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Lunchtime in Italia

13 Apr

Lunch (Pranzo) in Italy is a great time to enjoy fresh homemade food and local wine with family and/or friends, and yesterday was no exception. Well, actually it was quite the exception due to the incredible seafood feast which was prepared for our return by dear friends. Feast your eyes on this.

First Course (left pot):
Cozze e Vongole (Mussels and Clams)

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Second Course:
Pasta con Cozze, Calamari, Gamberetti e Gamberi
(Pasta with Muscles, Calamari, Shrimp and Prawns)

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Third Course: Gamberi in Padella e Verdure
(Prawns in the Pan and Vegetables)

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The ingredients were simple, the smell and taste divine – fresh seafood, local olive oil, garlic, a splash of brandy, salt, pepper and parsley.

I can’t think of a much better way to spend an afternoon than with delicious food, wonderful wine, dear friends, lively conversation, and loads of love and laughter. And of course, all of this followed by a Torta della Colomba di Pasqua (Easter dove cake), sambuca and caffe.

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Perhaps Virginia Woolf said it best:

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well,
if one has not dined well.”

Many thanks and sincerest compliments to our hosts/friends/amazing chefs!

Ciao,
Judy

An Ode to Springtime in Cortona

6 Apr

When an 8 1/2 hour flight turns into a 40+ hour unexpected project, it is heartwarming to be embraced by the outstretched arms of Cortona – its historic buildings, incredible views, wonderful food and most of all, its warm and gracious people. It’s no wonder that, over Easter weekend, Cortona was ranked the number one preferred Italian destination by Airbnb.

Thus, our familiar walks have inspired my very simplistic verse:

Ode to Springtime in Cortona

With temperatures rising,
the buds are bursting and the sun is shining.

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Many are walking as others are riding.

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As the fog is lifting, it is quite revealing –
the dandelions are popping
and the hillsides are greening.

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All the while,
the bright shiny Vespas and motos keep careening.

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So many places for delicious dining;

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accompanied, of course, by Tuscan wine(ing).

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And no matter what age, Gelato always brings smiling.

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So if you are seeking a place which is lovely and inspiring,

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Cortona in Springtime is simply beguiling.

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Ciao,
Judy

Riccardo Trattoria

8 Feb

Last night, Len, Benita and I shared an early Valentine’s Dinner at our favorite Riccardo Trattoria and took advantage of Chicago’s Restaurant Week special pricing. For just $33/person, we each selected three dishes from the ANTIPASTI, PASTA E RISOTTI, CARNE E PESCE, and DOLCI menus, and then shared them family style.

We have been patrons of Riccardos since it opened in early 2006, even before it had been granted its liquor license. We saw the sign on the door and were delighted that an authentic Italian restaurant was opening just blocks from home. And it has not disappointed – ever – probably because owner/chef Riccardo Michi began his career and ignited his passion at a young age in Milan in the family business and continues his passion today.

So what did we feast on?

For starters:

 

Followed by:

 

And finally dessert:

 

Delicious, fun, and lucky for us, a little trip to Italy just a few blocks from home. 

Buon Appetito and an early wish for a Happy Valentine’s Day!

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

Pesto for All Seasons

13 Dec

In Italy, you won’t find broccoli or cauliflower in summer markets, and conversely, you generally won’t find large bunches of basil in winter markets. One of the reasons we love the food in Italy is that it is always seasonal.

In the U.S., we too have wonderful seasonal food, however, we often can get “out of season” food nearly all year long. Like those bunches of basil. Hence, I can make fresh pesto on December 13 when the outside temperature is 34°.

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Yesterday, I bought three packs of fresh basil from Trader Joe’s. For me, the worst part of making pesto is the prep – carefully washing and drying the leaves and removing the stems.

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Although ingredients and directions vary widely, mine are as follows and amounts are suggestions:

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To the food processor, add and process until chunky:

  • 5-7 peeled cloves of garlic*
  • 8 ounces of pine and/or walnuts

Then,

  • Pack the bowl with 3-4 cups of fresh basil leaves and process quickly until mixed
  • Slowly stream in 1/2 cup olive oil, mix
  • Add 8 ounces of pecorino cheese, mix
  • Add additional olive oil for consistency
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

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*I learned something interesting about garlic today. When I peeled the first clove, I noticed it had sprouted.

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I had never seen this before, so I did a bit of research. Apparently, sprouted garlic isn’t harmful, it’s just more bitter, so I opted for another garlic head.

When the pesto is ready, and Len and I have completed our taste tests,

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I separate the pesto into small containers with tight lids that can be kept in the fridge or freezer. Covering the top of the pesto with olive oil helps maintain the freshness and color. To defrost, I simply leave in the fridge overnight or on the counter for a few hours.

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There you have it, pesto tonight, next week, or in a few months, ready whenever our taste buds are yearning, no matter the season. And we don’t limit pesto to pasta – we use it with appetizers or as a marinade on beef, poultry and even fish.

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

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Still Saying “I Do!”

30 Oct

Wednesday was the last night in Cortona of our 9th stay, and also happened to be our 30th anniversary. 

We began the day with a wonderful walk through the parterre, bathed in sunshine and enjoying the magnificent October weather and views.

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We ended the evening, surrounded by friends, at our favorite Tuscher Caffè.

We had told Massimo and Daniela we wanted to host a Brindisi D’Anniversario, or Anniversary Toast, with simple finger food…but of course, they always do so much more than expected. 

We arrived a bit early to find Dani and Edoardo making the final touches on the buffet…

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and Massimo ready to open the Prosecco.

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The food was not only delicious, but so creative! 

As we waited for our guests, Len rehearsed his toast. When all had assembled, we took our first group photo. Well done, Francesco!

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After more toasts and eating, Len asked for attention. He began by apologizing for his Italian, but was quickly reassured by the group that his effort was well appreciated. Toasting our friends in his best Italian, he thanked them for their sincere friendship and for making us truly feel that Cortona is our second home.

And then he turned to me, with these words, also in Italian… “You are the butter on my bread and the fire in my heart.” Melted.

While the food was being cleared, we made some attempts at gender photos…

And then we were doubly surprised by the dessert…

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First, that it was a gift from dear friends from Toronto, Carrol and Larry, and second, that all this time I thought I was married to LEN! (Technology can be great as we were able to FaceTime them in Toronto while cutting the cake!)

Such a wonderful evening, full of laughter, smiles, stories, and most of all dear friends. 

30 years ago, 

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And today…

As I reflect on the the past 30 years, what comes to mind most is how blessed we have been and how thankful we are for our loving family, our dear friends, and our ongoing adventures. 

Hoping to get just one more group photo before we departed, we stopped a person walking by outside and asked him to take a photo. It was quickly evident this was not something he was used to doing… with his finger half over the lens and quite shaky!

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But alas, with pure luck, he took this. A little finger shadow top left, but all in all, a great memory of a wonderful evening!

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Many thanks to Daniela and Massimo for their hard work…we so love having parties at Tuscher. And our heartfelt love and thanks to family and friends, whether with us at Tuscher or from far away, for the wonderful anniversary wishes. I hope they all do come true and that we have many more years to celebrate.

And yes, after 30 years, I am still saying “I Do!”

Ciao,
Judy

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

In Love with Liguria

27 Sep

(hopefully reprinted with full photo views)

Liguria, a four-province region in northwest Italy, lies on the Ligurian sea.

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It is bordered by France to the west, Piedmont to the north, and Emilia-Romana and Tuscany to the east.

Due to its breathtaking coastline, Liguria is also known as the Italian Riveria, as this narrow strip of land lies between the Mediterranean, the Alps and the Apennine mountains.

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While parts of Liguria have familiar names – Cinque Terre, Portofino, and Sanremo, others are much less known.

Liguria is the original source of pesto, and it is easy to understand when driving through some of the towns. Basil is grown in an abundance throughout the year.

Trenette is a traditional form of regional pasta served with pesto alla genovese, which can also include potatoes and green beans boiled in the same water.

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We had never been to Liguria before last week, and now it is one of our favorite places. Town after town graces the Mediterranean, yet each has its own identity. We visited several with friends, one of whom calls Liguria home.

After a literal 2-hour complete shut down of the autostrada near Arezzo, and a 5+ hour drive, we were happy to finally arrive in Loano. My first sight of the sea, albeit cloudy, brought a smile to my face.

Then off to join Daniela’s family who welcomed us with warm hugs and hot soup.

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The next day, we walked along the sea and took in the views from Loano and Verezzi. The photos tell the story best.

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After a beautiful morning of sightseeing, we enjoyed a Tuscan lunch, complete with chianina beef, sausage, and Sangiovese brought from Cortona. And yes, there was even a large collection of pet turtles to entertain us!

Now, one would think this lunch would suffice for the day, but hey, this is Italy, so later that evening, we headed out for seafood, a major staple of Ligurian cuisine, as well as Lumassina, a local white wine.

After dinner, we visited a dear friend’s shop to purchase some fresh pesto.

Wednesday was Monaco/Monte Carlo day, about 60 miles from Loano. I had visited both when I was a student in Rome, and while the sights remain beautiful, today the tourists and cars are dense.

On the way back to Italy, we stopped for what turned out to be a rather “rude” lunch in Menton, along the French border, so we were happy to join Italian cousins for dinner later that night.

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Thursday was my very favorite day. We headed to Alassio, a neighboring Ligurian town, for a most relaxed morning of boating and swimming.

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Up next, a moto ride for me around the harbor before a delicious seafood lunch.

Afterward, we strolled through colorful Alassio and learned some of its history.

In the early 1950s, Alassio was a capital of international highlife along the Riveria. The owner of Caffè Roma came up with the idea to create a wall with the autographs he had collected of famous people that came to the bar, including Ernest Hemingway. Hence, the Muretto di Alassio was born and now boasts about 550 tiles.

After our walk, we drove to the top of the cliff to visit Santa Croce Church and take in the marvelous views of the sea and Isola Gallinara.

Now just in case you’re concerned we might not be able to handle this lifestyle, we found our motto early on…

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Our last night was a “typical small Italian family” gathering for pizza. 

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It was hard to leave this beautiful part of Italy, but we know we’ll return. To ease our “sorrow”, we stopped in Portofino for lunch on the way home. 

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Len and I began planning our trip to Liguria a year ago. It ended up being so much more than we had ever expected – the natural beauty, the sea, the people, the food, the colors, and most of all, the incredible hospitality shown to us. 

And now since it is Wednesday, I can finally say:

Buon Compleanno, Dani. Tantissimi Auguri cara amica!

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Grazie per una vacanza che ricorderemo sempre!
Thank you for a holiday we will always remember!

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

How Does My Orto (Garden) Grow?

26 Aug

Many have asked me that question, especially due to the unrelenting heat wave and lack of rain in Tuscany. In Italian, the saying goes, “non c’è male” or not bad, and that’s my answer. Not great, and not poorly, simply not bad, especially compared to what I’ve seen.

Usually in late summer, sunflowers look like this…

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This year, they look like this.

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As for the orto, since it is small, it has been watered and has some shade. While not nearly producing the quantity of last year,

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it’s not barren either.

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And although small, the tomatoes still taste delicious.

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So while I enjoy them,

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I’ll dream of sunflowers and hope they return healthier than ever next year.

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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

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