If We are What We Eat

The London Times once said that if we are what we eat who wouldn’t want to be Italian. I would take that one step further and say if we are what we eat who wouldn’t want to be Northern Italian. The geography and climate of Northern Italy make it one of the most cultural diverse and gastronomically active regions of Italy.  The abundance and variety of food in Northern Italy is legendary and reads like a Who’s Who of the culinary world. The prosciutti of San Daniele and Parma, Milano’s risotto and osso bucco, the pestos of Genoa and the pastas of Emilia Romagna are classic foods of the North.  Northern Italian favorites like carpaccio are featured on most fine dining menus and espresso laced tiramisu has so many global variations that I’ve stopped counting.  The wine and food routes, le strade dei vini e sapori, of the 8 regions that loosely define Northern Italy, extend from the Alpine ranges of the Dolomites to the fertile plains and rolling hills of the Emilia-Romagna Apennines and from the sun drenched Ligurian Riviera to the Venetian shores of the Adriatic. All along the way you can taste the historical landscape of a region of Italy whose food is at the gastronomic epicenter of the world.

Do you have a taste for Italy? Read more in Seeing and Savoring Italy – A Taste and Travel Journey Through Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria available at Amazon.com

The M-List

An Astronauts View of Milan at Night

At first glance Milan can be a little intimidating. It doesn’t have the historical familiarity of Rome or the landscape setting of the Tuscan hill towns and for this reason many tourists tend to avoid spending time there. But that would be a pity because Milan has a style all its own, a style worth taking the time to see and get to know.

So I’ve come up with an A-list of must do’s for first time travelers to Milan. Sights and sounds they need to take the time to see and savor. I call it the M-List.

  • Take the tube to the city center to see Milan’s great cathedral, the Duomo, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world.  It is 515 feet long, 302 feet wide and 148 feet in height.  Made from Candolglia marble, there are 3.400 statues both inside and out and 135 spires with 1800 statutes up on the roof
  • Walk through the rarified air of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, the 4 story glass and iron shopping arcade that is home to some of the most expensive shops on the planet  to spin on the Zodiac of Taurus the Bull for good  luck
  • Stop at an aperitivo bar for a  Campari and Soda, Milan’s iconic “happy hour” drink (the evocative atmosphere of  historic  Café Zucca at the Galleria would be a pricey but good choice)
  • Travel around the corner of Piazza Duomo to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the Ambrosian Art Gallery and Library to see a manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy , Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus and Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit
  • Window shop Via Montenapoleone, Milan’s Golden Triangle, (Quadrilatero d’Oro), for a fashionista inspired experience
  • Shop at La Rinascente, Milan’s venerable department store, ascending to the terrace top restaurant and food pavilions on 7th floor that overlook the spires of the Duomo
  • Visit the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to stand in awe of Leonardo’s il Cenacolo, the Last Supper simply displayed on the refectory wall of this Dominican friary
  • Stroll through Piazza Sempione, Milan’s 116 acre Central Park with a promenade of formal gardens, monuments, fountains and the  Neo- Classical Arco della Pace commissioned by Napoleon after the battle of Waterloo
  • Get up close and personal with the  fashionable Milanese walking  and stopping to see and savor the city (Zara, Geoxx, Pecks) on your way to Castello Sforza, once a Visconti Palace now a series of museums
  • Eat a risotto alla Milanese and costoletta alla Milanese (crunchy cutlet made from the veal chop) for a simple yet sublime interpretation of Milanese cuisine
  • Sample the wines of the Oltrepo Pavese (the other side of the Po River) including Bonarda. Dark garnet in color, with an aroma of roses and a whiff of anise, it was one of my cousin Roberto’s favorite wines
  • Wander through Navigli, Milan’s hip canal district with eclectic  boutique shops, cafes and restaurants

Fiddlehead Fern Breadsticks

It’s difficult to call a plant with such a whimsical shape serious eats but fiddlehead ferns or fiddlehead greens have antioxidant properties that rival the nutritional benefits of spinach and blueberries. High in iron, fiber, potassium, phosphorous and magnesium, fiddleheads have been part of traditional diets in much of Northern France since the beginning of the middle ages, as well as among Native Americans for centuries. Locally harvested in Canada and New England in late April and early May fiddlehead ferns are a popular edible plant among foragers who look for the tightly coiled bright green unfurled frond of the Ostrich fern on the forest floor. Their plump curved top resembles a shepherds crook (crozier) or the scrolled ornamentation at the end of a violin, hence the name fiddlehead. Harvesting the fronds requires a demonstrated knowledge of wild plants as incidences of food poisoning and serious illness due to improper picking, preserving or cooking of fiddlehead ferns have been reported.

Wanting to pay homage to this rite of spring but not wanting to tamper with nature, I decided to create a reasonable facsimile of the fiddlehead using Pillsbury prepackaged breadstick dough and basil pesto.  This is an easy kid-friendly kitchen activity, a lesson in botany and a perfect way to introduce young eaters to the flavor of pesto. It’s also a great way to add a touch of whimsy to your springtime menu.

Recipe for Fiddlehead Fern Bread Sticks   

Open package and unroll the bread dough sticks. Spread the top third of the each stick of dough with a small amount of basil pesto. Roll top third of the dough into a fiddlehead scroll , arrange on baking sheet and bake according to package directions.

An Easter Egg from the Heart

 The painting of eggs is an age old custom among Croatian families during the Easter holiday as they prepare to commemorate the resurrection of Christ. Eggs are included in blessed baskets and baked into traditional Easter breads.  Often elaborately decorated with designs and symbols and dyed in colors that have special meanings (red stands for the love and passion of Christ, yellow symbolizes light) they represent the culture, heritage and faith of a people for renewal and hope.

So it only seemed natural when the Tourist Board of the Croatian county of Koprivnica-Krizevci initiated a project to create large (2.05m tall by 1.50m wide) painted eggs as an “Easter Egg from the Heart” to spread the joy of Easter to the world.  Decorated by Croatian painters  in the naïve style of  Hlebine, the eggs are stylized depictions of rural country life. Thanks to the cooperation of the Croatian National Tourist Board, these “Easter Eggs from the Heart” decorate squares, galleries and exhibition spaces in New York, Bilbao, Pamplona, Budapest, Klagenfurt, Milan, Rome-Vatican ( as a gift to Pope Benedict XVI), Međugorje, Zagreb, Dubrovnik and many more locations throughout the world.  

I took a picture of a Seeing and Savoring Italy traveler standing next to “un uovo dipinto di cuore”, displayed in the courtyard of Castello d’Estense in the northern Italian town of Ferrara .  The dramatic size of the egg and the heartfelt message it conveyed made an statement of joy and friendship. As the eggs are made of polyester and painted with the highest quality weather resistant colors, the artist’s intent to represent the cultural heritage of the people of Croatia  and their gift to the world will be longstanding.

Becoming Easter

Even though we have 40 days to prepare, celebrating Easter seems to be more about bunnies and brunch then it does about a life changing transformation. For if we follow the teachings of faith we known that “if we die with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). This was never felt more deeply than by the Early Christians.  On all accounts their devotion and unwavering belief caused them to commit and transform their lives in a ways that seem impossible. Accepting a contra-lifestyle based on the teachings of an outlawed and unpopular doctrine of redemption often took them to the brink and it began with the sacramental waters of an Easter baptism.

Images of these early Christian baptisms took on a vivid reality when I first visited the Milan Duomo, a massive Gothic spired cathedral rising out of the concrete earth of Milan Centro like it had materialized from thin air. Described as one of the greatest churches in the world (second only to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), the building of the Duomo took more than 500 years to complete. There are 5 naves divided by 40 pillars with 3,400 statues (1800 alone on the terraced roof).  It is a fairyland of pinnacles, spires and flying buttresses with a 4 meter gilded statue of the Madonna perched on the top of the highest spire.


The art and architecture of the Milan Duomo is amazing but what is more remarkable is what is hidden and unexpected. The 135 spires of the Duomo overshadow a little known paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below the surface of the city with baptismal pools (circa 378) used by the early Christians of Milan. Through a staircase on the left of the main door of the cathedral you descend into the excavated remains of a brick wall around the perimeter of a Baptistery and a Roman road. Walking along a raised platform you see a large octagonal frontal pool where the catechumens were baptized. The pool is impressive because of its size (6.10 meters in diameter) with concealed pipes that provided a channel of “holy water” sprouting from several jets.

BaptisteryA description of the space talks about the pool being clad in Greek marble and the original flooring and walls being made of black and white marble in geometric designs. It must have been an awe-inspiring event to be led to this place on the eve of Easter and to be immersed in the water to receive that sacrament that cleanses you of your sins and binds you to all of Christendom.  As many times as I’ve seen the Milan Duomo (at last count this would be 12), the one particular thing that stands out most in my mind is being in that underground space where lives were transformed forever.


Marcella Hazan Can Taste the Difference and So Can I

I’m a big fan of Marcella Hazan. For me she is a kindred spirit, someone who gets what it means to cook Italian, someone who cooks with the same food memory as mia Nonna. She would certainly be my Julia if I was writing about us.  In my book I refer to her as the “doyenne of Italian cooking”. Her cookbooks along with Batali and Bastianich stand like sentinels among all the other cook books on my shelves.

So when I came across Marcella’s comments written in response to an article by food scientist Harold McGee, about how many people can’t taste the difference between olive oils I took note. You see I believe that being Extra Virgin is better and there is a difference in the quality of olive oils based on the character of the land, cultivation, harvesting practices and methods of conservation and that you can taste the difference.

Traveling in Italy over 10 years and 10,000 miles with my Italian family and friends, sourcing Italian regional food products, visiting generational producers and small family frantoio (olive mills), I’ve tasted a lot of olive oil. Olive oil in Italy, like wine, is a valued natural resource and a companion to food. Hazan who introduced olive oil as an ingredient to American home cooks in 1973, when she first published her classic Essentials of Italian Cooking, takes issue with Mr. McGee . . .

“What has escaped Mr. McGee’s attention is that what a good olive oil transfers to the food that is cooked in it – whether it be a single vegetable, or a sauce or a soup – is something that only a good olive oil can bestow: aroma and depth of flavor. It obviously can no longer be the oil that it was before cooking because in the process it has surrendered its qualities to the food for which it provided its sacrificial bath. If Mr. Mr. McGee wants to perform a comparison that has culinary value, it should be between something, spinach say, that is cooked in a good olive oil and samples of spinach cooked in different industrial seed oils”.

Savor the flavors of a good quality olive oil, use it wisely, and use it well.

An 18 Hour Bread

Colomba di Pasqua (Italian Easter Bread). In Italy it is a rite of spring and a symbol of Easter. Baked or decorated in the shape of a dove, Italian bakers dedicate up to 18 hours over a period of 4 days to make this triumphal bread. The most recent recipe I looked at had 45 steps!  Other cultures (Slavic, Greek and Polish) have similar traditional breads made to celebrate the Resurrection and all require the fortitude of an early Christian martyr.

I have made this bread and Byzantine Paska, a larger than life bread made with not one but two doughs. The outer bread dough surrounds a brilliant yellow sweet cheese bread dough hidden inside to represent the risen Christ. Neither came easy and I needed an easy way to “bring Italy home” for Easter.  Enter the bread machine. Using the following ingredients in the exact order I was able to create a reasonable facsimile of an Italian Colomba. This left me thinking about the trade-offs between tradition and cyber society. Is it better to push the easy button or to strictly follow the customs and rituals of the past? Who has 18 hours to devote to baking bread? Rather than allow the culinary history of our families to become a distant memory wouldn’t it be better to keep our traditions alive?  If that means using a bread machine then so be it.

Colomba di Pasqua Minus the 18 Hours

  • ½ cup milk, warmed to 80-90 F
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 8 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract or almond paste
  • 2 tbsp grated lemon peel
  • 4 ½ cups unbleached all- purpose flour
  • 2 ½ tsp active dry or bread machine yeast 
  1. Add milk, eggs, unsalted butter, granulated sugar, salt, vanilla, flour and yeast in the bread pan fitted with the kneading paddle.
  2. Place the bread pan in the bread maker and select the ‘Dough’ option. Press Start to mix, knead and rise.
  3. When the cycle is completed, (completion time may vary with different bread makers) leave the dough in the bread pan, turn off the machine and let rise another hour.
  4. Remove dough and punch to deflate.
  5. Grease pan or Colomba mold and place the dough in the pan creating a dove design on top with a portion of the dough. Or place entire dough in the Colomba mold. Cover with greased plastic wrap and towel. Let rise in warm spot for another hour or until dough has reached the top of the pans/mold.
  6. Place oven rack in the middle position of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  7. Place the Colomba mold on cookie sheet and place in oven. Brush with an almond glaze made with 1/2 c blanched almonds and 1/2 c sugar finely ground together in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Place in a bowl and combine with 2 tsp cornstarch and 2 egg whites. Sprinkle with sliced almonds and powdered sugar.
  8. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes – 30 minutes until golden brown (baking times may vary according to different oven temperatures). Test for doneness with a toothpick.