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.
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.
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.
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.
I’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Colomba Pasquale or Colomba di Pasqua (“Easter Dove” in English) is an Italian traditional Easter cake, the counterpart of the two well-known Italian Christmas desserts, panettone and pandoro. The colomba traces its birth to the Lombardia region, but is enjoyed throughout Italy at Easter time.
The dough for the colomba is made in a similar manner to panettone, with flour, eggs, sugar, natural yeast and butter. Some prefer the light yellow dough studded with citrus peel or dried fruits; others want to only enjoy the sweetened cake.
The sticky dough is fashioned into a dove-shape paper mold (or fashioned with two crossed halves of the dough to form the suggestion of a bird) and finally is topped with pearl sugar and almonds before being baked.
Some manufacturers produce other versions including a popular bread topped with chocolate, but purists would argue that this is an unnecessary exaggeration.
There are a couple of fanciful stories about the origin of colomba. One version has the colomba dating back to 1176, commemorating the Lombardian victory over Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. During the deciding Battle of Legnano, according to this version, two doves representing the Holy Ghost miraculously appeared on the Milanese battle standards.
Another legend dates the bread to 572, when Alboin, King of the Lombards, conquered Pavia after a three-year siege. He demanded the typical tribute, including a dozen maidens, 11 of whom succumbed. The twelfth girl, however, arrived on the fateful night with a sweet bread in the shape of a dove, a symbol of peace. Alboin was so charmed (or exhausted) that he set her free, spared Pavia from destruction and made it his capital. (He later was assassinated on the orders of Rosamund, his Gepid wife, whom he forced to drink from the skull of her dead father, which he carried around his belt, inviting her “to drink merrily with her father.”)
In more mundane times, the colomba was commercialized by the Milanese baker and businessman Angelo Motta as an Easter version of the Christmas specialty panettone that Motta company were already producing. Motta, however, does not rate as high these days among the producers. The honor of the best commercial colomba goes to Tre Marie and Bauli.
Many local Easter specialties incorporating the dove can be found throughout Italy. The dove, a pagan symbol of the coming of spring as well as the sign of the Holy Spirit in Catholicism, is the inspiration for a sweet called pastifuorti or moscardini in Palermo, pasta raffinata in Noto, and incanniddati in Syracuse, where it is shaped like a dove sitting with little candies at its base.
Tuscan Traveler’s Picks is expanding its focus to include books and movies with Italian themes. I am pleased that Estelle Jobson, author of Finding Rome on the Map of Love, agreed to participate in the first author interview.
(A full and ever growing list of books and films with Italian settings, authors, and themes is easily found by clicking on the Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store link in the right column. Amazon will pay Tuscan Traveler a small affiliate commission on any of your purchases. You pay exactly the same price as you would if you went to Amazon directly.)
Estelle has offered to give one free copy of Finding Rome on the Map of Loveto the person who comments on this post with the best tale about a cultural misunderstanding they observed, heard about or experienced in Italy. Click here or at the end of the post to leave your story.
About Estelle Jobson
Estelle Jobson chose to leave a great job in South Africa to follow love and adventure to a life as “Signora Stella” in a quiet neighborhood on one of the highest hills of Rome. After more than dozen years working in all aspects of book publishing, she found herself tossed into the writing end of the business as she kept a journal of the joys, frustrations, and mysteries of life off the fast track in a country not her own. That journal became Finding Rome On The Map Of Love.
Life then led Estelle to Geneva where she once again has a busy day job. Her book, set in the seasons of Rome, is a fitting reminder that its good to take that unfamiliar path and Italy is the perfect place explore the map of love.
Finding Rome on the Map of Love
I loved the writing and the humor of Finding Rome on the Map of Love. Is this your first book and do you plan to write another?
Grazie! This is my first book, yes, although in my publishing career I have brought hundreds of books into the world for other authors. Right now, a great deal of creative energy goes into marketing Finding Rome, which deservesits rightful début. I wrote it over a year when I was a casalinga (housewife) and had the time and leisure to ruminate thoroughly and creatively. Such freedom and creative space is now limited by the otherwise very rewarding matter of earning a ‘proper’ income again. But I am brewing ideas on writing about a very different matter, women’s bodies and health, using humour to cloak information and provoke thought.
Your book is a meditation on assimilation (a South African expat in Italy). How long did you live in Rome and have you lived anywhere else in Italy?
‘Meditation’ is a good way of phrasing it, because living in Rome for 3 years gave me a chance to test-drive the mantra that emerges in Chapter 1: ‘You are enough. You have enough. You do enough.’ I managed to turn this into a way of life, effectively, even though now I am back in a conventional working life. I turned myself from a manic, frazzled career woman to a more balanced, less ambitious and considerably more contented person. This evolution is thanks largely to my time in Rome.
Have you traveled in Tuscany and do you have a favorite stop in Tuscany?
Yes, I have visited Florence itself, numerous times. I don’t have a specific spot that I love most. I travelled west to Livorno, and south down that coast, inland to Viterbo, and of course, back to Rome. Monte Argentario is spectacular, and I loved exploring the Etruscan ruins, from Tuscany to Lazio.
Do you have any observations about the difference between Florentines and Romans?
Yes, indeed! Apart from differences in vocabulary (e.g. schiacciata vs. pizza bianca), I would say the Florentines are generally a little more northern; meaning more reserved, and as they speak a ‘better’ Italian, more clearly enunciated, it is easier for me to understand. They say it themselves—their dialect is what Dante Alighieri formalized into what became standard Italian. I tried fiercely to get my head around the Roman dialect, but didn’t get much further than ‘Awu’ (hey), ‘Mo’ (now), and ‘Namo’ (Let’s go).
I love the Italian Food Rules (i.e. “no cappuccino after 10am”). What is your favorite Food Rule and why?
Olive oil, always, and butter very rarely. In this shift from butter to olive oil, I evolved from a blunt-palated anglosaxon to being able to discern a good olive oil from a splendid one. To this refining of my palate, I dedicated the chapter: ‘An ode to the olive’.
I am studying Italian Life Rules (i.e. colpo d’aria) right now and I found one in Finding Rome on the Map of Love that I had recognized subliminally, but never put a name to: Italians always wear bathrobes with hoods. What is your favorite Italian Life Rule?
I just love coprire la pancia (covering your stomach), which implies that one gets a nap in after lunch, with one’s tummy snugly covered. Accordingly, Italian men wear vests as a matter of course, and I adore this mélange of tenderness with masculinity: to ward off the peril of a chill on one’s tummy.
I read that you seem to enjoy learning languages. Which languages do you speak and in what order did you learn them?
Yes, learning languages has long been a hobby and a love of mine. I grew up in an English-speaking home, heaving with books. Afrikaans was taught in South African schools from quite early on and in high school, I started with French where my linguistic love affair really took off. At university, I did a pure-languages BA, majoring in French, English, and Xhosa (a South African language, Mandela’s mother tongue). As there were no additional fees involved at varsity, I did extra courses, German and beginner South Sotho (another African language). Only years later, in my thirties, did I start learning Italian after I met the man in question. But no, I don’t speak them all that well and sometimes I jumble them up.
Likewise, you seem to have wanderlust. Which countries have you lived in for more than six months and in what order, starting at birth?
Ooh, yes! ‘Sagittarius: have suitcase, will travel’. I grew up in Cape Town and, as an adult, moved to Johannesburg for my first job. In my early thirties, I studied in New York for 15 months, then lived in Geneva for 2.5 years, then went back to Joburg for 4.5 years. Rome came next, for 3 years, and 2.5 years ago, I returned to Geneva. It suits me much better the second time around.
Which country that you haven’t lived in would you like to try for six months to a year?
I am more attracted to cities, than countries, as such. Which cities? Paris (big) or perhaps Lyon (smaller). Frankfurt. Sydney. Seattle. Toronto. Chicago. London. Bombay. How many chances do I get?
As a booklover, do you box up a library as you move from country to country or have you given in to an eReader or do you have another solution?
I do schlepp books around with me, but circumstances have forced me to become frugal. So I use local English libraries, buy used books from English church sales and the like, and then I swap with friends and colleagues. Occasionally, I donate books to public libraries or leave them in airports. I haven’t made the e-reader transition, because I love turning pages and I appreciate the mastery of a well-produced book.
Italy seems to lend itself to memoirs. You are now living in Switzerland. Is there a genre of expat-living-in-Switzerland memoirs? Can you see yourself writing one?
Italy has been the source of inspiration for numerous ‘travel’ writers, indeed, I think because Italy is such a total-immersion setting and so rich in quirky anecdotes, steeped in history. Such writing has not taken off in quite the same way in Switzerland, on the whole. Might this be because the Swiss are less loquacious and more inscrutable? In Geneva, which is more of a mini-global village, however, swissness is fairly diluted. My friends and colleagues hail from all corners of the globe. A few are even Swiss. In the course of a day at work, I may speak French, English, Italian, and maybe some rusty German. I don’t think writing about Switzerland is going to be my next writing project, however. I am keen to write about the landscape of the body.
You don’t describe in much detail about how your Italian partner (“the Metrosexual”) assimilated to South Africa. Do you think Italians assimilate when they move to another country?
On the whole, I don’t think first-generation Italians assimilate particularly well, no. Their children might, but those who are newly uprooted tend to stick to what they know and trust, that which is di fiducia. This includes brands, cuisine, and social familiarities, such as finding a local Italian butcher, hairdresser, shoemaker, and tailor. For example, try as I might, I could not persuade the Meterosexual that Disprin is just as good (no, identical to) aspirina. He made a tentative go at South African braais (barbecues), but was not able to keep up with the copious drinking marinated by the fierce African sun.
In the same vein, did “the Metrosexual” become “more” Italian when the two of you moved to Rome, and, if so, how?
I wrote about this process in ‘Love is like an artichoke‘, about the slow peeling off and identifying of layers of identity. He did not change, but my ability to differentiate between what was him, what came from his family, what was Florentine, or broadly Italian (and then, which kind of Italian), became much more nuanced.
What was the germinating idea for your book Finding Rome on the Map of Love and what was its path to publication?
When I moved to Rome, I was free to not work for the first time in my adult life. This luxury was strangely unhinging too. Simultaneously, I was flung into a brand-new setting and was processing cross-cultural conundrums daily, which triggered a flood of creativity. I carried around notebooks and scribbled away madly, recording snippets of conversations, words, and observations of events around me. From that heap of chaos, I pulled out themes and wrote them up, one by one, chapter by chapter. I wrote 45 chapters over a year, each one under 2,000 words and set myself the goal of 70,000 words. In so doing, I processed my personal path and deepened my understanding of Italy.
You have written essays that have been published on Transitionsabroad.com on the topics relating to, in most part, navigating the bureaucracy of Italian life. Do you plan to create a book of those and other similar essays?
Transitionsabroad.com commissioned me to write how-to articles for ex-pats settling in Italy, which gave me a yet another opportunity to turn life’s experiences into writing. Feedback on internet-based writing is often immediate, direct, and gives me a bit of a thrill, so I have written a good number of pieces as a guest blogger, here and there. I have not thought of bundling them together, mostly because I regard writing for the internet as fast food and book publishing as fine dining.
Do you still drive a Vespa?
I have a Sym Tonik 125cc now, simply because the dealer was operating mid-summer. Guess where the Vespa dealer was? On holiday. In Italy! But actually, I ride my bicycle much more. I am looking forward to seeing myself being quoted as a ‘chic cyclist’ in a bike book (The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook: Everything You Need to Know About Life on Two Wheels) to be published next month.
Do you still attend writing/publishing conferences? Which is your favorite and why?
On and off, yes. My favourite is the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is a mindboggling beehive of publishers, authors, exhibitors, and events. As Europe’s biggest book fair, it is 27 football fields worth of books and makes me feel, as a publishing person, that I am part of a vast, thriving, and magnificent world of ideas that become ink.
What is an Interrobang? What place does it play in your life and do you think it will find favor on Twitter?
The interrobang is a punctuation mark, merging an exclamation mark with a question mark. It was developed in the early days of printing and destined for great things, but did not thrive. The ‘?!’ conveys both surprise and questioning. No other punctuation mark in English communicates two emotive elements at once. Not being very on active on Twitter, I can’t rightly say which direction it might go in, but the interrobang would certainly fit well into the twittersphere. Bring it on!?
Ask and answer two questions that are not included here, which you think should be part of any interview with you.
Who is your favourite feminist?
Can I have two? Both of them think (thought) out of the box. Helen Keller was a lyrical and prolific writer. She mastered several languages, read widely, and was a vocal activist for women’s and workers’ rights. And then Inna Shevchenko, of Femen, who essentially turned a little known Ukrainian group of activist-intellectuals into an international movement. Their success lies in a particularly deft and radical move: having women write slogans of protest on their own bodies.
Who encouraged you most to write when you were young?
Lots of English teachers did. But at my high school, Will van der Walt, was the most emphatic and inspiring. He took my literary interests very seriously and bestowed the utmost respect upon the teenage angst I spilled out upon the page. You will see that I mentioned him in the Acknowledgements of my book.
Book Give Away
Remember:Estelle will give a free copy of Finding Rome on the Map of Love to one lucky person who comments on this post with the best tale about a cultural misunderstanding they observed, heard about or experienced in Italy. Click the link below.
Update: Ansa Liebenberg won the free book for her comment and tale.
It is a joy to learn something new and surprising. As a teacher, it is even better when I learn from a student. Here’s a story many of you at TuscanTraveler.com may know, at least in part. It’s about Ann, the Tuscan Traveler. She’s published a book! I wrote the Foreward.
Ann was a San Francisco lawyer in search of any enlightenment that nine months in Italy could bring her when she walked into my Italian grammar class in Massa Marittima, near the Tuscan coast, in 1998. To be kind, let’s say that she had no ear for my melodic language.
Changing focus, she sought to learn to expand her kitchen skills beyond admittedly delicious chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake to include Florentine and Tuscan recipes. I was conducting cooking classes for Americans and other tourists. Ann, unfortunately, could never master a passable soffritto or achieve al dente when it came to cooking pasta.
I was ready to give up on the notion that Ann was ever going to awaken to the state of being Italian even for a day, but then we started to delve into the customs and practices that make Italian food authentic. Maybe it is the lawyer’s need for defined rules and precedents or Ann’s love for research that, combined with her passion for eating, if not cooking, Italian food led her to collect what she came to call the Italian Food Rules.
After nine months in Florence became over fifteen years in Italy, Ann is still clearly American, but she knows more than most Italians about the basis of the food practices that are passed down from generation to generation. Her delight in each discovery has frequently been shared in her writing on TuscanTraveler.com and, now, in this enchanting book.
The facts, fictions, history and reasons behind the Italian Food Rules, as well as the revelation of the mere existence of so many customs or edicts, will assist any visitor to Italy by making their stay easier, less confusing, and richer. For Italians, their response to reading Ann’s list of the rules is usually “giusto, giusto” (“exactly right”) and then delight when they read the rationale and history of the gastronomic commandments passed down from their grandmothers.
I never knew where Caesar Salad originated (certainly not Italy), or why spaghetti with meatballs was considered an Italian dish, or why Americans always wanted a bowl of olive oil with a squiggle of balsamic vinegar delivered immediately to the table when dining at a trattoria. I enjoy eating lampredotto and lardo on a regular basis, being very familiar with these Tuscan specialties, but I never thought much about their origins in Italian history until Ann started asking questions, urging me to translate at Florentine tripe stands, and traveling to Colonnata to see where herbed lard is aged.
The bricks that form the foundation of the most loved cuisine in the world today are important and should be preserved. Ann Reavis has given us the gift of memory in her light and amusing book of Italian Food Rules.
You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:
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.
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 perlapolenta. 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.
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.
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)
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!
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.
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?
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 theirsincere 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?
Borgo Allegri, 50r angolo via dell’Agnolo, Firenze
Hours: 10:30am-11:30pm (Closed on Sunday, except the last one of the month)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 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:
This week the Florence Gelato Festival was the subject of a misunderstanding or evidence that Mayor Renzi does not have his eye on what’s happening in Florence. The Festival was scheduled to run from May 17 to 26, then at the last minute the Mayor’s Office declared that this was too long and was taking up too much valuable space, taking all of the participating gelaterias by surprise. The organizers of the Festival took the city to court and prevailed, so the festival will run until next Sunday. Check the official website for more information.
One of the major participants in the Festival is Carpigiani, the largest manufacturer of equipment for gelaterias, restaurants and other businesses, as well as for in-home use. Tuscan Traveler enjoyed a few days at Carpigiani’s Gelato University a couple of years ago and is happy to announce that the Carpigiani Gelato Museum has joined the pantheon of food museums in Italy. (Also see here and here.)
The Gelato Museum is innovative, dedicated to the study, documentation, and dissemination of the history, values, and culture of artisan gelato, a beloved treat (or rather, necessity) that represents Italian excellence and creativity throughout the world. (Carpigiani has the company goal of taking gelato to every corner of the earth.)
“The objective of the Carpigiani Gelato Museum is to highlight the roots and history of this quality food and the gelato artisans that produce it, bringing excellence, creativity, and flavor to customers worldwide,” said Romano Verardi, President of the Bruto and Poerio Carpigiani Foundation. “We are pleased that this initiative came together just a short time after the official establishment of the European Gelato Day.” (The EU has named March 24 as the annual European Day of Artisan Gelato, first celebrated in 2013.)
The thousand square meter museum space was created in the current Carpigiani headquarters near Bologna. The complex is built around a central garden that connects the various areas of the building, including showrooms and the Carpigiani Gelato Museum, itself.
The museum features an interactive tour that highlights three principal themes regarding gelato: the evolution of gelato over time, the history of production technology, and the places and ways to consume gelato. More than twenty original machines are on display, along with multimedia presentations, 10,000 historical images and documents, accessories and tools of the trade from ages past, and workshops.
“The Gelato Museum fulfills the dream of our founders, Bruto and Poerio Carpigiani, the two Bolognese brothers who made it their job to spread gelato technology, culture, and business throughout the world,” says Andrea Cocchi, General Manager of the Carpigiani Group. “The challenge is now to reaffirm the historical memory of our roots so as to strengthen our future, leading us to progress, innovate, and expand our culture.”
The museum has gathered a number of audio-visual testimonies from people who have played a key role in the history of gelato. Gelato’s place in history is recognized by UNESCO as part of the world’s nutritional heritage.
The Carpigiani Gelato Museum is located along the highway to Milan at Via Emilia 45, in Anzola dell’Emilia, Bologna.
Open Monday to Saturday, tickets free with guided tour, reservation required.
If you are in the Bologna area for more than a few hours take part in tasty gelato lessons after visiting the museum. Choose the experience that entices you most and enter the world of artisan gelato. The activities are conducted by the instructors of Carpigiani Gelato University, the most prestigious gelato school in the world. Check out the website here for the family events and the small group classes at the Gelato Museum ranging from a one hour tour with gelato tasting (5 euro per person), to a two hour tour with hands-on gelato making lesson, gelato tasting, certificate and group photo (10 euro per person, ten person minimum), to the fabulous four-hour tour, gelato theory lesson, hands-on gelato class to create your own flavor, gelato tasting, certificate and group photo (35 euro per person (min. two participants, max. six participants).
There are also shorter duration classes designed especially for children. See here for details.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Carpigiani played host for a few hours to one of Tuscan Traveler’s favorite all-Italy events: The Mille Miglia Antique Car Endurance Road Race. See the video here.
Italian 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:
The smoothly running digestive system is crucial to an Italian’s health and happiness. This concern is the basis of so many of the Italian Food Rules. You already know that you do not add uncooked milk to a full stomach (cappuccino, caffelatte, gelato); you do not eat “cold” melon without the “heat” of prosciutto or salt or peperoncino; you do not eat leftovers; and you do not overeat. Having eaten well, however, an Italian may partake of an herbal digestive drink after dinner.
The first attempts to aid digestion using aromatic herbs and seeds steeped in liquids were made by the Greeks and Romans. Yet today, no country can match Italy for the sheer variety of digestive remedies available. They traveled from the pharmacies of the 1800s, intended as palliatives to counter all sorts of ailments and physical imbalances, to restaurants, bars and the dinner table in the 20th century. They are bitter – that’s amaro.
These homemade restoratives, generally bitter herbs, plants and other botanicals blended into an alcohol base, live on commercially today in the form of digestives. Digestives are not the usual after-dinner drinks, like brandies, grappas and other distilled products that are meant to add a pleasant intoxicating after-note to a meal, or the sweet high-alcohol wines, like Vin Santo, which give you a final sweet taste, but not the fullness of a three-layer cake.
These digestives, or digestivi, are known collectively as amari. The word refers to the bitterness that unifies this disparate group of liqueurs. Dozens of amari are produced in Italy. Each has a proprietary formula made by distilling a wide variety of herbs and spices and tempered in barrels or bottles. Amari have been touted in Italy to cure overeating, flatulence, hangovers, gas pains, cramps of all kids, baby colic and cholera. One theory is that bitterness, typically associated with poison, cues the body to accelerate the production of saliva and digestive juices.
No two amari shares the same makeup or ingredients. For example: Amaro Averna from Sicily is comprised of citrus, herbs, roots, and caramel; Cynar is an amaro made from 13 herbs and artichokes (Cynara scolymus), from which the drink derives its name; Nocino, is a digestivo made from green walnuts; Unicum, formerly a Hungarian amaro, contains 40 herbs and is aged in oak casks (the Zwak family, holder of the secret Unicum recipe, emigrated to Italy after WWII); Vecchio Amaro del Capo, a herbal and minty amaro is made in Calabria; and Fernet-Branca, probably the most world-famous amaro, is made from a secret recipe of 27 herbs obtained from five continents.
Fernet-Branca was created by a self-taught herbalist in Milan in 1845. The secret recipe for this digestive, first sold in pharmacies, includes aloe from South Africa, rhubarb from China, gentian from France, galangal from India or Sri Lanka, chamomile from Italy and Argentina, saffron, red cinchona bark, myrrh from Madagascar (yes, that’s right – myrrh), and elderflower. The brew is aged in oak barrels for twelve months. It is about 40% alcohol. Fernet Branca is considered by some as a perfect cure for a hangover, but Italians drink it as a digestivo after a long meal.
Nocino is an amaro that can be found in most restaurants and ordered as a digestivo. But it is also the most popular amaro for the home-made digestivo, probably because of the ease of its recipe. Its main ingredient is green walnuts picked long before they are ready to eat.
The regions of Campania and Emilia-Romagna are the largest producers of walnuts in Italy. Traditionally, the walnuts are picked by a woman (there is a bit of the pagan about this concoction) on the eve of June 24th, the Festa di San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist’s saint day), the recipe is made the next day, after the noci have rested over night, and then the brew is put away until Ognissanti (All Saints Day), November 1st, when it is drunk to honor the dead. Thereafter, it is sipped as a digestivo after the big December holiday meals.
To make Nocino, the walnuts (noci) are cleaned and quartered, put into round glass bottles with a mixture of alcohol, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves and allowed to rest in a warm sunny place. The liquid seeps into the nuts and turns dark brown. More sugar and spices are added and, if the liquid has become too strong, a little water is added.
Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911), the father of modern Italian cooking, reportedly suffered from a “delicate stomach” and noted in his seminal cookbook that the digestive and tonic powers of this dark and sweet liqueur were the perfect end to those heavier meals later on in the year when the cooler months arrive. Artusi’s Nocino contained unripe walnuts, alcohol (95%), white sugar, ground cinnamon, whole cloves, water, and the rind of one lemon. Sealed tightly in a large glass vessel, stored in a warm place, shaken “every now and then”, the concoction was ready in forty days or so. A couple of days before November 1st he would have a little taste. If it was too “spiritoso” (too high in alcohol), Artusi advised adding a cup or two of water. Then, when the liqueur is ready, strain it first through a cloth, and then to clarify it, again through a finer cloth or paper, such as a modern coffee filter, before bottling.
Artusi also recommended an amaro he called “Cinchona Elixir” made with “bruised Peruvian cinchona bark” and “bruised dried bitter orange peel.”
Don’t succumb to the distasteful practice of doing Frent-Branca shots at your local bar in Los Angeles or New York in an effort to be cool. Sip a small glass after a four-course dinner at you favorite restaurant in Torino or Milan.
Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links: