Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Mamma Mia! 10 Best – and Sometimes Surprising – Bites from Italy

Take a girl who loves food to Italy, and she will surely be happy. That would be me, and I was happy during our entire three-week stay. I'm still happy, just dreaming about some of the meals I ate and wines I drank.

Happy girl tasting Parmesan cheese with three ages of Balsamic vinegar.
Without exception, our meals were fabulous – not to mention our daily dips of gelato. Here's my list of unforgettable tastes of Italy – ones that I want to be able to recall and savor over and over again.

In relative chronological order...

1. Margherita Pizza in Naples
Three years ago, I gave up gluten,  which – for all intents and purposes – meant that I gave up pizza. I decided to test my tolerance for gluten on our trip, allowing me to partake of pizza, pasta, beer and baked goods.

Pizza baking at Pizzeria Trianon
Our first stop was Naples, home of the modern pizza. After a bit of research, we made our way to Pizzeria Trianon. Like every other pizzeria in Naples, the pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning brick oven and take only minutes from order to delivery tableside. The setting was unremarkable; the pizza was out-of-this-world. I ordered a Margherita pizza; Ed, something with anchovies. We both had a large Peroni beer. My pizza was simple: the fresh buffalo mozzarella was perfectly molten; the cherry tomatoes, while roasted in the hot oven, still had the taste of fresh tomatoes; the basil was whole leafed, making a striking red, green and white pizza – just like the Italian flag. I ate the whole thing, and enjoyed every bite.

We had pizza another time or two on our trip, but none compared to the Neapolitan one from Trianon.

2. After-dinner Drinks: Caffe´Corretto and Amaro
After landing in Naples (and taking a two-hour nap) we walked the city streets until 8 p.m., considered an acceptable (if still early) dinner hour. We wandered back toward our hotel, turning right at the street just before it, and found Locanda 'Ntretella, a small restaurant that our hotel receptionist had recommended. Our dinner was lovely.

We read in some guide book that a cappuccino was a totally inappropriate after-dinner coffee – a sure giveaway that one was a tourist. The coffee drink to order is a caffe´corretto, which consists of a shot of espresso with a small amount of grappa, or sometimes sambuca, served in a tiny cup. Ed ordered one and I opted to try something called an Amaro, which turned out to be an Italian herbal liqueur that I thought was the most delicious thing I had ever sipped. I took a photo of the bottle and carried it around with me for the rest of the trip, showing it every chance I could, in the hope of ordering another.

Amaro: a photo to aid in my search
Ed ordering a caffe´corretto in Rome.
3. Zabaglione Cream Puffs
In Rome, while our friends Jackie and Paul toured museums, Ed and I decided to tour foods. We signed up for an Eating Italy Food Tour, a 4-hour guided walking food tour of the Trastevere neighborhood. Are we every glad we did! Our first stop was at the Pasticceria Trastevere, where we met Signora Vera, the owner and resident pastry chef for 40 years.

Signora Vera, pastry chef extraordinaire
After letting us stare at her beautiful pastries for several minutes, she came from behind her counter with a silver plate stacked high with small cream puffs. They had a pink icing top to them – and truth be told – they did not look all that great to me. I thought maybe she was just trying to get rid of something that hadn't sold so well. We each politely took one. I popped it in my mouth and thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was filled with cold zabaglione cream, with a hint of Marsala. It was the most delicious thing ever. I desperately wanted to ask for another, but, after all, this was our first stop.

Could I have another, please?
4. Fried Squash Blossoms
For the middle week of our trip, we met three best-friend couples at a Tuscan villa. It was such a fun and relaxing week. The villa caretakers, Margherita and Luca, cooked us dinner two times while we were there. On the first occasion, Margherita set before us an antipasta of squash blossoms, lightly fried and lightly stuffed with Pecorini cheese. We had a similar dish two other times on our trip – this one won hands down.

I had hundreds of squash blossoms in my garden this summer. Of course, they were all gone by the time we returned home. Can't wait to re-engineer this one next July.

A little pre-dinner reading
5. Tiramisu cake
We celebrated Ed's birthday while at the villa. Margherita and Luca knocked themselves out to prepare dinner in Ed's honor. I was a little disappointed that they had decided at the last minute to pick up a bakery cake for the candle-blowing portion of our dinner. I took one bite of the tiramisu cake and all my disappointment flew across the vineyard valley. I can't even describe how good it was.

We had tiramisu two other times on our trip; each version was different. One more pudding-like and served in a glass; the other more traditional. Each delicious, but none as good as the birthday version.

6. Buccellato Lucchese
While exploring Lucca on a day-trip from our villa, we stumbled upon Pasticceria Taddeucci, a bakery begun in 1881 by Jacopo Taddeucci and now run by a fifth generation of his family. The shop is best known for its buccellato Lucchese, a sweet cross between bread and coffee cake, studded with raisins and flavored with anise. We left with two loaves, one to share at the villa the next morning and one to put with our picnic provisions for the last leg of our journey. We sliced, toasted and buttered the loaf and then ate it with great gusto. It was light, yet at the same time, substantial. The second loaf we didn't get around to eating until several days later. It was good. A little hard. But still good.

7. Lambrusco wine
After our villa stay, Ed and I struck out on our own for 10 days, finding our way across the Emilla-Romano region of Italy. We stayed two nights in Bologna and were both impressed by the liveliness of the town and the abundance of great food. It's no wonder that it is considered the gastronomic centre of Italy. Our first night there, we wandered the streets, heading toward the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the western world.

Tons of young people were out and about, many looking for the bars that set out large buffets of food, free for the price of a drink. We were in the mood for something a bit more subdued. We spotted Trattoria Anna Maria, a very traditional-looking place, and were lucky enough to score a table. I was looking forward to trying a Bologna favorite: tortellini en brodo (tortellini in broth) and they had it on the menu. I think Ed ordered lamb and roasted potatoes. Our young waiter recommended that we order a bottle of Lambrusco, and so we did. Turns out, it was bottle of very dark red, sparkling, but dry, wine – and it was the perfect complement to both our meals.

We ordered a Lambrusco a couple of times after this meal – and even tried to find one at our favorite Louisville wine shop – but all we could find were ones that were much lighter in color and not quite as good. The quest is on...

Two other wines that I wish never to forget were the various vin santo wines that we drank after dinner (and after dipping cantuccini/biscotti into the sticky sweet wine). The second was a sparkling rosé wine that we had on our last night in Florence. It was a dei Frescobaldi Alìe 2014, Toscana IGT. It was surprising good with our Florentine steak.

8. Polenta with Fontina and mushrooms
Our next stop was Mantua, a town surrounded on three sides by artificial lakes, created during the 12th century as the city's defense system. Our hotel owner highly recommended a restaurant for us – one of her favorites and one that was surely open on a Monday night. As we walked around the city center, we looked for the restaurant she recommended, but could not find it. (We had the name of the street it was on, but not the specific address). On about our fifth stroll down the street, we spotted it. The owner was outside trying to shoo away a customer (who also was staying at our hotel and was also advised to go to this one specific restaurant).

Turns out the restaurant was hosting the local Rotary club dinner that night and was not accepting any other customers. The owner quickly indicated that we might find an open restaurant around the corner and down the street. All three of us headed that way and by the time we reached the restaurant, we had agreed to have dinner together. Our new friend was a toy salesperson from Holland, traveling on business.

I don't remember the name of the restaurant where we ended up, but I do remember that we were warmly welcomed and I'll not forget the antipasta: squares of polenta, topped with Fontina cheese, mushrooms and sesame seeds. Of course, I've already tried to duplicate this at home.

9. Pasta with eggplant, cherry tomatoes and mint 
We spent our afternoon in Ferrara walking 9 kilometers of the city's medieval red brick walls and trying to work up an appetite. 

Our hotel manager recommended that we dine that night at the Osteria del Ghetto, a traditional family-run restaurant hidden away in a narrow street in the center of the old Jewish ghetto. As usual, our dinner was excellent. I'm guessing that it was the matriarch who took our order. She was pleased when we ordered the pasta with eggplant, cherry tomatoes and mint. It is a Jewish specialty of the osteria. I can't pinpoint what made the dish so special. I'm guessing it was the quality of ingredients, including the homemade pasta and local olive oil. I recreated the dish last night. It was good, but not nearly as good as it was sitting in that lovely space in that lovely town. 

10. Artichoke quiche at an Italian farmhouse
We spent three delightful days at Campanacci, an agriturismo farmhouse located near Faenza. During the day, we took trips to Faenza, Ravenna, Comacchio, Terra del Sole, Brisighella, and San Marino. Each evening, we would return to the farmhouse and sit down to a fabulous home-cooked meal. We hadn't planned on eating dinner at Campanacci each night, but after the first one, we wouldn't think of dining elsewhere. Fourteen wines are produced on the vineyard and we sampled most of them. The farm also boosts 800 olive trees. 

Evidently artichokes are also grown somewhere on the property as the first night, we were served a quiche that was 99 percent tiny artichokes, barely held together with a bit of egg and cream, and baked in a flaky crust. I have no words for how good it was. And I'll never attempt to recreate it. 
Not the artichoke quiche but rather a vegetarian mousse, which was also delicious.
That brings me to the end of our culinary journey through Italy. It made me hungry just writing about it. I definitely, positively, need to go back. Momma Mia! I can't wait!

No comments:

Post a Comment