My Perfect Panzanella

tomatoesIt’s almost time for my favorite summertime salad made with vine ripened tomatoes fresh from the garden. I’ve been waiting for those firm, smooth, brightly colored fruits of the vine all year and now their brief time has come. Cold weather and refrigeration will kill their flavor and create a mealy texture so now is the time to use them to their greatest potential and for me that is in the making of panzanella, a Tuscan bread and tomato salad. Mine is patterned after a perfect panzanella eaten at the table of Tenuta di Capezzana, near the village of Carmignano, northwest of Florence. The scent, aroma and flavor of their highly acclaimed estate bottled extra virgin olive oil elevated the simpliest of ingredients into a work of food art. Simple but sublime panzanella is Italy’s “everyman” summertime salad as much enjoyed by King Vittorio Emanuelle, while he was a guest at a castle in Chianti as the Italian contadini in the fields.

Here is a recipe inspired by my visits to Capezzana. Do not use stale American bread for this recipe. It is not a substitute for the firm, artisan quality Tuscan bread needed to make this recipe so good.

Ingredients (this recipe will make several servings)           panzanella
10 oz loaf of Italian country style bread
1/2 cup of fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
3 large ripe tomatoes cut into cubes with their juice
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar; more or less to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
a few cloves of fresh minced garlic

Cut the bread into bite size cubes. Warm 2-3 T extra olive oil in a large skillet. Add minced garlic to perfume the oil being careful not to let garlic brown. Toss bread cubes in oil, transfer to a baking sheet and finish in a 375 degree oven for a few minutes until bread al dente (firm yet soft). Let cool and transfer to a serving bowl and toss with tomatoes making sure to use all the juice the tomatoes yield. Dissolve salt to taste with the vinegar and oil in a small bowl, mix well and drizzle it over the bread mixture. Add basil and a few twists of coarsely ground pepper and toss.  Most Italian cooks recommend leaving the panzanella sit for a while before eating to allow all the flavors to come together.

An Olive Oil FingerPrint

fingerprint of olive oil maker (2)
A green shaded fingerprint underlining a deep link between nature, olive oil and human labor.

The lines and whorls of a fingerprint are a distinctive mark of a person, a biometric impression that identifies who you are. The cultivating, harvesting and pressing of the olive to produce oil leaves a fingerprint that reflects the care and commitment of artisan producers and estate farms where each bottle of oil is an expression of the ancient terroir of the region.

From the land, to the artisan’s hand there is a direct connection between the ancient groves and generational producers, a shared DNA that says these are the oils of Tuscany, of Umbria, of Sicily or Liguria. A singular and unique mark of quality and flavor. Nothing can transport you to Italy quicker than opening a good bottle of Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the mark of a good bottle begins with the hand of the producer.

Alpha Italy

bestofitalyThere are some things in Italy that are over the top, the star of the group, the best investment, the cherry on the sundae, the most dominant person, place or thing you can see in Italy. I get asked ‘What is your favorite thing to do in Italy?” all the time and I tend to want to say everything because for the most part it’s true. Italy is the gastronomic epicenter of the world and 60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy with almost half of those in the city of Florence. Traveling in Italy will take you down Roman roads, past castles with Celtic altars and Etruscan ruins, through medieval walled cities and alpine lakes, visiting Renaissance chapels and Gothic cathedrals into family trattorie, vineyards and orchards to experience the food of Popes, princes, pilgrims and kings and wanting more.

It’s hard not to have the best time seeing and savoring Italy but it can happen. Many Americans have a narrowly defined, commercialized view of the people, places and food of Italy and pre-packaged tours often result in a show and tell version that can be less satisfying. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, take some time to “get off the bus”. There should be no excuse to come back from a trip to Italy boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

Here are some of our favorite alpha experiences traveling in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria. Some are on and some are off the tourist flow. They are in no particular order and are just the beginning of your tour of a land perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of man. Where even after 15+ years and 15,000+ miles seeing and savoring Italy makes me come back for more.

Driving le strade dei vini  e sapori, the wine and food routes of Italy

Seeing 1800 statutes up on the roof of the Milan Duomo and the baptismal pools of the paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below

Stopping at an aperitivo bar in Milan for a struzzichini (nibble) and Campari and Soda

The Obika Mozzarella bar in La Rinascente  and window shopping on Via Monte Napoleone in Milan

An afternoon spent at Castello Sforza in Milan

The luminous crystal roof of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan centro

The Navigli canal district of Milan

Visit to CityLife,  Milan’s newest shopping and business district

Michelangelo Caprese

A dinner of costoletta alla Milanese and an authentic Milanese risotto

A plate of Milanese Osso bucco

An authentic Margherita pizza

Eating panforte in Siena

Panoramic landscape of The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta near San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany

A bowl of Tuscan ribollita

A panzanella salad

A summer afternoon spent at the lake side resort town of Sirmione near Lake Garda stopping at every gelateria

Walking the promenade of Bellagio

Eating lavarello, a type of whitefish, on the shores of Lake Como

Off the tourist radar to see the Roman ruins of Veleia near Castell’d’Arquato near Parma

Tuscan crostini di fegato and fettunta

A panzerroti, a pocket of soft billowy dough that tastes like a closed pizza, down the street from Milan’s Duomo at Luini’s panificio

Milan’s Ambrosiana gallery and library to see Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus

Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

A taste of gelato at any Riva Reno Gelateria or Gelateria di Piazza in San Gimignano

The funicular to Bergamo Alta, (the upper part of the city), the capital of polenta for a taste of polenta e osei, tiny little bird cakes gilded a yellow gold to imitate polenta and stuffed with almond paste and chocolate mousse

A stay at Le Ginestre , a two-storied Tuscan farmhouse, on the grounds of Castello Bibbione, Machiavelli’s Hunting Lodge, San Casciano in Val di Pesa near Florence

The dramatic Camera degli Sposi  in Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, one of 500 rooms of Renaissance glory in the renowned court of the Gonzaga

The Great Fresco Cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua

Eating a bistecca alla fiorentina (Tuscan T-bone) in the Val d’ Chiana

Radda in Chianti to visit the Chianti Cashmere Goat Company

A stay at the Hotel Tiferno in Citta’ di Castello in Umbria

Driving a Ferrari through the streets of Maranello

The Eugubine Tablets in Gubbio

Baci and chocolate at the Perugina Chocolate Factory in Perugia

Fidenza Village Outlet Shopping Center near Parma

Siena’s Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico

Eating a plate of cappellacci  di zucca (big hat pasta) with a butter and sage sauce in Ferrara

Assisi

The Franciscan Santuario of La Verna

A glass of Montefalco Sagrantino

The hot springs of Bagno Vignoni

The fish market of Treviso

A drive through Tuscany’s Chocolate Valley

Eating Tagliatelle al ragù Bolognese near Bologna

Tasting authentic Parmigiano Reggiano in Parma

The aroma of the grass, herbs and wildflowers of Italy

An insalata caprese made with authentic mozzarella di bufala, from Campania

The Luigi Fantini Celtic-Etruscan Archeological Museum near Monterenzio in the Bolognese Hills

The tri-lingual experience of the Northern Italian Trentino-Alto Adige (Sud-Tirol) and the towns and villages of the Dolomiti drinking Bozen beer, eating the local food  at Hopfen and Company  and seeing the Ice Man in Bolzano

The chimneys and Leaning Tower of Portogruaro near Venice

The seaside resort town of Carole on the northern Adriatic coast with beautiful winding streets, colorful houses and dinner at La Ritrovata Ristorante

La Rotonda; the Palladian Villas and the whimsical Villa of the Dwarfs along the Brenta Canal near Vicenza

A picnic lunch along Lake Trasimeno driving from Tuscany to Umbria

The medieval town of Castell Arquato near Parma with dinner at at Ristorante Don Ferdinando and the night at Hotel Leon d’Oro

A visit to a caseficio (cheese factory/dairy) to see the art of Italian cheese making

The Charlemagne Castello di Gropparello and “Parco delle Fiabe” for the fairies and elves of Vezzeno Gorge and the  Leggenda of the Ghost of Rosania Fulgosio

Driving through the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany

The city of Pienza for pecorino cheese and a visit to Palazzo Piccolomini

The hot springs at Terme Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme in Tuscany

A tasting of artisan crafted Italian beer at Birra Toccalmato near Parma

Stay at the Prisciana Suites in Ferrara and dinner at La Romantica with a visit to Castello Estense and Palazzo Schifanoia,

Museo di Tartufo in San Giovanni d’Asso for an addictive truffle experience

Abazzia Sant’Antimo only 9 km away from the Brunellos of Montalcino

Gregorian chants and the Great Cloister at Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Siena  

Driving the iconic landscape of Tuscany’s Crete Senesi

The authentic Northern Italian river town of Bassano del Grappa,  to drink grappa, eat white asparagus and walk across the Ponte degli Alpini (Bridge of the Alpini), a covered bridge designed by Palladio that commemorates fallen soldiers from WWII

A stay at the Lodole Country House in the Bolognese Hills near Monzuno

A visit to Tenuta di Capezzana for estate bottle extra virgin olive oil, world renown Vin Santo and Tuscan wine

Verona; the Arena, Casa Giulietta and dinner at La Greppia

The wines and cellars of Tenuta Vitanza Montalcino in Tuscany

A stop at the town of Valeggio sul Mincio with lunch or dinner at Ristorante Lepre, a Buon Ricordo member restaurant to eat papparadelle con lepre (papparadelle with hare) and a plate of tortelloni

Anything in Florence including Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery, Giotto’s Tower, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens and the view  at sunset from Piazza Michelangelo

The Medici Chapels and Church of San Lorenzo in Florence

An incensual slice of Lardo di Colonnata over warm toasted bread

A taste of coppa ferrarese bread

An order of Olive all’Ascolana, stuffed olives ascolana style a specialty of the Marche

The mosaics of Ravenna and the starry blue ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Titian’s altarpiece masterpiece in Venice’s Franciscan Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

A stop at a cicchetti bar in Venice for a nibble and an Aperol Spritz

A Venetian sgroppino, a refreshing prosecco lemon sorbet combination served in a flute

Venice period – walking tour through the Sestieri (districts)

Tour of the Consorzio Vacche Rosso to see the making of the famous Red Cow Parmigiano Reggiano in Reggio Emilia.

Attending Mass at San Cristoforo sul Naviglio (Navigli in Milan) dating from 1176.

Visiting an acetaia in Modena to discover the tradition and magic of the artisanal production of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Virtual Vendemmia

In Italy the grape harvest (la vendemmia) begins in the early to mid-Fall usually during September and October. Every region of Italy grows grapes and the cities, towns and villages across the country celebrate the harvest with grape festivals (sagre) making Autumn one of the best times and seasons to see and savor Italy.  I will not be in Italy this year until the end of October when my friends at Tenuta Vitanza near Montalcino in Tuscany tell me I will only be able to pick grape juice! Che peccato! My only vendemmiathis year will be virtual.

Here are a few favorite Italian grapes that are part of my virtual pick.

Albana: found in Emilia Romagna; Albana di Romagna a rich, sweet passito wine made from partly dried grapes (on the vine, in small boxes, on wooden grates, or indoors using air);I first had this wine after dinner at Trattoria La Romantica in Ferrara for an out-of-body wine experience

Barbera: the third most planted grape in Italy, popular because of its low tannins and high acidity making it a perfect pairing for tomato sauced pasta

Bonarda: classic grape grown in Piedmonte, Lombardia and Emilia Romagna; in the Oltrepò Pavese for Colli Piacentini DOCs and the killer Colli Piacentini Gutternio; Bonardo Oltrepo Pavese was our cousin Roberto’s favorite wine; deep. ruby-red purple, bright and cheerful, with an aroma of violets and a taste of blackberries, easy to drink

Dolcetto: another Piedmontese grape; dark, purple skinned; the everyday wine of the region

Nebbiolo: grows in the foggy mist of the Langhe region of Piedmonte (nebbia is the Italian word for fog) used in the making of two of the classic bold wines of Italy, Barolo and Barberesco, the king and queen of Italian wines; wines with age

Malavasia: grown in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region; the vine was introduced to the area by Venetian merchants who brought cuttings from Greece; my favorite is the sweet Arquatum-Passito di Malvasia that I have had at Ristorante Don Ferdinando in Castell’Arquato with my friend Rita

Sagrantino: the main red grape of Umbria used to make the most excellent DOCG Sagrantino di Montefalco; “la dolce vita” squared (to the highest degree); high regard for the wine of this grape begins with an afternoon spent in a wine bar in Umbria with my friends, Luca and Luigi over a bottle of Montefalco Sagrantino

Sangiovese: the iconic Italian grape used to make Chianti Classico; follow the Trail of the Black Rooster (Gallo Nero); found in Brunello, Morellino, Super Tuscans and Carmignano with wine memories made at Tenuta di Capezzana with the Contini-Bonacossi family

Trebbiano: grape used to make Vin Santo, the wine of the saints; grapes are held in baskets then strung together on cane stands where they are dried for several months in the vinsantaie( a large ventilated room) then fermented and matured for over 4 years in caratelli (small chestnut barrels)

Teroldego:grown primarily in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy; the Dolomites, the Ice man, Italian/German  food and  a wine called Tyrolean Gold; my wine memories of Teroldego  are aromatic, heady, wild flowers and juicy fruit from a glass with my family at the Hotel Alpino in the Val di Fiemme

Vernaccia: white grape used in a DOCG in San Gimignano, Tuscany

La Credenza

You cannot see and savor Italy without bumping into a familiar piece of furniture found in many Italian homes and restaurants, la credenza. Sometimes referred to as a sideboard, the history of the credenza begins with an act of faith. In 16th century Italy the word “credenza” referred to the tasting of food and drink by a servant for a lord or other important person (pope or cardinal) before it was served to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. The word la credenza (Italian for belief or confidence) passed from the room where the act took place to the name of the long tables on which the food was served.

While traveling in Italy I’ve had a chance to taste some memorable food from the credenzas of ristorante and trattorie and from the homes of my Italian family and friends.  Now every time I see a credenza I’m reminded about the wonderful times spent enjoying the food and hospitality served from the credenzas of Italy. Like the spectacular fattoria credenza in Treviso groaning with the weight of l’arrosto pavone (peacock) and goose from the family farm. Or the credenza in my friend Alice’s country house in the Bolognese Hills where the buffet breakfast is the best I’ve had in Italy. Or the Tuscan credenza of Tenuta di Capezzana near the town of Carmignano, northwest of Florence, where I’ve spent delightful September afternoons with the Contini-Bonacossi family in the dining room of their Medici villa enjoying their exceptional wines and oils. I won’t soon forget the credenza in the medieval taverna of Castello Gropparello with my friend Rita learning the fine art of cucina Piacentina, Emilia Romagnan cooking from the hills of Piacenza. Our efforts filled the credenza with platters of faraona (Guinea fowl), stuffed vegetables, maltagliata and a Piacenza tart filled with plum jam. In the town of Pienza at Pius II’s Palazzo Piccolomini I saw where the Pope slept and the credenza that served him and down the street shoppers at Azienda Zazzeri can see and savor credenzas filled with wheels of pecorino where soft Sauvis, semi-matured Fucus and wine-infused Vinaceus are displayed with great attention.

As impressive as the credenza is at Palazzo Piccolomini, its purpose is no different from the credenzas found in the homes and restaurants throughout Italy. It was meant to serve. The Italian credenza reflects the warm and gracious hospitality of the Italian people and their desire to introduce you to their country and traditions. The credenzas of Italy are waiting for you  . . .