Carbonara by Joshua Lawrence:

Despite doctors orders to avoid coffee for a while this morning I just could not resist. Still the best espresso in Naples

Originally posted on Carbonara's Weblog:

Some Things Realy Are Better In the Shadow of Mount Vesuvius (Coffee Consciousness IV)

Italians believe in food, and Neapolitans are the true believers. Naples, as it has been for centuries, is a chaotic, bustling metropolis lining the Italian coastline, climbing over the bluffs above the bay. But, even in this crazy city you can find small corners of tranquility and solace –– almost always tied to something edible or, drinkable, like coffee. Expresso, to be exact.

I normally don’t trust restaurants near a big city’s central train station. These establishments are either soulless, standardized outposts of a branded chain or the sort of place that makes you wonder if you should disinfect the flatware as it’s laid out in front of you. But, last Monday night I was tired, and when the kind, small woman at the reception of my hotel told me that the place across the street…

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Stubborn September Summer

Good Gelato Goes Well With Anytime

Mid-september is when they start taking down the umbrella farms that cover the long sandy beaches that stretch up and down the Abruzzo coast. The crowds of people tempting skin cancer, like many of our fake-palm tree neighbors or hiding in the shade (me) are giving way leaving behind the few of us who insist on ignoring Fall home chores to keep their feet in the salty sand.

It’s dusk today and although the shadows are long the sun still seers, forcing me to turn my shirt-collar up. The waves are just strong enough to compete with the din of scattered card players getting in one last game of Burraco or Briscola before the games must be moved indoors until Spring.

I’m allergic to cards, so I have to fight against the coming Autumn my own way. The choice fell, of course, on the best gelato on this part of Pescara’s northern riviera.

Plinius has always been one of the neighborhood’s more consistent beachfront concessions and it’s seafood restaurant, unlike many in this tourist town, is open all year round. This year they teamed up with downtown Pescara’s upstart artisanal gelato and espresso bar “L’Altro Gelato e Caffe”. The mother store, in Piazza Salotto in the heart of the main evening passeggiata street and square (look up “Piazza della Rinascita”, the square’s official name, if checking on a map) goes out of its way to make tasty, rich gelato with local fruits, Sicilian almonds or pistachios or chocolate and vanilla from Madagascar. The coffee is arguably the best in town, although only one varietal at a time makes it the mile-or-so up the Adriatic coast to the Plunius.

Tell me then, who is enjoying this September Sunday evening more: my friends and family playing cards around the beach cot to my left; or me, with my feet in the cool sand as I gaze towards Dalmatia (too far away too see across the soft waves) and slowly savor Italian ice cream with ingredients from the Indian Ocean?

Or does it really matter?

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Prawns of My Grandfather

Seafood and a Sunday Stroll Along Naples’ New Traffic-free Waterfront

Today I was stranded in Naples. A business trip to Puglia all Saturday kept me in town today and far away from Silvia, Sofia and Emily. There are worst fates, but even if

Castel dell’Ovo, Naples (Capri on the horizon)

I was the first civilian visitor to the moon if it was Sunday I would still rather be with them in Pescara biking along the Adriatic Sea towards pizzette at Trieste or just a ride over the pedestrian bridge to the sailboats docked on on the other side.

Hungry for family but nothing else I headed out this morning to explore the new traffic-free miles of Naples’s waterfront stretching from my apartment here towards Castel dell’Ovo on the island of Borgo Marinara. The waterfront is almost the same as has been for decades, what is new is what it is missing.

Traffic.

Naples traffic-less waterfront, from Via Partenope to Mergellina

Almost a month after this stretch of waterfront was closed to traffic to host the America’s Cup catamaran regattas, the sports villages and tents are gone but the city decided to keep the cars away anyway. It has caused the traffic to build up elsewhere but now Naples now has one of Europe’s longest and most beautiful downtown pedestrian rivieras. And it makes hanging along the seaside on Sunday a dream (and walking home from the office on a Tuesday evening a pleasure).

Neapolitan’s love their cars but those who live and work in this area are quickly catching on and the waterfront has come alive. With no plans for the day I set out along the 3-km (2miles) boulevard towards the Castle that has attracted four generations of my family to this city that too many people foolishly fear. It took over two hours with detours into the Villa Comunale park and a climb along the massive white stones of the Rotonda Diaz breakwater. Familes, groups of kids from elementary school to their twenties fooling around on the beach, couples hand-in-hand, families on rented rickshaws were all around me. I even passed a family taking first communion photos of their two young daughters in white dresses and flowers in their hair. About half way along a young man was on his knees, holding the hand of a young woman sitting on the wall, their forms so sweet and intense that even out the corner of my eye I knew he was proposing. So much everyday living theatre in this beautiful natural cinemascope soundstage.

La Scialuppa on Borgo Marinaio, Naples

As I walked over the bridge towards the castle, Ipassed the sailboats towards the restaurants in Borgo Marinaro the sounds of a jazz group was singing Italian and American standards between the the tables of the restaurants made the walk to my goal and the wait for my table that much more pleasant.

La Scialuppa is one of Naples’s oldest restaurants. Its menu says it’s been serving locals and travelers since the unification of Italy in 1860. My history with the place goes back two generations because my grandfather Richard (“Dick” to most of the people who knew him here in Italy) would always eat most of his meals in Naples when he came almost every spring for twenty years. I’m not even a smidgen Italian-american, but I grew up with his gifts and stories from Italy and Graka – our family name for him, is a big part why I’m here and who I am. And his meals and friendship with the Starita family that run the Scialuppa are part of those stories.

Paccheri con Polipetti e Gamberi (La Scialuppa, Naples)

While La Scialuppa is, as some critics accuse, also up-market draw for tourists staying in the hotels across the footbridge, it’s one that is easy to be drawn back to for the food, wine, and beauty of eating surrounded by sailboats under the shadow of a mediaeval castle. As you would expect for a restaurant in a place who’s name means “sailor town”, seafood is king on the menu. I resisted the urge for sautéed shellfish – not easy as mountainous plates passed by me as I sat down – and I went for paccheri (very large flat rings of pasta) with little octopus, shrimp and and baby tomatoes. As I dug in I remembered that growing up I would have never eaten anything with tentacles or an exoskeleton, now I love them, especially when washed down with their excellent house white wine. I followed with a plate of frittura di paranza (a random mix of small fried fish and squid), all of it fresh and tasty.

Frittura di paranza (La Scialuppa, Naples)

It’s also in the little things that La Scialuppa touches home – the bread basket included thick slices of neapolitan wood-oven pan cafone bread and neapolitan taralli (ring shaped hard bread that are a bit oilier than their counterparts in Puglia). The sorbetto, a champaign flute of a soft, frozen lemon concoction, hid wild strawberries (visible) and a hint of cedro (the big, sweet cousin of

Lemon sorbetto with wild strawberries

Sorbetto al limone con fragoli di bosco (La Scialuppa, Naples)

lemons and limes used in fancy perfumes).
And last but not least, I could leave thanking Salvatore, who still remembers when he was a little boy and my Graka – his “Dick Bell di Wauwatosa – would come to his father’s restaurant in the Spring.

Fragoline di bosco in sorbetto al limone (La Scialuppa, Naples)

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Meal’s end (La Scialuppa, Naples)

Mortadella Below Mount Etna

More Proof that Love is the Best Ingredient

I’ve been trying to spend some time in Catania for years, but it has always eluded me.  I had come close last Spring when I spoke briefly at two conferences on venture capital in Palermo and Catania, but that time didn’t count – we had driven through town on our way to a spectacular hotel and convention center in the northern suburb of Aci Castello.  I had the joy of a quick hour spent in barefoot and in dark blue suit looking across the Messin straits before the conference and a quick dash to the airport.  My only consolation for the missed opportunity was a little jar of Bronte pistachio pesto from Nonna Vincenza.

Last friday was another hit-and-run trip to speak at a conference in eastern Sicily’s unofficial capital, but this time the flight schedule in and out of Naples were clement and I had enough time to dip my toes into a sea of potential discoveries, which was not easy because in Italy’s smaller cities even the cathedral is closed for lunch between 1 and 3 pm.  Food for the eyes and soul will have to wait for another visit.

Not so for food, on advice from a friend I had myself dropped off in front Savia, a famous pastry shop and café where I grabbed an amazing aranicino alla catanese (fried rice ball with eggplant, cheese and I believe tiny pieces of prosciutto cotto ham) and strolled slowly down via Etnea towards the Duomo (Cathedral) and university at the other end, taking in shop windows and sicilian baroque facades.

The tiny streets surrounding the covered Sant’Agata covered market between the Duomo and the elevated train tracks towards the sea are a foodie’s paradise:  seafood in a rich variety of colors, shapes and sizes (the tuna and swordfish called out to me saying “grab a big lemon and a knife and just come to me!), local cheeses, butcher shops specializing in lamb, carts full of local produce.  Little eateries were carved small nooks along the stone wall in fish market…but I wasn’t ready to eat just then.

Eventually my wandering took me up the slow slope of Via Garibaldi because I had heard there was a castle up that way (I‘m a sucker for castles) and stumbled upon one of Catania’s many under-appreciated gems: Piazza Mazzini.

Piazza Mazzini’s is a small square sliced into quarters by Via Garibaldi and Via Auteri.  Each corner had an a simple sicilian-style arcade supported by what appeared to ancient greek and roman columns that were a bit worse for wear The winter sun was warm and three of the corners had restaurant-bars with tables outside and a few people milling about.  I chose the Vineria e Trattoria Da Vincenzo because the heavy wooden tables outside were different shapes and colors and spread out like scratched treasures at an old neighbor’s garage sale.

After a bit of give and take with the waiter (the only person working that day) I was talked into a mortadella sandwich with a touch of olive oil, fresh hot pepper and herbs to transform a cold cut that is usually special only up around Bologna (in fact, its poorer, inbred cousin is what we call Bologna – or Boloney – in America).  I had him suggest a glass of white wine from the slopes of Etna because I love the mineral tones of white wines grown on volcanic soils.  But what really blew me away was the panino’s bread – dense, just moist enough, slightly yellow as tough durum wheat and traces of finely ground corn flower had been woven into it.  The bread itself was a full meal and the dough a blend of milled grains.  The waiter told me he had tasted breads for weeks before choosing this bread and it’s bakery.  He also uses it for olive-pate toasted crostini.  He spoke of the bread as though he was telling me about choosing the perfect puppy to take into the family

He also told me that the columns in Piazza Mazzini were taken from ancient ruins when the square was build, long before cars.

 

 

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Convenient Comfort – Innocent Love in a Jar

A few thoughts for World Nutella Day

Everyone has their comfort food. I have friends who zero in on the nearest pint of Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Growing up in Wisconsin my consolation for being dragged out to cross-country ski during saturday morning cartoons was a cup or two of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

One of the problems with some comfort foods is get they are not always there when you need them. Good pizza and quality draft beer need the right restaurants or pubs, ice cream needs a fridge, and hot chocolate needs something to heat it up.

Good Chocolate, be it Swiss chocolate, boeri and gianduia chocolates from Piedmont, or your favorite fix can do the trick, but then you risk falling afoul of the dark versus milk-chocolate debate…and why choose one when you can have them both?

As American pop-culture foods like colas, colorful breakfast cereals, corn chips (crisps!) and McDonalds spreads across the globe, an Italian multinational has been quietly spreading its comforting paste the other way….like a tasty plague.

With Nutella, you don’t need anything tools or instruments to reduce depression whilst widening your waistline; if your fingers are clean not even a spoon is needed (and like chocolate-covered pretzels a little bit of salt makes it more savory).

And there are more benefits. It doesn’t melt like ice-cream but you can mix it with your favorite gelato (or even use it to correct the bad stuff), and if a stretch you can place a dollop in your steaming-hot espresso for a double pick-me-up.

But the best part of Nutella is that you can keep a jar hidden away for emergencies….like being snowed-in like we are today, or after an unpleasant Superbowl game.

Just reached for the jar…and a spoon!

February 5th is World Nutella Day (http://www.nutelladay.com/ )

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Nutella Day was founded by the great people behind Bleeding Espresso

http://bleedingespresso.com/

and

Ms. Adventures in Italy

http://msadventuresinitaly.com/blog/

Drinking With the Enemy – Could Starbucks Make it in Italy?

Beware of Yanks Bearing Pastries (and Free Wi-fi)

Emily loves Starbucks, which is not easy for her because we live in a country without a single Starbucks: Italy.  She was 11 when she first tried a Mocha Frappuccino.  We were at the Louvre in Paris resting between visiting exhibits and the line was short so I grabbed their largest size, a Venti, and we passed it around the whole family.  It didnt seem like I was acting against my love of Italian coffee, because I wasn’t thinking of it as a coffee drink at all.  It was a light dessert drink (light because there were four of us).

Emily in Geneva (Starbucks?)

Starbucks has since become one of her minor fixations – and she forced us to take her to one in both Chicago and Geneva. Like many adolescent Italians she has her favorite bits of american popular culture and where in the 80s and 90′s she might have chosen Levi’s and McDonalds, she likes Abercombie & Fitch and Starbucks.

She was therefore quite let down when she found out that the advertising poster announcing the imminent arrival of a Starbucks store last week in Milan was just a prank by a design student (who, by his youtube video, seems to really want a Starbucks to come to Italy).  Thousands of Italians and Italy-lovers fell for the provocation, and virtually no-one had a mild opinion on it. What was also striking that a store that does not even exist in Italy is so well known – even hated or loved – here.

Emily in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Although Starbucks is inspired by Italian coffee culture, it is in essence an American model – from the sizes of the drinks to the recognizability of their stores throughout the world. Entering into one of their stores is however an experience light years away from what would happen most coffee joints in Rome or Milan.  The Italian relationship with coffee is different as defenders of true espressos and cappuccinos claim very different, and it has nothing to do with drinking out of disposable cups.  Most of it boils down to image and price.

But all need not be lost for the Seattle-based chain. If they do decide one day to break into Italy the price of failure for a company that says it draws inspiration from Italy would be high.  It can be done, if the corporation is willing to turn its business model on its head.

Sofia in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Three reasons why Starbucks would fail in Italy with its current model and two ways it could succeed.

Why it could fail: 

1) Cost. Not that Italians are cheap. At home or abroad they will go out of their well to spend a fortune on quality food and drink, especially if it familiar to them. But staple foods – pasta, olive oil, bread, coffee, and others are a more delicate matter. They will pay for high quality pasta made from the perfect mix of grains that is cut with bronze-edged tools and then slowly dried in the cool micro-climes found in the mountains in Abruzzo (De Cecco and others) or in the rising lands near Vesuvius, the volcano overlooking Naples that destroyed Pompei (Gragnano), but the everyday pasta found on every corner store also has to be excellent AND affordable. It’s the same with espresso and other traditional italian ways of drinking coffee – they will pay for the right mix of caffè bar real estate and selected beans, but even in the best parts of Rome an excellent espresso will rarely go over 1,10 a shot at the bar.

2) Size.  At most java shops in the US, not just at Starbucks, the small espressos are too big and watered out.  Of course it you are paying three to five times as much as they are used to back on the Boot, the temptation to get a lot bang for your buck is strong for Italians too.  Most Europeans, however, don’t binge their favorite poison.  (A glass of wine or a beer with lunch on a workday is still considered as normal as drinking water).

3) Simplicity.  Drinking coffee is an essential experience, a simple excuse for a break in the day to recharge both physically and mentally, either through a moment alone, or a quick pause to shoot the breeze with a friend or coworker. Not that there are not choices –  ceramic or glass, sweetened naturally, synthetically or bitter, a touch or milk, etc. – and they can speak volumes about a person.

I had a colleague who’s order – an caffè d’orzo (not really coffee but a roast barley coffee substitute), a small shot in a large cup with extra hot water, warm milk and unrefined sugar on the side… i would get a black unsweetened espresso (“caffé normale”) just to realign the heavens

It’s also usually a short experience (it’s called “espresso” for a reason), unless it’s one of those rare moments when you sit down and hang out with a friend for a while.  Coffee in Italy is simple and elegant, if not sweet.

Christmas edition cup

They could succeed by playing to their strengths:  the desserts and the ambiance.

1) Desserts.   Last time I was with Emily & Sofia in a Starbucks not far from Watertower place in Chicago I chatted with the barista (it was an off-peak hour on an August Saturday.  He confirmed my suspicion that most Italians that came through stayed away from  espresso, cappuccino, and their Starbucks derivatives.  They preferred normal brew coffee if caffeine was their goal. But the loved the pastries (muffins, banana-bread, cookies, scones) and sweeter milk-based concoctions (“Frappuccinos” and their ilk). The solution could be to turn the menu and the marketing upside down. Starbucks in Italy would be an up-market pastry-shop and gelateria that also sold international sandwiches and salads and milkshake-like drinks with coffee, if you really insist, to go with it.

2) Ambiance & comfort.  Although coffee is quick-fire experience, it is one of the few things they like doing in a hurry (driving is the other).  And despite their love for hanging out with friends and strangers there are surprisingly few places that offer a calm, relaxing environment with couches, free wi-fi, and big windows to the street in front of you.  And it goes well beyond hanging out and snacking. Just like the places where Starbucks is strong a working people are always on the lookout for good place to wait between business meetings or eve to hold them, and too many bars in Italy are just not comfortable enought.

Or cool.

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Lentil Tales of Autumn (And Sausage Sunsets)

Salsiccia con Lenticchie (Sausage with lentils), a guest post by Gillian Nevers

I used to wonder why I started to crave sausages and lentils in the fall, just as the leaves on the trees began to change color. For a while I thought it was because of their palate – lentils range in colors from yellow to red-orange to green to brown and, even black – or their earthy taste. Then, one day while looking through photos taken on one of many trips to the Abruzzo, I came upon several taken at an autumn picnic next to a small, wetland refuge near Capestrano. I think it was the day after Emily’s birthday, but I’m not sure. However, I am sure that among all the wonderful things we ate that day, my favorite was the salsiccia con lenticchie, prepared by my dear friend, the late Linda Mantini.

Linda and Dan near Capestrano, 2010 picnic

We worked off a wonderful lunch of party left-overs, with a stroll around a little lake, attempting to identify a variety of water birds. Then we drove into Capestrano for cafe and gelato. While the rest of the family sat outside the bar soaking up what was left of the afternoon sun, Silvia and I walked across the square to a small shop. It was one of those dark little places you enter through a swinging tile curtain. An unmemorable place, except for the calendar of Mussolini displayed along with pope and kitten calendars, and a bushel of brown lentils on the floor in front of the counter. Silvia insisted on buying five kilos of the lentils for me. Knowing I was flying home in a few days, and worried about luggage weight restrictions, I protested. When Silvia said she would keep half, I agreed. Now, I regret not having taking all five kilos, as those lentils were some of the best I’ve every eaten and would have been worth the extra baggage charge!

Emily below CapestranoBack home, I searched through my Italian cookbooks for a recipe that came close to Linda’s. Everywhere I looked, the ingredients were things I could source locally, except for the sausage—it’s hard to find a coil of luganega, especially on short-notice, in Madison, Wisconsin. So, I substituted Italian sausage—a mix of hot and mild—from Fraboni’s, a family-owned Italian deli that’s been in Madison as long as I can remember (when I gave birth to Joshua forty-plus years ago, my friend Kathy smuggled prosciutto, crusty bread and gorgonzola into my hospital room, so I wouldn’t starve)! I served my version of salsiccia con lenticchie to friends who would later join us on a hiking and cooking trip in the Abruzzo.

Linda-inspired pasta & lentils

Every fall, when I get the urge to make salsiccia con lenticchie, it seems to strike me on the day I MUST eat it. So, I have to use what sausage is close at hand. In addition to Italian sausage, I’ve tried American brats, local pork sausage, and Spanish Chorizo. All add their own character to the dish, but no matter the sausage I use, my version never comes close to Linda’s.

Here’s my improvised version:

  • 3/4 pound brown lentils
  • 2 ounces chopped pancetta or smoked bacon
  • 1 small chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finally chopped
  • 4 to 8 pure pork sausages – If you can find luganega, that’s the best.
Soffritto

Soffritto

Soak the lentils for about an hour. Fry pancetta or bacon until the fat melts. Add onion, garlic and celery and cook until soft. Add the drained lentils and cover with water. Simmer for 25 minutes, or until tender. In the meantime, roast, fry or grill the sausage.

Serve the sausages on a bed of lentils.

(Editor’s note…if you want it spicy, add hot peppers, and if you want to prepare long before serving, cut the sausage into inch-long chunks and mix into the pot of lentils, cover and keep warm until serving).

Carbonara and Muse

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Oh, by the way, hospital food is not good the world over, Silvia and I snuck prosciutto, good bread and gorgonzola into the hospital when Sofia and Emily were born, it’s still my ultimate comfort food, 42 years on. – Joshua

Lentils, Sausage, Fall Sun and Abruzzo Mountain Air Are Good For You

A Plate of Salsiccie e Lenticchi and il Gran Sasso

Carbonara and Muse