The Bridge of Bling

It seems that the beautiful and famous daughter of Rome (Florence) likes bling. Not in the Kardashian style but more like that of a true Renaissance princess with a Medici father who felt that shopkeepers who inhabited the Old Bridge below his secret corridor were a motley crew  with habits not befitting a Grand Duke. So in 1565 Cosimo de’ Medici ordered the closure of the smelly butchers’ shops then on the PonteVecchio (Old Bridge) and arranged for the shops to be taken over by several gold merchants. Now Cosimo’s private passageway across the Arno from his palazzo (Pitti Palace) to his offices (now the Uffizi Gallery) could be more pleasant and secure.

Today the Ponte Vecchio is a landmark of Florence and the jewelry shops that line the bridge are world famous. A Renaissance marketplace with  hand crafted  gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings, cameos, pearls and precious stones displayed in an evocative setting make a walk along the Ponte Vecchio across the Arno River a must do when in Florence where you can almost hear the footsteps of the Medici on the elevated walkway that separated them from the rest of the world.

Advertisements

5 Tips to Help Your Kids Make the Right Italian Food Choices

Italian food is one of the most popular foods in the world.  It is also one of the most misunderstood; in some cases commercialized beyond the point of recognition. Centuries of culinary traditions define Italian cooking yet Italian food often becomes a pale interpretation of what it means to eat like an Italian.

Here are 5 tips to bring Italy home and help your kids appreciate the true flavors of Italy.

1. Skip the deep dish

In Italy pizza doesn’t include everything but the kitchen sink meaning that a traditional Italian pizza has a thinner crust and fewer toppings. In fact the classic Margherita pizza only has three ingredients spread across the dough like a banner in honor of the Italian flag; tomato (red), basil(green) and  buffalo mozzarella (white). All healthy, low in fat and so satisfying that your kids might not miss the sausage and pepperoni as much as they think.

2. Skip the fried ravioli

Filled pasta is very common in Italy. Vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, and salumi (cured meat) are used alone or in various combinations to create pasta ripieno (stuffed or filled pasta) both savory and sweet. Tortellini, tortelli, agnolotti, cappelletti and cappellacci are a few of the many regional variations as well as ravioli, Chef Boyardee’s contribution to the Americanization of Italian food for kids. Chef Boyardee’s ravioli were inspired by Italy’s ravioli col ragu’ (ravioli in a tomato and meat sauce) but the diversity of regional Italian food traditions also pair filled pasta with lighter sauces made with butter and herbs often without tomato. Although Italians do fry filled pasta, mainly in the form of a filled pastry or fritter (the word tortelli is dervied from the Italian word torta meaning cake, pie or tart), fried ravioli dipped in marinara as an appetizer or finger food is not usually seen.

Introduce your kids to an authentic Italian antipasto. Start the meal with an affettati misti, a platter of traditional Italian cold cuts (mortadella, pancetta, prosciutto, salame), pickled or fresh vegetables, olives maybe some cheese and skip the fryer.

3. Skip the sauce

Pasta in Italy is not drowning in sauce. In Italy sauce is used as a seasoning or condiment to enhance the flavor of the pasta rather than overwhelm it. In Italy just enough sauce is added to coat the pasta (a scant ¼ cup per portion) with a spoonful on top so you can see the beauty of the sauce. So don’t put too much sauce on your pasta. An excessive amount of sauce is just wrong because it will mask the flavor of the pasta and that would be a pity.

Filled pasta can also be served al brodo in a vegetable, chicken or beef  broth for a satisying one dish meal.

4. Try a tramezzino

Do you remember when your mother made a simple sandwich with two slices of soft white bread with the crusts removed? They still do that in Italy. It’s called a tramezzino. Not all Italian sandwiches are made grinder style filled with so much meat, cheese, fillings and sauce that it could literally sink to the bottom of your stomach (maybe that’s why they call it a submarine sandwich). The original “Italian style” sandwich (aka sub, hoagie, torpedo, grinder) was born out of American necessity and ingenuity in the late 19th early 20th century. Various stories attribute its origin to New England dockworkers, Navy servicemen or destitute hobos.

In Italy a panino is a “small” bread roll made into a sandwich with various fillings. Tramezzini  are made with sliced bread and are a popular and inexpensive snack sandwich perfect for kids and as a light bar food for adults. Panini and tramezzini bring the flavors of Italy home with the “less is more” and “it’s all about the ingredients” philosophy for an authentic taste of Italy.

5. Cheese doesn’t come in a green can

Parmigiano Reggiano is the “undisputed king of cheeses” made according to a process that has not changed in 700-800 years. Under Italian law real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can only be made within a certain region of Italy (the cities of Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua) and the name Parmigiano Reggiano is classified as a PDO (protected designation of origin) product of Italy. High in amino acids, calcium and phosphorous Parmigiano cracks, crumbles, flakes, shaves and grates easily; something you won’t see the cheese in the green can do.  Look for the inscription ‘Parmigiano – Reggiano’ impressed along the side of the whole cheese to identify it as real.

Parmesan (the cheese in the green can) is an Americanization of the word Parmigiano. In Italy Parmigiano Reggiano is aged for a minimum of 18 months to as long as four years. The standard US curing time for Parmesan cheese is 6-10 months.

Piacere Lorenzo

60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy and almost half of those are in Florence.

Enter the Duomo of Florence (Santa Maria del Fiore), one of the most famous cathedrals in the world and the location for one of the world’s most impressive works of art.  In the shadow of Brunelleschi’s Dome, the Bronze Doors of the Baptistery of the Cathedral of Florence are as iconic as the Dome or the statue of David. Here you will literally come face-to-face with one of the movers and shakers of the Italian Renaissance.

Piacere Lorenzo Ghiberti. After winning a completion, with the likes of Brunelleschi and Donatello, to design the doors for north entrance of the Cathedral, Ghiberti was later commissioned to design doors for the east entrance. The bronze paneled doors have been described by some as “the most important event in the history of Florentine art in the first quarter of the 15th century” and those that open to the east entrance have been called the

Gates of Paradise. It was here that I met Ghiberti by way of a gilded bronze relief of the artist’s image.

No less impressive than the active and life-like creatures, people, leaves and flowers that make up the panels of the great doors, Ghiberti’s image juts out from the bronze landscape with a look of pleasure in what must have been his greatest accomplishment.  Ghiberti captured his image in bronze with such realism and charm that it felt common and comfortable to approach the bronze bust saying “Pleased to meet you Lorenzo. I really like your doors”

Eden Has a Taste

In the distant past it was a common belief that East of Asia Eden could be found. Countless merchant ships relentlessly searched for a place, a compass point, a tangible position on a map where Paradise lost could be rediscovered. The biblical location of Eden may have pointed to the East but the gastronomic location of the garden of earthly delights most certainly was to the West. If Eden had a taste it would be Italy. For no country is more perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of food and wine to the benefit of man than l’italia.

The 16th century Italian writer, Teofilo Folengo wrote of a country with “rivers full of soup which ran together into a lake and a sea of stew in which plying to and fro were thousands of boats made of pastry with shores of tender fresh butter and on them hundreds of saucepans smoking to the clouds with ravioli, macaroni and other delights”. Although these imaginative accounts of the culinary landscape of Italy are part of the diversional storytelling of a Renaissance poet, the foods you will taste while traveling in Italy are truly gastronomic wonders.

Traveling in Italy without taking the time to understand the traditions behind regional Italian cuisine will only allow you to experience Italy on the most superficial of levels. Most Americans think they know what Italian food tastes like, but without knowing the background, traditions and ingredients necessary to be authentic they don’t.

Make the most of your travels in Italy. They may be as close to Eden as you can get on earth.

 

Basil and Bechamel

Ligurian pesto is  considered by many to be the best in all of Italy  The temperate Mediterranean climate along the Ligurian Sea produces a classic Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’) prized for its fragrant aroma and spiciness. The evocative flavor of an authentic well prepared Ligurian basil pesto screams Italy and makes a perfect ingredient to pair with pasta. In this case, thin sheets of lasagna pasta dough smeared with basil pesto and finished with a bubbly bechamel sauce.  

I learned to make this recipe from Enzo Malvicini. He was not a chef but the owner of harness race horses who had come to America to race at Balmoral Park in the late 1960’s. Enzo was a friend of our Nonna. He lived in Milan and when he wasn’t at the track he would come by to visit Nonna and to cook. Even the most infrequent of cooks in Italy can make a restaurant quality meal from scratch. This is the first time I had bechamel (besciamella) sauce rather than bolognese for lasagna. Although bechamel is thought to be French in origin, this refined sauce is said to have been brought to France by Caterina de Medici. When she became the Queen of France she bestowed on the sauce the name of  one of her courtiers, the Marquis Louis de Béchameil.

Watch  aristocratic chef Lorenza de Medici make bechamel . Then pair this mild creamy sauce with pesto for a summertime lasagna that will have your friends wondering at what Italian cooking school you’ve been studying.

for the bechamel:

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • pinch of salt
  • omit Parmigiano cheese in the sauce and use a directed below

You will need about 1 cup of pesto to 2 cups of bechamel to 2 cups grated Parmigiano cheese to  1/2 box of dry lasagna noodles (about 10 sheets) 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter an 8×8  high rimmed pan and  lay a single layer of  parboiled lasagna noodles to cover the bottom of the pan, barely overlapping.  Spread 3-4 tablespoons of pesto evenly over noodles. Cover with a thin layer of  bechamel, a few pads of butter and a handful of  grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.Repeat the layers until you reach the top of the pan.  On top finish with a generous layer of  bechamel only, a few pads of butter and the rest of the cheese. Wrap tightly with a non-stick foil. Bake for one hour . Remove foil and bake for an additional  10 minutes more, until top is golden.  Remove from oven and let stand for 15 minutes before slicing.

Suggested Wine : Vermentino

Seeing and Savoring the World with an Italian and a Bike

We’re big  fans of anyone who wants to see and savor the world. So when we heard about 36 y/o Italian Maximilian Felici ‘s desire to accomplish what the legendary Phileas Fogg did in 80 days we wanted to follow. . . on his bike.

Expected time for this trip is about 4 years, for a total of about 108,000 km across 67 states and 5 continents. Italian coffee producer Mokasirs will keep fans updated on details of Maximilian’s trip with exclusive publishing of his reports. Among the equipment that he’ll have is a laptop, a camera, a transponder and a satellite receiver that lets you follow his movements in real time on a map.

This former Piedmontese barista considers it to be a fascinating challenge and prepared for it by roller skating, basketball, ultra-marathons in the mountains, and of course cycling

Signore Pig

The Italian pig is revered. One of Italy’s most famous salumi comes in the form of cured hams known as prosciutto crudo. The celebrated hams of San Daniele, Parma and Toscana are so valued for their flavor, aroma and methods of preparation that they are given DOP aka PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) certification, the Italian government’s seal of approval that they are a product of a food tradition that can occur nowhere else. DOP certification sets out strict rules regarding the genetic make-up and breeding of pigs that will be wearing the ducal crown (the trademark of Prosciutto di Parma) or those whose hams are elegantly shaped like a Stradivarian violin (Prosciutto di San Daniele).

Porchetta, a suckling pig rolled up and spit roasted (girarosto) over a wood fire with salt, pepper, garlic and wild fennel has a gastronomic reputation that goes back to the time of the ancient Etruscans. Just about every sagra or street fair in Italy will have a porchetta on the spit with a line of Italians strung out waiting for packets of sliced pork (maiale) to eat on the spot or take home.

Signor Pig is treated very well in Italy. He was always respected as a symbol of plenty. The Cinta Senese or Sienese Belt Pig (named for a white belt around their chest) is pictured in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzentti (1338) in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall) titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo (the good/wise government). In the contra fresco il cattivo governo (the bad government), the pigs are missing and in the quarries of Michelangelo the cured lard of Colonnata (Lardo di Colonnata), with the intoxicating flavor of aromatic spices and herbs is an artisanal delicacy thinly sliced and served over warm Tuscan bread that can be described as nothing less than inscensual.

So when you’re seeing a savoring Italy make sure to arrange an introduction to Signore Pig at the local trattorie.  He’s dressed in many ways (sausage, salami, prosciutto, arista di maiale) and although he may be called Stinco in Bolzano he is most congenial and not to be missed.

*You can make any piece of meat in the porchetta style along as you have roasted it in a wood fire oven and stuffed or even marinated or cooked with fennel (preferably wild)