Can I go back to Italy now?

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our country hotel in Assisi

I just got back from Italy and I want to go back right now.

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Piazza Navona, Roma

Happens every time. It is never enough. Perhaps even living there is never enough (it wasn’t when I DID live there!).

What is it about that country? Okay, I’m second generation Italian-American. So there’s that this-feels-like-home phenomenon. But STILL. The small groups that I lead there are Americans from different descents, and they, TOO, want to stay for extended periods of time.

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my group with the proprietors of our Assisi hotel

Italy is the charming country. It’s the beauty. The food…

ravioli w crispy pancetta

Siena lunch: ravioli w crispy pancetta

…the People…

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Every Italian is thrilled with fresh porcini season…here at Mastro Donato In Testaccio, Roma

…the differences between regions. Differences between cities, towns. The food…

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pizza at Mercato Centrale in Firenze

…Striking mountains. Lush hills…

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hills in Tuscany

…Stunning coastlines. Coffee…

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Siena breakfast

…History. Monuments. Art…

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Venus by Botticelli at Uffizi Galleries in Firenze

…Fountains…

…Food…

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Bistecca Fiorentina in Firenze

…Philosophy of life.

And it’s shaped like a boot. What other country is clever enough to be shaped like something so recognizable?

On this recent trip, my group and I tasted the food of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. We dove particularly deep into Firenze, Roma, and Chianti country. I brought back many new recipes from these experiences, and am inspired to recreate many more.

One of my favorites is below. We visited a small winery in the Chianti Classico region, where they served us lunch. The star of the menu was pasta cooked in Chianti wine. Delicious! And so simple. See the recipe below and do try it. Enjoy! Ciao for now…

wine pasta

pasta cooked in Chianti for our wine-tasting at Brogioni Maurizio Montefioralle

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Maurizio, the producer, telling us about the process of wine-making

Pasta Cooked in Chianti Wine (serves 2-3)

1/2 cup chopped pancetta (or bacon)

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 lb. cut pasta, such as fusilli or farfalle

3/4 cup Chianti wine or favorite dry red wine

1/4 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino or combination

4-5 fresh sage leaves, diced, stems discarded

salt & pepper to taste

Place a pasta pot of water on the heat. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, place the olive oil and chopped pancetta in a small frying pan. Cook until pancetta cooks through and browns a bit. Reserve in pan.

When water has boiled, salt water well, add pasta and cook until almost done, just before al dente or to al dente (softness of your cooked pasta is up to you, but Italians don’t like it too soft…pasta will cook some more in the wine).

Start heating wine while pasta is boiling. Pour wine into a sauté pan with at least 2-inch sides. Bring wine to a simmer. Add a pinch of salt to wine. When pasta is al dente, scoop out with a strainer and add pasta to the wine. Let it cook in wine at a lively simmer, stirring, for about 2 minutes until wine is mostly or all absorbed. Take off the heat, or transfer pasta to a bowl.

Season with salt and pepper. Pour in pancetta with its oil. Sprinkle and stir in cheese. Sprinkle and stir in diced sage leaves. Stir to combine. Serve.

Travel to Italy While Staying Home

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Modica, Sicilia

When I’m not in Italy, I’m in Italy in my dreams, in my imagination, in my thoughts, in my kitchen, and in my paintings. The country is part of my whole being and inspires so much of what I do.

When I am in Italy I snap images, and take video, in an effort to bring home “a little bit of Italy.” Here are two videos I put together with those images. One is a short compilation of the beauty of Venice…

The other is a short tour of Palermo’s Capo Market…and then a peek into the cooking class my group took on a yacht in Palermo’s harbor…

Later this year I’ll be visiting Assisi, Siena, Florence & Rome. I’ll bring back some more Italy for you. (And me.) In the meantime, visit Italy right now from home…and then, if you can, visit Italy.

Sicily = Home

rainbow at hotel in Ragusa Ibla

rainbow at hotel in Ragusa Ibla

My ancestors are from Sicily. My father’s parents from Ragusa. And my mother’s mother from Palermo.

I’ve been to Italy countless times (really countless, because I have no idea how many times) …but last month was my first time to Sicily.

I was in Ragusa. I went to Palermo. I felt the vibes resonating in my soul. I envisioned distant unseen memories. I met people who mirrored my style and spirit. And my palate…it screamed the loudest: “I know this food!!!”

I was a little nervy. I brought a small group of my cooking class students with me. Usually I lead people to places I’ve been. But this was all open exploration. Luckily, my companions were up for the ride and loved every minute as much as I did.

w our hosts of Uncovered Sicily at Santa Tresa Winery in Vittoria

with our hosts of Uncovered Sicily at Santa Tresa Winery in Vittoria

In Ragusa, we cooked with locals in their homes.

making scacce in Marian di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

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making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

We ate the food (and I’m telling you the taste was the same!) that I grew up with. Scacce, a kind of thin rolled up pizza with tomato sauce and Ragusano caciocavallo cheese.

scaccia

scaccia

more scaccia

more scaccia

...and more scacce!

…and more scacce!

We cooked and dined on pork braised in tomato sauce with ricotta ravioli and “cavati” (a hand-made cut pasta).

Ragusano pasta

Ragusano pasta

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In Palermo we shopped the Capo market with our hosts…

Capo market shopping

Capo market shopping

Capo market, buying fish

Capo market, buying fish

…and then cooked on a boat. We cleaned and stuffed sardines. We fried tiny fish and ate them whole in one bite. We marinated baby shrimp in lemon for bruschetta, and made almond cookies dipped in pistachios and candied cherry.

cooking in the boat's galley

cooking in the boat’s galley

stuffed sardines

stuffed sardines

shrimp bruschetta

shrimp bruschetta

tiny fried fish with pasta and almond pesto

tiny fried fish with pasta and almond pesto

almond cookies

almond cookies

We were wowed by cathedrals in Ragusa, Modica, and Cefalu…

San Giorgio Cathedral in Ragusa Ibla

San Giorgio Cathedral in Ragusa Ibla

San Giorgio interior w portrait of Saint George

San Giorgio interior w portrait of Saint George

San Pietro in Modica

San Pietro in Modica

San Pietro Cathedral interior

San Pietro Cathedral interior

Cefalu Cathedral

Cefalu Cathedral

Cefalu Cathedral interior

Cefalu Cathedral interior

We were delighted with groves (and city dwelling) cactus plants laden with prickly pears (that we ate at one of our dinners).

cactus in piazza in Ragusa Ibla

cactus in piazza in Ragusa Ibla

peeled prickly pears at one of our dinners -- in Giovanni and Agata's home

peeled prickly pears at Giovanni and Agata’s home

The arancina…

arancina w cappuccino

arancina w cappuccino Ragusa

arancina w cappuccino Cefalu

arancina w cappuccino Cefalu

The special chocolate in Modica hand-made in the aztec-style…

making chocolate in Modica

making chocolate in Modica

The gelato…

Modican chocolate and coconut gelato

Modican chocolate and coconut gelato

The cannoli and pastries (and pastries) (and pastries)…

pastries in Cefalu

pastries in Cefalu

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pastries Palermo

pastries Palermo

cannolo Ragusa

cannolo Ragusa

And the wine. The Sicilian wine. Charming and comforting.

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I’m just back now for a couple of weeks and I’m already scheming about returning. There is a spirit in Sicily like nowhere else in Italy. Its heritage, steeped in many cultures (Arab, Spanish, Norman, Greek) all combine to make such a unique world. I know what that is now. And I’m so happy to be made of the same stuff.

at restaurant Quattro Gatti in Ragusa Ibla

at restaurant Quattro Gatti in Ragusa Ibla

Dreaming of Positano

Positano

Positano

Maybe it’s the weather. Spring. That fresh air. Carrying the scents of baby leaves, buds about to burst, the planet’s new tip toward the sun.

But I’ve got Positano on my mind.

Positano

Positano

There is only one place like it. Adjacent towns along the Amalfi Coast are not exactly Positano. They all have their own secret charm. But only in Positano do the buildings pile up so high.

Positano

Positano

Does the beach draw you to the sea. Do the meandering, circling, serpentine streets take you from the top…

Positano

Positano

…to the bottom and back again.

Positano

Positano

And every storefront, hotel, restaurant, cafe along the way is where you want to spend hours–

Positano

Positano

each place — one at a time…

Positano

Positano

— so that you stay in Positano for an unlimited amount of days. Yes, that’s what I want.

Positano

Positano

Italian Drinks – Shortest Way to Get to the Boot

Italian drinks

Italian drinks

I have a lot of favorite Italian drinks, liquors, liqueurs. They all have distinctive flavors and assertive personalities. They are each built with the character of Italy.

Sip any one of them and feel the air of Italy, the bumpy cobblestones of a Roman street, the colliding aromas of espresso & moped fumes, the centuries-old sparkle of the Ligurian Mediterranean, the stunning (seemingly impossible) vistas of Campania & Venezia, the roller coaster ride of the language of Italy floating about your ears.

Taste one of these drinks and the sensory receptors of your palate will zap you back to where you first tasted it. It takes you there. To Italy.

And if you haven’t been to Italy, taste any one of these and be privileged to know the secret aura of true Italian taste.

Some are aperitivi (before dinner drinks), some digestivi (after dinner drinks), some find their way into any part of the day, like grappa.

Here are some of my favorites and their particular “spirit.”

Campari…

Campari

Campari

This bright red bitter drink was first spied on by my mom on her first trip to Rome. What are they all drinking that is look-at-me red and savored with ice, with soda, and straight? We had to explore. And WOW. Both my mom and I fell in love with Campari. Some say “stay away!”…they think cough syrup is at hand. But Italians (and me and mom) beg to differ. Refreshing, bright, summery (but have it in winter, too), add rocks with some soda or tonic, add a sliver of lemon or lime. Oh yes.

(In Italy you can find little adorable bottles of Campari and soda already mixed.)

Campari Soda

Campari Soda

Punt e Mes…

Punt e Mes

Punt e Mes

This one has a secret recipe. I imagine the creator in a Torino apartment surrounded by floor to ceiling books. John Coltrane plays on the record player. A cigarette likely hangs from his mouth as he dices some onion for a risotto and in between sips Punt e Mes on the rocks. But the recipe is a lot older than that and likely involves a wearer of wide-pleated trousers, suspenders, and a broad mustache. My first sip took place on a top floor of the Ansonia Hotel in NY. My Italian teacher (who was from Verona) took out a bottle during class and served it to the five of us around her dining table. I felt like my taste buds were socked in the nose. And I was suddenly speaking Italian with ease. Che sorpresa! Where can I get this? (Also a candidate for rocks and lemon.)

Vermouth “Bianco”

Carpano Bianco

Carpano Bianco

Vermouth Bianco

Vermouth Bianco

I usually buy the Italian Carpano Vermouth Bianco, but once in a while I go for the French version: Dolin Blanc. So look at this way. You have your dry vermouth — the stuff of martinis. And your have your sweet vermouth — the stuff of Negronis. But here we have something in the middle. A “white” vermouth with a touch of sweetness. But this sweetness is a full flavor of its own. In the “old days” you could only find this in Europe. Now the liquor stores have gotten smart. And we are the lucky ones for that. Another drink for rocks and a bit of lemon before dinner. (This could turn out to be your absolute favorite.)

Amaro…

Amaro

Amaro

On the other side of dinner look for a digestivo called “amaro.” There are many. Amaro actually means bitter, but these are very easy to swallow. It’s the taste of a bouquet of unknown and foreign herbs all corralled together to give your taste buds a unique ride. Taken just straight (maybe a bit less than a shot glass quantity) after dinner. The digestivo name is quite literal: it helps you to digest.

Sambuca….

Sambuca

Sambuca

Speaking of after dinner: where’s the Sambuca? (Although my dad would sometimes take a nip in the morning to “clear his throat.”) This is the relative to anisette — if you remember that old classic served after dinner at Italian restaurants (and homes). It’s anise-flavored liqueur that’s a bit syrupy and sweet (yet not as sweet as anisette). I used to pour it into my espresso instead of sugar. Espresso and Sambuca are a splendid marriage — the Italian version of Irish coffee (which I LOVE). But more usually sipped in a cordial glass after dinner. Or order it on the rocks any time just for fun. They have finally stocked the black Sambuca locally. It’s as dark as ink and almost a shock when you pour it. But pure magic.

Grappa…

grappa

grappa

Grappa exists to knock your socks off. It’s what Italians make from the leftover skins, seeds, and stems of winemaking (why waste anything?). Therefore there are as many grappas as there are grapes and then some. They come in many flavors, but usually grappa is clear white (and quite high in alcohol), and packs a punch. I call it the moonshine of Italy. It’s been known to cure colds, settle stomachs, warm an icy day, and bring on a rosy complexion. I’m currently slowly rationing the gorgeous skinny bottle I brought back from Italy. This one is prosecco grappa from a wonderful wine tour we took at Frozza vineyards in the Veneto.

Sip on any of these drinks and Italy will make an appearance in your soul. Try whispering an Italian expression while sipping: “Mmmm. Molto buono!” You will feel like Sophia Loren. Or Marcello Mastroianni. And you might actually hear a careening vespa in the distance.

Italia

Italia

Dreaming of Amalfi – Lemon Ravioli

Amalfi paining by Chef Paulette

Amalfi paining by Chef Paulette

I just finished this painting of a view of Amalfi. When I’m deep in a painting of a beautiful Italian scene I feel myself in that place. I can even smell the air. Feel the sea breeze. My palate gets nostalgic, too. So I’m remembering the lemony ravioli we had on our last trip to Amalfi in 2014. It was at a restaurant in Maiori. A place right on the beach.

lemon ravioli in cream sauce at a restaurant in Maiori

lemon ravioli in cream sauce at a restaurant in Maiori

Lemons are huge in Amalfi and grow everywhere. The cuisine is filled with lemons, too (this where limoncello comes from).

Amalfi lemon

Amalfi lemon

This ravioli lemon-filled dish was so spectacular I figured out how to make it and we’ve cooked in class several times.

lemon ravioli-making in class

lemon ravioli-making in class

Try this immersion into lemon love. Ravioli with lemon-scented ricotta filling and a very lemony cream sauce.

Lemony-Ricotta Stuffed Ravioli w Lemon-Cream Sauce

For the dough:

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra

¼ teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

For the filling:

1 lb. ricotta

½ cup grated cheese

zest of 3 lemons

salt & pepper to taste

For the Sauce:

2 lemons

½ stick unsalted butter (4 tablespoons)

1 cup dry white wine

2/3 cup cream

salt & pepper to taste

1/2 cup grated cheese

Make the dough: Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl, and shape into a mound. Create a “well” in the mound and add the eggs. Using a fork slowly mix the flour into the egg, until the dough comes together and most or all the flour is mixed in. Gather the dough and knead it on a lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth, shape into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest for 30 minutes.

Make the filling: Mix the ricotta, grated cheese, and lemon zest. Combine well. Season with salt & pepper.

Make the ravioli: Cut the dough into four pieces. Work with one piece at a time and keep the other pieces covered in plastic wrap. Flatten the dough into a rough rectangle, and roll through the pasta machine, changing the numbers from thick to thinner (lower to higher) one at a time until you reach the next-to-the-last number on the machine. Dust the sheet with flour in between every couple of numbers to keep it from sticking in the machine.

Lay the sheet on a table. Place scant ½-teaspoons of filling in row on the bottom half of the sheet, about an inch apart. Fold the top half over the bottom half. Press all the edges closed to seal well. Cut in between to make the individual ravioli. Place the finished ravioli on a flour-dusted sheet and repeat with the rest of the dough.

Make the Sauce: Zest the 2 lemons. Then quarter each lemon, cut off the peel entirely and minced the lemon pulp, discarding any seeds. Melt the butter in a medium sauté pan. Add the zest and pulp. Heat till hot. Add the wine. Cook until simmering. Add the cream. Stir to combine. Cook on medium low heat until cream is bubbling and slightly reduced. Season with salt & pepper.

Cook the ravioli: Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Salt water. Drop in the ravioli and cook until al dente, about 3 minutes. Spoon half of the sauce into a large shallow serving bowl. Add a few small spoonfuls  of pasta water to dilute sauce a bit. Add ravioli, top with more sauce and gently coat. Serve with some grated cheese.

The Tastiest Cauliflower Ever

cauliflower

cauliflower

October. Time for cauliflower. Our local Nashville farmer’s market had piles of cauliflower at their Friday night market this weekend (and tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, broccoli, peppers, sweet potatoes, and yes, pumpkins). But that huge cauliflower at the top of the bunch called my name.

I was thinking of October 2011. When I brought a small group of Nashville cooks to Rome, Italy. They met my long-time friend Malena who lives there. She and I went to college together in Rome during the 70’s and have never lost touch. Her daughter, Eleonora, is my godchild. I hadn’t seen Eleonora for many many years, but that autumn we met while in Rome and I was giggly with her beauty and presence. Seeing mother and daughter together thrilled my soul.

Eleonora and Malena in Piazza Navona

Eleonora and Malena in Piazza Navona

My group and I cooked in our rented apartment, toured the city, and sampled the local restaurants. Malena showed us some of her favorite places and one night came over to cook a favorite seasonal Roman dish. And that’s just what I cooked tonight with our local farmer’s cauliflower.

She had brought a cauliflower, in season then in Rome. A loaf of bread. Orecchiette pasta. And some garlic. This dish is rustic, homey, satisfying, nourishing, and unforgettable. You wait for October to have it. Even tho you can get cauliflower other months of the year, it’s in October that this dish belongs. It’s where it tastes its best. In October your body absorbs it seamlessly and your taste buds sink into a kind of comfy-couch of flavor.

Of course, I tweaked this a bit. Malena sautéed the bread in a fry pan. I toast it in the oven. Tonight I didn’t have orecchiette pasta, I used tagliatelle. These differences don’t make much difference. All GOOD. Here we go…

Get a pasta pot of water to a boil. Trim cauliflower of stem and leaves. Cut into flowerets.

cauliflower flowerets

cauliflower flowerets

Salt boiling water and add the cauliflower flowerets.

boil cauliflower

boil cauliflower

Let the cauliflower boil. Let it boil. We want to get it soft, almost mushy.

boiling cauliflower

boiling cauliflower

About 6-8 minutes into the cooking, test the cauliflower for softness. If it breaks when pressed with a wooden spoon add the pasta.

tagliatelle

tagliatelle

Boil until pasta is cooked.

Meanwhile, tear a nice loaf of Italian bread into bite-sized pieces. (Note: Malena, and I’ll bet most Romans, only use the soft inner part of the bread for this. I add crust and all.) Lay out on a foil-lined sheet pan. Toss with some olive oil and rough chopped garlic (about 2 cloves).

torn Italian bread

torn Italian bread

Season with salt and pepper and toast in a 375 degree oven for about 5-7 minutes until browned and crisp.

Before draining the pasta and cauliflower, reserve about a half-cup of pasta water. Transfer drained pasta and cauliflower to a serving bowl.

drained pasta and cauliflower

drained pasta and cauliflower

Toss drained pasta and cauliflower with a few drizzles of olive oil. Add the toasted bread.

add toasted bread

add toasted bread

Toss with a little more olive oil. Sprinkle grated parmigiano. Season with salt if needed. Season with black pepper. Add a bit of pasta water if it needs a little moisture.

pasta with cauliflower and toasted bread

pasta with cauliflower and toasted bread

Serve, passing cheese and pepper at the table.

your serving of pasta and cauliflower

your serving of pasta and cauliflower

my serving of pasta and cauliflower

my serving of pasta and cauliflower

Yum Yum Yum Yum Yum.

delicious!

delicious!

Pasta with Cauliflower and Crispy Bread

Serves 4-6

1 large head cauliflower, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 lb. pasta, ziti or orecchiette, or your favorite

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 loaf of Italian peasant bread, or similar

¼ – ½ cup olive oil

½ cup grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Fill a large pasta pot with water and bring to a boil. Season water with salt and add the cauliflower pieces.

Meantime, tear up the Italian bread into bite-sized pieces.Toss bread with about ¼ cup olive oil, and the minced garlic. Spread out on a sheet pan and bake until golden and crispy. Set aside.

When the cauliflower is tender add the pasta to the pot. Cook until al dente. Reserve a cup of pasta water.

Drain pasta and cauliflower and transfer to a serving bowl. Cauliflower should be broken into small pieces and almost like a cream. Add the bread and cheese. Add a little olive oil. Add some pasta water if too dry. Check seasoning and add salt if needed…and a little pepper. Serve with extra cheese on the side.