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

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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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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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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.

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

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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

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

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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

A Slice of History – Pizza Where (They Say) it All Began

Enjoying the oldest tourist trap in naples.

There are two things that Neapolitans all seem to be experts on: espresso and pizza. I have known people from Naples who brought their own tap water north to Italy’s fashion capital because they were convinced that it’s just not the same without their water.

The water idea is a bit overblown, but in the right place, I have tasted some of the best espresso in the world here (Bar Mexico in Piazza Garibaldi across from the main train station is one of the best http://wp.me/pfkhI-70 ). The real question is, can we really tell the difference between an excellent neapolitan pizza and a sublimely excellent neapolitan pizza? And if we cant’ get the best, is it really such a tragedy to settle for excellent?

Pizza at Brandi......

For some people living under the shadow of Vesuvius, it is. Which is why they frown on Brandi.

Brandi, on a side street of via Chiaia, not far from the San Carlo opera house and the Royal Palace, claims to be the place that made the first pizza named for Queen Margaret of Savoy, Italy’s queen in 1889. The “pizza margherita” is pizza at it’s most basic and essential – dough, mozzarella, tomato sauce, a drop of oil and a few basil leaves to give it the three colors of the Italian flag. Choice ingredients are one of the reasons why it can be so good: buffalo mozzarella from the town of Aversa and tomatoes gown in soil embedded with volcanic ash from Vesuvius are a large part of it. The art of the the few pizzaioli (pizza-makers) who know the exact mixture of flour the best timing for the yeast according to the weather can take whole mix over the top to pizza heaven.

Pizza and fried antipasti at Brandi, Via chiaia

Brandi, despite the history, is not considered the pinnacle of pizzerie like olther famous places like Da Michele, Starita and Sorbillo by the pizza lovers I know here.

In fact, among many it’s reputation in town is not very good. It appears for years it rested on the laurels of history and the convenience of its location and forgot the pizza part. But other friends her have reminded me they got their act together and have talented pizza makers again.

Which is good because the last time my girls were in town with me we happened to be around the corner from Brandi in Piazza Plebiscito just when our sore feet and grumbling stomachs caught up to us. It was early – only 8 p.m. – so we were able to swing the impossible on a Saturday night: the last of the eight little tables outside on the street. We ordered a plate of fried antipasti and four Pizza Margheritas. The two old men singing and serenading the guests had the place as their official territory, making their presence more friendly and less imposing and, of course, we sang along. The atmosphere was both touristy and authentic, and above all fun.

PIzza Margherita yum

Were we missing the best pizzas the world has to offer? Probably. But as we nibbled away at our our excellent pizzas in the cool evening air, we really didn’t care.


Antica Pizzeria – Ristorante Brandi, Salita S. Anna di Palazzo (on the corner of via Chiaia) http://www.brandi.it, Tel 081- 416928
Brandi dates back to 1780, but under another name.

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Mozzarella Cheese on FoodistaMozzarella Cheese


Hard White Weat

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

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

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Prosecco on FoodistaProsecco

Pizza on FoodistaPizza

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