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.
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.
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.
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”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
10 oz. stale bread, diced
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
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.
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.
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
minced Italian parsley
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
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.
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!