Tag Archives: food

Italian Food Rules – Italians Only Drink Tea When They Are Sick

Tea drinkers of the U.K. and the U.S. might as well give up the idea of a good “cuppa” in Italy. Italians only drink tea when they are sick – at home.

You can ask for, and receive, hot tea in a coffee bar. First, the barista will give you a searching glance from a distance to see if you are obviously infectious. Then, he will run some hot water out of the coffee machine into a cappuccino-cup. The water will be unfiltered tap water, which may taste great, but in Florence, for example, is highly mineralized, a taste hidden easily by coffee, but not by tea. And, having passed through the coffee machine, the water will have the odor, if not the taste, of stale coffee.

The water may or may not be of sufficient temperature to brew tea from the generic tea bag (or, perhaps, Liptons in an upscale bar), still wrapped in its paper cover, resting in the saucer of the rapidly cooling cup of water.

Bring your favorite tea cup and tea with you to Italy
Bring your favorite tea cup and tea with you to Italy

If you go out to dinner at the home of an Italian friend, carry your own tea bags. Their cupboards will only contain chamomile tea bags or tisane della salute. Also, be prepared for the sympathetic look and an inquiry about how long you have been feeling “under the weather.” Finally, they may not have cups for tea, only tiny cups for espresso. A water glass can substitute for a teacup, but don’t fill it too full; only the top edge will stay cool enough to touch.

As for your own vacation rental in Italy: plan to bring an electric kettle, a Brita pitcher with filters, and your favorite tea. In cities, specialty grocery stores will carry good tea, but at high prices.

You can buy a beautiful Tuscan ceramic tea cup to take home
You can buy a beautiful Tuscan ceramic tea cup to take home

To avoid those sympathetic looks and the defensive self-doubt that will grow each time an Italian asks “Prendiamo un caffè?”, think up a snappy reply.  As a foreigner, you will be given a pass. Imagine a tea-loving, coffee-hating Italian – his life would be like being a vegetarian at a Texas barbecue … every single day of the year.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian 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

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – A Winter Earthquake in Chile

Tuscan Traveler escaped the extreme weather of Florence in November by going south of the equator to Santiago, Chile, to visit warm friends and hot weather. There we were urged by on by our good friend, Gerardo, to visit an only-in-Santiago, have-to-try-it-once, eatery for the soon-to-be-famous Terremoto Cocktail. With the proviso that this place was too dangerous to visit at night, we ventured forth.

Gerardo and his Terremoto Cocktail at La Piojera
Gerardo and his Terremoto Cocktail at La Piojera

Supposedly the Terremoto Cocktail only dates back to March 1985, when some German reporters came to Santiago to cover the damage caused by the recent earthquake. Due to the heat (probably in the mid-70s) they went to a tavern called El Hoyo (The Hole), which dates back to 1912, for something to drink. They made the mistake of not asking for a frosty schop (tap beer), but were served the classic pipeño, a sweet semi-transparent white wine. Perhaps it wasn’t cold enough, so their waiter Guillermo Valenzuela (who may or may not have taken a distinct dislike to the foreigners) added pineapple ice cream and spiked it with a bit of pisco, the firewater of Chile and Peru (think grappa, ouzo, etc.). When they tried the concoction, they reportedly exclaimed, “Esto sí que es un Terremoto” (“This truly is an earthquake.”)

Terremoto Cocktail
Terremoto Cocktail

Thus, was born the now legendary Earthquake Cocktail. For those of you who just can’t wait for your own: Pour two gallons of chilled pipeño into a jar. Add a cup of of pisco. Add five tablespoons of ice cream, three of sugar and stir gently. If you want a garnish, top off each glass with a delicate scoop of ice cream. (If you don’t have pipeño or pisco, try a White Zinfandel or an inexpensive Reisling and a cheap tequila.)

I tasted (but did not drink more than a educating sip) a Terremoto at La Piojera, a similar, but newer version of El Hoyo.

Former Chilean President Arturo Alessandri first coined the name “La Piojera” in 1922, when he was invited to visit this bar by the owner. When he walked into the place, full of working-class men, he exclaimed, “What is this place, a flea house?” Thus the name “La Piojera” (where fleas live) was born.

La Piojera, created by Don Carlos Benedetti Pini in 1916, still belongs to the same family, after being saved from developers by protests from its loyal clientele (including presidents and poets). The significance of this locale can be seen on its graffiti-covered walls, which leaves you in awe of the cultural ambience, rather than aesthetics at this cramped, loud drinking establishment.

La Piojera - maybe better in the daylight
La Piojera - maybe better in the daylight

At La Piojera they add the Italian liquor, Fernet Branca, to their Terremoto – the secret ingredient that cuts the sweetness and darkens the pipeño. (Take note: Terremotos go straight to your head. While they go down smooth (once you get past the shock of the sweet, sweet, sweet taste), they carry the name “terremoto” for a reason.) If you still feel up for more drinking after a Terremoto, try a Replica (“aftershock”). This second round is filled with all the Terremoto goodness, but at half the alcohol. Or try the Maremoto (“Tsunami”) with mint in place of the Frenet Branca, but still with a topping of pineapple ice cream.

But what to eat with such a specialty drink? Wine pairing with pipeño is difficult. Add the pineapple ice cream and the problem is doubled. It must be something sufficiently fatty, the kind of dish you would not mind eating before you lose all sense of time and space from all the sweet alcohol. The best advice: a pork leg – not a shank, a leg. Boiled. With boiled potatoes and a side of Chilean salad – tomatoes and onions.

Boiled pork leg, boiled potatoes, and Chilean salad - perfect pairing for a Terremoto
Boiled pork leg, boiled potatoes, and Chilean salad - perfect pairing for a Terremoto

It turns out we were in “good” company. Although he did not choose to grace La Piojera, Anthony Bourdain drank his share of Terremoto Cocktails at El Hoyo and paired it with similarly high fat foods. We are not on film, but he is. View here.

I’ve been writing about Italian Food Rules for some time now. See here, here, and here. Experiencing a soon-to-be-famous culinary creation of a relatively young country like Chile, makes me appreciate the rationality behind those rules all the more.

Italian Food Rules – Only Dip Biscotti in Vin Santo, Not in Coffee

Italians are very particular about what they dip their biscotti into. Pretty much it is a list of one – Vin Santo. The Italian Food Rule — Only Dip Biscotti in Vin Santo, Not in Coffee.

The perfect glass of Vin Santo for dipping biscotti
The perfect glass of Vin Santo for dipping biscotti

There is nothing more satisfying for dessert at the end of a long Italian meal than a couple of  almond -studded biscotti and a small glass of Vin Santo. The hard biscotti become sweetly moist after a few seconds dipped in the sweet late-harvest wine. Not too filling. Just a sweet note to the perfect repast. All that’s needed is a shot of espresso to send you on your way. But don’t make the mistake of dipping one extra biscotto into the coffee.

The subtly sweet, crisp almond cookies, loved throughout the world, have their origin in Italy. The word biscotti is the plural form of biscotto, which originates from the ancient Latin word biscoctus, meaning “twice-baked.”

Since they are very dry and can be stored for long periods of time, biscotti became a common food for long journeys, warring armies and sea voyages. Pliny the Elder boasted that such goods would be edible for centuries. They were a staple food of the Roman Legions and it is said Christopher Columbus carried these cookies on his voyages because they were so sturdy, and their dryness prevented the problem of spoilage.

While the word can refer to any crunchy cookie, it usually is used to describe the twice-baked almond cookies known as cantucci or cantuccini in Tuscany. In the Florence, they’re known as Biscotti di Prato because the most famous version of this cookie comes from the historic bakery Mattei in Prato, founded in 1858. Antonio Mattei was a friend of Pellegrino Artusi, who included some of  Mattei’s recipes in The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well (1891). Mattei’s Biscotti di Prato are rich with eggs, almonds and pine nuts, no artificial flavors. The first documented recipe for the biscuit is a centuries-old manuscript, now preserved in Prato, found by the eighteenth-century scholar Amadio Baldanzi. In this document, the biscuits are called Biscotti of Genoa.

By baking them twice, they lose any excess moisture, which ensures a crisp, dry cookie perfect for dipping. In Vin Santo.

Dip for a count of five for the best note.
Dip for a count of five for the best note.

Vin Santo or Vino Santo (holy wine) is a style of Italian dessert wine. Traditional in Tuscany, these wines are often made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia. After the late-harvested grapes destined for Vin Santo are picked, they are hung in warm, well-ventilated rooms that allow the moisture in the grape to evaporate. This process allows the sugars in the grape to be more concentrated. The longer the grapes are allowed to dry , the higher the resulting residual sugar levels will be in the wine.

Depending on the style of wine desired, the grapes may be crushed and the fermentation process started after a few weeks or not until late March (the association with Easter is a possible reason for the name). Producers may use a starter culture of yeast known as a madre that includes a small amount of finished Vin Santo from previous years production. It is believed that this older wine can help jump start the fermentation process and also add complexity to the wine.

After fermentation the grapes are then aged in small oak barrels. In many DOC regions, the wines are required to age for at least 3 years though it is not uncommon for producers to age their wines for 5 to 10 years. Traditionally the barrels were made of chestnut instead of oak, which contributed high amounts of wood tannins and was very porous, which promoted  evaporation from the barrel. Under this same traditional style of winemaking, a large air space will emerge in the barrel and oxidation takes place. The high sugar content prevents the wine from turning to vinegar.

Although the style of making wine from dried grapes has been around almost as long as wine has been made, there are many theories on how the particular name Vin Santo or “holy wine” came to be associated with this style of wine in Italy. The most likely origin was the wine’s historic use in religious Mass, where sweet wine was often preferred. One of the earliest references to a ‘vinsanto’ wine come from the Renaissance era sales logs of Florentine wine merchants.

Biscotti and Coffe is a violation of the Italian Food Rule
Biscotti and Coffee is a violation of the Italian Food Rule

So if, after dinner, you start reaching for the biscotti on the plate in the middle of the table to dip into your coffee, stop and think of the number of Italian Food Rules you are about to break – eating after coffee, allowing crumbs to adulterate the coffee, and perhaps, drinking cappuccino after 10am because of course it’s hard to dip a biscotto into an espresso cup so you succumb to the urge to order cappuccino after dinner.

First, Italians consider coffee as both a palate cleanser and a digestivo. Biscotti (cantuccini) and Vin Santo, together, are dessert and made for each other. Cantuccini by themselves will put your teeth in peril. Dipping them in Vin Santo is the perfect solution. The flavors match perfectly and the best sip is the last with all of the delicious biscotti crumbs.

This is the biscotti that is perfect for dipping in cappuccino
These biscotti are perfect for dipping in cappuccino

Caveat: Technically biscotti refer to all crunchy biscuits and cookies. Therefore, biscotti are eaten and dunked in cappuccino for breakfast. But this is the biscotti della salute, a less dense, less sweet biscuit that is only a breakfast food and would never be eaten with coffe after lunch or dinner.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian 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

Italian Food Rule – Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil

It was at least twenty years ago when I first broke the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil.

Or, to clarify: Don’t serve bread with a bowl of olive oil with a swirl of balsamic vinegar as an appetizer (or any other part of the meal).

Back to my first experience: I was so enchanted by the new food presentation, I never forgot the moment.

Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco - where I first broke the Rule
Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco – where I first broke the Rule

It was my first dinner at Farallon, that fantasmagorical Paul Kuleto restaurant in San Francisco. Sitting under the jellyfish chandelier, I watched with curiosity as our waiter presented with a flourish a thin sliced baguette of warm sourdough bread and a bowl of deep green extra virgin olive oil. But he didn’t stop there. With some sleight of hand he produced a small bottle of balsamic vinegar and created a floating purplish S on the surface of the oil.

It is a true talent to be able to swirl
It is a true talent to be able to swirl

Noting our bemused expressions, he explained that the proper procedure was to dip a bite of torn bread into the oil, catching a smidgen of the aceto balsamico (I can’t remember if he actually said “aceto balsamico”) and pop it into one’s mouth. I caught on immediately and for the next ten years or so I savored bread dipped in olive oil throughout the fine restaurants of San Francisco and across the United States.

I always thought the idea was conceived at Farallon, but others claimed the genesis was at some Little Italy restaurant in San Francisco, and still others thought that Il Fornaio was the first. Certainly San Francisco was the first city to break the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil. (If anyone has evidence of the practice pre-1990 in another location, let me know.)

In 1998, I arrived in Italy and it was immediately apparent that there was absolutely no practice of setting bowls of olive oil on the table so customers could munch on bread before the antipasti arrived. In fact, then and now, there may not be bread on the table until the main course is served, but that is a story for another day (Italian Food Rule: Don’t Eat Bread with Pasta).

However, by the turn of the millennium, most Americans, including those from places like Iowa and Vermont, were hooked on olive oil and bread. They arrived in droves on Italian shores expecting to be served olive oil, bread and even that squiggle of balsamic vinegar in the trattorias and fine restaurants across Italy.

What usually happens if you don't practice your S design
Extra virgin olive oil & balsamic vinegar – (photo credit summertomato.com)

In the beginning, Italian waiters (and restaurant owners) were simply confused – why all of this demand for olive oil when there was no food on which to put it? – but then they swiftly moved from being perplexed to being appalled.

Why appalled, you ask? Certainly Americans (and other tourists) have broken Italian Food Rules before, especially the ones regarding cappuccino, pizza, and ice cubes. But those infractions paled in comparison with what happened when Americans, olive oil, and bread were combined. It was a catastrophe: A tourist asks for bread. The waiter complies, sneering a bit because he knows that eating bread before a meal ruins the appetite and leads to fat. Then the tourist throws the waiter an impatient look and asks for the olive oil.

What do you see? A laughing baby? A beach babe? Old olive oil?
What do you see? A laughing baby? A beach babe? Old olive oil?

Now the waiter quits sneering and either says that there is no olive oil for the dining room (salads are dressed in the kitchen, pasta and veggies get their last splash from the chef; same with the main courses) or he brings a large bottle of olive oil – from the kitchen or the waiters’ service stand – to the table.

You say you still don’t understand the problem? Imagine the table in our hypothetical trattoria. Now there is a basket of bread and a bottle of olive oil in the center by the small candle or tiny floral centerpiece. There are four paper placemats, each topped with a knife and fork and a napkin. What do the Americans do? They have stretched to ask for pane and olio, using the right words. They have no further language resources or patience for piattino, ciotolina (or piccola ciotola), or any other tableware word, and frankly they are a bit miffed that the olive oil didn’t come served in a bowl.

So they take a slice of bread, place it on their paper placemat, and gingerly aim the spout of the large olive oil bottle at the center of the slice, trying desperately not to run over the crusty edges. Of course, olive oil, poured by even the most careful person, soaks through the light Italian bread, onto the placemat or napkin underneath.

The tourist is upset and embarrassed and the waiter is appalled and apoplectic. Now, add a hypothetical cotton tablecloth under our hypothetical paper placemats and you can see how the problem escalates. I do not exaggerate here for effect – I have seen both situations with my own eyes.

Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Twigs - Too Much Stuff
Olive oil, balsamic vinegar and rosemary twigs – too much stuff

There are a few good reasons for the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil. Fine Italian extra virgin olive oil – the only type to eat with bread – is expensive. To place a bowl of olive oil on the table in front of Italians guarantees the waste of excess oil because Italians don’t eat bread before they start their meal. (Some might argue that Americans will wipe the bowl clean, but remember Italian Food Rules were not created with Americans in mind.) Italians aren’t given to eating out of a communal bowl (dipping a hunk of bread in olive oil, taking a bite and then dipping it back in the same oil would cause Italian to go pale with visions of bacteria, viruses, etc.). There is the possibility of drips – Italians avoid potential messes. This list probably just skims the surface of reasons behind the Rule.

A waste of two expensive ingredients
A waste of two expensive ingredients

As for that S of aceto balsamico floating on the oil… There is probably an extra penalty for adding that to the crime. Italians do not put balsamic vinegar on bread. Italians do not make a salad dressing with balsamic vinegar and olive oil (red wine vinegar only). Traditional aceto balsamico is wildly expensive, exquisitely good and should never be wasted or drowned in olive oil.

But if oil and bread together is so good, why don’t the Italians give in? Well, Italians do eat bread with extra virgin olive oil on top. The dish is called fettunta from fetta (slice) and unta (oily) – an “oily slice”. The bread is not dipped in oil. A slice of bread is toasted (preferably over a flame), rubbed while still warm with a halved clove of fresh garlic, and placed on a plate. Fresh extra virgin olive oil is poured over the slice of bread and salt is added to taste. It is difficult to find this dish in a restaurant because it is considered simple home food, not worthy of a dining experience and difficult to price since it is basically a slice of bread with a splash of olive oil.

Fettunta - No dipping needed. No violation of the Italian Food Rule.
Fettunta – No dipping needed. No violation of the Italian Food Rule.

When in Italy, save the dipping of bread in olive oil for a formal tasting of the year’s new oil in December and January when the purpose is not to eat a lot of bread, but just to taste a variety of fabulous just pressed extra virgin olive oils. Keep the practice out of your restaurant experience while touring Italy and perhaps, give it up at home to avoid violating the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil.

 

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

Italian Food Rules – No Cheese on Fish

Filet o' Fish with Cheese
Filet o’ Fish with Cheese

Except for ordering a cappuccino or a caffellatte after your dinner, nothing is more likely to raise the ire of your Italian waiter than to ask for some grated parmesan to go on your spaghetti alle vongole or pasta al baccala’.

So, as you drive down Interstate 5 munching on your Filet o’ Fish with extra cheese, remember the Italian Food Rule: No Cheese On Fish.

The reasons for the rule are: logic, location, and tradition. But can there be change on the horizon?

Logic

Except for salt cod (baccala’), canned tuna, cured sardines and anchovies (acciughe), Italians believe fish should be eaten fresh, as close to the place and time that it is caught. Fish from the seas and rivers of Italy is mild tasting, delicate and needs to be treated with a light touch when it comes to seasoning. The milky saltiness of cheese will overwhelm the flavor of the fish. And fishy cheese is just hard to contemplate, much less swallow.

Hard to imagine but the lunch of choice in a combo of fish sticks and cheese
Hard to imagine, but the lunch of choice is a combo of fish sticks and cheese

But, you might argue, what about all of those strong flavors that are acceptable when cooking fish: capers, lemon, tomato, rosemary, fennel, olive, garlic, etc.?

Location

On top of Fish Pasta all covered with cheese ...
On top of Fish Pasta all covered with cheese …

Italian cheese producing regions tends to be inland and landlocked: parmesan in the north, pecorino in the hills of Tuscany, and buffalo mozzarella to the east and south of Naples. Famed for fish are the Ligurian, Sicilian, Adriatic and Tuscan coastal towns. Italians have been living the Slow Food, zero kilometer lifestyle for centuries, not decades. The recipes celebrate the location and  availability of fresh ingredients: where there is fish there isn’t cheese and visa versa.

Tradition

Location and tradition meet in the recipes passed down for generations. Italians don’t move far from their places of birth and those places were city-states just 150 years ago. In Livorno, they argue over the types of shellfish and saltwater fish that should go into cacciucco (cheese never enters the discussion). As far as I know, in Bologna everyone is comfortable with adding more cheese on top of a cheesy sauce covering ravioli stuffed with cheese, but no one thinks of filling their ravioli with fish.

Fish swimming in cheese
Fish swimming in cheese

Also, for centuries, tradition dictated that meat and dairy products were forbidden on Friday for religious reasons. Fish was the symbolic and nutritional replacement, but heaven forbade a topping of cheese.

Say It Ain’t So

The Italian Food Rule – No Cheese on Fish – sparks lively debates in the U.S.  Da Silvano, a famous NYC restaurant has printed on the menu, “No cheese served on fish at any time.”  A couple of years ago, competing chef Chuck Hughes was criticized on Iron Chef America when he combined lobster with cheese curds in a poutine (of course, that’s a French dish and what do they know?).

But then there is the guy on the Thinking With Your Stomach blog who came up with a tuna and melted cheese grilled sandwich.

The only acceptable combo of fish and cheese
The only acceptable combo of fish and cheese

Last year, in Bra, Italy, home of the Slow Food movement, at their Cheese 2011 conference one of my favorite seafood chefs, Luciano Zazzeri of La Pineta (on a Tuscan seaside beach) presented a class on matching cheese with fish.

The wry Robert Trachtenberg, writing Just Grate in the NY Times, found the oldest surviving “Sicilian recipe — from around 400 B.C. — for fish: ‘Gut. Discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and oil.’”  He also browbeat famous chefs in Rome and Venice until they admitted to serving fish pastas with cheese added in the kitchen.

Trachtenberg quotes the famed cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who speaks the truth when she said, “‘One of the great things about Italy is they love making rules. And they obey very few.’”

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

Dove Vai? – To Savor ‘Cake Thinking’ at Palazzo Coveri

For a sugar high on a beautiful Spring day in Florence, walk on by Cake Thinking, a new free exhibit on display at the Gallery of Palazzo Coveri. The show, featuring the indulgent works of Tuscan artist Marina Calamai, is entirely dedicated to the theme of the dessert, interpreted in multiple manners and variations.

Cake Thinking at Palazzo Coveri
Cake Thinking at Palazzo Coveri

Arezzo-born Calamai’s creations depict a simple world that joyously combines the antique with the modern. These works are inspired by the art of Renaissance pastry-cooks, rediscovering and reconstructing the forms and colors of the sweetmeats that graced the table of Eleonora and Cosimo I de’ Medici. The artist has created an original style of painting, sculpture, and jewelry, with the theme of sumptuous cakes and pastries of all sorts, able to appeal to the eyes and the appetite at the same time.

A tart topped with a cherry makes a ring good enough to eat.
A tart topped with a cherry makes a ring good enough to eat.

Be sure to see the art-à-porter sculpture of “sweet” hats (meringues to profiteroles) that transform the ordinary into the unconventional – they can be worn as an ironic headdress or displayed as sculpture.

There are original audio “sound” paintings of the artist, including a diver taking the plunge into whipped cream.

A great fantasy - diving into whipped cream
A great fantasy - diving into whipped cream

The unique polyurethane foam sculpture entitled Corredo Cromosomico (Chromosome Complement), and the three-dimensional painting representing Cromosoma 4 (Chromosome 4), which is thought to be the gene responsible for the “sweet-tooth,” are the only two pieces that don’t look good enough to eat.

Don’t miss the celebrated installation Muffin, a huge cake that you can walk inside with a cherry on top, and, my favorite, the Kiwi table made with resin. There are also sweet silk scarves and jewelry in the form of cream puffs and cakes.

Kiwi table is a refreshing take on the fruit
Kiwi table is a refreshing take on the fruit

The Gallery of Palazzo Coveri is located on Lungarno Guicciardini, 19 in Florence.

Entrance to the exhibit is free and is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 1 pm and 3:30 pm to 7 pm.

The show ends April 16, 2011.

For further information, visit galleriadelpalazzo.com and marinacalamai.it .

Italian Food Rule – No Doggy Bags, 2nd Serving

This is how I learned about the Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags!

Years ago, I was a regular at La Maremma on Via Verdi in Florence. I loved their penne pasta with mushroom and truffle sauce. I adored their fruit tiramisu. In fact, I don’t think I ever had a dish I didn’t like there. Everything was cooked to order, the service was fantastic, and the ambience with its slanting floor was warm and comfortable. (Since then, the restaurant has been renovated, but the high quality of the food is still getting rave reviews.)

La Maremma on Via Verdi
La Maremma on Via Verdi

One evening, I ordered my favorite pasta and then saw ostrich (filetto di struzzo con salsa di vino rosso) on the menu. The owner, Enzo Ragazzini, explained that the ostrich was grown in Italy and urged me to try “un piatto speciale e buono.” I agreed, forgetting to ask for a half-portion of the pasta.

After some shared crostini, my large plate of penne con funghi e tartufi arrived, steaming, fragrant, and oh so scrumptious. I just had to eat the whole thing, sharing only a bite or two with my two dinner companions.

Almost full, my eyes popped when a beautifully presented filet of ostrich – round, about two inches high and four inches in diameter, like a classic filet mignon at a good steakhouse in the U.S. – with a deep purple-brown wine sauce and a sprig of fresh rosemary, was placed in front of me.

Ristorante La Maremma
Ristorante La Maremma

The filetto was perfect, pink, tender, complemented in every way by the accompanying sauce. But it was huge. I could not do it justice in one sitting. Not after that pasta (and crostini and wine). I could have shared it with my friends, but as luck would have it I was eating with two vegetarians.

I vaguely understood the Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags! At least, I had never seen a container – bag, carton, foil, etc. – being offered in any of the many restaurants I had patronized (I am no cook, except for chocolate chip cookies and pancakes, so I ate out a lot.) in Florence. But I couldn’t let half a filet of ostrich, my first ostrich dish, go to waste. And I did not want the chef to get the wrong idea – I loved every bite.

So I asked Enzo in my almost non-existent Italian, if there was any way he could wrap the half filet up so I could take it back to my apartment. This conversation took a while. He even resorted to some English to clarify my desire. After I finally came up with “per portare via, per favore,” a phrase more suited to a pastry shop than a restaurant, he left with the plate, shaking his head. I was regretting the request.

La Maremma doesn't know about aluminum swans...or ostriches
La Maremma doesn't know about aluminum swans...or ostriches

Enzo returned in a bit and showed me a small used, but clean, plastic bag with a warm aluminum-wrapped half filet of ostrich. I reach for it to put it quickly in my shopping satchel, out of sight. He wouldn’t let it go. He sat down at the table and in a mix of Italian and English proceeded to give me the recipe (did I mention that I do not cook?) for the red wine sauce that graced the filet on the original plate.

As I hypothesized in explaining the Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags, one of the reasons Italians don’t believe in taking home leftover food is that the dish is to be eaten immediately, as the chef envisioned, not recycled into another form at another temperature.

Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags!
Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags!

The friendly owner of La Maremma could not imagine that I would want to slice this tender filet of ostrich up with a little mustard and mayo in a panino, or tossed into a microwave oven to warm it up to go on a plate beside a similarly zapped potato (my kind of cooking). No, I was instructed on how to make the exact same wine sauce as the chef. I took notes.

And I swore that I would never request a doggy bag again in Italy.

Italian Food Rule – No Doggy Bags!

History of a Food Rule

Some of the best stories are those that start in the same place where they end. The more things change the more they stay the same. The Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags! has strange antecedents because according to some the doggy bag’s first appearance was in the 6th century BC … in Rome.

Apparently, when invited to a banquet at the neighbor’s villa the ancient Roman would bring a napkin or two. It was a compliment to the host to take some of the dinner home wrapped up in your napkin.

Wrap it up in a napkin and take it home
Ancient Romans wrapped part of dinner up in a napkin to take home

But perhaps with the fall of the empire the custom fell into disfavor. During the Middle Ages, the leftovers went first to the kitchen staff, then to the lower order of servants, and then out the backdoor to the beggars in the courtyard.

Why don’t Italians ask for doggy bags?

In modern times, there seem to be three reasons that Italians don’t ask for a take-out container. (The term doggy bag or doggie bag is an Americanism that entered the European lexicon mostly to complain about the practice.)

First, Italian food is made to order, to be eaten as the chef envisioned it, immediately as the dish arrives on the table. It is not to be eaten at another temperature (cold pizza), in another form (bistecca alla fiorentina sliced in a sandwich), or mixed together (pasta alla carbonara with a chunk off a veal chop resting on top).

Thanks for the doggy bag!

Second, servings in Italian restaurants tend to be of the appropriate size so that the diner does not get too full by eating everything on the plate. A light eater does not order an antipasto, a primo, a secondo, and a dolce – one or two courses is enough.

Third, Italians look at food left on the plate as scraps, not leftovers. There’s a difference. It’s not good manners to ask to take home kitchen scraps.

For 60 years Americans have requested doggy bags

Some say the term “doggy bag” came into being because embarrassed Americans wanted to hide their real purpose in requesting a container for leftovers. (Emily Post certainly frowned on the practice.) But the Smithsonian blog Food & Think claims that the first doggy bags were for the benefit of dogs during the 1940s when rationing had an adverse impact on pet diets. One Seattle restaurant offered a waxed paper bag labeled “Bones for Bowser.”

By the 1970s, the practice of doggy bags for late night snacks for human consumption became more accepted, first at restaurants that already offered take-out or delivery (pizza joints and Chinese restaurants). Then even elegant places would oblige when asked. (Remember the aluminum foil swan you got on prom night when you didn’t want to burst a seam on your fancy dress?)

Swans make take-away so so special
Swans make take-away so so special

Today, there are a few reasons why Americans whole-heartedly adhere to the doggy bag ideal.

First, most restaurants in the United States believe that their customers do not think they are getting good value for their dollar if the serving size is not at least twice the size of what a normal person can eat at a sitting. In other words, the customer expects to get one or two extra meals out of an evening at a restaurant.

Two, as American-born, London-based broadcaster Charlie Wolff, in the BBC magazine article, Doggy bag: Why are the British too embarrassed to ask?, explained “We Americans don’t have the airs and graces of Europeans. Americans are a bit more of the people, more pedestrian. There’s nothing embarrassing about asking for a doggy bag. We don’t want to see waste. There’s a sense of working hard for your money and wanting value for your dollar.” His mother used to make an omelette with the remains of meals from their favourite Chinese restaurant. She also used to bring any uneaten bread rolls home. “We were upper middle class. My parents came through the Depression and I’m sure that had a bearing even when they became successful.”

Third, Americans are the first to start recycling their waste and in the same way they look at leftover food as a product to be recycled in future meals.

Which brings us back to Rome…

Un Doggy Bag, per favore?

The Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags is starting to crumble. Some say that Michelle Obama is to blame. In 2009, Michelle was in Rome during the G8. This news item was widely-reported: “The Coldiretti Society of Italian Farmers heartily praised Michelle Obama for her progressive use of the doggy bag during the recent family’s stay in Rome.”  Michelle, together with her two daughters, dined at the ´I Maccheroni´ restaurant near the Pantheon. The family ordered three pasta dishes – carbonara, amatriciana and bolognese – but the meal turned out to be too hearty for the three Obama girls. And so Michelle asked the waiter to pack the leftovers into a bag to take home.

Michelle made a splash with her request for a doggy bag
Michelle made a splash with her request for a doggy bag

The First Lady’s effort to make sure the food did not go to waste was widely understood as a public encouragement to save more and waste less. The Coldiretti stated, “It’s an important move against an epidemic in developed countries today – more that 30% of all the food product we buy are discarded without ever having been used.”

By 2010, a non-profit group that works with homeless people in Milan, Cena dell’Amicizia, began a project called “Il buono che avanza,” (“The good things left over”). Restaurants in the Milan area can voluntarily take part, whereupon they are provided with doggy bags and a sticker by the non-profit. “The idea is to fight the idea of a throw-away, consumerist society where waste is normal and recycling (even of food) is looked down upon,” claimed Cena dell’Amicizia.

Logo for Milan's take-away campaign
Logo for Milan’s take-away campaign

In the Piemonte region there is a movement, not so much for waste, but to prevent drunk driving, to provide take-away bags, called buta stupa (“corked bottle” in Piedmontese dialect), for leftover wine.

What about the rest of Europe?

Even the Brits are coming around (although no news from the French). Last year, The Too Good To Waste campaign was introduced to reduce the amount of food waste in restaurants. The average London restaurant produces 21 tons of food waste every year, research by the Sustainable Restaurant Association found. That’s the equivalent to the weight of three double-decker buses. Too Good To Waste is encouraging diners to be “lovers, not leavers” and ask for their leftovers to go. They, too, have created a distinctive take-away cartoon for the crusade.

Too Good To Waste - Britain's crusade
Too Good To Waste – Britain’s crusade

It seems Italy and Britain are not alone in trying to break the Food Rule: No Doggy Bags; in Sweden (also in 2011, a magic year for doggy bags) a campaign was started to prevent waste in restaurants. Among other things, the promoters convinced the rapper Dogge Doggelito from the The Latin Kings, one of Sweden’s first hip hop groups, to participate in their doggy bag promotional film. In the film, Doggelito overhears a couple quarrel about something the man finds embarrassing, and takes for granted that she wants his autograph – when in fact it’s a doggy bag she wants.

Sweden's doggy bag campaign
Sweden’s doggy bag campaign

Tuscany will not violate the Food Rule

From all appearances, Florence and Tuscany will hold tight to the Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags! Florentines may be willing to recycle their trash, but leftovers do not constitute food in a region that prides itself in a cuisine that has not seen change in centuries and is not ready for reheating in the microwave oven. As a baby step, Tuscany may agree to follow the national Associazione Italiana Sommeliers, which is promoting Portami Via, a move to provide take-away bags for leftover wine.

Tuscany may support doggy bags for vino
Tuscany may support doggy bags for vino

 

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

Mangia! Mangia! – Sherbeth Festival in Sicily

By now even a glance at TuscanTraveler.com (see here, here, here and here) will tell you of a greater than average interest in gelato. Imagine my distress to find that I would not be able to be in Cefalú on the north coast of Sicily for the fifth annual Sherbeth Festival.

If you love gelato and especially sorbetto and are traveling to Sicily in mid-September, head straight to Cefalú for four days of ice cream heaven.

Cefalu's Sherbeth Festival 2011
Cefalú Sherbeth Festival 2011

From September 15 to 18, the historic center of the town will be transformed into the Gelato Village.

Whereas Florence (and Catherine de’Medici) lays claim to the creation of milk-based Italian gelato, Sicily fights for the honor of sorbetto, a divine combination of fruit, sugar and water. Sherbeth is an Arab word that became sorbetto in Italian (and sherbet when I was growing up in New Mexico).

Mango sorbetto will be a favorite at the Sherbeth Festival
Mango sorbetto will be a favorite at the Sherbeth Festival

The Romans say Emperor Nero started the craze by having his slaves carry buckets of ice and snow down to him from the Appian Way. But the Turks and the Chinese also had sherbeth frozen fruit desserts and Marco Polo is claimed to have carried the idea back from his travels. Certainly Sicily got the inspiration from the Arabs.

Here would be my idea of a perfect September day in Cefalú: In the morning, you can walk Cefalú’s sandy beach, one of the best in Sicily (burning off some calories in preparation for the rest of the day), and swim in the clear, warm sea (mid-70s).

Or you can begin as you mean to go on and order a typical Sicilian summer breakfast, a sweet brioche with gelato inside. (See Joe Ray’s WSJ post that describes the experience perfectly.)

Sicilian breakfast of sorbetto in brioche
Sicilian breakfast of sorbetto in brioche

Finish off the morning wandering the narrow streets with buildings displaying Arab, Norman and Byzantine influences, seeing the impressive Duomo, and then heading to the Corte delle Stelle and along the waterfront to indulge yourself at 35 Sicilian and international artisanal gelateria stands, savoring their hand-made sorbetto.

Stop by Carpigiani Gelato University’s gelato school and take a class in how to make sherbeth. Carpigiani is providing the equipment at a central production lab for all of the gelato makers where they will create their own proprietary recipes for the delight of the expected crowds.

Fruit flavors reign, but try chocolate sherbeth, too
Fruit flavors reign, but try chocolate sherbeth, too

Under the stars, a final gelato in hand, on my perfect September day, I would take in the wide variety of musical and other entertainment provided by Sorbeth Festival 2011 in Cefalú.

Gelato tourism has to be coming soon. Sign me up!