Category Archives: Mangia! Mangia!

food and wine in Italy

Mangia! Mangia! – Pan di Ramerino, Traditional Florentine Rosemary Bread

Pan di Ramerino is a Florentine Easter tradition, large chewy rolls flavored with rosemary and raisins. In the past and still today, they were made for Giovedi’ Santo, Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), marked with the Cross, and sold by street vendors outside the churches (often blessed by the priest) and in bakeries throughout Tuscany. It is the perfect combination of sweet and savory.

Florentine Easter Rosemary Bread (photo: quattropassincucina.it)

Florentine rosemary bread was born in the Middle Ages. It is a devotional product and each of its flavors is tied to a symbolic significance. It is an emblem of the immortality of the soul and during the Middle Ages it was thought that rosemary kept away evil spirits.

Grapes (raisins), olive oil and grain are metaphors of life and represent Holy Communion. In addition, the bread is cross cut (a hot-crossed bun), which favors leavening, and gives the image of the connection between religion and the bread.

Rosemary, a plant which abundantly grows in Tuscany, results in the designation ramerino (Tuscan dialect for rosmarino). It is also known as panino con lo zibibbo, which refers to the type of grape used in the ancient recipe. A local grape, zibibbo, with seeds was used in the past and now it is more common to use seedless grapes. A more modern version has a shiny, sticky sweet sugar syrup top.

Pan di Ramerino (photo: ricette.giallozafferano.it)

The recipe includes: soft wheat flour, water, yeast, salt, olive oil, raisins and rosemary (the rosemary is roughly ground in a mortar, passed through a sieve, sautéed in oil) and made into the dough. It is divided into pieces which are left to rise under a damp cotton cloth. Before being put in the oven, the rolls are brushed with oil or a egg wash. Baking traditionally takes place in a wood-burning oven. The sugar syrup is brushed on when the cooked buns are still warm.

Production is widespread throughout Tuscany, especially in Florence, where there are more than 100 bakeries. The quantity produced is about 120-140 tons per year; demand and production in recent years are more or less stable. Sales are exclusively local, 80% directly to the public and 20% to local shops.

Recipes can be found here and here.

Video is here, here and here.

Mangia! Mangia! – Cacciucco, Tuscan Fish Stew

Cacciucco is a hearty Italian fish stew known to the western coastal towns of Tuscany and Liguria for over 500 years. It is especially associated with the Tuscan port city of Livorno and the town of Viareggio to the north.

Cacciucco with mussels and prawns (photo turismo.intoscana.it)

The term ‘Cacciucco’ derives from a Turkish word Kϋçϋk (“small” or “bits and pieces” or “odds and ends”), which refers to the size and variety of the fish used to make the dish. Originally, Cacciucco was made with those fish left over after a catch, the pesce povero or “poor fish” because they were more difficult to sell and often taken home at the end of the day by the fisherman for his family.

It is a stew or soup consisting of several different types of fish and shellfish. According to one tradition, there should be five different types of fish in the soup, one for each letter C in Cacciucco. A wide variety of Mediterranean fish and shellfish may be used, such as octopus, squid, and bony fish like scorfano nero (black scorpion fish), pesce prete (Atlantic stargazer), gallinella (tub gurnard), palombo (dog fish), and tracina (weever fish), small clams (littleneck or manila), mussels, shrimp, calamari, mantis prawns crabs, eel, cuttlefish, octopus, bream, mullet, or anything else caught that day. The soup is made with tomato, garlic, chili, red wine and often fresh sage.

Cacciucco with toasted bread (photo: sharingtuscany.com, orenzovinci.ilgiornale.it)

Cacciucco is similar to other types of fish stew, such as the French bouillabaisse, Greek kakavia, Spanish zarzuela, and Portuguese caldeirada. Cioppino, another fish stew, was created by Italian-American fisherman in San Francisco, who used the local Dungeness crab in a variation of the Cacciucco recipe.

There are many legends and myths surrounding its creation although there are two stories most often repeated. The first tells of a fisherman from Livorno who lost his life at sea in a shipwreck. His children were so hungry with nobody to provide for them after his death that they turned to all their neighbors for food. Everyone gave them different types of fish (similar to the story of Acquacotta), with which their mother made a huge soup adding tomatoes, garlic, oil and slices of bread – thus creating the first cacciucco.

Cacciucco with thick stew by Freddy Ortega (photo: F. Ortega)

The second, is that a lighthouse keeper created the soup. The Florentine Republic had prohibited the use of the olive oil that he always used to fry his fish and so  instead of his favorite pesci fritti, he made a fish soup instead.

Pellegrino Artusi, in his classic 1891 cookbook cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Fine Dining), created the following recipe:

For 700 grams (1 1⁄2 lb) of fish, finely chop an onion and sauté it with oil, parsley, and two whole cloves of garlic. The moment the onion starts to brown, add 300 grams (10 1⁄2 ounces) of chopped from tomatoes or tomato paste, and season with salt and pepper.

More shellfish than soup (photo: quilivorno.it)

When the tomatoes are cooked, pour in one finger of strong vinegar or two fingers of weak vinegar, diluted in a large glass of water. Let boil for a few more minutes, then discard the garlic and strain the rest of the ingredients, pressing hard against the mesh. Put the strained sauce back on the fire along with whatever fish you may have on hand, including sole, red mullet, gurnard, dogfish, mantis shrimp, and other types of fish in season, leaving the small fish whole and cutting the big ones into small pieces. Taste for seasoning; but in any case it is not a bad idea to add a little olive oil, since the amount of soffritto was quite small. When the fish is cooked, the cacciucco is usually brought to the table on two separate platters: on one you place the fish, strained from the broth, and on the other you arrange enough finger-thick slices of bread to soak up all the broth. (Find English language version of Artusi’s famed cookbook at Amazon.com.)

Other recipes can be found here, here, and here.

 

Mangia! Mangia! Acquacotta, the Italian Stone Soup

Acquacotta (literally “cooked water”) is the Tuscan version of the classic tale of Stone Soup. It a simple traditional dish – in its most basic form made of water, bread and onions – originating in the Tuscan coastal region known as Maremma (often referred to as Acquacotta della Maremma). It was originally a peasant food, derived from an ancient Etruscan dish, the recipe of people who lived in the Tuscan forest working as carbonari (charcoal burners), as well as butteri (cowboys), fishermen, indentured farmers and shepherds in the Maremma region.

Acquacotta della Maremma (photo by giallozafferano.it)
Acquacotta della Maremma (photo by giallozafferano.it)

One purpose of Acquacotta is to make stale, hardened Tuscan bread edible. People that worked away from home for significant periods of time, such as woodcutters, fishermen and shepherds, would bring bread and other foods (such as lard, pancetta and salt cod) with them to eat over many days. Acquacotta was prepared and used to marinate the stale bread, thus softening it. The home cook, not wanting leftover bread to go to waste, would do the same. (Other peasant soup recipes, like Ribollita and Pappa al Pomodoro, alternatives to Acquacotta, were also thickened (bulked up) with stale Tuscan bread.) Those working in the forest and fields would add edible wild greens. A fisherman might cook a small fish in the broth. At home, a potato, garlic and a carrot would be added.

As noted, historically, Acquacotta’s primary ingredients were water, stale bread, onion, tomato and olive oil, along with various vegetables and leftover foods that may have been available. In the early 1800s, some preparations used agresto, a juice derived from half-ripened grapes, in place of the tomato, which was not a common food in Italy prior to the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

locandina_lazuppa

In searching for the history of the folk tales behind Acquacotta, I found a short movie “La Zuppa di Pietra“ (Stone Soup) by Christian Carmosino, which won the First Prize at the 2008 Academia Barilla Short Films Festival. The subtitled version can be found on YouTube.

(The town where the film was made is the jewel of Civita di Bagnoregio in northern Lazio near the Maremma. The population is about 12 in the winter and over 100 in the summer. It is a favorite of visiting Americans.)

Civita di Bagnoregio
Civita di Bagnoregio

In the short film, director Carmosino tells a story of a small village in rural Italy, where a traveling stranger convinces a town of suspicious residents to give him a pot of water in which he will make a delicious soup with his “magic” stone. The stranger then “tricks” various villagers to add something to the soup. It becomes a metaphor for the pleasure of a communal effort of creating a rich meal by sharing ingredients, to be eaten together around a shared table.

I found two Italian tales of Acquacotta (as opposed to Stone Soup):

One tells of a poor young girl, whose mother died when she was young. She has five elder brothers and a father. Due to her youth and their poverty, she was not able to make proper meals for her family. She decided to help her family by working for an old woman who lived in the neighborhood. She received just three eggs a day, a small portion of cheese and some bread, which were not enough to feed those hungry brothers. So instead of cooking the meager ingredients separately, the young girl decided to make a soup containing the eggs, cheese and bread, adding greens from the forest and the meadow. The simple nutritious soup became the family staple.

The other goes like this: There once was a boy called Ultimo (literally “Last One”), who was very poor and had many brothers. One summer evening, tired and hungry, he sat next to a fire in the farmyard where he worked as a laborer, thinking about what he could eat. In his pocket there was an onion. To a pot, sitting beside the fire, he added a little water, cut up the onion and cooked it. He added more water. Then he went to the edge of the meadow and discovered some wild chicory to add to the pot. He went in the hen house and took a bit of the dry stale bread left for the chickens to eat. He added the bread to the pot. His brothers called him from afar: “Ultimo! Ultimo, what are you doing?” “Nothing of importance,” he replied. “I’m just cooking water. I’m making Acquacotta.” Next time, he thought, I’ll add an egg. The farmer’s wife will never miss it. (Told, in part, by Erica of Cuoche In Vacanza (Cooks On Holiday).)

Acquacotta without poached eggs (photo by vacanzeintuscia.blogspot.com)
Acquacotta without poached eggs (photo by vacanzeintuscia.blogspot.com)

Contrary to its origins as a peasant dish, made simply of water and a few flavors, Acquacotta is now usually a very hardy soup. Contemporary preparations may use stale, fresh, or toasted bread, and can include additional ingredients such as vegetable broth, eggs, cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Toscano, celery, garlic, basil, beans such as cannellini beans, cabbage, kale, lemon juice, salt, pepper, potatoes and others.

Some versions may use edible mushrooms such as porcini, and leaf vegetables (arugula, kale, and broccoli leaves) and wild greens such as calamint, wild chicory, stinging nettles, dandelions, sow thistle, wild beet, wild fennel, and wild asparagus. As the greens boil down, they contribute to the broth’s flavor.

Acquacotta is distinguishable from other Tuscan soups due to its use of a poached egg (cracked right onto the simmering soup itself to poach) and stale bread added at the end of (and not during) its preparation.

One of my favorite food bloggers (and Italian cookbook author) Emiko Davies has posted a piece on Acquacotta with gorgeous photographs and a delicious modern recipe.

Giulia Scarpaleggia, food writer, photographer and Tuscan cooking instructor, provides another recipe for Acquacotta with the Italian version of the tale of Zuppa di Pietra, accompanied by beautiful photographs.

Mangia! Mangia! – Tuscan Holiday Treats for Spring

Carnival and Easter are the best times for desserts in Italy, especially in Tuscany. I have a sweet tooth, but have never been a big fan of Italian dolce. (I prefer French pastries and cakes.) But that all changes every spring. In previous posts I’ve extolled the virtues of giant Italian chocolate eggs and Colomba di Pasqua (the Easter Dove). Now it’s time to wrap up the quartet of Easter delights that are found in every pastry shop and café for the next two months – schiacciata alla fiorentina and cenci.

Easter Eggs

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

Schiacciata alla fiorentina is a large, rectangular, flat, powdered sugar-dusted, citrus sponge cake. The scent of orange peel and vanilla are the predominant notes and it is traditionally served plain, but sometimes filled with slightly sweetened, freshly whipped Chantilly (my favorite) or pastry cream. You know you have the right sweet when you see the stenciled Florentine giglio, the symbolic lily of Florence, dusted over the top in powdered sugar or contrasting cocoa powder.

schiacciata-alla-fiorentina-You can sit down for a small square portion or take home a whole cake. During Carnival and Easter week, you may have to reserve your whole schiacciata alla fiorentina a day ahead of time at the best pasticceria, selecting a filling, or not, and requesting a white or chocolate giglio.

The name confused me in the beginning. In Florence, schiacciata means ‘squashed’ or ‘flattened’ and usually refers to a savory salt and olive oil drenched flat bread (similar to focaccia). There is also schiacciata all’uva in the fall, which is also a traditional bread dough, but layered with grapes from the new harvest. The only thing they all have in common is that they are flat, which perhaps makes sense.

Pellegrino Artusi (born in Forlimpopoli, near Forlì, August 4, 1820 – died in Florence, March 30, 1911), the father of Tuscan cooking talks of stiacciata delle Murate, a cake fed only to condemned prisoners of the Murate Prison in Florence “in the 1700s” before they were sent to be executed, essentially their “last bite of the sweet life.”

SCHIACCIATA-alla-fiorentina-2--525x564Other food historians dispute this since the Murate was a convent until 1808 and Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo abolished capital punishment in Tuscany in 1786. Perhaps the Murate nuns devised the recipe and were baking the cakes to celebrate Fat Tuesday each spring.

Schiacciata alla fiorentina traditionally included lard in the recipe, but today olive oil or butter or Crisco replaces this. Some recipes you might try are here, here and here.

Today’s schiacciata alla fiorentina is a delicately scented, light cake that’s not too sweet. Artusi’s rule that it be no thicker than the width of two fingers is not always followed. The characteristic flavor, marked by orange juice and zest, and soft, spongy texture, make it a favorite for a mid-morning or afternoon snack and I know people who have it for breakfast up until Lent and then again on Easter Sunday. It pairs well with coffee, tea and a good vin santo.

For the best places to find schiacciata alla fiorentina in Florence check out last year’s competition winners and this slightly different list. My favorites are Bar Pasticceria Giorgio in the Soffiano neighborhood and I Dolci di Patrizio Cosi in Piazza Gaetano Salvemini .

Cenci

The last of my favorite Tuscan Easter treats is cenci. The literal meaning of the word is “rags” and these addictive fried flat strips of dough look like rags. You are supposed to stop eating them when Lent starts, but the bakers of Florence know that is impossible to do. And, anyway, you will have them again at Easter.

CenciThe recipe supposedly comes from ancient Rome. Other parts of Italy indulge in the treat during Carnival and so there are many names: bugie (lies) (Piemont, Liguria), chiacchiere (talk) (Lombardy), crostolo, grostolo or galano (Venice), frappa (Emilia), sfrappole and sfrapla (Bologna), crespelle or sprelle (Umbria, Lazio), and meraviglie (wonderful) (Sardenia). Artusi again weighed in saying they are shaped like rags so they should be called cenci.

The dough for cenci is usually not sweet, but flavored with anise or orange liquor or vin santo or grappa. The flattened dough is cut in a variety of shapes (in Florence it’s short raggedy rectangles), fried in hot oil and dusted with powdered sugar.

Try to make your own by using the recipes here, here and here.

I love the cenci from the bakery, Pugi, in Piazza San Marco, but others have their own favorite places.

From the beginning of Carnival and for about a week after Easter you will be able to indulge in chocolate eggs, Colomba di Pasqua, schiacciata alla fiorentina, and cenci. After that you will have to wait another year — as it should be.

Mangia! Mangia! – Zabaione, the Italian Dolce, Rarely Found in Italy

In the mid-1980s, I was sitting at the counter of the newly-opened Jackson Filmore Trattoria in San Francisco. I had finished a dinner that included gnocchi “come nuvole” (like clouds) as the Jack, the chef/owner, liked to say, when the subject of a dolce came up. “Have the zabaione,” Jack said. “Trust me.”

My seat at the counter was only a few yards from the kitchen stove. I watched as the pastry chef whipped up egg yokes in a deep round copper bowl, adding only Masala wine and sugar, and heating the mixture slowly as he whisked. Copper conducted the heat from the boiling water bath evenly, which allowed him to control the cooking process.

Zabaione (photo jacksonfilmoresf.com)
Zabaione (photo jacksonfilmoresf.com)

The volume of heavenly, luxurious yellow foam expanded as I watched. Served over strawberries, the warm zabaione flowing over the rim of a stemmed glass … no wonder I still remember this fabulous dessert thirty years later.

In 1998, I moved to Florence and stayed for over fifteen years. I thought my life would be filled with zabaione. Apparently no restaurant in Italy serves it and no home cook makes it anymore. A Florentine answered my wishful griping by saying that it was a dish made by mothers for their children and is too much trouble these days. I found zabaione gelato at Gelateria Vivoli in the late 90s and many artisanal gelaterias in Italy offer zabaione-flavored ice cream today.

Zabaione, an almost extinct classic sweet (kept alive only in America and still served at Jackson Filmore), is the perfect light, not overly sweet, ending to a dinner. The traditional recipe calls for only three ingredients—eggs, sugar and Marsala wine—and can be whipped up in just a few minutes. It’s useful to have a strong arm and a copper bowl.

Zabaione, also know as Zabaglione in the U.S. (photo fioriogelati.it)
Zabaione, also know as Zabaglione in the U.S. (photo fioriogelati.it)

One of the custard-like sauces that use egg yolks to thicken a liquid—crema pasticciera, hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise, come to mind—making zabaione is simpler in concept than in practice. Zabaione, like the others, is an emulsion, and the proportion of fat to liquid plays an important role. It requires patience when adding the Marsala to the egg yolks to prevent separation and care not to overheat and curdle the mixture.

The perfect copper pot for making zabaione (photo kitchenamore.it)
The perfect copper pot for making zabaione (photo kitchenamore.it)

Marsala is the most common wine used to make zabaione. But Gina DePalma, former pastry chef at Babbo Ristorante in NYC, makes her zabaione with Vin Santo, “because it is a wine with both sweetness and acidity.” She sometimes combine the Vin Santo with rum or grappa. In the Italian region of  Piedmonte, where zabaione originated, it is often made with bubbly Moscato D’Asti, a sweet local wine made with muscat grapes, or another Piedmontese wine, Brachetto D’Acqui.

marsala_vino_superiore_NI’m no cook, only an enthusiastic “good fork” (as they say in Italy), so I won’t give you the recipe or full instructions here. But I recommend a slow reading of home-cook Frank’s post on Memorie di Angelina and professional pastry chef Gina DePalma’s write-up on Serious Eats. Both describe how to make the traditional zabaione that has been made for centuries in Italy. Mika at The 350 Degree Oven adds whipping cream. This allows for either a warm zabaione or the cold thick zabaione, popular in the United States.

I favor the warm eggy zabaione, made without heavy cream, served immediately after it’s made, allowing the aroma of Marsala to waft about me as I savor its sweetness with every bite. Hopefully, while sitting at the counter in Jackson Filmore Trattoria.

Mangia! Mangia! – Zucchini Flowers Italian Style

My father just posted a couple of beautiful photos of the zucchini flowers from his veggie garden and asked if they were really good to eat. Simple answer: Yes, the flowers are scrumptious! However, Italians have two pieces of advice for my father: 1) pick the male flowers now and cook them up immediately, and 2) don’t let the zucchini squash grow beyond five inches long before harvesting it.

Gorgeous zucchini blossoms (photo gourmasian.com)
Gorgeous zucchini blossoms (photo gourmasian.com)

Americans are notorious for growing gigantic zucchini and then searching for ways of disposing of the tasteless watery squash. Garrison Keillor reportedly claimed July is the only time of year when the citizens of Lake Wobegon lock their cars in the church parking lot, so their friends won’t put a squash or two on the front seat.

Too big already (photo gardeningknowhow.com)
Too big already (photo gardeningknowhow.com)

Italians frequently buy their zucchini with the flower attached. The squash is firm, flavorful and can be eaten either raw or cooked in a dozen different ways.

Pick it now! (photo http://bonnieplants.com)
Pick it now! (photo bonnieplants.com)

But, back to the flowers. The gorgeous golden blooms should be plucked from the garden according to their sex. Judy Witts at Divina Cucina explains this well. The male flowers will never produce a squash, so snap them off and eat them now. Judy also gives us a recipe for fried flowers, the way most people love to eat the blossoms.

Male and female zucchini flowers (photo foodcity.com)
Male and female zucchini flowers (photo foodcity.com)

In Rome, you will find stuffed zucchini flowers, full of ricotta and a sliver of anchovy, fried up in golden olive oil. If you want them stuffed, but not fried, cooking the ricotta filled flowers in a fresh tomato sauce is delicious, says Jamie Oliver.

Delicious fried zucchini flowers (photo lifesambrosia.com)
Delicious fried zucchini flowers (photo lifesambrosia.com)

Mario Batali offers a frittata decorated with blossoms, but you can also make an eggy frittata with both chopped baby zucchini, overlaid with golden flowers.

There is a wine bar in Florence that offers a focaccia with a light cheese, decorated with splayed zucchini blossoms, kind of a squash blossom pizza.

Zucchini blossom frittata (photo by seaweedandsassafras.com)
Zucchini blossom frittata (photo by seaweedandsassafras.com)

So my father should either cook up those male flowers now and the female blossoms when the baby zucchini is just long enough, or he should make a sunny bouquet to decorate the center of the dinner table. Zucchini flowers should not just hide away in the garden.

Francesca’s Footprints – Cocktails at Art Bar

It had been a while since I had gone out for a cocktail, but my friend Ollie had been telling me about this place near Piazza Goldoni that had the best mixed drinks in Florence, perhaps the best in Tuscany, maybe the best in Italy. So when Ollie came to town he finally succeeded in taking me to Art Bar.

Ginger Fruit Mojito with Fruit Garnish   (olliefordcamera.tumblr.com)
Coconut and Tropical Fruit Art in a Glass (olliefordcamera.tumblr.com)

Wow! WOW! Best cocktail ever. It’s quite a small space, far from fashionable and fancy Florentine bars attended by the smart and ‘in’ crowds. Just a few tables, good friendly service, lots of popcorn to munch while killing the long long time you have to wait for the drink to come.

But then…it comes and you wished you had already ordered another one in order not to wait after you have savored the first perfect cocktail. I had a Fruit Mojito with ginger and it came with a fabulous decoration of peaches and candied ginger dipped in brown sugar.

Peach Fruit Mojito with extra Banana    (olliefordcamera.tumblr.com)
Fruit Cocktail at Art Bar (olliefordcamera.tumblr.com)

This space has had a number of lives as Antico Caffè del Moro, named for Via del Moro where it is located, and Caffè degli Artisti, which has been shortened and updated to Art Bar.

Artisan cocktails are the main focus of the bar, and you can order many different types of daiquiris, mojitos, fruit cocktails, or beer and wine (but what is the point of wasting the barman’s talents?). Art Bar has “happy hour” every evening until 9pm, 6 euro drinks instead of 9 euros (cocktails). Every table gets popcorn, nuts and bar snacks, which only encourages you to order “just one more.”

 Fruit and Veggie Garnishes are the specialty of Art Bar Cocktails  (olliefordcamera.tumblr.com)
Fruit and Veggie Garnishes top all Art Bar Cocktails (olliefordcamera.tumblr.com)

The menu is rich in both fields of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Behind the bar the two owners, brothers, maybe, look Florentine, and by this I mean with a ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude, but in this case the attitude was well balanced by the very helpful, polite and smiling waitress (a rare species in Florence).

Barman at Art Bar   (olliefordcamera.tumblr.com)
Barman at Art Bar (olliefordcamera.tumblr.com)

The sign and website say it opens at 6 pm, but it doesn’t. It opens maybe at 6:30 or whenever the owners show up – we waited until 7:30. Did I say ‘ Florentine attitude’ already? But the ambrosial drink made the wait worthwhile. Thanks,Ollie!

Art Bar

Via del Moro, 4R

Via del Moro, 4/r, 50123 Florence, Italy
055 287661
Today 6:30 pm – 1:00 am

055 287 661

6:30pm to 1:00am

Mangia! Mangia! – Al Covo Introduces Its Offspring CoVino in Venice

While Francesca was savoring the best pizza in Florence, I was at the Biennale in Venice making my own fabulous food find.

CoVino, the new spot in Venice
CoVino, the new spot in Venice

Fifteen years ago, I tasted eel for the first time at Al Covo in Venice. Tasty eel, devoid of fat, is hard to find (or so I’ve been told) so it was good that my introduction was an eel prepared by Cesare Benelli. After two or three more meals at the up-market Al Covo over the years, I am happy to say that this past May they opened a more casual place around the corner — CoVino, a classic bacaro-style place with the same high Al Covo standard for both food and service.

Ristorante Al Covo opened its doors in 1987, fulfilling a dream shared by owners Cesare and his Texan wife Diane Rankin (Abilene or Lubbock, I believe). Through the years, Al Covo has been known for the research, conservation and promotion of the exceptional regional produce of the Venetian Lagoon and surrounding territory. It was and still is one of the best Slow Food restaurants of Venice.

Diane and Ceasare - 25 years at Al Covo
Diane and Ceasare – 25 years at Al Covo

Located just off the beaten tourist track, hidden in an alley off of the Riva degli Schiavoni near the historic Arsenale, the small 40-seat restaurant is divided into two comfortable rooms in a rustic-elegant atmosphere and, in summer, opens an outdoor terrace facing the ancient campiello in the tiny piazza.

At Al Covo don’t miss the pasta with squid in ink sauce, fritti misti, grilled scallops and razor clams. Cesare’s pistachio rigatoni with bottarga is talked about on at least two continents. In Spring or  Fall, try the Venetian moeche (soft-shell crabs), simply dusted in flour and deep-fried or col pien, which is to dredge them in milk and egg yolk, then dust with flour and deep-fry, both served with bianco perla polenta. Or choose to simply have the crabs grilled briefly on the griddle, served with lemon-extra virgin olive oil mashed potatoes, tiny cherry tomato confit and fresh seasonal lettuces.

CoVino, tiny with its 14 covers,tastefully designed in the dark-wood bacaro style, offers a traditional menu and terroir wines. For thirty-three euro, you will pick from the market fresh offerings three courses (a glass of wine, an appetizer or pasta, a main dish and desert or cheese). I give Diane full credit for the great dolce. Somehow Americans create the most scrumptious cakes. Another nice touch is the small pitcher of iced water with a lemon wedge and a sprig of mint and the small paper bag of mixed breads placed on each table.

Andrea will welcome you into CoVino. He comes from the Enoteca Mascareta family and thus, knows everything there is to know about wine pairing and the wines of the Veneto. Dimitri is cooking in full view of the tables. His roots are in the hills north of Venice and he carries on the Al Covo standard of quality ingredients and precise execution of each dish.

Salt cod with a spicy touch
Salt cod with a spicy touch

Start with the traditional Venetian-style (sweet and sour) fresh sardines and melanzane in saor or creamy borlotti bean, bell pepper and clam soup. Follow that with sear fresh tuna with melanzane, tomato, and a patè of pistachios and black olives or baccalà (salt cod) with melanzane, olives, tomato salsa, and rosemary. Do not miss Diane’s dark chocolate cake, but if you must go lighter, try the watermelon with anise liqueur.

Diane's dark chocolate cake with chocolate sauce
Diane’s dark chocolate cake with chocolate sauce

Arrive early (12 noon) because there is usually only one seating at lunch, once the seats are taken, people tend to linger. At dinner there are two seatings at 7:15pm and 9:30pm. CoVino is closed on Wednesday and Thursday. No credit cards are accepted, so bring cash.

Address:  Calle del Pestrin, 3829a-3829, (ask at Al Covo if you get lost)

Phone:041 241 2705

Email:info@covinovenezia.com

Website: www.covinovenezia.com

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

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

Italian Food Rules: The BookAmazon. 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

“Bacaro” with a traditional menù and terroir wines, just around the corner from it’s “mother” restaurant.
The same quality as “Al Covo”, in a more simple, less expensive format.
Set price menù of 3 courses, to choose freely from the daily menù, accompanied with wine by the glass–€ 33,00.
Lunch:  from 12:00PM–3:00PM
Dinner:  two seatings, at 7:15PM and at 9:30PM

Francesca’s Footprints – Pizza from Heaven in Florence

While Tuscan Traveler is in Venice for the Biennale, Francesca has found a Pizza Paradise…

Here is her guest post:

So I was thinking how sad this summer is going to be: Florence is hot, it is humid, the world is going to hell, my new professor of Russian went back to Moscow, leaving me alone to struggle with words and a furious nostalgia for a time that is long gone, plus Guido, my cat, is feeling old and scruffy and I, myself, don’t recognize that lady in the mirror in the morning etc., etc. but … last night …

I HAD A PIZZA FROM HEAVEN!

Graziano and Roberta invite you to La Divina Pizza
Graziano and Roberta invite you to Divina Pizza

This place is called Divina Pizza and it is situated in a very scruffy (yes, like Guido) neighborhood, on the corner of via dell’Agnolo and Borgo Allegri.

As the pizzaiolo and owner Graziano says, this is not a pizzeria it is a laboratorio artigiano. Already a good start.

All the info for the best pizza in Florence
All the info for the best pizza in Florence

Let’s see, how to describe it? You can stand or maybe sit on a tall stool if you get one, but it DOES NOT matter. The pizza they produce is worth every possible sacrifice. Graziano made me smell the lievito madre naturale (natural yeast mother) that he keeps re-feeding day after day and that has nothing to do with the usual stinky (his words, and I agree) lievito di birra (brewer’s yeast) that is usually used for pizza.

Then he opened the very new first issue of the guide called Pizzerie d’Italia of Gambero Rosso and with pride he showed us the 3 rotelle (cutting wheels) that were awarded just a few days ago for the best pizzeria al taglio (by the slice) in Florence (one of only 2 in Tuscany, the other one is in Arezzo).

The organic products that Graziano, his wife Roberta and son Gabriele use, are: a top of the line extra virgin olive oil, very fresh mozzarella fiordilatte and  lusty veggies with a hearty glow, but I think the most important ingredient is Petra, a fantastic stone- ground wheat flour.

Dough made with Petra flour is rich in fiber (from 6.8% to 8.1% fiber). The flours are able to absorb up to 10 times their weight in water and the chemical structure of the fiber allows it to bind with water. This phenomenon occurs much less in type 0 and type 00 flours because they are low in fiber. The results will surprise you. Products made from Petra flour are more flavorful, easier to digest and last longer – naturally, without added preservatives.” (More here.)

I went there last night after a very not satisfactory meal in another place that I will not mention. So we had already had dinner BUT we were able to ‘vacuum’ two cutting boards full of paradisiacal tastes:  slices of pizza with sautèed zucchini and ricotta di pecora (sheep’s milk ricotta), others with mortadella made with maialino felice (happy pork!, as Roberta says), and more eggplants and mozzarella; even the more classic margherita with the sweetest cherry tomatoes was perfect, and then real ‘nduja from Calabria, or should we talk about the focaccia topped with black sesame seeds?

Seasonal ingredients make the freshest most interesting pizza
Seasonal ingredients make the freshest most interesting pizza

As they only use fresh ingredients I can’t wait for winter to have the cavolo nero and lardo di colonnata pizza!

Also, for Susanna who cannot eat cheese, Roberta made an amazingly beautiful – yes beautiful – round pizza with string beans, eggplants, carrots, tomatoes, gorgeous black olives (that burned all our mouths because we couldn’t even wait for them to cool off a little bit).

Insomma, a beautiful evening accompanied by smiles and love in this little corner of paradise born amidst the plastic food that surrounds us pretty much everywhere you go nowadays, if you happen to live, like me in a very touristy city.

When you go to Divina Pizza, try not to go during rush hour. You want to enjoy a nice chat with Roberta and Graziano, with their sincere smiles and love for what they do. You will be immediately conquered by the simplicity, enthusiasm and strength of their beliefs: “Remember we are not a pizzeria, we are a laboratorio artigiano!

I can’t wait to be back there … maybe tonight?

Divina Pizza
Borgo Allegri, 50r angolo via dell’Agnolo, Firenze

Hours: 10:30am-11:30pm (Closed on Sunday, except the last one of the month)

See the video of Divina Pizza.

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

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Mangia! Mangia! – Dante Would Have Loved the Prato Bread Festival

Tourist are frequently surprised when they first taste traditional Tuscan bread that is always made without salt. Tuscans, especially those from Florence and Prato, would not eat it any other way.

The best bread in Tuscany
The best bread in Tuscany

Dante agreed. “Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e comè duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale.” In these lines from the Paradiso of ”The Divine Comedy,” Dante learns of his exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties he will face. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and the climbing another’s stairs,” he is told.

Some say the best Tuscan bread is made in Prato. Pane di Prato is justifiably famous throughout the region. There are Florentines who virtually refuse to eat any other bread than Pane di Prato, even if their regard for the rival Pratesi is of a somewhat lesser degree. The bread of Prato was already being sold in the Florentine markets of the 16th century as a prestigious brand. It is said that the Medici served only Pane di Prato at their villa at Poggio a Caiano.

Official Website

Last weekend was the first, and hopefully not the last, annual Festival del Pane di Prato. All of the bread bakeries were showing off their best breads, including the famous bozza, a small quickly rounded loaf with a rustic crunchy crust. The soft middle part of the loaf is honeycombed in appearance and somewhat elastic. When you squeeze a bozza, it springs back into shape. The taste is salt-free, yeasty and slightly acidic.

Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds
Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds

The Festival served up hot schiacciata for all attendees. Street performers celebrated the bakery theme. Despite the unseasonable rain nobody could be depressed when there is the unlimited supply of yeasty bread.

Making schiacciata with fresh Tuscan olive oil
Making schiacciata with extra virgin Tuscan olive oil

The bread is baked in the pre-dawn hours in a variety of forms that adapt themselves to every need: the cazzottino (‘a small fist”) is for breakfasts and snacks, perfect with a few slices of Pratese mortadella; the filone seems made to be sliced and slathered with flavorful marmalades, or drizzled in local olive oil and sprinkled with salt — the pan con l’olio used for snacks for kids and just about anyone else – or to make the traditional fettunta (toasted, rubbed with garlic and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper) reserved for the dinner table. But the best is the bozza, which goes well with everything and when it is stale and hard as a rock, it becomes the prime ingredient for panzanella, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro and other tasty dishes.

Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato
Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato

The Pisans get all the blame from some pundits for the salt-less bread made in Prato. Supposedly, they attempted to force Florence to surrender in one of their endless battles against each other by blockading the salt that arrived at the Pisan port, preventing it from reaching Florence via the Arno River. Prato, as Florence’s nearest neighbor, was caught in the fight.

Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato
Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato

Others claim that the wide spread poverty in the Middle Ages is to blame – that salt was too costly for the Tuscans to use in bread-making. (It’s hard to credit this story because poor Italian peasants in other regions couldn’t afford salt, but didn’t give up making salted bread.)

I like to think it was the pope’s fault. During the 14th to 16th centuries, it is said, the popes, who controlled much of the Italian peninsula (known as the Vatican States), levied a tax on salt. Pope Paul III raised the tax in 1539 and the Perugians and the Tuscans refused to pay it. The government of Perugia even went to war over the issue – the Salt War of 1540. The Perugians lost the war, but some say the citizens then refused to buy the salt, thus forcing the fornai (bread bakeries) to produce salt-free bread. (Tuscan bread is one of the few that remains salt-free today, but there are many historical references to bread made without salt in other parts of Italy.)

The perfect Pane di Prato
The perfect Pane di Prato

During the 16th century in Tuscany, the Tuscan Medici dukes controlled all of the resources, including salt, for Tuscan towns such as Prato. When they needed cash (for a war or for building a new villa) they raised the price on salt and other commodities. Thus, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) became bread famous throughout Italy for being sciocco, from the word in the Tuscan dialect for “insipid” (to Tuscans “sciocco” also means “stupid”, but that doesn’t fit this situation because they think salt-less bread is anything, but stupid). Those who are not Tuscan make fun of the bread of the region, but Tuscans, like Dante, mourn it when it is not available.

Salt-less Tuscan bread is not intended for eating on its own. It’s usually served along with the main meal and is meant for sopping up thick, rich, spicy sauces. The bread doesn’t compete with the flavors in the dish, both are enhanced.

 

Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread
Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread

The Bread of Prato’s lack of salt helps keep it fresh for several days. Since it has no salt to hold in water, it does not form mold – it just becomes hard as a rock when it is stale – thus making it the basis of many of the tasty dishes that are renowned in Tuscan cuisine.

Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato
Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato

The following Italian dishes are made with stale salt-free Pane di Prato:

Ribollita – a twice-boiled thick vegetable soup (ribollita means ‘re-boiled’), made of black and white cabbage, white beans and other vegetables, made thick with crumbled stale Tuscan bread or poured over toasted Tuscan bread.

Pappa al pomodoro – a bread-based thick tomato soup in which stale Tuscan bread is rehydrated and crumbled; then cooked with the tomatoes, basil and garlic to make a tasty pappa.

Panzanella – a summer salad dish. Stale Tuscan bread is soaked in water, squeezed into a damp mass, crumbled into a big salad bowl and cucumber, raw onion, fresh diced tomato and fresh basil leaves are added. The ingredients are tossed thoroughly with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

 

Cacciucco – a fish chowder from Livorno made of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. The Livornese claim that the recipe should contain at least five types of fish to match the number of ‘c’s in the word cacciucco. Once cooked, the cacciucco is served on a bed of toasted Tuscan bread that has been rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic.

Fettunta – “garlic toast” made with slices of hot toasted Tuscan bread, rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic, splashed with fresh extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Don’t try to cut into a completely stale loaf of Tuscan bread to make this; it’s too hard to cut. Use slightly stale bread – too dry to eat untoasted, but perfect for fettunta.

(Tuscan Traveler will go anywhere for great bread. Matera bread is a a past and present favorite. While in Prato Tuscan Traveler, of course, stopped at Mattei for a kilo of brutti ma buoni cookies.)

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

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