Category Archives: Mangia! Mangia!

food and wine in Italy

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, 2nd Serving

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

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

La Maremma on Via Verdi
La Maremma on Via Verdi

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

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

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

Ristorante La Maremma
Ristorante La Maremma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Food Rule – No Doggy Bags!

History of a Food Rule

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

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

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

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

Why don’t Italians ask for doggy bags?

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

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

Thanks for the doggy bag!

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

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

For 60 years Americans have requested doggy bags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to Rome…

Un Doggy Bag, per favore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the rest of Europe?

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

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

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

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

Tuscany will not violate the Food Rule

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

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

 

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

Italian Food Rules: The Book

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

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

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

 

Mangia! Mangia! – Cioccolata Calda, 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

Mangia! Mangia! – Christmas Lunch with Chiara Latini

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

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

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

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

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

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

Festive apple cake
Festive apple cake

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

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

Ristorante Latini
Ristorante Latini

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

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

Directions

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.

Mangia! Mangia! – Thanksgiving in Florence

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. What’s not to like? Great food. Good friends. Uncountable thanks. Football.

This year I got three out of four.

American Thanksgiving at Osteria di Giovanni
American Thanksgiving at Osteria di Giovanni

Usually I try very hard to be in the United States for the fourth week of November. Thanksgiving dinner never seems quite the same in any other part of the world. Probably because the roast turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes are hard to source and recipes never result in just that taste I remember from New York or New Mexico or California.

Giovanni and Carole Latini
Giovanni and Carole Latini

So last week when on a unseasonable sunny day in Florence I called one of my favorite restaurants Osteria di Giovanni to make dinner reservations for five clients and got Giovanni Latini, himself, on the phone. After taking the reservation, he exclaimed that his wife Carole was hosting Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant and that I must be there. Carole’s famed desserts would be enough to get me to go anywhere, anytime she issued an invite (I don’t favor traditional Italian desserts, but Carole, an American, has for years embellished the Osteria’s menu with fabulous sweets) and I jumped at the chance of Thanksgiving dinner.

Carole and Francesca - happy host and guest
Carole and Francesca - happy host and guest

Francesca came too, of course. Although she is Florentine with no “roast turkey/cranberry/ pumpkin pie/mashed potato with gravy/sweet potato with marshmallows/wild rice stuffing” genes in her DNA, she loves Thanksgiving dinner and has been honored to grace many a table in the United States in the late afternoon on the third Thursday in November.

Menu created by Caterina and Carole
Menu created by Caterina and Carole

Simple words fail to express how scrumptious Thanksgiving Dinner at Osteria di Giovanni was. The menu was traditional American with a dash of Italy (pea soup with basil, pumpkin ravioli with peppercorns). The turkey was roasted to succulent perfection and the crumbly corn bread was pure Pilgrim. Carole, Giovanni, and their daughter Caterina were gracious hosts as always. I suspect Caterina should get most of the credit for assuring that Carole’s inspiration was realized in each dish and Giovanni kept the packed Osteria running smoothly around the six or so Thanksgiving tables, but the dessert was pure Carole.

The perfect pumpkin cheesecake
The perfect pumpkin cheesecake

The pumpkin cheesecake was a gift. Light as a cloud, but full of flavor. Not one of those ricotta or gelatin “cheesecakes” frequently found in Italy. Carole demands Philadelphia cream cheese for her recipe and a traditional graham cracker crust. The pumpkin was so present that it could have been a pumpkin pie, but without the dense heaviness. I tried to convince Carole that the Osteria should have a cheesecake offered on the menu all of the time.

Carole with more of her Thanksgiving friends
Carole with more of her Thanksgiving friends

Thank you Carole, Caterina and Giovanni. And what about Chiara Latini? Well I’m having Christmas lunch at Ristorante Latini located between Certaldo and San Gimignano. The menu? Pure Tuscan.

Antipasto classico con salumi locali e Prosciutto Salato.
Crostini misti
Sformati di Verdure
Fagioli Neri cotti nel Vinsanto

Tortellini fatti a mano in Brodo di Cappone
Caramelle di Patate Dolci con Sugo di Cervo

Nana al Forno
Faraona in Umido
Filetto al Forno con riduzione di Vino Rosso

Carciofi Fritti
Patate Arrosto

Tortina di Mele profumata alla Cannella
Panforte ai Fichi, Cantuccini, Tartufini
Ricciarelli del Panificio Catullo

All I can say in anticipation is “Gnam, gnam.” (Look it up.)

Thank goodness there are thirty days available for dieting and exercise …


Mangia! Mangia! – Marco Stabile Cooks an Egg

Francesca gave me a sorpresa one rainy day in September. She had gotten reservations for Chef Marco Stabile’s presentation at the Wine Town kitchen in the upper level of the Mercato Centrale of San Lorenzo.

Wine Town is an annual event in Florence
Wine Town is an annual event in Florence

Marco Stabile is my favorite chef in Florence. I wrote about lunch at Ora d’Aria and Frank Bruni recently remembered a dinner that included a deconstructed panzanella con coniglio affumicato (bread salad with smoked rabbit) in the New York Times.

Chef Marco Stabile presents at Wine Town
Chef Marco Stabile presents at Wine Town

But that day in September, Chef Stabile was cooking an egg – or, at least, that was the most interesting part for me – to be paired with a duck liver paté, herring caviar, breast meat of a free-range hen, brodo of the same hen, and crunchy buttery bread crumbs.

Paolo Paris and his egg from PaoloParisi.it
Paolo Paris and his egg from PaoloParisi.it

Now back to the egg. The egg had been laid by one of Paolo Parisi’s hens just days before. These Livornesi hens are famous partially for laying the most expensive eggs in Italy. I’ve eaten them in Chef Stabile’s version of green eggs and ham (egg, purée of broccoli, and pancetta) and, more recently, topping a purée of porcini mushrooms, garnished with a crispy fried slice of the same mushroom.

The Parisi egg becomes a egg packet ready for boiling water
The Parisi egg becomes a egg packet ready for boiling water

Chef Sabile prepares the egg by first brushing a large piece of plastic wrap with extra virgin olive oil. He cracks one egg in the center of the oiled sheet and gathers it into a little sack without breaking the yoke. Slowly he tightens the sack around the egg, forcing all of the air out. Finally, he ties a knot in the plastic.

Stabile's dish before the broth and bread crumbs are added
Stabile's dish before the broth and bread crumbs are added

The egg is the last step of this fairly complicated dish – the paté of duck liver takes much longer to make and must cool for hours – waiting until all of the other ingredients are ready before it is dunked in boiling water for exactly 4 minutes. Each ingredient gets a place on the plate and the dish is brought to the table with a small pitcher of hot chicken broth (brodo).

At the Wine Town event, each member of the audience got a plate with the brodo already poured ,which disturbed the presentation a bit, but not too much.

Fabulous food inspired by Marco Stabile
Fabulous food inspired by Marco Stabile

My friend Lynette once gave me a lesson in the perfect dish at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco. We were eating a Garlic Flan. The perfect dish, Lynette said, has a pleasing color palette, a diverse texture combination (crunchy, liquid, creamy, chewy, etc.), and a variety of tastes (sweet, salty, sour, etc.). Marco Stabile’s creation of egg, paté, bread crumb, herring egg, chicken breast and broth had all of that – the perfect dish. And delicious, too.

The top of the 1865 Central Market
The top of the 1865 Central Market