Tag Archives: abruzzo

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

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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

The Great Wild Asparagus Hunt

Or another fun thing to do among the olive trees in early spring.

I am not really fond of asparagus. It’s one of the few foods I recoiled from as a kid that’s still on my yuck list. It wasn’t the flavor that got to me–I did like nibbling off the buds– it was the mix of mush and stringiness of the stalks.

Olive trees in Navelli

Other people seem to go crazy for asparagus. Although, I would never eat it, I used to make a light asparagus and cream pizza as an antipasto for parties. The recipe was simple. I rolled out pre-made pasta sfoglia (Italian filo dough), spread a thin layer of cooking cream over it, added some diced white asparagus, and sprinkled salt and a generous grating of nutmeg on top. I baked it until the dough rose and was a light brown and the cream started to turn the same color as the nutmeg. Then, I cut it into little wedges or squares and served it.

It must have been good, because it was usually the first hor’s d’oeuvre to go.

Asparagus in the wild

Wild asparagus is another story––perhaps, because hunting for them in the underbrush below the olive trees increases the desire to eat them. But, mainly because the flavor is more delicate and, if picked early, they are too small and thin to have that icky stringiness. Just before sundown, on Easter Saturday, we made a last minute decision to go hunting for some.

Our family’s olive trees are on the hillsides overlooking the Tirino river valley. Luigi guided us, reminding Pierluigi, Fania and me of where the asparagus hide out and what they look like in the wild. With an asparagus hunting stick (to lean on, or to clear away prickly plants) I hiked up the slope, zigzagging from tree to tree, seeking out little blueish-green stems, until my jacket pocket was half full and the sun was getting dangerously low.

View from Navelli's Olive Trees and Author

The view from the olive grove was full of flavor and rich color. The slope was steep, something I hadn’t noticed during my climb up the hill, my nose in the tall grass around the base of each ancient tree. Below me, beyond the state road that twisted through the valley, more olive trees appeared as little specks in the distance below. Higher up, I could see Passo Lanciano, the mountain pass to Pescara over Gran Sasso’s lower southern arm. Sunset was imminent, and hills and slopes rolled off into the distance like watercolor waves under purple-grey clouds.

Our goal was to have asparagus on pasta that evening, either sautéed, then mixed in with grated parmesan, or as a vegetarian substitute for the guanciale or bacon in Carbonara. However, dinner was already waiting for us when we returned.

Wild Asparagus: cleaned and diced

So, we had the spoils of our wild asparagus hunt the next night in a frittata (the Italian version of an omelet).

Oh, by the way, if what you hate about commercial asparagus is the texture, one solution is to puree them in a blender after they are well cooked. Mix with a bit of oil and parmesan, and use on pasta as you would sweet basil pesto.

– Joshua Lawrence

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Almost a wild asparagus frittatta

Linda's wild asparagus frittata

Tirino Valley as seen from Navelli's olive trees April 3rd 2010

Asparagus on FoodistaAsparagus

Bread & Olive Oil, Not Just an Antipasto.

Light things can come in heavy packages

One of my favorite things that I remember Italian or Mediterranean fusion restaurants in the US serve was a plate bread and a few select olive oils as you were waiting for the antipasti (starters). I still love to watch the oil form a small puddle on a small white saucers, dip in the bread and taste different oils.

A puddle of tasty apulia olive oil - finger dipping good

The only curious thing about this good idea is that I’ve never seen it in restaurants in Italy. Well, once. But that was about ten years ago in an olive-oil themed place that had just opened in Milan. The owner got the idea after a few years working in restaurants in the US.
That is probably the only way Olive oil is not commonly served in restaurants here. But dripping good oil on good bread is still a passion of mine.
So when my friend Edoardo gave me what looked like a designer thermos and asked me to try the olive oil within, the first thing that came to mind was to soaking some freshly sliced bread with it and giving it a try.
Climate and variety does have a strong impact on the characteristics of olive oil, so when he told me it was Puglia, I had my doubts. Puglia (known as “Apulia” in English) is the heel of Italy’s boot and a major olive producer with a reputation for dense, rich, strong olive oils. Eduardo must have noticed what I was thinking because he added – “It’s not like you expect.”

A bottle of Bio Leave olive oil and an original statue by Alik Cavaliere

So last night, when I pulled it out to try with a slice of bread before dinner, I was pleased to learn he was right. This is a delicate, yellowish, lighter oil, and its low acidity made it roll smoothly over my tongue.
The name – Bio Leaf – and the packaging are unusual. I might even say courageous. But they both have a reason. “Bio” is because, as you would expect, the olives are grown and the oil is pressed using strict environmentally friendly methods. And the form and color of the bottle are to protect the oil from temperatures and the light.  It should should be available in parts of the US (for more information, try http://www.bioleafgroup.com).

By the by the way, Italians do love olive oil on bread. Silvia tells me that her after school or snack was often a slice of the rustic, dense bread L’Aquila is famous with the light, low-acidity oil from Navelli soaked in. And Sofia and I love both cleaning our salad bowl with a slice of bread. What better way to taste an excellent oil than on a great Italian bread – even the unsalted Tuscan loaf.
Much more fun than sucking it out of little cups as olive oil tasters do.

– Joshua Lawrence

Bread and Olive Oil

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Bio Leaf Olive Oil on Bread - Fresh

Bread and Olive Oil - Sunny Side Up

Olive Oil on FoodistaOlive Oil

For the Love pasta, Pecorino, Black Pepper and, Above All Rome

Cacio & Pepe – Finally

Da Oio a Casa Mia - Testaccio - Roma

It’s almost unavoidable. In most restaurants in Rome, be they tourist traps or hidden neighborhood trattorie, there are three pasta dishes you are sure to find on the menu: spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all’amatriciana, and tonnarelli cacio e pepe. The pasta used might change, but the dishes are always there.

Carbonara has been my favorite since my mother made it when I was little. L’Amatriciana is common in L’Aquila, with Maccaroni alla chitarra. Both dishes are like old friends

But, in twenty years of visiting Rome and living in Abruzzo, I have never, ever had tonnarelli cacio e pepe. Until last night.

Pierluigi and I were on another exploratory trip to the Testaccio neighborhood with our old friends Fabrizio and Manuela, who suggested “Da Oio” A Casa Mia. Luckily, a table was free.

A word of warning, I loved the place. If the word “Roman” can be used as an adjective to describe a certain way of eating out – from wine in a chipped ceramic pitcher, to the food, to the attitude of the staff, few places would fit the word as well as “Da Oio” A Casa Mia. Trattorie like this are not for everyone. A quick skimming of online reader reviews and it becomes apparent that there is no middle ground: the reviews are either filled with repulsion or with love.

Menu - Da Oio A Casa Mia - Testaccio

Places like ”Da Oio” A Casa Mia need to be taken at their terms, not yours. This does not mean that the service is rude in the strictest sense, but it does mean that if you don’t fit in, you might have to show a bit of testosterone, unless you want to be miserable through dinner and until you get home to write the bad review. So, if you’re served something you don’t want–– a bottle of mineral water just as you sit down––wave it off with a glare and things with go smoothly.

Think about it, if the food was bad, why would a place in a tiny neighborhood full of restaurants be packed on a Tuesday night? If you want fawning service, go somewhere else.

Tonarelli Cacio e Pepe - Da Oio a Casa Mia - Testaccio

Testaccio is where Rome’s main meat market once was (that building now houses a civic contemporary art museum). What better place than the meat district to try the cuts you would never dream of eating at home: marinated tongue, nervetti (veal tendons), coratella (a dry stew of chopped liver, lung and other organs). Manuella ordered nervetti and tongue and she offered me a taste. I’ve never had nervetti that were this tender. But it was the tonarelli cacio e pepe that made the night really special. Tonarelli are like bucatini, without the hole in the middle. This hearty, long pasta was coated in a thick sauce made from pecorino cheese, oil and freshly crushed black pepper. It was a dish you could sink your teeth into.

And, that’s just what we did.

“Da Oio” A Casa Mia – Via N. Galvani, 43-45 – Testaccio, Rome

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Cacio E Pepe on FoodistaCacio E Pepe

Frappe – The Martedì Grasso King

Dressing up and savouring Carnevale

Like Tim Parks, author of Italian Neighbors, I’m always a little bit jealous of my daughters and of most of the other kids growing up in Italy. One of the many reasons for this envy is that they get to experience two dress-up holidays: Halloween and Carnevale.

Carnivale pastries 2010

Halloween is a recent import to Italy, but the original Italian costume holiday is Carnevale (Carnival). The exact dates and traditions for Carnivale celebrations vary across Italy, as they vary the world over (the holiday is celebrated, mostly, in Catholic countries where romance languages are spoken). What all Carnivale celebrations have in common is a period of excess before the “going without” and piety of Lent; a day or more of eating; public celebrations; and dressing up.

Venice hosts Italy’s most famous Carnevale. Officially recognized as a public holiday since 1296, wearing masks and costumes has been big ever since. Venice’s Carnevale lasts over two weeks, with the big days stretching between Giovedì Grasso (Fat Thursday) and Martedì Grasso (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. Today, adults usually only dress up at private parties, but children still run the streets in costumes throwing confetti and foam at each-other and bystanders.

And, of course, there’s the food. Coldiretti, an Italian agriculture and food industry association estimates that this year Italians will collectively put on 14 million kilos of weight due to Carnevale food.

Most of this food comes in the form of fried dough like frittelle, puffy rings or balls of dough, many filled with egg or chocolate cream, and frappe, crunchy drier strips of fried dough. Frappe, or Italian Carnivale Fritters, go by many names: chiacchere (which means “gossip”), cenci (“rags”), bugie (“lies”), galani and nastrini (“ribbons”). Usually cut and fried in ribbons, the shapes, forms and condiments (powdered sugar, honey or chocolate) vary from city to city, home to home. In our house we love smothering them with locally produced honey.

Here’s one recipe for Frappe that was given to me by a friend. It serves four.

The dough

  • 350 grams of sifted flower (about three cups)
  • 50 grams of butter (about three and a half tablespoons)
  • 50 grams of sugar (a half cup)
  • 2 eggs.
  • 1 pinch of salt

Aromas and spices: most recipes call for a pinch of powdered vanilla (or a teaspoon of extract), and/or a few spoonfuls of rum or brandy. I’ve seen others with a touch of cinnamon

Frying oil

Powdered sugar or liquid honey

Mix the dough ingredients together until you get a smooth and elastic dough. Shape into a ball and place in the refrigerator. After an hour, take it out, roll it out as your would for thin Christmas cookies. Slice the dough into ribbons or the form you want. Heat the oil and slide the ribbons into it, one by one. Turn the Frappe immediately, so that they are cooked golden on both sides. Place them on paper towels to absorb the oil. When they are cool, dust them with powdered sugar or smother them in honey, to taste. If they are crispy enough they won’t absorb the honey.

Serve and enjoy ––with or without a mask!

PS: The most dangerous thing about frappe is that they take forever to go stale, so you keep eating them all through Lent

– Joshua Lawrence

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Carnivale pastries (mostly frappe)

Carnivale pastries Saturday 2010