Once, under the Tuscan sun…

I am in an almost perennial state of longing for Italy. Hubby has Italy on his mind as well. The fervor is fueled constantly as we watch our current favorite Italian TV series.  Una pallottola nel cuoro—the English title,  Bulletproof Heart. We watch Euro TV almost every night, thanks to MHZ Choice, which we began streaming several years ago. Every time we do, we are transported. In the case of Bulletproof Heart, it’s to Rome. Tonight, however, I’m recalling a trip from Florence through the Tuscan countryside. And if you haven’t read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, please do. It’s a delight—and SO much better than the movie!

I dream of Italy

When the weekend approaches, I often find myself daydreaming about all the wonderful places we’ve been. I’ve got Italy on my mind today, perhaps because it’s so warm and sunny here, perhaps because there are beautiful fresh tomatoes on the counter and basil thriving in the backyard, perhaps because there’s a field of sunflowers nearby, perhaps because I never really get Italy (or France, for that matter) entirely out of my head…

So today I’m sharing a few photos of our daydream-worthy visit to the remarkable, enchanting Cinque Terre. I’ve shown you photos of some of the food we enjoyed in this magical region in a previous post, but this time it’s all about the views. Do enjoy, and do visit if you’re lucky enough to be in Italy.

 

Cover photo: “Modern” recreational vessels punctuate an ancient seascape in Monterosso al Mare. Each of these photos is my own work.

A versatile veggie roast, Italian style

Like many of us, I roast vegetables all winter long—mostly root vegetables, since I try to cook with the seasons. I use whatever I have on hand; sometimes, it’s turnips or parsnips with the usual carrots, onions, potatoes, or sweet potatoes. Sometimes, it’s Brussels sprouts, broccoli, a hunk of cabbage, or red beets.  If I have a stray apple, I might throw that in, too.

When summer arrives, however, I am OVER roasting vegetables. Who wants to turn the oven on in the heat? But as I write this, I am literally about to eat my words, thanks to an Italian cooking video from the website Fatto in Casa da Benedetta (homemade by Benedetta, roughly) that turned up on Facebook. She calls the dish Mix di verdure al forno says you can use it a thousand ways. You probably can. This array of eggplant, zucchini, carrot, celery, onion, potato, tomato, bell pepper, and any fresh or dried herbs that you prefer looked so irresistible and versatile that I just had to try it. The links above are to her website and the actual video recipe, respectively.

I’ve looked through some of her other recipes and have been impressed at the simple flavors and easy construction. Don’t be intimidated by the Italian. You don’t have to know it to get the point—just watch carefully and pause/repeat if you miss something. That’s not cheese she’s sprinkling, by the way—it’s bread crumbs to soak up the liquid from the fresh vegetables, as my cousin Nadia pointed out. I missed that and would have been adding grated pecorino romano or parmigiano without her good counsel. You could always do that anyway, of course.

Pay attention to  the different ways that Benedetta uses this lovely summer dish. Added to a large wrap spread first with ricotta, for example. Spread on grilled Italian bread for bruschetta. In a savory tart. Or even frozen to use at a later date. Tonight, I planned to have the verdure with pasta, but they were so good that I never even boiled the water.

A couple of notes:

  • Benedetta says to cut the eggplant and the squash in larger chunks because, of course, they cook more quickly.
  • 200° Celsius converts to 392° Fahrenheit (oh, the wonders of the Internet!). I started my sheet pan at that temperature, checked mid-way, and turned it down to 375°. Everyone’s oven is different; the recommended hour cooking time was perfect.
  • I used ribbons of fresh basil and parsley from the garden, cut with the herb scissors my sister-in-law gave me (see photo below). Nadia suggested fresh mint. Whatever you like.

Benedetta, you’ve found a fan! Next up: your ceci (chick pea) salad.

Roman holiday

I’ve been sitting here tonight with Hubby and Miss Pup enjoying Roman Holiday for the umpteenth time. It never loses its luster. If you need reasons to love it, I’ll give you three, in no particular order:

Rome
Audrey Hepburn
Gregory Peck

Although “iconic” has become so overused as to be almost meaningless, Roman Holiday is replete with scenes that truly do seem iconic to me. After all, this is the movie that introduced not only Audrey Hepburn, but also the Vespa, to the rest of the world. And talk about impact: it gives me shivers when Hepburn’s princess rounds that dark corner to return to her “real” life, as Peck’s reporter, stricken with grief, watches helplessly from the car. More than 60 years later, I still fantasize about having that jaunty Italian haircut.

One of the things I’ve always loved about TCM is the back story, and Roman Holiday’s is fascinating. You should check it out on the TCM website.

When we had our own Roman holiday a few years ago, the streets were crowded with tourists, our time was limited, and it was difficult to get good pictures. I do, however, have photos of an extraordinary and memorable lunch we had, in a charming little restaurant, La Buca di Ripetta,  just outside the Piazza del Popolo. I’m sharing them with you tonight.

 

 

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Photos: Cover—gnocchi in a sauce infused with zucchini blossoms. Below, the menu, the wine we chose, vegetable fritters with aceto balsamico, lamb chops and potatoes.

Food we loved in Florence

Food memories, like song lyrics, stick.

One of our favorite places in Florence was San Michele all’Arco, a farm-to-table “resto” (kitchen in the photo above) with the most marvelous local olive oil, prosciutto, and cheese. The soup pictured below was just exquisite—every flavor came through, every flavor mattered. The same was true for everything else we enjoyed there.

We stumbled on  another neighborhood spot, I Ghibellini, in Piazza San Pier Maggiore,  just after we arrived in Florence.  We’d been on the train for half the day, we were starving, and it was the closest restaurant still serving lunch. Lucky for us! Oh, that pasta al limone! Oh, those exquisite white beans! Oh, that bistecca!

The things is… even though you can buy superior imported Italian products here, they don’t—they can’t— taste quite the same as they do at the source.

We returned to both restaurants several times, which is our habit when we find places we especially like. So often, the neighborhood places that don’t show up in the tour guides end up being the most memorable.

Cinque Terre delights

Whenever we travel, I take photos of what we eat—unless, of course, we’re in a restaurant where doing so would constitute bad behavior.

Today I’m sharing a few lovely food memories from Italy’s magnificent Cinque Terre, five picturesque villages on the Mediterranean coast of Liguria. Pesto reigns supreme there, but the spaghetti with clam sauce was the most exquisite I’ve ever tasted, probably because those little clams were gathered from the sea the day I ate them.

The trattoria pictured above is in Riomaggiore; the spaghetti a la vongole was in Monterosso al Mare, where we stayed. One of our favorite meals was actually a simple pizza night there. The ebullient owner was so very proud that his pizzeria, and the town itself, had come back from the devastating mud slides of the prior year. It was a joy to chat with him, and, especially, to be among the local families enjoying their pizza. That’s the kind of experience that many guidebooks wouldn’t suggest, but being part of “real, everyday life”  is precious to us. It’s  the difference between being a tourist on the outside edges and, however briefly, feeling a part of the community you are visiting.

Okay, I’m hungry now.

 

Adriana Trigiani’s Italian-Americans

I was thrilled to receive a pre-publication copy of Adriana Trigiani’s new book, Kiss Carlo, which goes on sale June 20. This post is more of an homage than a review. I’ve loved Trigiani’s books since my cousin Nina first handed me Lucia, Lucia in 2004. Since then,  I’ve read them all.

Suffice it to say that I can relate. Take those wedding reception sandwiches in wax paper bags that Trigiani describes in Queen of The Big Time, which is set in Roseto, in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. The only real memory I have of my grandmother is being in her kitchen in Maine, with  all the other Italian women from Smith Crossing, as they made and packaged sandwiches in wax paper bags for my Auntie Anna’s wedding.

Trigiani is a masterful storyteller. Over the years, I’ve followed the immigrants she writes about faithfully, as they left their tiny, impoverished villages to build new lives in the US, in locations as diverse as Minnesota, Manhattan, Hollywood, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Roseto, of course. You get to know Trigiani’s complicated characters through big screen-worthy dialogue, within a carefully honed historic and cultural context. Expect to laugh out loud at, fall in love with, get mad at, and cry over them. These are characters you miss when the book ends.

One of the things I love most about Adriana Trigiani’s books is that they have real-life inspirations. The Shoemaker’s Wife, for example, was based on her grandparents‘ story (the link is to a video trailer you will love). At the same time, her novels reveal the important mark that Italian-Americans have made on this country, what they endured, and the artistry and traditions they contributed (see her in the PBS tour de force, The Italian-Americans). The big, noisy Sunday dinners, the church at the center of family and community, the downright biblical family feuds may seem stereotypical to an outsider, but we insiders understand that they reflect what we grew up with… and, for good or ill, crawled out of.

Kiss Carlo is set largely in one of the nation’s most iconic Italian-American communities, South Philly. It’s a BIG story—a saga, in fact, through which Trigiani has wound what may seem an unlikely Shakespearean thread. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Apart from my humble opinion that everything you need to know about life can be found in Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, the play that figures in the plot, is a tale of masquerade and discovery. Throughout Kiss Carlo and all of Trigiani’s work, it seems to me, runs the theme of first and second-generation Italian-Americans struggling to find out who they really are and who they can become when they are finally confident and comfortable in their New World skin. As I said before, I can relate. I’m sure my parents could have, too.

Kiss Carlo was a great read. I think you’ll like it.

Photo: My paternal grandparents, Maria Grazia and Francesco, second and third from the left, were immigrants from the village of Centrache, in Calabria. They settled in the tiny paper mill town of Rumford, ME. They had 14 children—all but one born in this country—and many, many grandchildren.