Tag Archives: Italy

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:

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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

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, the Best Florence has to Offer

Before the New Year’s diet resolution kicks in there was time for one last venture into the world of great hot chocolate in Florence. This time it was a paper cup of Grom’s Fondente with a moustache of whipped cream and a tall white ceramic cup of Catinari’s Fondente with only a silver spoon.

Deep dark chocolate from the best cocoa beans the world has to offer
Deep dark chocolate from the best cocoa beans the world has to offer

Of all the cioccolata calda in Florence, Catinari is the best in quality, quantity, presentation and experience. Vestri comes in second in taste, but the plastic cup is a flaw. Grom serves three interesting versions of high quality, but the paper cup and no place to sit are drawbacks. Rivoire has the old world ambience, but has let the quality slip and, though unlikely, it seems like the cups have gotten smaller.

Mangia! Mangia! has already discussed the hot chocolate of Vestri and Rivoire. The first week of a new year is perfect for measuring Grom against Catinari.

Roberto Cantinari – Father of Tuscan Chocolate

A life devoted to chocolate – Roberto Catinari, now in his mid 70s, is credited with inspiring Tuscany’s young chocolatiers, who gave birth to the “Chocolate Valley” that runs from Florence through Prato and Pistoia and on to Lucca and Pisa.

It is said that his love of chocolate began in Switzerland where the young Pistoian immigrant began work at seventeen as a dishwasher in a pastry shop. It was over ten years before he worked his way into the white coat of a pastry chef. He spent ten more years perfecting his craft.

Roberto Catinari has the perfect face of a master chocolate maker
Roberto Catinari has the perfect face of a master chocolate maker

In 1974, he returned to the mountains north of Pistoia and his mother’s house in the hamlet of Bardalone, to start a business with his wife. Six years later they moved to a more advantageous location in Agliana (between Pistoia and Prato) where the kitchen and shop continued until 2007 when he obtained a larger space nearby.

Catinari, with his flowing white beard, could be a chocolate wizard from a Harry Potter novel, but he looks at his work as a craft to be mastered. Over the past thirty years he has created a business where at first no one would pay for quality ingredients until today when chocolate-makers beg for a chance to spend time learning in his relatively small chocolate laboratory. He demands attention to detail, the best ingredients, and a passion for chocolate from all who work with him. Catinari keeps the facility small by choice – a way of valuing quality over quantity. His focus is on the value that hand-made attention to detail and the best raw ingredients bring to the final product.

The beautiful entrance to Catinari's Arte del Cioccolato
The beautiful entrance to Arte del Cioccolato

Except for the shop in Agliana, there is only one other Cantinari Arte del Cioccolato shop and that is in Florence, down a specially decorated little alley at the bottom of Via Porta Rossa where it meets Via Tornabuoni. It’s easy to miss. Here the attention to the main ingredient is readily apparent and drinking cioccolata calda is a special experience.

First, there is the walk down the short paved alley with decorative trees and huge flickering candles. The tiny shop is paneled in dark wood with glass cases full of meticulously decorated chocolate candies. Two comfortable seats are inside and outside, heaters keep the small tables warm even in winter. Arte del Cioccolato serves either Fondente (dark chocolate) or Al Latte (milk chocolate) flavors, both made with chocolate from São Tomé, the small island in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Africa. A large ceramic cup is filled just over half way with thick hot hot chocolate, placed on a saucer with a spoon. The spoon is useful for cooling the first sips and capturing the last bit coating the sides of the cup. None should be missed.

Grom – The Boys from Piedmonte Aim to Bring Gelato to the World

Grom, the upstart youngster, opened its doors in May 2003 in the center of Torino, and the success was immediate, unlike Alberto Cantinari’s experience driving around Tuscany for years, slowly building a fan base. At Grom, long lines formed in front of the store from the very first day and the two founding partners, Guido Martinetti and Federico Grom, planned for world-domination with their artisanal gelato.

Grom offers three flavors of hot chocolate
Grom has three great flavors

In January 2005, they decided to expand with the opening of new stores and invest in a centralized laboratory suitable to meet the production demand of the future. The goal was always the same: offering the very best. The centralization of the first phase of production (the mixing of raw materials) became a key decision allowing for a strict quality control standard. But most important, like Catinari, they wanted to assure the quality of the ingredients, for instance, by allowing only certain types of fruit available at local consortia, rather than at the wholesale fruit markets found in each city. The liquid mixtures produced in the laboratory, are checked by a team of experts and then distributed three times a week to each store, where they are blended daily to create incredible gelato. The same system is used for Grom’s cioccolata calda. This attention to quality and the right raw material is at the origin of what makes Grom famous throughout Italy and already many parts of the world (New York City, Paris, Osaka, Tokyo, and Malibu, so far).

Grom’s centralized laboratory also produces the excellent liquid chocolate served at each store as hot chocolate. Grom offers a choice of three flavors:  Bacio, Al Latte and Fondente.  All include fresh milk, dark chocolate of the best “crus” around the world (Al Latte uses Teyuna cocoa of Colombia, Bacio incorporates Tonda Gentile Trilobate hazelnuts and the Fondente starts with Ocumare chocolate from Venezuela), and a few drops of cream. There are no thickeners and the liquid chocolate is heated on the spot in each gelateria so as not to weakening the complex flavors of the great chocolates.

It’s true that it may not be fair to measure Grom, a gelateria, against three chocolate makers when weighing the merits of cioccolata calda in Florence. It didn’t come in first ,but it certainly was a credible competitor. Next winter, perhaps the hot chocolate at Café Giacosa and Café Florian will be on the list of challengers. But now, the New Year’s diet commences…

Grom – www.grom.it (in Florence) Via del Campanile at Via delle Oche – Ph. +39 055.216158. Open from 10:30am to 11:00pm

Roberto Catinari, www.robertocatinari.it,www.artedelcioccolato.it Arte del Cioccolato, Via Provinciale, 378; Agliana; +39-0574-718-506; (in Florence) Chiasso de Soldanieri, near the corner of Via Porta Rossa and Via Tornabuoni); +39-o55-217-136.
Open from 10:00am to 8:00pm

Italian Food Rule – No Meatballs On Top of Spaghetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The meatballs eventually took over
The meatballs eventually took over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Food Rules: The Book

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

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

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

Mangia! Mangia! – Cioccolata Calda, Florentine Hot Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Styling bulldog at Rivoire
Styling bulldog at Rivoire

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

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

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

Not dressed for Rivoire
Not dressed for Rivoire

Italian Food Rule – No Gaudy Dressing, Keep Salad Simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Food Rule – Do Not Eat or Drink While Walking

Although I’ve learned to never say never – Italians never eat while they’re walking or standing. They have no culture of snacking on the types of food that Americans are frequently noshing on as they hurry from place to place – no Big Gulps, Grande Lattes with extra foam, bags of Cool Ranch Doritos, Walking Tacos , Big Macs, or even, a panino con mortadella. (Yes, there are Big Macs in Italy, but they are being eaten – slowly – while at the table provided, not on the run.)

No one looks good eating or drinking while walking
No one looks good eating or drinking while walking

This aversion to eating and drinking while walking (“Che schifo!” says Florentine Francesca) is ingrained from a young age, perhaps by a mother who values spotless clothes on her off-spring. More likely, by a mother who wants her family at the table on time and hungry, not missing in action or stuffed with chips before the meal even begins.

Che schifo!
Che schifo!

But more to the point, eating is still very closely linked to the national heritage of consuming good food for pleasure. Even in today’s busy world, over 70 per cent of Italians eat meals they have prepared at home; the favorite place to eat both lunch and dinner is in the home, with almost 70 per cent eating at the family table. In the U.S., by contrast, we eat our meals (a) standing up in our kitchens, (b) in front of Jersey Shore, CSI or the PBS NewsHour, (c) at our desk while catching up on emails, (d) in our cars, or (e) walking down a city block between appointments.

Major violation of an Italian Food Rule
Major violation of an Italian Food Rule

Whereas the Italians wish to spend up to two hours over lunch, we bolt down our food in the time it would take them to savor a crostino spread with duck liver. The Italian secret to avoiding obesity is to sit down with friends or family for a meal, and to eat three times a day at regular intervals; eating slowly, enjoying both the food and the company.

In Italy, a meal is a very particular moment, in which you share pleasure, the food as well as the conversation. From an American point of view, food is usually just fuel to give energy and drink is to add the caffeinated turbo-charge.

Of course, Italian food is real food – prepared in the kitchen, with time taken to choose, buy and prepare meals. In other words, there is space for food in the daily routine. Eating in Italy is a social activity. There are several courses, but they are small with plenty of time between dishes for the physiological feedback to kick in as the brain tells the stomach enough is enough.

Gotta stand? Use the shelves for your drink.
Gotta stand? Use the shelves for your drink.

Even when Italians are forced to stand while eating, like at my favorite panino place, I Due Fratellini, a small hole in the wall (literally) where the best sandwiches in Florence are made, it is done with style. There are two sets of numbered shelves so you can set your glass of wine down as you take the six bites that will finish the minimalist panino made with a maximum of three of the finest ingredients inside a warm crunchy bread roll.

Only in your dreams
Only in your dreams

So what about gelato? Yes, it is an exception to the Italian Food Rule – No eating while walking. Italians walk while licking a small (2.50 € or less) cone – a cone, not a cup – of gelato. If you order a medium or large cone you are not Italian. If you are eating gelato out of a cup, you should be sitting in the gelateria or on a nearby bench. It’s complicated.

In conclusion, while Americans are speed-eating, gulping down a 550 calorie lunch solely consisting of a Starbucks Venti Dulce de Leche Blended Creme Frappuccino (“Che esagerazione!” says Francesca) before the light turns green and it’s okay to cross, the Italians are taking small mouthfuls, resting their cutlery between bites, discussing the food – because it is worthy of discussion.

Italian Food Rules – Bread Is Not Better With Butter

“Where’s the butter for the bread?” asks a tourist from Chicago. “Can we get some butter out here?” asks a lady from Atlanta. “Perché?” queries the waiter.

Perché? indeed. In Italy, bread is not better with butter.

Butter from Reggio Emilia rarely found on the table
Butter from Reggio Emilia rarely found on the table

Butter never meets bread in Italy. except for a breakfast of a slice of toast with butter and marmellata or an after-school snack of bread and butter and Nutella.

At lunch or dinner, Italians wouldn’t think of slathering butter on the bread from the basket on the table. (They don’t dunk it in oil either, but that is the subject of a separate Food Rule.)

In fact, bread is served with the meal solely for the purpose of acting as the scarpetta – the little shoe – “fare la scarpetta” or use a little shoe of bread to scoop up the lasts remnents of sauce on the plate. A comprehensive discussion of “Scarpetta si, scarpetta no …” can be found on the Dellano website, saving you from the pitfalls of proper and polite public bread use.

Not Table-Ready
Not Table-Ready

To ask for butter in a restaurant, or many family homes, puts the host in a quandary. The kitchen may have a quarter kilo or more of butter, but it isn’t table-worthy. No cute pats or butter dishes.

Marcella Hazen adds a historical note: “Olive oil is all around the Appenine and at the heel of the boot so it is used all over but much more in the south because they don’t have cows so they don’t have milk, butter, and cream.”

Burrini or Butirro - Butter as a hidden surprise
Burrino or Butirro - Butter as a hidden surprise

Hazen may have forgotten about burrino (aka butirro) a cheese from the southern regions of Basilicata and Calabria that has a core of butter, served as a first dish with warm bread. The butter was historically stored in the cheese to preserve it before refrigeration.

Ginger at allrecipes.com sort of got the idea when she submitted a recipe for “Italian Butter”, but then she broke about five Food Rules with her ingredients: red pepper flakes, black pepper, oregano, rosemary, basil, parsley, garlic powder, minced garlic, salt, and extr virgin olive oil. One of Ginger’s reviewers, Ashlie H., broke a few more rules: “An incredible recipe! I mix it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar over finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese. We eat it until our bread is gone!”

Italian Butter
Italian Butter

And then there was the “Murder by Butter” case from Sicily, reported in Corriere della Sera, last February. Maybe this is why butter is not found on most tables in Italy.

When you visit Italy, give up bread and butter for the duration of your stay – you and your waistline will appreciate it – and think how good it will taste when you get home.