Not so much Florentine cooking in our new home in Florence

October 2, 2021

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.


Where to eat in Venice, a personal guide to some of my favourite places

August 5, 2021

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.

Pasticceria Tonolo

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.

Pasticceria Toletta

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.

Gelateria Nico

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.

Hotel Experimental

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.

Ai Gondolieri

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.

Estro

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.

Pasticceria Rizzardini

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.

Antiche Carampane

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.

Sestiere Canareggio

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.

Sestiere Castello

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.

The islands

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.


Simple things are often the most exquisite

April 27, 2021

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.


A Red Palazzetto and Valentine in Venice

February 13, 2021

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.


Bacari, Cichèti, Venice

December 14, 2020

Bacaro, a social hub, a casual meeting point for locals, academics, students, shop keepers, gondoliers, tourists. Perhaps one could call it a Venetian osteria with a less formal feel to it. In fact, it’s not formal at all. You will be lucky to find a chair and a table to sit down. It is it’s countertop laden with chicchetti (cichèti in Venetian spelling) and a vast choice of wines served by the glass which makes for the perfect formula of a cosy welcoming and relaxed atmosphere.

Cicchetti are very creative and delicious little snacks of which most bacari have a vast selection.

Most popular cicchetti are crostini: sliced crunchy bread (usually baguette) topped with what takes your fancy or as far as your imagination can go. There is little cooking involved, ingredients are deliciously assembled on the bread making them irresistible (especially when served on a toasted bread, a particular favourite of mine).

When looking at the cicchetti, piled on the boards or platters, you cannot not notice the pride, finesse and art involved in preparing them.

If “going for chicchetti” will be a part of your visit to Venice (and I hope it will), the one with Baccalà Mantecato is a must try.It’s a staple here. The subtle paste is made by pounding boiled and flaked salt cod with olive oil until creamy. It is very often mixed with garlic or mushrooms. Take your pick.

Apart from crostini, cicchetti are also served as a small portion of an octopus salad, sarde in soar, moscardini (these usually will be reheated), a boiled egg garnished with an anchovy, fondi di carciofi (the artichoke hearts cooked with garlic, parsley and white wine), a generous chunk of a local cheese or mortadella. And there are also meatballs.Venice to me feels almost like the capital of meatballs, or any balls: vegetarian, seafood or fish (mainly with tuna). Nothing beats very moreish deep fried warm meatballs, wonderfully crunchy from the outside and soft inside. And that is what we have most often at “Alla Vedova”. A bacaro hidden in a dark ally where you stop (or aim for) for cichèti but you can also sit down to a proper meal a la carte.

An equally important part of the entire experience is to wash you snacks down with a glass of Prosecco, red wine or the internationally famous by now, Spritz.

Of course I have my favourite bacari and a selection of chicchetti by now and occasionally I make them for us at home, especially now during the second lockdown. Below I have put up a few very simple ideas and guidelines (where the quantities of the ingredients are entirely of your choice and preference) to follow for crostini and a recipe for our very favourite homemade fennel meatballs. The recipes for gamberi in soar and “fondi di carciofi” you can already find on the blog (just click on the green print).

I truly hope that you will enjoy the experience.

Grilled Pepper, Spinach and Prawn Crostini

You will need:

– sliced crunchy bread

– sliced lengthways red and yellow peppers, grilled then drizzled with olive oil and a splash of white wine vinegar, left to marinate for a few hours or preferably overnight

– some spinach leaves, wilted in a pan with a dash of olive oil and crushed garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper

– prawns (cleaned and peeled), pan fried on both sides with some olive oil, finely chopped garlic and parsley

– salt and pepper

Assemble all the above ingredients on the sliced bread, drizzle with extra olive oil and season with some salt and pepper.

Tuna Paste and Leek Crostini

You will need:

– sliced crunchy baguette

– tuna in oil, drained

– mayonnaise

– 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

– pepper

– 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

– mayonnaise

– 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.


First Autumn in Venice

October 18, 2020

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.


Venice, welcome!

August 5, 2020

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.


Beautiful, empty and sad Rome

July 9, 2020

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.


A culinary trip to Tuscany

March 31, 2020

It’s been a while since I wanted to write this post. I feel that it’s incomplete but I decided to post it regardless. I shall look forward to completing it in the future. Initially I lingered over a bit with putting a few words together because we were planning to visit Florence and probably Montepulciano in late February. Perhaps what I was searching for was an inspiration and trying out new dishes. We have been visiting Tuscany fairly regularly on many different occasions. I’am particularly fond of it in Autumn and early Spring, when the hills are shrouded with an early morning or afternoon mist, when I can enjoy surrounding earthy smells and when grilled meat on an open fire with some fresh rosemary accompanied by a glass of an elegant red wine has never tasted better. Having just said that I can feel the breeze on my skin and travel in time to our summer meals: pasta with clams, prawns and langoustines (the best one perhaps that we‘ve ever had), red prawn tartar decorated with burrata, baked whole fish either in a salt crust or in a white wine and tomato sauce served with raw fennel pieces and eaten at one of the best and quiet settings looking out at the sea, admiring the sunset and enjoying a glass of chilled sparkling wine.

Sadly in the current situation with the corona virus spreading fast, our plans have had to be postponed, most likely cancelled. But whilst we are at home I like to bring certain flavours back onto our dining table.

Tuscan food with its great culinary tradition and a deep-rooted local spirit is represented by cooking what is available and it is done properly. It is a cuisine of it’s land and bread favouring a long cooking process. It is synonymous with those meat dishes for which the Tuscans have a genuine affection: chicken giblets, lampredotto or tripe, Chianina beef, Cinta Senese pork and of course game. The Tuscans are also called mangiafagioli, the bean eaters, as pulses like lentils, chickpeas and fava beans grace dining tables extremely often. Bread is almost sacred in this region of Italy and used in an infinite variety of ways, proudly without salt. Dishes like panzanella, papa di pomodoro or carabaccia (tomato and onion soup respectively) and ribollita are all based on bread. Ribollita, by the way, on the day it is prepared is only a bread soup. That re-cooking, ri-bollire (the day after the soup was made) is that extra ingredient, without which we would not be talking about this soup at all.

La Toscana, once the centre of The Renaissance, today a region with one of the greatest concentration of art works spread over a vast and diversified territory. The geographical layout has undoubtedly contributed to the variety of the produce and subsequently the dishes and to the differentiation between meat and fish. The produce and flavours of the land are well respected without loosing personality. One can see the whole of Tuscany as a mosaic of local traditions, often interwoven with influences and exchanges with neighbouring regions. It is a cuisine based on just a few fundamental ingredients like the rustic Tuscan bread for example, today known across the whole of Italy. It’s greatest particularity is the absence of salt which allows it to marry extremely well with more flavoursome ingredients and of course salty cured hams or salumi. Grilled slices of casareccio bread, brushed with garlic and drizzled with local olive oil is the essence of the Tuscan cuisine in its most simple form.

Tuscan cuisine can be both simple and refined, rustic and aristocratic and that also applies to sweets especially when Vin Santo is taken into the equation or chestnut flour. These few words which you’ve just read are filled with nostalgia that I have for this large and diverse region still yet to be discovered, studied and learnt. I am longing for its earthy flavours, porcini mushrooms, wild boar stew, meat ragù with home made pappardelle pasta, caciucco (a fish stew) and many other dishes still to be tried and tested.

Currently, during the peak of the corona virus and the home lockdown I wish that the moment for all of us of being healthy and able to move freely will come soon.

We live in the Historic Centre of Rome and I can only share my experience from this part of town. We have a few very small supermarkets that are doing their best to comply with the latest and fast changing regulations. All products are available (apart from fresh yeast which was almost a miracle to find anyway), nobody is panicking and hoarding food, apart from one or two cases of foreigners, who can’t be blamed especially if not speaking the language. We all queue outside maintaining a reasonable distance apart from each other. Some fruit and vegetable vendors have closed down their stalls, unfortunately Campo de’ Fiori is empty but there are other well prepared and well stocked vendors that I am full admiration for. Also butchers, fish mongers and independent grocery stores keep on overwhelming us with their dedication and hard work during these difficult and uncertain times. Gradually the streets have turned rather empty and most of the locals stay at home as asked, the one meter distance rule is obeyed in stores and the police presence is somehow less prominent or at least less visible to me, which is only good news (I see it as the sign that finally most of us leave our homes only when really neccessary). At least in my neighbourhood.

Once this is all over I will open a bottle of the finest Supertoscan or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano that I have at home ( we’ve built up a small cellar over the years), make my own pappardelle, serve it with the pulled beef that I have left after cooking Stracotto al Chianti Classico and celebrate in the best company, just the two of us.

But whilst we are all waiting and hoping for our lives to turn back to normality, here are a few propositions that I particularly like using ingredients that are hopefully easy to get:

~ a cannellini bean salad with tuna and red onions that I had once in Florence and it has stolen my stomach since the first bite;

~ an artichoke, sweet pear and shaved pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese salad, there is a loose saying that I came across in one of the books “not to tell the farmer how good the concoction of pears and pecorino is otherwise they will stop selling it to you and keep all for themselves”

~ a creamy chickpea and rosemary soup;

~ an antipasto of Crostini Neri with Vin Santo (chicken liver crostini);

~ gnudi (ricotta and spinach dumplings ) in a saffron and asparagus sauce;

~ Stracotto al Chianti Classico, slowly cooked beef in Chianti wine, so tender that it almost falls apart

~ chestnut pancakes with whipped ricotta called necci (additionally I serve them with salted caramel and sliced sweet crunchy pears).

I hope you like it.


Bitter seasonal greens, clear blue skies and blood oranges

January 30, 2020

 

“Yes, I have finally arrived to this Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life…Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

I believe that the best time to come, see, live and understand Rome is winter. Hardly a day goes by without clear blue skies, strong warm sun that shows its shy face only during early morning hours and once it goes to sleep it leaves you longing to cosy up at home or at a local trattoria.The Eternal City just before and after the Christmas season is lived by the locals. I love this period. Not only because I adore cold crispy winter days but I see Rome in a different clearer light.I breathe more freely.

Markets are bustling as ever but somehow the vendors seem happier, more relaxed and approachable. I also find myself more at ease whilst shopping at them, most likely because for this short period of time they are not a tourist attraction but a genuine point of meeting for a chat, laughter, exchange of latest gossips and grocery shopping of course. Having said that the overwhelming interest in Italian regional food and cooking is very exciting. It is lovely to see that growing number of travellers not only trying but devouring tonnarelli cacio e pepe (my favourite local pasta dish by far), artichokes, that are a big affair in Rome, are enjoyed and cooked both ways: alla Romana, stewed in olive oil and a bit of water flavoured with mentuccia, parsley and garlic as well as briefly speaking deep fried alla Giudia (to be found not only in the Roman Ghetto quarter) where the romaneschi artichokes are to be used which have the ability to open like a flower. Then we have the fifth quarter famous examples of coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) or trippa alla Romana (a tripe). It is finally recognised that it is guanciale and not pancetta that is added to the famous la carbonara with grated Pecorino Romano cheese to follow.

Central to most lives here is food, the passion for it and the simplicity with which Italians cook and eat. A common factor across all the different regions of the Italian Peninsula. In Rome the working class way of cooking, produce, flavours and traditions are well looked after.

Cicoria, chicory is perhaps the vegetable most loved, cooked and used in the Roman and Lazio kitchen. Its mild bitterness contrasts perfectly with traditional greasy meat dishes. It works extremely well in sandwiches paired with sliced porchetta or mortadella. Above all the most common way of preparing it is to cook it in salted water and then give it a final touch in a pan with olive oil, garlic and very often peperoncino in other words cicoria ripassata. My favourite way is just with a hint of garlic finished with a drizzle of good olive oil as the warmth of the leaves brings out the oil’s beautiful fragrance, finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. It is said here that all the bitter greens are so good for you. Well, the more the better!

A comforting lemon scented beef and mortadella meat roll (polpettone) in a dry porcini and tomato sauce accompanied by cicoria ripassata and slowly cooked peppers with black olives and capers makes for a perfect wintery lunch or early supper.

Agretti, a vibrant green spaghetti like vegetable are a real marvel when they arrive to the market stands. They are of a particular earthy flavour, a hybrid between spinach and grass with some tartness to them.At home the non green hard parts only are to be cut off and discarded. Next they only need a good wash, a few minutes of cooking in salted water and served warm with a drizzle of good quality olive oil, some lemon juice and a pinch of flaky salt. Prepared like that they don’t ask for anything more.

Winter heralds the arrival of the Veneto region best export produce and it arrives in abundance to the fruit and vegetable market stalls. Radichietto salad leaves are something I buy extremely often and in large quantities these days. I dress them with a garlic infused olive oil vinaigrette and they are just delicious in their most simple form. But recently, just after Christmas, I tossed in juicy pomegranate seeds, hazelnuts and dry apricots into my radichietto leaf salad which made for a delicious accompaniment to a pumpkin and ricotta terrine garnished with crunchy pancetta. So good.

I am sure (at least I hope) that you have come across the purple gems called radicchio of different hues, shades and shapes. They are all worth trying and vary in the intensity of bitterness, radicchio from Chioggia, Treviso or from Verona. The radicchio from Castelfranco is particularly beautiful with wide green yellow leaves with purple marks running through them with lesser or greater prominance. All manner of radicchio are extremely easy to use in cooking but above all they make for one of the most pleasing simple salads I can think of. Thank you Veneto!

Tarocco, a blood orange has finally arrived. I have been waiting impatiently for so long to make a daily juice or almost daily out of these particular Sicilian oranges. But you see, they are not just any oranges. In Italy they’ve become a symbol for healthy eating. Eating a blood orange is something of an experience. Taroccoo has a meltingly soft dark orange flesh (sanguinello or moro variety is deep rich red in colour), its sweetness is offset by high acidity with flavours unfolding slowly. I’ve been obsessed ever since. The height of the Sicilian citrus harvest falls in January, February and March. That is yet another reason for me to look forward to winter and the seasonal abundance of produce. Blood oranges are not the easiest to transport. Their skin is delicate and very thin which doesn’t travel or store well. Thy are readily distributed across Italy but perhaps you can still find them in a well stocked organic grocery store.

After a recent visit to Venice, I recreated at home an octopus salad that we had on our last day in a small cosy trattoria which seemed to have many Sicilian influences on the menu.The core of the salad is sliced boiled octopus, thinly sliced celery and the rest of the ingredients are versatile. You can add grated carrots, boiled cubed potatoes, olives and so forth. But the seasoning on the other hand is what makes a difference. I mixed olive oil with freshly squeezed blood orange and dressed my salad with it a few minutes before serving. It was divine and so refreshing.

Last weekend I spent happily pottering in the kitchen unearthing old but tried recipes of mine but I made space in our stomaches for some new ones like lemon panna cotta with a blood orange and Campari syrup.

A magic blend of cultures (Jewish-Roman), of the quinto quarto (the fifth quarter) of Testaccio, produce of the land of Lazio and the food of the shepherds along with many other regional influences making their way to Rome form a wonderful universe that works extremely well here. “All roads lead to Rome” seems so true right now.


A Family Christmas in Poland

December 14, 2019

There is a magical, almost fairy tale-like atmosphere in Poland in winter time. I absolutely adore the whole build up towards the festive period. It has a certain charm with the whole bustle of preparations, Christmas menu planning and wrapping presents with a special themed wrapping paper, finished with a shiny ribbon.

It is a big family affair this year. We are shortly leaving Rome for Poland with a large artisan panettone from my favourite shop which hopefully fits into the overhead locker on the plane.

There is nothing that can compete with the scene of a countryside shrouded with fresh snow and separate dwellings decorated with christmas lights. The cities are equally appealing with the shop windows and almost all of the main buildings elaborately embellished for the festive occasion. I would always await the time of the day when it starts to get dark and the romantic atmosphere of flickering candles and decorative lights sets, which was never a very long wait with the shorter days of this time of year.

I am looking forward to enjoying with gratitude the traditional Polish and our family’s speciality Christmas dishes.

In Poland Christmas Eve is a special, very important, sentimental and one of a kind family gathering.

We don’t eat meat on that day. I know that my mother has already prepared pierogi, Polish dumplings with a sour cabbage and mushroom filling. She always prepares them earlier and keeps in a freezer until needed, making her big dinner cooking easier and perhaps less stressful. I believe many households share the same practice as we always prepare so many different dishes to laden the table with, also for the following Christmas Day, when we eat meat.

I have always loved yeast cakes. A poppy seed cake makowiec is one of a kind, but I eat it only at home. Main reason being is that I have never had a better one anywhere else. It is soft, moist,its flavours very well balanced, poppy seeds are cooked through and minced with a special care.It requires some time and patience which defines the end result. I have never made one yet, maybe it is about the right time to start?

Traditionally my father and I were responsible for going foraging for our Christmas tree and decorating it just a few days before Christmas Eve.The traditions should be cultivated and that is exactly what we are going to do this year. An activity that I take great pleasure in. The Dègustateur will be responsible for keeping our two little dogs and cats away from the shiny, very attractive and tempting Christmas bowl ornaments. There is a little damage every year.

But before all that happens, we will host a pre-Christmas convivial meal here in Rome. A meal that brings the friends and close ones together before everyone breaks up and departs until New Year.

Chatting, laughter, lovely simple food and a good wine is what a successful party is all about.I will prepare a couple of salads using seasonal bitter greens: radicchio, chicory and puntarelle (puntarelle alla Romana with an anchovy, garlic and vinegar dressing). Some raw sweet langoustines drizzled with some olive oil and lemon juice are always a special treat. An egg pasta tossed with porcini mushrooms or with exquisately scented truffle shavings since it is the season. I like to spoil us every so often and Christmas seems to be a perfect opportunity and excuse for it.

I will also make the cotechino, a slow cooked pork sausage served on the bed of lentils, traditional fair at Christmas and New Year. There is a small twist that I particularly like from the “Polpo” cookbook where as a sharp condiment to cut through the fattiness of the sausage mostarda is used (mustard fruit). The last time I made it was still in London, our last Christmas there before moving to Rome. I feel it is about time to have it again.

The Christmas themed dolci are the ones that are particularly requested. Luckily none of them is time absorbing or difficult to make. We will have our ever favourite hazelnut and chestnut tart, where I use hazelnut flour bought in Alba. The hazelnuts from the region of Langhe in Piedmont are particularly flavoursome and delicate, famous and appreciated also beyond Italy.

Crema di marroni, a sweetened chestnut purèe is one of those ingredients that I relish and truly enjoy during this time of year and indeed, it is very evident in my “festive bake off”.

In Rome from 11am onwards the smell of roasted chestnuts from the street vendors spreads deliciously around which only adds to the atmosphere. We buy a portion of them and snack on them still warm walking home during the cold months (bizarrely they are sold during warm months too, somehow they don’t taste the same for us). There is no other method that can compare to roasting the chestnuts using wood and an open fire apart from cooking them in red wine. But a ready made chestnut cream of a good quality does the magic especially when a to do list seems already long enough.

It is really not a holiday without chocolate. The answer to it is a combination of melted dark chocolate, hazelnuts and chestnut purèe cake. A delicate and moist cake focusing only on just those three ingredients (there is no flour). I am planning on making Tronchetto di Natale a sponge cake rolled with a filling of your choice, covered with a chocolate spread (most likely ganache will be my choice) resembling a wood log. Dust it with powdered sugar and decorate with sprigs of rosemary or thyme or whatever takes your fancy. A turamisù is always a lovely suggestion to make, bringing another texture onto the table. A snowy or frosty like accent could add pavlova, decorated as generously as your creativity can take you.

I will laden the table with Christmas decorations, walnuts, chestnuts and especially with clementines having a symbolic meaning to me.

Panettone, a traditional Italian Christmas cake that is more like a bread, we will have for a lazy breakfast the following day after our feast. I love panettone and it is such a lovely present to give, packed in a big box with a ribbon. It originates in Lombardy but nowadays you can buy it literally everywhere. It has become extremely popular and sold the whole year round. I like mine simply wrapped, prepared just for the festive period (which means without added flavourings and preservatives so that the cake can last longer) and coming from an artisan bakery. For a good quality panettone you have to pay a bit more, simply because of the ingredients: candied fruit, butter etc. But why would you have an inferior quality especially when only enjoyed during such a short period?

Very rarely can Rome be enjoyed just for yourself. Gradually the low season is disappearing with the month of January being a benchmark. The pre-Christmas period however, is when I love Rome the most. Almost deserted museums in late afternoons, no queues, a frosty air and cosy shimmery streets that I could amble through almost for ever.

Buon Appetito e Buon Natale.


Longing for the Autumn and the artichoke season

October 31, 2019

October is a funny month in Rome. It plays its jokes since the early hours of the day and doesn’t seem to stop.

Mornings in particular take me by surprise. All of the sudden after having left the apartment and closed the front door I stop and start to fight with my thoughts. The thoughts being signals and a reaction of my body to my fairly inadequate attire for the big and sudden dip in temperature.

I don’t always make a u-turn to go back for a light jacket (that after a long Summer I have probably forgotten where to even find) or a sweater to cover myself. It just feels odd with the clear blue skies.

It is also a strange feeling to start wearing closed shoes, not to mention socks. Weeks and weeks of being spoiled by wearing just sandals have come to an end and the first days of facing wearing proper shoes seem like a struggle. But then, like with everything, one gets used to it and of course to the changing weather seasons.

I must admit that I was looking forward to Autumn this year, for the temperatures to become gentler and pleasant again (the summer this year was incredibly hot in Rome).

Deep inside I was already longing for proper comfort food, for a creamy and rich soup with pasta or spelt, pasta tossed with a rich pecorino sauce, meat stews or what have you. I was particularly missing cosy afternoons spent sipping tea and indulging in autumnal tarts. I think tarts and simple cakes with an emphasis on just a few ingredients are our favourite kind of pudding. I just couldn’t wait to start using sweetened chestnut cream (you can buy it all ready prepared for you in a jar or you may want to spend some rewarding time and make it from scratch), walnuts, chestnut flower, hazelnuts that I tend to bring from the Langhe region of Piedmont, pears and the last of the plums. Sadly figs disappeared with the first heavy rain (and much needed) after August. As a result I didn’t manage to bake a lot with figs this season. Instead we had them fresh either with cheese or in a fruit salad which was the most sensible thing to do given the summer temperatures. There will always be next year and something to look forward to.

Speaking about something to look forward to. There are two restaurants in the Testaccio area of Rome that I was impatiently waiting to visit.

One of the first October Sunday lunches I booked us a table at Trattoria Perilli. It is a very well frequented place but mainly by the locals. It was for the first time in Rome where we found ourselves the only foreigners in the restaurant at a given time. I am not trying to say that you will always find that kind of crowd over there, but certainly on most occasions. Maybe it has something to do with the reservation system, my calls never being answered despite numerous attempts. I would advise to book especially for certain days of the week, if you can. The place is known for it’s very traditional Roman food and I was recommended it for it’s l’amatriciana, the Dègustateur’s favourite. During one of those days when he was away I thought I would arrange a lovely surprise for him. I decided to walk and book a table in person. I didn’t feel angry or disappointed not being able to make the reservation over the phone. I love walking and I don’t take public transport in Rome. It doesn’t work as badly as is rumoured, at least if we are having the tube in mind.

I had a wonderful early afternoon quiet and peaceful stroll along the river. The water hadn’t looked better in a long while. Dramatic contrast of the blue skye, the lime tree leaves slowly turning yellow and the sun hiding every few minutes made my walking experience as if I was falling in love in Rome (again).

The following Sunday it was the tonnarelli a cacio e pepe turn, my favourite. Since the lunch was already fully booked (as I was politely informed over the phone) we took our chances and turned up for the opening of its evening shift. We were very lucky and so happy. It takes almost one hour by foot to get there therefore you can imagine why we were so excited.This restaurant is particularly famous (very much so among tourist as well) for its cacio e pepe pasta (cheese and pepper pasta). It sounds very simple, perhaps even too simple but it is like no other. The secret is in the sauce, its consistency and the choice of pecorino cheese.

I absolutely love the theatre of having the tonnarelli stirred with grated cheese right in front of me. I am always amazed how hot the pasta remains after all that stirring and building up of the sauce. Well, that is the secret of Felice a Testaccio and I believe it is best if it stays that way. Whilst writing this post I am already thinking when to go back there next. The correct answer is as soon as possible. I feel so greedy.

There is also this lovely unassuming artisan ice cream place in Testaccio that we stop at after our scrumptious meals. We enjoy our ice cream while slowly making our way back home. The Dègustateur likes it so much that under the pretext of going back to those restaurants he is actually craving for that ice cream. I don’t blame him, it is exquisite. There are just a few flavours to choose from, the display is minimal and the containers are all covered up to maintain the right temperature. Exactly how it should be. I am saddened at times seeing tourist queuing and getting big gelato portions at places where the vast choice of extravagantly and unnaturally coloured ice-cream is on the display all day long. That feeling is particularly strong when a proper gelateria is almost next to it. The following is so true and still valid (maybe even more these days) “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

My Italian tutor Diana has recently recommended a Tuscan restaurant to me just off Di Trevi Fountain. She was quite wary when referring to it. The reason being is the very common misconception and belief that all the restaurants, trattorias, coffee bars and so on right next to major tourist spots must be bad. Bad because they just don’t have to try hard, they will always have enough crowds passing by, tend to use inferior ingredients not to mention about precision and execution of a dish. In most of the cases it is true. But there are historic places however, that are still maintaining their standards, are known for good and honest food that the Romans are dining at. With time you learn and just know where to go and it has been such fun exploring Rome for us.

We loved our Tuscan meal. Every course we had was exceptional. It was the first time that I had tried a beef filet with an apple and cinnamon puree with more baked apples to accompany it. What an autumnal meal we had. The Dègustateur’s pumpkin cream soup with burnt garlic, cavolo nero cabbage and crispy bacon was a pure work of art. I make a similar pumpkin soup at home. It is with chestnuts and crispy bacon on top as well. When I buy a pumpkin I have to think of making a few meals out of it. This vegetable of varied different shapes is so generous and giving.

One of my favourite fillings for pasta parcels is pumpkin, amaretti and mostarta. It is something of a real treat, not Roman at all. I either prepare them myself or I can find them not too far from home, just off Piazza Barberini.

Once I’ve mastered the art of making risotto I am no longer shy and reach out for new flavour combinations. Pumpkin and cinnamon is a match made in heaven and it was in Venice some time ago where I had this heavenly comforting pumpkin risotto finished with a few pinches of cinnamon for the first time. I’d say a must try for those who don’t know it yet.

Now since the Autumn has arrived the Dègustateur being English feels like having a roast chicken for a Sunday lunch and I happily make it for him. Personally I find cooking with just chicken legs more rewarding and subsequently resulting in richer and more complex flavours. On that note a couple of weeks ago I made a chicken fricassee with mustard, vinegar and thyme. Served it with a cauliflower purèe, cooked cannellini beans with bacon and roast potatoes for an extra crunch. Proper comfort food that we all love.

October in Rome has still been spoiling us with temperatures in the mid 20’s C. It feels ‘too early’ for my scrumptious beef bourguignon but I can already feel that the ‘right’ days are arriving.

Usually at this time of year we head to Piedmont to enjoy copious amounts of porcini mushrooms and more modest amounts of truffles. Due to bad weather conditions with great sadness we decided to cancel our trip. I have been feeling very nostalgic and longing for the produce of Piedmont and its overwhelming flavours. As a consequence we devoured home made sweet specialities of that region like bonèt, panna cotta, hazelnut and chestnut tart or baci di dama, which are two hazelnut biscuits joined together with a layer of chocolate. One of best possible combinations on earth. Baking and cooking with hazelnuts (from the Langhe) always seems rather extravagant but once you start treating yourself to theses particular gems you will never want to stop.

Italian desserts are not particularly showy like their French counterparts. They focus on one or two ingredients playing the main part. One of these examples is a walnut and caramel (you can make a salted caramel too which is divine) tart. So simple yet so rewarding. Serve it with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and you will be in heaven.

Autumn brings more delicious news. The artichoke. At the moment their season has not fully started yet and there are still a few more weeks to go in Lazio. However, I have already had a taste of them in the Roman restaurants in Testaccio. I couldn’t wait any longer. They are somewhat of a real delicacy here and they were divine (restaurants always have a good supplier), exactly as I remembered them from the last time, way before summer. Carciofi alla Romana are not to be missed. Another way of preparing them in Rome is alla Gudia, of course best eaten in the Jewish Quarter itself. They are first cooked in olive oil and then fried in a separate pan. The leaves are meant to be crunchy and snapped one by one with your fingers while the artichoke heart stays soft and tender to be enjoyed at the very end.

There are so many dishes involving carciofi (artichokes) that I want to cook as soon as possible and share them with you here on Hai Mangiato: artichokes with prawns and pasta, or buttery artichoke risotto, veal meat balls with artichokes to begin with. The sea of ideas, like a well without a bottom that still has to wait to give its goodness.