Category Archives: Abruzzo

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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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

Scaloppine al Marsala, al Limone, and all’Amore

Real Italian Cooking is Often Simple, But Not Easy.

Guests and fish both stink after three days – the saying is the same in Italian as in English. But unlike aquatic creatures guests can buy a few more days by cooking a special meal or two. This is in part how a very un-italian family like mine (especially my mom) got its first lessons on how Italians really cook. My Grandfather took a trip to Italy almost every Spring and invited the waiters, cooks, doormen and anyone else he got along with to come stay with him in Milwaukee (which included a few days with us in Madison) when they every travelled through America. Enough did to change us.

Emily, Silvia, and the Scaloppine

I was thinking about this as I was organizing my pictures from the last few months. In a few of them there were some pictures of Linda, my mother-in-law who passed away this Spring. It’s impossible to list the many parts of our daily lives that remind us of her. My first instinct to write about food and how it passes through my life came when I watch her make her famous lasagna and I started taking pictures. I needed to ask her how she made the ragout for it before I could write it and now it’s too late to ask her directly. Italians use recipes at home, but for those dishes that they have made their own they follow more memory, sensation and whims than specific measurements.

Scaloppine di Tacchino Generation Transfer

Other pictures were of this Summer, when Silvia prepared our goodbye dinner for my parents and close family in Madison this summer. Emily helped, keeping her eagle eye on every move her mother made and tucking it always for the next opportunity the same way she learned to make her famous crepes. The main dish was scaloppine di tacchino al marsala. The original version are veal filets flavored with marsala fortified wine (or lemon juice). We usually use turkey or chicken filets.

The choice of entree made the evening a bit more emotional. Linda was famous for her scaloppine and it was one of her favorite things to prepare for us at Sunday lunch in L’Aquila – and Emily’s favorite to eat too.

Marcella Hazan, the author of the first cookbook I ever owned, recently mentioned on Facebook that if you have to follow the rules for French cooking but the apparently simpler Italian recipes require that you develop your own sense of it all. I usually don’t print many recipes, but thanks to time spent in the kitchen with my scaloppine provders and Marcella’s books…..

Turkey Scaloppine with Marsala (Scaloppine di Tacchino al Marsala)
loosely adapted from the Veal Scaloppine with Marsala recipe found in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan – Silvia goes my memory and adapts the oils to what’s available..

Ingredients:

  • 4 tablespoon olive oil (in the original it’s a mix of vegetable oil and butter, ingredients more common in the north of Italy)
  • 1 pound turkey breast filets
  • Flour, spread on a plate
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup dry Marsala wine (if you can’t find Marsala, use dry port in a pinch)
  • Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill to taste

Flatten the scaloppini (filets) with a meet pounder, hammering from the center of each piece outwards until each one is evenly thin. Put the oil in a skillet and turn on the heat to medium high.
When the fat is hot, cover both sides of the scaloppine in flour, shake off excess flour, and slip the meat into the pan. Brown them quickly on both sides. Transfer them to a warm plate, and sprinkle with salt (and pepper to taste, we usually do not). If the pan’s too small to do them all at once , do them in batches, but dredge each batch in flour just before slipping the filets into the pan to prevent the flour on them from becoming soggy which would make it impossible to achieve a crisp surface.
Once the filets are ready, turn the heat on to high, add the Marsala, and while it boils down, scrape loose with a wooden spoon all the browning residues on the bottom and sides. Add a touch (tablespoon?) of olive oil and any juices the scaloppine may have shed on the plate. When the juices in the pan are no longer runny and have the density of sauce, turn the heat down to low, return the scaloppine to the pan, and turn them once or twice to baste them with the pan juices. Turn out the entire contents of the pan onto a warm platter and serve at once.

Variation: if you don’t like Marsala, you can always roughly squeeze in a half lemon of juice. Most people here in Italy squeeze a slice of lemon on just before eating, to taste, as with any meat dish.

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Linda, a River Shrimp, and Me

A Summer Take on Italy Most Classic Garlic Dish


Aglio, Olio and Pommodorini

Aglio, olio e pepperoncino (garlic, olive oil and hot pepper) is one of the most sincere and dangerous pasta dishes. Dangerous because so many people shy away from garlic and even I shy away from the hottest of the hot stuff. But also perilous because in its simplicity to make and to devour, a plate of spaghetti doused with these two ingredients lightly simmered in olive oil can tempt more than more complex and expensive pastas.

Simmering Aglio Olio and Pepperoncino


I’m always hesitant to mess with near perfection, but in the summer there’s always another ingredient laying there, calling to you. The heat makes risk taking just that much easier.

Slow-baked tomatoes ready to jump

My friend Fabrizio C was playing with fire a few days ago (and only our tongues got slightly singed). Piccadilly and datterini tomatoes had come into their own on the Abruzzo coast when he invited a dozen friends over to his terrace for dinner. His twist was adding slow-baking breaded piccadilly cherry tomatoes (to dry them out a bit) at the end off the garlic, hot pepper and oil process.

Mixing it up

Slowly baking (about 45 minutes) and breading tomatoes dried them out while keeping just the right amount of juice and sweetness in to keep them slightly chewy but not as much as the al dente durum wheat pasta in which they were hiding.

Friends, tomatos and pepperoncino

This being summer we followed up with local vegetables – roast sweet peppers and above all some of the last great fresh fava beans of the Summer (to be eaten right out of the pod and accompanied by good pecorino cheese) as we washed it all down with some of this years Pecorino white and rich Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo rosè wines from the valleys between Pescara and Sulmona. The wine kept our conversation and appetite for summer dinners growing well into the night.

Friends, tomatos and pepperoncino

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Aglio, olio and pomodorini

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Want to try making aglio olio and peperoncino and don’t want to look for it on the web? My first and favourite guide is “The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating” by Marcella Hazan. My hitchiker’s guide to Italian food.

Roast peppers

Also my friend Eleonor’s blog http://www.aglioolioepeperoncino.com/ is inspired.

Garlic on FoodistaGarlic

How Not To Lose weight – Aperitivi at Caffè Venezia

There’s no more free lunch they say, but are they right?

Today Italy celebrates its 150 year anniversary as a unified nation. So everyone had a day off. This weeks forecast of week of constant rain was wrong for the first half of the day at least, so the four of us walked down town to look for an Italian flag.

And of course, around lunchtime, we got hungry. But not enough for dinner. So we decided to toast in Unity Day at Caffè Venezia.

Caffè Venezia prosecco cocktail


I first heard about Pescara’s Caffè Venezia in the months after l’Aquila’s earthquake. It was late April 2009 and tens of thousands of us were dazed April guests in summer hotels and apartments up and down the Adriatic. Our hotel-refuge, “Nel Pineto” was in Montesilvano, a northern suburb of Pescara separated from the sea by a sandy strip shaded by centuries old pine trees. It was much better than the tent cities our former neighbors were enduring back home but, as anyone who has ever visited a major summer sea and sand tourist stop in winter can tell you, it can feel pretty isolated. Evening visits to modern downtown Pescara (Abruzzo’s largest city) was the closest escape from the lobby we had.

Caffè Venezia snackplate

During our first weeks there the legend of the aperitivo at Caffè Venezia had already started to spread, at least in our hotel. And there was one reason – the snack plate. When you’ve been shaken, getting a huge plate of pizza and fried snacks with your drinks can feel like fresh water after a dry desert trek.

Caffè Venezia and Love

Bar Venezia is the city’s downtown food service juggernaut (steamroller). Other places may be cozier, closer to the sea, serve more creative food and cocktails or have a better wine list. But the Venezia wins in size and scope while somehow also being good. Nothing amazing, just good. On the inside there’s a pastry shop with amazing ice cream and chocolates as well, it also has pizzas by the slice and a cafeteria serving local dishes and seafood enticing enough to make me hungry while walking through on a full stomach

Caffè Venezia aftermath

I still, however, have not yet gone beyond eating and drinking what makes it to the sea of tables outside. The cocktail list is long but I usually end up with the fruity house cocktail with a dash or prosecco or an Aperol spritz, but my main goal, like that of my post-earthquake companions almost two years ago, is the complimentary food plate. A mountain of pizzette, miniature panzerotti (little deep fried pizza pockets) and a dozen other fried and oven-baked delights. Not good for the waistline, but comforting.

Work and parenting make my pre- lunch or dinner aperitivo escapes few and far between (Although my teenage daughters do agree to a non-alcoholic escape with there dad from time to time).

But it at least when we want to celebrate after a walk to downtown Pescara we know where we can sit oustide all year round and toast the day.

Pescara’s Caffè Venezia

Caffè Venezia, Pescara

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Prosecco on FoodistaProsecco

Pizza on FoodistaPizza

Zaffè, when impure coffee is purely satisfying.

Saffron Seduction III – Coffee Consciousness VI

I usually like my coffee black, be it a good American brew or Italian espresso. I understand the appeal of massively large thermal cups with some sort of warm concoction with coffee hidden away somewhere, but it’s hard for me to really consider it coffee. For me it’s coffee like coffee cake is coffee. Something related and even enjoyable, but not the same.

I do make exceptions when a spice or some other flavoring that sparked colonial expansion, pirates, or just very long journeys on camels or wooden sailing ships. Chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg and similar concoctions are permitted, because they are part of the same tradition.
There is one spice that still commands the same astronomical prices per gram as it did at the height of the spice rush that sent Christopher Columbus sailing. Saffron. Real saffron, especially that from places like the Navelli high plain just outside L’Aquila, is quoted at over 2500 a kilo this year (about 4000$ a kilo. That’s about 25 euros (40$) per paper clip in weight. Fortunately, you don’t need that much of the little red threads to taste it. And, unlike other costly products from flowers, it’s safe and legal.

San Pio delle Camere is the largest town in the saffron-growing plains around Navelli. It has a real supermarket, a large hardware store, a florist, a bar that serves pizza by the slice and many other amenities that the medieval hill towns surrounding it lack. When the extended family is in town for the holidays, it’s where we go for supplies.

I was on a supply run, when the pangs of espresso abstinence started creeping over me. So, as soon as my daughter and I had finished loading the groceries into the car, we hopped over to the bar.

Zaffè! in San Pio delle Camere, Abruzzo

It was one of those moments when I wanted something more than just an espresso pick me up, but smaller than a cappuccino and different than a veneziano, so I asked for suggestions. “That’s easy, the barista replied, a zaffè”

I didn’t watch the entire process, but it’s basically an espresso with cappuccino foam and, somehow, a noticeably but not overpowering flavor of real saffron. I peaked over the barista’s shoulder as she plucked a red strand of Navelli saffron from a little jar and positioned it on its foamy bed. The look of the zaffè” was inspired by Fontana or Mirò and the flavor was also a bit artsy – fun from time to time, but not the way I want my daily coffee. Perfect for when I want something special.

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Saffron on FoodistaSaffron

Espresso on FoodistaEspresso

Italian Coffee on FoodistaItalian Coffee

Yellow Pasta Geometry.

Saffron Seduction II

The first time I saw real, raw saffron my host and cook was holding up the tiny ruby filaments up in the middle of the kitchen like it was some newly unearthed relic: “Behold, red gold” I’m not sure he really said that, but memories are there to be embellished.

Joshua at Irene's communion

He was actually talking about how hard it was to find in that form; it was over twenty years ago in the midwest. I’m assuming that in 20 years Madison, Wisconsin has come a long way in easy access to an ever wider array of spices, but that does not dethrone the importance of great, and by that I mean real and uncut, saffron.

What's a party in Abruzzo without Montepulciano?

That night saffron and the best Valencian paella ever cooked on a frigid December evening are still with me and I wonder how many dinners are preludes to where our life will be going later. When that paella evening happened I had already lived a year in Bologna, Italy, where I had begun my transition away from my picky eater past by wandering the open air market on via Sant’Apollonia or the traditional, closed market near Piazza Maggiore. I had discovered fresh fennel and rosemary, both sweet blood and sour Sicilian oranges, dozens of varieties of new tomatoes (new to me, at least). It was discovery with an open nose and a closed budget. Real saffron would have to wait – and the Paella on the tour through Spain lived down to it’s price on the menu.

When I walk with friends or family through the mountain town of Navelli, I’m reminded that the arches, carved doorways and stone-paved streets were all built on saffron, as were many of the buildings and churches in L’Aquila and the surrounding towns scarred and broken by the quake almost two years ago.

Saffron Maltagliatti

Saffron is a traditional crop here in Abruzzo, but not a traditional ingredient. Local cooks have however been busily developing new ways to make up for lost time. L’Antica Taverna in Navelli adds it to their version of Maccheroni alla Boscaiola; long egg maccheroni with sausage, and mushrooms. They also do wonderful things with local black truffles
Saffron is a spice that is sometimes at its best when carrying a dish on it’s own – like in Risotto alla Milanese – or dancing with at most one other decisive partner, like at Irene’s first communion dinner.

That day this Autumn Irene and her friends ran around the restaurant looking like maidens in an old pastoral painting, dressed in white with flowers braided into her short dark hair. She presided over the children’s table at La Mora Nera just outside of L’Aquila like Alice having tea with the Doormouse and Mad Hatter. She and her mother chose the menu together, so there was a particular tension towards the simplicity that smaller children often insist on. This can lead towards a few gems.

Maltagliatti up close and personal

The prize this time was maltagliatti and saffron. This simple, very essential dish, was a plate of roughly diamond shaped homemade pasta in a balanced Navelli saffron béchamel-like sauce (probably based and cow milk ricotta) with slight traces of guanciale (similar to pancetta, which is similar to bacon). I didn’t get a chance to ask the waiters between as overdressed children ran in and out of the restaurant as the friends we share with Irene and her mom talked about other great meals and rebuilding plans. I’ll just have to go back.

And so will you.

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Other great simple dishes that day

L'Aquila style potato gnocchi with a light meat sauce


Great grilled meats too....

Saffron on FoodistaSaffron

Maccheroni on Foodista