Monthly Archives: December 2011

Mangia! Mangia! – Christmas Lunch with Chiara Latini

It is not uncommon for Italians to start discussing what they are going to eat at the next meal moments after they finish that last one. We decided to eat Christmas lunch with Chiara Latini near Certaldo the day after we had Thanksgiving dinner with her parents at Osteria di Giovanni in Florence. And we did so – along with over a hundred other holiday celebrants, including a couple of surprise visitors from North Carolina.

Chiara follows in the footsteps of her father Giovanni and her grandfather Narciso by managing the family restaurant, Ristorante Latini, outside of Boccaccio’s birthplace Certaldo on the road to San Gimignano, the famed “Manhattan of Tuscany” .

Visitors from the USA - Chiara with her Guilford College professor
The Kirchers from North Carolina - Chiara with her Guilford College history professor

Pranzo di Natale at Ristorante Latini was a classic experience of an Italian family festive lunch. Unlike an American celebration that can go from soup to nuts in 45 minutes, Italians take their time – a three hour meal is short. There is always time to take a quick refreshing walk (it was a gorgeous sunny day) between courses, or to make the obligatory “Auguri” phone calls, or even to rearrange the seating arrangements at the table so everyone gets a chance to catch up with an aunt or cousin who’s been out of touch for a week or two.

Handmade tortellini in a capon broth
Handmade tortellini in a capon broth

The menu was classic. Latini’s own production of thin-sliced prosciutto, creamy ricotta, and crostini with herb-infused lardo and liver paté made a promising start, followed by two pastas, one in brodo and the other with a spicy venison meat sauce. The main dishes were served family-style, so there was a choice of one or all of guinea hen with an onion sauce, beef roasted with a red wine sauce, or crispy roast duck. Roasted potatoes cooked with garlic and rosemary was the classic contorno.

Festive apple cake
Festive apple cake

I have a major sweet tooth so the highlight to me was the apple cake. But the dolci didn’t stop there. Chiara was also serving almond or chocolate biscotti, chocolate truffles, panforte with figs, and ricciarelli (soft almond cookies).

I’ve been wating for Chiara to start her own line of chocolate cantucci (biscotti) studded big chocolate chunks – Chiara’s Chocolatey Chocolate Chunk Cantucci. It has a ring to it, right?

Ristorante Latini
Ristorante Latini

Now we have a week to recover before the New Year’s breakfast – probably American pancakes, bacon and eggs, orange juice and champagne. As I mentioned, Italians are forward looking when it comes to food.

Ristorante Latini
Via dei Plantani 1,
Loc. La Steccata, San Gimignano
Tel: 0577 945 091

Directions

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Artisan Woodworker of Cortona

Fifteen years ago on my second visit to Italy, I went to Cortona. Why? To have tea with Frances Mayes, of course. I planned to spend the following year under the Tuscan sun – a sabbatical from my law firm life. Who else would be the best source of info?

We did not sip tea under the shady arbor of grapevines, near the fragrant lavender patch, behind the golden and peach-colored walls of the restored Bramasole villa. No, we sat in the back of the Caffe Bar Signorelli in the main square of Cortona for two hours over countless cups of ever-weaker tea. I can’t remember what I learned about how to have an exceptional extended vacation in Italy, but I remember the author was charming and was a major proponent of buying a second home in Tuscany.

Umberto Rossi's showroom at the corner of Piazza della Repubblica
Umberto Rossi's shop in Piazza della Repubblica

On the same visit to Cortona, I also met Umberto Rossi. Some would call him a falegname – a craftsman of wood – although the better term would be artisan. Umberto is a master craftsman in “turned” wooden objects, using a lathe to make the thinnest possible wood bowl or objet d’art. But it was the fruit he created that caught my eye – apples of acacia or palisander wood, pears of tulipwood, and two cherries of cherry wood, joined by stems of lemonwood, no thicker than the real thing.

Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.
Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.

I met Umberto in his small shop on the same square where I had tea with Frances. After a long discourse on how each item was made and the decisions that go into choosing the wood, the preparation, the tools and the amount of skill and labor that go into each item, I bought three pieces.

Umberto said he couldn’t understand why someone would buy a piece of his work and not ask about the type of wood or how it was made. That wasn’t a problem with me. I wanted to know about all of it. I had never seen such intricate craftsmanship with such an eye to detail outside of a museum. He invited me to visit his workshop just down the hill on Via Guelfa. My memory of this place is that it was crowded, dark, cold, and full of sawdust and pieces of wood, as well as all of the equipment needed for his work – but it was a long time ago, I may have the details wrong. It was there, looking at rough chunks of chestnut and olive wood, small logs of mahogany and rosewood, and even a cube of ebony, that the philosophy attributed to Michelangelo came to mind – Umberto seemed to look at a piece of wood and envision the form contained inside and it was his mission to bring it to life.

An apple made of palisander wood.
An apple made of palisander wood.

Then, Umberto invited me home to meet his wife, Dee, who, like Frances Mayes, was from the American South. Maybe it was that southern hospitality, but Dee kindly interrupted her dinner preparations to make coffee for the tourist her husband brought home with no warning. I never did learn how Dee Morton, an artist from Georgia ended up in a cozy apartment in a soon-to-become-famous, but now a definitely obscure, rocky hill town on the edge of Tuscany, with woodworker Umberto Rossi. Besides cooking dinner and making coffee, she was wrangling two kids, the youngest just one year old – it didn’t leave a lot of time for personal histories.

Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.
Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.

Last week, I went back to Cortona. Frances Mayes has since moved to North Carolina. Umberto’s shop was closed tight by ancient faded green wooden doors – no way to peer in, no big sign to say it was still his shop – but there was a small card taped to the door that gave a phone number and directions to the workshop. “Open on request.” As I debated the issue, a woman arrived wearing a warm coat and jaunty beret. It was Dee Morton.

Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.
Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.

The shop is now a showroom – same size, but with elegant glass cases. Umberto’s exquisite work remains the focus, but now also there are Dee’s drawings and paintings on the walls and the artwork of their talented now-teenaged children on display.

Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona
Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona

I, of course, added to my collection. Then we went off to one of the best restaurants in Cortona, La Bucaccia, (Via Ghibellina, 17), for a lunch full of local specialties, but that’ s for a later post …

Italian Food Rule – No Meatballs On Top of Spaghetti

“Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball,” the red-faced “Italian” man said each time his stereotypical wife plunked down a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs … until the antacid commercial hit its punchline.

Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball! 1969
“Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball!” 1969

“Spaghetti and meatballs, now that’s Italian!” is found in the script of many a b-movie.

Even Lady and the Tramp have their first kiss over spaghetti and meatballs served up by Tony, the mustachioed Italian singing cook in 1955.

The most famous kiss over spaghetti and meatballs
The most famous kiss over spaghetti and meatballs

Now, it’s time for the Italian Food Rule:  Spaghetti is not served topped by meatballs in sauce. Do not order “spaghetti and meatballs” in Italy!  At the very least, your waiter will laugh at you. (A sighting of “spaghetti with meatballs” on a menu found anywhere in Italy means that you are eating in a tourist trap.) If pasta and meatballs are served in the same meal, the two ingredients will be served separately – the spaghetti as a primi and the meatball(s) (polpettone or polpette) as a secondo.

Spaghetti with meatballs is not an authentic Italian dish. Like tiny bowls of olive oil set out for for dunking bread (another Food Rule for another day) spaghetti served with “red sauce” and topped with meatballs is an American creation. The pasta recipe probably made its first appearance in New York or New Jersy in the late 1800s.

Spaghetti with meatballs is an American favorite, not an Italian tradition
Spaghetti with meatballs is an American favorite, not an Italian tradition

The concoction is an American adaptation developed most likely as a reaction to the socio-economic conditions experienced by a wave of Italian immigrants who arrived at the turn of the 20th century. These Italians, predominantly from the regions of Sicily and around Naples, had been through the unification of Italy (1861) and World War I (1918). They left Italy poor and started lives in America poor. Meat was costly. For special occasions, when meat was served, the portions were small – too embarrassing to sit alone on the plate. But as a topping for cheap pasta and thin tomato sauce, meatballs the size of walnuts made the platter a celebration.

The meatballs eventually took over
The meatballs eventually took over

Of course, with prosperity came exageration. The platter of pasta was the same size, but the sauce became thicker, drowning the spaghetti, and the meatballs grew to the size of a kid’s fist.

The Italian-American spaghetti and meatball myth always invokes grandma’s recipe (ricetta della Nonna). In this tale, Nonna stands in her tiny kitchen, wearing a snowy-white apron around the barrel of her tummy, but showing off her still-shapely legs, waving a saucy spoon in her hand.

But the elegant Marcella Hazan, well into her 80’s, will tell all who hang on her every word about authentic Italian cooking, that the Italian Food Rule mandates: no meatballs on spaghetti. See herehere and here. She will give you a fine recipe for pasta with a meat sauce (ragu), but outlaws untidy balls of meat that roll down a heap of over-cooked spaghetti.

Spaghetti and ragu is a traditional Italian recipe
Spaghetti and ragu is a traditional Italian recipe says Marcella Hazan

In the 1930s, the Nonna gave way to jolly Chef Boyardee (Ettore Boiardi, who left Piacenza in 1915 at age 17 to land a job in the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. By 1928, he had invented a meatball-making machine.).

Ettore Boiardi takes over the hearts and minds of American school children
Ettore Boiardi takes over the hearts and minds of American school children

Like Tony in the Lady and the Tramp, Ettore (soon known as Hector) liked the spicy meatballs and he put them in a can with spaghetti, ready to be opened at every American kid’s lunch.  And so this song (sung even on Sesame Street) was heard around scout campfires from sea to shining sea:

On top of spaghetti, 
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball, 
When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table,
And on to the floor,
And then my poor meatball,
Rolled out of the door.

It rolled in the garden,
And under a bush,
And then my poor meatball,
Was nothing but mush.

The mush was as tasty
As tasty could be,
And then the next summer, 
It grew into a tree.

The tree was all covered,
All covered with moss,
And on it grew meatballs,
And tomato sauce.

So if you eat spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
Hold on to your meatball,
Whenever you sneeze.

This quintessential American song should be proof enough that spaghetti and meatballs would never find its way to a traditional Italian table, and thus, ranks very high in the list of Italian Food Rules.

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Mangia! Mangia! – Cioccolata Calda, Florentine Hot Chocolate

Winter is the season for hot chocolate, preferably with whipped cream. To me, the most perfect hot chocolate in the world was served at Café Angelina in Paris in 1977. (I tasted it again in 1996, but although it was still fabulous, it wasn’t perfect (that may have had something to do with the guy eating steak tartare, topped with a raw egg, at the next table).)

The perfect hot chocolate served your way at Cafe Angelina in Paris
The perfect hot chocolate served your way at Café Angelina in Paris

Hot chocolate at Café Angelina is an event. A polite uniformed waiter arrives with a silver tray. On the tray is a silver dessert spoon, a small china pitcher of hot aromatic chocolate, a bowl of barely sweetened whipped cream heaped high, and a small china cup. He offers a snowy white napkin and proceeds to pour a mere half a cup of thick hot chocolate – the aroma intensifies – the choice of how much whipped cream to add is left up to you.

Hot cocoa 1950's style
Hot cocoa 1950's style

During my childhood, hot chocolate was hot cocoa, which meant a packet of Swiss Miss mixed in hot water or on special occasions a spoonful of Hershey’s Cocoa mixed in hot milk or on very special occasions my mother would cook up a secret recipe of chocolate and milk in a pan on the stove and add marshmallows to the steaming cup of ambrosia.

Now I get my hot chocolate (cioccolata calda) fix in Florence. I have a choice of places. Probably the best cioccolata calda is created by Leonardo Vestri at the Vestri Chocolate Shop at Borgo degli Albizi 11r, but it is served in a plastic cup. This is more a place to go to get a premium hit of hot liquid gold to feed an addiction than an elegant place for a holiday chat with friends .

Rivoire has been famous for hot chocolate for decades
Rivoire has been famous for hot chocolate for decades

For a more formal hot chocolate experience, the most famous place in Florence is Rivoire. Here an efficient, but surly, waiter will plunk down on your table a small ceramic cup of incredibly good hot thick chocolate topped (your choice when ordering) with semi-sweet whipped cream. You will also get a couple of tiny paper napkins and a couple of unnecessary paper packets of sugar.

Hot chocolate with whipped cream at Rivoire
Hot chocolate with whipped cream at Rivoire

If you are sitting outside at Rivoire you will have a quintessential Florentine view of the Palazzo Vecchio, the statues of David and Neptune, and the passeggiata of a million Italian families mixed with a few Chinese tour groups.

Ciccolata Calda thick and rich at Rivoire
Ciccolata Calda thick and rich at Rivoire

If you are seated inside, you are warmer and may catch a sight of a regular client – a pretty English Bulldog dolled up in her winter fur collar. Ask her how she likes her hot chocolate — with or without whipped cream.

Styling bulldog at Rivoire
Styling bulldog at Rivoire

If you are sitting at a table at Rivoire sipping cioccolata calda you are paying a premium. Remember to sit at a table in Italy is to be “renting” the table, so you should plan to stay awhile to make the price of your hot chocolate worthwhile. Better idea – stand at the elegant bar at Rivoire and for a third the price you will get the same taste treat with equally abrupt service, minus the napkin scraps and sugar packets.

With whipped cream or without - just give me a taste!
With whipped cream or without - just give me a taste!

Tuscan Traveler is now on a mission to find the most luscious cioccolata calda in the best ambience for the proper price in Florence. If you have any ideas that would assist in the endeavor, please add a comment.

Not dressed for Rivoire
Not dressed for Rivoire

Italian Food Rule – No Gaudy Dressing, Keep Salad Simple

To dress a salad in Italy is simplicity itself: bring a bowl of salad greens (preferably one to three varieties of radicchio tossed together – that’s all) to the table, add some of the best extra-virgin olive oil available, a small splash of red-wine vinegar or lemon juice, a generous sprinkle of salt and a bit of pepper; toss again and serve on a salad plate (don’t infect the leafy greens with left-over pasta sauce or juice from the ossobuco.)

Fresh greens are all a salad needs
Fresh greens are all a salad needs

The only debate is whether inexpensive balsamic vinegar (not the traditional DOP stuff from Modena) is an acceptable substitute for red-wine vinegar. Purists would say emphatically “No” but the number of Florentine neighborhood restaurants that bring the sweeter version of vinegar to the table seems to argue for, at least, an acceptable option to the Food Rule.

Add a bit of good olive oil and red-wine vinegar
Add a bit of good olive oil and red-wine vinegar

Italian Dressing, known and loved in the United States (as well as Canada, the U.K and most of the British colonies), is a vinaigrette-type salad dressing, consisting of water, vinegar or lemon juice, vegetable oil, chopped bell peppers, usually sugar or corn syrup, and various herbs and spices including oregano, garlic, fennel, dill and salt. Onion and garlic is often added to intensify the dressing’s flavor. Usually it is bought bottled or prepared by mixing oil and vinegar with a packaged flavoring mix consisting of dehydrated vegetables and herbs.

Zesty dry Italian salad dressing flakes
Zesty dry Italian salad dressing flakes

North American-style Italian dressing, and especially Creamy Italian, which consists of the same ingredients, but with buttermilk or mayonnaise added to make it creamy, is not acceptable to the Italian palate. (“Che schifo” or Che esagerazione!” says Francesca.) Don’t ask for it in a restaurant in Italy or particularly from the cook in an Italian home.

At home in many American refrigerators
At home in many American refrigerators

Needless to say, you will also not find the following dressings in any Italian kitchen: Thousand Island, Ranch, Blue Cheese, Russian, Louis, Honey Dijon, French, Ginger Honey, and, perhaps surprising, Caesar Dressing

Caesar Dressing is much more American than Italian. The most reliable story of its origins reports that Caesar Cardini created the salad and its dressing in Mexico.

Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing croutons and Parmesan cheese
Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing croutons and Parmesan cheese

Caesar (born Cesare) came from near Lago Maggiore. He and his brother Alex emigrated to the U.S. after World War I. The Cardini’s lived in San Diego, but operated a restaurant in Tijuana to circumvent Prohibition. According to Caesar’s daughter Rosa, on July 4th 1924 the salad was created on a busy weekend at Caesar’s Restaurant. It is said that Caesar was short of supplies and didn’t want to disappoint the customers so he concocted this salad with what was on hand: romaine lettuce and croutons dressed with parmesan cheese (another Food Rule, coming soon), lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and black pepper. To add a bit of flair, he prepared it at the table.

That last bit was the only thing truly Italian about Caesar Salad – a salad should be dressed at the table or right before it comes to the table – the greens should never sit soaking in the olive oil and vinegar.

Radicchio with a bit of frisee greens
Radicchio with a bit of frisee greens

Try being Italian for awhile – leave the salad dressing bottles in the fridge and simply add a bit of olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to some fresh leafy salad greens. You may be surprised by what you taste for the very first time.