Bacaro, a social hub, a casual meeting point for locals, academics, students, shop keepers, gondoliers, tourists. Perhaps one could call it a Venetian osteria with a less formal feel to it. In fact, it’s not formal at all. You will be lucky to find a chair and a table to sit down. It is it’s countertop laden with chicchetti (cichèti in Venetian spelling) and a vast choice of wines served by the glass which makes for the perfect formula of a cosy welcoming and relaxed atmosphere.
Cicchetti are very creative and delicious little snacks of which most bacari have a vast selection.
Most popular cicchetti are crostini: sliced crunchy bread (usually baguette) topped with what takes your fancy or as far as your imagination can go. There is little cooking involved, ingredients are deliciously assembled on the bread making them irresistible (especially when served on a toasted bread, a particular favourite of mine).
When looking at the cicchetti, piled on the boards or platters, you cannot not notice the pride, finesse and art involved in preparing them.
If “going for chicchetti” will be a part of your visit to Venice (and I hope it will), the one with Baccalà Mantecato is a must try.It’s a staple here. The subtle paste is made by pounding boiled and flaked salt cod with olive oil until creamy. It is very often mixed with garlic or mushrooms. Take your pick.
Apart from crostini, cicchetti are also served as a small portion of an octopus salad, sarde in soar, moscardini (these usually will be reheated), a boiled egg garnished with an anchovy, fondi di carciofi (the artichoke hearts cooked with garlic, parsley and white wine), a generous chunk of a local cheese or mortadella. And there are also meatballs.Venice to me feels almost like the capital of meatballs, or any balls: vegetarian, seafood or fish (mainly with tuna). Nothing beats very moreish deep fried warm meatballs, wonderfully crunchy from the outside and soft inside. And that is what we have most often at “Alla Vedova”. A bacaro hidden in a dark ally where you stop (or aim for) for cichèti but you can also sit down to a proper meal a la carte.
An equally important part of the entire experience is to wash you snacks down with a glass of Prosecco, red wine or the internationally famous by now, Spritz.
Of course I have my favourite bacari and a selection of chicchetti by now and occasionally I make them for us at home, especially now during the second lockdown. Below I have put up a few very simple ideas and guidelines (where the quantities of the ingredients are entirely of your choice and preference) to follow for crostini and a recipe for our very favourite homemade fennel meatballs. The recipes for “gamberi in soar” and “fondi di carciofi” you can already find on the blog (just click on the green print).
I truly hope that you will enjoy the experience.
Grilled Pepper, Spinach and Prawn Crostini
You will need:
– sliced crunchy bread
– sliced lengthways red and yellow peppers, grilled then drizzled with olive oil and a splash of white wine vinegar, left to marinate for a few hours or preferably overnight
– some spinach leaves, wilted in a pan with a dash of olive oil and crushed garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper
– prawns (cleaned and peeled), pan fried on both sides with some olive oil, finely chopped garlic and parsley
– salt and pepper
Assemble all the above ingredients on the sliced bread, drizzle with extra olive oil and season with some salt and pepper.
Tuna Paste and Leek Crostini
You will need:
– sliced crunchy baguette
– tuna in oil, drained
– leak, thinly sliced
– black pepper
Put the drained tuna in a bowl. Separate it into smaller pieces with a fork and mix with the mayonnaise until obtaining a paste. Taste and season with some black pepper. Spread the paste onto the sliced bread and decorate with a few rings of freshly sliced leek.
Courgette, Mint and Mozzarella Crostini
You will need:
– sliced crunchy baguette
– thinly sliced and grilled courgettes, left to marinate (preferably overnight) in olive oil, a splash of white wine vinegar and some shredded fresh mint
– mozzarella* or little mozzarella balls
– flaky salt
– a few toothpicks
*Slice your mozzarella about 10 minutes before assembling the crostini in order to get rid of excess liquid
Lay marinated courgette slices on the bread, place a slice of mozzarella on top or little mozzarella ball, garnish with a smaller slice of courgette and secure everything with the toothpick. Season with some salt and black pepper.
Tuna, Horseradish and Caramelised Onion Crostini
You will need:
– sliced crunchy bread
– medium size red onions, thinly sliced in half moons
– sugar, allow one flat teaspoon per onion
– a splash of red wine vinegar
– olive oil
– some water if needed
– tuna in oil, drained
– horseradish: either freshly grated or from a jar
– black pepper
– some thinly sliced radicchio (optional)
To caramelise the onions:
Place the onions in a pan, sprinkle with sugar and drizzle with some olive oil and allow to sweat gently on a low heat stirring occasionally. Be patient with the onions and don’t be tempted to put the heat up. When the onions turn soft drizzle them with a little of the vinegar. Give it a stir and carry on cooking until they almost fall apart. Pour in some water whilst cooking if they turn dry stopping them from burning. Once you are happy with the onions take the pan off the heat and allow to cool down a little.
Put the drained tuna in a bowl. Separate it into smaller pieces with a fork and mix with the mayonnaise until obtaining a paste. Start adding the horseradish, either from a jar or freshly grated. Keep on tasting and add more mayonnaise and horseradish to your liking. Finally season with some pepper and stir in the radicchio if using.
Assemble the crostini.
Spread a layer of caramelised onions on the bread and cover with some tuna and horseradish paste.
Mortadella, Gorgonzola and Pistachio Crostini
You will need:
– sliced crunchy bread, my subtle suggestion is to toast it first and drizzle with some olive oil
– thinly (very important) sliced mortadella
– Gorgonzola Dolce cheese, or any other blue cheese perhaps mixed with mascarpone in order to obtain a creamier and milder version
– pistachios for garnish
Place a large slice of thinly sliced mortadella in a decorative way on your bread. Top it with some Gorgonzola cheese and garnish with pistachios.
Spicy Fennel Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
The inspiration and a loose adaptation of this dish came from the book “Polpo”.
The meatballs can be served as cicchetti, just stick a toothpick into individual meatballs. Otherwise they make for a delicious meal on their own accompanied by a rocket salad with shaved parmesan and perhaps some crunchy bread on a side.
For about 40 meatballs:
– 600-650 g of minced beef
– 400-450 g of minced pork
– 1 tablespoon of fennel seeds
– a couple of pinches of chilli flakes or half of a small dried red chilli
– 1 egg
– 70-80 g of breadcrumbs
– a few pinches of salt
– a few pinches of black pepper
For the tomato sauce:
– 1 onion, chopped
– 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
– half of a small dried red chilli or a couple of pinches of chilli flakes
– 4-5 pinches of dried oregano
– a tip of a teaspoon of sugar
– salt and black pepper to taste
– 1 l of tomato passata or peeled tinned tomatoes
– 3 tablespoons of olive oil
Begin with the sauce:In a large pot heat up the olive oil, add the chopped onion and fry for about 5 minutes. Next add the garlic as well as the chilli and fry all together until the onion turns translucent. Pour in the passata, season with the oregano, sugar, salt and pepper. Give it a stir and let it bubble away on a low to medium heat without the lid. Add more salt if needed and stir occasionally.
Whilst the sauce simmers on the stove, make the meatballs.
In a hot pan toast the fennel seeds along with the chilli pepper or chilli flakes for a few minutes. Shake the pan often and be careful not to burn the spices. Once you notice that the seeds start to release their aroma, switch the heat off. Wait for a few minutes and grind the spices using mortar and pestle (or a coffe/ spice grinder).
Place all the ingredients for the meatballs along with the ground spices into a large bowl. Mix all the ingredients using your hands until very well combined.
Roll in your hands small balls, more or less the size of a walnut, and put them directly, one by one, into the pot with the simmering sauce.
Gently stir or shake the pot to allow the meatballs to move around and cover with the sauce. Don’t worry if initially all the meatballs are not covered with the sauce. It will change during cooking.
Autumn is here. The time of year that I had been waiting for perhaps the most.
Of course I love summer too, to be able to feel the sun kissing your skin, long warm evenings on the terrace, a dip in the sea and a different lighter kind of food and cooking as well as a bellini for an aperitivo made of fresh, ripe white peaches at their best.
I absolutely adore chilly and crispy mornings and I have always loved watching a place wake up. It doesn’t mean to be out there at 6am and seeing an empty place. It’s about the whole process and ritual of the first morning coffee (currently still being able to have on the terrace), first cornetto or brioche and their smells travelling incorruptibly along the narrow allies, the opening of your local news agent’s, people on the way to work, markets or while running errands. The air and the water, in the case of Venice, feel so fresh, clean and unspoiled. This particular part of the day lasts only for a few moments, it disappears almost if it was touched by a magic wand and the dream is over.
To make our mornings complete, the long awaited opening of the “little pasticceria” slightly hidden from the main thoroughfare, with the best krapfen (as light as air fried doughnut and even more heavenly pastry cream filling) and focaccia Veneziana (fugassa in Venetian dialect) I’ve ever tried has finally opened it’s doors again and it’s “forno”. We gave it the name “little psaticceria” as it is small and cosy and knowing our tendency soon we will rename it to “krapfen and fugassa place”. I’ve grown very fond of Venetian pastries. They are made with such care and finesse but it doesn’t necessarily stand for light. Quite the opposite, they feel velvety rich and the flavours are profound, deep and absolutely irresistible. Once you’ve had your first bite you will be immediately thinking about having another. These are our little treats, guilty pleasures or even sins that I can’t and I don’t want to resist. In Venice, of course, I walk a lot. I’ve always done so. After having passed a few bridges whilst running errands, there isn’t even any shade of guilt left from my indulgence.
I am a great believer and I fallow the rule of eating everything in moderation. There are days of special meals, feasts and way too many krapfens, but then, there are also days of lighter, simpler less rich meals to follow. It seems like a perfect balance to me, a rather greedy person, who loves to cook, eat and read cook books in bed before falling asleep.
Our diet and the way of eating, since moving to Venice, has changed as a natural process of following the local food traditions and the seasons. I must have already mentioned that shopping for fish at the Rialto Market had been my dream. And here I am, after four months along the way, I have “my” market days. Most often it is Tuesday and Saturday, and I like my little routine. For meat I shop near our house at Campo Santa Margherita, fruit and vegetables I select either from the boat at Campo San Barnaba or from one of the stands at the Rialto Market, which I particularly like.Then during the week there are days when we go out. Until now every Friday we would travel to Burano, a little fishing island in the lagoon, so distinctive with its colourful houses. The restaurant Al Gatto Nero da Ruggero, where you can sit by a peaceful canal and where I’ve learned about cooking fish in prosecco, giving it a sweeter and a very pleasant note, was our destination for dinner on warmer evenings. We loved the experience of eating outdoors despite the sudden weather changing conditions. It’s all a part of the experience of living on a lagoon. Trattoria da Romano is another place, where we’ve had lovely and delicious dinners so far. These are two institutions, establishments on the island which in my opinion are really worthwhile visiting (and making an effort of setting off on a 40 min journey by a vaporetto from the Fondamenta Nove stop). A very particular dish to try is Risotto ai Gò, which may seem a very simple dish but it is it’s simplicity which makes it so special. In Burano it is called Risotto alla Buranella and it’s secret lies in the stock, prepared from little fish which live only in the lagoon called ghiozzo. Perhaps not the most beautiful fish to look at but is so rich in flavour.
Last Saturday we went for a day trip to the island of Chioggia. Weekends have been quite busy in Venice but Chioggia is less of a tourist destination. It is actually the home of the largest fishing fleet in Italy. It’s canals were calm and unspoiled with a few friendly locals passing by, which only made our lunch al fresco more special.
With the vaporetto line number 1 we arrived to Lido. From there we took the bus, line 11, which takes you the entire way to Chioggia. By the entire way I mean the bus being transported later on a ferry, after that reaching Pellestrina and then taking another boat waiting for the bus to take us finally to Chioggia. A smooth and well organised trip provided by public transport. It takes about two hours to get there from Venice, but we had so much fun.
On one of the occasions whilst discussing with the Dégustateur food in Italy and the vast choice of produce available, we agreed that the autumn for us is the most flavoursome and varied time of year.
Plums and apples to bake with. Chestnuts, walnuts and hazelnuts to follow. Pumpkin, cavolo nero and pomegranates. Mushrooms and truffles.Then the artichoke season starts along with all manner of radicchio from Veneto. On top of that I have just managed to buy the first puntarelle of the season at the next door barge at Campo San Barnaba.
I have been tasting and cooking a lot of local specialities, either by reproducing the flavours I’ve come across in trattorias or restaurants and asking questions or going through many older cook books with no pictures but being a mine of ideas and inspiration. We particularly love scallops. Apart from having them very often on a slightly spicier note pan fried witch chorizo or smoked paprika, I’ve been making them also the Venetian way. With time resulting in my own close interpretation of the tradition. Here I mean scallops au gratin or baked in a leek and prosecco sauce for example. Baked fish in salt is always a treat for us and I prepare it very often. We’ve recently had trout with herbs in cartoccio (au papillote) and moscardini in ever so slightly spicy tomato sauce with olives (olive tagiasche to be precise).
I’ve made my first proper attempt to cook bouliabase, a very well known french fish soup. I asked my fish monger and he gave me three John Dory heads from which I prepared a very good stock, a crucial step towards preparing the dish. I finally made a use of the Pastis de Marselle, which I had bought a long time ago in France with exactly that purpose in mind. I was rather taken by the result and I will be making it again, most likely this week.
Fondi di carciofi, artichoke hearts play a very important role in the Venetian diet as well as when I want to quickly conjure up a lunch or dinner without too much planning. The fondi are readily available here in the markets and they are already prepared for you, but it doesn’t take a lot of effort to prepare the artichokes yourself. I cook them with enough stock, light chicken stock being my favourite, to dip a lovely crunchy bread into. Some gorgonzola dolce and a few slices of bresaola, a glass of Prosecco perhaps and to me, a very delectable meal is ready.
A radicchio, smoked pancetta and borlotti bean salad is a must try. It’s really worth it and so representative of the Veneto region. Use any radicchio you can find. I’ve noticed that many kinds of radicchio have become more accessible, popular and easier to find in grocery stores outside of Italy.
Occasionally, when I stay at home for a few days on my own, I cook myself chicken with chanterelle mushrooms. Normally I’d buy chicken legs which have so much more depth and cook them slowly, but during the days when it’s just me I like something quick. Instead, I cut a chicken breast into fairly thick slices and pan fry them with chanterelle mushrooms. It’s my latest favourite especially when finished with a few drops of Marsala. Oh, and some Pattate alla Veneziana to go with it. Love the combination.
Once you stay in Venice for a couple of days you will notice that polenta is very present in the local way of eating. For me it is a comfort food of Northern Italy. There are many ways of eating it: cold, cut and char grilled or as a creamy warm accompaniment to the protein.
Baking with polenta is no exception. Upon our arrival to Venice we discovered zaletti (polenta, raisin and grappa biscuits).They gain the yellow colour from the yellow polenta and in fact, in Venetian dialect, they translate to „little yellow” (biscuits).
Very often the raisins are pre-soaked in grappa but you can use marsala or rum instead if you don’t have grappa to hand. Giving zaletti an oval shape is traditional, but you could always be creative and make them round or of a shape of a walnut. Grating some lemon zest into the dough and adding some vanilla will only make them more delectable and I hope you will enjoy them too.
Dreams and plans are wonderful to create, build and pursue. Some of them come true, some of them don’t, c’est la vie.
I still can’t believe that we are here. Initially it came about as a vague idea a couple of years ago. After yet another visit to La Serenissima that germ of an idea started to evolve and acquired a shape of something more of a mere plan and we decided to move to Venice. I’ve heard so many comments about it’s „smelly” canals, disappearing residents, mass tourism, humidity and bad winters. On the positive note, there have been some very encouraging words, opinions and very best wishes for the new chapter ahead.
We are here, ready to embrace it as it is. I haven’t built any expectations towards it. In my opinion, expectations can constrain your overall experience and become the result of many frustrations or disappointments, especially when the reality doesn’t live up to the bar you’ve set. I’d rather hope for Venice to be a place I can call home and let me be a part of it.
We arrived in Venice, I’d say, a bit tired after organising the boxes and the move of our belongings, which didn’t go exactly as planned. It was raining all day in Venice and the tide was high. We took a risk and decided to still have the boxes delivered on that day. My beloved marble table top must have stopped the boat carrying it on many bridges, I didn’t exactly arrive as I remembered it. Well, it’s the beauty of having perhaps too many belongings. The boxes were wet, almost falling apart and stacked one on top of another in the new apartment. So I decided to unpack as many as I was able to, and we are talking abut many, maybe too many boxes.
We needed something for lunch. We had taken an early morning train from Rome to Venice and to our surprise during our first trip during Covid, almost everything at the train station was closed. No coffee or tea on the train either. So we grabbed an umbrella, crossed Campo San Barnaba and stumbled upon a lovey cosy place for a tramezzino, a triangle shaped sandwich which actually has a lot of finesse and care to it. The owners of this family run place were so happy to finally hear a foreign language. It was in early June just after the Italian regions and borders reopened. The nearby restaurateurs were fairly inquisitive, purely to understand who is coming over to Venice, from where and how they traveled. By arriving from Rome by train we didn’t tick any boxes, but we were made very welcome at their premises. Which was lovely.
The fallowing morning we couldn’t have missed a trip to the Rialto fish market. One of the main reasons for us of moving to Venice. I’ve been dreaming about shopping at it for many many months. The choice is so vast across so many stands. Perhaps, a little bit less so over the hot summer months, not to mention the Coronavirus and the obvious complications that go with it. We have always been overwhelmed by the abundance of beautifully displayed local produce, which mostly comes from Sant’ Erasmo island, the orchard of Venice. Apart from the fish as well as fruit and vegetable stands there are so many little shops around the market in which you can find, broadly speaking, almost everything else that you may want or need, for cooking of course. I am still finding my way around them which is part of the fun.
Another thing that I absolutely love about Venice are it’s pastry shops pasticcerie. A morning ritual of a coffee and a pastry, most often still warm, is something that I am looking forward to every evening before going to sleep. I actually love having the pastries at home, on the balcony overlooking a sun kissed canal in the morning. I believe that might change over the course of the winter. I’ve always loved Italian croissants with cream cornetti alla crema, but the more pastry shops I discover here I tend to always have a new favourite treat of the week, at least for now. I feel spoiled for choice.
But above all, it’s the misty, foggy and atmospheric weather conditions that have attracted us to La Serenissima the most.
Almost immediately upon our arrival we took a vaporetto and treated ourselves to a Sunday lunch at Locanda Cipriani on Torcello Island. The place that we fell in love with a few years ago over the New Year’s Eve period, on a cold crispy and wintery day. Delicious food, excellent wine and a fire place near by. So many fond memories. On this occasion however, this sweet little island was brimming with local people as well as Locanda Cipriani itself. Something that we didn’t see for a fairly long time due to lockdown and it’s further restrictions. Our table was in the beautifully kept garden this time and we made it just in time before the sky cleared and it turned very sunny and warm. I had the best fried in a light and crispy batter courgette flowers stuffed with prawns that I can remember.
Although we knew Venice to some extent before moving here we’ve been really enjoying so far finding and trying out new places for a tramezzino, aperittivo or dinner. The food is so different from what we used to have in Rome, which I must admit, I miss and I will gladly cook it in my little kitchen in Venice (once it cools down a bit). After all, The Eternal City is where we spent almost five unforgettable years and the first years of our life in Italy. The memories I hold in my heart are grand and laden with nostalgia.
My venetian kitchen is smaller to the one I had in Rome but very sweet. Despite the enjoyment we are having eating out, I head to the market on a regular basis. The delicacies like langoustines and scallops initially were dominant in our shopping basket. Langoustines eaten raw with a drizzle of good olive oil and some lemon juice are just second to none. Scallops, in particular, is what I’ve missed the most since I left England. They are just not very common in Italy. I love having them with fried cubed chorizo finished with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and copious amounts of fresh coriander. We’ve regularly been having baked fish in a salt crust, which keeps the flesh very moist and is always a safe way of baking it. The crust seals all the moisture within so even if you keep the fish in the oven for slightly too long, it will still be just wonderfully tender and delicious.
I have also made cod fillets baked in a herb and walnut crust several times, another simple and local recipe that I felt like sharing with you. I just serve the baked fillets with a green leaf salad and thinly sliced raw fennel. I have also posted a recipe for gamberi in saor, a Venetian way of preparing prawns in a sweet and sour sauce with onions, raisins and pine nuts. Traditionally the dish calls for sardines, but very often prawns are used as a substitute or even langoustines for a more luxurious version.
I’ve also made us some duck ragù, which is very popular in the Lagoon, tossed with pappardelle pasta as well as roast duck legs served with baked spiced plums in wine.
Soft and delicate potato gnocchi covered in cinnamon, butter and sugary sauce is my ultimate comfort food from Veneto.
A new recipe on the blog for desserts is for a semifreddo with raisins, walnuts and Marsala wine (my favourite one to cook with), decorated with ripe and sweet figs, if you can find them of course. It is just a perfect summer (but not only) cold dessert, incredibly easy to make and the one to wow your guests with. Just take it out from the freezer a few minutes before serving and decorate with fresh fruit or crumbled amaretti biscuits when the season for fresh fruit is over.
So, here we are, in Venice, not knowing yet for how long. It’s still peaceful and lovely. Although, more tourists have been arriving recently, bringing the place slowly back to life.
I haven’t been present here lately, and I’ve missed it. Recent weeks and months have been somewhat of a rollercoaster and an unexpected prolonged lack of a good internet connection has stopped me from posting here for a while (however I’ve tried to update my Instagram account when possible).
To begin with I thought I’d share a few words on the beginning of the lockdown in Italy. The borders are open now but it is far from what it used to be. The emptiness from the tourists and chaos for some may seen an amazing sight and experience but for many it boarders with a great sadness.
We were booked for an early flight from Rome to London. The night before our flight, while I was waiting for my next “Commissario Montalbano” episode on TV, the speech of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was shown. From that moment the whole of Italy became “the red zone” (initially it was only Lombardy). Subsequently our flight was cancelled and we received a message from the airline a few hours before the scheduled departure.
After a few moments of digesting the information we started cancelling all the meetings, appointments and what have you that we were supposed to have in London. Since nothing could be done, I went for a run to Villa Borghese Gardens, the last one before all the parks were ordered to be closed too. Needless to say that the gyms closed just after that, as well as restaurants (which were already only allowed lunch service) and practically every other businesses going.
After my morning run we decided to treat ourselves to a last unforgettable lunch, just in time before the proper lockdown.
We walked from our home just off Piazza del Popolo towards Testaccio, to have the best “cacio e pepe “ and lamb in town at “Felice a Testaccio”. I never order a half portion of “cacio e pepe” there, it is simply too good. Plus, the one hour walk each way helps me not to feel sorry about the very generous portion of the tonnarelli pasta in a peppery and Pecorino cheese sauce.
Very often we used to walk to the Testaccio Quarter of Rome along the Tiber river, which in spring is a very pleasant stroll under dappled shading of all the tree leaves turning vibrant green. Aventine Hill however, has become our latest obsession and the route of choice to Testaccio.
This very elegant hill of Rome is one of the sweetest, cosiest and quietest corners of the city. There is no shade of a shop. Just the most stunning residential villas. Moreover, The Orange Garden boasts one of the most beautiful views over Rome, particularly romantic at sunset. During day time we have almost always stumbled upon a grazing domesticated and most photographed pig in that garden.
The Aventine Hill is where you would normally stay patiently in line in order to rest your eye on the door of the Villa del Priorate di Malta with the famous key hole, through which you can marvel at the splendid perspective of the San Pietro dome appearing along the alley of the Giardini dell’Ordine. No queues this time, just us. On the way back from our generous and delectable lunch there was a carabinieri car parked near that point already ready to enforce the lockdown.
Another jewel of the hill is The Rose Garden which is most pleasing to walk around in April when the flowers are blooming. Sadly, this time of year we were already in the period of the full lockdown in Italy.
From the early days of March until the 4th of May we had the 200m rule to obey, which basically meant shopping at your nearest shops, markets and pharmacies. Only farther movements for work, health or other absolute needs were allowed. The police presence was very prominent. You could be asked at any time for your documents and the auto certification, a signed form explaining why, where and from where you were going to. And believe me, it wasn’t the nicest experience being stopped and not having these documents on you.
The tourism crowd had already eased a week or so prior to the lockdown by 70%.
We took an advantage of that peaceful time in Rome and we revisited The Palantine Hill and Vatican museums on two separate days. We left the apartment fairly early in the morning and just enjoyed the walk as well as no ticket queues, as you can imagine. We actually had some of the most fabulous and atmospheric days in Rome. A truly unforgettable experience. And also to be able to rest your legs and peacefully enjoy a cold beer in the (normally bustling) enduring Peroni brewery near Di Trevi Fountain on our way back.
During the most strict lockdown period we did our grocery shopping daily or almost daily. The need of a breath of fresh air and the contact with other human beings, in this case with all our food vendors, was stronger than the very convenient and free of charge home delivery service. It was very funny to see that during the first week of the lockdown there were no queues outside “my” butcher’s for example. Most customers were placing orders for home deliveries. One week under the way and the 20-30 min long lines of shoppers started to appear. The preference of personal shopping and an excuse to go out was already stronger for many more.
I was really amazed how well the food chain industry was handled during such a difficult and uncertain period. We didn’t experience any bulk shopping or running out of produce on the shelves. Perhaps once I noticed the shortage of 00 flour and it seemed like almost everybody with the time on their hands (or not) turned into a home bread baker. Fresh yeast was impossible to get, but it wasn’t far off from the normality anyway. No, I didn’t bake my own bread. I supported daily my favourite forno in Rome Roscioli, plus, I just love going there anyway.
I alternated many home cooked meals with the pre-made meals from my trusted place, which never disappoints.
I decided to use this time of staying at home as a possibility to try and test some new recipes or those, that I had always wanted to make, like: vitello tonnato for example, or to perfect the tarte tatin that we’ve become obsessed with. We also had potato gnocchi with cinnamon and sugar as they make them in Veneto, thin pork slices baked with spinach and walnuts, Sardinian semolina gnocchi and spiced sausage ragù , Sicilian veal rolls, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, beef tartare and many more.
It hasn’t been easy for anybody. Some of us had their birthdays and were on their own. It happened to be that I also had my birthday in March but I didn’t feel it was the right moment to celebrate. We did have a cake though, the stracciatella pavlova, which was more an excuse to have something sweet and for me to try out a new recipe.
Some of us grieved for their family members while not being able to say the last good bye and pay their respects. Easter without family didn’t feel like Easter. Rome also had the best weather in years for the festivities, unfortunately enjoyed from a terrace or a window in most cases.
The list perhaps could be endless. We have all been anxious and anticipating the “ gradual reopening” of the countries and borders with a great hope for a slow return to normality or a new normality, as it is called right now.
The 4th of May finally arrived. We were able to walk around Rome freely (it was a 10km rule), the auto cerifcation was still required though. Parks also reopened to my great joy. I had never seen Villa Borghese Park to be so busy at 8am before. It was much quieter the following days. Everybody who lives around a park, couldn’t wait to walk around it, be in a green area and practice any kind of sporting activity. Children in particular couldn’t get enough of the freedom.
Initially taking pictures wasn’t really allowed, the police often asked people to stop taking them. Perhaps it didn’t fall into the basic needs basket like food or medicine shopping. Even journalists were checked for their work license. Later on it relaxed a lot, but not near the Di Trevi Fountain. There were more policemen around than people themselves. I was also asked to stop taking photographs. Since it is a narrow space along the fountain, the aim was to avoid any form of gathering.
Wearing masks, at least in Lazio, has been obligatory in a closed space like a shop, bank, station and so forth or when you can’t distance yourself by 1m from another person.
Later on came the dates for other businesses to reopen: hairdressers and restaurants.
I was circulating around my nearest hairdresser studio since early morning as soon as they opened to get an appointment for both of us. We got it. We were over the moon. Felt almost newborn, fresh and presentable again. We also booked ourselves into our local osteria, well attended as always by the locals and customers from the Parioli area, which is just above the Villa Borghese. After years spent in Rome, you learn to recognise the differences between particular quarters of the city. Plus, Roman actors love mimicking those differences when they can. Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome, came to say hi and wished everybody a good evening. She was walking around Rome to observe the atmosphere on the first day of the official reopening of the restaurants. Reading the newspapers the following day, sadly only 10% of them decided to open their doors to customers. The new safety rules and the lack of tourists forced many to wait. Some of them still remain closed.
Rome during the month of May turned into the city of the cyclist. A very low level of traffic on the roads allowed whole families to cycle around very safely. The Romans had Rome to themselves and it was wonderful.
At the very beginning of the new phase there was only one place at the Piazza Rotonda (where the Pantheon is) which started serving coffee and cornetti. Sounds pretty basic but we had a couple of coffees there almost every day. It was magical, just us, a few government workers and the Pantheon. After a short while it changed of course. On Sundays we barely saw any difference from pre Covid times, loosely speaking.
I don’ t have a custom to carry my camera with me very often. It actually must be something of an occasion for me to do so. I walk far and a lot having just keys, my phone and a few coins on me. On top of that it gets in the way and during ferocious Roman summer heat and it just feels too heavy. But above all, I love to experience a place and memorise it in my heart. Focusing on trying to take “the right shot” spoils the moment, at least for me, a non professional photographer by far. Personally I found it inappropriate to glorify images of empty sites or monuments during such a sad and difficult period we’ve got to live in. It is true, it is wonderful to see normally very busy cities like that, but simultaneously we all know, that it is the pandemic which is responsible for it. Just quiet enjoyment is more appropriate perhaps, at least in my humble opinion.
Later on, once some of the museums, shops and eventually the regions along with the borders reopened, while I was passing La Scalinata by the Spanish Square going to see the exhibition of the works of Raffaello, the Dègustatuer took a few pictures of me on the empty steps. Something, to remember this happy moment by. It was just before 9am. As you well know, the so called “Spanish Steps” prior to the Covid were very busy and perhaps the most visited place in Rome, sometimes too busy that I even avoided walking on them. Luckily I passed them almost daily, thus I didn’t mind. They still do fill up, currently mainly over weekends but it is also a well known rule, that places are emptier at early hours of the day.
I accidentally found some yeast on a fridge shelf in my local store a few days ago. Perhaps we have fewer home bread bakers at the moment. I hesitated, but I bought it. I didn’t manage to use my fresh yeast and had to throw it away (which made me very sad actually). I’ve found it to be a positive sign that the long awaited moment of being absorbed by many other activities outside our homes has finally arrived.
It’s been a while since I wanted to write this post. I feel that it’s incomplete but I decided to post it regardless. I shall look forward to completing it in the future. Initially I lingered over a bit with putting a few words together because we were planning to visit Florence and probably Montepulciano in late February. Perhaps what I was searching for was an inspiration and trying out new dishes. We have been visiting Tuscany fairly regularly on many different occasions. I’am particularly fond of it in Autumn and early Spring, when the hills are shrouded with an early morning or afternoon mist, when I can enjoy surrounding earthy smells and when grilled meat on an open fire with some fresh rosemary accompanied by a glass of an elegant red wine has never tasted better. Having just said that I can feel the breeze on my skin and travel in time to our summer meals: pasta with clams, prawns and langoustines (the best one perhaps that we‘ve ever had), red prawn tartar decorated with burrata, baked whole fish either in a salt crust or in a white wine and tomato sauce served with raw fennel pieces and eaten at one of the best and quiet settings looking out at the sea, admiring the sunset and enjoying a glass of chilled sparkling wine.
Sadly in the current situation with the corona virus spreading fast, our plans have had to be postponed, most likely cancelled. But whilst we are at home I like to bring certain flavours back onto our dining table.
Tuscan food with its great culinary tradition and a deep-rooted local spirit is represented by cooking what is available and it is done properly. It is a cuisine of it’s land and bread favouring a long cooking process. It is synonymous with those meat dishes for which the Tuscans have a genuine affection: chicken giblets, lampredotto or tripe, Chianina beef, Cinta Senese pork and of course game. The Tuscans are also called mangiafagioli, the bean eaters, as pulses like lentils, chickpeas and fava beans grace dining tables extremely often. Bread is almost sacred in this region of Italy and used in an infinite variety of ways, proudly without salt. Dishes like panzanella, papa di pomodoro or carabaccia (tomato and onion soup respectively) and ribollita are all based on bread. Ribollita, by the way, on the day it is prepared is only a bread soup. That re-cooking, ri-bollire (the day after the soup was made) is that extra ingredient, without which we would not be talking about this soup at all.
La Toscana, once the centre of The Renaissance, today a region with one of the greatest concentration of art works spread over a vast and diversified territory. The geographical layout has undoubtedly contributed to the variety of the produce and subsequently the dishes and to the differentiation between meat and fish. The produce and flavours of the land are well respected without loosing personality. One can see the whole of Tuscany as a mosaic of local traditions, often interwoven with influences and exchanges with neighbouring regions. It is a cuisine based on just a few fundamental ingredients like the rustic Tuscan bread for example, today known across the whole of Italy. It’s greatest particularity is the absence of salt which allows it to marry extremely well with more flavoursome ingredients and of course salty cured hams or salumi. Grilled slices of casareccio bread, brushed with garlic and drizzled with local olive oil is the essence of the Tuscan cuisine in its most simple form.
Tuscan cuisine can be both simple and refined, rustic and aristocratic and that also applies to sweets especially when Vin Santo is taken into the equation or chestnut flour. These few words which you’ve just read are filled with nostalgia that I have for this large and diverse region still yet to be discovered, studied and learnt. I am longing for its earthy flavours, porcini mushrooms, wild boar stew, meat ragù with home made pappardelle pasta, caciucco (a fish stew) and many other dishes still to be tried and tested.
Currently, during the peak of the corona virus and the home lockdown I wish that the moment for all of us of being healthy and able to move freely will come soon.
We live in the Historic Centre of Rome and I can only share my experience from this part of town. We have a few very small supermarkets that are doing their best to comply with the latest and fast changing regulations. All products are available (apart from fresh yeast which was almost a miracle to find anyway), nobody is panicking and hoarding food, apart from one or two cases of foreigners, who can’t be blamed especially if not speaking the language. We all queue outside maintaining a reasonable distance apart from each other. Some fruit and vegetable vendors have closed down their stalls, unfortunately Campo de’ Fiori is empty but there are other well prepared and well stocked vendors that I am full admiration for. Also butchers, fish mongers and independent grocery stores keep on overwhelming us with their dedication and hard work during these difficult and uncertain times. Gradually the streets have turned rather empty and most of the locals stay at home as asked, the one meter distance rule is obeyed in stores and the police presence is somehow less prominent or at least less visible to me, which is only good news (I see it as the sign that finally most of us leave our homes only when really neccessary). At least in my neighbourhood.
Once this is all over I will open a bottle of the finest Supertoscan or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano that I have at home ( we’ve built up a small cellar over the years), make my own pappardelle, serve it with the pulled beef that I have left after cooking Stracotto al Chianti Classico and celebrate in the best company, just the two of us.
But whilst we are all waiting and hoping for our lives to turn back to normality, here are a few propositions that I particularly like using ingredients that are hopefully easy to get:
~ a cannellini bean salad with tuna and red onions that I had once in Florence and it has stolen my stomach since the first bite;
~ an artichoke, sweet pear and shaved pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese salad, there is a loose saying that I came across in one of the books “not to tell the farmer how good the concoction of pears and pecorino is otherwise they will stop selling it to you and keep all for themselves”
~ an antipasto of Crostini Neri with Vin Santo (chicken liver crostini);
~ Stracotto al Chianti Classico, slowly cooked beef in Chianti wine, so tender that it almost falls apart
~ chestnut pancakes with whipped ricotta called necci (additionally I serve them with salted caramel and sliced sweet crunchy pears).
I hope you like it.
“Yes, I have finally arrived to this Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life…Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
I believe that the best time to come, see, live and understand Rome is winter. Hardly a day goes by without clear blue skies, strong warm sun that shows its shy face only during early morning hours and once it goes to sleep it leaves you longing to cosy up at home or at a local trattoria.The Eternal City just before and after the Christmas season is lived by the locals. I love this period. Not only because I adore cold crispy winter days but I see Rome in a different clearer light.I breathe more freely.
Markets are bustling as ever but somehow the vendors seem happier, more relaxed and approachable. I also find myself more at ease whilst shopping at them, most likely because for this short period of time they are not a tourist attraction but a genuine point of meeting for a chat, laughter, exchange of latest gossips and grocery shopping of course. Having said that the overwhelming interest in Italian regional food and cooking is very exciting. It is lovely to see that growing number of travellers not only trying but devouring tonnarelli cacio e pepe (my favourite local pasta dish by far), artichokes, that are a big affair in Rome, are enjoyed and cooked both ways: alla Romana, stewed in olive oil and a bit of water flavoured with mentuccia, parsley and garlic as well as briefly speaking deep fried alla Giudia (to be found not only in the Roman Ghetto quarter) where the romaneschi artichokes are to be used which have the ability to open like a flower. Then we have the fifth quarter famous examples of coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) or trippa alla Romana (a tripe). It is finally recognised that it is guanciale and not pancetta that is added to the famous la carbonara with grated Pecorino Romano cheese to follow.
Central to most lives here is food, the passion for it and the simplicity with which Italians cook and eat. A common factor across all the different regions of the Italian Peninsula. In Rome the working class way of cooking, produce, flavours and traditions are well looked after.
Cicoria, chicory is perhaps the vegetable most loved, cooked and used in the Roman and Lazio kitchen. Its mild bitterness contrasts perfectly with traditional greasy meat dishes. It works extremely well in sandwiches paired with sliced porchetta or mortadella. Above all the most common way of preparing it is to cook it in salted water and then give it a final touch in a pan with olive oil, garlic and very often peperoncino in other words cicoria ripassata. My favourite way is just with a hint of garlic finished with a drizzle of good olive oil as the warmth of the leaves brings out the oil’s beautiful fragrance, finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. It is said here that all the bitter greens are so good for you. Well, the more the better!
A comforting lemon scented beef and mortadella meat roll (polpettone) in a dry porcini and tomato sauce accompanied by cicoria ripassata and slowly cooked peppers with black olives and capers makes for a perfect wintery lunch or early supper.
Agretti, a vibrant green spaghetti like vegetable are a real marvel when they arrive to the market stands. They are of a particular earthy flavour, a hybrid between spinach and grass with some tartness to them.At home the non green hard parts only are to be cut off and discarded. Next they only need a good wash, a few minutes of cooking in salted water and served warm with a drizzle of good quality olive oil, some lemon juice and a pinch of flaky salt. Prepared like that they don’t ask for anything more.
Winter heralds the arrival of the Veneto region best export produce and it arrives in abundance to the fruit and vegetable market stalls. Radichietto salad leaves are something I buy extremely often and in large quantities these days. I dress them with a garlic infused olive oil vinaigrette and they are just delicious in their most simple form. But recently, just after Christmas, I tossed in juicy pomegranate seeds, hazelnuts and dry apricots into my radichietto leaf salad which made for a delicious accompaniment to a pumpkin and ricotta terrine garnished with crunchy pancetta. So good.
I am sure (at least I hope) that you have come across the purple gems called radicchio of different hues, shades and shapes. They are all worth trying and vary in the intensity of bitterness, radicchio from Chioggia, Treviso or from Verona. The radicchio from Castelfranco is particularly beautiful with wide green yellow leaves with purple marks running through them with lesser or greater prominance. All manner of radicchio are extremely easy to use in cooking but above all they make for one of the most pleasing simple salads I can think of. Thank you Veneto!
Tarocco, a blood orange has finally arrived. I have been waiting impatiently for so long to make a daily juice or almost daily out of these particular Sicilian oranges. But you see, they are not just any oranges. In Italy they’ve become a symbol for healthy eating. Eating a blood orange is something of an experience. Taroccoo has a meltingly soft dark orange flesh (sanguinello or moro variety is deep rich red in colour), its sweetness is offset by high acidity with flavours unfolding slowly. I’ve been obsessed ever since. The height of the Sicilian citrus harvest falls in January, February and March. That is yet another reason for me to look forward to winter and the seasonal abundance of produce. Blood oranges are not the easiest to transport. Their skin is delicate and very thin which doesn’t travel or store well. Thy are readily distributed across Italy but perhaps you can still find them in a well stocked organic grocery store.
After a recent visit to Venice, I recreated at home an octopus salad that we had on our last day in a small cosy trattoria which seemed to have many Sicilian influences on the menu.The core of the salad is sliced boiled octopus, thinly sliced celery and the rest of the ingredients are versatile. You can add grated carrots, boiled cubed potatoes, olives and so forth. But the seasoning on the other hand is what makes a difference. I mixed olive oil with freshly squeezed blood orange and dressed my salad with it a few minutes before serving. It was divine and so refreshing.
Last weekend I spent happily pottering in the kitchen unearthing old but tried recipes of mine but I made space in our stomaches for some new ones like lemon panna cotta with a blood orange and Campari syrup.
A magic blend of cultures (Jewish-Roman), of the quinto quarto (the fifth quarter) of Testaccio, produce of the land of Lazio and the food of the shepherds along with many other regional influences making their way to Rome form a wonderful universe that works extremely well here. “All roads lead to Rome” seems so true right now.
There is a magical, almost fairy tale-like atmosphere in Poland in winter time. I absolutely adore the whole build up towards the festive period. It has a certain charm with the whole bustle of preparations, Christmas menu planning and wrapping presents with a special themed wrapping paper, finished with a shiny ribbon.
It is a big family affair this year. We are shortly leaving Rome for Poland with a large artisan panettone from my favourite shop which hopefully fits into the overhead locker on the plane.
There is nothing that can compete with the scene of a countryside shrouded with fresh snow and separate dwellings decorated with christmas lights. The cities are equally appealing with the shop windows and almost all of the main buildings elaborately embellished for the festive occasion. I would always await the time of the day when it starts to get dark and the romantic atmosphere of flickering candles and decorative lights sets, which was never a very long wait with the shorter days of this time of year.
I am looking forward to enjoying with gratitude the traditional Polish and our family’s speciality Christmas dishes.
In Poland Christmas Eve is a special, very important, sentimental and one of a kind family gathering.
We don’t eat meat on that day. I know that my mother has already prepared pierogi, Polish dumplings with a sour cabbage and mushroom filling. She always prepares them earlier and keeps in a freezer until needed, making her big dinner cooking easier and perhaps less stressful. I believe many households share the same practice as we always prepare so many different dishes to laden the table with, also for the following Christmas Day, when we eat meat.
I have always loved yeast cakes. A poppy seed cake makowiec is one of a kind, but I eat it only at home. Main reason being is that I have never had a better one anywhere else. It is soft, moist,its flavours very well balanced, poppy seeds are cooked through and minced with a special care.It requires some time and patience which defines the end result. I have never made one yet, maybe it is about the right time to start?
Traditionally my father and I were responsible for going foraging for our Christmas tree and decorating it just a few days before Christmas Eve.The traditions should be cultivated and that is exactly what we are going to do this year. An activity that I take great pleasure in. The Dègustateur will be responsible for keeping our two little dogs and cats away from the shiny, very attractive and tempting Christmas bowl ornaments. There is a little damage every year.
But before all that happens, we will host a pre-Christmas convivial meal here in Rome. A meal that brings the friends and close ones together before everyone breaks up and departs until New Year.
Chatting, laughter, lovely simple food and a good wine is what a successful party is all about.I will prepare a couple of salads using seasonal bitter greens: radicchio, chicory and puntarelle (puntarelle alla Romana with an anchovy, garlic and vinegar dressing). Some raw sweet langoustines drizzled with some olive oil and lemon juice are always a special treat. An egg pasta tossed with porcini mushrooms or with exquisately scented truffle shavings since it is the season. I like to spoil us every so often and Christmas seems to be a perfect opportunity and excuse for it.
I will also make the cotechino, a slow cooked pork sausage served on the bed of lentils, traditional fair at Christmas and New Year. There is a small twist that I particularly like from the “Polpo” cookbook where as a sharp condiment to cut through the fattiness of the sausage mostarda is used (mustard fruit). The last time I made it was still in London, our last Christmas there before moving to Rome. I feel it is about time to have it again.
The Christmas themed dolci are the ones that are particularly requested. Luckily none of them is time absorbing or difficult to make. We will have our ever favourite hazelnut and chestnut tart, where I use hazelnut flour bought in Alba. The hazelnuts from the region of Langhe in Piedmont are particularly flavoursome and delicate, famous and appreciated also beyond Italy.
Crema di marroni, a sweetened chestnut purèe is one of those ingredients that I relish and truly enjoy during this time of year and indeed, it is very evident in my “festive bake off”.
In Rome from 11am onwards the smell of roasted chestnuts from the street vendors spreads deliciously around which only adds to the atmosphere. We buy a portion of them and snack on them still warm walking home during the cold months (bizarrely they are sold during warm months too, somehow they don’t taste the same for us). There is no other method that can compare to roasting the chestnuts using wood and an open fire apart from cooking them in red wine. But a ready made chestnut cream of a good quality does the magic especially when a to do list seems already long enough.
It is really not a holiday without chocolate. The answer to it is a combination of melted dark chocolate, hazelnuts and chestnut purèe cake. A delicate and moist cake focusing only on just those three ingredients (there is no flour). I am planning on making Tronchetto di Natale a sponge cake rolled with a filling of your choice, covered with a chocolate spread (most likely ganache will be my choice) resembling a wood log. Dust it with powdered sugar and decorate with sprigs of rosemary or thyme or whatever takes your fancy. A turamisù is always a lovely suggestion to make, bringing another texture onto the table. A snowy or frosty like accent could add pavlova, decorated as generously as your creativity can take you.
I will laden the table with Christmas decorations, walnuts, chestnuts and especially with clementines having a symbolic meaning to me.
Panettone, a traditional Italian Christmas cake that is more like a bread, we will have for a lazy breakfast the following day after our feast. I love panettone and it is such a lovely present to give, packed in a big box with a ribbon. It originates in Lombardy but nowadays you can buy it literally everywhere. It has become extremely popular and sold the whole year round. I like mine simply wrapped, prepared just for the festive period (which means without added flavourings and preservatives so that the cake can last longer) and coming from an artisan bakery. For a good quality panettone you have to pay a bit more, simply because of the ingredients: candied fruit, butter etc. But why would you have an inferior quality especially when only enjoyed during such a short period?
Very rarely can Rome be enjoyed just for yourself. Gradually the low season is disappearing with the month of January being a benchmark. The pre-Christmas period however, is when I love Rome the most. Almost deserted museums in late afternoons, no queues, a frosty air and cosy shimmery streets that I could amble through almost for ever.
Buon Appetito e Buon Natale.
October is a funny month in Rome. It plays its jokes since the early hours of the day and doesn’t seem to stop.
Mornings in particular take me by surprise. All of the sudden after having left the apartment and closed the front door I stop and start to fight with my thoughts. The thoughts being signals and a reaction of my body to my fairly inadequate attire for the big and sudden dip in temperature.
I don’t always make a u-turn to go back for a light jacket (that after a long Summer I have probably forgotten where to even find) or a sweater to cover myself. It just feels odd with the clear blue skies.
It is also a strange feeling to start wearing closed shoes, not to mention socks. Weeks and weeks of being spoiled by wearing just sandals have come to an end and the first days of facing wearing proper shoes seem like a struggle. But then, like with everything, one gets used to it and of course to the changing weather seasons.
I must admit that I was looking forward to Autumn this year, for the temperatures to become gentler and pleasant again (the summer this year was incredibly hot in Rome).
Deep inside I was already longing for proper comfort food, for a creamy and rich soup with pasta or spelt, pasta tossed with a rich pecorino sauce, meat stews or what have you. I was particularly missing cosy afternoons spent sipping tea and indulging in autumnal tarts. I think tarts and simple cakes with an emphasis on just a few ingredients are our favourite kind of pudding. I just couldn’t wait to start using sweetened chestnut cream (you can buy it all ready prepared for you in a jar or you may want to spend some rewarding time and make it from scratch), walnuts, chestnut flower, hazelnuts that I tend to bring from the Langhe region of Piedmont, pears and the last of the plums. Sadly figs disappeared with the first heavy rain (and much needed) after August. As a result I didn’t manage to bake a lot with figs this season. Instead we had them fresh either with cheese or in a fruit salad which was the most sensible thing to do given the summer temperatures. There will always be next year and something to look forward to.
Speaking about something to look forward to. There are two restaurants in the Testaccio area of Rome that I was impatiently waiting to visit.
One of the first October Sunday lunches I booked us a table at Trattoria Perilli. It is a very well frequented place but mainly by the locals. It was for the first time in Rome where we found ourselves the only foreigners in the restaurant at a given time. I am not trying to say that you will always find that kind of crowd over there, but certainly on most occasions. Maybe it has something to do with the reservation system, my calls never being answered despite numerous attempts. I would advise to book especially for certain days of the week, if you can. The place is known for it’s very traditional Roman food and I was recommended it for it’s l’amatriciana, the Dègustateur’s favourite. During one of those days when he was away I thought I would arrange a lovely surprise for him. I decided to walk and book a table in person. I didn’t feel angry or disappointed not being able to make the reservation over the phone. I love walking and I don’t take public transport in Rome. It doesn’t work as badly as is rumoured, at least if we are having the tube in mind.
I had a wonderful early afternoon quiet and peaceful stroll along the river. The water hadn’t looked better in a long while. Dramatic contrast of the blue skye, the lime tree leaves slowly turning yellow and the sun hiding every few minutes made my walking experience as if I was falling in love in Rome (again).
The following Sunday it was the tonnarelli a cacio e pepe turn, my favourite. Since the lunch was already fully booked (as I was politely informed over the phone) we took our chances and turned up for the opening of its evening shift. We were very lucky and so happy. It takes almost one hour by foot to get there therefore you can imagine why we were so excited.This restaurant is particularly famous (very much so among tourist as well) for its cacio e pepe pasta (cheese and pepper pasta). It sounds very simple, perhaps even too simple but it is like no other. The secret is in the sauce, its consistency and the choice of pecorino cheese.
I absolutely love the theatre of having the tonnarelli stirred with grated cheese right in front of me. I am always amazed how hot the pasta remains after all that stirring and building up of the sauce. Well, that is the secret of Felice a Testaccio and I believe it is best if it stays that way. Whilst writing this post I am already thinking when to go back there next. The correct answer is as soon as possible. I feel so greedy.
There is also this lovely unassuming artisan ice cream place in Testaccio that we stop at after our scrumptious meals. We enjoy our ice cream while slowly making our way back home. The Dègustateur likes it so much that under the pretext of going back to those restaurants he is actually craving for that ice cream. I don’t blame him, it is exquisite. There are just a few flavours to choose from, the display is minimal and the containers are all covered up to maintain the right temperature. Exactly how it should be. I am saddened at times seeing tourist queuing and getting big gelato portions at places where the vast choice of extravagantly and unnaturally coloured ice-cream is on the display all day long. That feeling is particularly strong when a proper gelateria is almost next to it. The following is so true and still valid (maybe even more these days) “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
My Italian tutor Diana has recently recommended a Tuscan restaurant to me just off Di Trevi Fountain. She was quite wary when referring to it. The reason being is the very common misconception and belief that all the restaurants, trattorias, coffee bars and so on right next to major tourist spots must be bad. Bad because they just don’t have to try hard, they will always have enough crowds passing by, tend to use inferior ingredients not to mention about precision and execution of a dish. In most of the cases it is true. But there are historic places however, that are still maintaining their standards, are known for good and honest food that the Romans are dining at. With time you learn and just know where to go and it has been such fun exploring Rome for us.
We loved our Tuscan meal. Every course we had was exceptional. It was the first time that I had tried a beef filet with an apple and cinnamon puree with more baked apples to accompany it. What an autumnal meal we had. The Dègustateur’s pumpkin cream soup with burnt garlic, cavolo nero cabbage and crispy bacon was a pure work of art. I make a similar pumpkin soup at home. It is with chestnuts and crispy bacon on top as well. When I buy a pumpkin I have to think of making a few meals out of it. This vegetable of varied different shapes is so generous and giving.
One of my favourite fillings for pasta parcels is pumpkin, amaretti and mostarta. It is something of a real treat, not Roman at all. I either prepare them myself or I can find them not too far from home, just off Piazza Barberini.
Once I’ve mastered the art of making risotto I am no longer shy and reach out for new flavour combinations. Pumpkin and cinnamon is a match made in heaven and it was in Venice some time ago where I had this heavenly comforting pumpkin risotto finished with a few pinches of cinnamon for the first time. I’d say a must try for those who don’t know it yet.Now since the Autumn has arrived the Dègustateur being English feels like having a roast chicken for a Sunday lunch and I happily make it for him. Personally I find cooking with just chicken legs more rewarding and subsequently resulting in richer and more complex flavours. On that note a couple of weeks ago I made a chicken fricassee with mustard, vinegar and thyme. Served it with a cauliflower purèe, cooked cannellini beans with bacon and roast potatoes for an extra crunch. Proper comfort food that we all love.
October in Rome has still been spoiling us with temperatures in the mid 20’s C. It feels ‘too early’ for my scrumptious beef bourguignon but I can already feel that the ‘right’ days are arriving.
Usually at this time of year we head to Piedmont to enjoy copious amounts of porcini mushrooms and more modest amounts of truffles. Due to bad weather conditions with great sadness we decided to cancel our trip. I have been feeling very nostalgic and longing for the produce of Piedmont and its overwhelming flavours. As a consequence we devoured home made sweet specialities of that region like bonèt, panna cotta, hazelnut and chestnut tart or baci di dama, which are two hazelnut biscuits joined together with a layer of chocolate. One of best possible combinations on earth. Baking and cooking with hazelnuts (from the Langhe) always seems rather extravagant but once you start treating yourself to theses particular gems you will never want to stop.
Italian desserts are not particularly showy like their French counterparts. They focus on one or two ingredients playing the main part. One of these examples is a walnut and caramel (you can make a salted caramel too which is divine) tart. So simple yet so rewarding. Serve it with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and you will be in heaven.
Autumn brings more delicious news. The artichoke. At the moment their season has not fully started yet and there are still a few more weeks to go in Lazio. However, I have already had a taste of them in the Roman restaurants in Testaccio. I couldn’t wait any longer. They are somewhat of a real delicacy here and they were divine (restaurants always have a good supplier), exactly as I remembered them from the last time, way before summer. Carciofi alla Romana are not to be missed. Another way of preparing them in Rome is alla Gudia, of course best eaten in the Jewish Quarter itself. They are first cooked in olive oil and then fried in a separate pan. The leaves are meant to be crunchy and snapped one by one with your fingers while the artichoke heart stays soft and tender to be enjoyed at the very end.
There are so many dishes involving carciofi (artichokes) that I want to cook as soon as possible and share them with you here on Hai Mangiato: artichokes with prawns and pasta, or buttery artichoke risotto, veal meat balls with artichokes to begin with. The sea of ideas, like a well without a bottom that still has to wait to give its goodness.
It is always so delightful to be back. It feels so good to be home, in your bed, in your kitchen, in your space.
Over the passing years I have grown very fond of shorter trips. Just a few days away to change the ambiance, taste new food and wine or to come back to the places that already hold a special place in our hearts, fill us with comfort and bring a big smile to our faces.
When we are absent for a longer period of time, even the dreamiest place can’t stop me from developing the feeling of longing and nostalgia. At least I used to feel that way until our recent summer trips. Somehow there seems to always be a turning point, mainly when least expected. I could translate it that we really had a wonderful time away this year, the time that you want to hold on to for longer, the precious feeling of absolute happiness that you want to last for ever.We spent a magical week in Sicily to start our summer. Upon reflection I think it was our best trip to Sicily so far. Having gained valuable experience travelling and commuting across Italy, many things have become a lot easier by now. The kind of confidence that you can gain only with time and practice. We both feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to experience that as well as to live in Italy.
Summer this year has been incredibly hot in Rome and it is only now, during the first days of September that we can experience rain, lower temperatures, short lived thunderstorm with their extremely loud and bright lightening. Simultaneously there is always a high level of humidity that accompanies them.
The Romans use the word l’afa to combine the atmospheric conditions like excessively high temperatures, high levels of humidity and the absence of wind in one. One word that sums it up perfectly and which I use occasionally (this year more than I would have liked) over the months of July and August.
Puglia, a vast region at the bottom of the so-called Italian boot, was our home for a while during August. Itria Valley is one of the most iconic and extraordinary examples of folk architecture. That is where we stayed, in a small, cosy dry stone hut with a conical roof. We also had a very good sized swimming pool which helped to beat the heat, a lovely garden with generously planted herbs and a fantastic outdoor grill, something that the Dègustateur truly loves. I happily let him set the fire, grill the food prepared by myself and clean it afterwards of course.
It wasn’t our first visit to Puglia. The first time we visited the region was at the very beginning of our move to Rome in late January almost four years ago. We didn’t even have our belongings with us yet, just two suitcases of clothes. When I look back upon that trip with the perspective of time I am certain that we feel more comfortable and confident wherever we go in Italy right now. Having learnt the language undoubtedly has helped. Fortunately I was already able to communicate in Italian since the very beginning but that certain degree of fluency, understanding and cheekiness you can only gain with time. We had stayed in Lecce, a splendid baroque town with its streets kissed by the afternoon’s golden light. It was lovey and quiet. A low season that we almost always try to take the advantage of. I can still remember the taste of a very decadent and representative pasticciotto leccese, an oval shaped pastry filled with indulgent rich pastry cream. The pastry casing traditionally calls for strutto (lard) to be used. I’ve made a few attempts at home and I am cognisant of the fact that I still have a few touches to improve on. But that doesn’t worry me because I do believe that certain delights somehow taste best in the places where they belong. All I have left now is to come back to Lecce I guess. The pasticciotti can be found in Rome of course, however they are never the same, as perhaps they never will be.
I absolutely loved grocery shopping in Aberobello that was just a few minutes away by car. We stumbled upon two delicatessens situated just opposite each other, laden with local hams and of course capocollo, cheeses, grilled vegetables kept in olive oil, marinated seafood calling: buy me, buy me! Well, we did buy it and lots of it. We indulged in the wine too. The wine obtained from dark- skinned Primitivo grapes. I adore the bottles too, dark, rather big and very heavy.
Most of the visits however we made to an another nearby sweet and cute “white town” Locorotondo. It is where the Dègustateur had the best stinco (pork shank) ever. Myself on the other hand, being a big fan of a very “poor men food” plate of dry broad been puree and blanched seasonal greens drizzled with best olive oil, I couldn’t have asked for much more.
The orecchiette are the most famous pasta of Puglia. They look like small disks resembling a small ear hence the name. Orecchiette con cime di rapa (with broccoli rabe) are perhaps most known outside Puglia but since it wasn’t the season to try the dish, I had orecchiette con bracciole. In other words the small ears pasta with meat rolls cooked in tomato sauce. I liked it so much that I recreated it at home and shared the recipe on the blog immediately.
We really had a lovely time. The food from the land was alternated with going to the coast (not a touristy spot even though the very famous Borgo Egnazia was just next door) and having almost everything that the fishing boat offered on the day. We treated ourselves to sea urchin, raw langoustines and red prawns. Those delicacies were so sweet and heavenly good. From a very generous selection of mixed warm starters we particularly liked black rice with burrata cheese and baked local mussels au gratin.
It was quite tricky for me to open raw mussels by hand. There is a special technique to do that, the technique that I have by no means a full command of yet. But my temptation for making tiella barese was stronger than my skills. As a consequence with the help of my stubbornness and after a few scratches on my hands I managed to prepare the mussels as required and save their water which is released once you open the shells. The rest was easy. Tiella barese consists of layers of thinly sliced potatoes, sliced onion, roughly chopped tomatoes, rice and opened mussels but still kept in one half of the shells. Each layer is finished with grated pecorino cheese and it is then baked in a casserole dish for about an hour. It was delicious. So lovely that I may forgo my scratched and slightly painful fingers and make it again. It was surprisingly delightful.
Sooner or later all holidays come to an end and it is time to go back. Home is always home, my space and air. In Rome everything gradually comes back to life from the end of August onwards.
I love being back in my kitchen and pottering around it. I always bring so many ideas (that I don’t always put in writing unfortunately) with me on food and on what to cook but we were both craving for some traditional Roman food. The food of just a few ingredients and of strong flavours. That is perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions of la cucina romana.
I immediately made beef straccetti, thinly sliced beef pieces that are the make up of an outstanding dish.
I never use bread crumbs nor flower for cooking them (as I have seen in the past). My version is simple and packed with flavours, that is why I don’t sear the meat and serve almost immediately after having tossed the thin pieces in a hot pan. I like to gently cook them in white wine, some marjoram, generous amounts of seasoning and very often to finish with balsamic vinegar. You see, to me the flavours are of crucial importance and the meat can only absorb them if you allow enough time for it. This dish is extremely simple and quick, no more than 30 min in a pan and it is ready. We have just had a good friend visiting us and he really likes straccetti. So I prepared it as above and served it on the bed of rocket leaves and garnished with shaved parmesan. We loved it.
Having a guest over gave me a perfect opportunity to cook some Roman classics that we were looking forward to having: pasta alla carbonara and l’amatriciana. Just a few ingredients, guanciale being the key one. We all of course went to our favourite restaurants, a must try was coda alla vaccinara, lamb chops, tonnarelli cacio e peppe. Then there were stops at favourite enotecas or wine bars for some Prosecco or Franciacortata to start the evening with. Ice cream tours we reserved for after dinner for two reasons: I find them to be a wonderful end to the dinner and the queues are much smaller.
My friend Robert and I did a lot of walking. He really appreciates the city, the food culture, the weather and most importantly the history. During one of the walks we looked at Forum Romanum from the Capitol Hill. The late afternoon light was warm with orange hues giving a sweet and soft contrast to the shadows. We stayed there for a moment, admiring the heart of the Roman Empire in silence. And that was one of those moments when I say, it is good to be home.
I have learnt to embrace the weather for whatever it is in all its extremes: hot, cold, rainy and atmospheric. If there is a right outfit for every weather type then there must be suitable food for every weather condition.
Summer in Rome this year has been extremely hot and humid, some would call it unbearable.
The pavements along narrow and long streets are kept busy only on one side, the one that provides the shelter in the form of shade.
I have always been grateful for my air conditioning unit my the kitchen. I could manage in the past without putting it on while having my morning coffee and watching the news. But that has suddenly changed, that sweet quiet moment of a few minutes for my self needs some assistance, cold air.
I know that it is temporary and we will be remembering and talking about this summer in the next few months to come. We will be missing having an iced coffee or crema di caffe in our favourite coffee bars. I like to make an iced coffee at home too. I use moka to make my coffee, I wait until it cools down, stir in some sugar and keep it in the fridge until I fancy sipping it poured over some ice. It is a drink absolutely to die for especially now during the unbearable heat, that you eventually get used to and learn to love with time. With my morning coffee I tend to have a rather small breakfast, not because we live in Italy now but I have almost always had it that way. I enjoy a bigger meal later on in a day. The locals would just have a cornetto alla crema, al cioccolato or just vuoto, or a Roman speciality maritozzo (a small bun, cut lengthways and filled with whipped cream) and a coffee. When you ask for a coffee in Italy, you will be automatically presented with an espresso.
Depending on the day and how we start it, we either have small breakfast on the way while running some errands or we have it at home. I like to get up early and watch the city wake up, then I tend to bring home still warm cornetti or pizza bianca from a local bakery. This pizza bianca cut in half and filled with figs (just squashed not sliced) was given to me a few years ago by Domenico, my local fruit vendor that I visit almost every day. That is what he had for breakfast. So did I. A Roman treat that you can only have when the figs are at their best, ripe and sweet almost like honey. Since then, during summer, I occasionally go for a stroll to search for some lovely pizza bianca (looks almost like focaccia but the two are not the same) and figs. You have to be quick as they sell out fairly fast. This traditional Roman breakfast sadly can’t be found on the menu anymore. Personally I prefer its most simple variation, just bread (pizza bianca) and figs (and a coffee of course) but you can have it with prosciutto crudo (cured ham) for a greater complexity of the flavours and an extra ingredient.
During this period I set ou for my grocery shopping earlier than usual while hoping to be able to walk in still fairly moderate temperatures. There are days however, that prove to be an exception to that rule. Your appetite changes and when I ask myself a question what to make I start digging out my old time favourite recipes for cold food and for those most suitable for the current weather.
I would always make a cold soup, a Spanish classic gazpacho or cold beetroot soup blended with some feta cheese, served with Granny Smith apple as a garnish. We particularly enjoy a lesser known Spanish cold almond soup, chilled in the fridge with some sweet white grapes. Panzanella is not only a fantastic way of using stale bread but also a lovely salad that you can make in advance, chill it in the fridge and serve it when you are ready. We had already fallen in love with the fresh and flavoursome goat’s cheese, peach and orange blossom water salad while we lived in London. All the ingredients can be easily found here and once the peach season starts I prepare it very often.
When I make a large batch of fresh basil pesto (it can be safely stored in a fridge) I like to use it not only with pasta but to dab it on a potato and green bean salad. Recently I used the left over pesto as part of a dressing for a boiled octopus, potato, tomato and celery platter.
There is a bit of cooking involved with the gnocchi, although once you have learned how to make them it doesn’t seem that complicated or time consuming at all. My summer proposition is to have them with gently fried courgettes, basil and crème fraîche. What a dreamy combination.
A whole fish like sea bass or bream baked in salt often graces our table. I want a minimum of work involved so I also bake a whole turbot or any other fish with some white wine, fresh herbs and lovely sweet tomatoes. Just a few ingredients but you will end up with such a rewarding dish. The only thing left to do is to neatly separate the tender flesh and present it beautifully on a plate.
Chicken or veal escalopes with lemon and parsley are always present during summer. They take almost no time to make, and if you crave for a crunchy finish, just dust them moments before frying with flour, roll in a beaten egg and then bread crumbs and let them golden in an awaiting hot pan and foaming butter.
I have mentioned on numerous occasions how much I like to make food that I can prepare in advance and just heat it up when I need it. A meat ragù is one of these. All I need for my meal is to boil some egg pasta, toss it with the meat sauce and scatter some grated cheese on top. To make my summer ragú I change the herb selection. I am particularly careful with sage (to me it is more suitable during colder months with a darker and richer ragù). I use some fresh rosemary, oregano and some basil towards the end of cooking.
There is nothing more refreshing on a hot day than a bowl of cold fruit. I make la macedonia very frequently and my selection of fruit will depend on what is available in the market.
La macedonia is a very lovely way of using fresh ingredients. The fruit of your choice (cut into bite size pieces) is drenched in a mixture of water, lemon or orange juice with a small amount of sugar and kept in the fridge. It stays fresh for 2-3 days and is meant to be served cold.
A citrus panna cotta is one of our latest favourites. I have been inspired with the flavours of Sicily, the use of citrus fruit for cooking in particular and I have brought certain ideas into my kitchen.
Of course we can’t miss out on an ice cream. We are spoiled for choice in Rome but this particular white chocolate and saffron ice cream I make at home (without an ice cream maker).
So here they are, some of my recipes to try when it’s almost too hot to cook, I hope you enjoy them.
Our kitchen is quite small, at least it seems to be that way when compared to the rest of our apartment. It opens with a sliding door to a long and narrow dining room which we have fairly recently redecorated. Not a huge amount of work involved but it had previously felt like an unfinished room. It is still not fully finished, mainly because I haven’t yet found what I may like or what catches my eye. We have wonderful antique shops down the street, but for the time being I prefer just to admire them from a distance. Apart from giving the room some colours I bought a rather large piece of Carrara marble to serve as a table top. It was not an easy job to get this to the apartment, carried up by three men (the lift is too small) up to the third floor. I really don’t want to think about moving again right now.
The dining room is the only room painted in a colour other than white (and its shades being a result of different wall finishes across the apartment). We rent at the moment and I happily embraced the newly renovated apartment, a big lateral open bright space, so hard to find in Rome’s Historic Centre. In life you learn to compromise and despite the fact that I am not a great fan of modern interiors, I feel happy in our space. The modern interior comes with an air conditioning unit in the kitchen which I love. Summers in Rome are usually long, hot and humid. Cooking is the last thing you want to do but my little kitchen has become my oasis. My home is where my kitchen is. You must have heard this phrase so many times in your life already and you may even think of it as a clichè.
Most of my time evolves around the kitchen. It has always been that way especially when time allows. Over the past few years there have been some changes in our lives, moving to Italy is only one of them. Since then there have been periods where I have had more time to enjoy a lazy potter in the kitchen and dedicate more time to experimenting, recreating the dishes that I have tried eating out or catching up with my cook book collection. This time wasn’t always available in the past. I don’t take it for granted and I hope it will remain that way. A perfect balance that all of a sudden can be spoiled or disrupted, sometimes when least expected. Unfortunately a couple of recent weeks were quite stressful and rather unpleasant for both of us. As for every couple the following is true: we are on this boat together. But problems are to be confronted, dealt with and resolved, preferably sooner rather than later. It is exactly during these difficult moments when you realise what matters the most. What is important for us and where that is.
No sooner had I returned to Rome from a routine London trip (a few days earlier than the Dègustateur who had to stay longer) and was happily back in my “small and modern” kitchen than I realised this is where my heart is at home. Despite arriving late in the evening I took a slow stroll to the grocery store (open till very late in the Historic Centre) enjoying the widely spread perfume of jasmine. I was alive, happy and smiling. I made sure I bought enough eggs and sugar. My plan was to start already on one meringue layer of the pistachio and almond pavlova that I had created in my head whilst still on holiday in Sicily. I just couldn’t wait. The pavlova that I usually make consists of two meringue rings. My oven unfortunately is too small to fit both in at a time, so the second one was made the following day after my morning run (in the nearby Villa Borghese park). The high temperatures and humidity are here. I try to combat them by going to the park even earlier in the morning than I usually do but at the same time it is so lovely to feel that warmth of the sun on your shoulders, the sign of the much delayed summer.
My dear friend Francesca came for a dinner the next day. I was still on my own in Rome and we had a lovely catch up between us girls.
I am a red wine lover but on a hot day bollicine (very chilled as per my personal liking) is just perfect. During summer months I tend to keep a bottle (or two) of Prosecco or another sparkling wine in the fridge. You never know when you might need it.
I suggested we ate in the dining room but Francesca preferred to stay in the kitchen and eat at the island, my work space, laden with plenty and various ingredients. She liked the small chaos in the kitchen that I had created. For her it shows that the kitchen is lived in, perhaps the most in our home.
A bean, tuna and red onion salad is a fantastic starter and takes no time to make. A piece of good white bread to soak up the juices is a must.
After the, mainly gastronomic, recent trip to Sicily I came back inspired. I think it was our best time on the island so far. Wild fennel is ever present in Sicilian cooking and you can be very creative with it. As a result I served us tagliolini with a wild fennel and sausage ragù. I must have already mentioned that I tend to choose something very easy to make when having guests. That way I can focus on the conversation with a little input in the kitchen. The ragù just needs to be heated up and tossed with freshly boiled pasta. So simple and so delicious.
The light as air pistachio and almond pavlova was already in the fridge and waiting patiently. I was contemplating the idea of combining the almond and pistachio flavours with pavlova while still in Sicily.
I adore pistachio cream made of pistachio from Bronte, the region of Sicily considered to be producing the best pistachios in Italy. The almonds from Val di Noto are also something to die for.
I folded the pistachio cream into freshly made Chantilly cream, giving it a lighter texture, a light green hue and a more delicate taste. A similar thing with almonds. I chose to toast them first, that way they release their essential oils, then blend them with a small amount of sugar until obtaining almost the consistency of a paste. I generously decorated our dessert with fresh strawberries and we devoured it without saying a word.
I had prepared enough of the ragù so that the Dègustateur could try it upon his return. He loves the Italian sausages. They consist of a 100% meat and they differ in taste depending on the butcher you buy them from. Every sausage maker will have his lovely way of adding some fresh garlic (but not too much) or spices like pepper, coriander, chilli or fennel.
Very often our lunch is a kind of “snacky” lunch where I buy sliced cured ham, some cheese, seasonal vegetables and some bread for the salad juices which we almost always have. You could pack it all up and have a dreamy picnic outdoors, perhaps under one of the trees to escape the strong sun in Villa Borghese. We live next to it hence it seems to be an obvious choice apart from the fact that we really love this park. I in particular make a use of it a lot. An early morning jog every now and then is so peaceful, the tourists normally haven’t reached this destination yet. I tend to stop and admire (frequently on my own) the view over Piazza del Popolo and the St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.
A few days ago I saw large, plump and meaty tomatoes being sold in the fruit and vegetable market. I knew immediately what I would be making for lunch. But plenty of other tomatoes of different shape, size, colour and flavour gave me a new idea. There are days when I ask myself in the morning: what shall I make today? The ideas don’t always come immediately but then I rely on the market and what is in season for the inspiration. It never fails.
I picked up a sheet of puff pastry from a local supermarket on my way home. On the same day I improvised and made a fresh tomato tart on a bed of Feta cheese and crunchy baked french pastry generously decorated with fresh herbs: basil, coriander and oregano. Use the herbs that are available (always fresh) and that take your fancy. I love to mix coriander and mint but somehow on that particular day mint was hard to get.
The pomodori al riso (baked tomatoes with a rice filling) a staple Roman summer dish we devoured the following day.
When in Rome…
During one of my very frequent trips to the fruit and vegetable market (I have my favourite stand at the Campo de’ Fiori market but I also frequent a market nearer to home, smaller but by no means less buzzy to be served my favourite vendor) with the shopping list in my hand (which helps me not to get carried away with the shopping) all of the sudden I saw those glorious, purple, firm and shiny aubergines of different shapes, size and colour. And I gravitated to them. I couldn’t resist. The shopping list helped me to remember to pick up everything that I wanted for the weekend and while I was still going through some ideas in my head I was already asking for a few aubergines to add to my basket. While walking home I was trying to figure out what use to make of them? To have them as a contorno or a part of antipasto? Just grilled and served with a good drizzle of olive oil, some sliced garlic and chopped parsley for extra flavour, all covered with a squeeze of fresh lemon? Amalfi lemon preferably, the lemon from the Amalfi Coast in the region of Campania of which aroma, colour, sweet taste and plump shape is just intoxicating.
In a couple of weeks time we are heading to Sicily for a holiday. We are really looking forward to this trip, as every year. We are going back to the same region of Sicilian Baroque in the south east of the island. I know, we have quite a few places that make a part of our yearly pilgrimages. Perhaps one would ask, why yet another return to the same region if you could see another one? Well, we like on some occasions to take our time to see a new place and slow down and if we are particularly taken by it, we will come back. Holidays are to be enjoyed and you can do that only when you are relaxed and most likely working out the “plan for the day” at breakfast or while soaking up the sun. And that is exactly the sun that makes you slow down. Why not to fallow its rhythm? Having said that, of course we have marked places to see and things we would like to do but more importantly what and where to eat in Sicily. No calorie counting here, but we never do anyway. That rule applies also to wine.
With me it is somehow the aubergine that has evoked the memories and longing for Sicily. I decided to make caponata, a sweet and sour aubergine dish, a typical example of Sicilian cuisine. I love this heavenly medley of the ‘agro dolce’ sauce based on wine vinegar and sugar with deep fried aubergine pieces. And that is only to begin with. For caponata we need some celery stalks, sliced and then fried. You would add some good quality pitted olives and capers. Next in go the raisins (sultanas) and toasted pine nuts or almonds. All finished with a few slices of onion (I choose the red onion here) and a couple of tablespoons of plain tomato sauce (passata or tomato paste also work well). The aubergines play the main role but all together with the other ingredients the dish is elevated onto another level. The range and fantasy of Sicilian aubergine recipes is vast, quite overwhelming in fact. Probably caponata is the most elaborate version of this.
Personally I choose to grate a bit of bitter dark chocolate on top of the finished dish. This very baroque touch of chocolate fully completes it for me.
One of the fruits I always buy are lemons. Proudly staring at me in heaped quantities daily decorating every fruit and vegetable stand. I just love the look of them. On top of that, I use them almost every day. If I buy too many of them I display them on our dining table. You can decorate your table in so many ways. I tend to arrange what I’ve bought in a market on different plates in large quantities: apples, lemons, aubergines, tomatoes and so forth.
And it was exactly whilst I was looking at those glorious, sweet and plump lemons from the Amalfi Coast (Campania) lying on the dining table, I started to ponder over torta caprese al ciocolato bianco e limone, a variation of the traditional torta caprese. My ears pricked up immediately when Diana (my Italian tutor) and I were discussing the “perfect recipe” for the almond and chocolate cake (torta caprese) and its possible forms. I am always interested to hear about food, other people’s approach to it and preferences. There are so many angles, recipes, variations and there is always something new to taste and discover. Every source of information is of great importance to me, especially when spread by word of mouth. It feels more private that way, like a little secret that now I cant wait to share, exactly like my recipe for the lemon torta caprese. It is a cake that stays moist and fresh for a few days. It is really important to spend some time and buy good, sweet, plump and full of aroma lemons because that is exactly the level of sourness, sweetness or bitterness of their skin and flesh that will determine the end result.
On the Sorrento Peninsula and its coastline its famous sweet, juicy and perfumed lemons are cultivated on terraces that are stepping down towards the sea. From the lemon skin infused alcohol the limoncello is made but most importantly the lemons have become a main ingredient of many local delicacies.
There is a lemon cake that I’ve come across during our travels to Ravello while discovering the breath taking places and admiring the dramatic and surreal coastline. I am sure you’ve seen some pictures or visited this magical and mesmerising part of Italy already. Unfortunately I was not taking any pictures during those trips and I must apologise for the lack of visual content.
Not only the dough of the “dolce al limone” is mixed with lemon juice and its zest but once it is baked it is then drenched in a lemon syrup. The recipe comes from a book that I picked up during my first visit to the Costiera Amalfitana and I love it for its simplicity and precision. We all know that with a simple food with a focus on just a few ingredients and its flavours there is no way to escape. As ever, good ingredients and a bit of love while cooking are my ultimate recipe.
Whilst writing this post the idea of a heavenly creamy and summery risotto al limone came through my head. I made it the following day for lunch, served it on the plates I bought some time ago in Ravello and we devoured it. Recently the weather has been playing little games here in Rome but when the sun is out, you can definitely feel it.
I find lemon risotto perfect for lunch or dinner by an open window allowing the already warm early summer air to come through. Certain dishes just taste better only when the ambient temperature is going up. The lemons coming from different regions and part of the world are available in supermarkets or fruit and vegetable markets the whole year round but I can’t imagine us having risotto al limone for example or perhaps tagliolini al limone during any other period than now and for the next a few months to come.
For a long lunch or dinner in the next a few days I would probably serve a caprese salad to begin with. Such a simple plate of food and yet known all around the world. I truly believe that the success of this particular salad lies in the ingredients. Mature, sweet and dare I say “meaty” tomatoes, mozzarella or fior di latte, good olive oil, a pinch of salt and fresh basil leaves torn by hand. You can also find a variation with dry oregano sprinkled on top. I think it is good to try both versions and alternate in case you enjoy them both equally. There is no real recipe for the caprese salad but try not to cut the tomatoes nor mozzarella too thinly and make sure they are at room temperature when serving. If you find that the fior di latte or mozzarella loses too much whey when slicing, leave the slices in a colander for about 30 minutes before assembling the salad.
Another fabulous antipasto that we love is still a lukewarm seafood platter made of cooked octopus, clams, mussels, prawns or langoustines, grilled squid all finished with a drizzle of lemon juice and a good olive oil, sprinkled with freshly chopped parsley. To my mix of starters, since they are in season, I would also add a raw baby artichoke salad with shaved parmesan. What a treat.
Perhaps as for the main course I would opt for the lemon and chicken Sicilian meatballs served with aubergines in tomato sauce, oregano and basil. Both dishes can be prepared in advance which will only improve their flavours and at the same time they are very comfortable and easy to serve while having guests.
For the dolce I am still in two minds but I can feel now that lemons will play the main part.