My Journey Into The Kitchen “Beginnings”

 

“Ring bologna and German potato salad”

This was the answer to a question posed by my good friend, Ann Yonkers, a fellow food compatriot and former director of Washington D.C.’s FRESHFARM markets.  As a faithful reader of my blog – but someone I met after my early days in the business – she eventually became curious about my evolution in the kitchen. She knew I owned a restaurant and market, but was aware that my background did not include any formal chef training.    “So…how did you get your start?”

 

It was almost four years ago that Ann asked this question.  I have been mulling the answer around in my mind ever since and decided I would try to retrace my steps into the kitchen and give her an answer.  And so I begin.  After a deep breath, a healthy sip of wine and a long pause I begin… it all started with ring bologna and German potato salad.

Just thirteen, I was left at home with my grandpa to take care of the house and work my summer job.  My older sister Joan was away at a Badger Girls State conference and my mom and dad and younger sister Karen were visiting relatives in Indiana, so I was left in charge with Grandpa Charlie.  I felt so grown up!

That summer, my job was detassleing corn.  For many of us in small Midwestern towns across America, the gritty and grueling position of corn detasseling was frequently a teenager’s first employment – in some sense, a rite of passage.  It was a short season, paid well compared to other forms of employment and allowed workers to also hold nighttime jobs making it a sought-after position.  Piling into the back of a truck with a ragtag bunch of other teens at five in the morning, making my way to the damp, wet cornfields in rural Janesville, Wisconsin, I daydreamed about what I would prepare for my grandpa’s evening meal.  My mother’s parting advice echoed through my sleep-derived brain: “just make him a sandwich!”

But I wanted to do more than that and there was plenty of time to think about food and what I would prepare that night as I shuffled through the endless rows of corn, removing the pollen-producing tassels from each stalk that was – I was informed – a critical form of pollination control. I’m not sure I understood the reasons for the task at hand – nor do I to this day – but I was happy to have this particular money-making job that lasted for five years.  I continued my ascent as a pollination control expert for all my pre-college years, eventually working my way up to “crew leader” and always dreaming of the many ways in which I would spend my first salary.

After considerable thought, I eventually I decided our first meal would be ring bologna.  I loved its savory, spicy taste and it went well with my favorite condiment – ketchup.  All I had to do to cook it was boil water.  An easy choice!

 

© rob warner photography 2019

Ring Balogna
(serves 1-4)

Boil pot of water
Submerge ring bologna
Boil for 12 – 13 minutes
Drain
Serve

 

Deciding on the accompanying dish was more difficult.  I had begun paging through my mother’s cookbooks several days before my family left,  finally settling on a recipe for German potato salad from the Betty Crocker cookbook.  That would, I thought, certainly please my German grandpa.  And besides; potatoes, bacon, onions and pickles were high on my list of most-favored ingredients – as they are to this day.

The actual process of leafing through those cookbooks, I discovered, was a new and exciting activity.  Thinking about food, imagining the dishes that went well with one another and even how they would eventually look on a plate was an intoxicating exercise.   I later learned from other ardent food lovers and chefs that this particular activity often marked the beginning of their own personal food journeys as well.

Looking back I realize that my father’s love of food had a profound effect on me.  Oh, how he loved to eat!  So of course, I adored pleasing him.  Whenever I made what he referred to as “The Nancy Sandwich” by piling cold cuts, cheeses, pickles and lettuce on an Italian sub roll sometimes so high it was difficult to get your mouth around, he not only heaped praise on me but ate every single bite!

 

 

My father was not a cook in the traditional sense. Rather he was – in the summer – our grill man, and in the autumn – the canning guy.  He was also an amazing gardener who cultivated his own “Farmer’s Market” right in our backyard.  He grew everything from gooseberries, strawberries, rhubarb, raspberries, and grapes to kohlrabi, lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes and zucchini. Fresh summer produce was a big part of my growing-up years.  At harvest time he and my mother made grape jelly, raspberry and strawberry jam, jar after jar of canned tomatoes, my father’s delicious zucchini pickles (blog – Tuscany III “A Region for all Seasons”) and in his later years, during rhubarb season, he experimented with making rhubarb wine.  Strong and acidic are the words that come to mind when I think about my first and only taste – the kind of wine that brings your face to the pucker position.  It wasn’t long before he gave up this experiment.

A more successful rhubarb story, however, is the delicious rhubarb pie my mother baked each year during this season.  I love the creamy custard-like consistency of this rhubarb recipe, of which the key is the addition of the whisked eggs.   It’s a mellow and simply delicious version!

 

Thelma’s Old Fashioned Rhubarb Pie

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Pie Pastry
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1-teaspoon salt
2/3 cup shortening
5 – 7 tablespoons cold water

Sift flour and salt together.  Cut in the shortening with pastry blender until pieces are the size of peas.  Sprinkle with cold water – 1 tablespoon at a time to moisten all of the mixture making sure it is not too dry and not too moist.  It should begin to pull together as a ball.  Form into 2 balls.  Chill (it is easier to work with the dough if it is chilled)

On a lightly floured surface, flatten the first ball and roll until 1/8 inch thick.  Carefully transfer that rolled out sheet to a 9-inch pie plate.  Press the dough evenly on the sides and bottom of the pie plate. Roll second ball for top.  When flat about 1/8 inch thick, cut into strips for a lattice top.  Strips should be ½ to ¾ inch wide.  Use a blunt knife or pizza or pastry cutter to cut strips.  Set aside.

Filling
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup flour
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
3 eggs
1-pound rhubarb cut into ½ inch pieces (4 cups)

Combine the sugar, flour and nutmeg.  Whisk the eggs together and add to the sugar/flour mixture. Add the rhubarb pieces.  Mix well.

Combining the Filling and the crust
Filling
2 tablespoons butter
Sugar
Cinnamon

Fill the pie shell with the pie filling.  Dot with the butter. Lay out 4 to 7 parallel strips on top of filling with about ½ to ¾ inch space between them.  Fold back every other strip. Place one long strip perpendicular to parallel strips.  Unfold the folded strips over the perpendicular strip.  Now take the parallel strips that are running underneath the perpendicular strip and fold them back over the perpendicular.  Lay a second perpendicular strip next to the first one with space between the strips and unfold parallel strips over the second strip. Continue this until the weave is complete.  Trim the edges of the strips flush with the underlying pie, which should be about an inch over the sides.  Fold back the rim of the shell over the edge of the lattice strips and crimp to secure.

Sprinkle top with a cinnamon and sugar mixture.  Bake for 50 to 60 minutes.  Cover edges with foil for first 30 minutes to prevent over browning.

 

 

 

During my growing up years, my family, typical of most forties and fifties families, sat down to the table at dinnertime for a simple home cooked meal of meat, vegetables (often overcooked – al dente were words yet to be uttered in this era) and a homemade dessert.  Although my mother made her own homemade “noodles” (probably my first introduction to pasta), I believe she enjoyed baking more than cooking.  And I remember the results of her baking much more clearly than the meals she cooked: the cookie jar always brimming with fresh cookies; the rhubarb  blueberry, cherry, apple and banana cream pies; her favorite poppy seed cake; Christmas sugar cookies with what was referred to as “butterfly” frosting; and my favorite – German cheesecake, a recipe from my father’s mother who passed away long before I was born – made with cottage cheese, lots of lemon and a delicious graham cracker crust. Not too sweet.  Not too rich.

 

 

One of my most memorable teenage cooking duties was making french fries, a favorite food of mine and the quintessential carrier (even more than ring balogna) for ketchup.  I would slip down to the basement where we stored our french fryer and through trial and error, eventually discovered the secret to crispy and beautifully browned french fries.  I not only remember the process of making the fries but also my time in the basement.  It was a place of respite for me – a place away from everyone and everything.  My father worked hard to make this room less catacomb-like by painting the walls typical fifties bright colors and even painting the cement floor with the same bright colored sponge designs. His “cozying-up” efforts also included building a knotty pine cupboard and knotty pine shelves, which housed my mother’s folk art (rosemaling) trays and platters.

As I enjoyed these surroundings and my solitude, I eventually came to the conclusion that the key to the perfect french fry was to first thoroughly dry the potatoes in paper toweling and then to submerge them into very hot oil (375 degrees).  As I waited for golden brown results, I would wander into what we referred to as our “fruit cellar”, the room where all the canned goods were stored, to check out the latest jarred vegetable or fruit addition or mosey into my father’s workroom to admire his latest project, always enjoying the smell of freshly sawn wood.   Or if I felt especially daring, I would put a Doris Day record on the phonograph and sing along to “You’re Mean to Me” or “Ten Cents a Dance” (two of my favorites) and even at times pretend to actually BE Doris Day.  This room – away from it all, was a perfect place for daydreaming.  Then after the potatoes turned golden brown, I would once again toss them in paper towels to absorb the excess oil.  The result – french-fries with a crunchy exterior and a light and fluffy interior!  Mission accomplished while also having a good time in the process.

 

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Trial and error played a significant role in my culinary education over the years.  Know your ingredients before cooking them was one of the first lessons I learned. My first “ingredient” lesson was with lamb chops.  While teaching in Lexington, Massachusetts when my then-husband attended Harvard Business School, we followed a very strict budget.  I was newly married, living in Waltham, a suburb close to Lexington where I taught, but not close to much else so not having a driver’s license or a car, I was totally dependent on other people for any outside activity.   Much of my time away from teaching was therefore spent in our little apartment reading, watching TV and thinking about what I would cook for dinner.  It was a rather lonely time, but one where I continued inching towards my eventual calling.

One night after flipping through a cookbook (probably while drinking a Tab and smoking a cigarette – oh the bad old days!) I decided I wanted to cook lamb chops for dinner.  It sounded straightforward, but slightly exotic.  I carefully perused the meat section of the supermarket and found a vast discrepancy between different cuts, but decided on the least expensive ones I could find.  They were downright cheap!  That night I sautéed them in olive oil with just a sprinkle of salt, pepper and a little thyme until browned but medium rare in the center just like my cookbook The Joy of Cooking recommended.  The result was horrid – the chops were tough, chewy and very gamey – almost inedible. What had I done wrong I wondered?

I learned later that there is no term for mutton in America, so meat from a sheep two years old or older is called lamb regardless of age whereas in many other countries it would be called mutton.  These chops most definitely fell into the mutton category. The sheep must have been a grandpa!  Lesson learned!  In the future I made certain to look for the label “spring lamb” which indicates that the lamb was slaughtered between March and October and is from a sheep 6 to 10 weeks old – very young, very tender.  No old guys for me anymore unless I’m making a slow-cooking lamb stew.

Because we had little money and my then husband studied all the time, I did lots of cooking mostly with recipes I was familiar with – even resurrecting some old dishes like ring bologna and German potato salad. But I also experimented with new recipes.  Of course, with experimentation came inevitable blunders!  One was made with tomato paste.  Because I had no regular canned tomatoes in the house and no access to a car to go to the grocery store and buy them, I substituted tomato paste for canned tomatoes in a new veal scaloppini recipe I was trying.  Both were tomatoes in a can after all!  Big mistake!  My Vitello Scaloppini alla Pizzaiola was thick, concentrated and very goopy.  Next time, I decided, I would follow the recipe explicitly and use quality canned tomatoes, which I then realized would produce a juicier sauce just the right consistency for this dish.  Or at the very least, add broth or water to the tomato paste to thin it out a bit.

 

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Moving back to Chicago from Boston in 1965, my culinary education became a food journey of a different sort.  I continued to search for new recipes in both cookbooks and food magazines but now after becoming a mom, I started to search for quick and easy recipes that could be cooked while feeding children in their high chairs and folding laundry at the same time.  I also began to look for “cooking buddies”.  Staying home with little kids could sometimes be lonely and frustrating – especially when they were babies so cooking with a friend or a family member was often the highlight of my day and frequently provided a playmate or two for my children.  A side benefit in almost every instance, no matter who the cook, was learning something new; be it a new recipe, an unexpected ingredient or technique.  Brilliant new tidbits of information like drizzling extra virgin olive oil on top of a bean soup to enhance its flavor or steam cooking vegetables in a covered steamer as a way to preserve their nutritive value made a tremendous difference in the outcome of a dish.

 

 

One of my earliest “cooking buddies” was Marcia Solvsberg, a former college sorority sister who became my Evanston neighbor when we moved back from Boston. “Buggy time” in the park with our two little napping babies (Robby and Chrissie) allowed us time to talk.  And food – mainly what we would cook for dinner that night quickly, cheaply and easily – was our principal topic of conversation. Some days we would wheel our kids back to one of our apartments and cook those meals together, usually preparing simple casseroles often accompanied by the ubiquitous icon of its age: the Jell-O mold.  One of my favorite Marcia recipes was a wild rice stuffed chicken breast – very exotic we thought – whose sauce contained – strangely enough – white wine, a can of mushroom soup and a quarter of a cup of – OMG – currant jelly.  Though it sounds weird, it was strangely delicious and was one of those recipes that I passed on to many people.   My sister Karen shared it with a friend who owned a catering business who claims it was the most requested dish on her menu. Eventually Marcia and I became more daring and moved on to more sophisticated and complicated dishes that we discovered in magazines like Bon Appetit and Gourmet –  dishes like Marcia’s Worldly Stroganoff or my Osso Buco with Risotto Milanese.

Marcia also introduced me to the Evanston Woman’s Club, an organization of women of a similar age with little children and all looking for ways to occupy ourselves outside of the home.  We all seemed to need intellectual stimulation and this unique little club gave our brains a creative outlet.  The annual Women’s Club Show – a review which raised funds for charity – was the main event. Written, directed, choreographed and performed by members and their husbands it not only fulfilled the creativity we lacked, but provided us with new friendships – many of which I have to this day. Much of the time we all spent together centered around discussions about raising children, a part of which was what we could make for dinner that evening that was both delicious and fast.

Colleen Remsberg and Sheila Bradley

Enter…canned goods!  Most of the recipes we shared contained at least one canned product as an ingredient.  Who can forget the iconic casserole of the decade – canned green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup and canned crispy onions?  Just open three cans, mix and voila!    Other recipes like Mary Lou O’Malley’s Hamburger Pie, my sister Joan Cole’s Johnny Mazetti and Thelma Brussat’s Swiss Steak also fit that bill.  When I look back I guess I am not really that surprised that a bunch of first-time moms with young kids, little money and living in a pre-Food Network era cooked with canned food.  But what still surprises a lot people is that some of the resulting dishes were good enough that I use them to this day (though maybe with a few alterations)!  A favorite was – and is – the Evans girl’s (Sheila Bradley and Colleen Remsberg) Sweet & Sour Baked Beans –a recipe from their mother that their father referred to as “funeral beans” because the only time he ever got to enjoy them was when someone died and his wife brought her bean casserole to the “after-the-wake” buffet. This hearty casserole whose sauce combines brown sugar with vinegar, mustard, onions and bacon makes for a delicious accompaniment to any backyard barbeque. Whenever I have served it, I have always been asked to share the recipe.

 

 

© rob warner photography 2019

“Funeral Beans”
(aka: Sweet and Sour Baked Beans)

 

1 pound bacon cut up
2 cups onions, diced
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ cup white vinegar
¾ cup light brown sugar
1 can (15 oz.) dark red kidney beans
1 can (15 oz.) light red kidney beans
1 can (15 oz.) butter beans
1 can (15 oz.) cannellini or great northern beans
1 small can lima beans
1 large can original pork and beans

In a large sauté pan, brown the bacon and drain.   Add the onions, mustard, vinegar and brown sugar.  Mix well and sauté for about 20 minutes.

Drain all the beans except for the pork and beans.  Place the beans in a bean pot, pour the bacon/onion mixture over and gently stir.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour.

Note: drain all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat and sauté the onions for approximately 2 to 3 minutes before adding the mustard, vinegar and brown sugar.

 

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Mary Nahser and I in 1976

 

Another one of my early “cooking buddies” was my Evanston neighbor and friend, Mary Nahser.   During one chilly Chicago winter in the early seventies, Mary and I decided to take a Chinese cooking class together.  We began with demonstration classes on regional Chinese food (mostly focusing on Cantonese, Szechuan and Mandarin) at the Oriental Food Market in Chicago.  Those classes were incredibly fun, but we were immediately ready for something more intense so we signed up for a “hands-on” class taught by Sarah Moy, a local Chinese Cookbook author (Let’s Cook Chinese) and teacher.  In the first classes we took, the instructor handed out carbon copies of the recipes being demonstrated that day but in Sarah’s class things were different.  She dictated the recipes.  And since English was not her first language (and quite possibly not even her second), students were never certain that our note-taking was correct.  Did we have the right ingredients?  The right preparation instructions?  So when we were asked to then make the dish right there in front of her, many of us were understandably nervous. And Sarah, the taskmaster, did not believe in coddling her students.

During one of our sessions – as per Sarah’s instructions – I peeled stalks of broccoli slicing them with a cleaver on the diagonal into ¼ inch sections to prepare them for a stir-fry dish.  Just as I was about to slice the head, Sarah appeared at my side.  Never will I forget the look of horror on her face as she observed me beginning to slice the head of the broccoli in the same manner as the stalks (1/4 inch slices) making a total mess – little pieces of small, dense, floral shoots strewn over the table like little green crumbs.  “No”, she shouted, grabbing the clever from my hand, “you trim the head into little florets.”   She didn’t add “you, stupid girl”, but I certainly felt like she was thinking just that. Of course, I knew better.  I had sliced broccoli florets a multitude of times in my own kitchen but with my teacher so close, I reverted back to my third-grade self, panicked and made a mess!

I learned much from these Chinese cooking lessons. Not only how to make wonderful dishes, but these were my fist formal lessons in knife skills.  Knowing how to properly and efficiently dice and slice is an important skill on anyone’s road to becoming competent in the kitchen.  My kitchen technique has never been better or more finely tuned than during this “Chinese period”.

Mary and I cooked many Chinese meals together during and after our cooking lessons, but it all culminated in a spectacular 10-course feast we prepared for a group of mutual friends.  Our menu included all our favorites from both classes: fantail shrimp, eggrolls, Peking duck, hot peanut chicken, deep-fried sweet and sour sea bass, moo shu pork and beef with peapods.  We have often reminisced about what an ambitious undertaking it was preparing these marathon Chinese meals.  They required so much advance chopping and dicing and a ridiculous amount of last-minute cooking.   But learning this very distinctive culinary style of cooking with its emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce, short stove-to-table serving time and a LOT of different ingredients – brought a new dimension to my culinary education that remains with me to this day.

Mary has prepared this wonderfully flavorful dish many times.  Following is the recipe with a few “Mary Hints” at the end.

 

 

Beef with Peapods
(serves 4)

1 pound flank steak (Semi-frozen then cut in thirds vertically making thin slices across the grain)

Marinate sliced steak at least ½ hour in a mixture of the following:

1-tablespoon fresh ginger  (3 slices minced)
1-tablespoon dark soy sauce
1-tablespoon oil
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 – 3 tablespoons water

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in wok.  When hot, add meat and stir-fry until medium-rare.  Set aside.  Clean wok.

 

1 fresh pound peapods
1 can water chestnuts, sliced
3 dried black mushrooms, soaked and shredded
2 tablespoons rice wine (mirin)
salt
2 tablespoons oyster sauce

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in wok. When hot, add peapods, water chestnuts and black mushrooms. Stir-mix and add salt.  Splash in the rice wine.  Keep mixing up to 3 minutes.  Add beef and oyster sauce.

Mary’s hints:  Steak is very easy to slice in a semi-frozen state.  You can get very thin slices, which is what you want.  Meat can be marinated ahead.  Cover and keep refrigerated and let come to room temperature next day before stir-frying.  Peapods need ends and string removed.  Black mushrooms need to be soaked in water, cleaned, shredded and tough stems thrown away. 

Variations: Asparagus, broccoli and carrots can be added to this dish

 

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Following is the infamous broccoli recipe from Sarah Moy’s class.  Over the years Mary and I have had a good laugh when reminiscing about my moment of “slicing humiliation”.

 

Stir Fried Broccoli
(serves 4)

1 ½ pounds broccoli
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine
½ – 1/3 cup chicken broth
3 slices ginger, minced
1 small onion, chopped

Trim the head into florets then cut into 1-½ inch pieces.  Peel the broccoli stalks with a vegetable peeler to remove tough outer skin then slice into ¼ inch thick on the diagonal.

Heat a large wok over high heat.  Add the oil and swirl to coat the wok.    Add the ginger and onions and sauté until onion becomes soft. Add broccoli.  Stir-fry for approximately 5 minutes.  Sprinkle in wine and soy sauce.  Stir and mix.  Add broth, cover and cook for approximately 5 minutes.

 

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After a satisfying – if at times harrowing – experience with Asian cuisine, I decided I wanted to embrace a new trend in cooking, French food.  Julia Child had been the rage for a number of years beginning in the sixties both as a cookbook author and TV personality and it seemed that everyone was taking up French cooking.  I started by pouring through the bible of French cuisine at the time, Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but eventually found a mentor in a woman by the name of Leslee Reis. Leslee was another friend I acquired through the Evanston Women’s Club.  Her journey into lusty French cooking began while doing graduate work at Harvard University in biochemistry.  On the side she apprenticed with Julia Child performing any number of menial duties just to be next to her heroine and to observe and learn from the master.  After also studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, Leslee moved to Evanston with her husband and two boys and quickly decided to open a small catering business while also teaching cooking classes in the basement of a local Evanston church on the side.  Her classes were incredibly informative and reliably hysterical.  Leslee was a natural – highly intelligent and wickedly funny – another Julia Child in the making.

Leslee and I

During one particular class when she was using a hand mixer to prepare a Crème Chantilly for the finishing touch of a Soufflé au Chocolat, she lifted the mixer out of the bowl to make a point, forgetting to turn it off and splattering cream on the faces of all of us in the front two rows. Like Julia Child who famously dropped a chicken mid-show, nonchalantly picked it up and continued her lesson without missing a beat, neither did Leslee.  Café Provencal, her groundbreaking restaurant, was opened several years later and is credited with bringing cosmopolitan European dining to the Middle West.  (Leslee actually appeared on the Julia Child TV show in 1983 to demonstrate an oyster-on-the-half-shell preparation!)

Each of Leslee’s classes consisted of recipes for one complete meal – first course through dessert.  I took two sessions of 6 complete French meals, so I accumulated about 72 recipes in all and used them for both regular family meals as well as for more formal entertaining.  They have remained an integral part of my recipe repertoire.  One of my favorite vegetable recipes is her versatile carrot dish below. Even my grandchildren love it.   It was a side dish recipe from her Coq Au Vin menu.

 

© rob warner photography 2019

Carottes Glacees
(serves 6)

One pound minus tops serves 3 or 4.  One pound of raw carrots sliced or quartered makes about 3 ½ cups.
1 ½ pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch lengths or trimmed into large olive shapes
1 ½ – 2 cups good brown stock or canned beef bouillion
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
dash pepper
(chopped parsley)

Put carrots in saucepan.  Add remainder of ingredients – carrots should be covered with stock – add water or more stock if necessary.

Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat until fork tender, about 30 minutes.  Do not cover. Liquids should evaporate down to a thick glaze for the carrots.  Toss carrots in the pan to coat.

Optional garnish of chopped parsley

Note:  I often add a little tomato paste for enrichment – maybe 2 tablespoons

 

Shortly after my emersion in French cooking, my family moved to England where my then husband became managing director of an advertising agency.  Moving to a new house in a new country brought many challenges and many new adventures – new people to meet, new cities and villages to be discovered and new foods to be tasted.    I didn’t know it then, but it was another big step in my own personal evolution – one that would also profoundly influence my culinary journey.

But when I think back on the culinary influences that mark my early years – I think first of my father’s garden.  What a deep effect that had on me – an abundance of fresh product right in my own backyard! Also impactful was what my mother and father actually did with all that produce. Nothing was wasted or discarded. All was either consumed at our kitchen table or rested pristinely in the “fruit cellar” waiting to be enjoyed later.

I also recall a certain kind of magic when I reflect on my experimentation with french-fry-making in my basement or cooking my first meal for my grandpa.  All of these early cooking experiences gave me a wonderful sense of accomplishment – a true sense of empowerment.

So many people and so many experiences during this early period made a difference in my culinary journey.  The taskmaster Chinese instructor Sarah Moy forced me to focus and chop and dice responsibly and to not be intimidated by new people and challenges.   My mentor and friend Leslee Reis taught me so many new dishes; showed me how a wife and mother can still be those things, but also more  – so much more.   And more importantly, that it’s okay to make mistakes – that having a good time and a sense of humor in the kitchen is certainly just as necessary as good technique.

Not all the people I cooked with or learned from became celebrated chefs like Leslee or great home cooks like Mary but almost all of them remain active everyday cooks that simply enjoy food and recognize the role it plays in our lives.  As the renowned chef, TV personality and cookbook author Jacques Pepin once said, “The table is the great equalizer.”  Sitting down to the table with friends or family to eat – whether it’s a hot dog or a bowl or soup or a ten course Chinese meal – is a way of connecting.  I have enjoyed being a part of all aspects of that connection: learning about food, cooking it and of course, eating it.

My culinary education continues.  I hope you will join me in that journey.

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Umbria III “Lucifer and the Bees”

 

The overwhelming scent of lavender permeated our senses as we walked the grounds for the first time of the Umbrian villa we rented in 2017.  Given its name – Casale delle Lavande – we expected as much.  But some of the other sensory surprises we encountered that week were less expected.  Like the heat wave that washed across most of Western Europe that summer continually roasting us and forcing us to rethink some of our initial plans.

But the biggest surprise of all was the bees.  We had seen website photos of a large expanse of lavender on either side of a stairway descending a small hill below the house.  But what we had not accounted for, were the pesky residents of that lavender, the swarm of bees that formed a humming cloud above each plant.  Their collective buzzing came at us in stereo as we made our way cautiously down to the pool below the house, intimidating all of us with each step.  The first sting came just an hour or so after our arrival – granddaughter Kianna’s finger was the recipient – but more than anything else, it was the constant fear that another attack was imminent which kept us all on guard throughout our stay.

 

 

We quickly learned that bees have a love affair with lavender, especially when the blossoms are at their peak,as they were upon our arrival.  Naturally bees are less likely to sting if you don’t spend time in the areas where they are busy collecting nectar and pollen, but given the fact that the lavender plants not only surrounded the pool but were growing in just about every part of the property, staying out of their collection area was next to impossible.

Lingering in the cool waters of the pool away from the lavender plants was not the answer either.  We also learned that bees love to spend a lot of time in the water – especially during hot weather – in an effort to control the humidity of their colony and to dilute stored honey that has become crystalized.  The in-hive workers accept water quickly from the forager bees.  Who knew?

 

 

This was our second trip to Italy as a family of nine. Accompanying me were my son Rob and his wife, Angie, their children Neko and Isis, my daughter Candace, her husband Rob and their children Kingston and Kianna.   After a quick tour of the villa and the grounds we unpacked and began organizing the kitchen, putting away groceries and reviewing the appliances and equipment we would need in the upcoming week.  Even though cooking together was a priority, our first day would just be a time to relax, get organized and dine out at a nearby restaurant, expending as little energy as possible.

The tensions of the day – the heat, the bees and jetlag – slipped away as we all piled into our van and drove to the medieval hamlet of Collevalenza for our first family dinner.  The restaurant, Torre Sangiovanni, was at one time a 13th Century watchtower.  Tastefully converted into a charming restaurant/bed and breakfast, we knew from the moment we entered the tiny art and ceramic filled reception area that we had selected the perfect place to begin our journey.  It was quiet, impeccably decorated and imminently tranquil – just what we needed.

 

Torre Sangiovanni Aubergo & Ristorante

The hostess ushered us outside to a little gated terrace surrounded by a wall of pink oleander.  Deep fuchsia roses crawling over its wrought iron fences and pink geranium-filled terra cotta pots scattered throughout encased this storybook garden with a romantic glow.  Even the soft light of lanterns added to the soothing atmosphere.   And the piece de resistance was the rosy luminescence of a full moon peeking through the leafy branches of the trees.

 

 

Two Lazy Susan ceramic servers filled with a glorious assortment of antipasti were promptly delivered to our table.  As we enjoyed each delicious item including melon wrapped prosciutto, salamis, cheeses, several types of bruschetta, a farro salad and marinated vegetables we began to discuss plans for the upcoming week.  We all agreed that lying-around and getting-organized was the preferred activity for the next day.  Exploring medieval villages and maybe even a lake visit would have to wait until we regenerated and adjusted to Italian time.

 

For the moment we all wanted to just simply enjoy being together in this most interesting Italian region – a region that offered an abundance of charming little towns scattered about an enchanting landscape of green winding valleys, rolling hills, craggy mountains and plains brimming with sugar-beet plants, vineyards and sunflowers.  It was one of my favorite Italian regions and one I was thrilled to share with my family.  We even had our own sunflower field situated at the entryway of the long, winding dusty road that led to our villa – greeting us each day with their perky presence. Even in the heat they radiated happiness.

 

 

Todi, the nearby hilltop village visible from our property, became our “go-to” dinner destination.  Its presence pretty much dominated the surrounding landscape.  I had visited Todi during one of my other Umbria journeys (this was my sixth visit to the region) and was happy to return. In fact I was always happy to return to Umbria and never fully understood why guidebooks sometimes described it as “a region not quite living up to” its illustrious neighbors, Tuscany and Lazio.  I disagree. It may not have a coastline (it is the only landlocked region of Italy) or a Rome or a Florence, but it has so much else.  Certainly it was easier to navigate without the crowds so typical of those other two regions.  And its extraordinary natural beauty and charming villages could, in my mind, compete with any area of the country.

 

Nancy in Todi

Although driving is permitted in Todi, it is far easier to negotiate its narrow streets on foot.  So after a relaxing first day at our villa, we drove to the base of the village, parked and took the tram up to the center.   Such an interesting history Todi has.  Three concentric rings of walls encircle it.  The outer medieval walls are the most recent.  The ancient Roman walls make up the middle and finally the innermost walls are thought to be Etruscan and date all the way back to the 3rd century B.C.

 

We selected a restaurant just a short walk from the Piazza del Popolo, the medieval heart of the city.  Everyone wanted to eat at someplace casual and preferably outside. Even with the heat, eating outside is such a rare treat in our respective cities – Chicago and New York – finding a cafe with an outside eating area was always a priority.   La Cisterna, a pizza and pasta restaurant with a lovely rooftop terrace fit the bill.  We liked it so much we returned a second time later in the week.  I ordered potato pizza and a panzanella salad, a Tuscan chopped salad (blog – Tuscany II – “An Artist’s Palate”), which is  – if done properly – a favorite of mine.  This one with incredibly succulent “in season” tomatoes and browned crunchy croutons was perfect.

The pizza was also delicious.  Potato pizza is a very rustic dish found in varying forms all across Italy.  Often people are surprised that its origins are Italian.  Somehow it seems strange to top a pizza with potatoes (starch on starch!) but from the first time I ever tried a slice in Rome, I have been a fan.  The one I ordered at Le Cisterna came with thin slices of potatoes, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, little patches of crumbled sausage and sprigs of rosemary lightly sprinkled over the top.  Everyone ordered pizza that evening – mostly the classic Pizza Margherita (my grandchildren’s favorite) except for son Rob.  He is, unfortunately, lactose intolerant and since the one consistent ingredient in pizza is cheese, he perused the menu for something without dairy settling on one of the region’s most famous dishes: Ragu di Cinghiale, aka, pasta with a wild boar sauce.  In my mind, it is one of Italy’s tastiest pasta dishes.  In fact, we all ended up ordering it at different times during our stay.  Rob ordered it so often (with different pastas, and even with polenta) we began calling him Signor Cinghiale.

Ragu di Cinghiale is not a difficult sauce to make – just time-consuming.  When I do make it, I make a big batch and freeze some to have on hand for a cold winter night.  Just defrost, reheat and serve with any kind of pasta, a green salad and good crusty bread. (You may want to add a little tomato sauce to thin it out)

 

© rob warner photography 2019

Ragu di Cinghiale
(Wild Boar Ragu)

Serves 6 – 8

2-pound wild boar shoulder or leg cut into 1-inch pieces
2 sprigs rosemary
6 cloves garlic
10 peppercorns
3 cups red wine (I used Chianti)
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup carrots, finely chopped
1 cup celery, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups canned diced tomatoes*
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Pappardelle
Grated Parmesan

The night before cooking the ragu, place the meat in a bowl with the rosemary, garlic and peppercorns. Add the red wine – 3 cups or enough to cover the meat.  Cover the meat with plastic-wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.

Before preparing the ragu, discard the rosemary and the garlic.  Drain the meat in a colander reserving the wine.  Place the olive oil in a Dutch oven and turn the heat to medium-high.  Add the carrots, onion and onions and sauté for approximately 3 – 5 minutes until soft.

Add the meat and sauté until the liquid from the meat has evaporated and the meat is browned, stirring frequently, for approximately 10 to 15 minutes.  Add the reserved red wine and continue to cook until the wine has evaporated.  Add the tomatoes, 2 cups of the stock and 1 cup of water.  Reduce the heat and cook at a low simmer with Dutch oven partially covered for 1 hour.

Add remaining 1-cup stock and 1 more cup of water and continue to simmer until the meat begins to fall apart for 1½ to 2 hours, stirring occasionally.  When meat is very tender, remove from the heat and break the meat apart into fine shreds with a fork or a spoon. (I used a pastry cutter). You may want to add a little water or more broth depending on the preferred thickness of the sauce. Serve over pasta with grated Parmesan.

*My son has made this recipe and doubled the amount of tomatoes for a more saucy (and kid friendly) version

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We divided our time in Umbria between short visits to close-by towns and just hanging around the villa.   A visit to the Archaeological Park of Carsulae, an ancient Roman outpost abandoned in the 4th century and truly in the middle of nowhere, was one of our most interesting excursions. Since ruins are obviously not sheltered but usually piles of rock and ancient half-structures out in the open with no cover or shade at all, the heat was overwhelming – at least to me. I just couldn’t keep up with the group, so I spent a most of my time getting cool in the museum/visitor center studying everything from a distance and recalling all the many ruin sites I had visited over the years.

Neko & Isis at Carsulae

I wouldn’t say “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” because it always seems there is something unique about each, but with this particular visit I rationalized that maybe all my previous “ruin visits” compensated for the fact that I was not participating in this one.  No one was complaining or forcing me to come outside, but feeling guilty is just something, unfortunately, that comes easy to me!

Despite all of that, I loved the fact that my children and grandchildren were so interested in learning that they were willing to put up with a little discomfort.  Oh, to be young again!  As much as these family trips were about spending time together, enjoying each other and eating great food and drinking great wine, they were also about learning.  Coming from a history teacher father and a librarian mother, education was always a big part of my travels.  Sharing “my Italian Journeys” with my family – the food, the wine and the culture, which of course, includes the history of this great country, was one of the most rewarding aspects of our time together.  And their enthusiasm for that education added so much context and dimension to everything we did.

 

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Later in the week we spent an entire day in Orvieto, a small majestic Umbrian city sitting high above the Umbrian plains on the flat surface of a volcanic tuff (volcanic stone).  It is worth the long, winding drive to get there for many reasons, none more so than to visit its magnificent gothic cathedral (Duomo di Orvieto) dating from 1290.  The rose window, the monumental façade adorned with intricate golden mosaics and the details in the three bronze doors are just some of the many layers of history to be explored in this amazing cathedral.  We spent almost two hours appreciating its beauty.

 

Kianna, Isis, Neko & Kingston at Duomo di Orvieto

 

Of course a trip to Orvieto must include a stroll down “ceramica lane”, a narrow, winding street filled with ceramic shops offering everything from the mundane to the extraordinary.  The local traditional themes are inclined towards colorful floral patterns and animal and human figures (including the ubiquitous rooster pitcher) while the refined handcrafted objects of local artisans are often a mix of gothic and middle-eastern elements.   It always amazes me that each small ceramic town in Italy (and there are many – at least three just in Umbria alone) has a completely different ceramic history and a completely different look.

 

Before we did some serious ceramic shopping we had a delicious calzone and pizza lunch outside at one of the many restaurants along “ceramica row”.  Sitting under a large natural colored umbrella, I enjoyed my first glass of Orvieto wine from one of my favorite producers, Antinori.  At an earlier visit (blog Umbria I “Generations”), Rob, Candace and I had visited his vineyards (close to Orvieto) and had the good fortune to stay in the Antinori castle – an amazing experience.

 

Rob Warner e il calzone

 

 

Dessert was almost always the same for our group– after both lunch and dinner we always found the nearest Gelateria and enjoyed Italy’s incredible ice cream.  Made with a mixture of custard, cream and milk without eggs, it is generally lower in fat, contains less air and is more dense and flavorful than other ice creams.

Our heads filled with gothic architecture and religious frescos, our shopping bags brimming with ceramics and our stomachs stuffed with pizza and ice cream, we decided to head back to our villa and just “hang around” that evening – bees and all.  By this time we were getting used to them – sort of.

 

After hours of considerable “digesting”, I made a batch of Amatrciana, a tomato pancetta sauce that we served over spaghetti (blog – Lazio I Rome “Begin at the Beginning”) and son Rob grilled juicy succulent Italian sausages – a mixture of both mild and spicy.  Candace made a caprese salad and we hung out in our favorite area of the villa, an outside covered porch just out the kitchen door to the side of the villa.

We continued to be fascinated by the bees and their activity – especially their attraction to the pool.  At one point Angie even asked the groundskeeper why so many of the bees were in the pool?  His very matter of fact replay was:  “They eat the lavender.  They get thirsty.  They drink the water in the pool.  And they die.”  I don’t think it was that simple because I don’t their intention was to die, but we loved the answer and repeated it frequently during the week.  However, we did come to respect our buzzing neighbor’s sense of community and amazing work ethic.  They never stopped – at least not that we could see.

 

 

We had our communal obligations as well.  The whole family participated in making the meal – from setting the table, making the caprese and arranging a selection of antipasti on a low table in the seating area to be enjoyed with a glass of wine (or beer) before dinner.  Dinners and lunches at the villa were always a participatory affair.

Generally, I like to serve pasta as an individual course – not as many Italian-American restaurants do as a “side” with something else on the plate like roast chicken.  But for some reason the combination of the grilled sausages and the spaghetti with Amatriciana on the same plate worked – totally casual, totally easy and most important, totally delicious.

 

Following is the grilled sausage recipe – in this recipe the sausages are served with broccolini and roasted potatoes, a dish found in many parts of Italy.  Rob actually prepared it this way at a summer family reunion.   It makes for a perfect rustic Sunday night supper!

 

 

© rob warner photography 2019

 

 

Italian Sausage with Broccolini and Potatoes
Serves 4

6 large sweet Italian sausage links
1 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled
2 – 3 bunches of broccolini*
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon chili pepper flakes (depending on desire of spiciness)

Place the potatoes in a pot of water enough to cover the potatoes and bring to a boil.  Cook over medium heat until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart. Using a slotted spoon, remove the potatoes and set aside.  When cooled, slice the potatoes into ¾ inch rounds.

Trim the broccolini. Trim bottom of stalks.  Return the potato water to a boil.  (You may need to add more water to accommodate broccolini). Add salt and then the broccolini. Cover partially, and cook until tender 2 – 5 minutes, depending on thickness of the stalk.  Drain and set aside.

In a frying pan place the sausages and ¼ cup of water, cover and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook for about 10 minutes.  Remove cover (water should have evaporated) and add olive oil.  Sauté over medium-high heat until sausages are well browned.  Slice sausages on the diagonal into 3 inch pieces.

In a frying pan large enough to hold the potatoes & broccolini, add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add garlic and sauté until golden.  Add sausage slices back into pan and sauté briefly just until warm.  Add the wine and deglaze.  Add the potatoes and broccolini.  Add chili peppers. Toss to combine and heat through. Serve

*broccolini is milder and sweeter than broccoli and has thinner stalks.  It has a more earthy taste.  Broccoli rabe – similar to rapini, which has thin stalks and deep green leaves and small buds is a delicious alternative.  My son prefers its more bitter, earthy taste alongside the grilled sausages.

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Candace arranged a visit to a vineyard as she had done during our previous Veneto trip.  She chose Avignonesi, a producer whose wines Convito has admired and carried for years.  Located near Montepulciano in southern Tuscany just over the Umbrian border, Candace, the two Robs and Angie left early in the morning while I stayed back at the villa with the grandchildren which I was happy to do since I have had the good fortune to visit many wine producers during the course of my Italian journeys.  Swimming and art projects filled our day.

 

One of the most prestigious wineries in the area, Avignonesi was founded in 1974 and produces some of Tuscany’s most renowned wines including Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano and the famous dessert wine, Vin Santo.  The vineyard was recently sold to a Belgium firm who was in the process of converting the whole property to an organic and biodynamic viticulture.  The owner, Virginie Saverys and her partners were always happy to welcome visitors and arranged for a most informative day concluding with a multi-course lunch and matching wines served under a handsome tented area in the middle of the vineyard.

 

Rob Warner spotted at Avignonesi

 

 

The menu they brought back to the villa for me to see was full of innovative and compelling dishes.  One especially caught my eye as a potential Convito market salad – Insalata di farro con verdure croccante e pesto di basilica– a farro and crunchy (croccante) vegetable salad with a pesto dressing.  I have just recently tested it and will include it in our spring market menu.

 

 

Farro alla Genovese

1-pound farro cooked al dente (cooked – 8 cups)
2 cups cubed carrots – ¼ inch (steamed al dente)
2 cups zucchini cubed – ¼ inch
2 cups summer squash cubed ¼ inch
½ cup scallions (green part) diced

Pesto vinaigrette
¾ cups olive oil
¼ cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons pesto
½ teaspoon salt and pepper combo

 

Combine the farro with the vegetables and the scallions.

Combine vinaigrette ingredients and add to farro mixture.

Serve!

 

Because of the continuing intense “Lucifer” heat wave (the label the press had given it), we decided a lake visit was in order. Swimming in the cool waters of Lake Tresimeno was appealing to everyone so we piled in our van and drove to one of the lake’s most charming villages, Castiglione del Lago, situated right on the southwest corner of the lake. Lago di Tresimeno is the fourth largest lake in Italy.  Although it falls within the region of Umbria its basin stretches into Tuscany as far west as Montepulciano and as far north as Cortona.

 

 

After several hours of swimming and lounging on the beach (I did the lounging), we walked to a nearby restaurant, La Capannina and sat on its lovely terrace to enjoy a delicious lunch.  The restaurant was recommended by the staff at Avignonesi as “the place” to eat – where the locals dine which is always the best of endorsements.  Known for their fresh local ingredients, I ordered lake trout prepared in my favorite way – olive oil, herbs and lemon – the only way, in my opinion – to eat fish when it has just freshly arrived from its watery home.  In this case, Lake Tresimeno.

 

 

Before heading back to our villa we visited the old part of the town higher up on a chalky promontory seemingly ruling over the waters below. Famous for its medieval castle “Rocco del Leone” and its charming old town center ringed with medieval walks and incredible views of the lake, we tried for a few minutes to do our usual casual exploring but because the temperature had reached 99 degrees, we simply could not linger – so we quickly scurried into a few local shops, bought a few souvenirs (cinghiale tee shirts and cinghiale magnets) then headed back to our villa.

 

Though our time in Umbria was coming to an end, we spent one more night dining in Todi and two nights cooking together at the Villa. Ristorante Umbria was not to be missed.  I had been there for lunch back in the early nineties and clearly remember its delicious regional food and the spectacular view overlooking the Umbrian countryside.  Window boxes filled with red geraniums lined the wide expanse of arched windows in the semi-circle room.

 

 

 

 

I ordered taglliatelle with extra virgin olive oil and black truffles, a dish integral to Umbria’s cuisine.  The region produces the highest number of black truffles in all of Italy.  Their quality is famous throughout the world.  Because truffle season is so short, it is a rare treat to have either the fresh black truffles of Umbria or the white truffles of Piemonte with pasta or risotto.  Very few accompanying ingredients are needed since truffles have such a huge and unique flavor profile.  In this dish, just extra virgin olive oil and some freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano along with the pasta or rice and of course, the grated truffles is all that was required for a gloriously satisfying dish.

 

No meal in an Umbrian restaurant was complete for us without someone in our group ordering ragu di cinghiale.  It was on every menu.  This time both Kingston and Neko ordered it with pasta and Rob, (Sig. Cinghiale himself), enjoyed a hearty cinghiale stew over polenta.

 

 

We pretty much stayed close to the villa our last day – swimming, packing, straightening up and cleaning out the fridge which, because of our overly ambitious grocery shopping at the beginning of the week, provided a beautiful antipasti spread of cheeses, cured meats and marinated vegetables for lunch as well as for our pre-dinner cocktail hour.  Everyone wanted to help so I had plenty of sous chefs and waiters to assist me.  A hearty meat sauce with pasta, a salad and grilled bruschetta comprised our last dinner in Umbria.

 

 

The next day we reluctantly said goodbye to our temporary home (and less reluctantly to the bees!) and began our drive to Rome.  As usual, our faithful chauffeur Rob took the wheel steering us through this lovely last look at the “green heart” of Italy into the bustling and congestive streets of the eternal city where aggressive driving the guidebooks advise, is the only way not to be left in the dust.  And that he did.

 

 

Though very steamy as all big cities are in the middle of a heat wave, Rome is always a welcome adventure.  How could it not be?  It is one of the great cities of the world.  Even though its depth and breath can sometimes be overwhelming, offering the visitor almost too many sights, too many monuments and museums to pick from; it is still awe-inspiring.   Because we had just two days and it continued to be extremely hot, we decided to concentrate on the area surrounding our hotel which was located in the Piazza Farnese close to one of Rome’s most colorful and vibrant squares – Campo de Fiori and just south of Piazza Navona, one of the most charming and popular piazzas in all of Rome.

 

Rob Warner sparkles in Rome

 

 

We dined both for lunch and dinner in little side streets off of Campo de Fiori except for one memorable lunch eating outside in Piazza Navona at one of my favorite restaurants Ristorante Tre Scalini.  Amidst the accordion and violin players and all the artists scattered around the handsome historic fountains – not to mention hundreds of tourists – we enjoyed a lovely simple lunch.  I had my usual, the Tre Scalini house salad followed by a simple pasta with a tomato sauce – perfect hot weather food.

 

 

Because of the heat, my ordering focused mostly on lighter summer dishes like Checca (a room temperature pasta dish with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil (recipe also in blog Lazio – Rome “Begin at the Beginning”) but I couldn’t resist ordering one of my favorite Roman classics – Spaghetti Carbonara.  Made with egg, cheese, pancetta and pepper it’s a little rich for my taste in summertime but nonetheless, it is sumptuous.  Convito frequently has the traditional version on our winter menu but last spring we made a somewhat lighter version with asparagus that I include here.

 

© rob warner photography 2019

 

Spaghetti Carbonara con Asparagi 

1-tablespoon olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, cubed into small pieces
1 clove garlic, diced
1 tablespoon diced shallots
3 large eggs
¾ cup freshly ground Parmigiano Reggiano
¾ cup cream
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper – lots
1 ½ cups previously cooked (al dente) asparagus, sliced into 1 inch pieces on diagonal

1-pound spaghetti

 

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  In a large skillet heat the oil.   Add the pancetta and cook over medium high heat until crispy stirring until fat has been rendered for approximately 5 – 6 minutes. With a slotted spoon, drain pancetta to a paper towel and set aside.  Turn heat to low and add the garlic and shallots.  Cook for a few minutes until soft.  Set aside with pancetta.

Crack the eggs into a bowl.  Add grated Parmesan.  Whisk together.  Pour in the cream.  Whisk together.  Add salt and pepper and stir.

In the meantime cook the spaghetti according to directions.

Drain the pasta reserving a little of the pasta water. Put into a very hot bowl and immediately begin drizzling in the egg mixture.  Stir the entire time, which will prevent the eggs from scrambling. Throw in the asparagus, the crispy pancetta, shallots and garlic. If mixture seems too thick add a little of the hot pasta water.  Toss all together and serve immediately.

 

 

 

We visited many of the traditional iconic sites of Rome including the Colosseum, and spent a lot of time wandering around the Campo de Fiori market.  This had been my 12thor 13thtime in Rome and my sixth trip to Umbria. As with all sojourns, traveling partners alter the experience and add a different texture to the places you visit – especially when you are traveling with children.  Seeing the world helps to open the mind and I was happy to be a part of doing just that for my grandchildren.  At the same time, the fresh perspective of youthful eyes gave me new insights – a different way to look at many of the places and sights I had previously visited.

New situations also alter travel – like the bees of Casale delle Lavande. Because they were so ever-present, we spent a lot of time trying to understand their habits.  In the end – though undeniably annoying – we accepted the fact they were just doing their job and our job was to steer clear of them, or at least try.  And to let them continue doing their work.  After all, in the end they had provided us with a great deal of interesting conversation and much laughter.  Our “Bee Trip” was certainly one that will not be forgotten!

 

 

 

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The Lazzaroni Link  “My Italian Cookie Connection”

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Amaretti

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

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

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Sautéed Amaretto Peaches
Serve over 6 dishes of ice cream

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

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

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

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

Drizzle with Amaretto liqueur and sprinkle with crumbled Amaretti biscotti.

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

© rob warner photography 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Luigi and Leslee discussing “collecting” in his courtyard.

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

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

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

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

 

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Caramelized Rice Torte

recipe by Lesee Rice

 

Giulio with Candace and friends at our house in Glencoe

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

boat trip with Luigi & Pucci on Lago Maggiore

 

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

Monte Rosa in the background with Luigi and group

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Luca and Candace in the Saronno archive room

 

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

 

© rob warner photography 2018

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

 

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

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

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

Season the pork with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in an ovenproof skillet over high heat.

Sear the pork on all sides until nicely browned.

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

Transfer back into the skillets.

Brush honey all over then drizzle with the Amaretto

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

Remove from oven and baste again.

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

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

 

Risotto with Peach & Almonds

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lombardia V – “A Tourist of a Different Sort”

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

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

And I intended to see them all.

 

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

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

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

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Wanda and Nancy in Milan

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

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Milan store window

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Fornasetti tray

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

 

 

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

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Convito’s table at Four Seasons displaying our polenta squares

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2018

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Remove from oven and cool completely

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

Mix until creamy and smooth.

Spread the cheese evenly on top of the cooled polenta

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Carpaccio Scottato
(serves 4)

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

 

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

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

Sauté the mushroom briefly in olive oil.  Set aside.

Heat oven to 400 degrees

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

 

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

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

Nancy in Piazza Ducale in Vigevano

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

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Spinach Risotto Cakes
(makes 12 cakes)

 

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

breading
1-cup breadcrumbs
½ cup grated parmesan

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Paolo near the Ticino River in Oltrepo Pavese

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

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

 

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Chicken Paillard with Arugula Salad
(serves 6)

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

In other words, I would be coming home.

 

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Abruzzo – “The Last Loose End”

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

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

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

 

Colleen stocking shelf with wholesaler Bob Rubinelli and I looking on

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

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

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

 

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

Roberta and I – Abruzzo landscape in background

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Pappardelle with Saffron & Pancetta
(serves 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Roberta and I in front of Aqueduct

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

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

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

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

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

© rob warner photography 2017

Crespelle con Funghi
(serves 2 or 4)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Tomato-cream sauce should be hot.

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

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

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

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

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

Our daunting regionally-organized wine department curated by Seth Allen

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

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

Roberta and Colleen at Basilica

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

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Chitarra with Lamb Ragu
(serves 4)

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

 

Heat oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat.

Season lamb pieces with salt and pepper

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

Transfer lamb to a platter

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

Return lamb and any lamb juices to the dutch oven

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Puglia “My Tre Colore Journey”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© rob warner photography 2017

Burrata Antipasti

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

 

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Branzino con Salsa Pomodoro e Olive
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

OLIVE OIL AND WINE:  AN APT ANALOGY
by Sofia Solomon

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

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

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

 Some suggestions:

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

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

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

 

gnarled Puglia olive tree

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

 

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

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

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

© rob warner photography 2017

Orecchette alla Cruda
Serves 4

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

basil leaves for garnish

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Paolo in front of Truili

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

 

Paolo in Martina Franca

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Paolo in Ostuni Citta Bianca

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

© rob warner photography 2017

Orecchiette con Cime di Rape
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Trentino-Alto Adige “Diversity and Drama”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Rindsgulasch
(serves 4)

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

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

Remove the beef and set aside.

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

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

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

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

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

Serve with spatzle, polenta or potatoes.

Spatzle
(serves 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Paolo near an Alto Adige lake

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

Alto Adige

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

 

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

 

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

© rob warner photography 2017

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Canederli
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Canederli can be made ahead and refrigerated.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Pasta with Cauliflower and Speck
Serves 3 – 4

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

 

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

In same pan, add 1-tablespoon olive oil

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

Serve mixed with pasta

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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