Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Living to Eat in Italia

I’ve often heard it said that many people eat to live, but, ah, the Italians, they live to eat. I’m convinced that is true. 

In 1861, when Italy was unified into a republic, a founding father wondered how they would create Italians from all of the disparate regions and dialects that existed throughout the country. Guiseppe Garibaldi, the great general said, "It will be spaghetti, I swear to you, that will unite Italy." And so it seems that pasta was the great unifying ingredient that made Italy and Italians what they are today. *

This is a long post and it will probably only cover the first ten days of my vacation. Food was a big part of my recent Italian vacation and if you were thinking of going there, I hope this will help you decide in the positive. I'm not going to talk about EVERY meal I had, so don't worry. I could, however, go on for quite awhile writing about all of the delicious meals I enjoyed in Italy. . 

Just to summarize my trip briefly: On my own, I spent five days in Siena in the Tuscany Region and five days in Perugia in the Umbria Region, doing day trips here and there. Then I spent nine days with family hopping from Rome to Florence to Venice, and then back to Rome before our trip home.

When I think of Italy, one of the first things I think about is its food. There are antipasti, pasta, pizza, gelato, and many regional specialties developed from what is fresh and seasonally available. One of the greatest of Italian specialties is salumi. Yes, salumi, not salami.

A salumi shop in San Gimignano.
Salumi is a catchall for cured meats, including those you may have heard about like prosciutto, salami, and peperoni. Ones that may not roll off your tongue so easily are speck, culatello, pancetta, porchetta, capicollo, and guanciale, just to name a few more. One of the most notable salumi is Parma ham. I think I had a dozen different kinds of salumi in Italy. Worth every salt-infused calorie. 

Seasoning the guanciale.
Here is a Salumi Guide site on what specialties come from the various regions of Italy. On one of my tours, the Salumi, Candle, and Cheese tour by LifeItaliantStyle, we sampled the butcher’s wares as we watched him prepare guanciale, or pig jowls. It’s like bacon.

Most countries have their own culinary customs and Italy is no different. It is rare to find eggs as a feature of the standard Italian breakfast. Typically, breakfast will consist of a pastry of some type and coffee or tea. A fuller breakfast might add a selection of breads, cheeses and salumi, accompanied by fresh fruit. Your experience could differ based on where you stay.

My first evening in Italy I checked into my hotel and went to a nearby restaurant for a bite. I started off with a pecorino cheese appetizer and then had a pizza. The pizza was a little water-logged (I was told by a chef this was because they didn’t press the moisture out of the fresh mozzarella and let it sit for 15 minutes or so). The appetizer, however, was out of this world. Pecorino cheese with figs and slathered in honey. This was my top food find…I think. I’m sorry I didn’t take a picture of it. It was built up like a small Jenga tower..

As I was planning my trip and considering Italian foods I would encounter, the message that came through loud and clear was to look beyond pasta in red sauce and pizza. I also wanted to improve my kitchen skills in advance of a cooking lesson I would be taking. I was directed by a friend to see Mary Giolitti at Giolitti Deli in Annapolis, MD. 

Mary guided me to a book by Ada Boni: Italian Regional Cooking. It was last published in 1994, but I managed to find a used 1982 copy and obtained it at a reasonable price. It contains nearly 300 pages of Italian deliciousness. It covers 14 regions of Italy and the specialties attributed to each region. It helped me find some incredible meals once I finally landed in Bella Italia.
A satisfying meal.
Pasta, beans and diced potatoes in pesto.

My first tour was a small group tour with seven others to Pienza and Montepulciano. Guillermo, our guide, took us to Podere il Casale, an agritourism farm, for a great lunch. 

We started with a charcuterie board that held an array of cheeses and salumi, accompanied with crispy chunks of bread. That was followed by a plate of lentils, an eggplant dish, and greens, and then a bowl of beans, pasta and small bits of potatoes. Everything was fresh, flavorful, and delicious. Of course all of this was accompanied by l'aqua minerale (mineral water) - frizzante or naturale, and great wine. Vacation was starting off well. 

Marjorie (who was on my Siena walking tour) and
me after our dinner at La Taverna
That evening I went to the Siena Opera, arriving early but starving. They sent me to Fonte Guista Trattoria where I had another traditional Tuscan dish: Pici pasta with Cinghiale Ragu (wild boar sauce). 

Pici is a hand-rolled pasta, typically made with just flour and water, although sometimes with egg and olive oil added. With the hearty wild boar sauce, it was to die for. I ate every bit, wiping up the sauce with bread. I was a little late for the opera, so had to sit in the back. At intermission I found out the people I was seated beside were from Arlington, VA. Small world.

One of the recipes from the Boni book, credited to Tuscan origins, is Ribolitta Soup. It was born of a combination of day-old vegetable soup with crusty two-day old bread to produce a hearty meal in a bowl. It is a peasant meal, but served in many fine restaurants now, so I guess it is shrugging off its peasantry. Here Pasta Grannies - Ribolitta , you can see how to make it yourself. I had some in Siena at La Taverna del Capitano and it was delicious and filling.

Another dish that I had from Boni's book, and also at La Taverna, was Coniglio in Porchetta, which is rabbit stuffed with a shredded Parma ham mixture and prepared with fennel. It was delicious, tender, juicy, and flavorful. It was another of my favorite meals. This meal, as with several others, was finished off with limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur (I've made my own at home before). 

I had the company at La Taverna of Marjorie, a young lady from Florida, who was studying Italian in Venice and had come into Siena for the weekend. We had a great meal and great conversation. A meal with company is much better than one alone.

In fact, I came across this in my reading: 'Italian proverbs testify to the national antipathy to a table for one: "Chi mangia solo crepa solo" (Who eats alone dies alone). "Chi non mangia in compagnia è un ladro o una spia" ("Who doesn't eat with a companion is a thief or a spy"). "Chi mangia solo si strozza a ogni mollica" ("Who eats alone chokes on every bite").' * Although, playful jests, messages to take to heart. I was fortunate to find some very good company for most of my meals after that.

Viviana, me, and Simone
One of my activities was a cooking class at a Tuscan farm outside Quercegrosso, just north of Siena. The chef and I each prepared tagliatelle al ragu and tiramisù. We found it necessary to polish off a bottle of Chianti Classico while we were doing that because, well, cooking is hard work. 

It was rewarding to mix everything together for the pasta without a bowl and not get anything on the floor except a little flour. Eating what we made was even better. It was delicious. 

I had a great time spending the afternoon with Simone and his wife, Viviana, who are expecting twins in October. Uncle Dave will be waiting patiently for the news.

A truffle from our hunt
One of the highlights of my trip (there were so many) was a truffle hunt at Black Truffle Lodge outside of a little village called Pettino. My GPS signal dropped five kilometers from the meeting place, so luckily, I fell back on the map in my head and made it there OK. 

To give you an idea how remote the place is. Mack, a New Zealand emigrant who together with Francesca, his wife, run Black Truffle Lodge, has to drive their kids 3o minutes down the mountain to catch the school bus everyday, and then again go pick them up in the afternoon. It is a treacherous, winding, and steep drive. But I digress.

On a truffle hunt, the guests don't really do any truffle hunting. That is all done by dogs. The dogs are small hound size, maybe twenty five pounds. They smell out the truffles, usually in the vicinity of oak or beech trees, then dig them out and carry them to their handler. The
handler then exchanges a dog treat for the truffle, and the dog is off again. The dogs are quite active and the guest part of the hunt is to trail after them and watch where they find the truffles and try not to slide down some fairly steep points or trip over tree roots. For the most part, our group was successful.

At some signal the hunt part of the excursion was over. A scale was brought out and they measured the haul of truffles. The results of our hunt were relatively modest. We then hopped back into the vehicles and drove further up to the top of the mountain. 

While Marco, one the of the dog handlers, scrubbed up a truffle, Mack opened a couple bottles of prosecco and handed out glasses of the bubbly to everyone. Then Mack prepared an open fire and made scrambled eggs with melted pecorino cheese and sliced truffles. 
Damn, it seemed so decadent, and was it good? 
Mack, surrounded by Maremma Sheepdogs,
prepares our scrambled eggs.

It was a pretty simple thing, but I had a hard time imagining life being any better at that point. Great food and drink, wonderful company, and gorgeous scenery any way you turned. The fields were full of wildflowers. The views from there must have been up to fifty miles distant.

We still had half a day to go. 

We collected all the tableware and glasses, piled back into the vehicles, and headed back down the mountain. 

Pecorino Cheese being aged.
Black Truffle Lodge

We were to learn about salumi and cheese making, and drink some wine. Then we could watch a full meal being prepared, and help if we wanted

Another specialty from the Boni book prepared at this meal was guinea fowl. It's a small bird with delicate and delectable meat. 

Francesca made two long rolls of pasta, cut it into 1/2" slices, then poked her knife through a hole at one end and flicked her wrist. Voilà! The pasta fell in a pile on the table ready for the pot. It was amazing watching that, since it took me long minutes to unroll mine during my cooking lesson. 

Happy smiles because I helped
clear the table after lunch
Francesca making a lot of tagliatelle

Black Truffle Lodge bids us Ciao!

At my Perugia hotel, I met two ladies, Ann and Karen, from Minneapolis, MN and we went out for pizza my next to last night in Perugia. We walked a long way to one, only to find it had been closed, replaced by a parking garage. So we walked another good distance and found a hole-in-the-wall place called La Romantica in a residential part of town. It was fantastic. Other than us, it was all locals. 

It was the best pizza I ate in Italy. The crust was thin and crispy, the sauce sublimely seasoned, and the cheese perfectly melted. You couldn't have told what language we spoke because we were totally  quiet as we chomped on our pizzas +. We'd been famished after all the walking we did and it showed. 

Gnocchi in pesto sauce
with gorgonzola.
+ Just a note: unless you're in a tourist-trap part of town, each person typically orders their own 12-14" pizza. It doesn't come sliced. You won't get small plates to share it.

My last night in Perugia I ate at an outside table at Caffè di Perugia. It was a perfect spring evening, mild and clear, with the low, pleasant buzz of people in conversation and enjoying their Friday evening.

I had a glass of prosecco, then ordered this remarkable gnocchi dish accompanied by grilled vegetables. I had never had gnocchi before that seemed to melt in your mouth. This was amazing.

I also had the pleasure of meeting two young ladies from Arizona, sisters who were studying at Università per Stranieri di Perugia (University for Foreigners). We talked about our experiences in Italy and we practiced our Italian a bit.

My last day in Perugia still held some surprises. On the Salumi, Candle, and Cheese tour I mentioned
It's the candlestick maker.
A poem comes to mind.
above, we watched a candle maker ply his skills.

I made Wildflower cheese.

We learned about cheese-making and made some wildflower cheese.

Then met some of the barnyard animals that just needed to get a scratch behind the ears.

Our barnyard friends

We had a wonderful lunch (yes, another one).

One of the dishes we had was Fiori di zucca fritti, which is the flowers of zucchini, lightly battered and fried, and they are the most delicate, but tasty treats. They are sometimes stuffed with ricotta or a piece of cheese.

As the meal wound down and we drank our wine and sighed with satisfaction, our hosts brought out an exquisite cheese plate for each of us. Wow!

Italy is such a wonderful place to visit. The people are warm, friendly, and helpful. With its beautiful scenery, its culture, its art and architecture, its reverence for its religious history, it is interesting at every turn.

And then there's the food! Buon Appetito!

* La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, The World's Most Enchanting Language, by Dianne Hales