The summer is gone. Florence is shrouded with grey clouds as the rain settles. A sight I haven’t seen for a long while in Italy after the hottest and longest summer we’ve had in many years.
The saddest part is that when it’s too hot to do almost anything, you just wait for the temperatures to drop. Once they do, the moment of the enjoyment of the balmy weather is so short, almost gone with a blink of an eye. It’s exactly what happened this year. But I’m trying to hold on to summer, I don’t want to let it go. The will and above all the need of seeing the sun coming out again is stronger than ever, also in my personal life.
Almost every August means for the Dégustatuer and I a trip to my home village in Poland, to stay with my parents. Two weeks in the midst of the rural countryside, the place I grew up in, the place I love. It’s nothing special really, apart from a vast and beautiful landscape of farm land and golden crops ready to be harvested, and fond memories of my simple childhood, when life felt simple, safe and careless.
The time seems to always fly there, even faster towards the end of our stay. Isn’t it always the case anyway? The days at home in Poland have a natural and seamless flow, breakfast either together or separately, on the terrace, amongst my mother’s bountiful and well looked after flowers. Lunches and suppers however, are the meals which we have together, sitting down properly at the table. Evenings especially are accompanied by wine and lots of laughter, easing the unfortunate language barrier of the Dégustateur.
My mother traditionally cooks for us, as she enjoys having us all together and it gives a great joy (the cleaning afterwards is another story). But this time I did a lot more cooking than usual, as my mother wasn’t well. I did a lot more other things than usual too, dedicating a lot more of my time to my parents, following the natural changes in life.
My only routine and constant when back home is to go for a long walk, taking our two little family dogs with me. They absolutely love it. As soon I put my trainers on they start to jump to my face from the excitement, bark and make all sort of right noises, as dogs do when they are happy. For the first few meters they tend to literally pull us (the Dégustaur often joins me) on their leeds, once we turn onto a back road the run freely, enjoying a deferent surrounding and the smells in particular. On our way back, they walk behind us. Then there are the cats, three to be precise. Two of them, twins, found their way to our home as kittens during the first lockdown, and of course they got all the love and attention that there is. Luckily we have a lovely garden to play in and enough space for the „little zoo” to have their own sofa or armchair to sleep on.
After the everyday business comes time for supper, my favourite meal. On several occasions I made us risotto: risotto allo zafferano and a mushroom risotto. I’ve always loved cooking risotto, some people find it daunting, but believe me, there isn’t anything scary about it. My mother sat in the kitchen, watched me cook and made notes. The Dégustateur also contributed with an occasional stir and wine top up. I also made my favourite Italian style meatballs in tomato sauce, and I made lots of them, so my mother could freeze them and conjure up an easy yet delicious meal any time she wants to after we’ve left. Additionally, I left behind a few jars of pomarola, a Tuscan tomato sauce, to be stirred with freshly boiled pasta any time of the day.
There was also an apple cake, twice. I had been wanting to make a proper apple cake for months. By proper I mean lots of apples and a lovely moist dough, exactly as I like it. I’ve never been a fan of dry cakes or crostatas in Italy. The only crostata I’ve ever enjoyed here was a fig and hazelnut crostata in Piemonte, a gastronomic heaven.
I grew up with apples and I miss them in Italy. In fact, I stopped eating them. Once we had a chat with Leo, my favourite fruit and vegetable vendor at Mercato di Sant’ Ambrogio about apples. Most of the varieties started to disappear with the international food companies entering the Italian market, reducing the number of varieties from plenty to just a few. So I took the opportunity and baked us an apple cake in Poland. I followed the recipe from the Letitia Clark’s book „La Vita è Dolce” and it was a sheer delight. My father was also at home when it came out straight from the oven, we almost finished it all before it managed to cool down.The only change I made was the method of making it (easier for me) by whisking everything together using an electric mixer, and the sugar quantity as per my personal liking (you can follow the recipe by clicking here).
Chocolate and almond cantucci dunked in Vin Santo were a big success. Even I was surprised how big of a success, I can call it a triumph. After the apparently filling risotto, everybody still found a space for them, lots of space. Even the Dégustateur couldn’t stop himself from eating them, whilst back in Florence he wouldn’t even have touched them. Somehow, on rare occasions in life things do fall into place.
After August September came, along with certain changes in my life.
Cooking and sharing food or a meal has always been a way for me to express care and love. It still is, but lately I had to realise and actually learn to cook for one, for myself. Something I hadn’t done in many, many years. So what to cook when all of a sudden you are truly on your own? When you hope for that rather bitter filling to disappear soon? How do you start?
I started to encourage my almost non existent appetite with what I can always eat and will always have a craving for: cornetto alla crema, an Italian croissant filled with a vanilla custard. It’s soothing both for the body and soul. My latest favourite cornetto and coffee spot is the Caffè Gilli, where I stroll in the morning trough the very elegant Via Tornabuoni and then turn into Piazza della Reppublica to reach it. Then there is Forno Ghibellina on my way to the market Sant’ Ambrogio. The staff there are really wonderful, and when they run out of my preferred choice, they ask the pastry chef to fill a plain croissant with the crema pasticcera for me. It’s the best thing. Anything with a creamy filling is an absolute winner for my tastebuds and appetite. When I come back from the market I sometimes bring a cornetto home with me, to have it on the terrace with a large cup of coffee. Last weekend this fresh filling was so generous that my breakfast must have weighted almost a kilo. I happily skipped lunch.
Recently I’ve been leafing through a cookbook that I brought with me from Bologna (almost a year ago, gosh, time really flies). No photographs, just stories and honest local recipes. I stumbled upon a chicken dish, perfect for one, or two or eight. It may sound simple at first but the end result is so satisfying, along with its baking juices, which are so rich in flavour that I could make this dish just for that reason (served with some crunchy bread to soak it all up). All you need is a chicken breast, nutmeg, parmesan and a few tablespoons of a good vegetable or chicken stock. Then the magic happens in the oven.
Another recipe that caught my attention which I adapted from that book is for tagliatelle (egg pasta of course) with a walnut and dry porcini sauce. To lift this dish and add some freshness to it I like to stir in towards the very end of cooking the sauce a little bit of lemon juice and freshly chopped parsley. The proportions are generous enough to feed four (three if very hungry), but the sauce keeps well in the fridge for a few days. For a dish from Emilia Romagna we can’t forget about grating some good aged parmesan on top to make it complete.
I’ve just started baking again. A whole cake is a bit much for one, even over a couple of days.
As a solution and perfect timing I’ve been sharing my dolci with my usual vendors at the Sant’ Ambrogio market. Whilst living in Rome I always managed to spread my baked goodies among my friends. Raffaella in particular was appreciative of it, as her son Pier, could eat a horse during his student years.
Let’s face it, unfortunately freezing cakes or tarts, is not the most delicious idea.
My next plan for baking is an apple cake with Calvados (I make one with a custard filling using créme fraîche, but this one will be different) and a walnut and chocolate kranz/babka. In fact, the very delicate yeast dough is slowly rising under a warm cover as I write these lines. I am looking forward to the end result and the smell of a baked yeast cake travelling from the oven, to hopefully share it with you soon.
Do you also think that the things which are right in front of you are sometimes the easiest ones to miss?
When you find yourself surrounded by the great beauty and the architectural achievements of Italian historical towns, your eyes can be lost in the history and the excellence of the artistic details.
Le buchette del vino, called „little wine windows”, a particularity of Florence, but already spread across other parts of Tuscany, are a kind of arch-shaped holes located in the main facades of the Florentine palazzos, on the ground floor, in the vicinity of the main entrance or on the side of a palazzo. They can also be cut in the wood of the main entrances tall heavy doors.
Despite the fact that In most cases they are positioned at eye level in the palazzos of the Renaissance, the pride of the city, most often however, they are passed unnoticed even by the most inquisitive of observers. Occasionally they are even mistaken and taken for a little tabernacle.
By now these little windows are out of use, but for centuries the descendants of many prominent families sold wine through these little doors. To be more precise, only dedicated workers assisted the direct sale of the wine, which could happen only during well specified hours. The buyers would knock and ask for a specific wine and its quantity, and the seller passed the desired units of wine through the buchette. That way the payment was made directly from the customer to the producer.
The size of the buchette is not accidental. They are as high and wide, approximately 30×20 cm, to fit a fiasco di vino, a typical glass container for wine (flask) used in Tuscany, until recently.
These little windows differ in their shapes, material and a style of the framing, for pure aesthetics and not the practicality.They were always in line, however, with the architectural style of a given palazzo. We find the buchette very similar to each other, but never the same.
Le buchette del vino were a very intelligent and profitable way of selling the surplus of wine made at the estates, cutting out the middlemen. This particular form of sales reached its pick towards the end of the 18th century. Another very significant stimulus to open more of new „wine windows” was the bubonic plague epidemic (1630-1633). In order to avoid the spread of the disease and keep it under control, a measure to avoid any kind of gatherings was introduced. It also meant a ban on consumption of food and beverages outside the premises at which it was purchased. Once the doors of the osterie and trattorie remained closed for a long while, the only way to stock up on wine was to buy it through le buchette del vino (along with the official guidelines).
Le buchette fully stopped operating in the 50’s of the 20th century, but in May 2020, during the first lockdown due to coronavirus, some of the buchette found a new life, providing a perfect solution, yet again, for social distancing.
In fact, Il Bistrot Babae in Via Santo Spirito reactivated its little wine window during the summer 2019 but it wasn’t until the pandemic of Covid-19 that this antique tradition was reborn in full swing, selling spritz, wine, coffee and gelato. Currently I think it’s the only one open in the city. Other places, like La Gelateria Vivoli in Via Isola delle Stinche, followed the idea, at least during that specific period of time. We live right next to the gelateria Vivoli, its wine window is definitely closed, but the Vivoli ice cream is regarded as the best one in Florence, a must try.
Another must try are beans, a very important ingredient of the Tuscan and Florentine cooking. The Tuscans really know how to cook them, very slowly and gently, so they turn soft from the inside but still hold their shape and literally melt in your mouth.
One very simple way of cooking them, is to flavour them with garlic and fresh sage, then generously drizzle with olive oil before serving.
A tuna, white bean and red onion salad, which I tried at Alla Vecchia Bettola many moons ago, I’ve found myself making most often. It’s dressed with olive oil and seasoned with a good red wine vinegar and black pepper. With hunks of crunchy bread it makes for a perfect and nutritious meal.
I treat myself to it especially when I’m on my own at home for a couple of days. It just couldn’t be easier and more delicious at the same time, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Fagioli all’Uccelletta are white beans cooked with sage, garlic and tomatoes. The way that I’ve tried only just recently and was fully beguiled by the deliciousness of this dish. Of course we can’t forget about the olive oil and the seasoning, salt and pepper. These are very traditional and simple recipes, where you have to make the most of and be creative with a few available ingredients, quintessentially Italian cooking.
More than anything it’s a story about fragrant verdant pesto, some new local dishes and our ever growing love for Liguria. Before I move to that however, let me first take you a few months back.
The New Year has brought a few changes into our lives and routine. I almost feel like correcting myself here as somehow we don’t have a routine and perhaps these fairly unpredictable times and spontaneity in our lives can be called a routine of sorts?
So far our life in Italy has had to be divided between commitments in The UK and my home town in Poland. Currently we are very busy with that but happily busy at the same time, given the strange and difficult periods of lockdowns, which hopefully we can finally put behind us.
Since we moved to Italy we haven’t owned a car. We were renting one as needed or travelled by train or plane. And it has worked for us so far, until recently.
The reason behind not having a car was that when we lived in Rome we had all the amenities at our door steps making our lives and travels easy to manage. The limited traffic zone for the Tridente part of the Historic Centre of Rome, where we lived, as well as the availability of a parking space, or rather lack of it, was a problematic affair. In Venice, as you can imagine, there isn’t much car use, problem solved.
But now in Florence things have changed for us and we have organised ourselves with a permanent means of transport. We are now proudly independent and mobile, and take advantage of it when time allows, which means mostly at weekends.
We know Florence fairly well by now and it was high time to make the most of its „stratigic” positioning and start visiting parts of Italy north of Rome. First we went to Siena (more than once because we love it) and Bologna, by train for convenience. Next it was Lucca, Arezzo, Anghiari, Cortona to name but a few and the Tuscan coast for the seafood, and for the sheer pleasure of seeing this part of the world „crowded” with locals only. Weekends are tricky at this time (pre-Easter) of year and the reason behind it is that many restaurants outside major towns are still closed or open for weekends only, hence a lunch or dinner reservation is highly recommended, trust me on that one.
Very often we just set off for a day and the main activity evolves around lunch. A few weeks ago we went to La Spezia for a meal and after that we drove to Portovenere, which was as busy as ever. Tuscany and Liguria are neighbouring regions but it does feel like almost travelling to a different country, especially gastronomically.
I had booked us for lunch in La Spezia. The restaurant was unassuming from the outside but very elegant and traditional inside, with white table clothes, dark walls and furniture. A long running establishment that has seen many generations enjoying their meals at these premises. The food was a sheer delight. Sophisticated without being over the top, a fine balance which is most important. To my joy I finally had my first ever cappon magro. It’s a very elaborate traditional Ligurian dish, beautiful to see and eat, but it’s also time consuming to prepare.You will not find it in every Ligurian restaurant. It requires fresh fish, shellfish and seasonal vegetables like cauliflower, green beens, artichokes, carrots, broad beans and so forth. Every component is carefully cooked (separately) and then layered on a serving plate, starting with the vegetables first, resembling a pyramid. As you can imagine it’s quite a spectacular affair.
Since that moment we knew we had to go back to Liguria soon. So we did.
Liguria, a tiny narrow arc on the sea below Piedmont, stretching from the border with France to Tuscany. Liguria is all hills that rise up spectacularly from the sea into the high mountains of the Alps and the Apennines. Perched on the coast towns and fishing villages attract, dare I say, almost everyone with their cosy bays and pastel coloured buildings, which in the old days served to help the fishermen find their way home. It is such a lovely and romantic story behind these colourful palazzi, especially when they still form part of a working fishing village with the men folding their nets deftly after their morning’s catch.
Camogli is exactly all of the above. Charming, peaceful, colourful and with lots of working fishing boats. We went there (not for the first time) not so long ago, in mid march. Although the weather had just turned and the wind was a bit chilly and the sun shy, it was one of those kind of trips where I long to return as soon as I leave. It wasn’t just my feeling, the Dégustateur loved every minute and bite of it too. We started our weekend with snacking on soft focaccia and a whole baked fish with artichokes and potatoes, all accompanied by a generous glass of a crisp Pecorino wine. I still dream of that lunch. Dinner was also a delicious surprise. After portions of raw sweet langoustines and red prawns, unique to the deep Ligurian waters, I ordered chestnut trofie pasta with pesto, dotted with green beans and small cubes of potatoe. The Dégustatuer and I utterly enjoyed the combination of chestnut and basil, to the point that I bought myself e new pestle and mortar just for making pesto and trying out new recipes at home. Making a chestnut pasta at home is not what I was planning to do. Instead, I had little pillowy soft chestnut gnocchi in mind, to be tossed with freshly made pesto, an ode to spring.
Ligurians adore herbs but it’s the basil that is like a Ligurian flag to them. They grow basil in every available space: on little plots of land, in window boxes, vases or anywhere around the house. The basil, like all the herbs that grow in Liguria, is highly perfumed, and when crushed it releases such a wonderful scent, that it is worthwhile and most satisfying to use a mortar rather than a blender.
The secret of a beautifully aromatic pesto lies in the quality of the basil and the perfect sweet leaves to pick are the smallest ones. Make your pesto when the herb is plentiful, buy a few big pots (rather than little packets of leaves) and select the tastiest leaves. Make a larger quantity of it and keep it under oil in the fridge for a few months.
There are only six ingredients that make up pesto: nuts, garlic, salt, basil, olive oil and cheese. Some people use almonds or even walnuts, but I like to add ever so slightly toasted pine nuts. Then there is cheese. There are those who favour parmesan and those who opt for pecorino (from Sardegna!), or a concoction of both. It is truly a matter of a personal taste and fun to play with the ingredients. If using a mortar, there is a certain sequence to follow which makes the best creamy paste. First smash the garlic with the salt, next add the nuts and crush them, but be careful not to over work them. Next drop the basil leaves and work them as quickly as you can. Then add your cheese and finally the oil. Now you should have an imbued with a fresh green colour Ligurian pesto. If you can, buy a very delicate in flavour olive oil from The Riviera, which will not be overpowering the delicacy of the basil.
Surely there will be times when you will use a blender. In that case make sure that the blade is sharp turning very fast all the ingredients into a paste. Otherwise, under the generated heat, the leaves will loose their fresh colour and your pesto risks turning dull.
On this occasion I’m preparing my pesto with the pecorino Sardo and to celebrate the arrival of spring I’ll cook a minestrone soup (a delicate vegetable soup using seasonal ingredients) and once it’s served on the plates I’ll stir in some pesto. The released aromas are just tantalising and the minestrone boasts all things fresh, subtle and is just heaven to eat.
There are manifold ways of using pesto and another fabulous way to enjoy it during the forthcoming warmer days of spring is to make a tuna, pearl barley and pesto salad, dotted around with olives, preferably Ligurian, and the best possible tomatoes you can find in season.
Torte salate, savoury pies, are something you will always find in Liguria and they are just lovely.They are made either with swiss chard, spinach or borage, mixed with a local cheese and flavoured with herbs like oregano or marjoram. Whilst assembling the pie you could make a few wells, drop a cracked egg in each and bake everything in order to get an Easter Pie Torta Pasqualina. Sadly borage is almost impossible to find here in Florence limiting my culinary options. Having to choose I’ll almost always select swiss chard for the pie above spinach.
During our weekend in Camogli, on the Saturday morning we took a ferry to finally visit The Abbey of San Fruttuoso (as previously the sea was too unstable and ferries were cancelled), which can be reached only by the sea or by precarious hiking trails. A real gem and a very picturesque journey. Once we returned we ran for a decent portion of focaccia di Recco for lunch. We ate it sitting on the benches outside the bakery, joining everyone else. You see, this is not an ordinary focaccia or a pillowy bread. This focaccia consists of paper thin layers of dough with a soft cheese sandwiched in between and is sold warm. A pure joy, especially when eaten by the waterfront and kissed by the sun. Rather than trying to make a poor imitation of it at home I’d rather go back to Liguria and have it there. It’s one of those things that are hard to replicate without proper ovens.
But what I can do at home is to master sardenaira, a typical pizza of Sanremo. It actually looks more like a pillowy focaccia which can be very confusing. The pizza is rich with a tomato, caper, taggiasche olives and anchovy topping. We can’t forget about the ever present Ligurian herbs in this recipe, which I will be delighted to share with You once I’m fully happy wit it.
The view over the city of Florence admired from Piazzale Michelangelo is unquestionably the most panoramic. You only have to climb a little and there it is, The Arno River, Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizzi Gallery and the entire Florentine architecture in it’s full glory.
A vast share of the visitors make their way to the Piazzale in order to stop for a little while and marvel at the breath taking view, perhaps they also pause for a drink in the nearby caffé, take some photographs and then they either come down to the humming centre of the city or (hopefully) head slightly further up to the Basilica di San Miniato with it’s poetic cemetery behind.
Upon our arrival in Florence we found our way to the Piazzale without knowing what to find there. We were looking at it from our terrace and kept on saying to each other: it must be an interesting spot!
You see, I deliberately didn’t do any research on what to see and what to do in Florence before we arrived here. I had decided to get to know and find my way around the city of The Renaissance by walking and stumbling upon places without any guidance. That is how I discovered Gardino delle Rose. I know, I have already referred so many times to the fact of being able to live in quiet Italy during and just after the locdowns. Well, Florence in my first a few weeks was of no different.
I was on my own in the garden for quite some time. I sat down on one of the benches end enjoyed peaceful undisturbed views over Florence. It was the end of May and the roses still had their vibrant petals on whilst warm humid and heavy air with the smell of a forthcoming thunder storm made a perfect excuse to linger in the garden for a while longer. The sign to leave was signalled by the arrival of vlogers (we all know how strong the social media is), walking and filming whilst speaking to the camera, sadly oblivious of the beautiful moment they could also have had. The magic disappeared. So I slowly walked further up, without stopping at the Piazzale dedicated to Michelangelo, and by turning right I made my way to the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. After having cooled down a little inside the basilica I visited the cemetery just behind it. Poetic might be a slight understatement, or perhaps it was the combination of the sun, still air and darkened and marked by the passage of time ornate family tombs. All by myself, it felt surreal but after a while of reading names and looking at black and whites faded photographs, I felt slightly uneasy.
While walking up to the Rose Garden and then to the Basilica di San Miniato and Basilica San Salvatore al Monte you will be regaled with magnificent views of the city. And that is exactly where my favourite walk starts.
If you have some spare time and and a pair of comfortable walking shoes, instead of heading back to the centre of Florence, walk in the opposite direction, leaving Piazzale Michelangelo and both basilicas behind you. Cross the street and keep to your right the whole while. By now you will have set off on a wonderful journey along Viale Galileo. You will enjoy the panorama of gradually disappearing Florence in the depths of vibrant green parks and gardens, with very elegant and iconic villas dotted around.
Once you reach Via di San Leonardo, you can either turn left and walk along past one of the most fortunate houses of Florence towards Largo Fermi. Arriving in front of Cristo di Ottone Rosari make a U-Tturn and cross again Viale Galileo in order to continue going all the way down on Via di San Leonardo, until you arrive to Forte Belvedere. In the meantime you will have passed Tchaikovsky’s residence on your left, the church San Leonardo in Arcetri on your right and a row of majestic, representative residences of Florence. If you are lucky enough and one of the entrance gates is open, take a look at the splendid gardens and appreciate the unique views. Sometimes whilst walking along this sweet, narrow, stone paved street I ask myself, what would it be like to live in one of those houses and to enjoy that view daily. But then I come back home and say: I have an amazing view from our terrace too. From Forte Belvedere, once crossed under Porta San Giorgio carry on walking down along Costa San Giorgio, which will take you near Ponte Vecchio. As for myself, I love turning into Via di Belvedere, just before Porta San Giorgio and walking down along olive trees, where my countryside feel walk ends.
During the months of fall I immensely enjoy walking up the hills where the earthy notes and smells are, of course, more pronounced. Usually before reaching Forte Belvedere I have already thought of autumnal flavours and what to cook at home. Any form of activity stimulates my appetite.
During the months of vendemmia, in September and October, most of the Florentine bakeries sell schiacciata all’uva. It is a beautiful way of using wine grapes, small, firm and almost black in colour, into making something extremely seasonal, simple and delicious. It is a kind of sweet bread filled with grapes and with an extra grape layer on top, soaked in the sweet baking juices. A must try.
I’ve become almost obsessed with baking it and finding the recipe that works best for me. Not too thin but not too much bread dough either, lots of grapes and glossy ruby red baking juices are mandatory, which are to be drizzled on top of the ready to eat schiacciata.
To my enormous joy the artichoke season has finally started. Upon reflection I believe it’s my favourite vegetable. Not the easiest one to handle but so versatile and rewarding, moreover, it’s taste is incredibly addictive. In one of the trattorias in Florence I’ve recently tried tortino di carciofi (carciofo means artichoke). It is actually a frittata which the Florentines call tortino, just to confuse things a little for the newcomers. To make it at home you will need eggs, already cooked artichokes and lemon juice, which brings the ingredients together. Don’t be discouraged by the note of already cooked artichokes, it’s really easy to do. Once you’ve cleaned the artichokes, cut most of their stems off (I actually use the stems in the frittata too, but that is me). Next cut the cleaned artichokes lengthways in half or into quarters. Fry them in a small pan with a couple of cloves of garlic in olive oil and butter for a few minutes. Pour in some white wine and wait until it has almost evaporated. Add some vegetable stock, just to half way cover the vegetables, and some fresh parsley, season with salt and simmer covered until tender.
At the moment I’m buying artichokes from Sardinia. They are a bit different in flavour and size from the ones I got used to in Rome and Venice. I use three artichokes to make a portion for four as an antipasto. All you have to do now is to place the cooked artichokes in a small frying pan, cover them with beaten eggs and fry slowly until the eggs set. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Shavings of parmesan and fresh parsley can be a lovely touch to the modest frittata.
On a pudding note, a worldwide famous by now tiramisù will have it’s own interpretation here in Tuscany as well. Think of cantucci biscuits and Vin Santo instead of savoiardi and coffee solution. A grown up and indulgently creamy dessert served in a fine tea cup. It has become the Dégustateur’s favourite, so is mine. Buon appetito xx
A very unpredicted chain of events has caused Florence to become our new home. It was never a plan or an idea to come and live here, even for a short period of time. Although I’ve always wanted to get to know this city of art better (short visits in the past don’t count) I had never imagined ourselves moving to Florence.
The truth behind this new and unexpected adventure and leaving Venice lies in the welcome, or rather lack of it, that Venice shows to new potential residents.
The constantly diminishing number of residents (full time residents, not the ones who spend just a few months a year) in Venice is a hot topic. In a city dominated by holiday short term lets of all kinds (from teeny- tiny apartments to grand palazzos) and service driven industry, this is unlikely to change. As the Dégustateur says: it’s a very much a closed shop and it’s the cancer within, which is what made us leave. A fundamental problem with our house, which became apparent after the first night, was fully ignored, for months (cutting a long story short). But above all, it’s the arrogance and a substandard product offering that we refused to tolerate.
We left with a bag full of wonderful moments but also with a fairly unpleasant aftertaste. This unfortunate experience by no means will stop us going back to Venice, in fact, I can’t wait. There are so many things that I deeply miss. It will be interesting to see the lagoon filled or even brimming with tourists again and more importantly, how we feel about it. You see, our year in Venice was quite a serendipitous one. Upon our arrival Italy was just lifting the very last lockdown related restrictions from lockdown one and just after a couple of months, we were in another, a very long one this time. Which meant complete lack of tourists all the way. To be able to have Venice „to ourselves” was an utterly magical and one off experience. It will never happen again.
We were initially supposed to stay for a year and a half to two years (in the house we had found) and then probably never even leave Venice. But in the end, after a summary of many problems, we made the decision. We did’t have too much time left to travel in order to search for a new home (crossing between the regions wasn’t really allowed almost until towards the end of our stay in Venice). We thought we were lucky and found something after three days of viewings, but in the end, we came back to square one . Since our clock in Venice was ticking, we called an agent in Florence, that we had just established a relationship with over the past winter, just by sheer curiosity (of mine). We said to each other: Florence can be fun!
We didn’t know what to expect and it wouldn’t be a long term thing, six months or so. Well, now I can say that we will stay a bit longer than that, in the city of the Renaissance, artisan shops, botegas and perfume makers.
We are happy with the apartment, bear in that mind we took it sight unseen, so there was always room for compromise.The star of our new adopted home is the roof terrace over looking the Filippo Brunelleschi’s Dome as well as the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio in it’s full glory on one side and the Basilica of Santa Croce with the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte behind it on the opposite side. In between we can see a stretch of hills, something which makes us feel as if we were not living in a city centre. While moving to Florence dominated by carnivores we were pleasantly surprised by the restaurants. Not only by the food that is just outstanding, and there is a lot to chose from apart from la bistecca, but the approach to the customers. Even during our first meals in this new town we were not treated just like another tourist that will most likely never come back. We immediately were remembered and felt very welcomed on our return, also given the same table if available. Florence is very busy right now and it is fascinating to observe this slight subtle difference in hospitality among the Italian cities of art.
First weeks we left to our intuition in regards to where to eat, with one exception, a trattoria just outside the old city walls, to which we were introduced about 8 years ago. Still very good.
Most of the dinners however (lunches are quick and simple, adequate to the Florentine summer heat) we’ve been having on our terrace. Long, pleasant, warm and occasionally humid (still nothing compared to Venice) evenings, just the two of us, enjoying each other’s company, chatting about everything and nothing in the setting of dreams.
My recent cooking has been a higgledy- piggledy mix of dishes, the ones that I haven’t made in a long while, those that we’ve particularly craved for and a few new ones. The new dishes are the ones that I had marked „to make” in my cook books whilst leafing through them and the time for them has finally arrived here in Florence.
We haven’t fully immersed ourselves yet in Chianti drinking culture but I will be making more of the red wine jellies with the Sangiovese wine grape instead of Cabernet Sauvignon. I am already thinking of Christmas, it is never too soon. Torta Tenerina, a soft almost flourless chocolate cake, can always be made without cherries (as you can find in the recipe) and spiced with some brandy for a different touch to it.
There is a bread that we particularly enjoy and I buy it often from Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio. It is made with raisins and fennel seeds and I am totally taken by this flavour concoction. That is how Yogurt Bundt Cake with Fennel Seeds and Dry Figs was created. Suitable for any time of the day.
When we go home to Poland, my mother cooks for us. I would never take this pleasure away from her. I always have a typical Polish soft, pillowy yeast cake with sour cherries (my favourite) and a crumbly topping waiting for me still warm. In Italy I can’t buy sour cherries but I make it with apricots (or plums) instead and drizzle with a lemon and lavender icing.
After several years of not going to Sicily due to covid I made us Pesto alla Trapanese, refreshing paste made of toasted almonds, tomatoes and basil (or mint, which is just lovely) followed by Gelo di Limone. It’s a wonderfully fresh jelly, a staple in Sicily and flavours can vary: watermelon, orange, almond and jasmine, and many more. Sicily for me is the cornerstone of unforgettable inventive flavours. The secret lies in infusing the water overnight with grated zest of the most fragrant lemons you can possibly find. Worth a try. While I still dream of Sicily, I am delighted to share a recipe for Little Ricotta, Marsala and Bitter Cocoa Balls. They have totally stolen our stomachs and I’ve been making them very often, especially recently as for me, they do taste like a late summer evening. It’s the gentle warmth of amber Marsala.
There is always Pesce al Sale in my repertoire. Very simple and unbelievably good, especially when made with a wild fish. Little calamari in a sauce with capers and olives, as I used to prepare them in Venice, were also delicious. I do miss that fish market near Rialto Bridge. Here the choice of fish and sea food is limited, I can’t be extremely creative and I have to make the most of what is available. But we’ve found a really fun enoteca with oysters and champagne. Love it.
Whilst the tomatoes are bountiful and sweet „we” make in Tuscany Papa al Pomodoro, a thick tomato bread soup. The essence of simple, hearty and seasonal cooking, a great example of the poor man’s food. You will need ripe, vibrant and sweet tomatoes, stale bread, basil and olive oil (and some garlic). You cook it slowly, it should be gently bubbling away, and never underestimate the value of a good bread, a good sourdough bread. A generous drizzle of a fragrant olive oil just before serving will make this dish complete.
Peas alla Fiorentina will be perfect with a Sunday roast, although I will be most likely using frozen peas as it’s way too long to wait until Spring. What I also enjoy a lot in La Toscana, mainly during autumn and winter, are crostini. Can’t wait to start making Chicken Liver Crostini al Vin Santo followed by Stracotto al Chianti Classico (Slow cooked beef in Chianti Classico wine). There is so much comfort in both. The Dégustateur is away for a few days and I’m planning to make a trio of crostini accompanied by a bottle of excellent Chianti we had just bought in Castellina in Chianti village. Crostini are nothing else than sliced crunchy bread, best if toasted and served still warm. There will be a cristino with the chicken liver and a mousse of mortadella. On the latter I still have to decide if to add some creamy ricotta to the mousse or not. I am also testing a new recipe right now for a lemon and bean crostino, which I had in one of the restaurants that we really enjoy going to. I shall find out the verdict soon. Should you feel like making them too, be adventurous with the bread, if available try the one containing olives, walnuts or raisins.
The temperatures are turning much gentler right now and the sun is very soft during late afternoons, just perfect for ambling through the streets until late. Walking up to the Piazzale Michelangelo seems much easier, definitely more pleasant, and the stroll up the hills to marvel at elegant villas and Florence from a distance is a real joy, which I can’t wait to share with you soon.
Our initial plans for our life in this magical city went far beyond a year. Plans in life change however, and unforeseen circumstances appear. All of which is part of our lives making it more interesting, as some people might say.
We have just settled and almost fully unpacked in Florence and we are enjoying it a lot. A new Italian city for us to get to know as well as it’s culture, flavours and a wonderful culinary scene.
But despite the above I still would like to share with you some of my favourite places in Venice, a little taste of this truly unique city. Places that we already knew from our travels and some new jewels that we frequented during this unforgettable year, all of which we are looking forward to visiting again in the near future. I hope that they will make into your list too.
I will start this culinary journey from the Sestiere Dorsoduro. Not only because it’s where we lived but it truly is a little hub of the Venetian food scene.
Pasticceria Dal Nono Colossi
Focaccia Veneziana, a traditional Venetian delicacy is a must try.
It is similar to panettone but without the candied peel or sugared almonds. Instead it is decorated with nothing else than a sugar crust. The velvety soft dough delicately smells of citrus zest and the delicious effort involved in making it.
And once you’ve tasted the thin and delicate Venetian biscuits called baicoli, you will find that they are second to none.
Perhaps the most famous pasticceria in Venice and it truly is an amazing place. You can literally loose yourself in the vast array of choice between warm breakfast delicacies (raspberry crumble and chocolate focaccine being my favourite) and small portions of Italian dolci like tiramusu of course, zeppole with four different kinds of filling, babà soaked in rhum and many, many more.
You will enjoy the coffee in signature blue cups too.
You will find it wandering along the route between Campo San Barnaba and Ponte dell’Accademia. Right in front of a local school it turns very busy when the classes end and the children run to devour their favourite sweets before making their way back home.
Zeppole with a marsala filling have always been my favourite here, followed by strudel, best eaten still warm.
Bar Canton in Campo San Barnaba for tramezzini
In this unassuming little bar with a much larger outdoor space I’ve found one of the best tramezzini in Venice. Tremezzini are little triangle shaped sandwiches with a copious amount of filling, a staple and just another must try in Venice. In contrast to many other bars, here they are always fresh and don’t have a chance to turn soggy as they tend to sell out pretty fast, mostly by lunch time.
Osteria ai Pugni
It immediately became our „local” place, either for a snack, aperitivio or even a bottle of wine. This is one of the places where the locals go but I can assure you that the tourists receive the same attention. You can’t miss it, it’s right next to the fruit and vegetable barge at the foot of the Ponte dei Pugni.
Situated in Fondamenta Zattere al Ponte Longo with tables facing the open waters of Giudecca Canal it offers one the prettiest spots in Venice and an unforgettable experience of enjoying a good gelato. It’s most requested speciality is „Giuanduiotto”, a portion of a gianduia ice cream covered with whipped cream. There are other flavours to choose from of course, but this place with it’s strategically positioned tables that are bathed in sunshine for almost the whole day is a great place just for a coffee or a Spritz. Being away from the San Marco area, you will be positively surprised with the pricing.
For an aperitvo or meal with wonderful views of Giudecca. I actually particularly enjoyed it’s garden overlooking a dreamy and peaceful canal. During the prime season I’d advise to book a table.
Osteria Da Codroma
A historic place amongst a vast array of Venetian trattorias. Opened in 1896 it doesn’t seem to have changed much. The renovation of this eatery has been done very carefully and with a special attention of retaining it’s original features like wooden panels, floor and the bar counter.
Stop here for a traditional Venetian meal or at least for a few cichetti and a Spritz enjoyed along a canal.
A very charming and elegant restaurant a few steps away from the Salute Church and the Peggy Guggenheim museum.
It’s menu is based on the Venitian tradition but leaning towards the meaty side of it, accompanied by vegetables from the Sant’ Erasmo island, the orchard of Venice.
It’s is slightly more expensive but so worth it.
Cantinone del Vino già Schiavi
An iconic enoteca with it’s walls filled top to bottom with wine bottles and a generous display of cichetti.
It is extremely popular with locals, students and tourists and it’s a must stop for a plate of it’s famous cichetti accompanied by a glass of Prosecco, or any other local wine served by the glass.
If the weather allows, you will se a large crowd enjoying a convivial drink along a canal, moments away from the Academia Bridge.
A contemporary Venetian cuisine with a well curated natural wine list and display, served in a very cosy, professional and friendly environment. The restaurant is fairly small and I highly recommend making a reservation.
Sestiere San Polo
Antica Birraria la Corte
Campo San Polo is the second largest campo in Venice after the Piazza San Marco. The tucked away Birraria with it’s neat outdoor tables can be very often easily missed, especially when following the tourist thoroughfare rout.
It is a pizzeria and a restaurant, a reference point among the residents.
The local ingredients and tradition based menu is very versatile, seasonal and never disappoints.
The wood fired oven baked pizza is truly wonderful, thin, crisp and the toppings are of an amazing quality. In case you can’t get an outdoor table the inside courtyard is equally charming, if not better.
The oldest pasticceria in Venice making a part of it’s history. It has been baking dolci since 1742 and they are truly exquisite.
Very often I would stop here for a cappuccino and something sweet for breakfast whilst on my way to Rialto Market, and it’s tiramisu is to die for. The premises are very cosy and small (15m2), also closed every Tuesday.
You can really feel the passion for the traditional Venetian cuisine here.
Perhaps it’s clear message: „No Pizza, No Lasagne, No Menù Turistico” doesn’t need an introduction anymore.
The menù evolves around fresh fish (but not only) and seasonal vegetables chosen from the nearby Rialto Market. The restaurant doesn’t compromise on food and has built a very strong clientele over the years, hence it is best to book a table well in advance.
Centred around Rialto Market bacari that can’t be missed:
All’Arco, Cantina do Mori, Cantone do Spade, Al Mercà.
All of the above have a slightly different atmosphere and a selection of cichetti.
What they have all in common is a convivial, happy and welcoming atmosphere as well as sharing delicious little snacks that Venice is famous for. They are all well known stops in Venetian guidebooks, but they are still the best places to experience a quintessential Venetian food tradition for a midday snack.
Sestiere Santa Croce
Enoteca Al Prosecco is a perfect example of the essence of the Italian simplicity and sophistication whilst making the most of the ingredients.
At Al Prosecco you will find that the delicacy, flavour, attention to detail and just love for food is transmitted into every single dish or a sandwich.
Here you can enjoy chichetti, little sandwiches or sit down to a proper lunch. Just ask what can you eat and you will be given a choice of what is made on the day. I was very fond of the thinly sliced angus beef platter decorated with a delicious selection of grilled (then kept in olive oil) and fresh vegetables. But the fantasy of this family run place goes far beyond than this. Something not so easily found in Venice.
Enjoy your food with a vast selection of mainly organic and biodynamic wines whilst watching the world go by at Campo San Giacomo da l’Orio.
And perhaps after a lunch at „Al Prosecco” stop for an artisan ice cream at the Gelato di Natura, literally two steps away. All flavours are sublime and my favourite one is walnut and fig.
Osteria La Zucca boasts an incredibly cosy setting by one of the quiet Venetian canals. The dishes served are an ode to the seasonal flavours of locally grown vegetables, with a creative touch to it. This by no means implies that the restaurant is vegetarian and on the menu you can find lamb, rabbit or chicken.
I particularly enjoy it’s atmosphere during autumnal and wintery months, but there are outdoor tables as well should you visit over the warm sunny days.
Pasticceria Dal Mas
When crossing the bridge Ponte degli Scalzi from the sestiere Santa Croce you will set foot in the sestiere Cannareggio. I crossed this bridge on numerous occasions walking from Dorsoduro to Pasticceria Dal Mas in order to pick up something sweet for breakfast. This pastry shop, among many others, stays invariably true to the tradition and the passion for good things that is felt at it’s door step. You could be overwhelmed by the choice but I have developed a soft spot for the marzipan Kranz.
Fondamenta della Misericordia along with Fondamenta degli Ormesini is a very lively part of Cannareggio. Just walk along Rio della Misericordia and you will stumble upon countless bars and restaurants. You will be literally spoilt for choice. Most of the places have a rustic feel to them making the area more casual and convivial. It is a very busy part of Venice (residents, students and tourists) so it wouldn’t harm to make a reservation.
Try Vino Vero for a great choice of wines and some cichetti (crostini), bookshop Sullaluna where you can enjoy tea or coffee with something sweet to go with it. Il Paradiso Perduto is a real fun and bustling place. It’s brimming (Packed) with locals but tourists are well looked after too. Try the mixed antipasti platter, bare in mind that the portions are very generous. For a fancier experience try the very elegant Osteria da Rioba.
Osteria ai Quaranta Ladroni
Slightly hidden in the depths of Canareggio, situated on a canal parallel to Rio della Misericordia. Very welcoming atmosphere offering a vast choice of fish and seafood dishes with big flavours.
We were eating here very often during the lockdown period (where opening times were limited) and the place had a truly fun and local vibe, something amazing to have been able to see.
This is my favourite place for gnocchi with granzeola (local spider crab), a staple dish in Venice.
Osteria Ca’ d’oro Alla Vedova
Hidden in a dark alley lies one of the best known Venetian osteria known not only by the locals but also international visitors. A bacaro where you stop either to sit down to a proper meal or to snack on the legendary warm deep fried meat balls. Lovely and crisp from the outside and delightfully soft from the inside. Worth giving it a try.
Osteria Alle Testiere
Humble, little and unassuming premises but wait until you try the food. It offers one of the best (food) experiences to be found in Venice. Here the menu is created daily according to what looks appealing and what is available at the market that morning. It’s hard to believe that such a small kitchen and team can happily feed so many hungry faces. I was beguiled by Alle Testiere and what I particularly enjoy is the use of spices in it’s dishes, a legacy of Venice’s history as a merchant city at the top of the Spice Route. No wonder why it is claimed to have been able to capture the culinary heart of the city. Book your table well in advance and check for the opening/ holiday period.
Corte Sconta in other words „hidden courtyard”, which is exactly what you can expect.
What you can also expect is a sophisticated Venetian cooking attracting the residents as well as the international crowd but yet the atmosphere is very relaxed and serene. Walking around sleepy alleys of Castello trying to find the restaurant is a pure joy.
Salvmeria, a contemporary bacaro in via Garibaldi, situated just a few steps away from the Biennale Gardens. Apart from delightful cichetti you can order beautifully decorated cheese or ham boards, a plate of fresh pasta, prawns in saor, parmigiana di melanzane, grilled octopus and many more. The dishes on the menu vary according to the morning shopping.
The wine and beer list is very well curated which always adds to the experience.
If you have the time to explore the islands I strongly encourage you to do so.
Each has it’s own character: Murano is known for it’s glass making and Burano is dotted with colourfully painted houses. Torcello is very peaceful with just a handful of residents but has a quite strongly developed food scene, especially for such a small island. Visit Locanda Cipriani (Ernest Hemingway used to stay there) for a picturesque setting in the gardens during summer or a cosy meal by a fire during colder months.
Try Al Gatto Nero and Da Romano, both seafood establishments on Burano island. If you like risotto then Risotto ai Gò is a must have.
Making it’s own wine Venissa on Mazzorbo offers an idyllic, peaceful and a lovely setting for a meal, overlooking the garden and vineyard. There is a more casual contemporary osteria and the gourmet Venissa Restaurant to choose from.
I have so many fond memories of Osteria Ae Botti on Giudecca. Elegant inside, lovely tables with white linen outside, overlooking Venice. The food is wonderful, traditional but you can find a modern twist here and there, especially in a raw seafood platter. It is also a place where the locals go, either to sit down to a proper meal or for a tramezzino paired with glass of prosecco or Spritz. It’s where we had our last dinner before we left Venice, sitting by the open water of Giudecca Canal devouring moecche, a local soft shell crab, served on creamy warm polenta and sipping Lambrusco.
It has finally rained in Venice. And by rain I mean a steady rainfall for a few days. This very much awaited moment has come.
You probably must be wondering, why do I like wet weather so much.
It’s not so much about the rain as such but about the changing weather fallowing the seasons. You see, I was born and grew up in Poland where I lived with four distinct seasons. The smell of young grass, first snowdrops followed by daffodils, bright and shiny cherry blossoms and the fresh air of the woodlands with all their earthy notes accompanied by the sounds of the indigenous wild life is what I have in mind when I think of spring. What I also miss is our Polish Golden Autumn, warm post summer months embellished with gradually falling leaves, which change their colour into a panoply of yellow, red and brown hues. I can imagine myself right now walking along the majestic tree lined avenues feeling a golden light gently caressing my skin before it cools down towards the evening. After autumn comes winter, most memorable and beautiful when shrouded with white, crisp and light snow flakes. Both the cities and country side resemble a fairy tale-like and almost unrealistic land of dreams.
So far I’ve experienced snow in Italy once whilst we were living in Rome. It was an early morning and we rushed from our bed, got dressed in a frenzy and walked from Piazza del Popolo towards La Scalinata joining Piazza di Spagna leaving the first foot prints behind us on the untouched snow. Then we walked through little allies and enjoyed a very Narnia-like moment, knowing that it wouldn’t last long with the rising temperatures.
Apart from (mainly) sudden and short lived heavy downpours it didn’t rain much in Rome.
In fact we were going through periods of a couple of months of clear blue skies and summer heat temperatures where even the most resistant plants turned yellow and just dried out. Hence my nostalgia and inner longing for proper weather changes and a desire to experience storms, lighting and the entire aura surrounding the life by the open water. If you’ve read any of my previous posts mentioning Venice, you will know by now that for me La Serenissima is most charming, atmospheric and majestic during cold misty wintery days.
On the second day of rain I sat down at my desk by the gothic tall windows overlooking our canal and decided to write a few lines and share my latest culinary home adventures.
We are still in a period of another lockdown and the restaurants have only been able to open for take away service. As much as I enjoy being in the kitchen and using almost all of my pots I’ve started making more one pot dishes, those that are easy to reheat the following day and that are just a matter of stirring, tossing and assembling.
On top of that I’ve found a perfect formula to break the daily home cooking routine. Twice a week we have take away food. There is a kebab, which we always crave, so good, and Japanese food, from a restaurant next door, luckily the best one in Venice.
I’ve been cooking some of the dishes that I make time and time again which provide me with great joy, but also I’ve been conjuring up many new simple, flavoursome, delicious and brimming with solace meals. Firm evidence that when it comes to food, simple things are often the most exquisite. Italy of course is no exception to this rule. In fact, Italian (regional) food is a celebration of simplicity.
Some of my latest culinary adventures have been dictated by the local produce, weather, restaurants I’ve eaten in, articles and books I’ve recently read or culinary programs that I’ve been watching lately. Cosy and warming comfort food like: leek an potato bake; buckwheat, Toma cheese and Swiss chard gratin; different kinds of meat stew in a tomato and juniper berry sauce or a fish and shellfish stew in a fennel, tomato and red wine sauce coming from older BBC programmes with Antonio Carluccio (who sadly is no longer with us). These programs are not new to me but with honesty I must admit, that after having lived in Italy for a while now, I have a greater appreciation and understanding of the message they are sending.
Just before the latest lockdown we were frequent visitors to the Island of Giudecca.
By accident, as it happens very often, we found our latest favourite osteria. We judged it by stopping for an aperitivo followed by a bowl of pasta as we got hungry almost immediately.
We booked a table for Sunday lunch, and the next Sunday lunch and so forth. Only local food of the lagoon, made to perfection and extremely welcoming, relaxed and just fun characters running the place. It was the beginning of the season for moeche, the Venetian lagoon soft shell crab, deliciously sweet, deep fried and served with a creamy yellow polenta (best one I’ve had). You can spot the moeche on the menu if you are in Venice in spring or autumn, and that is something worth trying. We used to finish our lunch with a glass of a chilled dessert wine made of wild strawberries. The flavour was so honest end evocative that I travelled with my tastebuds back home to Poland, where strawberries, raspberries and wild strawberries are second to none.
The wine is made by a family friend and you can’t find it on the wine list, it’s a little treat for the regular crowd enjoying their food accompanied by some wine.
The dish Tagliatelle Gratinati / Baked Tagliatelle with Ham and Béchamel Sauce came about as a result of recent trips to Giudecca Island whilst passing by Harry’s Dolci eatery. It lends itself very well to storing and reheating, therefore I always make a larger portion and we happily finish it off the following day, something that you can’t underestimate the value of during the full on home cooking covid time.
The asparagus season, both for white and green, is well under way and a few weeks ago I shared a recipe for an Asparagus, Speck and Soft Cheese Tart. Speck is very often used in the region of Veneto and it is a catalyst of flavour. It gives a subtle salty smoky note to the tart and creates a perfect harmony with the asparagus, which is cooked through but still retains some crunch.
In Veneto asparagus is usually served with lashings of an egg sauce. You basically crush hard boiled eggs with a fork and stir them with a vinegar and mustard dressing (or you can blend the sauce into a smooth paste). A very simple way of having them and it is almost a dish on its own, perhaps with a slice of crunchy bread.
While reading „Che la Festa Cominci” by Niccolò Ammaniti, a novel depicting a certain Roman social scene and events, I stumbled upon one line that particularly caught my attention. It refers to frittata di macceroni made by auntie Imma in Gaeta. Gaeta, in the region of Lazio, is known for it’s olives. I can’t buy them here, but instead I used olive taggiasche from Liguria, added some capers and tomato sauce, stirred in some pasta, effectively making Pasta alla Puttanesca, from which I made a frittata the next day. In Italy it is a very common way of using up what is left and transforming it into another meal. And by simply frying a firm flat disc of pasta from both sides we have a crunchy and delicious frittata. In the traditional recipe you will not find anchovies, but I like adding them. They bring more flavour and a certain character to the dish.
Delving into the depths of simplicity combined with a good produce and the passion with which Italians cook I would put forward Spaghetti al Limone e Mascarpone as a very strong contender. Again, fresh mascarpone, a dash of cream and an intense, refreshing and vibrant perfume of a good lemon is all you need to throw together a very summery, easy and immensely pleasing lunch.
Occasionally I pick up for us a selection of small pastries from different pastry shops as they all have a slightly different offer and insight into the Venetian sweet tooth. I very much like little and very neat bite size portions of tiramisù sold at Pasticceria Tonolo.
Moreover, apart from swapping savoiardi biscuits with thin slices of a sponge cake, a layer of crunchy dark chocolate runs through it, which makes all the individual components come together beautifully. Vanilla and Crunchy Dark Chocolate Tiramisù is my humble version of the tiramisù served at Tonolo (Dorsoduro) and I hope you will find it as simple and exquisite as I do.
My dining table, a marble work space for rolling out pasta sheets, my desk, situated right next to the highest windows I have ever had in any place I’ve lived in. The windows, floor to ceiling tall, widely open to a gothic styled balcony, on which we planted jasmine once we moved in. The plants are still small, but give them some time and they will spread across turning vibrant green generously dotted with white little flowers of the most magical scent.
A red-hued palazzetto (a little palazzo), perched on a canal, has become our home in Venice for the time being. One starts to automatically imagine grand Venetian buildings stretching along the Grand Canal when you see the word: palazzo (palace). You see, in Italy it is how many representative residential buildings are generally called. Our’s is a lot more modest than that but still, think of a long piano nobile room with the high dark beamed ceilings and granite mosaic floors .
The lapping water of the canal that runs alongside our house sets you immediately in the right mood. There is nothing more pleasant than listening to the gentle sound of splashing water, listening to the falling rain or passing little boats, mostly with a dog on board, whilst having a meal or catching up on some writing. Gondolas pass below our windows too. I get the treat of hearing anecdotes and stories being told and exchanged between the gondoliers and the tourists, this year a lot less so and predominantly Italian.
Venice is a dream at the moment. Completely empty, so beautiful and romantic. Selfishly, it’s a really incredible and unforgettable experience, but it’s impossible not to feel the devastating impact on businesses.
While I am sitting at my desk my mind is drifting away for two reasons.
The first one being the very relaxing sound of the rain. And the second, I am pondering in my head over a Valentine’s dinner menu. We have never made a big thing about Valentine’s Day. This year however, when the course of the day is dictated by breakfast, lunch and dinner at home (and a occasional aperitivo if premises are open), I decided for this day to feel a bit more special than in the past and different from the every-day meals we have. I’m thinking of the Dégustateur’s latest favourite pasta dish for our main. A homemade walnut paste with a hint of garlic tossed with just a touch of fresh herbs. Chopped winter tomato adds freshness and elevates this dish onto another level. The walnut paste can be prepared in advance, later on it is lengthened with the pasta cooking liquid turning it into a very cosy yet elegant and delicious sauce.
Seafood or shellfish has always been in a treat for us. Somehow it has the notion of something special, perhaps because it’s seen as a slightly more sophisticated produce to handle or more complicated to prepare. I’ve got scallops in my mind, perhaps baked with some prosecco and baby artichokes in their shells. In Rome I managed to buy scallops twice over the entire period of us living there and we have been craving for them a lot ever since. But Valnetine’s Day is on Sunday so perhaps I will give the scallops a miss. Although I’ve never had a bad experience with my fish monger, I am always quite apprehensive about leaving fish or shellfish for the following day (based on a past bad experience).
I will buy an octopus instead which I always feel it’s a safe choice and it literally just cooks itself. All I’ll have to do is to watch the timing so it turns out just perfect and tender. Making it a la Gallega: seasoned with flaky sea salt, smoked paprika and finished with a splosh of good olive oil is so stress free but the end result is extraordinary and it’s the Dégustateur’s firm favourite. Whilst I am playing around in the kitchen we will start the evening with little nibbles (in the kitchen) like sliced cured ham, Gorgonzola Dolce and Mascarpone log with hunks of a good fresh crunchy bread and a glass of prosecco (extra chilled for me).
A special occasion requires a special wine, which I have already bought. I’ve always wanted to try Orto di Venezia fine white wine made on the Island of Sant’ Erasmo. It could’t be more local if you tried. I am so excited about this meal already.
It’s time choose dolci. There is one in particular that we both feel strongly about. Every so often I make this decadent, moist melted chocolate and chestnut puree cake which smells of hazelnuts. For me these are the quintessential flavours of Piedmont, the flavours we love.
Over the Christmas festivities and New Year’s Eve our dining table was lit by a twinkling of candle light only, lots of them. And that is how I’ll prepare that same table for the Valentine’s dinner with hope of creating a different and special atmosphere, suitable for the occasion.
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 its 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.