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.

Will the real Alfredo please stand up?

My Dad with his father from Sicily, his stepmother from Sicily, and his sister Vera

My Dad with his father from Sicily, his stepmother from Sicily, and his sister Vera

My Dad’s name was Alfredo. Alfredo Bernani Ernani Licitra (I might be missing one name). He was named after a character in the Verdi opera “La Traviata”…Alfredo Germont.

But dad was not the inventor of Fettuccine Alfredo. (Neither was Signor Germont.)

Fettuccine Alfredo

Fettuccine Alfredo

There are a couple of Alfredo’s running around Roman Italian history who say they created the dish. And two restaurants in Rome (not too far from each other) are named “Alfredo” …each claiming to be the originator.

An Alfredo restaurant in Rome

An Alfredo restaurant in Rome

If you’re in Rome you may as well try them both. If you’re not in Rome here’s a recipe for you to try.

When I teach Fettuccine Alfredo in my cooking classes people are surprised to discover the recipe has no cream. No. Cream. It’s a creamy dish. But you don’t use cream.

So how does the pasta get so lusciously creamy?

Butter.

butter

butter

And parmigiano.

parmigiano

parmigiano

And pasta water. That’s it.

pasta water

pasta water

There’s a little finesse to acquire. The right softness of the butter. Adding the right amount of cheese and pasta water. At the right moment. Enthusiastically tossing.

Becoming a master happens fast. And then you get to eat it, too.

True Fettuccine Alfredo 

1 lb. fettuccine

½ lb. unsalted butter (2 sticks), room temperature

2 – 2 ½ cups grated parmigiano

salt & pepper to taste

Fill a large pasta pot with water and bring to a boil. Add salt. Add fettuccine. Stir with a large fork (to keep strands from sticking together) until the water comes back to a boil.

Meanwhile, slice the butter into thin pats and lay them out in the bottom of a large shallow serving bowl. Hold bowl over boiling water to soften butter (not melt it).

Cook fettuccine until al dente. Reserve ¾ cup of the pasta water. Drain pasta.

Place the drained pasta on top of the butter and sprinkle 1/4-1/3 cup of the cheese on top. Using a large fork and spoon (or two forks) toss the pasta quickly, coating it with the butter and cheese. Add some of the pasta water—about half. Continue to toss. Add more cheese, sprinkling it lightly, tossing, sprinkling lightly again. Add the other half of the water. Keep tossing until the pasta is coated in the creaminess of the butter-cheese-water combination. Add more water if it’s too thick of a mixture. Taste for seasoning. Add some black pepper. Serve hot.

Rome: umbrella pines and ruins

Rome: umbrella pines

Amalfi Coast. Yes. Paradise. Just got back!

Chef Paulette in Campania

Chef Paulette in Campania

Me and a few wonderful ladies from Nashville took a trip to Italy’s Amalfi Coast a couple of weeks ago. The beauty of the region fills your eyes, heart and soul at every turn. And the food entrances your palate with every and any bite. Can I go back now? PLEASE?

Here are a few images from the trip. More to come. And, of course, recipes & stories. Stay tuned!

Positano

Positano

Ravello

Ravello

Maiori

Maiori

Lentils are Coins: Let’s Eat a Million

Close up of Lentils

Lentils

When I lived in Rome my Roman roommate (and soul sister), Enrica, made lentils for lunch one day. In Italy you can get lentils in a can, pre-cooked, like you buy baked beans here. They’re called lenticche in Italian. Enrica emptied the can into a small saucepan and heated the lentils. Then in a small saute pan she heated a little olive oil, added a garlic clove, and cut a few slices of bread into small triangles and fried them to crispy. We each sat down to a bowl of hot lentils topped with crispy garlic croutons. It was, actually, heaven in a bowl.

Lentils are adorable. Have you ever really looked them over? What a sublime invention of nature. So it’s no surprise to me that they represent the possibility of good fortune and prosperity. That they are the go-to traditional meal of New Year’s Eve in Italy. That they are the little horn-blowers to ring in the new year and make everyone rich (well, if not in moneta, in spirit).

On that night, lentils are also accompanied by sausage or cotechino or zampone. To make my life easier I just go for the Italian sausage (already made, bought at the store).

The resulting concoction (of supposedly homey and unsophisticated ingredients) is downright exciting. You feel you are finally having the meal that your body is craving and that your soul scurries up from the depths of you rushing like a very happy puppy for the mana you have (finally) fed it.

If lentils resemble coins, and therefore symbolize the potential for a bigger bank account, well, then, all the better.

Here’s how I make this Happy New Year treat (note: any ole time is perfect as well).

Ingredients

Ingredients

Peel two carrots and slice into rounds. Cut 2 stalks of celery into half-moons. Peel an onion, cut it in half and cut into thin half moons. Saute this mirepoix in a couple of tablespoons of hot olive oil in a medium saucepan.

Mirepoix sauteing

Mirepoix sauteing

When softened, add 2 cups of rinsed lentils. Let them get coated and hot. Add a 1/2 cup or so of dry white wine. Let it evaporate. Then add 4-5 cups water (or broth). Stir, season with salt & pepper. Add a little aleppo or crushed red pepper flakes.

All in the pan

All in the pan

Let simmer for about an hour or so until lentils are soft. I partially cover the pan.

When done add a small 8-oz can of “tomato sauce” the kind you can just buy or any tomato sauce you have. Simmer a few minutes more.

Contadina tomato sauce

Contadina tomato sauce

Meanwhile, heat about an inch of water in a medium saute pan till boiling. Add 3 Italian sausages. Poke them with a knife in a couple of spots. Let them cook, with water simmering, until no longer pink.

Sausage in pan

Sausage in pan

Let water evaporate and add just a bit of oil and let sausages brown and cook through. Place pan under broiler if you like for more browning. When done, cut into rounds.

Golden Sausage

Golden Sausage

I have to add the Enrica part, too. In a small saute pan (or use the pan the sausage cooked in using the leftover oil) heat some olive oil. Add a couple of peeled, smashed garlic cloves. Then add a couple or three slices of bread cut into small triangles or squares. Saute till golden and crispy.

Croutons

Croutons

Put it all together: In each serving bowl, add a couple of ladles-full of lentils, a few rounds of sausage, a sprinkle of croutons, and (optional) some fresh minced sage. Grated pecorino is a nice topping at the table, but it’s perfectly lovely without.

Happy New Year!

A serving of lentils

A serving of lentils

Punt e Mes: A Sip Transports You to Italy

Punt e Mes

Punt e Mes

When I first discovered Punt e Mes I felt like I’d been initiated into a secret club. It was in the 80’s. I was taking an Italian language class (one of the many I’ve taken over the course of too-many-to-mention years).  There were just 5 of us around our teacher’s dining room table delving into Italian in a conversational, relaxed and fun way.

Bretta Bracali was our teacher. She was a stunningly beautiful woman with a sharp Italian-Roman style. She taught with enthusiasm and class. And we all loved her, which helped us learn. I was living in NYC at the time and Bretta’s apartment was in the world-class Ansonia “Hotel” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The building is impressively ornate and huge. It always felt like a privilege just to have someone to visit there (later my tax accountant had offices there, too).

About The Ansonia

Bretta was on one of the highest floors. She had porthole-sized windows that were near the floor. If you leaned down and peeked out you’d see Broadway stretching out with its army of taxis.

One night she brought out a few small glasses and a bottle of Punt e Mes. No one had ever heard of it and I believe she had just brought it back from Italy. She didn’t describe it or say much about it, just gave us all some to taste as we struggled through speaking and understanding Italian.

I understood the Italian of Punt e Mes right away. The drink, on some rocks and maybe with a lemon twist, tastes like Italy. It’s a fortified wine, a vermouth, but it’s filled with subtle essences that are a little bitter and little floral and a little tart. If I want to feel like I’m in the atmosphere of a Roman street or an Umbrian hilltown or any number of quintessential Italian locations, I drink a little Punt e Mes.

I always remember one of Bretta’s language teaching points. To demonstrate how to pronounce a double consonant in Italian, she took your hand and pulled as you hung on. She’d say: “spaghet-ti.” And let your hand go between the two “t’s” (like pulling taffy together that just suddenly broke) …you got the idea of pronouncing both “t’s.”

Writing about her made me look her up on Google. She’s still teaching Italian. Here’s her website:

Bretta Bracali’s Italian Lessons

Punt e Mes

Punt e Mes

Osteria La Zucca in Venice Italy

La Zucca, Venice Italy

La Zucca, Venice Italy

Zucca means squash in Italian. Specifically those pumpkin-like green-skinned orange-fleshed squashes perfect for pasta filling, roasting, grilling, and all-around indulging in tasty earthiness that’s also SO good for you.

The restaurant La Zucca is in the sestiere Santa Croce in Venice, a bit of a ways from the neighborhood we stayed in of Dorsoduro. But with map in hand we strolled from calle to calle to campo to campo, getting lost but finding beauty at every lost turn…it’s inevitable…it’s Venice. Getting lost is actually on many top 10 lists of what to do in the city. I highly recommend it!

La Zucca in Venice

La Zucca in Venice

Up a pretty bridge and over a pretty canal we finally found La Zucca. We all agreed it was so worth the effort.

Different than a typical Italian restaurant, this one had a lovely creative focus on vegetarian cuisine, but didn’t shy away from meats, too. The interior immediately hugs you upon entering in a warm, yet modern way. The walls are covered in multiple slats of comforting wood. The tables are of the same wood. The menus are beautiful little sculptures of yellow shaped like small houses. And the place mats match the friendly yellow.

La Zucca menu

La Zucca menu

Just reading the menu is an impressive culinary journey. Deciding what to order is the hardest part. You want to try everything.

La Zucca place setting

La Zucca place setting

I ordered the tagliatelle with lamb ragu. The flavors were deep, multilayered and PERfect.

La Zucca lamb ragu

La Zucca lamb ragu

Duane ordered Porri Grattinati…leeks in a gratin of cheese & cream…seriously heavenly.

La Zucca porro gratinatti

La Zucca porro gratinatti

Lana ordered the red rice with tofu and almonds…the creative winner of our table …light and scrumptious.

La Zucca Red Rice w Almonds & Tofu

La Zucca Red Rice w Almonds & Tofu

Our co-travelers sat at another table and enjoyed more and wonderful menu choices.

La Zucca co-diners at another table

La Zucca co-diners at another table

Of course, we could not resist dessert. Duane had the luscious limoncello mousse…

La Zucca limoncello mousse

La Zucca limoncello mousse

Lana the panna cotta, a dessert of gorgeous taste and color!

La Zucca pana cotta

La Zucca panna cotta

And I had a fig topped cake drenched in bittersweet chocolate. Yes. To die for.

La Zucca fig cake w chocolate

La Zucca fig cake w chocolate

If you’re in Venice this is a must visit. Here’s their website:

La Zucca

Lana & Paulette

Lana & Paulette

Duane at La Zucca

Duane at La Zucca

Beer "bionda" at La Zucca

Beer “bionda” at La Zucca

Thanks to Lana who suggested it (and Whitney, too!)

Lana at La Zucca

Lana at La Zucca

Zucchini Agrodolce Recipe from Venice

Herbs at the Rialto Market

Herbs at the Rialto Market

Here’s a short video of my cooking segment on Channel 4’s More at Midday WSMV-TV Nashville…includes a brief glimpse of video from the Venice trip…but I will be posting MORE soon!

 

Zucchini Agrodolce from Venice on WSMV TV Nashville