Category Archives: earthquake

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.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

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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

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Navelli, The Town That Saffron Built

Red gold, yellow joy, and what makes Milan’s most famous rice dish so special


Or Saffron Seduction

If you drive from Sulmona to L’Aquila, chances are you’ll pass through the town of Navelli, the historic heart of saffron country in the high rising around the Appennines largest mountain: Gran Sasso. Centuries as the source of some of Europe’s most prized saffron helped build L’Aquila into one of Italy most beautiful but lesser known art cities. L’Aquila is still beautiful today, although devastated and off-limits from the earthquake 18 months ago. Despite this tradition, the hair-thin red threads (the colour changes to yellow in food and dies) have only recently made it into the local culinary culture because it was too expensive for its’ growers to eat – you didn’t eat your livelyhood in these breathtaking but cold mountain valleys.

Some experts say that the variety of bulbs used, soil and specific climate help produce some of the best saffron in the world. At least everyone in Abruzzo says will tell you that – and so would Remy, the mouse chef from the movie Ratatouille if he wasn’t a fictional cartoon character.

Lo Zafferano is still probably the world’s most expensive spice, but it’s now within reach of most of our pocketbooks; the tenth of a gram (a tenth the weight of a paperclip) of powdered Navelli saffron needed for the recipe below can be yours for around ten euros if bought in locally here in L’Aquila or the surrounding midieval castle towns. If it costs much less than that, you know it’s fake.

Given this historical importance the town of Navelli – were my mother-in-law is from and where we still spend much of our summers – it’s not surprising that it’s one of the two local products featured in Navelli’s sagra (local agricultural feast). The other food is the town’s tiny but delicous mountain ceci (chick peas).

Navelli’s Pro Loco association (http://www.prolocodinavelli.it/ ) has been putting on the Sagra dei Ceci e dello Zafferano one the first weekend after Ferragosto (August 15th) for 33 years, even in the aftermath of earthquakes. And the Palio dei Asini, a send-up of Siena’s Palio where untrained donkeys run instead of trained racehorses has been a natural satirical draw for thirty years. My niece was part of the trio – boy, girl and donkey – that won this year.

While saffron helped build L’Aquila and many of internal Abruzzo’s most beautiful cities and towns, the locals never dreamt of eating it. So Italy’s the most famous saffron dish comes from the northern city of Milan. The following recipe, the one used at the Navelli’s “sagra”, is a gem for it’s simplicity and how it draws out the best from it’s ingredients.

Risotto alla Milanese – Risotto allo zafferano.

Ingredients

Risotto allo zafferano (otherwise know as Risotto alla Milanese)
500 g of rice (a little less than half a pound)
100 g of butter (about a quarter pound
1-fifth of a white onion.
50 g parmigiano reggiano, grano padano or another classic Italian grated cheese
1 envelope of saffron from L’Aquila (with a tenth of a gram of pure saffron)
a half pot of broth broth

Instructions
Dice the onion and simmer in a spoonful of butter until lightly golden, then add the rise and stir continuously as you slowly add broth. In the meantime mix the saffron in a small cup of broth. When the rice is almost done (that is, the broth is almost entirely absorbed by the rice), add the remaining butter and pour in the saffron-broth mix. Sprinkle the parmesan on top just before serving. My wife Silvia’s trick is to add a tablespoon full of the saffron liquor that Navelli’s saffron cooperative sells.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

This recipe was also included with four others on a guest post promoting George Clooney’s recent move “The American”, set mostly in some of the most beautiful corners of Abruzzo.
http://www.focusfeatures.com/article/the_cuisine_of_abruzzo?pageref=5

Saffron on FoodistaSaffron


Arborio Rice


Risotto

Little Easter – Big Meal, Italy’s Traditional Post-Easter Sunday Picnic

A feast to make you feel like you’ve died and gone to Heaven

I grew up in the United States where we celebrated Easter this way: an egg hunt in the morning, usually indoors because Wisconsin spring weather rarely cooperated; late morning Church services; and a big lunch with family. Although, I grew up in a Catholic family, I first found out about Little Easter Monday in Italy. Perhaps, because we were mostly German.

Linda's famous lasagna

Pasquetta, or Easter Monday, is, in theory, an important religious holiday. I keep forgetting why. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the day before––Easter Sunday–– but with all the lasagna, roast lamb, potatoes with fresh picked rosemary, artichokes, wine, and visits from friends and family, there’s never been time to talk about the spiritual meaning of the Monday after. I would like to know what the spiritual importance of Easter Monday is, but for years, just as I begin to recover from Easter Sunday, but before I find the energy to ask, we set out on the annual Pasquetta picnic. Or, because we are in Navelli, the area around L’Aquila, we start setting plates on the long table in the basement taverna. This is because of yet another spring snow storm. Sometimes you can ski in Abruzzo, less than two hours from Rome, deep into May

Pasquetta is Italy’s other picnic holiday, an old-world cousin of Memorial Day or Labor Day in the U.S. Grill-outs with arrosticini (http://wp.me/pfkhI-1W), local pork sausages, bruschetta (grilled bread with olive oil on top–– and diced fresh tomatoes in the summer), fried artichokes, lamb ribs, more lasagna, salami and pizza di pasqua (not really pizza but a semi-sweet traditional bread), aged pecorino cheese, and lots of wine. Pasquetta is one of those occasions when I prefer a chilled Cerasuolo, the rosé made from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes. It goes well with the slight burning of the mountain sun on your face and the wild mixture of foods.

Easter Dinner 2010, My Plate

Good rosés, like the Cerasuolo’s from Cataldi Madonna (Ofena) or Valle Reale (Popoli) are never compromises.

This year I’ll be going easy on the wine. Pasquetta 2010 falls on the eve of the first anniversary of the disastrous earthquake that hit L’Aquila and over forty surrounding towns. The earthquake that killed over 300 people and routed tens of thousands from their homes (including us). The earthquake that seriously damaged one of Italy’s largest historical centers. The center that is still l mostly off-limits to all but firefighters and work crews clearing the rubble.

Lamb, potatoes, Pasqua 2010

We will celebrate Easter and celebrate Pasquetta. We will commemorate our city and the friends and relatives and daily life we lost at 3.32 in the morning of April 6, 2009.
We want L’Aquila, which means “the Eagle” to rise up and fly again. It’s an obvious metaphor, but then it’s also obvious that L’Aquila should be rebuilt. Not just the buildings, but its economy, traditions, and community.

– Joshua Lawrence

PS: The other Italian picnic holiday, Italy’s traditional picnic per eccellenza, is Ferragosto (August 15th). Although it, too, is an important religious holiday, its spiritual significance escapes me for the same reason––I’m too busy digesting.

Carbonara is also on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

Pecorino, Why Drinking Little Sheep is Better Than Counting Them

Osteria Papavero: As Close As it Gets To Italian Dining in Madison

(a guest post from Gillian Nevers)

To celebrate our wedding anniversary, Dan and I had dinner at Osteria Papavero.

I love Papavero. It’s small, smartly lit and feels very much like a neighborhood restaurant. Eating there is the closest to eating in Italy that you can get in Madison, Wisconsin. That is probably because the Chef and owner, Francesco Mangana, was not only born in Belonga, but studied and trained there. The food is traditional Tuscan, beautifully and simply prepared, with attention paid to using ingredients produced locally.

It was our twentieth anniversary, counting from the first time we got married. We’ll celebrate our nineteenth in June, if you count from the second time. But, that’s another story.

We began our meal sharing a plate of Antipasto di Tartufo, passing up my favorite, Antipasto Misto di Verdure (vegetables are very much apparent on the menu), then moved on to the entrées. Dan ordered the Tagliatelle ai Fungi; I ordered Guancie, one of the specials, mostly because I’d never eaten beef cheeks. I was not disappointed. The house-smoked, then slowly cooked, cheek came served on top of a slice of grilled polenta, surrounded by just the right amount of red wine sauce made with a hint of balsamic vinegar. Of course, we ordered wine: Dan a red, and I a white––a 2008 Barone di Valforte Pecorino from the Abruzzo, to be exact.

Gillian Nevers near L'Aquila

Pecorino has been my wine of choice (if I can find it in Madison) since I discovered it the last time we were in L’Aquila. As was our habit, while in L’Aquila, Dan and I walked to the center before dinner, stopping for a glass of wine before meeting up with family. One evening, we stopped at La Fenice, a wine bar near the Palazzo del Governo, we had first been to with Joshua. La Fenice was also one of Joshua’s favorite haunts for morning coffee, because it had a comfy chair, more or less, hidden away, where he could read the newspaper, and the owner, Maurizio, had a large collection of old jazz tapes. It was also a well-stocked wine store. **

I asked the bartender to recommend a white, preferably on the dry side. He poured a small amount of a Pecorino, and after tasting it, I asked him to fill the glass. The full bodied white had the flavor of a blend of fresh fruits, but without the strong acidity of some Chardonnay’s. I thanked the bartender for suggesting it and attempted to make a joke by telling him it was preferable to drinking formaggio. Or, did I say it was preferable to drinking sheep? After all, a pecorino is a cheese famous in the Abruzzo. It is also a little sheep, and it is thought the Pecorino grape got its name because it was once a favorite snack of sheep as they were driven through vineyard lands on their way to lower pastures.

Whether it was because my Italian was so bad or he just didn’t think it was funny, the bartender didn’t laugh. But, he did bring us another little bowl of potato chips.

**La Fenice has been off limits since the April 6, 2009 earthquake. Maurizio, the owner is looking for a new location. When he finds one, he will need to build his wine stock from scratch. After the government opened the neighborhood to private companies, not just to fire fighters, to build the scaffolding to prop up buildings and make the streets safe, thieves broke into the bar and stole the remaining bottles of wine.

Note, if you are reading this on Facebook, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

Ostaria Papavero: http://www.osteriapapavero.net/

Wine on FoodistaWine

Eight Great Pizza Places in Italy

Joshua’s Ongoing Search for Great Italian Pizza.

If Italy is the birthplace of pizza, then Napoli is its crib. Pizza, as we know it today––a round flatbread topped with tomato sauce and cheese – was already a popular dish in Naples in 1889, when Raffaele Esposito, a local pizza maker, made one for Italy’s Queen Margherita di Savoia.   He had only to add a few petals of basil, and the Pizza Margherita was born!

It’s only natural that a food as tasty and simple as pizza would be replicated, to the extent that it can be.  Which is why pizza, in one form or another, can be found almost everywhere on this earth. I still remember skipping the organized lunch in Vilnius, Lithuania, when I was seventeen on a school exchange to the Soviet Union, to have lunch at a place with a sign that read “pizza” in Latin letters. I’m sure that the pizza I ate there, as well as much of the other food in the USSR, helped to convince me that I should study Italian and not Russian.  My friend, Emily, had a similar experience on a quest for Iceland’s best pizza joints.   My point is that wherever you travel, the best pizza is almost always in Italy.

I am not a pizza purist.  While, I do love the original Neapolitan margherita, I am also a sucker for other forms. Silvia used to joke that I had my own little via crucis of holy pizza by the slice places in town.  She was right.

Here’s a list of my favorite pizza places in Italy, from sit down to the original slice on the go (unfortunately, I have not made it to Naples in years, so we’ll have to settle for the rest of Italy – for now).  This brief list does not pretend to classify some of the best pizza I’ve enjoyed in order of greatness––comparing the classic Neapolitan margherita to fried bakery panzerotti in Milan is like comparing aged wine and beer. It is simply the beginning of a journey into Italian pizza and is destined to evolve and, more important, to grow.

Like my waistline.

1) And 2) La Bella Napoli / Vesuvius – L’Aquila 

These pizzerie, with entangled histories, were the only true pizzerie in L’Aquila for the Neapolitan pizza purists.  Vesuvio was one of the first pizzeria downtown. When it moved out to the crowded suburbs, to a place with parking, La Bella Napoli moved into its old location near the University and town hall. The only real difference between the two is size – Vesuvio is now bigger and spacious, the little rooms at La Bella Napoli made things more intimate and you felt closer to the couple who ran it. Both make exquisite pizza, with choice ingredients and crust with just the right amount of chewiness.

Vesuvio has re-opened since the earthquake (Via Australia 1, Pettino, AQ 67100, Tel 0862 313893). I have no word on La Bella Napoli, but I know its former location is completely off-limits.

3) Pizza Ciro – Roma

Pizza Margherita (foto from http://www.pizzaciro.it)

Instinctively, I resist chains, but Ciro in Rome is the best place in the Eternal City when you just want to sit down for a quick bite with friends.  The best of the chain is located next to the Sala Umberto prose theatre. The pizza here is the kind Naples is famous for, and the addition of buffalo mozzarella is worth the small surcharge. If you’ve never had mozzarella di buffalo, order a fresh ball on the side (with a basket of wood-oven baked triangles of focaccia). If it’s rained all day, and is too humid for proper yeast rising, order one of their excellent pasta dishes.  My favorite is egg pasta with zucchini, clams and pachino (cherry tomatoes).

Via della Mercede, 43-45, half way between Piazza del Popolo and the Trevi fountain, and other locations.  www.pizzaciro.it

4) Trieste – Pescara

The Trieste beach concession has been making small round pizzette for 40 years. Each pizzette is cooked in its own little saucer, connected on racks like a crazed muffin tray. These pizzette are a bit oily (local olive oil) and slightly crunchy. Ever since a friend dragged us there, from our beach umbrella a mile away, I’ve been daydreaming about it. The owners have since opened another place in the newer Portonuovo restaurant district just south of the river (open nights only). The pizzette here are as good on a blistering winter’s evening as they are after a day at the beach   Beach concessions and pizza at Lungomare Matteotti, 102, and more recently  in Corso Manthoné 27, but only after 6pm   http://www.triestepizza.com

5)  Luini – Milan

Luini is a bakery behind the historic Rinascente department store and just a few steps from La Scala and Milan’s cathedral (Duomo). The foccaccia is good, but they are most famous for their panzerotti (fried pocket pizzas). The panzerotti are delectable and quite affordable for Milan’s fashion and banking district.  But watch out, because you risk dripping sauce or cheese oil on your tie or jacket as you first bite into one. I’ve already featured them here (http://wp.me/pfkhI-v ). No place to sit down, but Piazza San. Fedele has a few concrete benches. (Via S. Radegonda 16, http://www.luini.it)

6)  Il Canguro – L’Aquila and Pescara

There are a few other great pizza by the slice places in L’Aquila, but “the Kangaroo” is the only favorite I can still find open––at least, one has re-opened in L’Aquila near the L’Aquila Est highway exit.  Luckily, there is another in Piazza Duca degli Abruzzi near my temporary home in Pescara. The pizza is like the Rome’s “pizza rustico” only, here, you pay by the slice, not by weight. Each slice has the surface area of a brick and is crispy on the bottom and slightly chewy below the toppings. In addition to their margherita, they are also known for pizza with cherry (“pachino”) tomatoes, smoked scamorza cheese, champignon mushrooms and sausage, or mozzarella, mushrooms and black truffle paste. 

7) Lo Zozzone – Rome

Lo Zozzone, great foccaccia pannini in Rome

Hidden in a side street near Piazza Navona, Zozzone is a hybrid between a sandwich shop and a pizza on the go place. They don’t really have pizza, but make all their sandwiches in front of you using freshly baked focaccia and whatever ingredients you point out. The name – literally “the big messy one” is probably because you’ll have olive oil dripping down from the sun dried tomatoes or artichoke hearts. Street food, they only have a few chairs and tables.

Via del Teatro Pace, 32 – Rome

8) Pane e Lavoro – L’Aquila

Pane e Lavoro makes the best bakery pizzetta in l’Aquila.  Round, wide as a coffee can lid, the ball of sizzled tomato sauce in the middle had just a whiff of mildly hot pepper. We made this our last stop on our way out of town for our family road trips. The bag was usually empty before we made it to the other side of the tunnel under Gran Sasso. Pane e Lavoro was the first of my old haunts to re-open after the earthquake. (http://wp.me/pfkhI-1A )

And, we’ve just started.

Why don’t you let me know about your favorites.

– Joshua Lawrence

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

Places, habits, memories

There’s a colleague I’ve been meaning to call for a while. Diego’s agency developed the visual image and promotional materials for Vinalia, an intimate restaurant with an amazing wine cellar and tasting bar that was just near Palazzo Margherita in the heart of l’Aquila. I had a lot of favorite places to eat and drink in L’Aquila, and Vinalia was where I went when I wanted something intimate, elegant and refined (and was in the mood to pay for it). Marzia Buzzanca, Vinalia’s mind, heart and soul was somehow able to transmit her rich knowledge of wine and her attention to detail, but also make you feel at ease and somehow in control. Of course she was playing with a stacked deck. It was all good. And the nights where dinners were combined with wine tastings guided by representatives of some of most renown winemakers in Italy and France became relaxed sumptuous dinner parties among friends.
I still have one of the last messages she sent out to Vinalia’s followers:

“All the bottles in the wine cellar are now on sale. Please look at the website. If you are interested please write me with what you want and where to send it now.
Please pass this on.
A big Hug”

When I started this blog, I started out with a brief piece on Vinalia, finishing with a promise to write again about what Marzia and her people were able to do. Now I have to work from blurry memory.
When I lived in Venice as a student twenty years ago I first began to feel that cities were far more than the sum of their streets and buildings and the people animating them. What counted was how you would interact with the people and places there – and your relationship with the city itself.
It’s not a question of not being able to go for wine in Vinalia or Il Bar Garibaldi or Fenice or Ju Boss, or go for an espresso at Caffé Polar or the Frattelli Nurzia. Or no longer being able to have a last minute neapolitan pizza at Bella Napoli for Friday lunch with my girls, or sneak a slice at one of a dozen different places around town, or even just reading the shared newspaper at the bar in Piazza San Pietro in front of Silvia’s university office.
The people behind what made these and other places so enjoyable are still alive and that’s what counts most. Many have already reopened bars and eateries elsewhere in town. When something this big and bad happens you discover that rebuilding your life comes naturally.
But what what was part of my life and thousands of others is gone. Thirty seconds was all it took to transform one of Italy’s lesser known but more beautiful historic centers, a place where tens of thousands of people would live, work, shop, study or just hang out with friends, into a vast, mostly inactive, construction site.
But I think my youngest daughter Emily was more eloquent. At the beginning of this Summer when she was saying goodbye to her cousin who had come to visit us at the hotel that housed and cared for us in Montesilvano. “Your are so lucky that you can go back to your everyday and habits”

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Saffron, Pancetta and Ricotta – Oh My!

It is Monday and the Saffron and Chick Pea feast is over. But just for this year. The Earthquake and the threat of rain (just a few drops) kept a few people away, but throngs of people came for the Palio degli Asini (a donkey race created as a send-up of the famous Palio di Siena horse race in that beautiful Tuscan hill-town), and, of course, for the saffron and chick pea based dishes.
This year I stuck to the saffron-based foods, having had a summer full of chick pea based dishes at my mother-in-law’s. The saffron supplì, fried balls of saffron rice, were tasty. The risotto alla milanese (rice dish made by cooking in broth and saffron) was a bit paler and more liquid than previous years.
But despite being cooked in a festival camp the Penne allo Zafferano was amazing. Once again the true Italian cooking secrets of simplicity and access to amazing ingredients won out against the adversity of mass-production. Pennette, short straight pasta similar to maccheroni were covered with a blend of fresh local ricotta cheese and saffron and simmered pancetta (similar to bacon, salt-cured but not smoked).
Great food.
On a side note, my niece daughter was in the Palio degli Asini, the donkey race that rivals the saffron as an attraction. Six teams, each with a donkey, a rider and a page (each one a boy-girl team) raced four times around a track traced out more by the crowds of laughing spectators than the plastic tape. Her donkey broke away from the pack in the last lap, only to stop a yard before the finish line and not budge. Then another did the same, stopping next to theirs, then a third, this time wandering over the finish line.
Gaia and Mario at the end of the Palio degli Asini
My niece’s ass came in second. And wee all won. Especially those of us who had the penne allo zafferano.
Gaia Palio 3
Mark your calendar for the first full weekend after the Ferragosto holiday (August 15th). See you there.