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The 2017 Olive Harvest

23 Oct

Every year, around mid to late October, many Cortonese hope to begin harvesting their olives. I use the word hope because Mother Nature plays a huge role in the success of the harvest. While 2015 was a bountiful year, the complete opposite was true for 2016 due to the dreaded mosca (fly).  And this year, the 2017 harvest was severely limited by the drought…hence,  small quantity but good quality olives depending on the location of one’s olive grove.

Nonetheless, October begins the eagerly anticipated time “olio nuovo” (new oil) signs begin to appear in restaurants and stores. And it is also a time when locals invite friends to celebrate their production. Lucky for us, friends invited us to dinner last night, but didn’t tell us they had already been to the frantoio (mill) to begin processing their olives.

As soon as we entered the cantina, we knew we were in for a treat. The bright green color and the light peppery taste of freshly pressed olive oil is unlike that of any other oil.

 

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Lapo and Paola like to call this a peasant dinner – simple and fresh food picked from the garden or locally sourced, all designed to highlight the taste of the new oil.

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New oil is traditionally first tasted as a bruschetta  – toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and topped with the oil. We each made our own. Delicious.

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We also added the oil to a dash of salt in tiny bowls – a wonderful dip for fresh vegetables from the garden.

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Next came what Len calls an Italian version of hummus, this one made from ceci (chickpeas), drizzled with the oil and topped with a sprig of rosemary. Can’t wait to try this myself.

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The dish that followed was a type of bread soup, pappa al pomodoro, topped with a drizzle of oil. Simple, delicious and perfect for an autumn evening. 

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Now this is Italy, remember, so you know there is more to follow, and what followed was rosemary roasted chicken and potatoes, with a splash of oil of course!

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Now not all olives are turned into oil, as was the case with these tasty herb and orange marinated olives, served as a side dish.

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For dessert, we were treated to Paola’s delicious torta della nonna, (grandmother’s cake), a traditional Tuscan dessert with a light custard. (I forgot to ask if she added a drop of the new oil to it!) Not being much of a baker, I bought the others at a local pasticceria. 

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So that’s how we celebrate the olive harvest in Cortona, enjoying what Mother Nature provides, combined with the hard work of locals who pick by hand. 

From this…

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to this. Doesn’t get much better.

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Our thanks to Lapo and Paola for an always entertaining and delicious evening together. Complimenti to the cook and grazie for your friendship!

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Ciao,
Judy

Do You Really Know FCO?

25 Jun

Looking back over the years, since my junior year of college in Rome, I’ve probably landed or taken off from FCO more than 40 times. The formal name of Rome’s largest airport is the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, but to many, the Rome Fiumicino Airport is simply known as FCO, short for Fiumicino.

Like most travelers, the less time spent at an airport the better, so at the end of each Cortona stay, we would leave in the wee hours of the morning to catch a late morning flight home. But last year, when the traffic stress got to be too much, we joined the ranks of those spending the night before departure near FCO.

Not wanting to stay at the airport, we did some research and much to our surprise, we discovered that Fiumicino is much more than an airport. Fiumicino is a town/comune in Metropolitan Rome, with a population over 77,000. And based on its location, the northern side of the mouth of the Tiber river, it’s also an important source of fresh fish for Rome.  Best of all for us, it offers travelers a place to walk, relax, and eat well prior to an international flight.

A stroll along the Tiber is filled with colorful fishing boats,

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fishing nets,

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fishermen,

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fisher “birds”,

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and fishing apparatus of every kind.

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The long walk, adjacent to the river, is also filled with a variety of shops, tabacchi, restaurants, bars, gelato shops, etc.

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This June was our third stay in Fiumicino, and our custom is to take a long walk to the end of the pier and enjoy the incredible sunset before stopping for dinner.

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Wanting to eat light, we discovered this gem last year – Uniti nel Gusto (United in Taste).

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This year, upon returning, we got to know the owners who, by the way, are not nearly as stern as the photo suggests. Trust me, it’s an Italian thing.

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We chose a wonderful array of appetizers to go with the best bread we have ever had in Italy –

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really, the BEST!

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On the way back to the hotel, I mentioned to Len that it would be interesting to spend a day here, seeing the fishing boats head out to sea and return with their hauls. Besides, we had so many questions about it all.

The next morning, we awoke to emails telling us our flight was delayed, then rebooked, then ultimately cancelled. Hmm. I guess we get that day in Fiumicino after all.

After a long walk including other parts of town, we put aside some slight concerns we had about eating fish before a flight and headed to the end of the “pier” to Al Molo Bastianelle for lunch. Our waiter assured us that the fish had just arrived, so why not try?

We began with insalata di mare, a freshly made seafood salad,

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followed by sautéed sole and roasted potatoes.

Both the setting and the food turned out to be great choices!

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After lunch, the boats began to return.

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Fortunately, we stopped to talk to the one person who could easily answer our questions.

Massimo was born in Sicily, raised in Gloucester, MA, and now worked in Fiumicino on a large fishing boat. When I approached him with my best Italian, he turned and said with a Boston accent and his best smile, “Do you speak English?” …He had us at Hello.

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Massimo explained that they prepare the boats each afternoon and head out to sea at 11:30 pm. They sweep, or drop the nets, usually three times, then return home the following day at 3:30 in the afternoon. When they return, they stop at the end of the pier to unload the day’s catch. The fish is weighed and immediately taken to auction. Len had some other fishing questions, including how often. “Five days a week.” Obviously, fishing is not a hobby here.

Before saying our goodbyes, Massimo said, “Follow the sign and you’ll find the auction.”

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Follow we did and came across this serious and immaculate setting, which we were not allowed to enter. Seeing how clean it was made us feel even better about what we had just eaten.

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On the right side behind the railing, the buyers are bidding as the auction takes place. If I understand correctly, there is even a doctor on site monitoring the quality. Fish auctioned here remains in Rome.

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Massimo also explained that undersized fish cannot be sold at the auction, hence the vendors on the pier.

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Satisfied that our questions were answered, we walked more, until the sun set once again.

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Eventually, we ended the evening back with our new friends at Uniti Nel Gusto.

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As it turned out, exploring Fiumicino was the perfect way to spend a flight delay. And now you know FCO – so very much more than an airport!

Ciao,
Judy

San Feliciano Umbria

18 May

After many years in Cortona, I thought we had visited most towns and villages that surround Lake Trasimeno, but not surprisingly, there is always another gem to discover. Knowing we love fresh fish, some friends suggested we head to Ristorante Da Massimo in San Feliciano, Umbria. The restaurant is nestled on a quiet hill overlooking the lake.

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Meet Massimo, chef and proprietor of this over 25 year-old restaurant.

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We began with appetizers, and they were so good, we jumped right in and I didn’t get photos. Len and I shared an enormous plate of spaghetti con vongole (clams), one of the best we have eaten in Italy, while our friends shared a mixed seafood appetizer – first cold seafood then hot.

While this is not what we ate, I was able to get a photo of this spaghetti with mixed seafood.

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For our second course, Len and I shared grilled spigola, or sea bass, and it was delicious!

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Our friends ordered the oven roasted version with potatoes and olives.

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To accompany our meal, we drank a light sparkling white wine, perfect with seafood.

After coffee, we decided to take a walk in the town. From Cortona, the winding scenic ride along the lake eventually brings you to this small fishing village, perhaps “on the map” as it is one of the places you can catch a ferry to Isola Polvese in the lake. San Feliciano is about 35-45 kilometers from Cortona, depending on your route.

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Being that it was a weekday, and not quite summer, the town was quiet and we had much of it to ourselves. Not sure how busy it gets in summer, but there are campgrounds nearby, so our timing was perfect. In addition, in late July each year, the town hosts the annual Festa del Giacchio, a festival that pays tribute to an old fishing technique dating back to Etruscan times. Although the technique is no longer used on the lake, during the festival there are demonstrations, competitions, and opportunities to participate in all kinds of events.

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Len has long wanted to rent a small boat and fish in Lake Trasimeno, and San Feliciano seems to fit the bill perfectly. Perhaps the best part for me is that Len can throw back whatever he catches, and after a relaxing day, we can all eat well at Ristorante Da Massimo, no fish cleaning or cooking required.

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Ristorante Da Massimo and San Feliciano, two great additions to our list of favorite places!

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Ciao,
Judy

Pasqua and Pasquetta

17 Apr

Yesterday throughout Italy, families and friends gathered after mass for warm hugs, long Easter lunches and lively conversation. Intermittent rain showers didn’t dampen any spirits, although we were happy we ate inside.

We joined some friends at their beautiful home just past Pergo, a short ride from Cortona. We’ve been before, but it is always a pleasure to return as the setting is incredible.

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Len, of course, needed to check out the 1975 Fiat 500 parked in the drive.

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The house, built in the late 1700’s, was originally a farm-house, but is now a beautifully restored/renovated home with guest house, covered pool, garage and incredible 360° views, (and it is on the market as grandchildren live too far away!)*

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We began on the terrace with a Prosecco toast.

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Then lunch was served in the dining room.

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Unfortunately, I missed taking photos of the delicious chicken with gorgonzola lunch, but desserts included a traditional Easter colombo – a dove shaped cake…

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as well as fresh strawberries and cream on sponge cake.

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After a few attempts, we even managed to take a timed selfie.

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Afterward, some of us took a leisurely stroll around the property, admiring the views…

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while others retired to the terrace.

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Many thanks to our gracious hosts, shown in a photo I took of them on our last visit.

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Pasqua and Pasquetta, Easter and Easter Monday, two holidays in Italy, the first religious, the second not. Once again today, Cortona was packed with people. In fact, both yesterday and today, there were traffic jams.

But today, Pasquetta, is a day set aside for relaxation. All the solemnity and preparation of Easter are over, and it is a day to relax, except, of course, for restaurants and retail shops who serve the masses of people enjoying a day off.

Strolling is the norm, so strolling we did. The park was filled with people,

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taking in the views.

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Others were enjoying entertainment in the piazzas, including the Old Florence Dixie Band,

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and just appreciating the beautiful day.

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Between the park and the piazza, we found an empty park bench and literally put our feet up as we took in the view.

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Late afternoon, we headed home for a brief riposo (rest) before meeting friends for dinner.

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And that’s what one does in Cortona for Pasqua and Pasquetta, a perfectly lovely few days.

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Ciao,
Judy

*Note: Many have asked me what the inside of an Italian house looks like. If interested, you can see more photos via the listing link below.

http://www.abodeitaly.com/property/68c/tuscany/casa-giordano-piazzano/arezzo/farmhouses-and-count/4-bedrooms

 

 

Risotto Made Easy

3 Apr

Although my mother was a great Italian cook,  risotto was not something I grew up eating. My ancestors were from southern Italy, so pasta with red sauce was the norm.  When I finally learned about risotto, it always seemed like something that required too much patience and time to cook.

Lucky for me, my native Italian friends have taken the mystery out of risotto.

Tonight I made risotto con cipolle e piselli – risotto with onions and peas. Perhaps the most important tip I have learned is to use Carnaroli rice. It seems foolproof and makes a wonderfully creamy risotto. A second tip is to flavor the water or broth with what I am adding to the risotto.

Obviously, you can make risotto many different ways, but I thought I’d share my simple recipe for others who are hesitant to make it. And, Len said it was really good!

Tonight’s Simple Recipe: (measurements are suggestions!)

Ingredients:
Carnaroli rice, onion, garlic, water or broth, peas, olive oil, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste.

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Directions:
Start with two pots: one for the liquid and another for the risotto. Use a ratio of about 3;1, liquid to rice.

  1. Add 3 cups of water (or broth)  to the small pot and 1/2 cup frozen peas; heat to boil, then lower to keep simmering.
  2. In the larger pot, sauté one medium onion and one garlic clove in olive oil for a few minutes, then add one cup of risotto, and sauté a few more minutes. Don’t burn the rice!
  3. Begin to add the hot liquid to the risotto, one ladle at a time. Stir a bit and when the liquid is almost absorbed, add another ladle and stir, and continue in this process until the risotto is done, about 15-20 minutes. Note: I used all of the liquid, but did not stir constantly.
  4. Turn off heat, add parmesan cheese and stir. Salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Ladle into bowls, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with parmesan cheese, and enjoy.

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Ciao,
Judy

Note: Broth and white wine are great liquid substitutes or additions (when you have them!), but water works fine, as do any number of vegetables, e.g., roasted red peppers, mushrooms, asparagus.  Be creative and let me know what you come up with!

 

 

Familiar Footing

30 Mar

Why did we fall in love with Cortona? So very many reasons, but suffice it to say we did –  this being our eighth stay. And although so much is familiar, this ancient Etruscan town never ceases to amaze.

The incredible views…

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Local food sourcing… (10 huge fresh artichokes for under $4.50!)

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Tiny cars that seem to suck in their sides as they traverse the hills and uneven narrow streets – (my Fiat 500).

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And of course, the delicious food.

AD Braceria ©Blogginginitaly.com

AD Braceria ©Blogginginitaly.com

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First day of 2017 outside seating at Tuscher Caffe ©Blogginginitaly.com

The weather has been perfect – blue sky sunny days, cool nights, and signs of Spring’s magnificent return in the colors popping up everywhere.

And while all of the above is wonderful, nothing quite compares to the sincere smiles and heartfelt “ben tornato” (welcome back) long embraces we’ve received from our local friends.

I guess the answer to my opening question is simple: they are truly the reason we fell in love with Cortona and why we happily return.

For now, time to give in to jet lag, but much more to come.

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Buona Festa di San Giuseppe! Happy St. Joseph’s Day!

19 Mar

Today is the feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of the family, and it is a feast day celebrated by Italians everywhere.  It is also Father’s Day in Italy.

Most of the rest of this post comes from a previous one, but the thoughts and sentiments are the same.

Growing up in a neighborhood filled with many Irish and Italian families, I was always happy that the Italians also had their day in March to celebrate.

Joseph the Carpenter, 1642, Louvre, by Georges de La Tour

Joseph the Carpenter, 1642, Louvre, by Georges de La Tour

Of course, not quite as loud or rowdy as St. Patrick’s Day, we nonetheless celebrated the feast of St. Joseph with a food fest. And while the Irish had their green beer and accessories, the Italians, often sporting something red, had their zeppole, a cream filled fried pastry that originated in Napoli.

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According to my fellow blogger, MariaGiovanna, (Sharing My Italy) the “Zeppole di SanGiuseppe” originated in Naples, Italy, “where the first recipe was put on paper, in 1837, by the famous Neapolitan gastronome Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to be in Italy to enjoy a zeppole. In Chicago, they can be found in authentic Italian bakeries such as Ferrara Bakery on Taylor Street. Light, airy and filled with cream, it is fun to see the smiles they generate on those wiping the cream from their lips.

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At this time of year, Ferrara’s and Italian bakeries everywhere are busy filling and selling hundreds of dozens of the cream filled gems.

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So, to those looking to get beyond the grey days of winter, here’s an idea – participate in a St. Joseph’s Day custom by sharing some food with the needy and with some friends, and, of course, be sure to bring some zeppole!

And a very Happy Father’s Day to our Italian friends.

Ciao,
Judy

La Cannuccia, C. del Lago

10 Oct

Winter arrived today, so say the Italians, as the winds were strong and the dark clouds made the temperatures drop. Suddenly, fashion consisted of turtlenecks, an abundance of scarves, and “puffy” (down) coats and jackets. Luckily for us, we were prepared.

With a sprinkle in the air in Cortona, we got in our Fiat 500, destination unknown, and soon found ourselves in Castiglione del Lago. Stronger winds and bigger clouds greeted us,

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but without rain, and a goal of fresh air and exercise, we were happy to walk as we had the lake and view to ourselves.

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Water is mesmerizing, and as we walked, we watched the waves crash upon the rocks. The seagulls were playing what looked like Marco Polo, that “catch me if you can” game we played as kids and they played with the waves.

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After awhile, the clouds broke across the lake and the sun shone like a spotlight on several of the hill towns.

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Eventually, we stopped for lunch at La Cannuccia, our lakeside go-to cafe. We ordered our usual split lunch, a grilled panino and mixed salad, which is served with delicious warm rolls.

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After lunch, Riccardo asked if we were football fans.

“I’m a big baseball fan at the moment,” I replied, “as I’m from Chicago and …”

“Chicago Cubs!” he said and smiled.

“We live about two miles from…”

“Wrigley Field!” he exclaimed.

“You must like baseball,” I said.

“Not so much. It can be boring, especially when there is a pitching battle,” he replied.

“Like the first game the other night…” 

“When the Cubs won 1-0 against the San Francisco Giants,” he quickly replied.

“We haven’t won in over a century, and…” 

“The goat,” he said, and raised his hands like Italians do. “I don’t believe.”

By now, Len was intrigued. Since our dear friends, Carrol and Larry, had left weeks ago, Len had not found anyone to have a good baseball conversation with. And here was Riccardo, born and raised locally, owner of a bar in Castiglione del Lago in the center of Italy, speaking English, he – a fountain of knowledge about American baseball, a sport that wasn’t even his favorite.

After they talked baseball for a bit, I asked what Il Cannuccia means. “It’s the tall grass that grows in a swamp,” he said, as he pointed to the bottom right of a giant photo on the face of the bar.  100 years ago, much of the lake was a swamp.

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The present bar was built in the 50’s. It has been in Riccardo’s family since the mid 70’s and is now operated by Riccardo and his brother Simone.

La Cannuccia Bar©Blogginginitaly.com

La Cannuccia Bar©Blogginginitaly.com

I asked if I could take a few pictures.  “Sure, but the best view is looking out.”

La Cannuccia Bar©Blogginginitaly.com

La Cannuccia Bar©Blogginginitaly.com

Easy to see why he thinks that and one of the reasons we keep returning.

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After lunch, I considered having gelato, as theirs is very good. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, Ricardo asked if we like cream. “Sure, why not,” I answered, and he set off to make something special for us.

He arrived with this.

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This incredibly light “sugar donut” is called a ciambella. He quartered it, and topped it with  panna fresca, (fresh cream,) and cacao candela, (cinnamon). My sister Florence and her husband Vince would have ordered this and skipped the salad and panino. Benita too.

Castiglione del Lago in Umbria is about 30 minutes from Cortona on the SW corner of Lago Trasimeno. Although Cortona is a city where you don’t need a car, if you have one, it is such fun exploring all the neighboring towns, taking in the sights, and making interesting new friends like Riccardo. Who knew???

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

Sunflowers, Take Your Bow

8 Sep

If you close your eyes and imagine a Tuscan landscape, it’s hard not to picture a field of sunflowers or girasole. 

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They are as much a part of the vistas as olive groves and vineyards. These magnificent yellow flowers are planted each spring and perform their role admirably throughout the summer, standing tall and delighting all who seek them out. They generously pose for hours on end for cameras, never complaining or shying away from the sun. And they are a beautiful addition to any table setting.

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Then in the fall, after months of performing, they stand together and begin their final bow.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

Even after they have lost their bright yellow color, sunflowers still have much to offer in harvest. As mentioned before in a previous post, …

  1. Sunflower seeds are edible, whether eaten raw, cooked, roasted or dried. They are a nutritious snack containing protein, vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, nitrogen and iron.
  2. Some people ground the seeds to make flour for cakes and breads.
  3. The seed heads are a source of food for birds and animals. Sunflower seeds are a major ingredient in commercial birdseed.
  4. Sunflower oil is a popular vegetable oil known for its light colour, mild flavour, low levels of saturated fats and ability to withstand high cooking temperatures.
  5. The oil can also be added to soap, lubricants and candles.
  6. Sunflower oil can help relieve skin conditions, hemorrhoids and ulcers.
  7. Sunflower roots can remove radiation from soils and water. They were used to clean up the Chernobyl disaster.
  8. The root of the plant is also used in traditional herbal medicine to treat snake bites and spider bites.
  9. The flowers can be used to make an all natural dye.
  10. The stalks are used to make paper and clothes.

So, as the sunflowers take a well deserved bow, it’s nice to know we benefit from them in so many other ways.

Ovation, please!

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©Blogginginitaly.com

Ciao,
Judy

Award Winning Tomato!

6 Sep

Planting an orto or garden in Italy last spring was delightful; sampling the results was delicious; but having an award-winning tomato was divine. In fact, the neighboring farmers were scratching their heads.

Our prize tomato, a Cuor di Bue, weighed in at nearly 2.2 pounds or about 1 kilogram!

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It was so heavy it actually broke the branch during a storm, but fortunately, it had a soft landing and remained unbruised.

©Blogginginitaly.com Cuor di Bue

©Blogginginitaly.com Cuor di Bue

We let it ripen another two days out of the sun.

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You might recognize this tomato as a Beefsteak variety. Its name, Cuor di Bue, literally means heart of an ox because of its distinctive shape. It matures late and when ripe, has an orangey-red color.

Now for the tasting. The team consisted of Fernanda, who selected the plant from the nursery last April, Len and Carlo, who planted it, and yours truly, documenting everything.

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Since the normal weight for this tomato is about 7-8 ounces, and ours weighed 2.2 POUNDS, I was a bit concerned that such a large tomato might not taste great, but then this is Italy, the land that loves its tomatoes.

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And the result?…Perfect!

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It even had few seeds, which I have since learned can make a tomato more acidic.

Cuor di Bue are ideal for eating with fresh mozzarella and basil, as we did. Our tomato produced four extra-large steaks.

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Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, add a dash of salt and pepper, and enjoy!

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Divine!

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

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