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.
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.
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).
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.
The 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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. After 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.
As 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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
My 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.
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.
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.
Masi 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!
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.
Once 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.
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.
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.
While 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.
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.
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!
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!