Tag Archives: l’aquila

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


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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


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.


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

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


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.

Saffron on FoodistaSaffron

Arborio Rice


Artichokes are Spring

Fried, pickled, in salad or alla romana, artichokes are irresistable however they are prepared

Artichoke alla Romana! (Da Oio A Casa Mia - Testaccio)

I’ve always loved artichokes – even when I was a picky eater, who shunned vegetables, despised “wet meat” and was convinced that cookies tasted worse when they were broken. Artichokes were one of the few typically Italian foods we ate in a very un-Italian way. My mom rinsed them, cut off all but a few inches of the stalks, and boiled them in water with a couple of cloves of garlic and some lemon slices, until the stalks were tender. Then, we would strip off each leaf, dipping it into melted butter, or, if I was really lucky, a sauce made from mayonnaise, olive oil, lemon juice and dill, before scraping off the tender pulp with our teeth. It was a vegetarian equivalent to oysters on the half shell.

I’ve never seen anyone dip veggies in melted butter in Italy, although food traditions are so varied here in the dairy lands in the North of the Boot, someone might be doing it. And, dill (“aneto”) was impossible to find here until just a few years ago. I presume that the influx of people from Eastern Europe must be changing this. Come to think of it, the lack of dill must also explain why those wonderful, king-sized pickles they sold at Italian markets in the US when I was young can’t be found in Italy.

In Rome, artichokes are king. They are everywhere, especially in spring. Carciofi alla Giudea – entire deep-fried artichokes most famous in the Ghetto, and in Trastevere, but popular everywhere are among my favorite. They sure know how to use a deep-fryer in the Eternal City! Linda, my mother-in-law has a talent for artichoke wedges fried in her special batter. They are a mainstay at our Easter Monday picnics. Silvia simmers artichokes, chopped up and mixed in with potatoes, for hours. And, diced pickled artichoke can make the difference between a tuna salad sandwich and an elegant carciofo e tonno tramezzino.

If you want to capture the essence of artichokes in Rome – or anywhere, for that matter– try one of the many variations on “carciofi alla romana”. There are many recipes out there – even my friends in L’Aquila have slightly different ways of preparing them. So, once again, I’m turning to Marcella Hazan, whose cookbook The Classic Italian Cook Book, first published in the early seventies, saved my culinary life when I moved to Italy in 1989 – and many times afterwards. The following recipe – reprinted by Elaine of  “The Italian Dish” (http://italiandish.squarespace.com), one of the best Italian food blogs I’ve ever seen – is simple in both ingredients and description. I strongly suggest reading Elaine’s article before trying it. In part because she wrote a wonderful introduction to Marcella Hazan and how these artichokes were part of the perfect Roman lunch, but mostly because the photos she has included make it almost impossible to mess anything up.

Roman Style Artichokes – 4 servings

  • 4 large globe artichokes with stems attached
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped mint
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • salt, pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Bend back and snap off tough outer leaves from artichokes, pulling off enough leaves until you expose the central part of the artichoke with whiter leaves at the base.  Slice off tops and then squeeze some lemon juice over the cut parts, so they don’t turn so brown.  Using a paring knife, cut out the hairy choke inside the artichoke.  Trim the sides of the artichokes of any tough green parts.  Trim the end off stem and then, using the knife, trim the tough green outer part of the stem.  Rub with lemon.

In a bowl, combine the parsley, mint, garlic and salt and pepper.  Rub the mixture into the artichokes and over the outsides of the artichokes.  Set the artichokes, topside down with stems facing up, into a pot with a lid.  Add oil and enough water to come one third up the sides of the leaves (not the stems).

Cook over medium heat until artichokes are tender, 35 to 40 minutes.  Transfer artichokes, stems up, to a serving platter, reserving juices.  .  Let cool to warm or room temperature.  To serve, drizzle the pan juices over artichokes.”

The article and the crisp photos that walk you through it all can be found here:


In the end, carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes) are easier done than said. Most classic Italian food is much easier than you would expect; the hard part is finding the best ingredients outside of Italy.

Carciofi alla romana can be served both warm or at room temperature, as a contorno (vegetable dish) or as an antipasto.

– Joshua Lawrence

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


Artichoke on FoodistaArtichoke

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.

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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

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

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

Carnivale pastries (mostly frappe)

Carnivale pastries Saturday 2010

Gossip & Rags, Ribbons & Lies

Carnevale, yet another reason to eat in Italy

I’m still not used to the Italian holidays that don’t have a direct correspondence to those I grew up with in Wisconsin. Christmas is on my mental map, but The Feast of St. Steven (December 26th), Epiphany (January 6th), and Carnevale (the two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent) sneak up on me, even after almost 20 years.

Frappe Giovedi Grasso at the Galleria Alberto Sordi - Rome

This year I was reminded it was Giovedì Grasso (Fat Thursday) when I met my friend Franco for a drink, after work, at the Galleria Umberto Sordi in Rome. The usual plate of chips and snacks was followed by an arrangement of frappe (read on to find out) and fruit.

I am told that there is a religious importance to Carnevale, and that the Catholic Church has set aside the two weeks and two days before Lent for spiritual reflection. The truth is that in most of Italy, the sacrifice of Lent is preceded by an excuse to party. Carnevale isn’t just an Italian affair, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the best known celebration in the United States, and Carnival in Rio de Janiero usually makes the nightly news.

more and more Carnivale pastries

In Italy, the costumes and events of Venice’s Carnevale have been famous since 1296. Satiric floats are paraded out in Viareggio in Tuscany, as well as in Francavilla al Mare here in Abruzzo. The day of the festivities is sometimes different. In most places Giovedì Grasso and Martedì Grasso are big, but the traditions around Milan put the big day the Saturday after Lent begins. What is common everywhere, however, is that kids dress up in costumes and people get together and eat. Every town has a special pastry or two, ranging from special cookies to soft cream or chocolate-filled fried dough. The most amazing is the cicerchiata – a cake made from hundreds of bead-sized fried dough balls stuck together with lots of honey. And, then there are frappe.

Frappe, aka chiacchere (which means “gossip”), or cenci (“rags”), or bugie (“lies”), or galani and nastrini (“ribbons”). Like so many culinary treats in Italy, the names and exact recipes vary enormously from city to city. In essence, frappe are crunchy, fried or baked fritters, usually shaped like ribbons and covered with honey, powdered sugar or even melted chocolate.

Frappe close-up 2010

It’s not easy to watch what you eat with all these holidays. And this year, to make matters worse, Carnevale was wrapped around Valentines Day. Just add chocolate. Lots of it.

– Joshua Lawrence

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

Carnivale pastries (mostly frappe)