A 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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
After 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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
Pollo in Potacchio
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.
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.
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…