Trentino-Alto Adige “Diversity and Drama”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Rindsgulasch
(serves 4)

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

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

Remove the beef and set aside.

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

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

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

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

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

Serve with spatzle, polenta or potatoes.

Spatzle
(serves 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Paolo near an Alto Adige lake

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

Alto Adige

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

 

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

 

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

© rob warner photography 2017

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Canederli
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Canederli can be made ahead and refrigerated.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

Pasta with Cauliflower and Speck
Serves 3 – 4

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

 

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

In same pan, add 1-tablespoon olive oil

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

Serve mixed with pasta

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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Marche “What’s In A Name?”

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

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

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

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

Paolo and I in Urbino

Paolo and I in Urbino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

© rob warner photography 2017

Zuppa all’Urbinate.
Serves 6 – 8

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Paolo and I on Via Barocci

Paolo and I on Via Barocci

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Vanda, Paolo and I in the original Convito Italiano

Vanda, Paolo and I in the original Convito Italiano

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

 

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

© rob warner photography 2017

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

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

 

Preheat oven to 375⁰

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2017

© rob warner photography 2017

Pollo in Potacchio
Serves 4

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

 

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

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

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

Bartolomeo’s three grandchildren: Bob, Katherine and Tom

Bartolomeo’s three grandchildren: Bob, Katherine and Tom

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tuscany III “A Region For All Seasons”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in Dad's garden

me posing in Dad’s garden

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

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

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Ray Brussat’s Zucchini Pickles

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

Wash unpeeled zucchini and slice into thin rounds

Slice onion into very thin slices

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

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

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

Rob and I in Piazza del Campo

Rob and I in Piazza del Campo

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

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

Nancy with Francesco and Federico Bonfio in the Il Poggiolo vineyard

Nancy with Francesco and Federico Bonfio in the Il Poggiolo vineyard

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Candace & Rob on rocky coast of Tyrrhenian Sea

Candace & Rob on rocky coast of Tyrrhenian Sea

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

 

Candace and I at Terrace restaurant at Il Pellicano

Candace and I at Terrace restaurant at Il Pellicano

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

Paolo at Viareggio’s Carnevale

Paolo at Viareggio’s Carnevale

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Terrabianca estate: Candace and Nancy with Roberto Guldener

Terrabianca estate: Candace and Nancy with Roberto Guldener

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

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

*The estate was sold in 2009 to Baron de Ladoucette

 

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

Nancy Harris, Candace and I at Osteria la Piazza

Nancy Harris, Candace and I at Osteria la Piazza

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

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Mushroom Farro Soup

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Laura, Fabrizio, Candace and I

Laura, Fabrizio, Candace and I

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

 

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

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

 

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Sicily I “A Salvador Dali Weekend”

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Caponata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paolo at the shore in Messina

Paolo at the shore in Messina

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

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

 

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In Bocca cookbook

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

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

 

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Rigatoni alla Norma
(from In Bocca Sicily)

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

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

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

Chef Eric Hammond’s blood orange and fennel salad

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

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

 

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

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

The Palermo
Serves 1

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

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

Advice from Duke: “I use Silver Patron Tequila”

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

 

Nancy in Siracusa

Nancy in Siracusa

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Convito 35th Anniversary Cocktail

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

Garnish with a lemon twist

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

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

 

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

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Bocca cookbook

In Bocca cookbook

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Emilia-Romagna I

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

 

balsamic_taste8-CC-160314

 

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

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

 

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

Nancy, Colleen and I tasting olive oil

Nancy, Colleen and I tasting olive oil

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

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

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

 

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

Balsamic Vinegar Tasting

Balsamic Vinegar Tasting

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Nodino Di Vitello Alla Salvia e Balsamico
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Mortadella sandwich

Mortadella sandwich

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Bolognese Sauce
Six servings for approximately 1 ½ pounds pasta

 

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

1 ¼ pounds pasta
freshly grated parmesan cheese

 

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

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

Toss with cooked, drained pasta and serve with grated parmesan

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

Prosciutto

Prosciutto

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

 

me about to learn how to slice prosciutto. Yikes!

me about to learn how to slice prosciutto. Yikes!

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

 

Parmigiano

Parmigiano

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

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Asparagi alla Parmigiana
Serves 6

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

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Trim, peel and boil asparagus until al dente

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paolo in front of Palazzo Dei Diamanti

Paolo in front of Palazzo Dei Diamanti

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

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

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

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Risotto all’ Imolese
Serves 6

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Janet Alms, Wanda Bottino and me making fresh pasta

Janet Alms, Wanda Bottino and Nancy making fresh pasta

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

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

 

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

Partners

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

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

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

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Wanda and Nancy cooking in her Milanese kitchen

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

Colleen Houlahan and me at our opening

Colleen Houlahan and Nancy at our opening

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

Candace in High School working at Convito after school

Candace in High School working at Convito after school

Candace Warner

Candace Warner as GM and partner

Mentors

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

Leslee and I

Leslee and Nancy

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

Maury and I

Maury and Nancy

Essential in my early journey

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

Violet Calderelli

Violet Calderelli

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

Karen Butler

Karen Brussat Butler

 

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

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

Trenta cinque e un centinaio di più

(Thirty five and a hundred more)

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

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

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

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Nancy and granddaughter Neko Barocci

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Nancy with Paolo & Luca in the Lazzaroni Archive room

Nancy with Paolo & Luca in the Lazzaroni Archive room

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

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Rob with Van in front of Villa Costasanti

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Spaghetti alla Villa Costasanti

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

Directions

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

Isis cooling off in a fountain in Piazza Erbe

Isis cooling off in a fountain in Piazza Erbe

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

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

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Lorenzo Boscaini

Lorenzo Boscaini

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

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

 

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Chef Christian Montoli and Pinzimonio at Villa Costasanti

Chef Christian Montoli and Pinzimonio at Villa Costasanti

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Risotto Veneto

Serves 6

 

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

In a saucepan, bring the vegetable broth to a steady simmer. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the shallots and pancetta and sauté over medium heat until shallots are soft and pancetta is somewhat crisp. Add the rice and stir until well coated. Add the wine and stir until absorbed. Begin adding the simmering broth ½ cup at a time. Continue stir cooking always making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and yet not adding too much broth at a time. This process should be done over medium heat. (Approximate cooking time is 30 minutes) About 20 minutes into the process, add the radicchio and stir into the rice. Continue adding broth. The rice is done when it is firm but tender. You may need more broth or if you run out, use hot water.

When you estimate that the dish is a few minutes away from being done, turn off the heat. Add the Parmesan, stirring it into the rice. You may want to add another tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve in individual bowls immediately.

 

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

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

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Epilogue

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

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