Tag Archives: italy

Tomatoes, Mozzarella and Basil, Oh My!

Datterini” tomatoes are in season in Italy!

Pomodori datterini

One of my fondest memories, of my paternal grandfather, was roaming Southwestern Wisconsin in search of “perfect” tomatoes for the first BLT of the summer. For those of you unfortunate enough to not know what a BLT is, it’s a sandwich made with bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.

Grandpa Miles, bought the bacon from a butcher in the town of Plain, the lettuce came from a grocery store, or someone’s garden –– it didn’t matter where. The bread was white and the more processed the better. But, the tomatoes had to be excellent, and locally grown. Back then, in the rural, sparsely populated Midwestern countryside, tomatoes, as most veggies like sweet corn, peppers and cucumbers were good only when they were in season and grown nearby. Come to think of it, that’s probably true today.

We had other pastimes when I visited Grandpa Miles in Lone Rock. One was fishing off of sandbars in the Wisconsin River for perch and other pan fish. The other was watching “Wheel of Fortune” –– that’s when my grandmother Genny joined us for the fun. But, finding perfect tomatoes for BLT’s is the one activity that means summer for me. Summer and tomatoes and driving from farm stand to farm stand go hand in hand in my memory.

Caprese Salad Ingredients - datterini style

Even knowing that tomatoes originated in the Americas and are relatively new to the European diet, having spread in common use in the 1800s, the variety of tomatoes in Italy is striking. Especially if you grew up, like me, with only two kinds: the baseball or softball sized, roundish tomatoes, or the smaller, cherry tomatoes. I’m still becoming aware of the varieties available here on the Boot.

When it’s hot, as it was in Pescara today, one of the great summer lunchtime fallbacks is insalata caprese – the salad named for the island of Capri, in the Gulf of Naples. An insanely simple salad, caprese consists of sliced tomatoes, alternating with sliced fresh mozzarella, a leaf of sweet basil scattered here and there, and a few lines of good extra vergine olive oil drizzled over. If you really have to, a pinch of salt, to taste, may be added. Which brings me to the tomatoes.

Silvia bought a couple of pounds of pomodori datterini, literally “date-like tomatoes,” the other day. Pomodori datterini are about the same size and shape as dates and as

Lunch today: datterini tomatoes, abruzzo mozzarella, basil, salad

intensely sweet. But, their color, flavor, and aroma are all Ferrari red. They were a great substitute for the larger varieties usually used in caprese. We added a green salad (the “soncino” variety) with a dressing of the same olive oil and balsamic vinegar from Modena. Along with a few slices of local bread, the lunch turned out to be a meal that Sofia, and I agreed, was light, filling and very, very wonderful. Grandpa Miles would have approved.

Pomodori datterini begin appearing in early summer. Buy them up.

– Joshua Lawrence

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


D&D (Datterini tomatoes & De Cecco olive oil)

Diced datterini tomatoes and basil

Grape Tomato on FoodistaGrape Tomato

Tomato on FoodistaTomato

Basil on Foodista

Mozzarella Cheese

Caprese Salad

Insalata Caprese on Foodista


E’ Nelle Piccole Cose – The Little Things

It’s in the little things – that I begin to touch what happened. Over a month has passed since we had to leave our homes at three-thirty in the morning, grabbing what we could as we rushed over the stucco flakes and other debris out of our house into the dark morning to find the hotel in front of us already down, folded like  a layer cake of cement and steel.
I have been so busy getting on with life – finding a place to stay besides our car farther and farther from home, going back for essentials – and the cat – with the firemen, getting on with work in Rome, and just getting on with life with the girls here in Montesilvano.
It’s the little things. Last night we were driving to Navelli, the family house there is in much better shape than our house in L’Aquila but the aftershocks continue and most people still sleep in tents at night. The girls missed their friends there and we needed to get some fresh clothes. A song by Irene Grandi came on the radio and we all started singing to it like in some cheesy movie and I started to cry – silently because I didn’t want them to miss a word.
The experts say that during earthquakes the best thing to do is duck under something that can protect you and wait it out. Which is impossible if you are a parent. As the floor rocked and everything shook and rattled and roared for almost half a minute, Silvia and I ran to the girl’s bedroom to get help them climb down from their beds. There’s really no room for thinking about what’s going on, being a father or a mother guides you.
A woman I saw on TV through the window of our cousin’s house (no one wanted to be inside so we watched TV from the garden), filmed in front of the pile of stones that was her house said something so simple yet full of truth.

“These are only stones, only bricks. I can put one on top of the other again. But my family and friends are the real bricks, and they are still here, and that’s what matters.”

And they are



Polar Hot Chocolate

Once again a little break away from the home office and the Rome office. A quick stop to write and think in my little book bar haunt in L’Aquila – Caffè Polar. The music is from Ray Gelato’s most recent album, a current jazz singer who’s sound seems more at place alongside Louis Prima recordings. It’s cold and humid today, my older relatives here would say c’è aria di neve, in other words the air is perfect for it to snow soon.
It’s five-fifteen in the afternoon and it’s pampering time – hot chocolate, almost as dense as pudding, with a little island of crushed coconut in the middle.
You can find excellent hot chocolate all over Italy, and sometimes it’s better. But today I like it best here.


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Soggy Noodles?

My daughter likes her breakfast cereal soggy. I think that’s gross and hope her tastes will change as she grows up; thankfully she already is food-curious for an eleven year old. Breakfast cereals are slowly becoming popular here after years of marketing by multinationals, which can even be a good thing – corn flakes are not evil. Breakfast cereals are part of our half-american household but we still usually go for dipping Italian breakfast cookies in warm milk, colored with chocolate or espresso shots according to the age of who’s dunking. But most of us would rather our cornflakes are still crunchy when we eat it. It’s the same with pasta. Think about it. It’s just more pleasurable to have something to bite into than something squishy that falls apart under your tongue. It’s called “al dente” – literally “to the tooth” because your teeth still have to deal with eating it – but Ricciolidoro (Goldilocks) would have called it “just right”. How do you tell when Ricciolidoro will finish her whole plate? Folk legend has it that you throw a strand of spaghetti on a vertical wooden cupboard and when it starts to stick it’s ready. I have tried this so you don’t have to at home. First, it has to be a simple wood surface, or it will just slide off anyway. Second, it’s really quite disgusting. When was the cupboard last cleaned? How much pasta material will stay up there and for how long? And trust the insights of the rocket scientist who tested the theory (me) that the taste of wood finish and traces of cleaning liquids and wax were not enjoyable when I was 19, and there’s no way I’m going to verify if they have gotten any better today. I mean, who dreamt that up? Gross. Basically the pasta is al dente the minute the center is cooked, and the exterior is just becoming soft enough to make the sauce stick but not so soft that it absorbs the sauce. You can actually see this moment happen. As your spaghetti boils try taking a piece out and biting into it a few minutes before the cooking time indicated on the package and look at the subtle color difference like you would count the rings of a wooden stump to identify the age of a tree. When the inside yellow disappears, it should be ready. I prefer it a bit rawer, when there’s still a pinprick sized darker core. If you’ve been eating soggy spaghetti for most of you life, try eating it the hard way.


Why Dracula can’t cook

Garlic, like anchovies and raw onions, gets a bad rap. Just because it’s smelly or fishy or salty and stays on your breath doesn’t mean it’s not scrumptious.
Peanut butter eaters shouldn’t throw stones.
Even here in Italy, a land famous for garlic and anchovy eating, these wonderful foods have their detractors. I think the detractors are clueless.
Forget about the proven health benefits of garlic for the heart and the immune system. They are part of why garlic is good, but only a small part. It’s because they are heaven.
My first garlic epiphany is still a fond memory today. My mother had just ordered a plate of baked garlic cloves with our hamburgers and steak sandwiches in a basement bar in what little was left of the Italian-Irish neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin.
I loved it.
And the bad breath? It’s only bad if you don’t like it (poor unknowing fools) and have not also eaten garlic in the same meal. The important thing is that you eat garlic together, then none of those involved will care.
I still remember a meal I cooked for my friends Erin and Bill when I first came back to Madison from Bologna in 1990. Oven-toasted rosemary potatoes, grilled sirloin with oregano and black pepper, and truffled champignon mushrooms.
Truffled mushrooms are as simple as it magical. Clean, dry and slice the mushrooms and get them ready. It’s going to be fast. Peel and crush a few cloves of garlic and get them ready. Get some good Italian olive oil up to frying temperature. Throw the garlic and turn the heat down low just before the garlic fragments turn crunchy and golden. Then slide the mushrooms and cook until they are soft, grey and have absorbed the garlic and the oil.
I like them straight up as a side dish, but they are great as an appetizer on toasted bread (with or without melted provolone cheese).
What made the dinner with Erin and Bill so memorable? The moment I tossed in the garlic in the yellow tuscan oil (yes, even back then you could find it in Madison) a mushroom cloud of garlic steam burst up and filled the studio apartment. I looked back and saw them both, noses up in the air and huge silly grins like dancing Peanuts characters in It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas.
They say blood is thicker than water, but garlic bonds.
To all my garlic brothers and sisters.


Rosemarino in the garden.

Earth and Wind

(Cinnamon Fall)

Coffee Consciousness II

Today the words “terra e vento” were printed across the chalkboard in my favorite Saturday afternoon bar, just above the names of the CDs that were playing.
“Terra e vento?” I asked the barista as I studied over the pastries.
Espresso with cinnamon. She replied. A bunch of Germans came through last week and they all ordered it. Terra e vento, (earth and wind) was their translation.
There was just a light sprinkle of cinnamon, barely enough to affect the taste of espresso in my little glass cup, but then taste wasn’t the point. It was aroma. The weather was brisk and windy, so a touch of cinnamon became the aroma that ran ahead of the coffee, awakening both senses before the coffee touched my tongue.
A newspaper later I remembered I still hadn’t had my second Saturday morning breakfast. A pane e cioccolato roll and a cappuccino, with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top.
Again the aroma raced ahead….
Neve e vento? Wind and snow?

Cinnamon on FoodistaCinnamon

Espresso Coffee on FoodistaEspresso Coffee

Blood on my hands

For two Sundays in a row we were greeted at the gate of the my family’s country home in Navelli by a tree awash with cherries. I don’t know the exact species but when you have 4 buckets of dark, fresh, organic (we do absolutely nothing to the tree) juicy cherries just two steps of a ladder up and you don’t really care about the name. I am not a born gardener or farmer, the idea of having a little farm or taking care of the garden makes me want to hide in bed. But when it’s just calling out to you like that…..

So as Emily rode her bike and chased farm cats, Sofia read under the pines and Linda cared for her wide-blossomed roses, I put on some old clothes and started picking. After about 15 minutes of plucking cherries so ripe a handful would come off without their stems, I was already taking breaks to rinse off the sugar when the stickiness started to make it hard to keep the leaves off. At the end I looked like a doctor in a Mel Brooks film.

The problem, of course, was what to do with four buckets of ripe, fresh Apennine mountain cherries. By nightfall we had already eaten enough to last us a year. A few Tupperware container full when to friends and family. This time I tried to make a marmellata (marmalade). Fania, my sister and law is the real expert on this, simple but long process of making topping for ice cream or yoghurt or to spread on toast. The original recipe calls for melting down (but not boiling) sugar in exact proportion (1lb cherries, one pound of sugar) in a few tablespoons of water. Just before the sugar starts to brown, we throw in the well-rinsed and dried cherries and bring to a slow boil, stirring periodically until the juice around the cherries no long rolls down a wooden cutting board. Fania and I prefer putting in as little as a quarter the amount of sugar (you can always add it in later), which means that the boiling process takes longer until the cherries’ own sugars kick in.

In addition to the sugar amounts, there are many variations on the theme: add cherry, or amaretto o limoncello, or spices like cinnamon.

But the important thing is that my bunch did not shed their blood in vain.


(photos of blood an roses as soon as I find the cable to downoadthem 😉