capped with snow, others grey and foreboding, and others naked and bluish, blending with the sky above. All of them loomed over wide stretches of soft, lush green valleys sweetly dotted with charming chalets and churches. Higher up, the mountains were covered with tall, pointed majestic pines stretching upwards to the heavens appearing as nature’s own Gothic Cathedral. We climbed to the Stelvio Pass, the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps. The view was breathtaking. Snow still lingered from the winter and the air was crisp and cold even in July.

Nancy near the Stelvio Pass in the snow capped mountains

Nancy near the Stelvio Pass in the snow capped mountains

Further south, approaching Sondrio, the mountains became tamer with vineyards lacing the slopes. The valley runs east/west following the Adda River, whose waters over the centuries have dug deep into the area’s hard granite. Paolo commented that only a few other Italian wine regions could match this dramatic vineyard landscape; the sheer cliffs of Cinque Terre and the breathtaking Amalfi Coast being its only equal. Small streams traced intricate patterns down the sides of the mountains and a thundering river pounded onto hard rocks spraying mist high into the sky. Along the way elegant taupe-colored cows could be seen contentedly grazing on the steep hillside while a group of chamois waited patiently for intruding cars to pass before crossing the road.  It was all so idyllic and fairytale-like.

The terraced vineyards of this area are quite spectacular. It is hard to imagine how difficult it must be to harvest the grapes on these steep man-made terraces. A year and a half into learning about wine, I was still a novice, but familiar with the area’s principal grape varietal, the Nebbiolo, one of Italy’s most famous grapes known primarily in the Piemonte region as the source of the world famous Barolos and Barbarescos. Here, however the grape is called Chiavennasca, named after the nearby town of Chiavenna. I was anxious after our long first day to enjoy a glass of the area’s wine.

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Paolo beside one of the valleys of Valtellina

On our first evening we had dinner in a restaurant in Morbegno, a little town in the lower part of the valley running alongside the Adda River, a tributary of the Po.

Looking at the menu I understood quickly that there was no question what ingredient would dominate our dinner. This was mushroom country. The very finest and sought after porcini mushrooms are the Boletus eduli grown here in abundance under the pine trees. “Valtellina is one area of the world where mushrooms are not a luxury – they are an everyday staple,” Paolo commented.

When we asked our waiter what wines went with the mushroom-dominated meal we were about to order, he was happy to describe pretty much all the wines of the region.   “Valtellina wines go perfectly with all the hearty mountain foods of this area – including the mushrooms,” he said. “These Nebbiolo wines are more muscular than the Nebbiolo wines of Piemonte. They tend to be less tannic, earthier and more graceful – intriguing food wines.” Seducente (seductive)” he called them. I loved that description.

We ordered a recommended glass of Sassella, the wine he considered to be of the highest quality on their wine list. It was certainly lighter in body and less powerful than any Barolo or Barbaresco I had tasted and went well with the many mushroom courses we had that evening including a mushroom risotto; a huge steak-like grilled mushroom, its tawny cap brushed with olive oil and herbs; and my favorite course – an iconic dish of the region – bresaola topped with paper thin slices of mushrooms, chopped parsley, a drizzle of peppery Tuscan extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.bresaola_4-CC150920

Bresaola is air-dried salted beef that is aged for two to three months eventually turning a dark red color. The meat comes from the top round of the cow, but in Valtellina, sometimes deer is used instead of beef. Originating in this area, bresaola is now becoming a popular dish in several countries around the world including the U.S. Its sweet taste goes perfectly with the porcini of the area.

 

Following is a piece I wrote for The Les Dames d’Escoffier International cookbook entitled “Begin a Meal with Cured Meats.” Any of these meats make for wonderful first courses – or on a summer night, the main course accompanied by some delicious crusty bread and a good glass of wine.

 

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Our last night in Valtellina we had another fantastic meal in Grosio, a town just northeast of Sondrio close to the border of Switzerland. Pizzoccheri, flat-ribbon pasta made with buckwheat flour and wheat flour is another regional classic. It is the name of the actual pasta as well as the name of the dish. The dish also includes potatoes and either Swiss Card or Savoy or Napa cabbage, Valtellina Casera cheese (very similar to Fontina which is more readily found in the United States) garlic and sage. Pizzoccheri’s ancient origins supposedly go back to 1550. It is not colorful but hearty and full of flavor – especially good on a cold winter night. We enjoyed our Pizzoccheri with a glass of Valtellina Superiore Grumello another wine made with the Nebbiolo grape. Medium-bodied and earthy, it was excellent with our meal. I was beginning to recognize on my own how certain wines went well with certain foods – enhancing one other. This was the case with our Grumello.

The waiter also offered us a taste of another famous local wine – Sforzato di Valtellina, a passito wine (those made from dried grapes). While many passito wines are sweet, this one was dry, full-bodied and rich – and also went very well with our “mountain dish.” Another lovely match! This whole food and wine pairing process was beginning to be fun – much less intimidating than when I first began to seriously taste wine.

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Pizzoccheri
Serves 4 – 6

 

2/4 pound butter
5 fresh sage leaves
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
1 medium potato, peeled and sliced thinly (approximately 1 cup)
1 small head of Savoy or Napa cabbage, thinly sliced
½ pound broad pizzoccheri noodles (buckwheat)
1 cup Val d’Aosta Fontina cheese, grated
1 cup Parmesan, grated
salt and freshly ground pepper
½ – ¾ bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Bring a large part of water to a boil. In the meantime melt the butter over low heat in a small sauté pan. Add the garlic and the sage and sauté until the butter turns a nut-brown being careful not to burn. Set aside. The sage leaves will be crispy.

When the water has come to a boil add the potatoes, cabbage and pizzoccheri noodles and boil for about 12 – 15 minutes until noodles are al dente. Drain well.

Remove garlic from melted browned butter and discard. Remove sage leaves from butter and crumble.

In a large ovenproof casserole dish, spread a layer of the pasta vegetable mixture, then a layer of fontina, then a layer of parmesan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with 1 ½ tablespoons of melted butter. Repeat 3 more times. Cover with breadcrumbs and drizzle with the remainder of the butter and the crumbled sage leaves.

Bake for about 15 – 29 minutes until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and cheese has melted. Serve.

 

Tasting wine is an art – an art that requires focus and concentration. I couldn’t call myself an expert yet, but I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the formal tasting steps required for evaluating a wine and was beginning to be able to identify and assess the sometimes very subtle differences between even very similar wines. But I still felt that the whole process was somewhat pretentious and wanted to find a way to make the experience of wine tasting more accessible. During a trip to Paris with my friend and fellow restaurateur Leslee Reis we discovered a very whimsical wine menu at a cozy little wine bar called L’Ecluse that happened to be close to our hotel. Cartoon-like characters illustrated the steps of wine tasting in a very humorous way. Something clicked with both of us. Leslee suggested a similar format might be perfect for Convito’s new wine bar, restaurant and market to be opened in downtown Chicago in 1984. Upon my return I commissioned my award-winning artist sister Karen to paint six of her fanciful characters to depict the 6 stages of wine tasting: seeing, swirling, smelling, sipping, savoring and summarizing. My business partner’s husband, English Professor Mike Houlahan, wrote the copy.

This was such a fun project. Karen actually raided my closet in search of Italian clothes to dress her six characters in. The “See” lady is wearing a Missoni dress I owned and the “Smell”, “Sip” and “Summarize” men all donned Italian ties from my husband’s tie collection. The project was hugely successful. We printed 2,000 covers to encase our wine list and Karen sold the original gyclée prints on her website. We expected these jackets to last two years but because they were so admired, many of them sneakily disappeared into the purses and pockets of our customers and walked out the restaurant doors.

 

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There was something about this particular project that changed things for me. I don’t know if it was that it simply coincided with a newfound confidence I had gained in understanding wines and the process of tasting them or the fact that I was now contributing to the education of others, but it was about this time when I began to really have fun tasting wine!

The project stimulated much discussion – sometimes silly – with my sister and motivated continued exploration. On our next trip to another of Lombardia’s wine districts we visited the Franciacorta District and met with one of its masters, Maurizio Zanella of the Ca’ del Bosco winery. Located just east of Milan between Brescia, Lake Garda and Trento, Franciacorta is the name of both the geographic area and of the wine itself. It is a wine often compared to Champagne because like that sparkling wine, Franciacorta achieves its effervescence due to secondary fermentation in the bottle (the classic method) and is also like Champagne in that it is limited to a geographic area. However, Franciacorta is a smaller area with a much lower production, which – in my mind – made it all the more exceptional.

That is changing, however and our host for the weekend, Maurizio Zanella was (and still is) committed to making certain that Franciacorta receives the kind of recognition that this dynamic and fast-growing wine deserves. He has been quoted as saying “Champagne took three hundred years to be known. I hope that Franciacorta will take only fifty!”

We met Maurizio and his wife Tizziana at Ambasciata, a restaurant in the province of Mantua. Our meal was splendid as was the restaurant’s very striking interior. It never fails that having dinner with a winemaker is always the best of dining experiences. Restaurateurs love and appreciate winemakers and winemakers love and appreciate restaurateurs – especially if they are good. And this one was excellent.

 

Maurizio in his vineyard

Maurizio in his vineyard

Maurizio is a dynamic person. He talked about his many trips to Champagne and how that exposure provided inspiration to him and his winery. Our dinner was filled with interesting wine information – about his wines and about the area. Of course we began with a glass of Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Brut. Maurizio explained that this sparkling wine was made from carefully selected grapes (chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir). A delightful wine – fresh, fragrant with a firm structure and richly alluring – it went beautifully with the many little tastes delivered by the chef to our table before our main meal even began.

I especially remember a lovely small salad made of arugula, pear, candied pecans and the creamy Gorgonzola Dolcelatte* produced in the region. I was surprised how well the Franciacorta complimented the salad.   Maurizio led us through the whole deliciously fantastic meal commenting on each course and how each wine matched that particular food. The spiciness of the arugula and the creaminess of the cheese as well as the lightly sugared pecans and the slices of pear all blended together perfectly. And the sparkling wine was a beautiful match.

*Gorgonzola Dolcelatte meaning ‘sweet milk’ was originally produced for the British market to provide a milder smelling and tasting alternative to the more traditional and stronger Gorgonzola

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Pear, Gorgonzola, Candied Pecan and Arugula Salad
Serves 4

1 cup pecan halves
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons raw sugar
6 cups arugula, cleaned and dried
1 – 2 Bosc pears, thinly sliced in wedges
¼ pound Gorgonzola Dolcelatte
salt & freshly ground pepper

Vinaigrette
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey

Melt the butter in a small sauté pan. Add pecans and toss with butter. Sprinkle with sugar and stir until caramelized. Spread on wax paper and cool.

Combine ingredients for dressing and set aside.

Combine arugula and pear in a bowl. Add cooled nuts then dress with vinaigrette and salt and pepper. Top with crumbled Gorgonzola. Toss well and serve

 

Over dinner we discussed Karen’s wine tasting series. They had been printed in the Wine Spectator in 1988 so Maurizio and his wife were aware of them and thought the six characters were charming.

After a spectacular dinner we accompanied Maurizio and his wife back to their winery and stayed the night. In the morning before a visit to the vineyards and wine cellar we joined the family – Maurizio, Tizianna and their adorable son Brando – for a croissant and a latte.   As expected their home and their winery was extremely handsome filled with beautiful art and amazing sculpture.

Nancy in Ca ‘del Bosco vineyard

Nancy in Ca ‘del Bosco vineyard

Walking through the vineyards, Maurizio recalled Ca’ del Bosco’s history beginning in 1968 when they started planning their very first vineyards. His mother purchased the land (Ca’ del Bosco means ‘House in the Woods’) in 1965 and since then it has grown both in size and reputation. Ca’del Bosco wines are celebrated everywhere in the world as is the man himself. President of the Franciacorta consortium, he is considered one of the area’s pioneers and main spokesperson.

Since our visit in 1988 I have read about Maurizio and the many awards and honors he has accumulated. He has also introduced many new wines including a red bearing its creator’s signature – Maurizio Zanella – as well as a Franciacorta dedicated to his mother Annamaria Clementi, founder of Ca’ del Bosco. The Cuvee Annamaria Clementi is considered one of the great wines of Lombardia.

Not only has Maurizio Zanella accumulated awards but also his art collection has grown exponentially. Major works of art can be seen all over the property. Currently a group of large blue plastic wolves rule over the roof, a life-size white rhinoceros hangs suspended in the crush pad and a handsome bronze sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro entitled “Hymn to the Sun” welcomes visitors to the estate.

By the time I visited another of Franciacorta’s renowned sparkling wine estates in 1999, I had become as proficient in the art of wine tasting as I would ever be (though I was still a little sloppy when it came to the swirling part!). Still not on the level of a true sommelier (and I never will be), I was very knowledgeable about Italian wine, comfortable with tasting in any circumstance and thoroughly enamored of the whole learning process. The aging of wine is meant to improve the quality of many wines and I, through the years, felt that my visits to the vineyards and focused tasting of all the wines Italy had to offer, that I was beginning to (when it came to wine) “age well” myself – and to appreciate and understand the significant mystique of wine. The wine term “maturation” comes to mind when describing my evolving tasting experience.  A much better term than “aging”.

aa_air_grill006_2-CC150920Bellavista was the winery we visited. Our hostess was Maria Empson, wife and partner of Neil Empson, premier wine importers. (see blog Milano III) Bellavista (Beautiful View) was named because of its magnificent position on a hill overlooking lovely rolling vineyards with views stretching from the Po plain to Lake Iseo all the way to the Alps and beyond. Our group consisted of very enthusiastic wine drinkers, all of us especially looking forward to tasting the Bellavista Gran Cuvee Brut Rose, which I listed as one of my favorite wines in an article in the American Airlines’ magazine.

Before visiting the winery, Maria treated us to a fantastic multi-course lunch at the exquisite Gualtiero Marchesi Restaurant in Erbusco housed in the five-star hotel L’Alberta Relais & Chateaux owned by Vittorio Moretti, founder and owner of the Bellavista estate. Master Chef Marchesi is considered the founder of modern Italian cuisine. His restaurant in Milan won the distinction of a third Michelin star – the first chef in Italy to do so. As expected the meal was glorious.

One of the courses reminded me of an appetizer that Convito had made for years (a Wanda Bottino invention) – a little crepe pinwheel filled with Mascarpone cheese, apple and walnuts then rolled into spirals. It goes beautifully with Franciacorta. Mascarpone comes from Lombardia. It is buttery, rich – a double-cream to triple-cream cow’s milk cheese. Since sparkling wine goes well with cheese that has a higher milk-fat content, this was a perfect match.

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Crespelle Pinwheels
Approximately 48 pieces

Crepes – 12 to 6-inch

Mascarpone mixture
4 ounces Mascarpone
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup granny smith apples, peeled then finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped walnuts

Spread 1 tablespoon of the Mascarpone mixture on crepe. Roll up. Slice into – 1 ½ inch pieces

Garnish with tiny apple fan

 

After lunch we adjourned next door to the winery where we toured the gorgeous estate with the winemaker himself – Mattia Vezzola. Founded in 1977 this estate is made up of 100 different vineyard parcels. We certainly did not visit them all, but seeing the plump grapes (it was September and they were ready for harvest) weighing down the lush vines that undulated across the expanse of the beautiful rolling hillside certainly echoed the name of the vineyard – “Bellavista!”   It was breathtaking!

Afterwards we toured the cellar, then made our way to the splendid tasting room. And yes, everyone got to taste the Gran Cuvee Brut Rose and everyone loved it. We tasted several other wines as well. I, of course, followed “The Six Stages of Wine Tasting” (now a completely natural process to me). I was becoming an old pro at seeing, swirling, smelling, sipping – especially savoring but often when I reached the summarizing part I remained quiet and waited to hear from the expert in the room.   In this instance, it was winemaker Mattia Vezzola. Who better?!

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Wine, I love it! At its best, a good wine exudes character and nuance. And in even the simplest of well-made wines there is a complexity that allows anyone – an expert or a neophyte – to find great joy in its tasting. In a book of wine quotes given to me by my mentor – the late Maury Ross (President of the Wine House at Union Liquor in the 70s and 80s) – one of my favorite quotes is from one of history’s most quotable figures, Benjamin Franklin. “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” Amen to that!

 

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Friuli-Venezia Giulia “A Second Look”

 

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We had already walked for two hours on this bitter cold, dreary February morning wandering aimlessly from one dreary storefront to another, occasionally slipping inside to savor a bit of warmth. Why, I began to wonder, had I let Paolo talk us into accompanying him to Udine. It seemed like a good idea at the time; Wanda and I would do some research on one of the great cities of Friuli-Venezia Giulia while Paolo and his co-workers attended a client meeting in a nearby town. But as the cold minutes stretched into even colder hours I began to question my decision.

Lunch couldn’t come soon enough. We had spent an hour wandering the streets looking for a cozy trattoria where we could enjoy one of the region’s hearty soups and a plate of local prosciutto, but we found nothing of the sort. Eventually we lowered our expectations and settled on a non-descript little café close to the corner where Paolo was to pick us up later in the day. Dreading any continued meanderings in the cold (it had begun to snow during our aimless ramblings), our intention was to extend the lunch “hour” for as long as possible. We lingered over an uninspired salad, a bowl of overcooked pasta slathered with a pedestrian tomato sauce, some less-than-fresh biscotti and lastly, espresso. Several espressos actually.

“Davvero? Questo e Udine?” (Really? This is Udine?), I asked Wanda, my voice dripping with disappointment recalling Paolo’s grand description of this city. “Credo di si (I think so)”, she responded sounding equally disappointed.

Unfortunately this was before the ubiquity of cell phones and we had no idea if Paolo would be finished with his business meeting at the promised hour, so we didn’t want to wander too far away from our designated rendezvous. He eventually picked us up (late, of course) and while he and his two co-workers chatted excitedly about their successful client meeting all the way back to Milan, Wanda and I cuddled together in the toasty warmth in the back seat of the car, over-caffeinated from our multiple espressos at the restaurant, but happy to put our disappointing experience in Udine behind us.

 

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It wasn’t until two years later that Udine came up again in the conversation. Planning our weekend to Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Paolo decided that Udine would be the perfect starting point. When I reminded him of Wanda’s and my six-hour disaster, he was incredulous. “What? Udine is beautiful. It was originally part of the Venetian Empire. Actually it reminds me a little of Venice. You need to give it a second look!”

We arrived near dusk in early March just after the city’s Carnivale celebration. Confetti – the ashes of Carnivale – covered the streets and piazzas. As we walked through the arcade lined narrow streets, I immediately began to suspect that this was not the same city Wanda and I traversed that cold February day two years ago. When we entered the handsome covered ancient market near the center of town, I was certain Wanda and I had not been here. This was not our Udine! Where had we been?   “These streets are charming – totally unlike the ones Wanda and I walked on for six long hours in the freezing cold! Where did you leave us?” I asked Paolo

“I don’t remember exactly”, Paolo explained. “I dropped you off somewhere on the outskirts of the city. I just assumed that Wanda would have the good sense to take a taxi into the center. You mean you stayed in that area?” I should have trusted my gut instinct that told me Paolo would never have described that dreary ten-block radius as a part of one of Friuli’s grand cities. This Udine was exactly what I had been hoping to find those many months before.

 

Though I still look back on that first visit to Udine (or the outskirts of Udine to be more accurate) as one of the great disaster of my Italy exploits, I was thrilled to have given it a second chance and to have discovered the real Udine. Six hours here – even in the cold – would have been easy! There was so much to absorb – the principal square (Piazza della Liberta) with its Venetian-Gothic style town hall (Loggia del Lionello) standing opposite the beautiful clock tower (Torre dell’Orologia) and all the many lovely gothic and Renaissance monuments near the center.

We visited as many monuments as time allowed but as the beautiful alabaster clock in the center piazza chimed the approaching dinner hour, we were reminded of our reservation at Hotel Boschetti, a century old landmark in Tricesmino just outside the city owned by an old friend of Paolo’s. We planned to stay the night and dine in the hotel’s restaurant and Paolo promised we would be well cared for.

He was absolutely right. After checking in, we settled in for a nine-course meal curated by his friend that included regional wines to accompany each dish. Among the many courses we tasted that night, I especially remember the gnocchi filled with plums. I had tasted my mother in law’s “plum dumplings” many years before at her Milwaukee home, and while those were a delicious example of Italian-American comfort food (Mary Barocci – formerly Mesich – was of Croatian ancestry, but her husband was an Italian who brought with him a tradition of Italian cooking by way of the mines in northern Wisconsin where his immigrant parents had settled – see blog Rome II “Where to Eat?”), these were altogether different.

I had never quite understood the origin of this gnocchi – was it Italian or Croatian? Now traveling to Friuli-Venezia Giulia and understanding the proximity of Croatia to this region, it all made sense. Croatia was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as was Friulia-Venezia Giulia so the cuisine of this region – especially the eastern part – is highly influenced by Austria. Croatia Plum Dumplings are called Knedle s Sljivama and the Italian Plum Dumplings Gnocchi di Prugna.

Testing this recipe was difficult for me mainly because despite the journals I kept for all my Italian trips, I didn’t really remember this very well and had no clear picture in my mind. I called my former sister-in-law (and still dear friend) Katherine Catalano for advice.   Did she have her mother’s recipe? What did she recall? She, unfortunately, didn’t have her mother’s recipe but sent me one she thought was similar. She also sent me her “plum dumpling recollections”.

“My mom’s plum dumplings were small – not big. They sort of looked like little pierogis – crimped not rounded and wrapped around the plum section. I remember 5 or 6 on a plate. I don’t remember the sweetness as described in many recipes. She didn’t serve them as a dessert but as a side dish or a Friday night meatless supper. The crunch of the breadcrumbs outside, the chewy potato dough and the luscious juice that formed after cutting into them was what made them special.” Katherine also remembered that the dumplings were sautéed in butter after they had been boiled and then topped with buttered browned breadcrumbs.

Keeping it in the family, I took this project to my sister Karen and her husband Jeff for testing – he a very precise person and she an excellent pie maker so the “crimping” would be easy for her. Jeff led the project. We all looked at several different recipes, made comments, read Katherine’s description and then began.   By the end of our dumpling making project the kitchen was a total mess – flour everywhere especially on Jeff’s black shirt.   We had lots of laughs and a great time! And most important, we thought the dumplings were delicious! I was especially relieved that I had a good recipe that hopefully was close to the dumplings I tasted all those many years ago!

 

© jeff butler 2015

© jeff butler 2015

Gnocchi di Prugne
Plum Dumplings

Approximately 48 dumplings
Serves 6 (6-8 dumplings per person)

 

5 large potatoes – 2 ½ pounds
2 eggs
2 cups of flour
Salt to taste
12 medium ripe but firm plums sliced into ¼ – ½” wedges*
½ stick butter (4 – 5 tablespoons)
½ cup panko breadcrumb
pinch of nutmeg
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)

 

Peel and cut potatoes into 1” pieces.  Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water until tender.  Then mash or put them through a potato ricer.

At room temperature add salt and eggs and 2 cups of flour to the potatoes. (If dough is too soft, add more flour).  Roll out ¼” thick on floured pastry cloth.  With a biscuit cutter (2 ¾”) cut out rounds from the dough

Place plum on one side of the circle.  Fold over dough to cover the plum.  Press edges of the dough together (crimp) making sure there are no gaps in the dough allowing no plum juice to escape.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  With a slotted spoon carefully place the first half of the dumpling in boiling water. Boil gently for 10 minutes.

In the meantime melt ½ stick of butter over medium heat and then stir in panko breadcrumbs and sauté until brown. Put aside.  When dumplings are done, remove them from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and let them rest on a plate. Be sure there’s no water on the plate. If there is, drain so dumplings don’t soak up water. Repeat with second half of dumplings.

When ready to serve, melt the stick of butter in a large flying pan and melt over medium heat. When the butter begins to bubble place the dumplings in pan and brown on both sides. You may have to do this in batches. Reheat breadcrumb mixture. Transfer dumplings to a serving platter and spoon the buttered breadcrumbs over the hot dumplings.

* We used regular plums because we couldn’t find the Italian Prune Plums, which Katherine thinks her mom used. Italian Prune Plums are small, dense and egg-shaped. So if you use those plums, your recipe can be adjusted. Most likely you will use ¼ to ½ of the plum for each dumpling.

 

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Friuli-Venezia Giulia is located in the northeastern part of Italy. It borders Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia) to the east, Austria to the north, Veneto to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the south. Historically, ethnically and linguistically diverse, it is an extremely complex region. Some sections were once a part of the Venetian Republic while others were under the rule of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Udine was in the Friuli part of the region more connected to Venetian influence. Its cuisine is simple, traditional, uncomplicated fare.

Trieste, our next destination, is, on the other hand, in the Venezia-Giulia part of the region. Its cuisine reflects its Central European past embracing the influences of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. From the minute we entered the city I could literally feel Austria. The Viennese architecture of its many handsome buildings surrounding the piazza did not remind me of any other Italian city I had traveled to so far. We checked into the luxurious Hotel Grand Duchi D’Aosta located right on the very impressive Piazza Unita d’Italia. It was late so we would save our exploration of the city for the next day when we were to meet Chiara, one of Paolo’s advertising co-workers and a former Trieste resident who was here to visit her family.

This trip to Italy was actually one of the more difficult ones for me to coordinate.   For years I would travel to Italy at least two to three times a year and had made it a priority to explore new regions (I eventually visited all twenty of them, most of them many times) and educate myself about authentic Italian cuisine, culture and tradition; but this time I was in the midst of opening the second Convito Italiano location in downtown Chicago which was such an overwhelming undertaking I wondered whether traveling again was the wisest choice. But as I always did, off I went and on this particular night I found myself at dinner discussing the new location with Paolo. Construction was already under way – so most of the overall design plans had already been determined, but the selection of the “finishing touches” remained. I inspected glasses, plates, salt and pepper shakers. I think every plate and glass in every restaurant we dined in during this trip was turned upside down by either Paolo or myself. At one point as he stole a peek at the bottom of a vase overflowing with flowers he looked at me and whispered; “I can’t believe I am doing this! I disgust myself!” I must say, seeing Mr. Motorcycle Man/Mr. Ad Exec getting excited over the search for a particular vinegar cruet or the perfect highball glass was rather funny, but I appreciated his support and reminded him that Italy was after all a country known for its design, so he was just performing his civic duty whether he thought it was the macho thing to do or not.

 

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The next morning we met Chiara, his co-worker, for a tour around her native city. She spoke about Trieste’s proud, sometimes sad history, deeply linked to both Central Europe as well as to Italy. She also pointed out the remaining Hapsburg splendor especially evident in all the imposing spectacular buildings located in and around the main piazza. Under the Austrian-Hapsburg Empire, she explained, Trieste had once been a very important center of literature, politics and culture. Today, although that power had diminished, it still remains a center for many things – shipping, shipbuilding and financial services to name a few. And its advantageous position on the Adriatic Sea allows it to continue as an important port although the glory days of being the most important port in one of the most important empires in the world are over.

We stopped for a morning coffee at a beautiful Belle Epogue-style pasticceria just off the main piazza. Through its etched glass doors we entered into a bygone era where the intricate designs of “Beautiful Age” artisans had created a fairy-tale-like atmosphere. The café’s rich dark wood walls were carefully carved with elegant swirling floral patterns and the black and white tiled floor had been laid in a complex pattern that was typical of the fine detailing of that era. Chiara purchased a beautiful selection of pastries for Paolo and a lovely little rolled sweet bread called a Presnitz for me. Presnitz is a typical Trieste puffed pastry filled with nuts and dried fruits. It reminded me of strudel. Once again we felt the Austrian influence.

We toured a number of historical sites including Colle di San Giusto (the San Giuso hill), located in the oldest part of Trieste and its beautiful Romanesque church as well as Miramare Castle on the Gulf of Trieste built for the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian in 1856.

But the highlight of the weekend for me was our Sunday lunch at Antica Trattoria Suban, a fantastic restaurant established in 1855. When Chiara made the reservation, she informed the proprietor that Paolo and I owned an Italian restaurant and market in Chicago. When we arrived we were treated like royalty.

The owner gave us a tour of the facility – the open kitchen, hearth ovens and the open case of refrigerated meats – all beautiful and inviting. We then sat down to a fabulous meal of Trieste specialties beginning with a slice of grilled ham with grated horseradish and mustard; a bean, ham and sauerkraut soup called Jota; a crepe with radicchio; a crepe with basil and cheese (their specialty); veal shank with a side of heavenly, savory sautéed potatoes, onions and pancetta; and ended with a delicious apple strudel. Before we left the proprietor showed us the very complimentary article about his restaurant in Bon Appetit magazine – all praises very well deserved. This man was so kind.   He would not allow us to pay and even gave me a plate with a picture of his restaurant on it. When we protested about paying the bill, he told us if we tried, he would start a war with Washington. We all laughed but made no further attempt to pay.

This hearty peasant soup, one of the best-known dishes of Trieste, has many versions. This one is brothier than some. Some remove the meat from the soup. This one leaves it in.

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Jota
Serves 8 – 10 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, diced
2 cups chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
½ gallon chicken stock
1 teaspoon fresh sage, chopped
1 bay leaf
¼ cup cornmeal
1-ham hocks
4 cups diced new potatoes
½ pound sauerkraut
2 – 16 ounce cans red kidney beans, drained and washed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
freshly ground pepper (no salt needed, the ham hock provides enough salt content)

In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add pancetta and brown until crisp. Add onions, garlic and sauté for approximately 4 minutes. Add stock, sage, bay leaf and cornmeal, whisking the cornmeal into the stock. Add ham hock and simmer for 35 minutes. Remove the ham hock and cut the meat into small pieces. Add back into soup. Add potatoes and cook until tender about 8 minutes. Add the beans and parsley and stir into the soup. Serve hot.

 

I returned to Trieste a second time with my dear friend Leslee Reis, owner of the acclaimed restaurant Café Provencal in Evanston, Illinois. Leslee was also my mentor. She opened her restaurant a few years before I opened Convito in a neighboring suburb. Our friendship, however, was formed years before we began our restaurant careers through various women’s organizations as well as our common circumstances of motherhood, children of similar ages and an intense interest in food. I frequently sought her advice on any number of things and she was always more than accommodating.

Leslee and I were perfect traveling companions. We viewed travel and life pretty much the same way – taste it, savor it but don’t crowd it with so many things that you can’t take time to reflect on it. Leslee had one of the sharpest wits around and could make me laugh like no other – so travel with her was not only instructive and reflective but often hilarious.   We could also “talk shop”. On this particular trip, we were both reassessing our restaurants – giving them a second look.

Both of us had expanded our concepts – Leslee by opening two more casual restaurants and I another Convito in Chicago. Had we made the right decisions? Aware that making change was difficult, we also knew that sometimes that was the best way forward. I felt blessed to be able to talk about these things with someone I knew would completely understand. After much discussion, we concluded “tweaking” was required on both of our parts in all of our restaurants. Freshening things up a bit would be on our agendas when we returned to Chicago.

We also loved talking about how ironic it was that our lives had taken a similar direction. “How crazy were we to have gotten ourselves into this demanding business? At our age? As women? Forty-something housewives creating and running businesses in one of the most competitive professions around?   This was nuts!” Leslee would always laugh her hearty big laugh and query, “When will we be discovered as frauds?”

Of course I wanted Leslee to experience the beauty of Trieste so we spent a great deal of time visiting all the sights Paolo and I had visited five years before. She too loved the city. Of course, a dinner at Antica Trattoria Suban was a must. I looked forward to my second experience there but warned her that we had to taste all the restaurant’s specialties. “Be prepared to be stuffed,” I told her “but happily so! “ Neither of us ever had trouble with that concept.

Abby Mandel, friend, cookbook author, columnist and founder of the Chicago Green City Market was originally supposed to accompany Leslee and I on this trip. But because of her husband’s illness, she cancelled. We promised to keep a detailed journal of all the food, wine and experiences of the trip so she could still feel a part of our journey in some way.

A Leslee entry from our dinner at Suban; “ Second tier of Primi Piatti after already 2 – or was it 3- antipasti? Abby your cholesterol just went off the charts!   We’re going to die right here of gross lumps of dough blocking our esophagus. We are on our third course (many to follow). The food is sumptuous! We can’t stop eating! We each got a half portion of two different items on the same plate – gnocchi di patate (very well prepared with coarse dice of speck then lightly coated with a rich cream sauce) – then my favorite of the two (they were both excellent) was a crespelle with lots of fresh chopped basil spread with a little basil puree and folded into quarters in a light creamy cheese sauce (maybe half and half, not cream) – really special with the fresh assertiveness of the basil.”

She was correct. It was really special. Following is Convito’s version of that basil crespelle based on Leslee’s journal entry.

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Crespelle con Crema al Basilico
Serves 6 as a first course

Heat oven to 500 degrees

Crepes
Use whatever crepe recipe you prefer – there a many simple variations available on the web

Filling
3.5 ounces of mascarpone
2 tablespoons cream
1-cup fresh basil finely diced
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Sauce
½ cup half & half
½ cup grated Gruyere or Emmenthal cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup fresh basil, finely diced

 

Mix the filling ingredients together.  Spread a thin layer onto each crepe (approximately 2 tablespoons each).  Fold crepe in half then in half again.

In the meantime make the sauce heating the cream over medium heat.  Add the cheeses and stir until melted. Add salt and pepper. Stir in the basil and set aside.

In a large ovenproof skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter.  Place the six crepe pieces in the skillet.  Place in a 500-degree oven for 4 minutes.

Place on six individual plates.  Spoon the sauce over each.

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Percoto was our next destination, home of the famous Nonino grappa distillery active in Friuli since 1897. Leslee would describe the Nonino visit as “Our sojourn to Beverly Hills – Friuli”.   While the rolling hills of Friuli may not equate to the topography of Beverly Hills, the glamour of the Nonino family did! Benito and Giannola were Friuli’s power couple – he the genius grappa maker (quiet and serious) and she the dynamic power behind the throne (a hurricane of energy and ideas). According to legend Giannola first fell in love with her husband Benito and then fell in love with grappa. Her goal was to enhance and perfect the Nonino brand and bring its acclaim as a first class spirit to the rest of the world.

Benito and Giannola and their three gorgeous daughters – Christina, Antonella and Betty all took turns in our grappa education.   First Betty, the youngest daughter, took us on a tour of the distillery. Grappa she pointed out is the final production of a grape made from the pomace (skins, seeds and stems) after the fruit has been used to make wine. “Grappa today”, she said proudly, “has acquired a very good reputation because of producers like Nonino – unlike the grappa of old which was harsh and bitter – a spirit whose only use was to starve off a cold, or anything for that matter. We will leave the grappa tasting until dinner tonight”, Betty said. Thank god, Leslee and I thought. Already tired from our long drive, we didn’t want to fall asleep (or pass out) on the floor of the Nonino cellar. And unfortunately, I didn’t have such a good memory of the grappa I had tasted previously. I am not generally a spirits person. But I would give it a second look – certainly here in the grappa center of the universe.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with Betty and Benito driving through the lovely hills of Friuli. Both the Colli Orientali del Friuli and Colli Goriziano are known throughout the world for their fine white wines. Convito carries many. We passed many of the vineyards of famous producers –Jerman, Piuatti Mario Felluga, Livio Felluga, Gradnik ending at the vineyard of Benito’s idol, white wine master Mario Schiopetto.

Leslee and Nancy with Mario Schiopetto

Leslee and Nancy with Mario Schiopetto

It was a thrill to meet Mario Schiopetto. I had long been a fan of his whites – especially Schiopetto Tocai. When one speaks about Mario Schiopetto one speaks about the story of modern Italian enology. For many years he studied the most prestigious wineries in Europe bringing the best of what he had learned back to Friuli. According to Benito, his contributions to the innovation process and to the improvement in quality in Italian wines are legendary.

We actually stopped to have a glass of wine with the master himself – a glass of 1988 Pinot Grigio. Mario and Benito greeted one another warmly and spoke excitedly in Udinese dialect while Leslee and I pinching ourselves – sat quietly gaping at the interesting collection of restaurant plates and tiles that hung on Signor Schiopetto’s kitchen walls.

The next Nonino handoff was to Christina, the oldest daughter. She was waiting for us in a converted mill (now a small bar).   A huge mortadlla and a Prosciutto di San Danielli sat on the counter filling the room with a sweet somewhat porky smell. Christina whom I had met in Chicago a year ago, insisted we taste the prosciutto, a product of nearby San Danielle, before we left for a tour of the Roman ruins in Aquileia, a small town on the Adriatic.

San Daniele is one of Italy’s two famous prosciuttos – the other is Prosciutto di Parma. San Daniele is sweet and aromatic and best served with simple wines. Parma is savory and has a wider range of uses. Both are excellent. I like to serve prosciutto in the summer draped over fresh fruit. Although the classic combination is prosciutto and melon, my favorite pairing is prosciutto and peaches when peaches are at the very height of their sweetness.

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

We said goodbye to Betty and Benito, drove to the Roman ruins and then back to our hotel to ready ourselves for dinner.

Matriarch Giannola orchestrated dinner that evening. The cast of characters changed somewhat. Benito and Betty stayed home. “He doesn’t like evening activities”, said Giannola. Middle daughter Antonella joined us accompanied by her attractive fiancé, as did Christina with her husband, a cross between an Italian-style hunk and a somewhat preppy Princeton grad. Then there was the smooth talking, quick moving TV man. We weren’t sure how he fit in. Later we learned that he was the “Italian Dan Rather” visiting the Noninos to do a program on grappa and the Nonino family the next morning.

The restaurant was located in Grado, a historic seaside town sometimes referred to as a miniature Venice. “The best seafood around”, Gianolla said. It truly was delicious! Throughout the day Leslee and I couldn’t help but notice the strength and knowledge of these Nonino women. The family passion for this “white lightening” was obvious and clearly energizing to anyone around them. Of course Grappa was generously poured at the end of the meal serving as the final touch to an exhausting, busy but wonderful day. Giannola knew my feelings about grappa and was determined to change my mind. “Give it a second chance”, Giannola said as she poured the Picolit Grappa into my glass. This is a single cru. It was distilled of premium, single variety, single vineyard grape pomace.”

An old Chinese Proverb states that Taking a Second Look Costs You Nothing and it wasn’t until late in life that I finally made peace with that sentiment. This day it paid off. The nose of this Nonino grappa arrested me with its floral honeycomb aroma and its apple and ripe quince notes; a much softer and alluring welcome than I expected. Upon drinking it, the taste was surprisingly elegant and smooth. I was impressed! This was unlike any grappa I had ever tasted and although I might not cap off each and every night with a glass of this complex liqueur, I certainly would recommend it to anyone interested in a divine after dinner drink. To this day, on those infrequent evenings when I’m moved (or convinced!) to order a grappa after dinner, it is always a Nonino (and hopefully Nonino Picolit).

 

Morning arrived. It was time to leave Percoto and continue our journey to Milan.

We stopped by the distillery to say goodbye. The driveway was filled with a number of vans and TV paraphernalia. Clearly they must be readying for the Nonino TV program. We thanked Benito, Giannola, Antonella and Betty (Christina was home with sick kids) for a fabulous visit. As we were about to leave, Mr. Italian-Dan- Rather rushed over and placed a glass of grappa in our hands. “Please”, he said to Leslee and I, “we would like you to do some “tasting-room-play-acting” for the program’s intro. You don’t need to say a thing, just drink the grappa”, he directed. What could we do but acquiesce?!

What a fitting conclusion to our Friuli-meetsBeverly Hill sojourn – Leslee and I in the early morning hours with a glass of grappa in hand trying to look calm and sophisticated like this was an everyday occurrence. I’m certain we looked just the opposite. As the cameras began to roll, Leslee learned over and whispered in my ear, “Are you ready for your close up?” Her hearty laugh rumbled through the room and turned the heads of the entire Italian TV crew! What a lady! So much for life at the Nonino Grappa Distillery.

Nancy and Leslee with Giannola, Antonella and Betty Nonino

Nancy and Leslee with Giannola, Antonella and Betty Nonino

As we said our final goodbyes Giannola – who had earlier promised to do a grappa tasting in Chicago for Les Dames d’Escoffier during their next visit – said in her enthusiastic, energetic voice – “Ciao. A Presto! (See you soon) and added “Vive le Donne!! (Long Live the Women) No words were more truly spoken. These Nonino women were amazing!

 

Author’s note

Leslee with Benito Nonino

Leslee with Benito Nonino

This was sadly my last trip with Leslee Reis. She passed away the next year from complication from diabetes. How I miss her friendship, advice, support and especially her great big body-hugging laugh! I was lucky to have her for as long as I did – but it was not long enough. We miss you Leslee…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”

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Anyone who professes an interest in art and is indifferent to the joys of the palate is highly suspect.

Paul Sachs
co-founder of Museum of Modern Art and professor of art at Harvard University

 

I related to this statement even before I opened a business – a business whose main objective was – when you get right down to it – to please the palate. But instinctively I knew that Convito would be more successful if it pleased our customer’s “other senses” as well. Certainly my own most memorable eating experiences were those where the heightened aesthetics experienced by one sense or another converged with good food and fine wine. And those impressions were even further elevated in memory when the food reflected in some way the area or place where it was eaten: a Friday night Wisconsin Fish Fry savored in a knotty pine paneled room with a view out the window of a soft, rippling crystal clear lake; Steak and Kidney Pie appreciated within the historic walls of London’s oldest restaurant, comfortably seated in a red leather booth surrounded by hundreds of antique drawings, paintings and cartoons; or even happily eating comfort food like a crisp, succulent BLT in a cozy roadside cafe amidst an array of kitschy memorabilia.

This important correlation between aesthetics and food & wine became clearer to me during my regional Italian journeys. The experience of eating a delicious bowl of pasta was made indisputably more memorable when the backdrop complimented the food. Of course if the pasta wasn’t any good in the first place, no measure of aesthetic adornments could fix what was already broken. I was, however, becoming much more mindful of these “other” aspects that contributed to the success of a restaurant even before I opened my first Convito. The food came first – taste and authenticity were crucial – but other aspects were also important. The art on the walls, the lighting, the texture of the paper used for the menu, the background music, all of those aesthetic details were critical in elevating what was just a good bowl of pasta to an experience that lives on in memory.   I was often reminded of a statement I read in a book long ago – “Collecting” by Werner Muensterberger. It was one of those quotes I wrote down and kept on file. “The taste for finer things begins in the mouth then wanders to the eyes and the ears.”   That idea has resonated for me ever since I read it and was always on the top of mind whenever artistic decisions for my restaurants were considered.

Paolo Volpara, my original partner agreed with that assessment. He paid particular attention to blending our regional journeys to include a mixture of food, wine and culture. He was a master at what seemed to me the perfect itinerary – combining pleasure and education with plenty of time for just “hanging around.” I have never related to jam-packed agendas. Time for writing and reflecting upon what I have just seen or eaten or experienced is important to me, “steeping time” is how I have always thought of it.

Even after Paolo left Italy and was no longer my partner at Convito, I unfailingly followed the “Paolo Volpara formula” of trip planning. I especially remember how much delight I took in making arrangements for a trip to Tuscany with my artist sister Karen Butler and my then business-partner Colleen Houlahan. The trip took place in the spring of 1987, only a few months after all three of us had been engrossed in a lecture series I had hosted at Convito revolving around the theme of Cultural Italy. Robert Loescher, Art History Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, conducted the series. It was entitled “The Food, The Wine, The Culture – A Salute to Three Great Italian Cities – Florence, Venice and Milan.” Perfect timing for planning a trip to Tuscany.

After viewing his slide presentation and listening to his lecture, I knew I would be looking at Tuscany – especially Florence –through new eyes. “The aesthetics of a city permeates its food and wine as surely as its paintings and sculpture,” the professor said. “It is no accident that the light-filled, sensuous paintings of Venice are as extravagant and luxurious as a plate of succulent oysters found in local restaurants; or that the unpretentious food of Florence is as sober and straight forward as a painting by Giotto.” His very descriptive and accurate words accompanied us throughout our journey. And to this day, I think about them whenever I visit a new part of the world and experience the local cuisine for the first time.

Traveling with a working artist like my sister Karen only enriched our visit to Florence, the heart of the Italian Renaissance. Through the years Karen and her husband Jeff had contributed greatly to my art education by introducing me to the works of artists I might not have otherwise known. I could usually count on a visit to some interesting art museum or special exhibit whenever we were together. Karen is an artist who also does thorough research, so I knew my view of Florence with her at my side would totally enhance the experience.

Our very first day there began with a delicious lunch at Trattoria Omera, a charming restaurant situated on the hillside above the city. Walking up the winding narrow roadways of the outlying villages provided us with intermittent views of the Florentine skyline, a masterpiece on its own.   Around every corner we could look back and see the rhythm of the terra cotta tilled rooftops, amber steeples and soft cream-colored buildings artfully surrounding the centerpiece of the city; Brunelleschi’s grand dome, the largest masonry dome ever built and considered by art historians to be magnificent as well as a miracle of design and engineering.

Karen & Nancy with view of the skyline of Florence

Nancy & Karen with view of the skyline of Florence

 

The trattoria’s lovely view of the Tuscan countryside set the mood for our typically Tuscan lunch. I chose the Panzanella salad (literally “bread in a swamp”) made of tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh basil, red onions and bread. We all agreed that is was not only delicious but matched Professor Loescher’s description of Tuscan food – honest and straightforward.

The origins of Panzanella date back to the 16th century when the Italian poet Bronzino raved about a combination of cucumbers and onions mixed with olive oil and vinegar and toast – or so the story goes. I am never certain of the accuracy of these historical allegories since there are usually so many different versions, but they are often incredibly interesting – and generally whimsical – and since I find such joy in the tales, why not believe! More factually, we know that in the 1900’s after tomatoes had been introduced to Italy (via Spain), tomatoes as an ingredient were introduced to this wonderful warm weather salad and they have remained a part of traditional Panzanella every since.

Panzanella is best served at room temperature after all the ingredients have “mingled.”

 

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Panzanella

 Serves 8

1 loaf crusty Italian bread
6 tomatoes cut into wedges
1 English cucumber, halved, seeded and sliced
¼ – 1/3 cup thinly sliced red onion
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
20 leaves of basil, julienned
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

If you have day-old, stale bread it would be somewhat hardened on its own. But you can get the same effect by cutting the bread into cubes, drizzling it with olive oil and putting it into a 275-degree oven for approximately 30 to 25 minutes. Let the bread cool.

Mix the tomatoes, cucumbers and onion together with the cooled bread. Mix the olive oil and vinegar together. Add it to the mixture. Add basil. Toss all ingredients together. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Let marinate for 20 minutes before serving.

Note: Don’t refrigerate or texture of tomatoes will disintegrate.

 

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The next three days were dedicated to art – not difficult to do in Florence. According to UNESCO, 60% of the world’s most important works of art are located in Italy, half of those in Florence. Besides experiencing another mind-blowing tour of the Uffizi Gallery (a 16th century building housing a vast collection of Renaissance paintings and masterpieces), we visited a whole array of smaller Florentine museums including an especially memorable tour of the 15th century Convent of San Marco where each monk’s cell in the cloister was decorated by Fra Angelico, an early Renaissance painter considered the best fresco painter of the century. We also managed to fit in another view of David, one of Michelangelo’s most celebrated statues, certainly the most famous one in Florence and maybe in the world.

In the evening it was time again to shift our focus to Tuscan food and wine and to review our artistic and culinary experiences over a glass of great local wine. We dined at one of my favorite Florentine restaurants, Il Cibreo. I love the food. I love the look of the restaurant. Every nook and cranny contains something interesting, a poster here, a beautiful ceramic pitcher there. Yet in spite of all the objects d’arte, the room maintains a certain Tuscan simplicity – as does the food.

Karen Butler sketch of Cibreo @ Karen Butler

Karen Butler sketch of Cibreo
@ Karen Butler

The presentation of the menu (based on traditional Tuscan specialties before the introduction of pasta) is unique and very intimate. A lovely woman came to our table, pulled up a chair and described the dishes offered that day. After a few questions and further explanation, she took our order.   How very warm and civilized!

I especially remember a wonderful cannellini bean and duck dish I enjoyed during an early visit with my partner, Paolo Volpara. Bean dishes on menus in Tuscany came as no surprise. I have had many over the years and because I have loved beans since I was a girl, I usually order them.   The citizens of Tuscany are often referred to as “mangia-fagioli” – the bean eaters because so many of their traditional dishes are based on beans. Legume popularity dates back to the early 1500’s when beans were first introduced to the region. Cannellini beans, in particular, became especially popular by the end of the 17th century and were even sold throughout Florence from street carts.

I developed this recipe years later based on my memory of the dish I had at Il Cibreo. The beans and the spinach were served at room temperature and the duck hot. I like to serve it for supper – outside near the grill – on a warm summer night. With a cold glass of Tuscan white wine, of course.

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Grilled Duck Breast with White Beans & Spinach

Serves 4

 

4 duck breast halves

Marinade:
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
½ teaspoon minced garlic
1-tablespoon olive oil
salt & freshly ground pepper

Using a sharp knife, score the skin of the duck breast so it has ¼ inch diamond pattern and place in the marinade for approximately 2 hours.

In the meantime, prepare the white bean salad:

4 cups cooked white beans (cannellini or Great Northern)
¼ cup thinly sliced red onions
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt & freshly ground to taste

Mix the beans, red onions, parsley and basil together. Mix the olive oil, vinegar and Dijon together. Mix dressing with the bean mixture. Add salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat the grill to medium (key is to cook duck slowly to render the fat). Place the duck skin-side down on the grate and cook until the skin has seared and the fat is rendered – approximately 5 minutes. Turn the duck breasts over and cook for another 5 minutes. Duck should be medium-rare. Let rest for another 5 minutes.

In the meantime, mix the spinach with the olive oil, lemon, salt and freshly ground pepper:

2 cups fresh spinach
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Divide the spinach into four servings and place on 4 individual plates. Top with portions of the white bean salad. Slide the duck breast diagonally against the grain. On 4 individual plates, place spinach first, then bean salad and on top the duck slices.

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On our last day in Florence we visited the Museum Bargello, a former barracks and prison filled with a remarkable collection of Renaissance works including the famous Della Robbio glazes.   Many of those terra-cotta rounds were a part of Professor Loescher’s slide presentation at Convito during his lecture “Florence – The Food, The Wine, The Renaissance.” Della Robbio had developed a pottery glaze in the 1400’s in order to make his creations more durable outdoors. All three of us were lovers of ceramics so we continued our ceramica discussion over lunch remarking on how charming these glazes were and happily anticipating our own upcoming ceramic purchases in the many Tuscan towns and villages that were next on our itinerary. Tuscany is one of Italy’s best and most respected pottery centers and we were determined to leave with our share of ceramica loot.

Cantinetta Antinori is another of my favorite Florence restaurant destinations. Convito’s connection with the Antinori family goes back to 1980. Marchese Piero Antinori, president of Marchesi Antinori, one of the most historic and prestigious names in Tuscany, conducted a wine tasting in the early eighties (see blog – Umbria I – Generations) at Convito. My family also stayed at his Umbrian wine estate Castello della Sala (an Umbrian 14th century castle) in 1989 so I was very familiar with the magic and breadth of the Antinori name, a family involved in the production of wine for over six centuries.

Karen Butler sketch of Cantinetta Antinori © Karen Butler

Karen Butler sketch of Cantinetta Antinori
© Karen Butler

Cantinetta Antinori is located in the historic center of Florence on the ground floor of the Antinori family mansion (the Palazzo). The building itself is a sensational example of the Florentine architecture of the mid-1400’s. Often referred to as a wine bar, the elegant room is like no “wine bar” I have ever visited. It reeks of class and good taste like everything the Antinori family does. Service was impeccable and of course, the wine list, as expected, was superb. We ordered a bottle of Villa Antinori Bianco (light, but it was lunch and we had more art to discover that afternoon) and toasted to our marvelous – but almost finished – artistic adventure in Florence; a blending of art, wine and food. We also toasted the Antinori family as one of the most forward thinking wine families in the world, known for their excellent Chiantis and Super Tuscan wines, especially the well regarded Solaia and Tignanello.

Our lunch began with one of the most classic of Tuscan foods – Crostini di Fegatini – bread slices topped with a liver pate – an iconic Tuscan appetizer. Was there ever a more “sober” Tuscan dish? We enjoyed their savory straightforward taste, soaked in the atmosphere and watched Karen sketch some of the guests in this fabulous Cantinetta. She always seems to capture the most interesting people in the room – usually beautiful but at the same time somewhat outrageous!

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Crostini Fegato

4 servings

 

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup finely diced red onion
3 anchovy fillets, finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh sage, finely diced
½ pound chicken livers
½ cup dry red wine
salt & freshly ground pepper
pinch chili pepper flakes
8 (1 – inch thick) slices peasant bread

sage leaves for garnish

In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, anchovy fillets and sage. Sauté for 5 – 6 minutes. Add the chicken livers and stir until lightly browned approximately 4 – 5 minutes. Add the wine. Reduce by half. Lower heat and simmer for another 15 minutes. Season to taste. Remove from heat.

Mash the mixture until lumpy. Stir in chili pepper flakes.

Toast the bread until golden brown. Spread equal amounts of the liver mixture over each slice of bread. Decorate with sage leaves

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Our last afternoon in Florence was glorious.   The blue cloudless sky convinced us to choose an outdoor artistic experience; a stroll in the Boboli Gardens, a famous park in the middle of Florence. We first did a mini tour of the Pitti Palace (situated at the front of the gardens) which houses important collections of art (too extensive for a half day if we wanted to also see the gardens so we did a limited tour) then spent the rest of the afternoon admiring this large, elegant Italian style garden filled with statues, fountains, grottos and amazing foliage. We ended our stroll at Fontana del Bacchino (little Bacchus) – the court dwarf (considered to be a lucky charm) – happily drunk, completely naked and riding a turtle. “I like his big tummy”, said Karen rubbing her own. We all could relate to big tummies after our many Tuscan meals. And who could not be charmed with this humorous, somewhat grotesque Bacchus and his unbridled joy ride on a turtle?

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The next day we took our Tuscan art, food and wine ventures into the countryside. Badia al Colitbuono located in Gaiole in Chianti, was our first stop. We not only looked forward to again tasting their products (all of which Convito carried) but tasting them and learning about their history and origins in the very place they were produced. Of course, we assumed art would be a part of this beautiful and historic estate. How could it not be when one of the owners was a descendant of the De Medici family, a family known since the 1500’s for their patronage of the arts?

Lorenza De’ Medici and husband, Piero Stucchi-Prinetti were the owners of Badia al Coltibuono. Originally purchased in 1846 by the great grandfather of Piero Strucchi- Prinetti (a prestigious Florentine banker), Badia al Coltibuono (“abbey of the good harvest”) can trace its roots all the way back to Etruscan times when the Vallombrosan monks, an offshoot of the Benedictine monks, founded the Abbey and planted the very first vineyards. It eventually became a center for wine production in this upper Chianti area.

badia_al_coltiorono_dogs-CCImagine our nervousness knocking at the door of this 11th century villa anticipating a meeting with an actual de’ Medici descendant. Maria, a Chicagoan working on the estate, warmly greeted us and gave us a tour through the abbey, the ancient cellar and the beautiful Renaissance gardens. Two handsome white dogs accompanied her. Colleen, an avowed dog lover, was so enamored with the dogs she had trouble concentrating on Maria’s excellent commentary. I must say, they were lovely animals, so gentle and well behaved.

We were led to a lovely sitting room whose pristine white walls were lined with rich (we assumed historic) tapestries to wait for Lorenza. Her son Roberto joined us for a glass of Rosato. Graceful and dignified, Lorenza arrived and invited us to join her outside to relax and finish our Rosato while we waited for lunch to be served. A discussion of their products and their cooking school followed. The school is conducted in the Coltibuono’s family kitchen and features the flavors and tastes of Tuscany. At the time of our visit in the spring of 1987, Lorenza had already written several cookbooks and was in the process of writing more. (Today she has written more than 28 books).   She was also just putting the finishing touches on her book on Renaissance Gardens “The Renaissance of Italian Gardens”, exploring the artistic flair and genius of gardens during that time in history. The serene garden we were sitting in was shaded by a big old lovely tree and provided magnificent views of the vine-clad hills surrounding the estate. Round, brown chickens clucked back and forth on the hillside in front of us while those two handsome dogs, joined by their aging but still handsome mother, lay perfectly quiet on the ground beside us. It was all quite idyllic.

We adjourned to the kitchen for lunch beginning with as assortment of fresh vegetables and breads perfect for dipping in the excellent Badia al Coltibuono Extra Virgin Olive oil, which had been poured into small Tuscan ceramic bowls at each of our places. A baked pasta timbale made with spaghetti and egg followed accompanied by a simple salad of excellent greens dressed with the estate’s olive oil and vinegar. A glass of the estate’s Chianti Classico complimented our delicious lunch.

dog_badia-CCWe hated to see this lovely day come to an end. When it was time to leave all three of us thanked Lorenza and Roberto profusely while at the same time, peppering them with a myriad of questions – each relevant to our own personal agendas. Karen, an accomplished gardener, wanted to know when the Renaissance Garden book would be published, I inquired about the possibility of Lorenza doing a cooking demo at Convito during her next U. S. cooking school tour (which she did – a demo on cooking with vegetables held at Chicago Convito in late 1987) and Colleen was desperately trying to figure out how she could buy one of those white dogs – or at least one of its descendants. I think she would have packed one up in her suitcase if there had been any possibility.

Note: Today at the Abbey the sixth generation has take over. Emanuela manages the winery with the help of her three brothers; Roberto who is head winemaker, Paolo who oversees the restaurant and Guido who runs hospitality.

My visit to the nearby Tenuta di Capezzana, a historic estate located in the small Carmignano appellation in northern Tuscany owned by the Bonacossi family was not a part of my trip with Karen and Colleen, but was some twelve years later. This amazing estate so fit the theme of this blog – art, wine and food – that I felt it needed to be included. Tenuta di Capezzana has much in common with Badia al Coltibuono. Both produce wonderful Tuscan wines, exceptional olive oils, conduct well-respected cooking schools and have incredible family histories – histories that date back for centuries. My daughter (and Convito partner) Candace Warner, Candace’s husband (my son-in-law and food photographer for this blog), Rob Warner and good friend Nancy Harris drove from our quarters in the Chianti hills one beautiful fall morning in 2000 to visit this amazing estate. 79-year-old handsome Count Ugo Bonacossi warmly greeted us. I had not seen him and his lovely wife Lisa since they visited Convito in the mid-eighties.

Candace, Nancy Brussat and Nancy Harris  with Count Ugo Bonacossi

Candace, Nancy and Nancy Harris with Count Ugo Bonacossi

Villa di Capezzana Carmignano is one of my favorite wines. If you define Super Tuscan as a wine combining the Italian Sangiovese and the French Cabernet (as many do) then this wine can be considered a Super Tuscan and was way ahead of its time in that category. The wine dates back 3000 years and is produced in only 13 estates. With a composition of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon it is a rich, powerful wine with silky tannins and notes of raspberries, currants and dark chocolate. It is not as well known as many other Tuscan wines but the Count’s dedication and hard work during his lifetime did much to elevate both the quality and reputation of Carmignano.

Candace and Nancy with the Count

Candace and Nancy with the Count

We were treated to a wonderfully warm and informative tour of the property, the winery and the olive oil center. We were also given a tour of the family’s private quarters, which housed an amazing collection of art Tintorellos, della Robbias, rare pottery from Sicily and Spain and breathtaking oriental carpets. The Bonacossis are known for their art collection. The previous count, Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) amassed one of the most important collections of the 20th century. Nearly half of that vast collection is on view at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Once our tour was finished we adjourned to the terrace for a divine lunch and a tasting of the estate’s wines and olive oil. I love the Count’s sense of humor. The lunch was not only delicious, but much fun.   All four of us are great appreciators of wine and food – Candace, Rob and I with our Convito connection and Nancy Harris a former cooking school manager and owner of a catering business – loved learning about all the details of this estate and its products.

Rob Warner, Nancy Harris, Candace and Nancy Brussat in a Tuscan restaurant in Montefelonico – Nancy waiting for the arrival of her ribollita

Rob Warner, Nancy Harris, Candace and Nancy Brussat in a Tuscan restaurant in Montefelonico – Nancy waiting for the arrival of her ribollita

Our lunch was splendid – course after course of excellent dishes beginning with a favorite Tuscan soup that Nancy Harris couldn’t seem to get enough of – Ribollita. We teased her that she was “ribolliting” her way through Tuscany ordering this famous Tuscan soup whenever she saw it on the menu – which was often. Since that trip I have considered her a ribollita expert so I asked her for a recipe for this blog. I just tested it at Convito. It’s damn good and will be added to Convito’s soup selection.

Ribollita means “reboiled”. Its peasant origins date back to the Middle Ages. There are many variations but most contain leftover bread, cannellini beans and vegetables – from carrots, onions and cabbage to more exotic items like cavolo nero or swiss chard.

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Nancy Harris’s Ribollita

Yield: 8 – 10 servings

1/3 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil + additional for serving
1/3 pound diced pancetta, finely chopped (can substitute smoked bacon)
2 cups chopped onions
1 ½ cups chopped carrots
1 ½ cups chopped celery
3 cloves garlic, chopped plus 2 additional cloves for bread
3 15 oz. cans cannellini beans, drained
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes in juice
1 small head Savoy cabbage, coarsely chopped (8-10 cups)
1 bunch kale, stems removed and discarded, then coarsely chopped (8-10 cups) or substitute Swiss Chard
6 cups chicken stock + additional if needed
2 t. dried basil
2 t. dried thyme
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ – 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (depending on your taste_
8 1/2” thick slices of country bread (Tuscan style if possible)
Salt and additional pepper to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano

In a stockpot, heat the 1/3 Cup olive oil. When warm add the pancetta, cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally then add the onions. Cook over medium to low heat until the onions are translucent, about 7 minutes. Continue stirring occasionally. Then add the carrots, celery and 3 cloves chopped garlic and continue to cook and stir occasionally until the vegetables are tender. Do not let the vegetables brown.

In a food processor, puree one can of Cannellini beans. Drain the can of tomatoes and reserve 1 cup of the juice. Coarsely chop the tomatoes. Lower the heat and add the pureed beans, tomatoes, cabbage, kale, 6 cups chicken stock and the cup of reserved tomato juice. Add the dried basil, dried thyme, red pepper flakes and pepper. Stir to blend.

Simmer partially covered 1½ to 2 hours, until everything is soft. Stir occasionally to cover the cabbage and kale with the liquid as it cooks. Add the other 2 cans of cannellini beans and stir into the soup.

Cool, and then cover and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to serve, bring the soup up to a boil and simmer a few minutes. You want a thick soup, but you can additional chicken stock to thin if desired. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Put the bread under the broiler and toast on both sides. Cut the remaining 2 cloves of garlic in half, and when the bread is ready, remove from the oven, and rub with the raw garlic. Then drizzle with remaining olive oil.

Put the bread in the bottom of soup bowls, and ladle the hot soup on top. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan and serve. Or place bread in side of soup (as pictured)

Note: Everyone makes their own version of Ribollita, but they all include onions, carrots, celery, beans, cabbage (black cabbage, cavolo nero if available) bread and olive oil. If you have leftovers such as brussel sprouts, potatoes, green beans or peas consider adding them when reheating.

 

 

Sadly we said goodbye to these wonderful people and to a visit filled to the brim with good food and wine and new and interesting information. It would be the last time I saw the Count. He died in 2012 at the age of 90. His kindness and that of his wife Contessa Lisa will remain a hallmark in my collected memories of this most incredible region. Today the driving force behind Capezzana is Ugo and Lisa’s daughter Countess Beatrice Contini Bonacossi.

I have gone on many trips – inside and outside of Italy – where art was the centerpiece. But this trip to Florence with Karen and Colleen stands out. It was not just about art. It was about the way art, food and wine play off one another. “The identifying traits of a culture are present in the taste and texture of food, just as they are present in a shard of pottery or fragment of a manuscript,” writes Tom Fredrickson in his book Culinary Art published by the Chicago Art Institute.

Our discussions during this Tuscan journey were often fascinating but always, no matter what esoteric or intellectual tangent we got off on, enjoyment was central – enjoyment of the food we were eating, enjoyment of the wine we were drinking and enjoyment of whatever museum or restaurant or garden we were visiting. Tuscany could not have been a better classroom.   The beauty of everything – the cities, small towns even the landscape itself brought to mind art and artistic pleasure.

Being with Karen who has had a big influence on my artistic sensibilities through the years, enhanced the whole experience. A student of history like everyone in my family and a believer in detailed research (as was Colleen), we came to each visit, each meal each glass of wine armed with facts and stories. I always wanted to hear her assessment of the day’s artistic adventures. And, of course, I was always secretly hoping that she would pull out her sketchbook and sketch away. I have many of those sketched moments in journals or hanging on my walls. Their presence along with her watercolors brings so much pleasure to me and to my customers. Art does that. And Karen’s paintings seem to bring to mind a special joy. Thr characters in her sketches and paintings, whether engrossed in a mood of mystical contemplation or enjoying an espresso surrounded by whimsical bands of color, do exactly what I want them to do; enrich the Convito dining experience. And each time I travel to a place like Tuscany and embrace the aesthetics that surround me, I am more and more convinced that with the right combination of food, wine and art – magic occurs.

Nancy & Karen

Nancy & Karen in Tuscany

 

 

 

 

 

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