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Stubborn September Summer

Good Gelato Goes Well With Anytime

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

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

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

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

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

Or does it really matter?

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Mortadella Below Mount Etna

More Proof that Love is the Best Ingredient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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.

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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

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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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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