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Foodies Trips to Italy 2000 - 2002

#1
By Gavin Crawford from Australia, Summer 2002
Food and restaurant reviews and recipes collected over 21 weeks traveling in Italy in 2000 and 2002.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Grazing Across Italy

Cheryl and I have enjoyed two trips to Italy. In 2000 we spent 15 weeks and in 2002 seven weeks. On both trips, we decided to only stay in accommodation with a kitchen where I could cook using produce we would buy in the local markets (vacation rentals).

We also decided to try to dine out (primarily long lunches) two to three times per week, and to collect as many Buon Ricordo plates as possible or that the airlines would allow in our carry on luggage. (Referred to as "plates" in this report.)

Our kitchens ranged from a wardrobe in our Rome apartment, with two electic elements, a frying pan and a saucepan, to fully fitted out kitchens at Rebecca's near Assisi, Carlo's in Florence and Mary's at Vellano. Cooking in most regions of Italy is based on the principles of fresh seasonal produce prepared and cooked simply, so basic kitchens offered the challenge to "keep it even simpler". Rebecca, Carlo and Mary's kitchens offered the opportunity to "practice" on the recipes I collected along the way.

The highlight in home cooking came in 2002 when Cheryl and I took over Carlo's kitchen and prepared dinner for the Nocontinis and Grillos. The Nocontinis offer the best apartment accommodation in the outer suburbs of Florence and the Grillos offer the absolutely best Alimentari in Italy. Eat their Pecorino Fresco and you won't be satisfied with pecorino fresco from anywhere else ... and Roberta's uncle's Parma proscuito cotto sliced on their 100 year old hand operated slicer (so that no heat is generated to taint the meat when slicing) ... you get the message ... I'm obsessive.

We enjoyed a long dinner late into the evening in the courtyard outside the kitchen. For the recipes, go to the Firenze pages.

Having previously buried our restaurant, pizzeria and caffe reviews and comments on produce and food in hundreds of pages of our online journal, with the recipes alphabetically at the end of our journal, I decided to extract them, edit and embellish and add recipes and organise by region.

Recipes that follow are based on the following:
PL - Pino Luongo (Barbara Raives & Angela Hederman), "A Tuscan in the Kitchen", Headline Book Publishing, London, 1988
LF - Leslie Forbes, "A Table in Tuscany", Webb&Bower, Michael Joseph, Exeter, 1985
RB - Belford et. al., "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany", Cadogan Gourmet Guides
PG - Paola Gavin, "Italian Vegeterian Cookery", Little Brown and Co
GC - Gavin Crawford, "Gavignano’s Italian Kitchen", Unpublishable, "Velano" in title signifies it was cooked at Vellano near Pescia.
CC - Cheryl Crawford (also called Ches).

In some recipes, I follow Pino’s example and there are no quantities or precise times for cooking any dishes (except for the odd one where you could end up with a disaster without precise quantities and times, and the cooking time for pasta and risotto which is a "must"). Every dish is slightly different, according to the quantities of each ingredient used. Adjust them to suit your own taste.

Cooking time? If it's meat or seafood; check it occasionally. If it's vegetables; less than more. If it's a sauce; when its the right consistency.

Finally, there are a number of recipes that are uncredited. They are recipes that I went searching for once home. They were for dishes that we had while in Italy or most closely matched meals we had while in Italy.

We hope you enjoy dipping in.

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#2
Campania

ANACAPRI
On the Isle of Capri. From our hotel on the mountain above Sorento, we took a day trip to Capri and the chair lift to the mountain above Anacapri for the most stunning views of Napoli and the Amalfi coast.

Review: Il Solitario
It was 2.30 pm, and time for lunch. I accidentally discovered "Il Solitario" down a path between two houses that vanished into the middle of houses and vine covered fences. Later we found that the Lonely Planet Guide to Italy had also discovered it. Now they featured it for pasta at L7,000. We had Lobster with Fettuccine (for two) at L50,000. I don’t think that’s what they had in mind. There were only a few diners left when we arrived. We had a beer and mineral water while they prepared the lobster, which she talked us into, saying it was the special of the day, fresh locally caught. She insisted we both give her a kiss to thank her when we had our first mouthful. Happy to oblige. The place was well and truly empty when we left.

Recipe: Lobster
  • 2 med onions, chopped
  • 2 x garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 can Italian plum tomatoes, 35 oz
  • 6 oz tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
  • 2 sprg fresh mint
  • 2 tbl salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 3/4 tsp basil
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 tsp oregano leaves
  • 3 qt water, boiling
  • 8 oz fettuccini or linguini
  • 6 x lobster tails, (8 oz, each)
Saute onion and garlic in hot oil in 4-quart Dutch oven until tender. Stir in undrained tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, mint, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, sugar, basil, red pepper and oregano. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, gradually add fettuccini/linguini and rest of salt to rapidly boiling water so water continues to boil. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender. Drain in colander and keep warm. Cut each lobster in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Add lobster and wine to tomato mixture. Cover and continue cooking, spoon sauce over lobster for 10-15 minutes, or until shells turn pink and fork tender.

To serve: Place linguine in 6 individual soup bowls; keep warm. Cook sauce, stirring frequently, 5 or more minutes, or until slightly thickened. Ladle sauce over fettuccini/linguini and lobster. Serve 6.

POSITANO
After three days at Sorento, we moved to Villa Rosa with its terrace overlooking Positano.

Review: Lo Guarracino
Sevenish, we showered and headed down through the village, window shopping our way to the beachfront, where most of the restaurants are located. You won’t find a non-tourist restaurant in Positano. Most of those clustered around the beachfront are staffed by uniformed waiters. We walked around the headland that links Spaggia Grande (the main beach in Positano proper), with Spaggia del Formillo, the adjoining beach. Right on the end of the headland, beside the path, is a round turret/castle tower. Someone has converted it into a residence, with an outside staircase from the second floor up on to the roof, which serves as their garden/sundeck. If ever I have seen anywhere that I would love to live for the rest of my life, it is in this place.

What am I talking about! I’ve given it a second thought. Provided I could have the 20 meter yacht moored just off shore, and a motor boat to get in and out of the place, fine. If I ever have to drive that road again, I’d have to think twice. (See Web Resources at the right for a link to a tower in Positano that you can rent.)

We walked just around the end of the headland to Lo Guarracino. It is up a dozen steps, and built in to the cliff face. Half the restaurant is enclosed, with plenty of glass, and is obviously the section used in winter or cooler weather. We elected to sit in the section that wraps back around toward the Spaggia Grande. It is primarily bamboo walls at the back (against the cliff face) and a bamboo ceiling. Black plastic is over the bamboo on the outside, which makes it water proof in the event of rain. Again, it illustrates that our health department and the controls they exercise over restaurants/cafes is probably excessive. Very rustic, and just what we were looking for.

We later discovered it listed in the "Lonely Planet Italy" guide (pub. 1998), recommended for past at approx L7,000. We didn’t find a pasta dish for under L10,000, most L12,000 to L16,000.

Ches had Penne with Melanzane (eggplant); very tasty. I had linguini with Gamberetti (lobster type crustaceans about the size of a large prawn. It was disappointing in that the flesh had that pulpy texture that you get with frozen seafood. For mains, Ches had pan fried Calamari tubes which were fabulous, and I had an excellent Fritto Misto. For the first time, we encountered a L6,000 charge for the bread, and a 10% service charge. All other places where we have eaten, have had these charges included in their individual dish prices, but we recalled that we had been warned. With a bottle of Mineral Water and a huge jug of the local red (which was very smooth, and went down very easily), it worked out at just under L100,000 (approx $A85.00). On a par with Leichhardt in every respect, except the view.

We enjoyed the meal with a view up and down the coast, and at 8.45, a full moon rose over the headland next down from Positano. With a cloudless sky, no wind and consequently a mirror like sea, the moon threw its light in a wide path across the surface of the water, right to our table. We didn’t have a camera. That fixed it, on leaving, we advised the owner we would return the following night. She was trying to be the bright hostess (her 17 year old son waited tables, along with Dad), but explained that her glands were all swollen (huge puffy throat and cheeks), because at this time of the year, with the arrival of humidity and heat, the hour of sea breeze that picks up at sunset, causes this reaction. Unlike Sydney, where the breeze drops at sunset, it lifts along the Amalfi coast.

The following night, we returned to Lo Guarrocino, armed with video and camera. Ches had linguini with zucchini (no flowers this time) and I the Gnocchi. Both were good. Shared a pizza. Basically a plain tomato pizza (no cheese), loaded with calamari and octopus, and still in the shells; prawns, mussels and clams. Unfortunately, the high clouds had built up during the afternoon, and there was to be no repeat performance by the full moon. What we had instead, was a luxury yacht (around 50 meters long) make the journey across the same stretch of water that the moon had traversed the previous night, and pass us around 100 meters offshore. It was the most massive craft I’ve ever seen.

A gelato on the beach back in the heart of Positano, and a leisurely walk back up the mountain.

SANTA AGATA
Top of the mountain above Sorrento.

Review: Tavola Colda de Mimi
Drove up to Sant Agata at around 8.00 pm. By now I have grown bold - no main street restaurants for us. We went down the grottiest looking street, and again up a back passage, which turned out to the main way in to a local eatery, Tavola Colda de Mimi. Primarily a take-away Pizza and Calzone and Arancini etc. Out back with a lovely tiled floor, and bamboo walls and roof, were eight or so tables. A family of Mum, Dad and miss two, a group of local kids (2 girls and five boys around 16), and a solitary local guy in his fifties, were already into it. We left it to the owner, who served two balls of rice, filled with linguini, peas, sausage pieces, hard boiled egg, an topped with rich tomato and cheese sauce. Wouldn’t have a clue what to call it, but 'twas great. With a beer and mineral water, simple and satisfying.

Recipe: Palle di Riso -- Rice Croquettes
These croquettes, which are similar to some varieties of arancini diriso, are an important component of Frienno e Magnanno, the classic Neapolitan fritto misto. They're also excellent as an antipasto, and like their Sicilian cousins make fine snack food. This recipe is drawn from Caròla Francesconi's La Cucina Napoletana, and will serve 6.

The Rice:
  • 1 (500 g) pound rice
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups (100 g) freshly grated Parmigiano
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Abundant freshly minced basil and parsley
  • Salt & pepper
The Filling:
  • A 10-gram packet of dried porcini
  • A walnut-sized chunk of onion, minced
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter for the peas
  • 2 ounces (50 grams) minced pancetta
  • 10 ounces 9250 g) shelled peas
  • 3 ounces (75 g) finely diced prosciutto
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1 fingers of a glass of white wine
  • 3 chicken livers
  • 2 tablespoons rendered lard or unsalted butter for the chicken livers
  • Salt if need be
  • 8 ounces (200 g) mozzarella
  • Bread crumbs
  • Olive oil for frying
Steep the mushrooms in boiling water for a half hour, then simmer them until cooked in the same water (for about 10 minutes). Drain them, reserving the liquid, and mince them.

Sauté the onion until light golden in the butter, then add the peas, prosciutto, tomato paste, a few tablespoons of the mushroom broth, the wine, and cook everything over a low flame until the peas are tender and the liquid has completely evaporated.

Sauté the chicken livers over a brisk flame, and then they are cooked dice them and combine them and their drippings with the peas, then simmer the entire mixture for about ten minutes. While the peas are cooling dice the mozzarella, and when the peas are cool stir it into them too, and check seasoning.

Boil the rice until it's al dente in abundant lightly salted water, drain it, cool it under running water. While this is going on melt the butter with the herbs over a very low flame (you don't want it to cook). Lightly beat the three eggs, and season them with salt and pepper. Combine eggs, rice, grated cheese and herbed butter, and mix well.

Cup your palm, moisten it, and smooth a bit of rice over it. Add some filling, fold the rice over it, and smooth everything out to make a ball. Roll the ball lightly in the bread crumbs, and repeat the process until all is used up. Fry the rice balls in abundant oil (they should float in it) until golden, drain them on absorbent paper, and serve.

Recipe: Sartu di Riso
For a large family lunch, I've regularly prepare Sartu di Riso which is kind of like a giant Arancini. Spectacular and hearty winter lunch.
  • 1 oz. dried mushrooms
  • 10 oz. medium-grain rice
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2/3 lb. ground beef
  • 5 oz. green peas
  • 2 chicken livers
  • 3 tbs. olive oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tbs. tomato-paste
  • 2 oz. Parmigiano
  • 1 1/2 qts. broth
  • breadcrumbs
  • 4 thin sausages
  • 1 large Mozzarella, diced
  • salt pepper
Reconstitute the mushrooms in lukewarm water and chop them. Prepare a ragù as follows: sauté the onion in 1 1/2 oz. oil. When the onion is soft, add the tomato paste diluted in 2 cups broth, the chopped mushrooms and the green peas, salt and pepper. Mix and cook for 2 to 3 mins. Add the crumbled sausage and let cook for 20 mins. over low heat. Remove from fire and set aside.

Combine in a bowl the ground beef, 1 egg, 1 tbs. Parmigiano, 1 tbs. breadcrumbs, salt and pepper to taste. Mix all ingredients well and make small dumplings the size of a hazelnut. Fry in the remaining oil, add to the ragù and set aside.

Pour the other half of the ragù into a large saucepan. When it starts bubbling, pour in the rice, stir well, add broth as needed and cook rice till al dente. Add 2 oz. lard (or butter), 4 tbs. Parmigiano and 2 whole eggs. Mix the ingredients well and let cool.

Sauté the chicken livers with 1 oz. of lard or butter in a small skillet. Sauté briskly for 2 to 3 mins, salt to taste and set aside.

Grease a 2 qts. mold with the remaining lard and sprinkle the bottom and sides well with breadcrumbs. Pour in about 3/4 of the risotto, pressing it against the sides and bottom of mold, leaving a well in the center. Place in it some ragù with the meat dumplings, a few chicken livers, pieces of Mozzarella and sprinkle with Parmigiano. Add more rice and repeat. Fill the inside of the rice mold only 3/4 full, cover with the remaining risotto, pressing lightly with your hands. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over the top and dot with lard or butter. Place in a pre-heated oven at 325ºF and cook for about 30 mins. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 min. To release the sartù, turn upside down onto a serving platter. Serve immediately.

Note: Sartù may be sliced with a spatula when serving.
 
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#3
Lazio

ISCHIA DI CASTRO
Far north of Lazio in the middle of nowhere.

I can't imagine anyone else stumbling upon this small town. I swear we were the only tourists they had seen in 100 years. O.K. so I'm exagerating again in that its not far from Farnese, but I'm willing to bet most people don't stop and certainly not for a meal.

We were in transit from Sorano to Rome to fly home later in the evening and it was getting late for lunch. On our map it looked like the last town before the coast that was large enough to support a restaurant. The town is most notable for the massive aqueduct that arches over the top of the piazza and the caves dug into the sides of the tuffa hills.

We drove under the aqueduct and found that while it was full of parked cars, there was no sign of life. Everyone having a nap or at lunch ... but where? We parked beside a canal outside a restaurant with no signage ... full of locals. Don't know what we ate (apart from the oxtail stew) or drank. Don't know what the restaurant was called. I do remember that it was a longer lunch than we had planned. Irrespective of what we ordered, food just kept on coming. Even when we thought we had finished, another course arrived. Very quiet conversation among locals, and such a mix of people ... tradespeople, couples, businessmen and the owner and staff would sit for a chat and friends drop in briefly for a chat.

Recipe: Oxtail Stew
A Giuseppe Alessi recipe, translated by Gianna Toni.

Part A:
  • 1 oxtail, de-fatted and cut into rounds as for “ossobuco” (get your butcher to cut it for you)
  • 2 meat stock cubes
  • 1 onion slightly crushed and stuck with 4 cloves
  • 2 carrots broken in half
  • 1 celery stalk in pieces
  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • 1 large pinch of dried basil
  • sea salt
Part B: Chop together (not too finely):
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1 carrot
  • the leaves of a small twig of rosemary
  • the leaves of a tuft of sage
  • the rind (yellow only) of ½ orange and ½ lemon
The Rest:
  • 1/2 kg peeled tomatoes
  • 1 large pinch of dried basil
  • olive oil
  • powdered cinnamon
  • salt and pepper
  • the tender heart of a celery cut into pieces
The evening before cooking, put the oxtail in a container cover with cold water and leave for the night to whiten and purge it, if possible change the water a few times or leave it under a slightly running tap.

When ready to cook put the tail in a pan with cold water and the ingredients at point A) and allow to boil slowly for 50 minutes. Cook the celery in slightly salted water for 10-12 minutes.

In the meantime in a thick bottomed stew pan and over a high heat, brown the chopped ingredients at point B) with 5-6 spoons oil until the are nut coloured, taking care that nothing sticks. When well browned, add the tomatoes blended with the basil and cook slowly for 10 minutes.

Drain the tail and put it in the pan with the sauce, stir and amalgamate well, cook slowly for 15-16 minutes covered, then add the celery pieces and finish the cooking, another 20 minutes, if it becomes dry, even though cooked slowly with a lid, add stock from the celery.

Taste before serving and adjust seasoning, then lightly sprinkle over the powdered cinnamon.

This is the Maremmana version of the "vaccinara" from Lazio. Without the previous frying of bacon and celery in the pan, instead of dispersing the flavour one obtains an incredible "lightening" of the dish, to the extent that is it admissible even to those with problems (true or imagined) of their figure or their digestion.

TERRACINA
Driving from Rome to Sorrento.

Review: Da Buffone
We drove through town looking for Da Buffone, which is on the waterfront. The guidebook is probably technically correct, in that it is in Terracina, but is really on the outskirts, so far out, you a sure you are just driving a stretch of coast between towns. We missed it originally, and when we came to a maze of new roads heading south and inland, we retraced our steps, and discovered it, literally right on the beach.

Quite a large restaurant (could probably seat 100 or so), but there was just a couple and their child sitting in one corner, and it was 1.30 pm. Eventually another elderly group arrived and later in the meal we had the enjoyment of listening to them "gum" their food.

We had a fantastic lunch. Shared a beer and mineral water. Ches had Risotto, which she said was much drier than we make, loaded with Mussels, baby clams, baby prawns and calamari. I had basically the same but with pasta. The prawns were in the shell, and I think they were probably cooked in the olive oil because they were loaded with it. Probably steamed or pan fried the shellfish, added the chopped fresh tomatoes and parsley, then the prawns and drizzled extra olive oil over the whole lot. It was brilliant, and proof that quality olive oil adds a flavour that is stunning. We followed with fresh strawberries and ice cream. In an empty restaurant, when it take them half an hour to serve your meal, you know it is being prepared fresh - no pre-cooked sauces etc.

Recipe: Spaghetti al Cartoccio
LF - "A Table in Tuscany" Recipe from Da Romano, Via Mazzini 122, Viaregio. (Unione Ristoranti del Buon Ricordo) I had something similar at Da Baffone, Via Appia km 104, Terracina.

In olive oil, saute garlic, chilli, and a selection of seafood (clams, mussels, fish, prawns), til shelfish open, prawns pink and fish white (5-10 min). Add tomatoes, basil and parsley, and saute a further 5 min.

Cook spaghetti for half the cooking time recommended. Drain and stir in with seafood.

Use an ovenproof dish. Spread out a large sheet of aluminium foil, and place the pasta seafood on it. Place another sheet over the top, and roll all four edges together so that neither juices nor steam can escape. Place in preheated oven (250c, gas 9), for five minutes or the package swells up. Serve.

Recipe: Risotto ai Frutti di Mare (Seafood Risotto)
CC - Cheryl Crawford
  • 500gm (1/2 lb) cockles or clams
  • 500gm (1/2lb) mussels
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 dried chilli pepper, crumbled
  • 2 cups short-grain rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano - Use Carnaroli, please)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 plum tomato, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 6 cups fish stock
  • 250gm (1/4 lb) cleaned squid, bodies cut into rings and tentancles halved
  • 250gm (1/4 lb) medium prawns (shrimp), shelled and deveined
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley
In a large bowl, soak the cockles and mussels in water to cover with 1 tablespoon of the salt for 30 minutes. Drain and rinse thoroughly (this is essential to get rid of sand and impurities). Place the cockles and mussels in a 2-quart pot with 1/2 cup of water and cover with a lid; cook over medium heat until they open, about 8 minutes, shaking the pot every minute or so. Remove from the heat, cool a few minutes, and shell; transfer to a bowl, discarding the shells and any unopened cockles and mussels. Strain the cooking juices in the pot through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into the bowl with the shelled cockles and mussels.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart sauté pan over a medium-high flame (a copper pan is ideal). Add the garlic and chilli; cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon and making sure that the garlic does not burn. Add the rice and cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Deglaze with the wine. When the wine has evaporated, after about 2 minutes, add the tomato; cook 5 minutes, still stirring.

Meanwhile, heat the stock in a 2-quart saucepan to just below the boiling point. Add 1/2 cup of the heated broth to the rice and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed. Continue to cook the rice, stirring constantly and adding broth by the 1/2 cup whenever the previous addition has been absorbed, for 15 minutes. Fold in the cockles and mussels, along with their reserved cooking liquid, then stir in the squid and shrimp; cook until the rice is done, about 3 more minutes, adding broth as needed (you may not need all of the broth; adding too much broth will result in a soupy rice rather than a risotto, because the rice may not have the time to absorb all of the broth before it cooks through). Season the risotto with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, fold in the butter and parsley, and serve hot.

Serves 4

TARQUINIA
Driving from Genoa to Rome.

Both Tarquinia and Ceveteri are notable for their archaeological sites, both being major Etruscan towns. Didn't arrive in Tarquinia much before midday. Did the sensible thing and took the first parking spot at the first parking area, just outside the city gates (Tarquinia used to be completely enclosed behind walls).

As we walked up the main street, which literally runs straight up the hill to its top, we fortunately missed seeing the entrance to the Archaeological Museum. Fortunately because, by walking up the main street, we discovered several great Alimentary (delicatessen) and a fruit and veggie shop. Great prices for everything; fresh asparagus at L5,500 per kilo ($5.00), and we bought a kilo. Wonderful vine ripened tomatoes, mushrooms (still with soil on the stems), fennel, pasta, olive oil, yellow pepper. Fat little Italian sausages, grand padamo, olives and Pancetta. Just have to say something about the Pancetta. It’s not hard and dry, its lovely and soft and moist, still has the rind on, and basically is a piece of solid smoked/cured bacon. Wonderful to cook with.

With time running out, and the heat of the day increasing rather dramatically, we drove around the side of the hill on which the town is perched, to the Necropolis. Some 10 tombs were open for inspection, and we visited every one. It appears that there are quite a number of others, and that exploration and restoration is continuing. Originally they were large underground rooms, carved out of the rock, with sloping ceilings to simulate a roof. All surfaces were plastered and painted with frescoes, many by Greek and other eastern artists who were commissioned by the wealthy to decorate their homes and tombs. You could see where the sarcophagi had been placed, from the square holes cut in the stone floor to take the legs. All sorts of themes, but again in the last tomb, erotica (for the next life-sounds good to me). They always had tunnels to give access to the surface of the hill, however, in preserving them, they have sealed the doorways with glass, and inside are thermostats to control the humidity and temperature. The staircase is contained within domed brick entrance rooms. Some of the frescoes were very faint, others quite fresh and vivid in their detail.

The asparagus from Tarquinia set us off on cooking and eating asparagus for as long as the season lasted in Italy. By the time we arrived in Vellano, we were addicted and were fortunate to be able to buy wild asparagus, picked at 2.00 am by a 70 year old couple in the mountains above Pesia and sold in the Pescia markets at 6.00 am.

Recipe: Asparagi alla Conchiglie di Vellano
GC - Gavin Crawford

Set large pasta shells to boil for required time. Sauté garlic in olive oil. When five minutes left for pasta to cook, add to garlic, sliced sausage, chopped asparagus stems (reserving the tips), and a good tablespoon each of chopped parsley, basil, oregano and mint, and sauté very lightly. When 30 seconds left for pasta, add the asparagus tips to the pasta, and drain together before stirring through the sauce.

Serve with Parmesan and black pepper-drizzle olive oil to taste.

Option: Add cream at the same time as asparagus stems and herbs, and delete the sausage. Use butter instead of olive oil.
 
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#4
Le Marche

ANCONA
On every trip to Italy we have planned to visit Ancona but never quite made it. Now that I have discovered this recipe, we will just have to go next time.

Recipe: Sweet Polenta Pizza: Pizza Dolce di Polenta
Recipe courtesy Mario Batali Ancona, frustenga, a sweet polenta mixed with dried figs, walnuts, and raisins.
  • 1 3/4 cups fresh ricotta
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted (And/or dried figs and walnuts)
  • 1/4 cup raisins, plumped in 1/4 to 1/2 cup white wine for 15 minutes, then drained
  • 2 cups cornmeal flour (polenta)
  • 2 tablespoon butter
Preheat the oven to 310 degrees F.

Place the ricotta in a large mixing bowl. Bit by bit; add 1 cup water, mixing well with a wooden spoon after each addition. When the ricotta is loose and creamy, add the sugar, cinnamon, pine nuts and raisins. Stir until the mixture is homogenous. As you stir, add the cornmeal flour bit by bit until completely incorporated.

Use 1 tablespoon butter to lightly grease a 9-inch (Pizza) baking pan. Pour the ricotta mixture into the pan and use the back of the wooden spoon to level the top of the filling. Dab the remaining butter across the top of the ricotta mixture. Bake until firm and golden brown, about 40 minutes. Serve immediately, cut into "pizza slices." It's not as sweet as you might imagine.....

ASCOLI PICENO
We drove over from Assisi via Norcia, did the tourist bit, ate lunch and then drove on to Montefortino for the night.

Review: Ristorante Tornasacco
Piazza del Popolo, Ascoli Piceno The Cadogan Guide recommends Ristorante Tornasacco. The Crawfords absolutely recommend Tornasaco. One of the most memorable and extensive lunches we have ever had. There was only one table of three diners when we arrived, and non from half way through our meal. As with our lunch at San Michele, it kind of detracts from the atmosphere when you dine alone, however we had a very attentive waiter who insisted on explaining every course. We had little Italian, he absolutely no English, so we only gleaned bits and pieces.

We decided to have the degustatione menu. While it looked extensive, that wasn’t the reason for ordering (after all, it didn’t list any prices). We ordered it because the full menu was so full of regional specialties that we didn’t comprehend, we decided to have "a little of everything". Wrong, it turned out to be a lot of everything.

We started with a prosecco and a small bowl of beans cooked in tomatoes with a slice of toast (crostini?). We have since been told that throughout central Italy, most begin their meal with a very small bowl of beans. The waiter then wheeled over a trolly in which three haunches of prosciutto were mounted on carving cradles. He sliced off thin slices, also sliced salamis, around 8 different types of meats, 2 cheeses, 4 different breads (focacce, rye, rosetta and a whole grain) and a bowl of marinated/pickled vegetables. Ches couldn’t handle the volume; however, I couldn’t resist and therefore showed little restraint.

Primi: Home made taglionini with a lamb ragout. Ches maintaines that after this course, my tablecloth looked like an aboriginal hand art painting. At this point I was replete.

Secondi: Fritto Misto - lamb cutlet, zucchini, eggplant, artichoke, olives stuffed with tuna, breaded and fried, and a cube of cheese and a cube of what turned out to be flour, egg and sugar, both crumbed and fried. Ches kept insisting that there was another course to come, and I was alarmed. As we discovered late, what the waiter had been miming at the beginning, was that we should only have one antipasto between us, and one secondi. Thank God!

Formaggio: Pecorino and honey with a chilled liqueur of "an ancient wine". At this point, I was sure I could taste just a hint of fennel, and the waiter beamed and responded "si, si, Finnochio".

Dolce: Crema Pinoli tart, served with vino passito and lemon delicious with vino particulare (Dulcis in Fundo '98, Marche Bianco tipica vino de "Muffe Nobile" Affide). Again we struggled with the waiter to determine the nature of this desert wine. We struggled with the language, but I picked up on "gorgonzola". Me thinks!!!! I think he meant that it is made with fruit that has turned mouldy. Could it be the "Muffe Nobile" is our "Noble Rot"? Kent’s electronic translator has just confirmed "muffa" is mould. Where am I going to buy a bottle of this? My life depends upon it! It is made in Offida, the last town we will visit tomorrow, so I will get a bottle there.

I almost forgot our wine. We had a bottle of Catellano Roso, Piceno 1998, Pharus (10 euro). I think it was actually a Piceno Superior, which is a designation for wines produced at Ripertansone, not for it being a better wine that "Piceno".

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Review: Cafe Ascolano
How should a self-respecting Ascolan lunch start? Tradition and rural memory suggest without a doubt lamb giblets, served with eggs or with tomato and hot pepper, chicken livers, but also cheese-flavoured bread accompanied by the seasonal salamis and cold cuts (de rigueur at Easter) and a plate of tender stuffed and fried olives.

Egg noodles have an important presence among the first courses, whether they are tagliatelle, fine cut spaghetti, maccheroncini di Campofilone, or chitarrine from Abruzzo. But there's no discussion over the sauce: it must be of chicken giblets.

For the menu of Friday or di vigilia, spaghetti with tuna, green olives and tomato sauce. As an alternative, the soups linked to the mountain economies, with a cereal or legume base: spelt soup, or that of lentils, or beans or egg noodles with chickpeas.

The second course, which is also the "symbol", is the fritto misto all'ascolana: stuffed olives, naturally, then fried custard, zucchini, artichokes and lamb ribs. Much appreciated is also grilled lamb, rabbit or chicken and, for Good Friday's menu, stoccafisso or baccalà with herbs and spices.

To conclude the meal, the sober coke or ciambellotto is a popular choice, with anisette flavoured pastries, the cicerchiata, the rich and caloric frustingo and fried sweet ravioli, filled with chestnuts or cream or even ricotta.

Piceno's wines from the beginning to the end: white Falerio of the Colli Ascolani, but also the autochthonous vines Pecorino and Passerina, then red Rosso Piceno and Rosso Piceno Superiore, and to conclude with a trip into archaic memory, the vino cotto, conserved in barrels, and the completely Mediterranean fascination of Anisetta and mistrà.

Recipe: Ascolan Stuffed Olive (Oliva Ripiena all'Ascolana)
Union of Restaurateurs of Ascoli Piceno
  • 1 kg. green olives
  • 200 gr. Pork
  • 100 gr. Chicken
  • 300 gr. veal or beef
  • 150 gr. Parmesan cheese
  • onion, celery, carrot
  • 1 dl. of white wine
  • 4 eggs
  • bread crumbs
  • flour
  • extra-virgin olive oil for frying
Preparation of the filling: Brown the onion with a diced carrot and celery stick in extra-virgin olive oil. Add the meat which has been cut into bits, and when it is browned, add the white wine. After it has been cooked, pass the amalgamation in a food grinder and mix three eggs into it, then add the Parmesan cheese and a pinch of nutmeg.

Preparation of the olives: Rinse the olives that have been in the brine in abundant running water, (eliminating the excess salt) make a spiral cut in the pulp beginning at the point where the pit is attached. Stuff the olives with the meat mixture and roll them in flour, the remaining egg and bread crumbs. Deep fry them in extra-virgin olive oil and serve hot.

Recipe: Fritto Misto alla Tornasacco
  • 6 lamb chops with ribs, pounded
  • 6 thin slices veal (scaloppine will work), pounded
  • 6 pieces sausage (you'll want sweet Italian pork sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces)
  • 2 artichokes
  • 2 zucchini, and 6 zucchini flowers if you like them
  • 2 carrots
  • An eggplant
  • A fennel bulb
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 2 porcini mushrooms (substitute with portabellos if need be)
  • 6 soft amaretti (purchase these made fresh from a bakery)
  • 2 apples
  • A peach (canned if need be)
  • 1 pound of sweet semolina
  • 5 or so eggs
  • Flour
  • Bread crumbs
  • Olive oil for frying (or the oil of choice)
Prepare the artichokes (see instructions if need be), quarter them, and put them in lightly acidulated water.

Slice the remaining vegetables into 1/4-inch slices, lengthwise. Peel and core the fruit and slice it too.

Cut the semolina into diamonds about an inch across.

Lightly beat the eggs. Dredge each piece of meat, vegetable, fruit, and semolina in the flour, then the egg, and finally the bread crumbs, and fry them.

Fry the pieces of sausage in the oil without dredging them.

Drain everything well on absorbent paper, arrange the pieces on a serving platter, salt them, and serve them quite hot.

FRONTINO
Hidden away in the Montefeltro of north western Marche.

Review: Biancospino Agriturismo
At 8.30 pm, we headed across country on a dirt road, looking for the local restaurant Biancospino Agriturismo where we had a booking. Federica had advised that Sunday evening was a big night out for the local families. This restaurant only serves dishes prepared with produce from their farm, and therefore is even more exclusively seasonal than most restaurants. We arrived to find a farmhouse restaurant packed to the rafters. The children had finished eating, and were playing in the adjoining fields and among the cars parked on the grass beside the main building.

As we walked along the covered veranda/patio beside the building, we noticed an empty table. Given that it was still oppressively hot, we decided to ask if we could sit outside where there was a breeze.

From here on, everything went downhill like a landslide. We stood in the doorway for several minutes. No one appeared interested. We ventured further into the dining room, and discovered another dining room adjoining the kitchen. Here was a counter. People were paying bills. We waited patiently. Waitresses moved away to the tables in this dining room and out to the veranda. We waited patiently. Eventually we snared a waitress and in pigeon explained that we had a booking, made by Federica that morning. "Si, si" she said, and pointed at a table. We indicated the veranda and asked if we could sit out there. "Si, si". To cut a very long story short, we spent close to an hour trying to get service. No one came even close to our table. Ches twice went inside to ask if we could get service or place an order. Eventually, we gave up and left.

We arrived back at Le Querce at around 10.00pm. Ten minutes later Federica came over to find out why we were home so early. She was mortified at what had happened to us and insisted on preparing us a meal. Given our late lunch and the wine, cheese and meats we had had in their cantina, we weren’t exactly starving. Eventually we realised that Federica felt so badly, that we had to let her do something for us. She brought us a fantastic bowl of fruit salad.

To this day, we still have no idea what went wrong at this little family restaurant in the hills above Frontino. Nevertheless, we had had another wonderful day in Marche.

Review: Family dinner
Several evenings later, our hosts at Le Querce invited us for dinner with their family - Federica, Antonio and Ricardo and Ludiviko. Started with a tour of Antonio's cellar. He is a somelier and very proud of his cellar and the improving quality of the wines of the district. It has only been in the last ten years or so that they have worked on improving the quality and consistency of their wines in an attempt to develop an export market. As we sampled, we carved procuitto from a whole leg on its traditional metal carving stand.

Back out on the veranda we started with procuttio and melon and slices of porcetta with a grated zucchini sauce (like a light mayonaise). Accompanied by a glass of Prosecco.

Pasta course was Linguini with pesto sauce. Ricardo's mother was a native of Genoa so he insists on the correct Genoa pesto sauce. That's the traditional basil pesto sauce with a potatoe and a handfull of green beans (string) added to the pasta for the last five minutes of cooking. The potato crumpled when stirred into the pasta and pesto giving it a grainy texture. A slab of parmigiano and the grater passed around to add your own cheese. Wonderful. Accompanied by a Verdicchio from Jesi.

Then came a platter of roasted pork ribs, quail and sausages. Accompanied by a local Marche Red.

Dolci, a fresh peach.

Once again, there is nothing quite like a family meal.

Recipe: Pesto
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed, washed and dried
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts (pignolia)
  • 1 dash salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese grated
The traditional way of making pesto is with a mortar and pestle. Start by adding basil, garlic, salt, and pine nuts to the mortar and grinding them to a paste. Pound in the cheese. Finally whisk in the oil until you have the desired consistency.

.....or.....

Add the garlic to the food processor and mince. Next, add the basil leaves, pine nuts, and a dash of salt and pepper to the bowl of the processor. While the processor is running, slowly drizzle in olive oil through the feed tube until all the ingredients are pureed. You may need to stop the processor at this point and scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula to get every mixed together. Now add Parmesan cheese and mix it into the rest of the mixture. If the pesto is too thick, add a tablespoon of water.

Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to use it. This should keep for 2 - 3 days in the fridge but freezes well if you want to keep it longer. I also keep for weeks in the refrigerator by pouring an inch of olive oil on top of the pesto in the jar.

POLLENZA / MACERATTA
A country road in Central Marche. We went on a day trip from Assisi.

Review: Gitano’s Bar-Tabacchi-Ristorante-Pizzeria
It was around 2.00pm and time to eat. As luck would have it, we pulled in at Gitano’s (Bar-Tabacchi-Ristorante Pizzeria), on the road to Macerata. Just a 1990’s building, with nothing going for it other than it is where the locals were finishing lunch, and they served me a sensational "Pollo Grigglia". I was pretty well sold on the daily special, but Ches only wanted a pizza. Problem! They don’t fire up the oven till the evening, so no pizzas. She decided on a pasta with a fagioli sauce. She said it was just O.K.

For 11 euro, I had a crostini (which we shared, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary), a pasta with wild boar sauce, that was very good, and then the grilled chicken with a side dish of peas and a little diced pancetta.

The chicken was a "maryland", with the bones exposed by slicing down one side. Flattened out, it must have had some pancetta layed over it, and was grilled in a grilling rack over charcoal. Turned often so as not to burn. I assume the olive oil was heated with herbs and poured over at the end, plus the usual salt. Just sensational. Here was the grill to match Ches’s usual "Agnello Griglia".

At the time, I tried to analyse how it might have been prepared, so as to record it all faithfully. As I fell behind in my journal writing, I assumed that I could get all the information from Cheryl’s diary. Guess what? If she doesn’t have a good meal, she just doesn’t record anything, so here I am trying to reconstruct a meal from three weeks ago. Thanks Chessie. Actually, she is no longer Chessie. What with her skills as a navigator on this trip, she is now "Pigg" as in pigeone.

Recipe: Lemon-Rosemary Chicken
  • 1 (3 1/2 pound) chicken, cut up
  • 3 large lemons
  • slices of fatty pancetta
  • 1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup fresh rosemary or 3 tablespoon dried rosemary
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • Rosemary sprigs
  • Lemon wedges
  • Salt and pepper
Remove and discard excess fat from chicken. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Cut lemons in half and squeeze juice to make 3/4 cup. Combine squeezed lemon shells, lemon juice, oil, the 1/2 cup rosemary and garlic in a large heavy-duty plastic bag or nonreactive bowl. Add chicken and seal bag (or cover bowl). Rotate bag to distribute marinade and place in a shallow pan. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or until the next day, turning chicken occasionally.

Remove chicken from bag, reserving marinade. Arrange chicken, bone side done in center of cooking grate of BBQ and drape pancetta over each piece of chickedn. Cook, brushing occasionally with reserved marinade, until meat near bone is no longer pink (30 to 35 minutes for breasts, 35 to 45 minutes for thighs and drumsticks; cut to test).

Transfer chicken to a platter or individual plates. Garnish with rosemary sprigs and lemon wedges. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

PORTO RECANATI
Macerata

Review: Ristorante Torcoletto
We drove for two hours to have lunch at Torcoletto, and 2 hours back home to Frontino, and it was worth the trip.

Fabio e Beatrice Crostelli. "Torcoletto" was the nickname of the owner who in the 1940's made the restaurant popular as a successful "trattoria" specialising in Marche regional dishes, particularly seafood.

As best as I can deduce, this is a family business that has been relocated from the old village to a new building on the beach. A stretch of beach came with the purchase, hence naming it Torcoletto Beach. I think Beatrice was the daughter, and became the chef, while Dad took over the management of the private beach. In the last couple of years, Beatrice has married her business partner Fabio, and they have also employed a Japanese chef. This is all based on piecing together bits and pieces from the net, and restaurant guides written in Italian that I have attempted to read. I may not have the entire family configuration correct.

We had a booking. It wasn't necessary. As we entered the restaurant, we passed through a bar area, with couches and armchairs, and most of the family were gathered there, watching Germany vs. South Korea. The restaurant has floor to ceiling glass walls on all three of the sea sides. To the north, a fairly dramatic headland at the end of a kilometre or so of sandy beach, and to the south, the beach stretches down past the original town. A strong onshore breeze whipped up plenty of whitcaps, and therefore there were few bathers on the beach and the curtains had been knotted to stop them blowing around. The white baby grand stood in the corner beyond the bar, and the dining tables were set up in an L shaped space around the other side of the bar.

We were the first to arrive, and were seated at a table beside the windows on the southern side, but chose to sit to take advantage of the view across the restaurant and out through the front glass walls to the headland at the end of the beach.

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To quote Cheryl’s diary entry with minimal editorial comment: "Had a superb meal that was not the least heavy; nouvelle cuisine (smallish portions) but very fresh and tasty. A glass of Prosecco with a bowl of tiny cannalini beans topped with stunningly fresh prawns, still tasted of the sea. Wine: Cambrugiano Reserves Verdicchio di Matelica 'Bellisario' 1999 - absolutely sensational. Gavin had mussels and vongole served in a copper pan-whole garlic cloves, wine/stock, a little olive oil. The freshest, most tender, mussels ever!!!! Ches had involtini of eggplant (mellanzini) and fish in a fabulous pink/orange sauce-fish stock? At this point a lifeguard joins the table of young staff having their lunch. One of them licks his knife clean. The lifeguard is in his speedo bathing suit, bulging crotch but with a T-shirt for a bit of decorum. He sits there sucking on an icypole (iceblock). Loverly background music is competing with the world cup soccer on the TV set in the bar area. Germany vs. South Korea. Gavin then had the "plate" dish; Frog Fish. A large fillet cross hatched like calamari, lightly floured and fried with olives, diced tomatoes, and rosemary. Federica (our landlady) later explained that Frog Fish is becoming rare (now I feel guilty). It is kind of like a stingray (or maybe Monkfish?) and black. That explains why it is kind of like the flesh of a lobster in that it isn’t flaky but solid meat. That also explains the decoration on the plate which shows a frogs head attached to a fishes body, Cheryl had lightly floured and fried fillets of fish served with diced porcini mushrooms and potatoes, finished with a little oil and stock. Very firm white flesh-delicious. We decided on desert as the meal hadn’t been particularly heavy. Gavin went with the tiramasu with chocolate and pine nuts; pretty good. Cheryl opted for the white chocolate baverese hoping it would be up to the standard of the one at Il Vecchio Mulino (near Voltera). It was disappointing. (At this point, I, Gavin, must interrupt with an editorial note. No one anywhere will ever match the white chocolate baverese at Il Vecchio Mulino. It may just be the absolute best desert anywhere in the world.) Gavin’s coffee arrived with a plate of vanilla and chocolate chequered petit four. He promptly emptied his espresso all over the table and chair but miraculously avoided his lap. Called for a replacement and then took a looooong walk on the beach. As we walked the beach, we came across chef Beatrice asleep on a lounge under an umbrella. She had previously fallen asleep on the lounge in front of the T.V.

Recipe: Muscioli alla Recanati
Mussels and Vongole marinated with lemon, olive oil, garlic, parsley and trebbiano, then sauteed till the shells open. Keep it simple.

SAN LEO
Mountainous northern Marche. On a day trip from Frontino.

Review: Osteria La Corte
It was well and truly lunchtime. We walked past a restaurant Osteria La Corte, where several tables were occupied outside. We checked out the piazza itself, and only a bar restaurant was open and it didn’t seem as cool as La Corte, where a breeze was nice and consistent. Within half an hour, by 2.00 pm, there wasn’t a vacant table, and we had an excellent meal, and the best rabbit I have ever eaten.

For starters we had crostini. One a traditional tomato which was o.k. and the other a coarse liver pate which was excellent. Ches had a tagliolini with porcini sauce. The porcini was fresh and plump, not reconstituted dried porcini. I had Coniglio al Finocchio Selvatico. Rabbit stuffed under the skin and in its cavity with wild fennel. Very moist white flesh, wonderful aroma and flavour of fennel. A side platter of grilled vegetables, with a scattering of finely chopped "bitter" greens and olive oil. Absolutely the best rabbit of all time. By pure chance, the bill was delivered inserted in a business card folded in half. On the inside was a copy of the recipe for the rabbit, which is the specialty of the house. Bill and Lee, I have delivered on my promise to find another rabbit recipe in Italy.

On the point about the bill, it is now fairly common for it to be delivered in a business card. The card is twice the size of a normal business card, and folded in half. Because it is a legal requirement to leave with a receipt, you are expected to take the bill and card, and just leave the payment on the plate (or present your credit card).

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Recipe: Sauteed Rabbit Loin with Braised Fennel
  • 4 boneless rabbit loins with flap intact
  • 1 c cold water
  • 1/2 c red wine vinegar
  • 2 TB salt
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 4 TB pure olive oil
  • 1 lg bulb fennel (about 1 pound) core removed and sliced into 1/4-inch batonette
  • 1 md Spanish onion
  • 1 TB fennel seeds
  • 1/2 c basic tomato sauce
  • 1/2 c dry white wine
  • 1/2 c balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 sl day old bread
  • 1/4 c white wine vinegar
  • 1 c parsley sprigs
  • 2 TB capers, drained and rinsed
  • 1 clove garlic, -- thinly sliced
  • 1/2 c cooked and chopped spinach
  • 1 TB chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 TB chopped fennel fronds
  • 1 c extra virgin olive oil
Rinse and pat dry rabbit loins. In a mixing bowl, stir together cold water, vinegar, salt and peppercorns. Place rabbit loins in liquid and allow to stand 1 hour. Remove rabbit from brine and pat dry.

In a 12- to 14-inch heavy bottomed saute pan, heat 4tablespoons olive oil until smoking. Season rabbit pieces with salt and pepper and saute until golden brown on both sides, about 6 to 7 minutes. Remove rabbit pieces and set aside. Add fennel, onion and fennel seeds and cook until soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add tomato sauce, wine and balsamic vinegar and bring to a boil. Place rabbit pieces in pan and simmer 15 minutes uncovered.

Meanwhile, make salsa verde. Soak bread in white wine vinegar about 2 minutes. Remove bread from vinegar and squeeze dry. Place in food processor with parsley, capers, garlic, spinach, thyme, fennel fronds and extra virgin olive oil. Blend 30 seconds until smooth and set aside. Remove cooked rabbit pieces from sauce and arrange on a serving platter. Top with fennel sauce mixture, drizzle with salsa verde and serve immediately.

SASSOFERATO
Mountain country Marche.

We walked through the original town gates at the end of the piazza, through the trees and onto a path that lead to a heavilly wooded parkland. In among the trees, we discovered the Rocca di Albanoza. It still looks to be in reasonable condition, but the trees enclosing it are so thick, it is impossible to take it all in from one vantage point.

Around the far side, we realised that we were on the other side of the palazzo, and that the buildings were being restored and backed into a gothic Franciscan church. The smartest building in this part of town is the restaurant, and even though it was only 12.15 pm, we decided to lunch.

Review: Local restaurant
I’d love to have stumbled on something special but sad to say, it was a major dissappointment. It showed so much promise. We sat out in the side verandah. It has been glassed in, but has large windows which allowed us some cooling breeze. We were joined by three others at the table along side. A couple our age, and mother, and surrogate child (little dog) which she placed on the chair beside her. The dog was feeling the heat and just flaked. The chap had sun glasses fitted over his regular glasses. He just flipped them up and ate his entire meal with these lenses looking like John Howards eyebrows. Most disconserting.

The waiter would have preferred that we hadn't come for lunch. He had the grand prix on TV in the main dining room (right beside us), and while I could have lived with this awful habbit of restaurants with TV.s, surely he could have watched the race with the volume either off or right down. The noise was so loud, I think the race was being run out in the carpark. Maybe the TV was just there for the world cup.

Then there was the food. I was getting brave after my great experience with the grilled chicken in Marche, and Ches success with Agnello griglia everywhere she orders it. She selected the grilled lamb, I the grilled pork chops. Think about it, lambs only come in spring, they are small and fairly expensive, but Ches is always served a plate full of them. Pork is pretty much the national stable diet, there are masses of them and they are inexpensive. Please explain how come Ches was served a loin chop, a large chop and a cutlet, and I was served one miserable pork chop sitting all alone in the middle of my plate. The appetizers were equally dissapointing with the melon and proscuito hard to get wrong, but the most insipid crostini. The potatoes accompanying the mains were okay, but the salad was lettuce and tomato. They should be ashamed to call themselves Italian. The meats were excellent, but too small a portion to satisfy.

Recipe: Agnello Scottadito
Scottadito means finger-blistering; they're so good you'll not want to wait for them to cool.
  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) of baby lamb chops
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1-2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 juniper berries
  • 2-3 peppercorns
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 lemons, cut into wedges
  • Salt and pepper
Combine the oil and wine in a bowl. Crush the berries and garlic, and tear the bay leaf. Combine them with the lemon wedges and the oil-and-wine mixture, and marinate the lamb for at least 12 hours, turning the pieces occasionally.

Cook the lamb chops over a brisk flame, or grill them until done, seasoning them with salt when cooked.

URBINO
We had already struck up a conversation with Kathleen and Ken. Kathleen had heard us speeking English, and approached us with a question, "Do you think it would be worth staying in Urbino another day?" They asked the wrong person, and I launched into a marketing pitch on behalf of Marche.

As we moved from room to room in the museum, we kept coming together and the conversation continued. Try as they might, they couldn’t shake us off. Even after a detour downstairs into the cellar (which was closed), we again met up in the piazza outside.

Review: Al Cantuccio
Kathleen had visited Urbino 30 years previously, as a student. She remembered a restaurant that had been popular with Urbino’s university students, and without a map, was trying to decide which side street to try first. We asked if we might tag along, and set off down the street beside the information office. Several streets down and a left turn, there it was, "Al Cantuccio", at Via. F. Budassi, 62. It was now closer to 2.00 than 1.30 pm, and while they were serving the last of their customers desert, they agreed to allow us in. Big mistake, we were hot and hungry and it was a furnace outside.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch, and became conscious after one and a half hours, that the staff were waiting patiently to close. While I can’t remember much about the food, other than that Ches’s grilled vegetables were sensational, and that we all tried something off each others plates, I do recall that it was excellent value for money at around 11 euros a head (we didn’t have any wine).

The company and conversation was more memorable. Kathleen is a lecturer in adult education at Berkley and has contacts at University of Technology in Sydney. She is also the author of several books, and coincidentally published with a company now recently acquired by my old company, Pearson (Prentice-Hall). She was concerned that she might not receive the support she is used to, given that her book will now be swamped by the mass of product at Pearson. Ken is an engineer, who Kathleen teased with "How do you torture an engineer? Tie him up and place an incorrectly folded map in front of him".

Lots of laughter and animated discussion of US politics etc. Orta bear joined us at the table for a photograph as I sat on Kathleen’s knees. I think it was only when we asked the waitress to take the photograph that we realised how patiently they were waiting for us to leave. Outside, we continued to chat. Students appeared at windows to sneak a look at the noisy tourists in the street below, and a local dog stood bemused on the sill of a window above the staircase. Eventually we moved back to Piazza della Repubblica, bought gellato and sat on the steps in the shade.

There didn’t seem to be much activity at the antiques stands and I mentioned that we had hoped to buy a "lion" doorknocker. I must have photographed a hundred doorknockers on this trip, and decided that our door at home would look excellent with a lions head knocker. We strolled around the stands, and eventually found one for sale. I went into shock, 180 euros. I figured $aus360.00 and an excess baggage bill for three killos or so was beyond us.

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#5
Liguria

BORGIO VIAREGIO
Sandra Rembado has been a regular contributor to Wandering Italy for many years, and I have always appreciated her advise and the assistance she has provided to people planning their holidays. We had planned on a mercy dash, with supplies of Violet Crumble and Jaffas, to her home at Borgio Varezzi. I was about to write that she is an Australian, however, after 40 years in Italy, she would probably dispute this.

Eventually we arrived at her gate, to a hand written sign to either just come on in or knock really loud.

Sandra had given up on us. We hadn't followed instructions to ring, and it was now after 12.00, so she assumed we weren't coming. We hadn't appreciated that she had gone to so much trouble to prepare us lunch, and had planned on showing us the woods behind the village and the Roman bridges, hidden away inland. Out came a wonderful Ligurian lunch, and as it was drizzling with rain and the clouds would close in on the coast every so often, we ate in her dining room. The feature dish was veal with tuna sauce. Nothing quite like a special dish like this home cooked.

In her emails, Sandra had said that they lived in a small converted shed (or some such description). Still being modified, they have a wonderful two story "cottage", with large verandas on both levels. Unfortunately the old grape vines on the top (bedroom) level have just died, however the living room level will be well shaded in summer. Both look out across the coast, and on a very clear day, Corsica is visible over 100 km away.

The coast itself has been overwhelmed in the past forty years. Every valley which used to have its own village, now has a sprawl of apartment blocks that has joined together to form what looks like one large city that extends from Finale Liguria up the coast for 10 km or so. Sandra explained that it had become popular for holidays for Northern Europeans and the large populations in Milano and Torino. Being only 3 hours from Milano and Torino, and 6 hours from Munich, it was the closest coastal resort.

Actually, not a resort. Not hotels and holiday entertainments, just blocks and blocks of apartments and beaches packed with rental deck chairs. Not much in the way of employment servicing the holidaymakers, seasonal when it does exist, and not much effort to make the buildings look attractive, so of no real benefit to the locals, they just have to put up with the hoards of holiday makers who choke their streets and swarm up the mountainside in the hot weather. Sandra's comment many months ago, about raising the drawbridge and withdrawing in summer, are now more significant.

Recipe: Vitello Tonnato
This recipe is from Fabbri Editore's "Il Manuale delle Carni".

To serve 6-8 you will need:
  • 2 1/4 pounds boned veal, cut from the rump.
  • 3/4 pounds tuna packed in oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 6 salted anchovies (the canned variety, sold by delicatessens)
  • A handful of pickled capers
  • 1/2 cup (approx.) olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • A bottle of dry white wine
  • The juice of a lemon
  • A rib of celery, thinly sliced crosswise
  • A few leaves of sage
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 cloves (some people omit these)
  • Salt
  • A few more perfect capers, some lemon slices, and sprigs of parsley for garnishing
Put the meat in a bowl with the bay leaves, cloves, sage and celery, and pour the wine over it. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours, turning the meat occasionally. The next day place the meat in a Dutch oven. Strain the wine and add it to the meat, then add enough water to cover. Lightly salt the pot and simmer the meat for an hour. In the meantime, wash, scale and bone the anchovies. When the hour is up add them to the pot and continue boiling for another half hour; the liquid should be reduced by half.

Hard boil the eggs, run them under cold water, peel them, and extract the yolks (you can discard or fill the whites as you prefer). Rinse, squeeze dry, and mince the capers.

When the meat is fork-tender remove it from the pot and strain the broth into a bowl. Transfer the fish filets to a clean strainer and press them through it, together with the tuna and the yolks, into another bowl. Stir in the minced capers, the vinegar, the lemon juice and the olive oil, and then dilute the sauce to your taste with some of the reserved broth.

When the veal has cooled slice it finely and lay the slices out on one or more platters (you want just one layer). Spread the sauce over the meat, garnish the platters with the lemon slices, capers and parsley. Cover them with plastic wrap and chill them in the refrigerator before serving.

PORTOFINO
Driving from Paris to Rome we stopped of in Rapallo for the night. One glimpse of the coast and we decided to stay on for a day and the next morning took the ferry to Portofino. Only sampled the sights and gelato but, this recipe seems appropriate for a very classy village.

Recipe: Lemon-Soaked Anchovies (Acciughe Marinate al Limone)
Called Ammiraglia in Liguria, this simple antipasto calls for fresh anchovies, not salted or oil-preserved ones. Since the anchovies will only be "cooked" by the lemon juice and salt, be sure they are impeccably fresh.
  • 1 and 1/2 pounds fresh anchovies
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • juice of 3 lemons
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley (optional)
Remove the heads from the anchovies, bone them, gut them, and cut off their fins. Rinse the anchovies under cool running water; thoroughly blot them dry.

Arrange the anchovies in a single layer in a wide, shallow dish and sprinkle them with the salt. Pour the lemon juice and olive oil over the anchovies, and set aside in the refrigerator for 1 to 3 hours. Sprinkle the anchovies with the pepper and the parsley, if using, and serve with crusty bread

RAPALLO
We walked the waterfront at Rapallo several times before settling on a bistro for a light dinner.

Review: Vesuvius Pizzeria
Vesuvius Pizzeria is more bistro/restaurant than a Pizza joint. The headwaiter worked us very well. We ordered a Seafood Risotto, which had to be ordered for two, and which cost significantly more per head than most other dishes on the menu. We had this with a beer, and a half carafe of the house red. Good but not great risotto, and when we thanked the waiter, he made a big deal about something special. The word "birra" kept coming up, and Ches suggested that he wanted to serve me a special beer. After waiting another 15 min., we twigged that it was another dish. Probably cooked in beer. Swordfish steak in a tomato sauce, with a large claw from an unidentifiable crustacean. Again fine, but nothing special.

Recipe: Grilled Swordfish Steak And Tomato-Basil Sauce "en Cartoccio"
Makes 4

Ingredients: For the Swordfish 4 each
  • 5 oz Swordfish Steaks
  • 2 oz Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 each Lemon washed thoroughly
  • 1 Tblsp Picked Thyme
  • Salt, Pepper
For the Tomato Basil Sauce "en Cartoccio"
  • 16 oz Yellow Wine Ripe Tomatoes
  • 10 oz Red Tear Drop or Cherry Tomatoes
  • 2 oz shaved Red Onions
  • 1 oz Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2 cloves Garlic shaved
  • 2 Tblsp White Wine , Sauvignon Blanc
  • 1/4 cup Chopped Basil
  • 5 oz Zucchini cut in Rounds
  • Salt, Pepper, Chili Flakes
  • 2 sheets Aluminum Foil
Garnish
  • 1 Tblsp Toasted Pine Nuts
  • 4 Each Thinly Sliced Bread
  • Croutons
  • Basil Oil
  • Sea Salt
  • Fresh Basil
Method: For the Swordfish Place the steaks in a deep plate and grate the yellow rind of a washed lemon over it. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil, and season with the thyme, salt & pepper. Make sure both sides are evenly marinated. The fish should be nicely covered with oil not sit in a pool of it. Let marinade for a few minutes until grill is hot.

In the meantime remove the core from the yellow tomato and cut a cross in the skin. Quickly blanch in boiling water for approx 10 seconds and shock under cold running water. Peel off the skin and discard. Cut the peeled tomatoes into 8 pieces each.

Cut the small teardrop/cherry tomatoes into halves. Spread out the first sheet of aluminum foil on the table and place the tomatoes in the center.

Sprinkle the shaved red onions, chopped basil, as well as the shaved garlic & zucchini on top and season with salt, pepper, and chili flakes.

Add the white wine and place the second sheet of aluminum foil over the ingredients.

Seal the small package by carefully folding over every single side tightly so no air can escape.

Start grilling the swordfish steaks on the hot grill or BBQ the same as a steak, cross marking it on the griddle. At the same time, place the "Cartoccio" pouch next to the fish on the grill.

Cook each side of the swordfish for approx. 4 minutes to medium rare.

During this time, the aluminum pouch will blow up like a balloon and it's ingredients will be cooked.

Plating: You can plate this dish either individually on plates , or on a platter. Cut the pouch open using scissors , be careful not to burn yourself as a lot of steam will escape. Place the sauce in the center of a deep plate using a ladle or soup spoon. Cut the swordfish steak on an angle and set on top. Garnish the dish with a thin crouton, pine nuts, fresh basil, basil oil, and some sea salt.

VERNAZZA
One of the Cinque Terre villages.

From Vellano, north of Pescia, we made a day trip to the Cinque Terre. We drove to La Spezia and then took the train to Monterosso and used the ferries to work our way back down the coast.

Ches and I sat for about half an hour beside the breakwater at Vernazza, taking in the passing parade. I then decided that as we were to be here for about three hours, I would walk up onto the cliff face on the path leading to Corniglia. Leaving Ches on a bench seat, on the pathway from the boatramp to the breakwater, I set out up the path to the right of the village. Immediatly I found myself in a wide street that runs around behind all the buildings on the foreshore. It is lined with shops, both touristico, and useful. By that I mean there are at least two gelataria, as well as alementari, fruit and vegetable stores etc. It also leads up to the railway station, where, as I approached, I discovered a sign pointing off to the right and up, indicating the path to Corniglia.

I had barely climbed above the roof level of the houses at the bottom of the village, before the houses built into the cliff face had what small plots of land that were available terraced to level them off, and planted with tomatoes and other vegies for the kitchen. I continued to climb. I began to pause and look at the view of the town below. I continued to climb. I continued to pause. I stopped giving commentary on the video, but you can hear me panting. As it transpires, (as I perspired, in 30 degree plus temperatures), this could be the steepest climb on the entire length of the Cinque Terre.

Once you reach the path that leads around the cliff to Corniglia, it remains at that height almost the rest of the way to Riomagigiore. This is because Corniglia is way above the sea, and Manarola, once you descend into the town is at the same height as Riomaggiore.

I met a couple of Northern Eurpoeans in their early fifties, at the top of the staircase, as I was returning at about 12.45 pm. They had already walked from Monterosso to Vernazza. When we arrived at Riomagiore at 3.30 pm, they were just coming down the path. By my estimates, they walked the length of the Cinque Terre in about four and a half hours. I can’t imagine they had much time to stop and smell the flowers (or more importantly, taste the gelato). Cheryl says I wear my stomach on my sleeve.

Anyway, I hadn’t yet met them. I had just reached the top of the steps. I was amazed, between gasps for breath, when I noticed a movement behind some green shade cloth, that was wrapped around posts on the side of the cliff, and discovered that it was a chicken pen. I assume that the sun and wind must be so extreme, that they have to be permanently enclosed in these pens. Either that, or they suffer from a degree of vertigo as severe as my own. Like, I wouldn’t even go in to collect the eggs. As Ches just said, "where else are they supposed to keep them, they would fall off the cliff". I could learn to live without eggs. There are alternatives to Spaghetti Carbonara. But I digress! Again!!!

Faboulous views up and down the coast from this path. As you are just leaving Vernazza, there are views down into the village itself, and up the coast to Monterosso and beyond. Facing south, the views are primarily of the Mediterranean and the terraced cliff faces, until you have completed a gradual climb along the path for about five hundred metres (or a thousand). From here you can see to Cornigla, which is perched high above the sea. I walked this far, but had to turn back as I was due to meet Ches at 1.00 pm for lunch. I stripped off my shirt which was pretty wet, and exposed a gross body to the young hikers as I retraced my steps to the top of the staircase down to Vernazza.

Right at the top of the staircase, I discovered a restaurant which had views down into the town and up the coast to Monterosso. I decided this was where we had to have lunch. Half way down the steps, I discovered that there was a shortcut into the village. A very steep staircase lead down through cottages, many of which appear to have been converted into small apartments for tourists. It comes out in the village, midway around the street that runs in back of the foreshore.

Ches was still sitting where I had left her. She said she had spent half an hour looking at the path on the cliff face for me when I left, and had become worried when I never appeared. She had been looking at the path back to Monterosso, not on to Corniglia. I made up for it, by hauling her to the top of the staircase to the restaurant I had discovered.

Review: Restaurant in Vernazza
The dining area is a terrace, shaded by about a dozen large beach umbrellas held together by wires stretched over them. Very rustic. The four regular tables with the best views were already occupied, so we elected to sit at a log table and tressle seat just inside the entrance. We had to sit side by side, and balance our glasses on the rough surface, but we had a view that wll be hard to beat anywhere. We looked down into the village, and along its seaward side to the garden terraces of the "smarter" residences, and the round stone castle tower on the end of the spit. The garden terraces had lawns with deck chairs, and below them was a grotto that cuts through the cliff into the back street of the village. Further up the coast were the two huge luxury cruisers moored offshore, and Monterosso.

We shared an extremely large plate of Bruschetta. It was without doubt, and by a country mile, the best Bruschetta we have ever eaten. The bread had been fried crisp in olive oil and garlic, and we piled tomatoes and basil on top. We then shared an enormous terracotta bowl of mussles (cooked in white wine, tomatoes and parsley) and another of Penne and Shrimp. Again washed down with the house red, and aqua minerale frizzante. We have reached the conclusion that if you have more money than sense, or are a greater wine snob than I, you could select a bottle from the wine list at any restaurant in Italy and be no better off than the "vino de casa". At $A5.00 ($US3.00) a litre jug, they prove that no country on earth produces better value daily drinking wine.

Recipe: Mussels with Tomato Wine Sauce
  • 2 lbs. Mussels
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 4 large tomatoes, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh continental parsley, minced
Scrub the mussels under cold running water, pulling off the "beards" with your hands.

If a medium sized saucepan, sauté onion in olive oil, stirring over medium heat for 2 minutes.

Stir in the garlic, sauté for 30 seconds, then add the mussels and shake the pan over the heat. As the mussels open, remove them from the pan. Discard any mussels that don't open.

Add the tomatoes to the pan and saute for 2 minutes, then add the salt and pepper to taste.

Stir in parsley and keep the sauce over very low heat. Add the mussels back to the pan with chopped parsley and stir to coat in the sauce.

I prefer to add some chili flakes, just a few, when adding the tomatoes.
 
#6
Piedmont

ORTA SAN GIULIO
From Switzerland we had a good run down the motorway to the Gravellona Toce exit, and suddenly realised that we had no groceries etc. and it was a Saturday afternoon. We immediately came upon a supermarcato that was open (and later passed another two). Maybe it's only the industrial north that still observes limited shopping hours and siesta.

We stocked up with almost everything we thought we needed, including horse salami. Confronted with a large range of salamis, I selected a small one. Ches had to ask, "what’s in it?" He turned the sign to show a horses head and Ches immediately baulked while I said "si, si" and he beamed. Now we had horse salami, but when I came to cook the pasta, I discovered we didn’t have any parmiagano. I’m a failure.

Loaded up with our supplies, so that I could no longer see out the rear window, we headed on to Lago d’Orta. We knocked up a pasta sauce of celery, onion, garlic, carrot and parsley with chopped tomatoes and salami. Too tired to go out, but not so tired I couldn’t make it the 20 metres to one of four gelateria for a 2 euro coppa of Pana Cotta and Creme Caramel. I decided that this was the best I have ever eaten, and as she has around thirty flavours, I will have to have at least 2 coppa each day if I am to try them all - and I did.

Every day for a week I would drop in for a double gelato and eventually on the last day, she wouldn’t accept any payment and served me the remaining flavours in her cabinet.

I had take the following recipe with us and cooked it here in Orta san Giulio for the first time. It was so great that we later cooked it for the Grillo and Nocantini families in Florence ... coals to Newcastle, with a twist.

Recipe: Fagioli alla Finocchio
With thanks to Aaron Ross of The Wharf Restaurant, Sydney, with modifications to suit the produce available.

Finely slice a small white onion and simmer in 1 tbsp olive oil for a few minutes. Add three large chopped tomatoes (use tinned Italian, if fresh Italian not availble). Add 70 gm or so chopped pancetta (or bacon if pancetta unavalable). Add a handfull of chopped Italian (continental) parsley. Add a stick of celery chopped fine. Stir for a minute. Add a can of cannellini beans. Add a sprig each of marjoram and thyme ( I had to used dry as fresh wasn’t available). Simmer 5 min. Add 10 black olives and a large clove of garlic minced or chopped fine. Add pepper and a lug of olive oil.

Slice half a head of fennel very fine and mix in a bowl with juice of half a lemon.

Serve the cannellini beans, and springle over sliced fennel and grated parmegiano. Serve with crusty bread (we didn’t).

Just to mix our cultures, we drank half our bottle of Bourgogne Rouge, Coulanges-la Vineuse, SCEA du Clos du Roi, 2000, winner of the Paris 2002, Medaille D’Or. Wonderful fruity Burgundy (I wish we had bought a case now, from Noyers at around 8.00 euros a bottle)

Review: Ristorante Venus
Right on the lakefront in a corner of the piazza with views out to Isola San Giulio.

We had dined here in 2000. Either it has gone up market, or I did this time. Ches reminds me that I had pizza and a pasta dish last time. This time I started with what I’m sure the menu said was ravioli filled with prawns and smoked shellfish. In actuality it was sheets of lasagne topped with large prawns in a rich tomato sauce (chopped fresh tomatoes in a sauce like reduced stock (prawn shells and maybe that’s where the smoked shellfish were-pureed). A good portion thankfully, because my pan fried perch fillets wouldn’t have touched the sides. Ches had taglionini with spiny lobster, and lamb encased in bread (crumbed cutlets) with the best roasted potatoes she has ever had in Italy. We shared a Chocolate Flan (really a layered chocolate and almond or marzipan blaumange (cucapum)) and a creme caramel. The creme finally a silky smooth challenge to Marie, but the caramel slightly burnt. I don’t care if it was predominantly seafood, we had a bottle of Parusso, Barbera D’Alba, Ornati, 2000.

Throughout the meal, we were serenaded by a chap playing keyboards and a clarinet. He asked for requests, which readily came to Ches while I drew blanks (well, after first requesting “Michelle”).

SACRA DE SAN MICHELE
Near Torino.

Review: Ristorante San Francesco at Di Castile Leone
We enjoyed a quiet two hour lunch, electing for the degustation menu. The Antipasto came in two stages: First, a plate of proscuito, spek (mainly fat but delicious) and dried meat.

Second, a plate of grilled eggpland and zuchini (both topped with herbs), anchovies (in a sauce of either pesto or spinach), a slice of cheese with goosbery jam, and marinated raw porchini.

Next, a pasta platter: spinach and ricotta ravioli topped with ground hazelnuts in olive oil, spinach ravioli, and fettucini with a porcini and rich tomato sauce.

A large bowl of polenta, and bowls of porcini and tomatoes and venison in a rich mushroom sauce.

Finally Dolci.

What dolci!!! Panne cotti with strawberry coulis, tiramasu dusted with shaved chocolate and cocoa powder and slivered almonds and a rich chocolate blaumange.

Tea and espresso were almost too much.

When we presented the owner/chef with a koala, on paying our bill, he became all excited. He had not a single word of English. Well, a couple. "Australia?". We all managed to mime and gesticulate and utter single words. "Sydney", "Leichardt", "Visiting Family", "Marconi Club", "Three Years Ago". He had been to within a kilometre of where we live.

415-5-san-michelle.jpg
 
#7
Rome

ROMA
On to Rome, and in a hurry with it now being 3.00pm and any chance of entering during the quiet time being highly unlikely. Toll motorways again. Traffic becoming heavier. Tension and apprehension increasing. We stopped to check our map, and decided on our route into Rome; around the fringe of the main centre.

Even when we missed our way, it was to our advantage. We ran around the northern end of the Vatican instead of the south (the street ran along the base of the Vatican walls), then across the front of the entrance to Villa Borghese, and around toward Stazione Termini where our pensione is located. Traffic was so congested, you really couldn't get in to any trouble. Plenty of time to read the map and pick your streets.

The main obstacle was vespa's. Hundreds of them, most with female pillion passengers. They only observe traffic lights if they really have to, and when they change, they charge out all around you (like a swarm of bees - and that's what they sound like).

Actually made it to the top end of our street BUT, it was one way. The wrong way. I knew the writing was on the wall. If our street was one way, you could guarantee most of the others would be one way. And they were. To make matters worse, the only way in involved negotiating our way down the side of the railway station with masses of motor bikes and vespas, tourist and domestic buses, and all the usual Rome traffic. Made it to our front door, checked in after some consternation that they hadn't reserved a room with a kitchen, unloaded the car completely, and headed off to the parking station where we were to garage the car for the rest of the week.

Again we negotiated the myriad one way streets, and while we ended up out front of a garage, we thought it was the wrong one. We had a business card from our pensione, which had a printed map on the reverse side. The girl at the desk had marked in ink, where she thought the garage was. Ches went to the cashier’s window to check, and got waylaid by the town drunk. He had minimal English, Ches had minimal Italian, and I was at the mercy of them both. He mistook the card/map and Cheryl's question. He had us back up, ignore the one way traffic sign and head off after him as he jogged down the street ahead of us. We came to the widest, busiest avenue, with some six lanes of traffic, and he walked out into the traffic, arms waving as he stopped traffic in all directions, and lead us across all six lanes, into a side street, jumped into the back seat, directed us down two blocks, and then the penny dropped - he had lead us back to our pensione.

Offered him our deepest thanks, a two thousand-lire tip, and waited for him to leave the scene, before we once again set out for the garage. Returned to the same one. The drunk wasn't there, so we pulled in. It is a garage where you drive your car onto a hydraulic lift, lock it up, and leave it to press a button which dispenses your ticket. Having dispensed the ticket, the lift takes your car up into the bowels of the building where it is stored in a bay, on a conveyer. When you return, you pay your fee, insert the card in the machine, and within two minutes, your car comes out on the conveyer, into the street, ready to unlock and drive off. I'm sure Phil and I looked at these systems, as a potential business, over twelve years ago.

Returned home via the Alimentari, where we picked up a bottle of Volpolacella Santepietre for 7,200 lire (approx.$A6.25-OUTRAGEOUS). What a good drop. Also bought a bottle of beer; they don't seem to sell anything other that singles or the occasional 3 or 4 pack. Started in on the Sans Souci Export (just OK) while I prepared dinner.

Half a fennel braised in Delizia Olio Extra Virgin (Carapelli of Firenze), diced Pancetta, two luscious vine ripened tomatoes (that you could smell from a mile away) served with grated Grand Padano. This is a variation on a favourite dish we cook at home. This was followed by Pancetta and the mince out of two spicy pork sausages, pan fried with a little yellow capsicum, and a bunch of sliced asparagus that we simmered separately, and stirred in with the other ingredients to a bowl of Farfalle (very small bowties), served with some grated Grand Padano. Not a bad start.

The kitchen issue had been resolved by them offering a room with a cupboard in one corner that contained a sink, refrigerator and two electric rings. Cooking utensils consist of a frying pan and a saucepan, two large spoons, two forks, one serrated dining knife, a grater, a drainer and a couple of plates. Talk about basic. But the food isn't. Slept the sleep of the just.

Review: Checchino
Headed off to "Checchino", our first "plate" restaurant, and the restaurant that has specialised in traditional Roman offal dishes since 1887. This was our first trip on the Metro. They only have three lines, which radiate out from the Termini, which is only 500 meters from our pensione. You can’t help but compare it with the metro in Paris, and it just doesn’t compare. Occasional stench of "pee", grubby walls, floors, everything. The trains make the Manhattan subway look pristine. The entire outside of every carriage is "tagged" with grafetti, most of the glass windows have been scratched (a new form of tagging), and the seats torn and tagged. A very grubby experience.

We didn’t experience any attempt at pickpocketing, unlike Paris, where it was only the vigilance of a fellow passenger who stopped a young girl from dipping into Cheryl’s handbag.

We hopped off at "Piramide" and exited the station to see the Pyramid itself, surrounded by traffic. Amazing that something built by a rather minor official managed to survive intact. Then again, it’s his mausoleum. With map of Rome clutched in my hand, we set off into the unknown. After a detour through a street full of panel beaters and small factories, there it is. The most unlikely spot for a restaurant, and no wonder when paying the bill that they ask if you require a taxi.

We were the first to arrive, and felt a little uncomfortable sitting with the entire staff lined up waiting to serve. The restaurant is shaped like an aircraft hanger; semicircular. Immaculately painted, carpeted and every dining table had an accompanying serving table; round and set lower than the dining table. Every table set with a vase of yellow roses.

The round ceiling had a most peculiar effect. At various times during the night, as the restaurant filled up, we could hear certain voices so clearly, it was as if they were sitting at our table. We would look down the far side of the restaurant, to identify whose lips were in sync with the voice we could hear. Truly peculiar.

Service was 5 star. In particular, we were amazed by the wine waiter. Having assisted in the selection, he would then bring out the appropriate number of suitable glasses. Pour a drop into one glass, swirl it to coat the inside of the glass, then pour it into the next glass and repeat, and so on for all glasses. For one group, he even brought out his own tasting glass, tasted it, and decided that the glasses he had selected weren’t appropriate. He then changed all six glasses, and resumed the routine.

Ches had Veal Trotter Salad, Pasta and Bean Soup, Baby Lamb Hunter Style (which was the plate dish), and Panna Cotta. I had Calf’s Head Cheese, Spaghetti with Ewe’s Milk Cheese and Pig’s Cheek, Oxtail Stew, and Gorgonzola with Unprocessed Honey and a glass of Marsala. Espresso to finish. Fantastic. Worth the wait for the past two years.

Recipe: Abbacchio all Cacciatora
  • 2 T pure lard or olive oil
  • Sprig of fresh rosemary or 1 t dried rosemary
  • 2 lb 2 oz leg or shoulder of lamb, boned and cut into 1 1/2 - 2 inch cubes
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup hot water
  • 2 salted anchovies, boned, washed and dried or 4 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 1 t oregano
  • 1 t flour
Heat the lard or oil with the rosemary and, when hot, brown the meat on all sides. Add the garlic, salt and pepper and sauté for a further minute. Add the vinegar and boil briskly for about 30 seconds. Add the water. Cook, covered, over very low heat, for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Chop and put anchovies in a small frying pan with a grinding of pepper and the oregano. Spoon over them 3 T of the liquid from the lamb and add the flour. Stir over a low heat until the sauce thickens and the flour is cooked. Mix the sauce into the pan with the lamb. Cook for a further minute and serve.

Recipe: Blue Ewe's Cheese Sauce On Pasta
Serves: 2
  • 200 grams dried pasta (spaghetti or fettuccini)
  • 6 rasher bacon, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic peeled and sliced
  • 2 tblsp oil or butter
  • 250 grams crème fraiche or sour cream
  • 1/2 cup chicken
  • 100 grams goat’s milk blue feta cheese
  • 2 cups baby rocket or baby spinach leaves
Cook the pasta in a large saucepan of boiling water for 10-12 minutes or until al dente. While the pasta is boiling, pan-fry the bacon and garlic in the oil or butter until softened and fragrant. Stir in the crème fraiche or sour cream and chicken stock. Stir until hot. Crumble in the feta cheese. Drain the pasta and toss through the sauce. Serve in bowls with rocket or spinach.

Recipe: Roman Oxtail Stew (Coda alla Vaccinara)
Serves 6
  • 1 beef oxtail (2 1/2-3 pounds)
  • 12 celery stalks
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 medium-sized white onion
  • 4 ounces pancetta
  • 2 heaping tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt or coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup Italian dry red wine
  • 1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 6 to 8 cups boiling water
  • 5 cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
Rinse the oxtail under warm running water and eliminate any fat or gristle with a paring knife and your fingers. Chop it into sections along the vertebrae. Pat them dry with paper towels.

Remove the stringy parts of the celery. Mince 1 stalk and reserve the rest. Peel and halve the garlic with a paring knife, removing any imperfections including the green shoot. Mince the garlic with the carrot and onion. Mince the pancetta; you should have 3/4 cup. Combine the minced vegetables and pancetta with 1 heaping tablespoon of the parsley.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high. Add the minced vegetable-and-pancetta mixture and sauté, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula until the onion becomes translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the oxtail, a generous pinch of salt and several turns of the peppermill. Brown thoroughly, stirring, flipping and scraping for about 15 minutes. Pour in the wine and boil to evaporate it, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato concentrate. Add the tomatoes and their packing juices, crushing and stirring. Add just enough of the water to completely submerge the oxtail bones.

Wrap the cloves in a beggar's purse of gauze and tie it closed with kitchen string, leaving about one foot of string attached. Lower the purse into the stew and secure the string to a pot handle. Drop in the bay leaf and stir. Lower the heat to minimum and simmer, partially covered, for 2 hours.

Slice the remaining 11 celery stalks into sticks the size of an index finger. Add them to the stew and simmer, covered, for 40 minutes.

Remove and discard the purse of cloves and the bay leaf. Stir in the remaining 1 heaping tablespoon of parsley. Serve in soup bowls.

Review: Trattoria de Pallaro
Lago del Pallaro. Walked back down past Piazza Navona to Trattoria de Pallaro. Christina, the owner of our pensione, had recommended this restaurant. She assured us that the tourists didn’t know about it, that the served food like her mother cooked, and that it was a fixed price and they just served whatever they chose to cook on any given day. Again, being 7.45 pm, we were only the third to arrive and were offered a table outside under the awnings/umbrellas. That was fine, trouble was that numerous groups and couples of tourists began arriving. At least half a dozen departed when they couldn’t get the table they wanted. Eventually the locals began to arrive and overwhelmed the tourists.

We started with a bottle of mineral water and a jug of red wine.

Antipasti: Seafood Frittata, olives, white beans, fennel drizzled with olive oil, deep fried potato balls and vegetable patties.

Primi: Large tubes of pasta in a rich tomato sauce (mine served in the huge mixing bowl).

Main: Roast pork shoulder with oil and balsamic vinegar dressing, flowered and fried eggplant, baby mozzarella and potato crisps.

Dessert: custard tart-cake like pastry served with a lemon digestif in a shot glass. No coffee served.

This brilliant meal was 65,000 lire, the same we had paid for a "crap" meal early in the week. The setting is a small piazza Lago del Pallaro, basically the junction of three small narrow back streets. The centre is packed with parked cars, at any angle they can fit in. Very quiet. On a return visit, we would probably eat here every night. When we went in to pay, I thanked him for allowing us to dine at his restaurant and shook his hand. He ignored me, took Cheryl’s hand and kissed it.

Recipe: Porchetta Italiana
  • 6 pounds boned pork shoulder with skin intact, butterflied
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons ground black pepper
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill weed
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 3 tablespoons browning sauce (Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil)
Oil the shoulder roast inside and out and rub the salt and pepper into the flesh. Rub the garlic, rosemary and dillweed into the flesh. Put shoulder into a leakproof container and pour the wine in and around the shoulder. Cover tightly and place in the refrigerator to marinate for 3 days.

Remove the meat from the refrigerator and tie it at about 1 inch intervals to form an even roll. Bring the meat to room temperature for about 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Paint the roast with browning sauce and bake the roast until it has internal temperature of 150 degrees F (65 degrees C). Estimate 30 minutes cooking time per pound. Remove from oven, tent with foil and let stand for 15 minutes before carving. The internal temperature should be 160 degrees F (70 degrees C) at this time. Serve.

Review: Antica Trattoria da Remo
We decided to eat at a local restaurant, and spent half an hour seeking out a street devoid of tourists. The trouble is, as more and more tourists seek out places in Trastevere, they become spoiled. It’s not always just the fact that there are "tourists", but it's the fact that many restaurants feel the need to pander to them, and alter their menu's and even the way they cook.

Here we discovered what we knew to be a genuine "local" eating place. We knew because at 12.45 pm it was still empty; the tourists start filling everything else up from midday. Antica Trattoria da Remo served us a beer and water, with zucchini flowers (the specialty of the house), while they cooked from scratch. Ches had actually ordered Tagliatelle with Porcini mushrooms. Didn't offer to replace with the correct dish, but hey, I figured Ches lucked out. It was delicious. I had a square shaped spaghetti (the name has escaped us) with a walnut sauce. Good, but not as good as Ches’s.

At this point, we are rapidly reaching the conclusion that we have never really had proper "al dente" pasta in Australia. We don’t know if it's in the cooking in Australia, or the nature of the wheat or the pasta itself. We have been cooking with Barilla, and seem to be getting an excellent "al dente" pasta. We shared a Trippa Romano, for which he was happy to provide an extra plate for Ches. At 59,000 lire it was good but not as good value as the night before.

We are beginning to know when to expect a really good meal. It is when fifteen minutes elapse after placing the order, and there is still no sign of the meal. They are cooking many of the sauces fresh. Locals began to arrive around 1.30 as we were leaving.

"In the past," writes Livio Jannattoni in La Cucina romana e del Lazio, "tripe, like many other foodstuffs, was sold in the streets of Rome. Both Bartolomeo Pinelli and Gigi Zannazzo mention it; the latter recalls, "The old fashioned Tripparoli, with their schifo (a tray; the word now also means disgusting) laden with tripe, feet, pieces of veal and calf heads, and more, would go from house to house crying out, "Tripe, trotters, and the rest of the muzzle!" They were so common that the poet Belli used them as a metaphor for the world:

Er monno é una trippetta, e l'omo é un gatto Che je tocca aspettà la su'porzione

(The world is a load of tripe and man is a cat Who must await his portion.)

"It should be noted," continues Mr. Jannattoni, "that trippetta (pork tripe) was reserved for cats. Tripparoli, what's more, distinguished themselves from butchers. They had their own shops, and sold nothing else. With results that were often neither hygienic or pleasing to the nose, as we gather from a bitter protest lodged in 1860. With regards to recipes, they seem to follow consistent cannons."


Recipe: Roman Style Tripe (Trippa alla Romana)
Mr. Jannattoni's recipe calls for:
  • 2-3 pounds tripe
  • A rib of celery
  • A carrot
  • An onion
  • Meat sauce or tomato sauce
  • Roman mint (use whatever fresh mint you have)
  • Grated Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano, or a mixture of the two
If you haven't bought the tripe already boiled, wash it very well, then cut it into fairly large pieces and boil it in a big pot with the carrot, celery, onion, and salt. Skim the surface often and simmer for 4-5 hours, adding water if need be. Once the tripe is cooked drain it well and cut it into the traditional thin strips.

While the tripe was cooking you will have prepared the meat or tomato sauce (you'll want 2-3 cups); simmer the tripe in the meat sauce for a half hour more, then dust it well with grated cheese (in the past people just used pecorino), sprinkle it with freshly chopped mint, the herb most associated with this dish, and serve steaming hot.

The wine? Though one normally associates reds with stews I might be tempted to accompany this with a white from the Castelli Romani.
 
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Tuscany: Lucca and the North West

ARTIMINO
West of Firenze and southeast of Lucca.

Review: Da Delfina
We stopped for lunch at Da Delfina, a Buon Recordo restaurant on the day we moved from Florence to Vellano in the hills behind Pescia.

Da Delfina sits at the bottom of the village, but on the top of the hill that looks out to the south over rolling hills covered in vineyards for as far as the eye can see. On this particular day, the smog haze which is common most of the time, wasn’t too bad, and we could see a long way. It also looks out on Villa Artimino, a Medici hunting lodge. This was the place where the boys would go off alone for a bit of hunting, leaving the women back at Poggio.

On this particular day, we were seated at the table on the veranda right at the front next to the railing, with a canvas awning overhead and a cooling breeze easing the heat. Several hundred metres around the ridge from us was the hunting lodge (about the size of the Carrington at Katoomba), with a great marble staircase facing us, and a bridal party having their reception. This was to our left, and from there on, the rest of our vista were the rolling hills of vineyards. Probably the most stunning setting for a restaurant we have had, even rivalling Positano, which considering my affinity with the sea, is saying something.

Our waiter wasn’t going to crack it for a smile, or enter into even polite conversation, so we gave up trying and didn’t let him spoil the occasion. Ches now has a theory that if we don’t pre-book, they get shirty. Mary doesn’t think it is an issue, but who knows. Anyway, several of the other waiters were cheerful enough and the other diners added to the atmosphere, so we had a wonderful lunch.

Ches had Bean and Pinenut Salad and the plate dish Rabbit with Black Olives. The beans were cannelini, cooked, cooled and drizzled with olive oil, with raw pinenuts and parsley-delicious. The Rabbit was sensational, a tad salty, probably from the olives. Ches has come a long way, now eating the occasional olive, but these were too much. I had Penne with Rabbit Sauce which was very good without being sensational, and Grilled Lamb, which turned out to be six baby lamb chops that occupied the entire plate. Again, we had forgotten that you have to order vegetable separately. Nevertheless, they were wonderful on their own.

As Mary later explained, sheep are largely kept for their milk to make cheese. They don’t have grazing country, nor can they spare land for it. Consequently, the lambs are butchered very young, and really is "spring lamb".

We again stuck to the house red (a half jug) and a bottle of mineral water. The house reds are always of a great standard. When I wouldn’t know what to order from the wine list anyway, the jug of house red has never let us down. (Here at Vellano, Mary buys her red in bulk from one of the locals, and decants it as she drinks it. Works out at L3,000 per bottle, and it is fabulous.)

With time running out if we are to get back to Poggio for the next opening, we suddenly struck up a conversation with an English couple at the adjoining table. Their daughter (3 or so) had been really well behaved throughout the meal. They have been to this area for eight of the last ten years, and raved about it and the local wines.

Recipe: Coniglio in Umido Con Olive Nere
PL - "A Tuscan in the Kitchen"

This should be close to the dish served at Ristorante Da Delfina. Serve with a smile. Our waiter wasn’t exactly contributing to the atmosphere. While eating, picture a view out over a Medici Hunting Lodge, and rolling hills and valleys covered in olive groves for as far as the eye can see.

Preheat oven to medium. Marinade rabbit overnight and mince rabbit interiors. Cover bottom of oven proof pan with olive oil. Heat on top of stove to medium and sauté Odori (see recipe above), adding interiors as the odiri start to colour. Add salt, pepper, tarragon and thyme. Turn to high and add a half glass of red wine vinegar. When evaporated, add rabbit pieces and stir to ensure it absorbs all the flavours (and browns). Cover with chicken or vegetable broth, two glasses of wine, and a small amount of tomatoes (tinned or fresh but mashed in own juices), and black olives. Cook over high heat to reduce liquid, cover and put in oven and start checking after 45 minutes. Flesh should be tender and white.

Recipe: Melanzane ai Funghi
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany" Da Delfinam at Artimino

Cut medium size aubergine in half lengthwise, and scoop out the inside. Sprinkle inside of shells with salt and stand upside down to drain. Dice the aubergine flesh. Heat oil in pan, and saute garlic and a quarter of a bunch of chopped basil for a minute. Add 100 gm of mixed wild mushroom, including some porcini (all chopped) and the aubergine and 50m gms of chopped tomato, and simmer for 5 min. Season.

Rinse and dry shells, pack with the filling, sprinkle with parmesan and bake (200c/Gas6) for 30 min until tops browned.

ISOLASANTA
In the mountains behind Cararra.

Review: La Ceragetta (di Poli Marco)
We arrived at the restaurant (La Ceragetta (di Poli Marco), Isola Santa) at around 2.00pm and were concerned that we might be too late for lunch. Almost no such thing in Italy. We still don’t know how or why, given Mary’s instructions, but we ended up on a road that hooked back northeast from Isolasanta, and the restaurant is actually some kilometres along this road, all on its ownsome in the middle of nowhere. More than a restaurant, it is a substantial "hotel", built with no semblance of a plan out of the local stone and slate roofs. It wanders around the side of the mountain on different levels.

While there is a large dining room upstairs, primarily used for functions, the restaurant is quite small with maybe 12 tables and a capacity of 50 or so. There were about 20 diners at table when we arrived. The room is built right in under the eaves of the roof, with small windows set high in the walls, so not exactly opened up to the views. What views. A vast, steep and deep valley below us, and on the other side, towering mountain peaks, bare of any vegetation at the tops, forests in sections and unbelievable, the odd terraced sections of mountainside. We still don’t know what they were growing.

The deal with lunch is that they just keep bringing food. You eat what you want, and cry for mercy when you are full. They then produce a bill, which is very reasonable. Most people were either eating their secondi piatti or desert. We really were starting late for this type of meal. The waiter had almost no English, and yet was the most helpful, accommodating we have had to date (later we suspected he is the owner or part of the family).

He brought us a glass of icy cold Prosecco (it’s the sparkling white wine from the Veneto region). Then all these plates began appearing (Antipasti). Warm cod fritters, slices of meats (brawn, prosciutto and lard), bean salad, farro salad (farro with finely diced carrot, potato, mozzarella and mortadella sausage-fantastic), pickled cabbage and sweet corn, pickled vegetables, mixed bruscetta of plain garlic, tomato and cheese and mushroom.

Then the prima piatti. Lasagne in a sauce, which we think, was a combination of cheese, pesto and béchamel, and farfalle with tomato, basil and carrot. Next a liqueur glass each of icy cold lemon vodka to cleanse the palate.

On with the secondi piatti. A platter of crumbed lamb cutlets, beef with artichokes and sliced cheese, thinly sliced pork and prosciutto with béchamel sauce. Roasted potato chunks and a salad. Declined the cheese course and cut straight to fruit and custard slice, panna cotta with a berry coulis and custard sponge. One espresso. A bottle of house red and jugs of water. L57,000 ($53.00). That’s it. Not each. TOTAL L57,000. On the way out, we bought a bottle of Lemon Vodka. Now every night we have to decide between Vodka, Stregga and Sambuca. Well, I do. Ches goes straight for the vodka.

As we were finishing our meal, an electrical storm ripped through the other side of the valley. The mountains vanished into cloud and driving rain. Lightning flashed and thunder went off like cannons. I’ve said it before, but electrical storms are amazing in Italy. Never heard anything so loud. Lasted for fifteen minutes and blasted us with wind, and then cleared to a brilliant clear sky.

Recipe: Farro Insalata alla Isolasanta
GC - Gavin Crawford
My attempt to recreate a farro dish served as part of the Antipasti at La Caragetta.

Cook farro and cool. Blanch very small dice of potato and carrot. Cool and stir through farro with finely diced mortadella or other sausage and olive oil.

Recipe: Infarinata (Polenta)
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
La Ceragetta (di Poli Marco), Isola Santa (wonderful fixed price restaurant, where they just keep bringing the food till you surrender).

Use a heavy based saucepan. Bring 1.2 litres water and 2 teaspoons salt to the boil. Add 300 gm of Polenta in a thin stream while stiring to prevent lumps. Add 400 gm of finely diced vegetables (carrot, celery or onions, spinach, kohlrabi or chard, cooked borlotti beans) Cook gently for 40 minutes stiring constantly. It is ready when it can easily be pulled away from the side of the pan. Pour into a damp glass bowl, rest for 10 minutes, turn out on a board and slice into 1 cm thick slices. Serve drizzled with olive oil.

Alternatively: Deep-fry till crisp.

LUCCA Review: Canuleia
We stayed in an apartment on Piazza s.Frediano, so decided one day to dine at Canuleia which is listed in both Cadogan and Rough Guide. How appropriate is "rough". Cadogan says "...serving food with some surprises and usually some vegetarian dishes" and Rough Guide "Excellent cooking, with odd deserts like salumi di cioccolata. Good value given the quality."

It is in a small street near the Amphitheatre, which isn't listed in any of the maps, so we decided to check it's location in the morning and book if necessary. I make this point because it is not as if it is in a street that tourists would pass regularly. To visit this restaurant, you have to search for it, and even then it isn't easily found. My tip, don't waste your time.

To be fair, Ches looked at the menu and asked if I was sure I really wanted to dine there. She couldn't see anything that looked to be particularly interesting on the menu, and the prices weren't exactly the "inexpensive/moderate" claimed by Cadogan and Rough Guide. I had the chance to choose another restaurant, but I stuck to my initial choice.

We turned up at 8.15 or so, just in case it was likely to fill up with locals at 9.00. They know better! The waitress just waved us in the general direction of the outdoor garden section. I must admit that it is one of the prettiest garden restaurants we have eaten in.

Unfortunately there was a speaker in the tree beside our table, turned up way too loud (I love loud music, but not in this setting). There was a man and his son(12) sitting in one corner, 3 Americans, 4 Americans and 1 German. At the same time as we arrived, 3 Italian girls came in and 15 minutes later 2 Americans and a little later a sole Italian. O.K.!!!! Not exactly bustling. All being accommodated by what I believe was the owner/chef (woman), two kitchen hands, 2 waitresses and a woman who sat at a desk who kept check of the bill. That's 6 people to look after 18 people spread over a 3 hour period. You'd think it would translate into excellent service.

It took 10 minutes to get one of the waitresses to our table. They spent most of the night loitering and hoping that the other would actually do the work. We managed to get a menu out of her, but no offer of water or wine. Fifteen minutes later she returned to take our order. Food O.K., water, O.K, wine - not O.K. - no vino di cassa as such but a bottle for 10 euro was the offer. I noted later that most tables had the said bottle with very little drunk from it. The German had one glass of his. Ours just never came. The water was good.

An hour after we arrived, our food was served. It wasn't as though we were bored. We were entertained by the owner/chef abusing her kitchen staff (we could see into the kitchen from the garden) and the 12 y.o. kid ordering the waitresses around as plate after plate was delivered to their table. We later deduced that this was the husband and son of the owner/chef, and we suspect that she has recently bought the restaurant.

Anyway, to hell with the service and dramas unfolding around us, we are here for the food. OH, MY GOD!!!!!!!! Ches was served a water glass filled with salad vegetables standing upright, and a small bowl of nondescript mayo/aoli dressing for dipping. I had "riso con zucchini de fiori". I know, your thinking a lovely light zucchini flavoured risotto with zucchini flowers! No, the most insipid risotto drowned in a rich tomato sauce and a bowl of parmigiana.

Three quarters of an hour later, the mains. The waitress only came near us once, and that was five minutes before the food was actually served, to explain that because Ches had ordered an eggplant "soufflé", it was taking time. We had heard something smashing 5 min. earlier, and suspect it was the soufflé on its way to us, and they had to make another. It turned out to be more like an omelette in a casserole dish. The eggplant was tough and chewy. I had the Coniglia. It was sensational. One of the best rabbit dishes I have ever eaten ... I thoroughly enjoyed all three miniscule slices of it. Turned out to be 5 euros per slice.

You wonder what we had for Dolci????? What, you think I'm a total fool? We called it quits. Not even espresso. God knows they could have put me off it for life.

O.K. That's 2 cover charges of 3 euros each, mineral water at 3 euros, no wine ... remember, NO WINE. Two entrees and two mains. Thanks very much sir, that will be 59 euros.

The following day, we dined at La Mora. It is elegant, fantastic service and we had four courses, wine, desert wine and aperitifs for 87 euros. We loved La Mora so much we returned for a second meal later in the week.

To summarise, we suspect that there is a new owner of Canuleia. She probably doesn't get any local business and is capitalizing on overseas tourists. The three Italian girls at one point picked up a plate to bring it close to their eyes to make the point about the small portions. The owner sat down with her husband and son late in the evening, and tucked into a massive bistecca. She smoked a cigarette as she ate and lectured one of the waitress. At some point, she has to be dropped off the Cadogan and Rough Guide lists, and then she will have to earn her business. As we walked home, we passed two trats. that were still packed.

I have never been so angry and bitter about a dining experience. For the first time in my life, I actually responded to a waitresses query as to how I had enjoyed my risotto. I said "just O.K.". No wonder she didn't come near us again for 45 min.

I'm still angry 2 years later.

Recipe: Agnello in Umido con Olive Nere (Lamb)
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
Ristorante La Buca di Sant Antonio at Lucca.

Heat 5 tblsp Olive oil in casserole. Add 2 cloves finely chopped garlic, half an onion finely chopped, and a sprig of rosemary chopped, and cook till soft. Add 1 kg cubed lamb (5cm chunks-leg or shoulder) and brown all over. Increase heat and add a glass of white wine and while evaporating stir in 4 tblsp tomatoe puree, s&p. Pour in 500 ml meat stock, cover and cook slowly for 50 min or so, adding 200 gm of bitter olives for the last 15 min.

Review: Trattoria Leo
Trattoria Leo, one of Mary’s recommendations. Great atmosphere with a mixture of locals and tourists. They don’t appear to compromise on their cooking. It was fine in most respects, although we feel the chef has a thing about salt. Everything was just a tad too salty. Ches had Porcini risotto and rabbit and olives. I had Penne and rabbit ragu, and two mains.

What happened was that I couldn’t decide between the Trippa, and a roast pork spareribs dish. I was only trying to enquire how each was prepared/served, and which one the waitress recommended. She misunderstood, and thought that I didn’t know what either of them were. Her solution was to offer to serve me a half serve of each. Fine. The Trippa was excellent, but a little salty. The roast pork, a disaster of fatty pork and soggy potatoes.

The atmosphere was great. Really friendly and helpful staff, locals enjoying their lunch, the owners dog strolling through the tables and the "matrone" who was, resetting the tables. The decor was imitation "bell epoch", painted flowers on the windows and doors, the walls painted with Doric columns and squares to "frame" a mixture of pictures - some black and white photographs and Lutrec style prints.

Recipe: Trippa alla Fiorentina
LF - "A Table in Tuscany"
Leslie attributes this receipe to Trattoria Sostanza dal 1869, Via del Porcellana 25, Florence. I had it at Tratteria da Leo, Via Tegrimi, 1, Lucca.

Boil tripe (800gm) water for 10-15 minutes, with half an onion and a stick of celery.

While it is boiling, finely chop onion (half) and celery (I stalk), a carrot and 30 gm of pancetta. Saute in olive oil. Drain and slice the tripe, and add to pan with 500gm chopped tomatoes. Season and add 1 1/2 teaspoons marjoram. Cover and simmer over low heat for approx 30 min. Remove heat and turn up heat to thicken sauce, stirring to ensure it doesn’t burn. Serve with parmesan.

Review: Ristorante Bargo Giannotti
We discovered Ristorante Bargo Giannotti, in the street of the same name, outside the old town walls. We shared a Farro and Seafood salad and a Cannellini and Prawn salad, and two Pizzas. One a mistake - four types of cheese and tomatoes, the other a seafood. The highlight though was focaccia cooked in the wood fired oven. It had rock salt sprinkled on top and was moist and flaky and fabulous. We bought some to take home for dinner, but discovered it has to be eaten straight from the oven. It dries out in no time flat, and goes all chewy. Good value and an interesting experience.

One guy eating alone, demolished a seafood platter, a bottle of red wine, basket of bread, bottle of mineral water a coffee and a glass of grappa, and was still there when we left. No tourists at all, but packed with locals.

MONTECATINI TERMI

Recipe: Tagliolini con Gamberetti e Rucola
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
Enoteca Giovanni at Montecatini Termi

Heat olive oil in frying pan and add crushed garlic, and sauté for several minutes. Chop 50 gm of prawns, and add to pan with 50 gm of whole prawns and a tblsp white wine and sauté for three minutes or until pink. Stir into pasta and stir in a tblsp finely chopped parsley and a bunch of rocket finely chopped. Season and serve.

PISA
From Ponte de Mezzo, we walked up Borgo Stretto. It is not a particularly wide street, for one of the main streets, but it is quite beautiful in that it is lined both sides by porticoes. They are wide, give plenty of shade from the sun, and we assume shelter from the rain in winter. There are plenty of excellent shops and bars, and being not far from the university, plenty of young people sitting out front of the cafes.

Review: La Nuova Pizzaria del Bargo
We wandered off into a side lane Vicolo del Tinti, that ran parallel on the right, where we discovered a pizza restaurant, La Nuova Pizzaria del Bargo. They served the largest Pizzas we have ever seen, and took some time to get under control. When we arrived, the only other customers left were two women, who had a dog the size of a horse. He was kind of lying on the path beside the tables that occupied most of the lane, and not too many pedestrians tried to venture past.

Recipe: Tagliolini con Gamberetti, Piselli e Asparagi
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
La Mescita at Pisa

Heat olive oil in frying pan and add crushed garlic, and sauté for several minutes. Chop 50 gm of prawns, and add to pan with 50 gm of whole prawns and a tblsp white wine and sauté for three minutes or until pink. Stir into pasta and stir in a tblsp finely chopped parsley and a bunch of rocket finely chopped. Season and serve. Add in 100 gm of precooked peas and 6 asparagus spears (chopped) when stirring the pasta through, and add chopped parsley.

PESCIA
It is 7.50 am, and I have just returned from the Pescia, Saturday markets. From 7.00am every Saturday, the piazza and another small square are closed to traffic, for the morning markets. I drove down the mountain and down the valley at 6.30am, and parked on the other side of the river. A fisherman was working his way through the clumps of tall reeds, over the beds of river gravel and boulders strewn on what is the riverbed during the wet and snow melt season. I walked over the pedestrian bridge and noticed a dog several hundred metres upstream, inquisitively sniffing and pawing at the rocks in a shallow part of the stream. I looked down from the bridge at the river, which at this time of the year is a stream that occasionally runs with white water over a cluster of rocks and boulders, but more often than not, is slowly moving over a gravel bed through clumps of reeds. Under the bridge, thirty or so trout are nosing into the current, just working hard enough to remain stationary and waiting for whatever insects will be brought down stream. I know nothing about trout fishing, and can only assume that the fisherman several hundred metres down stream, has elected to ignore these ones for better game down there.

I crossed the bridge and walked the hundred metres or so to the main piazza. Most stands were still setting up; all the usual clothing, shoes and junk. I returned to the small square, and inside discovered that at 7.00am, all the fruit and vegetable stalls were already doing business.

Mary had told me that apart from the usual big stalls, there is often the odd stall with just a few items; set up by elderly small farmers, with just their own produce. This was my first stop. An elderly, stooped gentleman, helped me select a bunch of asparagus, bunch of spring onions, fresh peas and zucchini. On my return journey, I started kicking myself. I had noticed a separate bunch of straggly thin asparagus stalks and tips, but had passed them over. Now it dawned on me, that I had missed an opportunity to buy wild asparagus. On to the next stand for watermelon, fresh borlotti beans, cucumber and tomatoes, and the next for cherries, eggplant and fennel. Mary had said that the cafe in this square serves the best coffee in Pescia, but it still hadn’t opened, so I returned to the car, and headed back up the valley.

Recipe: Pollastrino al Mattone
Cecco, Viale Forte 84, Pescia
LF - "A Table in Tuscany"

Split a small chicken down the breastbone, open up and pound flat. Marinade in Lemon juice, garlic rosemary olive oil salt and pepper.

Place in frying pan and place a heavily glazed terracotta brick on top and fry over low heat for 20 min. Turn and do the other side for 20 min.

PONTE A MORIANO
North of Lucca.

Review: La Mora
We decided to have lunch at La Mora, a Buon Recordo restaurant, on the day after our disastrous dinner at Canuleia in Lucca. As Cheryl noted in her diary "..we had the most sensational meal with exquisite service in lovely surroundings – it almost obliterated the appalling meal we had last night ... although it did illustrate (again!) how ripped off we were!!"

The owner, Sauro Brunicardi as maitre d’ greeted us at the door, seated us and introduced our two waitresses. One was a young girl with reasonable English doing work experience while on summer holidays from her hospitality college. Immaculately groomed, attentive without any self-consciousness or pretentiousness and setting standards that only several other waiters have matched. We decided to order only seafood. Cheryl would go with the freshwater dishes and I would order saltwater. We therefore ordered a bottle of Bucci 2000, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jessi. After our experience at Torcoletto in Porto Recanati we rate the Marche Verdicchio’s as the absolute best match with seafood.

Well, not entirely seafood. While still looking at our menus, glasses of Prosecco arrived and an Appetiser of zucchini flowers stuffed with pork (terrine texture) and served on a bed of minced vegetables.

Cheryl had the antipasto; Budino al Peperone Rosso Dolce, which she described as "sublime" while I had the Primo; Tagliolini con le Anguille. That’s right pasta with eel sauce. Wonderful rich salty seafood.

Secondi; Cheryl had the "plate" dish, "Cacciucco di Pesce d’Acqua Dolce", Seafood Chowder-chunks of eel, 2 or 3 types of fish and 6 gamberi in a rich tomato based sauce that in no way overpowered the seafood. I had the Fritto Misto di mare. The lightest, crispiest batter I have ever experience. Small pieces of calamari, octopus, whitebait, prawns, anchovies, sardines. I’ve had my fair share of Fritto Misto over the years but this would have to be the absolute best.

Dolci: Cheryl had the "Crema Caramallata" (crème brulee) beautiful slightly burnt taste of toffee offset by the very rich creamy custard. I had the Honey Baverese with Blueberry Sauce-fantastic. Both were served with a Moscato d’Asti, biscotti and aniseed wafers. These really were unique. Ground aniseed, flour and sugar pressed into a mould.

Sauro was at the door with our presentation plate to farewell us. We enjoyed the experience so much we decided to return for dinner on the Friday night.

We headed out a little early so that I could photograph the "hog back" bridge at Borgo Mozzano, just a little further up the river from La Mora.

Tonight we decided to sample the "game" and meat dishes on the menu. This time we were seated outside under the trellised and vine covered patio and the service was more formal than at lunch. That means we had the services of a sommelier as well as the very professional waiters.

Once we had ordered our food, the sommelier arrived and suggested we have the Terre de Cuscinieri 1999 Vigneto Wandanne, Monte Carlo Rosso.

Antipasto: Cheryl had the Spogliatina alla Verdura (small vegetable puffs)served with a creamy light tomato sauce, while I had the Pan di Coniglio (Rabbit Mouse) which had an amazing depth of flavour in such a light dish.

Primi: Cheryl had decided not to have anything, however the waiter decided that she shouldn’t have to sit with an empty plate while I ate, so he brought her a sings stuffed zucchini flower. I had the Risotto sul Piccione (Pigeon risotto). Again a great depth of flavour and less gamy than often is the case with pigeon.

Secondi: Cheryl’s Filetto di Manzo alla Erbe Aromatiche was a supurb medium rare cut of beef with a herb sauce that was a little heavy on the thyme, with a side dish of spinach. My Coniglio Farcito Agli Aromi (rolled rabbit stuffed with vegetables) ... paroxysms of delight. We had a side platter of fritto misto vegetables – onion, fennel, zucchini, and carrot.

Dolci: Tortino di Coccialato (Hot Chocolate Souffle with chocolate sauce) and scallop shaped fine biscuit served with chantilly cream and fresh strawberries and blackberries.

Aniseed wafers, biscotti and Moscado di Asti again ... and again, just a sensational experience.

Recipe: Red Pepper Mousse
  • 3 sweet red peppers
  • 4 ounces creme fraeche or mascarpone
  • Salt and white pepper to taste
  • 4 whole eggs plus 1 yolk
  • 3 or 4 thin slices smoked salmon
  • Anchovy Cream (recipe follows)
Place the peppers in a pan and put the pan in a 350 F oven for 45 minutes, until the peppers wrinkle and start to collapse. Turn off the oven, cover the pan with a towel and leave it in the oven. When the peppers are cool to the touch, peel and seed them. This can be done up to two days in advance.

Combine the peeled peppers and cr?me fra?che or mascarpone in a food processor. Puree until smooth, then season to taste with salt and white pepper. Add the eggs and process again until smooth.

Butter six 4-ounce timbales or custard cups. Place the salmon on a large plate or cutting board. Use one of the timbales or custard cups to cut six rounds of salmon. (If the timbale is not sharp enough, use it as a guide and cut the salmon with a sharp knife.) Set the slices aside and cover them with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. Fill the timbales with the red pepper puree.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Butter a large piece of parchment and cut it into six timbale-sized squares. Place each piece of parchment, butter side down, on each timbale. Put the timbales in a baking pan and pour hot water in the pan around the timbales to a depth of 1 inch. Bake the timbales for 20 to 30 minutes, until they are just firm to the touch. Let them stand 5 minutes before removing the parchment.

Place a smoked salmon round on each mousse and invert to unmold them onto small plates. Serve with a dab of Anchovy Cream. Serves 6.

Recipe: Anchovy Cream
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 ounce anchovies, rinsed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 shallot, coarsely sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a food processor or blender, puree the mayonnaise, anchovies, lemon juice and shallots, scraping down the inside occasionally, until smooth and fluffy. Season to taste with salt (if necessary) and pepper.

Recipe: Fritto Misto di Mare
From Kyle Phillips at About.com

Little can be more refreshing, or more picturesque, than a fritto misto di mare on the coast. It requires absolutely fresh fish however, and care too, because otherwise it becomes heavy and difficult on the digestion. The traditional fritto misto includes representatives of most of the watery families, including mollusks and arthropods. There's also what's known as a fritto di paranza, which is just very small (2 inch long including head and tail) fish rolled in flour, fried, and served with lemon wedges. You eat them heads and all (unless they're a little larger than normal), and purists frown on cleaning the fish because the intestines provide a slightly sharp flavor contrast. I prefer my fish cleaned and you may well too. But if the heads are small they're pleasingly crunchy, and the tails are perfect handles.

In any case, to make a fritto di paranza to serve six you'll need about 2 pounds (1 k) of assorted tiny, minnow-sized fish. To make a more standard fritto di mare you'll need 2 1/2 pounds (1.2 k) of mixed small fish, including fresh sardines and anchovies, baby squid, baby cuttlefish, small crabs, scampi and other assorted crustaceans, reef mullet and tiny whiting, sole, and whatever else your fishmonger suggests.

You'll also need 2 cups flour for rolling the fish, abundant oil (it's best to fry in several pots so what fries first will still be hot when the last things are cooked), salt, several lemons cut into wedges, and sprigs of fresh parsley to serve as garnish.

Wash, clean and pat the fish dry. You can bone the minnows, opening up like a book to remove the spines, but it's not indispensable. If you are using something like sole, filet it. Cut away the mouth parts of the squid and cuttlefish, remove the innards without breaking the ink sacks (you can use them to make a risotto with squid ink), and remove the bones from the cuttlefish (give them to a friend who keeps caged birds). Cut the bodies of the mollusks into rings, and keep the tentacles together in bunches. Shell or don't shell the crustaceans depending upon how hard their shells are.

Coat the fish thoroughly with flour and fry it, beginning with the mollusks and then the crustaceans, followed by the larger and then the smaller fish. As the fish rise to the surface and turn golden remove them with a strainer and drain them on absorbent paper. Transfer the fish to a platter, season it with salt, garnish it with parsley, and serve it with the lemon wedges and a chilled bottle of Trebbiano di Romagna or Castelli Romani. Or, if you want to splurge, a nice Gavi di Gavi.
 
#9
Tuscany: North West (continued)

SALINE DE VOLTERRA
10km west of Voltera.

Review: Ristorante Il Vecchio Mulino
Finally made it down and the 10 kms to Saline di Volterra. There could only be one reason to visit Saline di Volterra, and if we lived in Italy, we would be making regular pilgrimages to this ugly little village, to one of the great dining experiences .... Ristorante Il Vecchio Mulino. I rate it as second only to Checcino in Rome. No, I just recalled Ches’s White Chocolate Bavarese with minted olive oil sauce. Oh, and the white beans that accompanied the wild boar. And, and, oh yes, the bruschetta topped with pecorino blended/pureed with celery and almond pesto. Hell, I can’t seperate them at this stage. I’ll just have to go back to both some day and do another taste test.

I think I got a little carried away, and somewhat ahead of myself. We parked around the back of the smart Albergo. Only two cars, but were encouraged to see two kitchen staff sweeping. They must be open. We accidentally entered through the back entrance, were directed through to the restaurant, and found just a table of three completing their meal. The waiter later explainied that business was quiet because of the extreme heat - everyone had gone to the coast. Ches was sure the waiter looked us up and down in assessment. Given that the other male diner was in T-shirt, cargo pants and track shoes, and he was a local, I don’t think the waiter was doing any more than trying to assess what nationality we were. I didn’t have on sandals, so I couldn’t be German.

We were seated at our table in an elegant dining room. The walls were timber pannelled for a metre up from the floor, then plastered to the high ceiling. The two end and one side wall were decorated with well arranged displays of all the member restaurants plates. There were also framed posters that seemed to be of historic significance (relating to the establishment of local governments), and photographs and certificates of award to the restaurant and its staff. All very tastfull. The ceiling is curved panells of terracotta. The tables were covered with two beige table cloths, and set with large plates with lace doilies, that serve as place settings. All courses were placed on these plates. A vase with flowers completed the setting.

We had decided to perhaps share an antipasto, and just have a main course each (including whatever happened to be the "specialty of the house" - to get the presentation plate). We were presented with the menus. What a menu. I turned to the wine menu and selected a Masciarelli, Montepulciano D’Arbruzzo ‘99 and Ches then pointed out that the "plate" dish, was infact a form of degustation menu. They have a "degustation" menu, a "buon ricordo" menu, and a "vegetarian" menu. They vary from 35 to 40 euro. We immediatly decided on the "buon ricordo" menu. Words like "bruschetta", "wild game", "tuscan beans" and "wild boar" were like a sirens song.

We started with two bruschetta. One, with one of the best tomato, garlic and olive oil toppings I have eaten and the other with a pureed/blended pecorino fresco and celery and almond pesto. We suspect the celery the waiter referred to, is celery leaves. I just have to try this one. There was also a slice each of proscuito and

Next course was Tuscan Soup. Just a simple onion, celery, carrot, potatoe and borlotti bean soup dressed with olive oil. Wonderful depth of flavour, spiced by the olive oil.

Tagliolini with a wild game sauce. The waiter explained that it was actually "cinghiale", but that they “rinse” it to reduce the gaminess, so that it hadn’t developed the strong flavour normally associated with boar. Magnificent aldente pasta.

A wild boar stew. The meat was in chunks, and just fell apart apart when forked. It appaered to have been very slowly cooked and dry roased at the end. It was served in a rich gravy with baked polenta and black olives. We each had a large side dish of cannelini beans cooked with garlic and olvie oil (and salt).

We had a choice of Dolci. Hell, I just realised we will have to return to il Vecchio Mullino to try all the other deserts. Ches decided on Bavarese. White chocolate baverois with a mint sauce that amazingly turned out to be mint infused olive oil, with a scattering of crushed hazelnuts. Mine was only marginally less amazing. A frozen torrone (nugat) with an orange sauce (marmalade) again scattered with crushed hazelnuts.

Every course was exceptional, the wine smooth but full bodied and appropriate for the strong flavours of the food. One of our best meals ever.

When I asked to photograph the waiter, he claimed "copywrite" on his face. He presented us with two plates, and assisted in trying to find the best way to our hotel in Pisa. We last saw him wandering up the street to his home, as we set off for the final 30 min or so drive into Pisa.

I used this recipe and it was very close to the Volterra experience.

Recipe: White Chocolate Bavarian Cream
by Stephanie Zonis

Cool, smooth, creamy, and delicate, this is a great summer dessert. If you don't know, a Bavarian cream is a cooked custard with unflavored gelatin dissolved in it. Whipped cream is folded into the cooled custard, and the whole is poured into a mold, chilled to set it, and unmolded to serve. Somehow, it's rather easier than it sounds. This is a not-too-sweet white chocolate version.

You'll need a five-cup mold for this; it can be a ring mold or some other shape (I have a star-shaped mold made of copper). If you do use a ring mold, I would fill the center with fresh berries before serving. In any case, you'll also need a candy thermometer for the custard. I do not trust the recipe directions I've seen that call for cooking the custard until it's "thick enough to coat the back of a spoon", or words to that effect, and I always use a candy thermometer so I won't curdle the custard by cooking it to too high a temperature.

Sauce: Crush fresh mint and pack into a jar. Cover with olive oil and let steep for several days and then strain off the olive oil. You could even heat to extract the mint flavour and then cool and strain. The mint flavoured olive oil is the sauce.

Bavarian Cream:
  • 6 ozs. best-quality white chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1-1/2 c. heavy cream, divided
  • 1 Tbsp. unflavored gelatin (this is more than one envelope--you'll need to measure it)
  • 1/4 c. cold water
  • 5 egg yolks, from eggs graded "large"
  • 1/4 c. + 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1-1/2 c. whole milk, divided
  • 2 tsp. vanilla Ice and cold water
For Bavarian Cream: Lightly oil mold with tasteless vegetable oil (I use a paper towel to do this) and set it aside.

Chill a medium bowl and the beater(s) from a hand-held electric mixer.

In small heatproof bowl, place chopped white chocolate. Heat 1/2 c. heavy cream (reserve remainder) in small saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally, until very hot. Pour about half of hot cream onto chocolate. Place over warm water on low heat (water should not touch bottom of bowl); stir often until melted and smooth.

Gradually whisk in remaining cream. (Note: White chocolate is often stubborn about melting. If you cannot get yours to become smooth, add the rest of the cream as instructed. Whisk to combine, then turn the mixture into a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Cover to keep warm, but do not process yet.) Set aside near stove.

Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in small cup; stir to combine. Set aside near stove. In medium heatproof bowl, combine egg yolks, sugar, and about 1/4 c. milk (reserve remainder). By hand, beat well to combine.

In small, heavy saucepan, place remaining milk. Heat over low heat, stirring often, until very hot. Very gradually add hot milk to egg mixture, beating constantly. Turn entire custard mixture back into saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until custard reaches a temperature of 172 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Immediately remove from heat. Now, if your white chocolate mixture wasn't smooth, process it just until there are no lumps left.

Add this mixture to the cooked custard and stir it in thoroughly (don't forget to scrape the sides of the pot). Add the soaked gelatin and stir it in until the gelatin grains are dissolved (this is easiest to see with a metal spoon).

Strain the mixture through a fine strainer into a large, nonreactive metal bowl. You'll need another bowl or a frying pan of larger diameter (but not deeper) than the bowl into which you've strained your white chocolate mixture.

Partially fill the larger container with ice and cold water, and set the bowl of white chocolate custard into it. Gently whisk occasionally; the mixture will begin to thicken after 10-15 minutes. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula from time to time. After mixture begins to thicken, whisk a bit more frequently until white chocolate custard is the approximate consistency of raw egg whites. You do NOT want the custard to set now, so watch it carefully.

While the custard is cooling, check the mold you have oiled. I usually need to even out the light coating of oil on it with a paper towel, as the oil tends to bead up after a while. Do this if required.

When the white chocolate custard is of the right consistency, whisk well and remove from ice and water.

In chilled medium bowl with chilled beater(s), beat reserved 1 c. heavy cream just until cream forms a soft shape (this is before soft peak stage). Whisk cooled custard well once more to loosen, then quickly but gently and thoroughly fold in softly whipped cream. Don't handle any more than necessary. Mixture will be thin at this stage--OK. Quickly pour into oiled mold; spread evenly. With a toothpick, prick any large air bubbles. Place mold in refrigerator.

Chill Bavarian cream at least 4 hours before serving.

To unmold: Have ready a container of hot water; your mold must be able to fit into the container, but the container should be shallower than the mold.. Loosen Bavarian cream from sides of mold gently (I use a plastic knife). Dip mold into hot water for a count of 10; hot water should come almost all the way up the side of the mold. BE CAREFUL! You don't want to get any hot water into the Bavarian cream!

Quickly dry the bottom and sides of the mold with a dish towel. Turn serving plate upside down on top of Bavarian cream. Holding plate and mold together, invert. The Bavarian cream should slide out of the mold. If not, re-invert and dip into hot water for a few seconds more. Serve with above sauce and fresh berries.

6-8 servings
 
#10
Tuscany: Florence and the North East

FIRENZE
On our first trip to Florence we stayed in the largest of Carlo Nocentini’s apartments in Careggi. In 2002 we returned and stayed in the smaller apartment upstairs, with views of the Duomo from the balcony. There are two apartments, and more under preparation, located in a former Medici estate building. The location is Careggi, a suburb of Florence, just 5km from the centre of town, and near Fiesole. The owner's house adjoins, and both buildings are surrounded by acres of vegetable gardens. The grounds of the estate itself are beautifully groomed, with lawns and shrubs screening the fields. It is extremely quiet and peaceful, and yet the dome of the Duomo is visible in the distance.

The apartments are located in a Medici building. The villa is located a couple of miles away, and the Nocentini property has been carved out of the original estate. The buildings have been beautifully restored, and are extremely well appointed. The ground floor apartment has two sets of double doors that open onto a paved area, and the pool is surrounded by lawns just 15 meters away. The upstairs apartment has a balcony that looks down on the garden and pool. We stayed in the larger ground floor apartment, and never heard any noise from upstairs. The apartments are all paved in tiles, with exposed beams and terracotta tile ceilings.

This was one of the best kitchens we had in 14 weeks travel. Full gas stove and full sized refrigerator. Four burner stove, coffee makers, lots of pots and pans and kitchen appliances. I had a ball cooking in this kitchen, and Carlo would occasionally stick his head through the door and offer advise, or take me down to his cellar for more wine and oil.

Carlo, Roberta and their son Claudio live in the building adjoining the apartments, and yet we didn't feel that either they or we were intruding on each other. Their courtyard is on the far side of their home, so there was space for everone to have privacy. The entire complex is surrounded by vegetable gardens that Carlo leases to the locals, and we would occasionally see them working their fields.

There were no stores within a 15 minute walk, however a few minutes drive took us to the local shops, and in particular the Grillo family's Alimentari. We discovered the Grillos on the first day of our first stay with Carlo in 2000, and visited them every day for an espresso, and to buy our wine, delicatessen supplies and have a chat. Roberta's uncles have separate businesses in Emilia-Romagna, producing Parma hams and cheeses, and the Grillos (Giuseppe and Emanuele) stock a great range. By the time we could park the car and walk in to their alimentari, they would have the coffees and biscotti on the counter waiting for us.

Neighbouring shops supplied bread, fruit and vegetables and meats, and a bulk supermarket a reasonable range of commercial brands. Everything we needed was available in a couple of streets.

415-10-grillos.jpg


This is the entry in my journal from 2000 "... we have finally arrived at the apartment. And a stunning apartment it is. The ground floor, which consists of terracotta floors, exposed ceiling beams lined with terracotta. Beautifully furnished with antiques, and a bedhead similar to the one in Assisi. The kitchen is fitted with a fabulous gas stove, microwave/griller which we never got to use, big refrigerator, and all the kitchen gear we would ever need. He also has provided beer and mineral water in the refrigerator, and all sorts of bits and pieces; olive oil, wine, coffee and stove top espresso makers. This was only the beginning of his hospitality over the next four days. One morning when Carlo passed our front door, he saw me trying to translate a recipe on the back of a packet of Farro. My electronic translator had revealed that two of the ingredients translated as "Baby's Bottle" and "Railway Crossing". He suggested that we leave the farro to soak for the day and that he would prepare a stock that we should cook it in that evening when we returned from sightseeing.

Recipe: Gran Farro alla Fiorintina (Carlo)
GC - Gavin Crawford

Soak and boil the Farro. Soak and boil the Chickpeas. To make the stock, sauté garlic, thyme and tomatoes and nutmeg. Puree three quarters of the chickpeas and add them with the whole chickpeas to the stock. Add the Farro and simmer for 40 min or so.

Review: Trattoria Pallottino
In Florence for the day it was 1.30 pm, and a respectable time for an Italian lunch. But where in this sea of touristico eateries? We eventually decided that the only thing to do, was to leave any streets with shops, of any description, and try to find a residential area where the locals might eat.

I don’t think any really exist, but we came mighty close. At Trattoria Pallottino, 3 Via dell ‘Isola Delle Stinghe, we discovered only one table of English speakers. All the others were Italian, and within half an hour, there were queues of people waiting for a table. L10,000 per head, fixed menu (choice from two entrees and two mains). We both had Penne with melanzani (eggplant) tomatoes and basil. For mains, Ches had Spinach Frittata and I had Octopus and Cuttlefish Stew. Ches’s was good, mine was fantastic. Melt in your mouth and full of flavour. I assume a very long slow cooking over low heat. Jug of house red and a bottle of mineral water, service charge for the bread, and we had a wonderful meal for L30,000 all up (Say $A26.00).

Recipe: Polpo/Polpetti (Octopus/baby Octopus)
PL - "A Tuscan in the Kitchen" - Polpetti in Umido
This should be close to the dish served at Trattoria Pallottino in Florence - theirs also included Cuttlefish.

Saute garlic and red onion in olive oil over medium heat till golden. Add octopus, salt and pepper, mixing over high heat. When browned, add white wine to cover and evaporate. Add mashed tomatoes to cover and reduce heat, partially cover and simmer for approx. 45 minutes. Serve octopus and sauce with Fettunta to soak up juices.

Option: Use less tomatoes and more wine or fish stock, and finish with almost no sauce. Cool and when just warm, stir through cooked Farro.

Ches’s Option: Use fennel instead of onion - we’ll keep you posted! The mail is in, to keep the pun going. Excellent with fennel.

Recipe: Polpo Alla Griglia
PL - "A Tuscan in the Kitchen"

Boil 500 gm octopus for 15 to 20 minutes-until tender (when easily pierced with a fork).

Mix equal quantities of parsley and finely chopped red onions, just a little lemon juice and enough olive oil to cover the mixture. Drain octopus and immediately soak in the sauce. Grill or broil for two or three minutes (till it browns and firms). Serve with olive oil and lemon wedges.

Review: Family meal
Back to visit the Nocentini and Grillo families in 2002, Carlo had us in for dinner on the Thursday evening and we cooked dinner for everyone on the Friday.

Carlo's dinner: (Now this was described as a simple family meal.) Ribbolita (fantastico), panzanella salad, frittata, cold meats (including pancetta sliced from the leg on its metal carving stand), cheeses, bread, tomatoes, pickled onions etc. etc. Finished with watermelon and home grown apricots. Terrrific meal and wonderful company.

Recipe: Ribbolita
  • onion, carrot, celery, chopped fennel, flat parsley,
  • garlic,
  • bacon or pancette,
  • thyme,
  • tomatoes, chopped,
  • borlotti beans
  • winter greens (cavalo nero the tuscan black cabbage is traditionally used but you could also use savoy, brussel tops, swiss chard or a mixture of all of them)
  • olive oil
  • Italian bread
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • pesto or grated parmesan to taste
Method 1. Fry roughly equal quantities of coarsely chopped onion, red if you prefer, carrot and celery in olive oil. You could also add chopped fennel, chopped flat parsley and perhaps some bacon or pancetta, up to you. Cook till soft, about 20/30 minutes.

2. Towards the end of the frying add chopped garlic and thyme, as much as you like. Take a look in the pan, see what you ve got and add about the same again of chopped tomatoes and cook for another 20 minutes or so. Good quality tinned tomatoes are fine and often give a better result during the winter months when fresh tomatoes can be truly awful.

3. Now the borlotti beans, you need about half the amount of beans to tomatoes. Use either tinned or dried. If using dried, soak overnight then cook till soft in plenty of boiling, unsalted water. Take half the beans, reserving the rest, and add to the pot along with some chopped greens, take another look in the pot, see what you ve got and use about half that volume of greens. Cavolo Nero, the Tuscan black cabbage, is the traditional ingredient here but you can use any cabbage you like, Savoy, Brussels Tops, Swiss Chard or a mixture of all of them.

4. Continue cooking for another 20 minutes or so, adding some boiling water if it looks a bit dry. purée the reserved borlotti beans with a little water and add to the soup.

5. Now tear up some Italian bread into fairly hearty chunks (think rustic), stale ciabatta would be ideal. Add enough to give you a thick, soupy texture. If you think your soup is looking too dense then add a bit more boiling water. Continue cooking gently till the bread begins to dissolve, a matter of minutes, then season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

6. Serve warm, not hot, with a goodly slug of olive oil added to each bowl. You could also add pesto or grated parmesan, both delicious.

Recipe: Panzanella - Tuscan Bread Salad
The delicious flavour is best, of course if you use a Tuscan country bread or similar bread. Though quickly made, it must rest in the refrigerator for a few hours (up to 3).
  • 600-700 g. stale white bread
  • 2 medium or 3 small red onions
  • 500 g. small, firm tomatoes
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 bunch of basil
  • + - 5 T. olive oil
  • red wine vinegar
  • salt, fresh ground pepper
Rinse the basil and shake or spin dry. Set aside.

Cut the bread in finger thick slices, moisten well with water and allow to absorb.

Slice the onion in thin rings and the tomatoes into eighths (besure to remove the seeds and the stem core). Peel the cucumber and dice.

Remove the basil leaves from the stem and chop coarsely.

'Pluck' the bread apart into managable pieces into a bowl. Add the basil, the onion and the cucumber, then the olive oil. Adjust flavour according to taste with the salt, pepper and the red wine vinegar. Using two soup spoons, gently mix the salad together.

Allow to rest in a cool place or refrigerator for 2-3 hours. Gently mix again and adjust seasonings.

---

We spent most of Friday preparing for dinner with the Grillo's and Nocantini's. Carlo turned over his kitchen to us, and acted as Sous Chef. We had given the Grillo's money to buy the steak (60euro for 3kg (6lb) ... the absolute top of the range Arezzo bistecca ... and had bought most of our produce in the central markets in Firenze.

The Grillo's arrived at 8.15 loaded up with wines from their private cellar and introduced us to Moscato di Asti. We are now adicted, and it is a regular Aperitif and desert wine ... in fact any excuse. For our mains they had a Barolo (and we had a Maremma roso) and another wine with no lable but a tag tied to the neck. A strawberry perfumed liqueur. It's an illegal wine (higher wood alchohol content than is legal-but not lethal), produced near Ancona and marketed underground to Italians who won't be told what they can and can't drink by the EEC.

Carlo suddenly realised that he didn't have charcoal for the BBQ so dashed out to buy some.

Review: Meal cooked by Crawfords
... "finally hearded everyone out to the courtyard and seated them. The first dish was cannelini beans cooked in a rich tomato sauce with shredded raw fennel (marinaded in lemon juice) on top. Given that this is an Australian spin on a traditional Tuscan dish, it went down well. Next the pasta with wild mint, walnut and pecorino fresco pesto. At this point, there was dead silence. They were eating but silent. They were still silent. Then Carlo looked up and said "when you silence Italians at the table, you know it's good" . They all wanted the recipe. We had used the Grillo's pecorino fresco, which I have to say is the absolute best pecorino we have ever eaten. Seriously, we have tried pecorino fresco all over italy and we love it, BUT, wherever the Grillo's source theirs, it is just at another level ... absolutely brilliant. They insisted I give them my recipe as they want to give it to customers who buy their pecorino ... they will tell them it is "Galgano's Pesto".

Galgano was the knight from near Siena who became the model for the original troubadors tales of chivalry, that then became Sir Gawayne that became Gavin ... but I digress.

Meanwhile, Carlo is getting this paltry looking fire going in the little portable charcoal BBQ ... and Cheryl is getting anxious that he is going to botch these fabulous (not to mention expensive) steaks. He puts them on the grill-there is no sizzle! He takes the grill off, adds more charcoal and Cheryl is seriously concerned. He pokes the meat and turnes it with a fork. Cheryl is horrified.

Then she becomes apoplectic. She pokes me in the ribs and says ... "if he ruins that meat I'm going to kill him". She distracts herself by getting the side plates. Carlo carves the bistecca; it is still very pink but not bloody on the inside and still barely cooked on the outside. It is sublime! Cheryl will never know if it was a case of Carlo cooking it perfectly or the meat being so perfect that short of overcooking you couldn't ruin it. Whatever, he didn't observe any of the instructions given in the traditional recipe that follows, but it was a triumph. Cheryl slumps back in her chair and relaxes.

Finally the dolci. The Lemon Tart (I used my recipe from Taverna Grapollo Blu, so you will have to go to the Montalcino page for this recipe). Then there was the ricotta pureed with sugar, espresso coffee and a splash of desert wine. Both went down well ... and we chatted through to 1.00am.

The Grillo's have always been so generous. Even when I introduced them to the concept of "mates rates" (cost price), they still pressed their produce on us as gifts or at ridiculous prices. I finally hit on a way to say thanks. For this meal, I went out and bought serving platters and bowls. At the end of the meal, and as they were leaving, I gave each of them a platter and asked if they would look after it till we return to share another meal.

Recipe: Bistecca alla Fiorentina (steak in the Fiorentine manner)
  • Fillet of beef, cut to a thickness of three fingers
  • Salt,
  • pepper,
  • extra virgin olive oil
Take the steaks out of the fridge at least three hours before they are cooked (the meat will be cooked rare and would otherwise stay cold in the middle; it is suggested that at the same time you open a bottle of good Chianti that has been aged for at least three years). Place a large amount of charcoal under the grill (it should be glowing but with of four fingers above the coals).

Place the steaks on the grill. Let them cook on one side, without adding salt and under no circumstances prodding them with the fork. When they have formed a crust (seven-eight minutes), turn them over with a spatula, sprinkle the cooked side with salt and grill them on the other side for another seven or eight minutes. Turn them over again and salt the other side. At the end they should still be rare in the middle and well-cooked on the outside. Before serving, season each steak with a little fresh-ground black pepper and couple of drops of raw oil.

This and only this is the real fiorentina, i.e. a T-bone cut of sirloin steak, no lemon, never well-done and only grilled over charcoal.

Recipe: Beans with Fennel
From Aaron Ross of The Wharf Restaurant, Sydney, with modifications to suit the produce available.

Finely slice a small white onion and simmer in 1 tbsp olive oil for a few minutes. Add three large chopped tomatoes (use tinned Italian, if fresh Italian not availble). Add 70 gm or so chopped pancetta (or bacon if pancetta unavalable). Add a handfull of chopped Italian (continental) parsley. Add a stick of celery chopped fine. Stir for a minute. Add a can of cannellini beans. Add a sprig each of marjoram and thyme ( I had to used dry as fresh wasn’t available). Simmer 5 min. Add 10 black olives and a large clove of garlic minced or chopped fine. Add pepper and a lug of olive oil.

Slice half a head of fennel very fine and mix in a bowl with juice of half a lemon.

Serve the cannellini beans, and springle over sliced fennel and grated parmegiano. Serve with crusty bread (we didn’t).

I think I found the recipe for the wild mint pesto at Ristorante Dorando at San Gimignano. Then again, I could have sworn that it was a Marche pesto. Whatever, it's now Galgano's Pesto

Start with equal quantities of pecorino fresco, mint and walnuts. Chop mint, walnuts and garlic, and grind with pecorino, salt, pepper and olive oil, to form a paste. Stir through pasta.

PANZANO
We just kind of wandered lost through central Chianti till we stumbled upon Panzano. The road cuts around the western side of a fairly steep mountain (hill). Much of the modern town is strung out along this road, with streets running off up the high side. The equivalent of a piazza is an intersection. The main road does a forty five degree turn, and a street to the left leads along a ridge to the old walled medieval town. At this intersection, there is a smallish lawn and garden park, with big shade trees, in the centre, surrounded by the roads.

Review: Antica Macelleria Cecchini
Our first priority was to find Antica Macelleria Cecchini. This butchery, was listed in the Cadogan Restaurant Guide, both in its own right, and as a supplier to the better restaurants in the area. Again, neither the directions in the guide, and the street signage helped, but we persevered. It is in a street just off the main road, as you drive north, perhaps a hundred metres before the central park, on the right. A narrow street with just a few shops immediately off the main road, and then houses the rest of the way to near he top of the mountain. We did initially drive up the street, but missed it, and did some more circuiting of the town before we finally discovered it.

Ches bought the jar of salt mixed with finely chopped spices (predominantly rosemary), and some Terrine of Pork.

Next stop, the alimentari, Al Forno di Legna, reputed to have the best bread in Tuscany. The lady at the Macelleria advised that it was somewhere in the old town. We drove out there twice, and eventually stopped to ask for instructions from an elderly chap sitting outside a shop in a quiet, small piazza. Again, the piazza and narrow streets just adjoin the narrow street that runs along the ridge to a T-intersection at the church. He simply said "chiuso" (closed). No more, no less. We don't know if this means, closed down, or just that it was closed for the afternoon.

RADDA
Around 7.30 we took another stroll around the town, this time spending more time looking out over the vinyards to the south and west. By 8.00 we took a seat in the Piazza and listened to the orchestra rehearse for the evening concert. We read our books, and enjoyed the informality of the rehearsal. Fortunately, it was a better experience than the concert itself. The orchestra was from Florence, with guest pianist, singer and flautist, performing American film music from the past fifty years. While some of the singers phrasing was unusual, and the flautist came in early at the same point he had during rehearsal (practice makes perfect, or perfect practice makes perfect), it was the audience that was the greatest dissapointment.

For the concert, we had moved from our original seats at the back of the piazza, because the fountain was gurgling away. We chose to sit on the wrong side of the piazza. The breeze picked up, and it became rather cool. Mothers brought young children, and failed to keep them under control. We moved back to the fountain, where even the adults decided to have a chat. Too many distractions.

Recipe: Zuppa di Farro
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
Villa Miranda at Radda in Chianti

Use either 450 gm of dried borlotti beans or 800 gms of tined/bottled
Cook and drain beans, puree half. Sauté 1/2 onion, 2 cloves chopped garlic and I sprig chopped rosemary till onion is soft. Add the drained farro and pureed beans, beans and 300 gm chopped tomatoes, pinch of fennel seeds and 2 litres of chicken stock and simmer for 4 hours. Season.

SAN LORENZO
Near Anghiari.

This was the site of a 1440 victory by the Florentines over the Milanese. Only one man died and that was by accident. This is off the tourist beaten track.

The road north is very narrow, and is along a wide valley primarily planted with vinyards. The sign for the restaurant is so small and discrete that we missed it. As usual, you know you have missed it when you get close to the next town, which is never that far further on. We retraced a kilometre, and discovered a dirt road off to the right (west), with a small sign.

We now appreciated what the Cadogan guide had alluded to. Most of these country restaurants have been in business for a century or more, are well patronised by the locals, and just small numbers of tourists like ourselves (self drive). By locals, I mean Italians who live within an hours drive. They don’t need to advertise, and aren’t desperate for tourist dollars. The Laconda consists of two floors and several verandas of one of the old estate houses. It doesn’t appear to have had any sort of renovation in several hundred years. It is about as rustic as they get. If it was in Australia, and I suspect the U.S., it would have been spoilt years ago with a full renovation. They can turn these sort of places into a pristine original, staffed with tuxedo clad waiters and celebrity chefs, exclusive wine lists and an expensive menu to cover the costs, and it would be no different an experience to any other similar restaurant. Thank God for the Laconda’s of this world.

Review: Laconda
This restaurant is part of a wine estate, and would have had its origins as a staff cantina in the days when hundreds of workers were employed. It has a fixed price and fixed menu. For L32,000 a head ($A27.00 or $US16.00), the food and wine just keeps coming for the next couple of hours. You should never loose sight of the fact that two of the most distinguishing features of Italian food and cooking is quality seasonal produce and simplicity in the cooking. At Laconda, don’t expect to be amazed by the menu, but be prepared for an exceptional experience. Huge portions of simple food, rustic setting, and if you are lucky enough to get a table on one of the verandas, great views. And that’s nothing compared with the toilets - what a rustic experience!

A carafe of wine and a basket of bread was on the table within minutes of sitting down. Then out came the Antipasto: many slices of two types of salami, bread with mushrooms, bread with lentils, and toast with a spicy (chilli) tomato sauce/salsa.

Primi: Gnocchi with a lamb and tomato sauce. The Cadogan guide suggests that this is made with left over lamb from the previous days lunch. This was followed by tagliatelle with a tomato and cheese sauce.

Secondi: Roast chicken (marinated in oil and tarragon) -this had to be one of the most amazing taste sensations, and pork sausages, roast potatoes and salad.

Dolci: Lemon cake and vin santo.

At an adjoining table were a French family (son and daughter in late teens). They were having a great time, and while we didn’t actually talk to them, what with Cheryl’s limited French, and their lack of English, we still communicated with smiles and laughter as the afternoon unfolded. At another table were a group of Americans and their Italian language teachers. They tried hard to enforce a ban on English, and we suspect were having fun in mangling Italian. Had the weather been warmer, we probably would have succumbed to the advice of the Cadogan guide, and taken a nap on the grass in the surrounding fields.

Recipe: Crostini di Fegatini
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
Locanda al Castello di Sorci at San Lorenzo (Anghiari)

Slice 400 gm, cleaned livers into large pieces and sauté in olive oil with 2 crushed garlic cloves and 6 bay leaves. Season lightly and over high heat till mixture starts to stick. Add 3 tbls white wine and scrape brown bits off bottom of the pan, till wine evaporates. Add 2-tblsp light chicken stock (from 250 ml prepared), lower heat and simmer 5 min.

Remove from heat, discard bay leaves and puree the livers. Back in pan, add tblsp capers finely chopped, 4 anchovies chopped, 25gm butter, and cook gently stirring to blend. Do not boil. Spread on toast.

RENDOLA
In the hills near Montevarchi, south of Florence.

Review: Osteria di Rendola
On to Osteria di Rendola. It is well signposted all the way from Montevarchi. As usual, all was not as expected. A review on the internet says "the quiet osteria has a wonderful terrace on which to dine in summer". This should read, "has a small plant screened courtyard, with seating for 20 or so, with no views, beside the road. Could be a cool spot to dine of a summer evening".

At 40 degrees, all diners were seated inside a magnificent stone building. The building is a long sided, two story U-shaped one, with the restaurant on one side and the winery on the other. Terracotta paving, cement rendered, white painted walls, high ceilings panneled in timber with chestnut beams. Modern art hanging on the walls, and american jazz/swing on the sound system (too loud initially).

I don’t want to compare yesterdays meal at I’l Vecchio Mullino with Osteria di Rendola, as they are totally different in "intent". One is committed to maintaining the traditions of Volterran cucina, the other to the evolution of modern Tuscan cuisine. I have read so many people on the net, critical of Italian neuvo cuisine, as if it shouldn’t exist. Logic dictates that as ease of access to fresh produce from all over Italy allows for different combinations of ingredients, and as society moves from peasant to middle class affluence, a cuisine will continue to evolve. I have no problems in recognising that the food served at Osteria di Rendola is distinctly Italian, but a modern evolution.

It was an extremely hot day. If it was 40 degrees on the motorway and in the countryside, it was 25 degrees inside the restaurant. That’s almost uncomfortably warm, and not conclusive to a large, rustic or hearty meal anyway. The degustiazion menu would probably have been too much, so we selected four different dishes and later two deserts, so we got to try a range of Francesco Berardinelli’s creations.

Again, the net review doesn’t really tell you much about the dishes available. I started by selecting a La Pineta 2000, Toscana, La Rendola (a blend of Sangiovese with a little Cabernet). It was the basic roso produced in the cantina next door. I didn’t elect to try any of the more exotic wines on the list because I lack knowledge of Italian wines and because 20 euro is enough to pay for a wine in Italy. That’s $aus34.00, and for that sort of money, Italy produces excellent wines. Even their 3 euro wines are for the most part enjoyable.

Ches started with Involtine di Melanzane. A slice of eggplant (probably steamed as it had no grill marks or any sign of olive oil) wrapped around a whipped smooth ricotta, served with a basil pesto with sprigs of mint and pinenuts.

I had Lombo di Coniglio. A deboned portion of very moist rabbit served with small pickling onions (sweet) cooked with just a hint of balsamic vinegar.

Ches then had the Risotto Malcarto alle Cozze e Zucchine al basilico. Given that one of the secrets of an excellent risotto is the stock, we don’t have the foggiest what the stock was. It was topped with mussels and zucchini, and balsamic vinegar featured somewhere in there. As usual, the rice aldente.

I finished with Cosciotto di Agnello con Polenta. This was lamb shanks removed from the bone, spread with a pesto (probably oregano? olive oil and pinenuts-pureed), rolled and cooked, served with polenta (with rosemary baked into it).

Dolci consisted of a creme brulee with whole raspberries for Ches, while I had two sheets of puff pastry containing lightly cooked apples in sugar and rosemary, topped with the same apple and a sheet of almond toffee. This sat in a thin pool of custard with tears of raspbery and blackberry syrup alternated around the circumference of the custard.

As with all modern cuisines, as much attention went into the presentation of each course, as went into its preparation.

All in all, a well balanced and enjoyable meal. Just right for a hot day.
 
#11
Tuscany: Siena and South

ASCIANO
South of Siena.

We passed through Asciano every other day for a month while staying at Montibenici. It seemed that almost everywhere we wanted to visit involved passing through Asciano going and coming.

Cadogan Gourmet Guides "Lazy Days out in Tuscany" is a brilliant bit of publishing. From their regular guide, they have selected 20 restaurants in Tuscany, and then extracted the descriptions of things to see in the immediate area of each. They have then supplemented this with a detailed review of the restaurant. Two thirds of the book is a repeat of what they give you in their "Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches" guidebook. The reviews however, are fantastic. We had already been to two of the restaurants; Da Delfina at Artimino because it was a "plate" restaurant, and La Ceragetta at Isola Santa, because Mary had recommended it. We agreed with their reviews of both restaurants, so we trust their judgment.

Review: Da Miretta (sometimes called La Pievina)
Da Miretta is at Pievina (sometimes called La Pievina), on the main road between Asciano and Siena, 4 km out of town. It was recommended in a directory we found at our apartment.

Unfortunately, Cadogan Gourmet Guides "Lazy Days out in Tuscany" didn’t note that La Pievina is only open for dinner, not lunch. We arrived in the middle of a crisis. Someone had fallen over in the car park, and there was blood everywhere. A car door stood wide open, and a pair of glasses, broken in half at the bridge, but held together by a cord, near the largest puddle of blood. I picked the glasses up, and we took them to the front door. A young girl with minimal English explained that they would be open for dinner at 8.00, and we asked her to make a booking. I handed over the broken glasses, and we returned to the car.

As we sat in the car deliberating as to which route to take back to Monti Benichi, an ambulance pulled up behind us, and blocked us in. Much running backward and forward, with mobile phones in use and the stretcher unloaded. Eventually they emerged with the stretcher, and a chap clasping a blood soaked cloth to his forehead. The three ladies who run the restaurant also emerged, and one of them was particularly distraught. Between sobs, and with absolutely no English at all, and miming on our part, we determined that he had broken his nose and cut himself up badly, that we would be welcome at 8.00, and that she was really shaken.

We returned home for a late lunch and a snooze, before heading back for dinner at 8.15pm. What had been described in the review, unfolded before us as the night progressed. These three ladies not only provide a stunning meal, but put on a performance of hospitality that I haven’t experienced since Raphael at the Bella Vista, Dee Why in the eighties.

The lady who had been distraught that afternoon, was the hostess. She spent all night drifting from table to table (with the odd trip into the garden for fresh herbs and bits and pieces). She beamed and chatted with everyone, explaining what was to come next and every time she passed our table, patted me on the shoulder and explained to Ches, what each dish was. She early on realised that Ches was recording every dish we were served, and at one stage took the notepad to put a big lipstick kiss on it and sign her name. We still can’t read it. The other women served and cooked at various stages. All wore white outfits with mop caps.

When we sat down, there was already a bowl of nuts. They indicated that it was seafood night, and that we should therefore have the Valdechiana Bianco Vergine, and a carafe of aqua minerali. These arrived promptly, with a basket of warm bread. Great start. Our hostess indicated that there would be 10 antipasti. Ches’s eyes began to bulge.

Crostini topped with tomato seafood and baby clams. Pate with olives. Cold seafood salad - squid, octopus and prawns. Filleted sardines pickled with sage, rosemary and onion. Vongolini (clams) in tomato, white wine, parsley and a hint of chilli.

Lunarchi (like white periwinkles). Cooked in a very rich tomato, pancetta and we think anchovy sauce, and served with toothpicks to extract the meat from the shell. Really strong flavour and quite sensational. This took me back to my childhood when all the guys at Watson's Bay would collect periwinkles and boil them. We would build a fire on the rocks, sit a tin with the periwinkles in fresh seawater on it, and eat them using a bent pin or safety pin.

A heated towelette in a sachet to clean up and then back into it with: A piece of cold smoked mackerel, and a filleted sardine, stuffed with a seafood puree, in which pine nuts were studded down the middle and then fried. Bruscetta with tomato and sardine. Baked mussels with fresh soft breadcrumbs, mozzarella and basil and a hint of chilli. Mussels in white wine and fine ground black pepper.

Zuppa (soup). We aren’t too sure where this fits into the normal description of an Italian meal. Probably one of the options for Primo Piati at most restaurants. Our hostess crossed herself and said "Zuppa Santa", which we took to mean "soup of the saint". If we only knew how to cook this. If only. It was a clear broth with sliced hardboiled eggs, shreds of spinach (not much), and what Cheryl has described as fried bread. Now, I know it was eggs and liver, so maybe the fried bread was some form of liver? Fishes liver? Whatever and however, it was wonderful.

A seafood Risotto, with clams, muscles, prawns and octopus and a hint of chilli. Cheryl had the temerity to suggest that it was better than the one I had cooked the previous evening. Well, I’m amazed. They were working with fresh seafood in a fully equipped kitchen while I am coping with three gas burners and a shrink packed frozen mixture of seafood, mushrooms and peas.

Giant salmon ravioli with a rich salmon sauce.

They thought we might be ready for a digestive.

The modern Italian is much more civilised than their Roman antecedent. Then again, the Tuscan might claim that their antecededents were Etruscans not Romans, and that Tuscany was merely occupied by the Romans for five hundred years. Whatever, rather than the Roman method of dealing with overindulgence, in Tuscany, they serve a digestive.

I have no idea if they actually work. It is a liquid that contains 23 different herbs and things like cola. It tastes the way cough medicines used to taste, before they decided that children require a sweet, disguising flavour to get them to drink it. In this land, where their taste for liqueurs runs to bitter almond, walnut and strega, and strong sambuca and grappa, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the digestive. Whether it worked or not, there was no time to waste. On with the courses.

A grilled bream, with slice potatoes and cherry tomatoes.

The Piece de Resistance. A Fritto Misto. This consisted of the usual mound of mixed seafood lightly floured and deep-fried. But just to be different, this Fritto Misto is heaped on and around a stone, out of which protrudes a tree made of ivy vine, from the branches of which are hanging the king prawns.

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Everyone dives for the camera. Well, every tourist with a camera on them. There was a table of Brits in the adjoining dining room, and the flash came through to us. Ches photographed (we brought the camera because we knew from the review that the "Prawn Tree" was a possibility). Everyone else in the Restaurant was Italian, but they enjoyed it just as much.

By this stage, conversation between tables was well established, and the Fritto Misto creates the sort of atmosphere in which to serve the Dolci. We aren’t too sure just how many deserts and flans etc. there were. They just placed entire platters on each table, and we helped ourselves before passing to another table. We don’t know if they usually supervise the moving of plates around, but on this occasion, and in our dining room, we started to pass the platters on and before long, they were moving back and forward across the room. We either noted, or sampled the odd one or two.

Custard and Chocolate Pie, Profiteroles with cream, Swiss Roll with chocolate, Biscotti, a shortbread cake, Jam Tarts, another Custardy, Ricotta Pie, and god only knows what else.

They know that most people won’t make it too far into the Dolce, so they wrap up great slabs and hand them out at the door as you leave.

For the latter half of the meal, a bottle of Grappa had been placed on the table, and when they also delivered a small jug of Limoncello, Ches was insistent that I had to have a Grappa. It was a "Brunello Grappa" and as I have explained before, they feel that a grappa made with the seeds and stalks of different types of grapes deserves to be so labelled. I’m here to tell you that Brunello may be one of the most expensive of all red wines in Italy, but when it comes to Grappa, I figure a seed and a stalk is still a poor ingredient for anything other than fertiliser.

We sat down to dinner at 8.15pm, and the first of the antipasti was on the table within 5 minutes. We finished eating at 12.15am. Four hours of non-stop grazing. Now I know why they don’t open for Lunch. A 1.30pm start would see them finishing lunch at 5.30, and just two and a half hours to do it all again.

This has to be the dining experience to beat them all. Good food, the odd sensational dish, and great hospitality. I know they wouldn’t recognise one customer from another within 2 hours of everyone leaving, but for while you are there, they fuss over you and make you feel as though you are a long lost friend. We had kind of figured this beforehand, so after the experience in the car park, we had arrived at the restaurant that evening with a koala to give to our hostess. It got us off to a good start, and she fussed over us all night. We had our photograph taken with two of the girls (our age), and staggered into the night for a drive home through the countryside.

We returned for dinner in 2002, repeated the experience and again had our photo taken with the wonderful proprietors.

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Recipe: Tagliatelle alla Marinara
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
Da Miretta at Pievina (Asciano)

Saute 2 cloves chopped garlic, 2 tblsp chopped parsley and pinch dried chilli flakes. As garlic turns golden, add 250 gm skinned, seded and chopped tomatoes. Simmer 10 min then add 150 gm, chopped octopus, stir through, then add 150 gm chopped cuttlefish, 150 gm chopped prawns and 150 gm chopped squid. Cover and simmer 10 min. Add a little stock if it becomes dry. Add a knob of butter and strir through pasta (500gm).

MONTALCINO
We visited Montalcino for a bare five hours in 2000, where we stumbled upon Taverna Grapollano Blu. We loved the town so much we decided to stay there for a week in 2002.

We stayed in an apartment with kitchen in a converted hotel near the north-eastern gates. Wonderful views across the countryside to Montepulciano and San Quirico and a large comfortable apartment with an average kitchen. The owner and I argued over our right to use the kitchen. It was set up with the stove and the sink and work bench enclosed in a locked timber cover. I produced the copies of our emails where I had repeatedly asked if our rental fee included the use of a kitchen ... and he confirmed it did. He was now wanting to charge an additional fee per day. I won, the key was produced and the cover removed.

Among a number of dishes I prepared here, was a stove top version of the Rabbit with Wild Fennel recipe I obtained from San Leo. Here it is with a local drop, Orta Bear (who joined us for a holiday from Orta San Giulio), and jar of vegimite we had brought from Australia for Isabella Dusi (of "Vanilla Beans and Brodo" fame).

Review: Taverna Grapollano Blu
Taverna Grapollano Blu, which turned out to be around the corner from Cheryl's favourite Italian pottery store, and turned up in one of the photographs we had taken of the countryside through the side street.

Montalcino doesn’t see much in the way of coach tourists; mainly self drive, and even then, not a great many. Our restaurant only held one other couple when we arrived, and another three tables were occupied in the course of our meal. Nice and cool and quiet.

Ches had bruscetta, and for the first time experienced what top quality olive oil can be like. The bruscetta was drizzled with an olive oil that was wonderfully "peppery". You hear about it on cooking programs, but rarely experience it. She followed with "pinci", which is a local type of pasta, like Siena’s "pici", with a rich boar meat and fungi ragu. She finished with a creme caramel. I had a plate of mixed crostini; tomato and pecorino, pesto, pate, and olive paste. Next came pinci with a sauce of tomato and garlic, sausages and white beans (canallini), and finally, the best desert I ever came across in Italy. It was a lemon tart. The pastry was a thin shortcrust, with no more than a centimetre thick layer of lemon sauce (including lemon peel). Almost like a thick sharp lemon marmalade, with toasted pinenuts. Fantastico!! Both Ches and my pasta courses were served in rectangular dishes, really unusual, and kind of like the plate we had bought around the corner.

Following this afternoon visit to Montalcino in 2000, I wrote to a town resident who approached the owner of Grapollano Blu (Maria Pia) and sent me her recipe for the Lemon Tart.

Crostata Crema di Limone con Pinoli (Lemon Cream Tart with Pine Nuts)
GC - Gavin Crawford
At Grappolo Blu in Montalcino

Crostada:
  • 200 gms plain flour,
  • 120 gms unsalted butter,
  • 80gms white sugar,
  • 1 egg,
  • 1 egg yolk,
  • grated rind of 1 lemon.
Crema di Limone:
  • 2 lemons,
  • grated rind of 2 lemons,
  • 2 eggs,
  • 2 tablespoons sugar,
  • Pine nuts according to your taste (sprinkle really liberally).
Method: Prepare Crema di Limone firs and while it cools, prepare the crostada.

Place all Crema ingredients in a saucepan and place the saucepan into a bigger saucepan containing boiling water. Stir over the boiling water for 4 minutes until it turns creamy and thickens. It still should be slightly transparent. Set aside to cool.

Crostada: Place all ingredients in a large bowl and work with hands to a firm consistency so the mixture holds together. I usually cut the butter into small pieces and don’t overwork it. Working too much will make it too warm. Don’t try to make it into a smooth dough, just rough and crumbly. Place on a 30cm baking tray (I use a Pizza tray) and work with your knuckles and fists to spread it evenly over the tray. It should end up bumpy with knuckle prints across it and little lumps of butter.

Using a spoon, spread the cooled Crema over the crostada base and sprinkle with pine nuts. Bake in a medium over for 20 min. but make sure you do not overcook the base. It should not really change colour and should remain very light and not browned or it will harden when it cools. Serve on own with a glass of Vin Santo or Moscadello.

Recipe: Pinci alla Grappolo Blu
GC - Gavin Crawford
As far as we can tell, the sauce for this dish served at Restoranti Grappolo Blu in Montalcino is as follows.

Very slowly roast cherry tomatoes (halved) and whole cloves of garlic in a little olive oil. When ready, stir through torn Basil leaves, and add extra olive oil when stiring through pasta. Pinci is probably a variation of Pici. Substitute a very thick spaghetti.

Recipe: Zuppa di Fagioli
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
Trattoria Sciame at Montalcino

Heat oil and add 1/2 tsp chilli powder, 2 red onions, 2-3 carrots, a stick of celery and a handful of parsley all chopped (Odori). Sauté till all getting soft. Add 2 cloves garlic chopped. Add a glass of red wine with high heat and almost evaporate. All up, close to half an hour.

225 gm dried beans cooked, or 400 gm tinned/bottled borlotti or cannellini beans. Puree a third of them, and put in pan with 300 ml pureed fresh tomatoes (or 400 gm tin). Stir and add 600 ml of stock, and the rest of the beans. Cook for approx 45 min.

Take off heat and place a handful of spinach, chard or other green leafy vegetable on top and cover for five minutes. Stir through when ready to serve.

Serve and top with a drizzle of olive oil, freshly torn basil leaves, Parmesan, toasted ciabatta and very finely shaved red onion.

Review: Grappolo Blu
Our second experience at Grappolo Blu was disappointing. Returning in 2002 for a weeks stay in Montalcino, our first thought on the Saturday evening we arrived was dinner at Grappolo Blu. We arrived at 8.15 to find it packed to the rafters. We therefore made a booking for 9.15 and went for a stroll around town.

Returning an hour later, there was a queue out the door and it was 9.45 before we got a table. Even then, it wasn’t particularly graciously offered. Throughout the evening, a waiter and waitress conducted a running battle and the maitre ‘d Luciano, who is the co-owner and husband of Maria Pia, seemed stressed out. Service was indifferent and the food spoilt by the atmosphere.

Even worse, the lemon tart was not as good as mine. To explain; after our last meal, I had written to Isabella Dusi raving about the lemon tart. She had asked Maria Pia for the recipe and emailed it to me, and I now make it regularly. We realised later that Maria Pia hadn’t made the tart. A new chef, obviously with a different "touch", and the tart was fairly ordinary.

A bottle of Carnigliano 2000, Rosso de Montalcino made the meal convivial.

Primi: Zuppa di Contadito, the peasant style vegetable soup was delicious and Shell pasta with pancetta picante and peas nice and spicey.

Secondi: Cheryl enjoyed the Pinci with ragu and porcini and I revisited the cannelini beans with pork sausage which was again excellent.

---

I asked Luciano to let Isabella know we had arrived in town (she knew where we were staying), and when we left around 11.30 we followed him down the street toward our apartment. Only a hundred metres before our apartment, he ducked into a doorway. It eventuated that Maria Pia has opened a new "mod Italian" restaurant, with way upmarket prices where she can be more innovative than the locals will tolerate of a trattoria.

Luciano never passed on the message to Isabella, so at the end of the week when we left for Sorano, we left a kilo jar of Vegemite on Maria Pia’s doorstep. There was an email awaiting us back home in Oz thanking us for the vegemite but no explanation as to why she hadn’t contacted us.

All in all, our stay in Montalcino never lived up to our expectations. We always felt that the locals were only interested in extracting the tourist dollar. It is all well and good and appropriate that the town make its money out of tourism, but with the exception of our local baker and maybe a couple of other shopkeepers, there wasn’t much graciousness or goodwill. Whenever we walked the streets, and we did walk up and down pretty well every street in town continuously all week, shopkeepers looked out from the doorways as though they were buzzards awaiting the weakest of the herd to die. It seemed to us that even the elderly of the village now congregate in the park in the far north west corner of the town to avoid the tourists, and frowned upon anyone venturing into their park.

Review: Gavin's Lunches
For lunches, I cooked up a big bowl of Farro. I cooked the farro in chicken stock with chopped wild fennel. Strained it and added diced pancetta and diced potato that I had cooked together, and some diced pecorino fresco and tomato with a slurp of olive oil.

Among the other dishes we cooked in our apartment there was a risotto with pancetta, baby eggplant, pinenuts, onion and garlic and ... a stovetop version of the San Leo rabbit recipe. Sauteed diced pancetta fumicato, garlic and wild fennel, then added the bunny to brown. Turned the heat right down and added white wine, large chunks of carrot, celery and spring onions, turning and basting for 40 min. The bottle of Brunello was pretty good as well.

Ches also cooked her now famous chickpea soup. Pancetta, onion and garlic sautéed then added to cooked chickpeas, celery, carrot and several of Rebecca’s small potatoes, chicken stock and all the parmesan rinds we had been collecting for the past five weeks.

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Friday night pretty well summed up our experience of Montalcino hospitality. I tried to make a booking at La Sciania. He wouldn’t make a booking for 8.30 and insisted that we would have to eat at 7.30. Get the message? Tourists in and out early, and then the locals can have a leisurely evening. We took our business out of town to St Angelo in Colle.

MONTEBENICHI
In the hills 30 minutes drive south east of Siena.

Montebenici is such a small village that it doesn't make it on to many maps and barely makes any impact with "Google". The last few kilometers are along a dirt road, up into the hills on the wrong side of the Chianti designated wine region. It misses by a kilometre or two. Don't tell the wine that! It is off the main road 30 min. from Siena on the way to Montevarchi.

We stayed in an apartment called Colombaio, several hundred meters outside the village in the middle of an olive grove with views back to the village. Two restored castles and a cluster of houses around a small piazza ... so small that it has no shops and even the bred is trucked in daily. A fifteen minuite drive to Bucine for the closest supermarceto.

Our "kitchin" was the most basic we ever experienced in Italy. A small refrigerator, a sink and two gas burners attached to a gas bottle. For four weeks this churned out basic Italian meals with local produce.

Just to confuse things, we had already collected this recipe from a restaurant near San Gimignano, and then discovered we had wild mint growing on the olive terraces beside our front door. Having crushed wild mint with our car tires and being constantly overwhelmed by the aroma every time we pulled off the road in the Crete, we just had to try this recipe. We cooked it at Colombaio using fresh pecorino (this can only be sold as "fresco" if it is within twelve days of manufacturing), walnuts we shelled and crushed, and wild mint we picked from the olive terraces and outside our door. Fantastico. We figure aged pecorino would make for an even stronger, sharper flavour. I think wild mint is also a little bitter, but Ches doesn’t think it is as strong as domestic garden mint.

Recipe: Pasta with Pecorino and Mint
Start with equal quantities of pecorino (finely grated), mint and walnuts. Chop mint, walnuts and garlic, and grind with pecorino, salt, pepper and olive oil, to form a paste. Warm in bain marie and stir through pasta.

Recipe: Ceci (Chickpeas)
CC - Cheryl Crawford
Ceci con Vercura ala Montebenichi.
Cheryl’s chickpeas with vegetables cooked at Il Colombaio near Montebenichi.

Soak overnight, and cook chickpeas.

Sauté garlic, red onion, pancetta in olive oil, add half the cooked chick peas, and stir to coat. Add chicken or beef stock, the rest of the chickpeas pureed, diced carrot, green beans, sliced mushrooms, rosemary and freshly grated nutmeg. Simmer for up to 30 minutes, and if you have a meddling husband, add Arborio rice for the last 20 minutes.

Recipe: Pici and Sauce
The ingredients were listed in a guidebook and we cooked it at Il Columbaio 3/7/2000. Pici is a thick south Tuscan spaghetti.

Saute ground pork, finely diced pancetta, ground chicken and finely chopped sausage. When brown, add Brunello, a tin of diced tomatoes (or half a dozen ripe tomatoes) several bay leaves and simmer for half an hour or so to thicken. Add the cooked Pici and stir over heat to coat the pici with the sauce and serve with grated parmagano.

Recipe: Coniglio in Fricassea
PL - "A Tuscan in the Kitchen"

Marinade: Finely diced carrot, celery, red onion, and juniper berries and cover with red wine. Only up to 24 hours, in refrigerator and turn occasionally.

Sauté finely chopped red onions in olive oil over low heat. Dry marinaded rabbit pieces and add to pan, turning up the heat. When golden, add salt and pepper, glass of white wine, thyme and sage branches tied together, and cover with beef broth. When boiling, reduce heat to simmer, and uncovered cook for approx 30 min. Check occasionally to identify when cooked (tender and white). Remove the thyme and sage. Whip two egg yokes with a splash of milk and a touch of Parmesan cheese, and add a splash of lemon juice. dd to the stew and stir until the egg mixture has cooked in thickening the stew.

Recipe: Eliche alla Crete
GC - Gavin Crawford
Serve with eliche, fusilly or shell pasta.

Sauce: Saute garlic and red onions, a slice of pancetta diced, add two chopped tomatoes and one diced red pepper, season to taste. Simmer for twenty minutes or so to thicken. If drying out before reducing to a rich sauce, add a splash of white wine. Stir through pasta with grated pecorino cheese and pan fried pine nuts.

PIETRAVIVA
A small village near Montibenici.

Pietraviva is the next small village between Montibenici and Montevarchi where we stayed for a month.

Review: Frog’s Legs Festival
For dinner, we drove down to Pietraviva for the Frog’s Legs Festival. We met up with Daniele, Stephanie and Clarissa, and a Dutch family they had met at the local pool. There isn't a piazza in Pietraviva, but there is a side street that is pretty wide, so they had erected a marque with kitchen and bar, and set out tressle tables. Kind of run like a restaurant in that a girl took our order and we paid by the dish.

We had tortalini with a frog’s leg ragu, which wasn’t readily identifiable as frogs legs, and bbq’d pork ribs. These were really tasty, but very light in terms of meat. Unfortunately the Dutch kids performed a treat, so we were somewhat distracted, and there wasn’t any conversation of significance. Meanwhile, at another table, a group of locals our age were having a great time. They were finishing off their meal with vin santo and biscoti. Sharing the wine around, pouring from glass to glass as someone got light on, and sharing a paperbag of biscoti. Not a great deal of conversation, but much sharing of not only the wine, but it seamed, a sharing of company without need for a great deal of talking.

As we were finishing our meal, the band started up out in the street, so we joined them in a dance. We also walked up the street to see a guys house that he opens to the public during these festivities. We walked into his backyard and workshop, and Ches’s first words were, "Oh my! His pooooore wife." This guy has collected everything. Nothing has escaped him. All very neatly organised and displayed. Bobby pins, spark plugs, keys, buttons, shovels, light switches, farm equipment, newspapers and books, carvings from Olive tree roots, everything. I was amazed to discover on top of a pile of books, was a paperback book, in English, about South Africa. I recognised it instantly. It was provided by the South African Embasy in the late 50’s. They had sent me one when I had written gathering material for a school project in 1959.

We stood and listened to the band for a couple of numbers, and now being 11.14, decided to retire.

Recipe: Cantuccini
RB - "Lazy Days Out in Tuscany"
Le Cave di Maiano at Fiesole
Close enough to the Biscotti we encountered here and elsewhere throughout Tuscany.

Butter and lightly flour a baking sheet. Sift 300 gm Plain Flour, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder and pinch of salt into a bowl, add 175 gm caster sugar, 2 eggs and one egg yolk, and mix to a sof dough. Stir in 125 gm coarsley chopped almonds.

Divide dough into two and form each into a long sausage, about 2.5 cm in diameter. Mix milk and egg yolk and brush the dough. Bake at 180c (Gas4) till golden (20 min). While still soft, cut diagonally into 1cm thick slices and spread out on tray. Return to oven for 10 min till crisp. Use for dipping in vin santo.

PIENZA
Pienza was just a speck of a town in the middle ages, and known as Corsignano. The local people never felt the need to develop it into anything more, there was no economic or military reason. It was enough for their needs. Then along came the Piccolomini family. They fled Siena after some political torubles, and as this was one of their posessions, went into exile.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was born here in 1405, and some years later when he was elevated to Pope Pius 11, either for his own glory (he named it after himself, Pienza), or to stick it up the nose of Siena, plowed millions of the "pennies of the faithful" into building what has been described as the "perfect" rennaisance city. Note, "city" not "town". It is a town. In fact, he had Bernardo Rossellino design it, and the guidebook noted that no one was ever sure if it was intended as a monument to the Pope, or a model city of renaissance town planning. All the above, is the second clue.

We have stumbled upon the role model for "Disneyland". Pope Pius 11 said to Rossellino, "Build me a theme park. I want it to be the ideal Renaissance City. Staff it only with people schooled in servicing tourists, keep it immaculately clean, don’t give anything away for free. If the tourists want to know what is where, hire them an "audio" tour of the town. Charge them for every exhibit, and at 1.00 close everything except the restaurants. Lock up the church as well, they don’t want to pray, they just want a free look at the only church that hasn’t had a single change made since it was built. By Papal decree, nothing can be changed at all. Keep extracting the Lire from them over lunch, and only reopen the exhibits after 5.00 pm." It never had an economic or military reason to exist until the Pope gave it one.

To be fair, it is a beautiful, clean and architecturally unique town. It just doesn’t live. You don’t ever feel you are in a town where people actually live. They probably lock it up at the end of the day, and all go home. If the cathedral ever falls off the cliff, which they feel it has to do sooner or later, the town would cease to exist. The cathedrals foundations were poor from day one, perched over a cliff. There are major cracks in the walls around the back, and as the guidebook suggested it could go at almost any time, I was happy not to have chanced it; they locked the doors 5 minutes before we were going to have a look. Oh!, and the views of the surrounding wine country is pretty good from the pathways around the south side of the town, on either side of the cathedral.

Given the quality of the regional cheese and number of cheese shops in Pienza ...

Recipe: Roasted Spring Asparagus with Sweet Peppers and Pecorino di Pienza
  • 2 bunches asparagus,
  • 1 red bell pepper,
  • 1 yellow bell pepper
  • 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme, washed and picked
  • Pecorino di Pienza, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400°F. Trim and cut asparagus on a diagonal into 2-inch pieces. Blanch asparagus in a pot of boiling water for a minute to set the color. Roast red and yellow peppers directly over the burner until skin is completely blackened. Set peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for about 5 minutes. Using paper towels or a clean cloth, wipe the blackened skins off the peppers. Julienne peppers into 2-inch strips. Toss asparagus and peppers in a bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread vegetables out on a pan and roast for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables are tender but not mushy. Arrange vegetables on a plate and garnish with thyme leaves and shaved Pecorino cheese.
 
#12
Tuscany: Siena, St Angelo in Colle, San Quirico d'Orcia, Sorano

ST ANGELO IN COLLE
Fed up with the mercenary attitude of restaurants in Montalcino, we drove the 10km or so out of town to the south west and the little village of St Angelo in Colle and Il Pozzo.

Review: Il Pozzo
This bar restaurant in the piazza has a rear dining room with wonderful views across the valley and countryside. Here we were greeted enthusiastically and enjoyed a leisurely meal.

Mixed Crostini Toscana (tomato, garlic beans and livers. Pinci al Ragu (A very rich beef ragu on home made pasta), very thin slices of roast loin of pork, rabbit stew (chunks of bunny in a tomato and sage based sauce), cauliflower soufle and grilled eggplant (both fabulous) and finished with pana cotta bianco and creme caramel. All washed down with a caraf of house roso.

On leaving, we found the entire village gathered in the piazza sitting on every available flat surface, quietly chatting as the children played among the parked cars. This village sits on such a small ridge that there isn't much space available for a piazza and it doubles as a car park. Now this is a living, breathing village ... the real thing.

Recipe: Oxtail Ragu With Parsley Pinci
Yield: 2 servings
  • 1 ts olive oil
  • 2 lb oxtail (about 6 chunks)
  • 1/3 c chopped onion
  • 2 lg garlic cloves; finely chopped
  • 1 28 ounce can whole; peeled tomatoes
  • 1/2 c beef stock
  • 1 ts dried thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 salt and pepper
  • 3/4 c flour
  • 1/4 c semolina
  • 2 lg eggs
  • 1/4 c extremely finely-chopped parsley
  • 1 freshly-grated parmesan cheese; for serving
Prepare oxtail ragu: In a large heavy pot or Dutch oven heat oil over medium-high heat.

When hot, add oxtail chunks and saute on all sides until browned, about 10 minutes.

Add onions and garlic, mix well and saute 2 minutes. Squeeze tomatoes into coarse chunks with your hands and add them with their liquid.

Stir in beef stock, thyme and bay leaves.

Bring to a boil and reduce heat to very low. Simmer gently 5 to 6 hours, or until oxtail is tender.

Let cool. When cool enough to handle, remove oxtail from liquid, cut meat and fat from bone and cut into small dice. Discard bones. Spoon as much fat as possible from surface of sauce and return diced meat to pot. Mix well and season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate overnight.

Prepare pinci: On a wooden work surface mix flour and semolina and form into a mound with a well. Break eggs into center and beat well. Gradually begin mixing in flour mixture to form a dough. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and parsley. Work pasta with your hands, kneading at least 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Add a little more flour if dough is still sticky, but do not let it become too stiff. Wrap in wax paper and let rest, refrigerated, 1 hour.

To roll out pinci, pinch off olive-size pieces of dough one at a time (meanwhile, cover pasta dough with wax paper) and roll between your hands to form an oval. On work surface, roll each oval with your hands into slender, long strands, 12- to 15-inches long. Leave them on work surface to dry slightly; make sure strands are not touching. When ready to serve, gently reheat ragu and bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil. Add pinci and cook just until al dente, 5 to 8 minutes. Drain in a colander. Serve pasta in deep pasta bowls, pour sauce over and pass grated Parmesan.

SAN QUIRICO D'ORCIA
We visited San Quirico several times in 2000 and again in 2002. Eventually we decided to lunch at Trattoria Al Vecchio Forno on the Saturday we were in transit from Montalcino to Sorano.

Review: Trattoria Al Vecchio Forno
Trattoria Al Vecchio Forno is as famous for its two turtles as it is for its food. The turtles roam the courtyard, which is the only place to dine in summer, and are reported to beg for food. We met both turtles but that didn’t do any begging. The lushest courtyard in any Italian town you are likely to find is a wonderful setting on a hot summers day.

With a long drive ahead of us, I settled for just one glass of the house roso. I don’t think there is any such thing as a bad house red. The Bruschetta was heavy on the garlic, even for a garlic lover, but the Pici with roast duck sauce was wonderful. Cheryl as usual reduced the lamb population by another leg. Roasted with a crust of salt and rosemary (but a little dry in parts). I suddenly realised that I am as hard on the rabbit population as Cheryl is on the sheep. Rabbit stuffed with pork (actually ground prosciutto, rabbit kidneys and liver and an aniseed flavour (fennel seeds or fennel maybe??). We shared a platter of roast potatoes and a zucchini soufflé (more like a frittata). I think we would head back to San Quirico before eating anywhere else in Montalcino.

Apart from their wonderful gardens and elaborately decorated churches (carved exterior stone and interior timber), the people seemed more relaxed and the atmosphere friendlier.

415-12-san-quirico.jpg


Recipe: Pappardelle with Duck
For the dough:
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups semolina durum flour
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt
For the sauce:
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 carrot, cubed
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • 3 large basil leaves, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 whole duck
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 2 plum tomatoes
  • 1 pinch crushed red pepper
  • 1 pinch powdered nutmeg
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
Prepare the pappardelle: Mix the flour together and mound on a smooth surface; make a well in the center. With a fork beat the eggs, one at a time, into the flour. Add the extra-virgin olive oil and the salt, gradually scraping all the flour until a ball is formed. (This may also be done in a food processor by adding all the ingredients and processing until a dough ball is formed). Knead for a few minutes and feed the dough through the pasta machine to obtain a very thin sheet. Cut these sheets into rectangular strips 1 inch wide and 4 inches long.

Prepare the sauce: Slowly braise the onion, carrots, celery, rosemary, parsley, basil, and garlic in the extra-virgin olive oil, stirring with a wooden spoon. Clean and wash the duck, and cut into 8 pieces; when the vegetables are golden-brown, add the pieces of duck and brown on both sides. Add the wine and boil. When it is almost evaporated, add the tomatoes, a pinch of crushed red pepper and nutmeg. Cover with water and let it cook slowly for 3 hours. When it is done, debone the duck pieces, chop the meat very carefully, add to the sauce, bring to a boil and season to taste. Sauté with the pasta and serve. Serves 4

SIENA
We stayed at Montibenici for a month in July 2000. It was a 30 minute drive out of Siena toward Arezzo. While we visited Siena regularly, we rarely ate there. We did stock up on food there, but didn't patronise their restaurants after a poor first up experience on the day of the Palio.

We headed into Siena late-morning, without much idea as to what unfolds on a Palio day. Rather than risk trying to find ourselves a parking spot on a day which was sure to attract large crowds, we decided to park as close to the city gate that was closest to the road we would use from Montibenichi. As luck would have it, Porta Pispini must be one of the quietest gates.

I dropped Ches off at the gates, and went to park the car. Just around the corner and under the walls, in an area were market gardens and olive groves run right up to the circling road, I parked on the side of the road, and in ten minutes walked back to the gates. Very easy. From Porta Pispini it is a half kilometre walk to Il Campo.

Review: Averarge restaurant in Siena
The crowds weren’t too bad, even as we approached the streets immediately around Il Campo. It was turning into a very hot day. Clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight. As it was approaching 1.00 pm, we decided to try a no-name Pizzaria/Trattoria in Via dei Fusari, that had been recommended in our Cadogan guide book. It turned out to be very, very ordinary in every respect. It could have been that they were distracted in the run up to the Palio, but that would only explain the bloody awful service.

The food wasn’t any more than ordinary. For a start, having been ignored at the front counter for many minutes, we were seated and then forgotten for the next 15 minutes. We had to call for our order to be taken. Ches ordered an Insalata Capres and Pici al Funghi. Pici is a pasta unique to Siena, and so we had to give it a try. Her salad didn’t arrive, but her pasta did, and it was very ordinary - at least the funghi sauce was. Similarly, the ragu with my tagliatelle was ordinary.

My Pizza was large and crisp, and the salami nice and spicy. When they asked if we required desert, we suggested that there might have been a missing salad. Much apologising, and another bottle of mineral water on the house. Very disappointing as a leadup to a special day.

Review: Antica Pizzicheria
We visited Siena several days later and then every Friday for the next four weeks we spent at Montibenici.

Ches had done considerable reconnoitring on the day of the Palio, and had identified an alimentari that also sold "sandwiches". Well, its actually called an Antica Pizzicheria, which is a cross between an alimentari, that actually makes many of their own sausages, salamis etc, as well as Panforte and salads etc. This has to be the ultimate "Deli".

An American anounced that he had last been here eight years previously. The manager responded, "why don’t you come more often?" The owner, unbeknown to us, was standing toward the end of our side of the counter, and was offering Ches all sorts of advise on what was what. Later when we had spent L53.000 (on lunch!!!), she suggested he should be on commission. The manager looked up in surprise, "he is the owner". Oops, Kangaroo pins all round.

Now, they had a sign saying "sandwiches". I ended up with a huge bread roll, the type of Italian bread that works your jaw till it aches, filled with proscuito, pecorino and sun dried tomatoes. Ches had a rice salad, freshly made. Filled with mozarella, ham, sausage, olives and herbs. We also left with half a fantastic Salami with fennel, and a slab of their home made Panforte, for which Siena is famous. We sat in a small piazza, below a statue on a column of the Sianese wolf, and took our time over lunch.

On every return trip to Siena, we would always stock up on panforte.

Recipe: Panforte Di Siena
This is a delicious Christmas Dessert from Tuscany. It is best eaten, sliced into very thin slices, after dinner with Liqueurs, Tea or Coffee.
  • 200g ( 7oz ) Almonds, freshly ground
  • 100g ( 4oz ) Almonds left whole
  • 100g ( 4oz ) Walnuts, freshly ground
  • 100g ( 4oz ) Hazelnuts, freshly ground
  • 300g candied orange and lemon peel, finely chopped
  • 50g ( 2oz ) dried figs, finely chopped
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 100g Honey
  • a pinch each of ground cinnamon, cloves, coriander and freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoon of all-purpose ( plain) flour
  • 1 sheet rice paper
  • 2 extra teaspoons of cinnamon and flour, mixed together
Preheat Oven 160C ( 325F/Gas 3 ) 20cm ( 8 inch ) shallow baking tin

Put the honey and sugar into a heatproof bow and place on top a saucepan with boiling water stirring all the time until sugar has dissolved. Now mix in all the other ingredients. Line the lightly greased baking tin with the rice paper. Pour in the mixture and dust with the flour and cinnamon. Bake in the preheated oven for about 40 minutes. The cake will remain flat and not rise. Cool and dust off remaining flour. Wrap in foil and keep in a tin in a cool place, will keep for many weeks. Before serving dust lightly with powder sugar.

SORANO
That’s the Sorano near Pitigliano. The semi deserted town that may eventually crumble and fall into the valley below. Not our farmhouse apartments however.

We knocked up pretty basic meals with the last of our supplies for three days before flying home. I’m only including this entry because of the absolutely bizarre two nights we had before changing rooms.

We were exhausted after a full day of lunch in San Quirico and then the drive south, so went to bed around 10.00pm. We awoke at around 10.15 to find some "creature" flying circuits of our bedroom around a meter above the bed. When I crawled to the lightswitch and switched on the light, it had vanished ... switch off and the circuits resumed. It must have hidden in the ceiling beams.

Lying in bed, the moon streaming in through the window, it would circuit at great speed. We ended up sleeping under the sheet ... fitfully.

The following night, we assumed that the bird or bat had left via the window at dawn, so bedded down again ... and out he/she came again. This time we dragged our beds into the kitchen (communal) and slept there with other guests coming and going past us. No one asked us why? Bizarre.

I haven't been able to track down any recipies specifically for southern Tuscany however the following is a favourite we cook several times every winter and our sons also now cook.

Recipe: Tuscan Pork Roast in Milk Sauce
This has to be the perfect dish to cook when on holidays without an oven. Just made for stove top cooking.
  • 1 (3-pound) boneless pork shoulder (butt) roast, netted or tied
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 cups milk, divided
  • use 1/2 teaspoon crushed rosemary
  • 1 bay leaf
1. Melt butter with oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add roast and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to 3 1/2-quart slow cooker; season with salt and pepper.

2. To skillet, add onion and carrot and cook, stirring, 5 minutes, until softened. Add 1/2 cup milk, rosemary and bay leaf to skillet; bring to simmer, stirring constantly, scraping up brown bits from bottom of skillet. Transfer to slow cooker along with 1 1/2 cups remaining milk. Cover and slow-cook on low 5 to 6 hours.

3. Transfer pork to platter and keep warm.

4. Discard bay leaf, skim fat from surface of cooking liquid.

5. In medium saucepan bring cooking liquid to boil over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until sauce is reduced to 1 cup.

6. Slice or chop roast, serve with sauce.

Until you have eaten pork slow cooked in milk, you haven't lived.
 
#13
Umbria

ASSISI
Whenever we visit Umbria, we stay with Rebecca at Brigolante. The best hostess in Italy and the best apartment in Italy.

Review: Buca di San Francesco
Buca di San Francesco (our third "plate" restaurant). We were being seated as almost everyone else was finishing their meal. Decided on the enclosed and roofed courtyard.

Ches had Fantassi de Bruschetta-five pieces: traditional tomato, anchovy paste, brown lentils, garlic and olive oil and pate (she thinks pigeon livers and truffle). I had Cannelloni, which was a tad ordinary. The pancake was probably made with polenta, hence the yellow colour, but otherwise it was pretty ordinary. I had ordered expecting an unusual sauce-but it wasn’t.

Ches then had Lamb. Three circular pieces of roast lamb. Sensational, but we had forgotten about vegetables. The waiter hadn’t said anything, and we hadn’t noticed a separate section of the menu for vegetables. That seems to be the case in most restaurants. Few dishes are accompanied by any vegetables, and they charge an extra L6,000 for each additional vegetable, even a single artichoke.

I had the "plate" dish; Roast Pigeon. It was also wonderful - rich dark meat but moist and flavourful. As we finished eating, a pigeon walked into the restaurant and began pecking around my feet. Honest!!! I even videoed him as proof. He couldn’t find his brother. The waiter appreciated the joke, and when Ches suggested that the pigeons they cook are probably "farmed" or "bred", he said "no, they come from the piazza". Ches still doesn’t know if he was joking.

We had our photograph taken with the waiter. The restaurant had been empty for the past half hour so they were glad to see us finally leave. As we walked up the street, a pigeon "pooped" on me. His aim was out, and he only hit my thigh as I stepped forward. By now I was prepared for a scene out of "Birds".

And in 2002, we returned ... We were barely home in time for a quick drink a shower and change of clothes and we were all off to dinner at Buca de San Francesco for dinner. We had a really enjoyable meal with David, Chris, Margaret and Bob.

I had the "Pigeone" again, and gave the plate to David and Chris. Ches had an unusual entre of soft cheese on a bed of rocket with a sheet of caviar. She followed with the rolled shoulder of lamb, as did David and Bob, and all said it was really stunning. My pigeone was far more moist and enjoyable than last time, and I particularly liked the meat around the legs and wings. Even the breast was fairly moist, and the stuffing (including the birds organs) was subtle rather than overwhelmingly "gamey". We shared an Orvieto bianco and a Tre Terre, Montefalco roso.

Recipe: Fave Con Pecorino
On Rebecca's advice and using Fave picked from her garden. When young and fresh, Fave beans should only ever be eaten raw.

Option 1 GC - Gavin Crawford
Saucer of salt, fresh Fave beans and Pecorino Cheese. Dip bean in salt and pop in mouth with a slice of Pecorino.

Option 2 PL - "A Tuscan in the Kitchen"
Put shelled beans in bowl with finely diced pecorino cheese, splash with olive oil and season with a little pepper and plenty of salt.

GUBBIO
In transit from Assisi to Firenze in 2000 and stopping overnight for the annual Crossbow Palio.

Review: Taverna del Lupo
On our way back to the hotel, we passed the Taverna del Lupo, a "plate" restaurant. Now I remembered that somewhere I had read an indifferent review of this restaurant, but nevertheless, we decided to have dinner there. Big, big mistake.

We walked through an electrical storm, arriving at the restaurant at 8.15, which is the Italian thing to do. The restaurant was well booked, and while we hadn’t, it wasn’t a problem, other than being ignored at the front desk for a good five minutes. I really mean ignored. Like no one came near us for that five minutes. When they did, we were offered a table in the inner room, which the proliferation of smokers in Italy was likely to render uncomfortable, so we elected to remain in the front room, reasonably close to the two doors (the restaurant is on a corner, and the doors opened on to both streets).

Having been seated, and given the menus, we were ignored again for ten to fifteen minutes. We placed our order. Half an hour after arriving, we finally received our water and wine - no bread.

Prima Patti for Ches was Umbrian Soup - a handmade "cakey" pasta in a broth that had just a hint of nutmeg - fine but nothing special. I had handmade pasta - almost a cross between pasta and gnocchi, with asparagus and Porcini mushrooms. Now I had seen plenty of asparagus in other towns, and assumed that it would be fresh. Wrong - taste and texture of tinned asparagus. Not the slightest hint of Porcini, let alone any other type of mushroom. Really disappointing.

The bread didn’t arrive of its own volition, so half way through we had to attract the waitresses attention and ask for it.

Secondi for Ches was lamb (what else). Three cutlets and a loin chop, roasted and quite good. Served with the ubiquitous roast potatoes with rosemary, and more potatoes in a rosti. I had the specialty of the house - Rabbit (roasted). Very white flesh, still on the spine and rib cage. It really was excellent, but all too late.

By this stage the evening was a disaster. For all the very lengthy periods of neglect, we had nothing to distract us but the non-stop monologue by an American tourist in the adjoining room. God are we grateful we didn’t sit in that room. This forty something woman only let her dining companions have the odd word in the conversation, and kept up a constant stream of loud and banal monologue. We didn’t bother extending the meal to desert or even a coffee, and just asked for the bill. Eventually arrived, and was paid.

Waited a discreet period of time, and then approached the desk. "Yes?!?!" she says. "Might we have our "plate" please"? "Oh! Scusi" she says and pulls one out of a cupboard. We have been used to the staff at every other "plate" restaurant proudly presenting us with our plate, at the table when we paid our bill. This restaurant is sufficiently up market as to have an entire cabinet filled with a large selection of cigars. At $135.00 for the above meal, it isn’t exactly cheap either. All things considered, they shouldn’t bother to remain a member of the Unione Ristoranti del Buon Recordo.

We departed without bothering to have the photograph taken, nor even photograph the restaurant from the street. We have now had two disastrous restaurant experiences, and both restaurants had "lupa" in their title. The message is loud and clear "avoid the wolf".

Recipe: Coniglo Alla Cacciatora
PL - "A Tuscan in the Kitchen"
This should be close to the dish served at Taverna del Lupo in Gubbio. Just serve it with a little more style and grace than they do.

Marinade rabbit pieces overnight (eight to twelve hours). Sauté smashed garlic in olive oil till golden and remove garlic. Add rabbit and sauté till it browns. Pour off oil, add white wine to cover, increase heat and when boiling, add rosemary, salt, pepper and interiors if saved. Reduce heat and partially cover or put in oven and cook for around thirty minutes. Rabbit should absorb the liquid, but if too much, remove the rabbit and reduce over high heat.

NORCIA
We made a pilgrimage from Assisi in 2000 and returned for sausages in 2002.

Norcia is a very clean, neat town. Maybe only four hundred meters in diameter, surrounded by a wall, with several gates. Only local traffic allowed in, and parking areas outside the walls for buses and cars. Yes, the buses even penetrate here, although most were only servicing the domestic Italian tourist market. Busloads of Italians buying ten kilos at a time of the sausages and cheeses for which Norcia is famous. Also do a less than brisk trade in Truffles. Lots of them; but at L50,000 for a 200 gm jar, very steep.

No pandering to English speakers here. Everything is in Italian, and we had no idea what any of the fifty varieties of dried sausages or wheels of cheese were.

Review: Granaro del Monte
We wandered the back lanes, and returned to Granaro del Monte for lunch. The tables set up in the side lane were still empty, however, I had decided years ago that I wanted to sit inside for the atmosphere. The first dining hall on the left was packed. Probably a hundred people at long tables. This must be the room for the coach tourists. Next room almost full with locals, and then the best room. It is the room with the fireplace, adjoining the kitchen. It was full of families, including a "child" that insisted on blowing a whistle on and off throughout the meal. The more relaxed we became; and the Montefalco Rosso made a major contribution here, the less irritating he was. I could have adopted him by the end of the meal.

After a quick switch in waiters; when the initial waiter flew into a monologue that he only stopped when he realised our eyes were getting larger and larger and we shrugged our shoulders with "we haven’t understood a word you just said". The new waiter had enough English, and the menu had the odd word in English, so we were able to progress.

Ches was pondering a dish, when the penny dropped. Farro????, Spelt?????, Spelt is English for Farro, but what is it, and it’s being served as Zuppa (soup)????? that’s it!!! It’s the grain that David Dale raves about - the Roman legionaires used to carry it in their pouches as the only source of food on campaign. Aparently the only importer/distributor in Australia is in Melbourne. Ches had La Zuppa di Farro - it is a very thick soup and the Farro is a little like Barley (it is actually a very hard wheat). She loved it. I had Le Tagliatelle al Cinghiale, pasta with wild boar sauce - very rich and delicious, the sauce a tomato/pork ragout. Ches then had L’Agnello Arrosto al Tartufo. This was three fantastic lamb cutlets roasted and topped with grated truffles. She is becoming addicted to Italian lamb, and this was sensational.

Which also raises the whole question of truffles. Kind of hard to describe the flavour. Earthy like mushrooms, but very subtle, not strong at all. Having said that, there is a depth of flavour. While related to mushrooms, in that they are a tuberous fungus that grows on the roots of trees (primarily oak), and underground, they are as different in flavour to other fungi as porcini is to other mushrooms. I give up. I’m never going to succeed in describing them. What I can say, is that adding a small grating of truffles to the top of any dish, adds at least $15.00 to the cost of the dish. The other thing that confuses about "tartufo" is that they have nothing in common with "tartufi" which is the chocolate ice cream, and yet we have seen tartufo liquers. Now, knowing the Italian male penchant for bitter liquers, we are willing to bet that this is not a chocolate liquer, but is alchohol infused with tartufo.

I had a dish that is going to torment me either forever, or until I can get a close proximity in my own kitchen. It was the "plate" dish. Il Filetto de Cavatore Tartufato. It consisted of a fillet steak, which was one of the most tender steaks I have ever eaten. The steak was topped with another layer of "meat". We couldn’t identify it, and it had that grey colour meat gets when pot-roasted, and it shredded like slowly cooked meat does. Anyway, it was placed on top of the steak, and then the whole parcel encased in a sausage skin. It was then seared all over, and cooked till the steak component was just rare. Served topped with grated tartufo. It was accompanied by half a stuffed mushroom, half a tomato and a slice of zucchini. As we are becoming used to most dishes being served with no vegetables, we had ordered side dishes of mushrooms and potatoes.

Now, I have read personal diaries by other travellers, and one in particular, was adamant that Italians are incapable of cooking potatoes. I now confirm that he was correct. We have had them at a number of places, almost always served as small chunks, pan fried or roasted. They cannot serve anything other than soggy slightly burned potatoes. I hereby declare that we will not order potatoes ever again on this trip.

The mushrooms were described as Mushrooms sauteed with garlic, olive oil and parsley. I immediately assumed it was the recipe I had found in my Italian cookbooks and had been cooking for the past year or so. It was a poor imitation. I cook it MUCH better!!!

The steak/parcel with tartufo was stunning. I was desperate to know how it had been prepared and cooked. The menu had stated that it was a "surprise" dish. When the waiter returned for our desert order, I said to him that I noted on the menu that it said "surprise", not "secret", and could he tell me how it was cooked. English almost broke down at this point. He eventually explained that "surprise" refered to being presented with the plate for having ordered it. He never got the joke about "secret", but said that it was all cooked in the kitchen - as opposed to many dishes, which we had noticed that the waiters actually seared on the metal plate above the open fire in the fire place in the restaurant.

For desert we shared La Fantasie de Dolcezze. A plate of four cakes and pastries-small delicate serves. An espresso just capped it all off. We had our photograph taken with the waiter, in front of the fire, and all the "plates" hung on the walls. We have decided to do this at all restaurants from now on. Yes, I know.

---

The restaurant gave us the business card for an alimentary that they recommend. We tracked it down fairly easily. It was the one with fifty Italian housewives buying strings of a hundred sausages and wheels of cheese. We waited until one of the half dozen staff who could speak English could help us. We then bought our string of dried sausages, and large salami type sausage (which on reflection probably cost us about $15.00). I asked Ches if she knew what type it was. Her response was ... "pork". Gee Ches, I’m amazed to be buying pork in Norcia. That’s like saying it sometimes gets windy in Chicago. We also bought a jar of tartufo salsa - it seems to be a blend of mushrooms, chopped olives and truffles, blended with olive oil. Will take home to Oz. Also bought a bag of Farro to take home.

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ORVIETO Review: I Sette Consoli
When staying at Sorano, we drove to Orvieto for the degustation menu at I Sette Consoli, for lunch in August 2002. It still sticks in my memory as being one of the best dining experiences ever. It was 40 euro per head, with wine extra. Not only was the food excellent, but the waiter made a significant contribution to the experience. He explained every course, and yet was unobtrusive; he overrode my choice of wine, for which I was grateful and made sure we added condiments/oil in correct proportions without being patronizing. In fact, he took so much pride in the food and wine of his region, he just wanted to ensure we experienced it at its absolute best. All this in a waiter in his mid-twenties. I expect him to be running his own restaurant in years to come.

Cheryl hadn’t intended to have the degustation menu. She wasn’t particularly hungry. After several minutes of looking through the menu, she couldn’t decide which of half a dozen dishes appealed most. I then pointed out that they were all part of the degustation menu, so she surrendered.

Having decided that we would both have the tasting menu, the waiter recommended we order the Sagrantino de Montefalco, Antonelli, 1998. Perfecto.

Silvery Onion Omlette - spring onions sweated in a mini omelet served with a salad of rocket, balsamic and shaved grano padano.

Tagliolini with lobster and squid, Porcini soup with fois gras ravioli (oh! my god!), loins of lamb crusted with breadcrumbs and rosemary served rare with Fagioli san Sorana (tiny local cannellini beans), a platter of soft cheeses (tag...?), mature pecorino, gorgonzola served with puree of apple? pear? Also served with glasses of Muffe. Finally, semi freddi e noccioli (biscuit with gelato containing preserved fruit and grapes).

On any return trip to Italy, we would have to revisit I Setti Consoli and La Mora at Ponte a Moriano (Lucca). Our absolute favourites.

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PIGGE
Between Spello and Spoletto.

2002 ... This was to be the day of the Slow Travelers lunch at Taverna Del Pescatore.

We decided to invite David and Chris to join us, and following lunch, visit Trevi and Spello. We couldn’t remember much of our visit to Trevi in 2000, and in Spello, we wanted to buy a Norberto print. I thought I should refresh my memory with a read of the guide books. While doing this, why not check out the entry for Taverna Del Pescatore. Closed Wednesdays!!!!!! EXCEPT in summer. Better check. I had thought Megan was making this booking for us, and might join us if she wasn’t committed with her own business (Villa Rosa).

We asked Rebecca to phone and check that a) they were open for lunch and, b) we had a booking. The phone numbers in the Rough Guide and the Cadogan were different. They also proved to both be wrong. Eventually she tracked down the number, phoned and confirmed that they were closed.

As Elizabeth and Chuck, and Judith would be there expecting us, we decided to meet them there and then decide on an alternative venue. Rebecca recommended a restaurant in the main piazza in Trevi, as many of her guests had recommended it.

Every time we had passed through Pigge in the past four days, we had noted the signs to Taverna Del Pescatore. We established that there were two turnoffs to Pigge, so we shouldn’t have any problems. We wandered the hill roads in and around Pigge, and every time we tried a new one, the signs to the restaurant dried up. Fifteen minuti later, we decided to return to the main road and apply some logic. This is something street signs in Italy defy. Now if the sign on the main road (despite having either been set at a strange angle or turned), actually meant deviate right and then go straight ahead, where might that take us? It took us onto the other side of the main road from Pigge (that’s to the right if you are heading from Assisi to Spoletto), the low side of the road. You know, down into the low side where streams and rivers might expect to run. And there it was. And there also were Elizabeth and Chuck and Judith. They had arrived independently of each other, and had also wandered the village on the high side of the road like us.

Judith rejected my plea that I had thought Megan had made the booking, rejected Trevi as an alternative for lunch, and increased the burden of guilt by advising that another friend and her/his Italian friend would also be joining us, and if we moved, wouldn’t find us. I left everyone sitting in the shade of the closed restaurant’s terrace, with the "babbling brook" (that’s Cadogan’s description) to talk to them. I headed further south down the #3.

In 2000, we had bought a porchetta roll from a van at the Trevi market, and pulled over just south of Pigge to eat it in a fenced off park with trout ponds. While eating, we realised that we were infact in the grounds of a trattoria. You could either pay to catch your own fish and have it cooked, or dine outdoors overlooking the ponds. All was shaded by willows and other trees. Very quiet and tranquil. I noted it in my 2000 journal. When preparing for this holiday, I decided that I would like to dine here, and went searching for it on the internet. I entered "trout restaurant trevi pigge". Only one hit ... my own site.

Over the past four days, we had passed this trattoria, but didn’t give it any thought because of the decision to eat at del Pescatore. Now I needed it to be open. With the temperature well into the 30’s, I pulled into the drive on the bend. I dashed into a restaurant, thinking it might be the main entrance. It was a different restaurant with only an indoor dining room and it didn’t seem too cool. Back into the car and around the corner. Pulled over just past the 50 metres of chain fence and planter boxes, dashed between the trout ponds, spoke to the waitress (owner?), checked the menu, said I would return with 10 people, and ran back to the car. U-turn?, no troubles. Back up the road to del Pescatore. I claimed to have salvaged the situation!

Judith wrote a note to her friend, and we left it under a rock on the wall beside the entrance to del Pescatore. She decided to do another trawl through Pigge, and the rest of us headed down the road to Trattoria Carducci at Fonti del Clitunno. Judith joined us there 10 minutes later, and she was followed in by Brian and Ruth several minutes later. I was never sure how this happened. They had had lunch with Judith the previous day, knew about today's lunch, and decided to join us. Fortunately they had seen Judith's note at del Pescatore, and had left it for it’s intended recipient, who never turned up.

Can I take a deep breath now? How about an aqua minerali? A vino roso de casa?

That was better. We settled back in the shade and enjoyed our lunch and the company. Unfortunately I didn’t get to speak much with Elizabeth or Chuck, and would have enjoyed getting to know them. At least there will be a face to put to the internet communications. We established that Ruth is originally from Norfolk Island, but a long term resident of New Zealand, and that both Ruth and Brian are jewelers, specialising in glasses frames. Elizabeth is a librarian.

Ches had "Gamberidi fiume in salsa verde", which Brian helped her figure out how to shell, and "Agnello scottadito". The first was a plate filled with fresh water crayfish in a green sauce. I didn’t establish if it was parsley, basil or maybe spinach or a type of lettuce.

The lamb was grilled lamb cutlets, and as designated "scottadito", allowed to pick the bones. This was also accompanied by a plate of grilled vegetables.

I had the "Carpaccio di trota salmonata". This was thin slices of raw trout on a bed of sliced potatoes. I followed this with the "Strangozzi ai gamberi di fiume". I assume strangozzi is a ribbon past like tagliatelle. The sauce appeared to be a reduced stock made of the gamberi shells, with just a little tomato. Possibly also pureed gamberi in the sauce, with just a scattering of gamberi meat.

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PERUGIA
We walked from here, down a side street, directly into Piazza Mattotti. This used to be the market place, and where they burned their witches. Charming. They don’t burn anything here anymore, especially the focacia at Ceccarani. This place was recommended as the best bread shop in Perugia, and it was absolutely packed. We bought three slices of focacia with different toppings, and returned to the Duomo to sit on the steps and have lunch.

Recipe: Focaccia
Delicious plain with olive oil and salt or with a scattering of rosemary on top.
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1/2 T salt
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 t sugar
  • 3 T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 T coarse kosher salt
Sift 1 cup of flour into a large mixing bowl. Dissolve yeast and sugar in 3/4 cup of tepid water. Form a well in the flour, add the yeast mixture, and mix well, then kneed for 5 or so minutes until elastic. Set aside in warm place to rise, about 3 hours, until double in bulk.

Add one cup of warm water, mix, add 3 cups sifted flour and the salt, mix, then kneed until combined and elastic. Dust with flour if mixture is too sticky, or add water (sparingly) if too dry. Cover with plastic sheet or dish towel and set aside to rise for another 2 - 3 hours, until double in bulk.

Spread olive on the bottom of your baking pan (11 1/2 inches by 15 1/2 inches). Place dough in pan and stretch dough into sheet, pressing down firmly with your fingers to make indentations every 1/2 inch or so. Mix 1 tablespoon coarse kosher (coarse) salt with about 3 tablespoons water and 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. When salt has partially dissolved, dribble mixture over dough and gently work into indentations with your fingers.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Allow dough to sit for about 1/2 hour, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until focaccia is golden. Serve hot or at room temperature.

SCHEGGINO
In the mountain valley behind Spoletto.

Scheggino is the first significant town down the road. The Cadogan guide says about Del Ponte and Cheggino, "... right on the Nera river ... delicious meals based on Scheggino’s two specialties, crayfish and truffles ... is laced with tiny canals full of trout and a rare species of crayfish imported from Turkey ... and is also the fief of Italy’s truffle tycoons, the Urbani family."

Review: Del Ponte
I had visited the Urbani’s website, but didn’t feel a need to locate it on this trip. Approaching Cheggino, we could see the remnants of the tower and town walls on the hill to the left across the river. The village is primarily on the eastern side of the river in the valley. The only canal we located is the one that runs through the middle of the village and where Del Ponte sits between the canal and the river. The street is one way down one side of the canal, and back up the other side. The albergo and restaurant are very well appointed for such a non descript little town.

I had envisaged a vine covered veranda out next to the river. Sadly, once inside, you could be eating almost anywhere in Italy. The restaurant is very well appointed and modern, and so enclosed that we couldn’t see anything of the wonderful river. Unfortunately, the world cup was still in progress. Worse still, there was a game in progress. Fortunately it was only England vs Denmark. This was an ugly period of dining in Italy. The TV was on, and most tables were in silence as they ate and watched. To be honest, we had better atmosphere in the restaurants where we were the sole diners.

The food, fortunately, lived up to Cadogan’s claims. Ches had "Fritatini de nero" an omelette/fritata with grated truffles and black pepper. She said it was very moist and delicate. I had Farro with finely diced potato, carrot, and tomato. Ches thought it was bland. I maintain it was delicate.

Ches then had "Papardelle a Cingiale", flat noodles with a rich boar meat sauce with whole peppercorns, tomatoes and carrot. I had "Tagliolini e Gamberi", very thin noodles with a fantastic rich stock and shelled crayfish. To be honest, after numerous experiences with freshwater gamberi in Italy, I can’t say that it is a memorable experience. The amount of flesh is minute and the flavour unknown because the stocks and/or sauces are so rich in flavour. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just that I figure they might as well just incorporate the meat into the sauce. Water and the vino di casa was sufficient to accompany this enjoyable meal. Would I put it on my list to revisit? No.

On leaving the restaurant, we walked over a bridge clearly marked private property. It must link the town to the large villas on the other side of the river. Looking back up stream, we could see families picnicking beside the river in the shade of the trees, just before the road bridge. Several people had put their sun lounges in the shallows of the river, and were lying back with the water lapping around them. I said it was a hot day.

SPELLO Review: La Bastiglia
Rebecca told us that La Bastiglia, at via Salnitrana 17, (ph. 0742 651277) has the reputation as the best restaurant in Umbria. Owned by a chef who trained under Visani. We located it near the top carpark. It is attached to Albergo Bastiglia. Cadogan’s 1998 edition says that it is notable for "... beautiful terrace, views and good restaurant." The terrace and views looked sensational. On a stinking hot day, it looked reasonably cool and looked out to the east, so down the hills on the side of the valley rather than out on the densely settled valley and Foligno.

We checked the menu posted on the gate. It would work out at 120 euros for the two of us ($aus200). Given that, this is for nuovo cuisine, we decide against it. I am still wondering what we missed, particularly the lamb cutlets crumbed with pistachios. Then again, I can always experiment.

Well I did, and this recipe either as is or using lamb cutlets and cook individually in pan or in oven was wonderful.

Recipe: Pistachio and Corrainder Crusted Lamb
  • 100g pistachios, (shelled)
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 100g fresh breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped coriander
  • pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 x 6 rib best end of lamb prepared for roasting
Preheat oven to 200C. Finely grind pistachios in a processor. Mix with breadcrumbs, coriander and seasoning in a large bowl. Place the flour on a plate and season it with a little salt and pepper. Press the lamb in the flour. Beat egg in a small bowl. Brush with egg mix and press breadcrumb mixture on top to coat. Heat oil in frying pan, add lamb and cook until brown on both sides. Transfer lamb to oven and bake for around 30 minutes (check temperature in centre with thermometer). Cut lamb into chops and garnish with coriander.

TESTACCIO
In the mountains behind Narni.

What a shame we wouldn't be around for the snail festival!

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It was now 1.30 and we would have to hurry if we were going to have lunch at Il Cavallino, via Flaminia Romana. That's, via Flaminia Romana. I know that now, as I write this journal, but I didn’t know it back then. I hadn’t looked up the address. We hade seen road signs to the restaurant as we had driven into Narni earlier in the day and I’d assumed it was on the Narni to Amelia road. We drove several kilometres. Found a restaurant with the name on all the road signs, but it was closed, so Ches gave me a hard time. I checked my directory. Similar name, but not the one we wanted.

Il Cavallino is on via Flaminia Romana. How many times do I have to say it! As I have already stated, via Flaminia Romana is via Vittorio Emanuelle!! (where we had been parked for the last 2 1/2 hours).

Review: Il Cavallino
Fifteen minutes later, we headed out of town along this road. Two kilometres out of town at Testaccio we found this 3rd generation osteria recommended by both Cadogan and Rough Guide. It was well patronised by the locals despite the heat. I can’t say that it was the most memorable of meals, not even reasonable value for money.

We shared crostini. One liver and one truffles - nothing exceptional. Ches then had Agnello Scottadito. A chump chop, loin chop and cutlet. Tasty but overcooked. I had Scallopine al limone. Excellent, but such a small portion. The salad was a basic lettuce and tomato. Come to think of it, I think they just figured we were tourists who arrived late and didn’t deserve the real thing. The beer was an outrageous price. We haven’t paid anything like it, even at much better restaurants. 35 euro was way over the top for the meal. Either we caught them on an off day, or the family has lost the plot.
 
#14
Venice and the Veneto

BARBARANO
South of Vincenze.

The last 20 km from Monselece to Barbarano, is a fairly flat and wide valley, but there are hills to the west and east, which we were to drive later in the week. The villa is on top of the hill that backs into the Monti Berici, and has fantastic views over the farmland (with the odd factory here and there) to the west. The Colli and Euganei hills hide Padua, which is only 30 km away to the east, and the Monti Berici, which run north, hide Vicenza, which is only 15 km to the north, and Verona, 40 km to the west.

Now, this makes it sound as though it is nice and central to cover the entire Veneto, which it is, but it doesn’t reveal that the whole area is so heavily settled, with villages no more than 2km to 3 km apart in the entire Veneto, that travel is extremely slow. As an example, the drive of 15 km to Vicenza, during the day took 30 minutes. One morning at 7.30, when we thught we would make good time, it turned out to be peek hour, and took over 45 minutes.

Our apartment was on the first floor of a square building that has four apartments. We had plenty of windows opening into the gardens between the working buildings and the Villa itself. The gardens aren’t particularly stunning, but very pleasant with large shade trees, and Olianders in pots, and expanses of lawns. They also cater for functions such as weddings, and there was a small party for perhaps twenty people the evening we arrived.

Around the apartments are white gravel areas with tables, chairs and umbrellas for outdoor dining or relaxing. Not as smart as Assisi, Firenze and Vellano, but large and comfortable. At 5.30pm we went in to town (barely a kilometre), where there was a supermarketo. Bought some basic supplies, and for dinner we cooked pasta with a sauce of tomatoes, sausage, garlic, asparagus and parsley.

BASSANO DEL GRAPPA
All the country people from the surrounding district had come to town. It seems to be a great opportunity for people to meet once a week. Many of the middle-aged and older men gathered in clusters around the front of bars and cafes to talk. Some of their clothing was amazing. Mismatched shorts and shirts, braces and boots. Battered hats, and some down right funny.

On the left hand corner of the piazza, coming up from the bridge, was a shop selling slices of focaccia from huge baking trays, fresh from the oven. It was doing a roaring trade, and we discovred why. We bought a very large slice, simply topped with cherry tomatoes halved and baked into the top. So simple, but so fantastic. We also had a custard doughnut, or Italian equivalent.

In the spring, Bassano is the center of the universe when it comes to white asparagus. The story of the vegetable is accidental; in the 1500's Bassano was hit with a hailstorm destoying the asparagus crop, forcing the farmers to harvest the part underground. Upon tasting the asparagus, its white colour due to the lack of sunlight, the farmer was astounded to find how tasty and tender it was, and began to cultivate it underground. Bassano has been famous for its asparagus at least since the mid 1500's: a receipt from from 1534 lists asparagus among the delicacies purchased for a banquet. Asparagus tasting is almost a religion in Bassano, everyone has something to say about the correct way to serve it.

Recipe: The Mother of all White Asparagus
How to eat asparagus "the Bassano way": Boil the asparagus standing up in salted water for 10 to 15 minutes, not letting the tips touch the boiling water. The asparagus is served with eggs, boiled 6 to 8 minutes so that the yolk is still creamy. The eggs (2 per person) are then peeled and mashed with a fork, adding extra virgin olive oil (from Bassano) and vinegar, salt and pepper. The asparagus are then dipped in the sauce starting at the tip.

Recipe: Cheesecake with "Ubriaco al Torcolato" (raspberry gelatin and vanilla sauce)
Mauro Poggo, the Chef at the Ristorante Ca' 7, Bassano del Grappa
It is a cheesecake made with a cheese called Ubriaco al Torcolato, literally translated, "Torcolato Drunken cheese" a cheese that is submerged in Torcolato, a sweet wine from Veneto region, for many months until the cheese gets "drunk" and takes on the flavor of the wine.

For the base:
  • 210 g. butter,
  • 1 egg yolk,
  • 120 g. confectioner's sugar
Mix all ingredients well, roll and put in molds and bake in 150°C oven for 15 minutes

For the cheesecake:
  • 300 g. Torcolato Drunken Cheese (formaggio Ubriaco al Torcolato),
  • 100 g. fresh (not aged) Asiago cheese,
  • 1/4 liter milk boiled,
  • 200 g. sugar,
  • 4 egg yolks,
  • 6 g. gelatin,
  • 1/2 liter whipping cream whipped slightly.
Whip the egg yolks and add sugar, add the boiled milk, next add the fish paste previously melted. Add the cheese then the semi whipped cream. Pur mixture on top of the biscuits still in the forms and place in refrigerator for at least 3 hours.

For the gelatin:
  • 200 gm fresh raspberries,
  • 75 gm confectioner's sugar,
  • 30 gm gelatin (leaf gelatin if available).
Dissolve gelatin in tepid water. In a separate bowl, mix raspberries and sugar until it becomes a paste. Add gelatin mixture. Spoon over the cheesecake forms and place in refrigerator to set (aprox 1 hour).

Vanilla Sauce:
  • 6 egg yolks,
  • ½ l. fresh milk,
  • 10 gm granulated sugar.
Cut sticks of vanilla lengthwise and place in milk to boil. Mix egg yolks and sugar, gradually add milk and vanilla mixture, removing vanilla sticks and cook mixture in a double boiler (bain-marie) until thick.

Remove cheesecakes from molds and drizzle sauce over individual cheesecakes.

MONTAGNANA
South of Vicenza.

How wonderful the unexpected can be. Such was the case with a visit to Montagnana, a town south of Padua, which bears witness to Venetian rule, when it was changed from a military outpost to an important trading center. In the thirteenth century, the Da Carrara ruling family built the exquisite and beautifully preserved medieval walls that wrap around the town. The remains of the ancient moat that also afforded protection are still visible as well.

Ches and I had fallen in love with this little walled town, so we revisited late in the afternoon. We arrived around 6.00pm, parked in the vast piazza, and just strolled the streets. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a restaurant to justify staying for dinner. We did discover one of the best Gelataria in Italy, right on the Piazza, and sat in the loggia, (with teenagers everywhere around us, just hanging out), and enjoyed the best gelato yet. We wish we had stumbled across Pasticerria Cuccato, Via Porta 64.

Steeped in tradition, Montagnana is known for its palio, a horse race held since the fourteenth century, and for its delicate prosciutto, along with a very special bread. Legend states that one Ezzelino III da Romano, who was the emperor's vicar in Italy and a skillful soldier, saved the town from a great fire but in doing so was badly injured. A country woman make a dough with leva, a natural yeast, to which she added lots of honey, walnuts, and hazelnuts from her orchard, and made a sweet bread that restored the health and strength of Ezzelino.

The recipe that follows is an adaptation of pandolce di Ezzelino, the sweet bread that is synonymous with Montagnana. Today it is made and sold by Giorgio Cuccato, owner of Pasticerria Cuccato, Via Porta 64. With his father, Bruno, Giorgio has researched the history of this recipe for which the citizens of Montagnana are deeply grateful.

Recipe: Pandolce di Ezzeline (Ezzelino's Sweet Bread)
Makes two 1 1/2-lb. loaves.
The life of this bread begins with a sponge or starter made from a little yeast, flour, and honey that is left to rise for 3 hours. The sponge helps the dough to rise beautifully.

Sponge:
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1/4 teaspoon dry active yeast
  • 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon honey
Dough:
  • 1 cup warm water (110ºF)
  • 1 teaspoon dry active yeast
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 5 1/2 to 6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons coarse brown sugar (turbinado or Demerara)
Early on the day you plan to make the bread, combine the sponge ingredients in a medium-size bowl. Stir well. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside for 3 hours. When the sponge is ready it will have increased three times in volume and look fluffy, with lots of small holes on the surface like the holes of a sponge.

To make the dough, in a heavy-duty mixer or food processor, combine the water, yeast, and honey and allow to proof for 5 minutes. The mixture will look chalky.

On low speed, blend in all of the sponge mixture.

In a small bowl, lightly beat 2 of the eggs and add them to the yeast-sponge mixture.

On low speed, mix in the butter, salt, and 1 cup of the flour. Increase the speed to medium and mix well. Continue adding the flour 1 cup at a time, mixing each addition in well before adding the next. You may not need all the flour. When the dough begins to leave the sides of the bowl, increase the speed to high and beat for 4 minutes. Feel the dough. It should feel soft but not stick to your hands. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour until it reaches the right consistency.

Remove the dough from the mixer or processor and knead it a few times on a work surface. Spray a large bowl with vegetable or butter spray, place the dough in the bowl, and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise for 3 hours.

Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a work surface. Stretch it out with your hands. Scatter the nuts over the dough, then fold the dough over several times to enclose the nuts. Cut the dough in half with a knife and knead each piece into a tight ball about 5 inches in diameter. Some of the nuts should be visible on the outside of the loaf.

Place each round on a lightly greased cookie sheet; cover each with a clean towel and allow the breads to rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until nearly doubled in size.

Preheat the over to 375ºF.

Lightly beat the remaining egg in a small bowl. Brush each loaf with the beaten egg. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the coarse sugar over each loaf.

With a clean razor blade make an X incision about 3 inches long in the top of each loaf and fold back the four cuts. This will allow for air to escape and prevent the loaves from splitting.

Bake the loaves until nicely browned on top and bottom, about 40 to 45 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 200ºF when inserted in the center of the loaf.

Remove the loaves to a cooling rack.

Note: These loaves freeze well if wrapped tightly in aluminum foil and then in heavy-duty plastic bags.

Variation: Make four smaller loaves to give as kitchen gifts. Wrap each loaf in clear cellophane and tie with a ribbon.

PADUA Review: Ristorante Antico Brolo
Next stop was to check out Ristorante Antico Brolo, a "plate" restaurant for lunch. At L20,000 for prima piati, and L37,000 for secondo, it would have been a L150,000+ exercise, and the "plate" dish was Testina di Vitello All’Aceto Cotto E Cipolla. Now, Vitello is a calf, so it is something from a calf called Testina. Our electronic translater always wants to correct, so it insisted that I had meant "destina", and translated to "fate". I’m pretty certain that the restaurant isn’t serving either "fated calves" or "fatted calves". I decided to give the translator one last chance, and in English keyed in "testicles". It responded, "can’t help". I would have been prepared to give it a go, but not at those prices.

Review: Caffe Pedrocchi
Back into the heart of the old city, we stopped for lunch at Caffe Pedrocchi. Well, not quite lunch. They only serve drinks and cakes. The menu is 10 pages long. It has only recently been renovated. I mean renovated, not restored. It was first opened in 1831 and became famous as the caffe that never closed, open 24 hours a day, and the haunt of intellectuals and students.

L30,000 for a coffee, mineral water and two slices of cake. That’s a caffe. It was doing a roaring trade up until we arrived, as there were large groups of people celebrating graduation.

VENEGAZZU
Between Treviso and Bassano del Grappa.

Review: Trattoria da Celeste
Lunch at Trattoria da Celeste didn’t get off to a good start in that we arrived at close to 2.00, having made three passes through the town, before discovering it off a side road. Most people were nearing the end of their meal, and they were a pretty well dressed and well healed lot. I was wearing shorts and sandles. The waiter wore a bowtie.

It was very, very hot, and not much cooler inside. The waiter had no English at all. Not that great a problem in that it is a fixed price, fixed menu restaurant. Really not entitled to call itself a trattoria, depite the fixed menu concept, in that it is pricey, and at a Trat. you are supposed to retain your cutlery from one course to the next, and it is all about inexpensive dining through reducing the overheads of service etc.

Never mind, the meal was enjoyable. Proseco to cool down. But how do we explain that we require the "plate" dish to qualify for the plate, when it is a fixed menu. The waiter and I adjourned to the kitchen and foyer to mime to each other. He started by pointing at a range of bowls of foods layed out in the kitchen, while slabs of pork rotated on a rotisserie over an open fire. I pointed to the "plate" in the catalogue advertising the Boun Ricordo restaurants. We eventually determined that, the special dish was actually a primo rather than secondo. Now that’s realy different. Back at the table, in answer to Cheryl’s question, I could only advise that food would be coming but I wasn’t sure what or when.

Four small fried patties were delivered as the antipasti. While I went to the car to get a koala to give the waiter as a gift, the primo was delivered. Cheryl immediatly latched on to the Tortelini stuffed and sauced with a chicken liver and mushroom pate. It was the plate dish. I was satisfied with a cold pasta salad. Very similar to the Farro salad we had had at La Ceragetta near Isola Santa, with pasta substituted for the farro.

Our secondo was the roast pork, with a huge platter of roast potatoes, spinach and small stuffed squash/pumpkin. Very orange puree. Cheryl notes in her diary that she had a fit of the giggles toward the end of the meal, and doesn’t record the desert. This is because by this stage she had poured her glass of wine onto the table, and we were eating out of a large red puddle. Creme caramel. Ches was having trouble identifying birds in paintings on the wall. We fled in embarasment.

VENICE
Our apartment building is an ancient pallazo in Campo San Angelo, that features in the Walking Venice Guidebook. It is said to be one of the few palazzo actually facing the land rather than a canal, and therefore the fascade is easy to see and admire. Primarily white stone, with pink used around the "piano" floor windows and arches, and the door offset to one side. The "piano" floor, is usually either the second or third floor of a building, and are the floors on which the main living rooms were built-ballrooms, dining rooms etc.

We were delighted when we entered out apartment. A very large loungeroom with dining table, and antique furniture. The bathroom was tiled in "lush" burgundy tiles with the heavy beams exposed on the ceiling, and the bedroom large with built in robes etc.

As the days past, we were less happy. The restaurant set up outdoor tables in the piazza, too close to our bedroom windows. Closing the windows cut out most of the noise, but that's not how we like to sleep. The kitchen had two electric rings only and the bare minimum pans and pots etc. A real challenge to cook in a tight alcove with the bare minimum equipment. Not even a teatowel. The light blew in the kitchen alcove on the first day.

Following my lack of success in finding the fish markets yeaterday, I decided to try the Piazza Santa Margherita. Success. There were just two stands, each with a very small and limited range of seafood. I suspect that there isn’t a lot of locally caught seafood still available in the Veneto. There were perhaps three or so types of fish, which I couldn’t identify, some trout (that had to be shipped in!), some octopus, squid, and prawns that appeared to be cooked and semi frozen. I bought a whole octopus, which he then weighed first, and then cleaned (removed the eyes). At L16,000 per kg, he was a L12,000 ockie. Squid was L21,000 per kg, so seafood isn’t cheap. Again leading me to suspect it isn’t in great supply. I also suspect that the hotels and restaurants probably buy in their seafood from providores, and consequently there are no longer big seafood markets for the locals.

I then head down to the Zattere supermarket. Here was a surprise. A Billa (that’s the name of the supermarketo chain) semitrailer, was backed up to the front of the supermarketo, and they were unloading. It was sitting on a motorised barge/pontoon, and had been brought out from the mainland. Even more of a sight when a massive Meditteranean Cruise Ship passed it.

Recipe: Octopus Cacciatore
GC - Gavin Crawford

Cut the octopus (1-1.2 kg.) into large pieces or leave small, baby octopus whole. Thickly slice a large onion into semicircles and when brown, add the pieces of octopus and sauté them. Add a glass of white wine. After the wine has evaporated, mix in 2 or 3 peeled, chopped tomatoes and a piece of peperoncino. Cover the pot, and leave to cook slowly for 30 minutes. Check the salt as octopus needs very little. Add a little hot water if necessary. The tomato sauce should be thick.

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