Aug 20, 2018

Dinner nostalgia

As a child, I dined out often with my family. The decades have changed the city's dining scene, for better and worse.

dining out in the 1970s Rome
Photo Roma Sparita

My earliest childhood memories are sensory. Restaurant meals played a big part in their shaping. For social and financial reasons, dining out, once commonplace, played a big part in my upbringing. Throughout my youth, I heard the words a cena fuori almost daily. 

I also recall the wonderful feeling of falling into slumber at the end of a meal as adults continued their animated conversation. In the background was the gentle hum of the dining room. I'd hear glasses clink, silverware tap bone china, and the "glug glug glug" of wine being poured. I'd rest my head on folded arms and drift securely into dreamland.

I treasured these post-prandial naps. I'm not sure I ever slept more soundly than as a small child in a restaurant.

For better or worse, that romantically lazy side of the Rome dining scene has vanished. Many places I remember from decades ago are gone or have changed ownership and mood. Charm is harder to find. So are quality meals.

Childhood visions are unique, and I've also changed. My taste is more sophisticated, and more demanding. But let me set all that aside for a moment to remember some of the restaurants that shaped my youth. Modern day alternatives are listed after each memory.

Continue Reading → On Viale dei Ricordi, as appeared on The American Magazine

Aug 11, 2018

Mozzarella di Bufala Cheese Q&A

"Why is it called mozzarella di bufala?" I get asked this by non-Italians a lot. My answer always surprises. "Because it's made with the milk of the buffalo". After a long silence I explain that the bovine in question is the water buffalo, not bison.

bufala is Italian for female buffalo

There are many––often conflicting––theories about how these gentle animals got to Italy from India. The theory I find more believable is that the introduction occurred during the Norman period in Sicily, where the animals arrived on ships towards the end of the 10th century during Saracen and Moorish invasions. In the period between 1189 and 1266 they slowly migrated to the current breeding areas. What's evident is that the buffalo, with its large, flat hooves and penchant for loose, muddy terrains, thrived in the southern regions' marshy low lands.

bufala is Italian for female buffaloThere is so much more to say about one of my favorite cheeses! That's why I'm sharing the knowledge acquired over the course of 3 years spent roaming around Italy reporting on the country's best, lesser known and most rare cheeses for my TV show ABCheese.

I'll answer the questions I get asked most frequently on the cheeses of Italy in a brand new blog series called "Cheese Q&A" Please feel free to add your mozzarella di bufala questions in the comments section below!

mozzarella di bufala

What is the history of mozzarella di bufala?

The first historical documents dating back to the 12th century, when the Normans controlled southern Italy, state that the monks of the San Lorenzo monastery in Capua used to offer "mozza" or "provatura" to the visiting pilgrims. The modern term mozzarella appeared for the first time in 1570 in a cookery manual by Bartolomeo Scappi, Renaissance chef of the papal court under pope Pius IV (Medici) and Pius V.

mozzarella di bufala

Where is mozzarella di bufala produced in Italy?

Mozzarella di bufala DOP (protected designation of origin) is produced in 4 macro-areas: in the Campania region in the provinces of Caserta, Salerno and part of the provinces of Benevento and Naples; in the Lazio region it is produced in part of the provinces of Frosinone, Latina and Rome. In the Puglia region, mozzarella di bufala campana is made in a part part of the Foggia province, and in the tiny region of Molise it's made in part of the province of Isernia. Any product marketed as mozzarella di bufala outside of the designation of origin label is not protected by the Consortium's strict production guidelines.

consorzio mozzarella di bufala campana dop

How is mozzarella di bufala made?

It takes 4,5 liters (that's a little over a gallon) of water buffalo milk to make 1 kilo of mozzarella di bufala. To turn that gallon of white gold into the milky ball of happiness that is mozzarella di bufala, cheesemakers have to turn the fatty liquid into solid, in a complex operation. The 2-hour old raw milk is first of all cultured, meaning lactic acid bacteria is added at the beginning of the cheese-making process to convert sugar into acid, which coagulates milk proteins.

spinning the curdmimmo la vecchia mozzarella di bufala

Once the milk is curdled the cheesemakers break the mass and obtain curds. The curds are then left to soak in the whey to acidify further, after which is my favorite part of production: the magical filatura (i.e. spinning) phase. Slowly adding boiling water the curds are stretched and spun by the mastro casaro (master cheesemaker) in large inclined wooden tubs. Using a special bowl and a stick, he turns the ugly tofu-like curds into a large snow white, satiny mass of hot mozzarella. Very quickly the large mass is portioned and severed (in Italian this verb is "mozzare") by two or more cheesemakers facing each other, who with their bare hands cut off different sizes from larger sections, either in the classic 200-gram ball, 50-gram bocconcino, small bite-sized ciliegine or the large braided treccia, and then dropping them in a cool salt bath.

mozzarella di bufala in salt brine

mozzarella di bufala cut by hand

The idenifying mark of bufala shaped by hand and not by a machine is a clearly visible 3-point "scar" on the surface of each mozzarella. Just a few hours after soaking in the salty brine, mozzarella di bufala is ready to be eaten.

How long does mozzarella di bufala keep?

I'm going to say this now, and you'll just have to trust me: mozzarella di bufala should never be refrigerated. Kept in a bowl floating in its whey storing liquid, mozzarella di bufala should be eaten within a few days of its production, at room temperature. Refrigerating messes with the texture and the chill nullifies the delicate taste, numbing your taste buds. Besides, who has mozzarella left over anyway?

mozzarella di bufala should never be refrigerated

What should real mozzarella di bufala taste like?

The taste is lactic (milky), a hint of hay and a wild, slightly acidic twang. The light creamy and almost sweet taste contains barely a hint of salt. The texture is rich, creamy and oozingly delicious...with twice the fat of cow's milk, fresh mozzarella di bufala has plump, bulbous consistency that weeps sweet, rich, grassy whey when bitten into. The experience can only be described as sensual.

proper way of eating mozzarella di bufala

What's the best way to eat mozzarella di bufala?

I believe the best way to enjoy bufala is eating it with your hands: biting into it, whey dribbling down your chin. It's equally satisfying plated alongside ripe heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and seasoned with only a thread of extra-virgin olive oil––the magical caprese salad. 

mozzarella di bufala on pizza

I also love to add it raw, ripped in messy swaths, on pizza, pasta, vegetable dishes and salads. Sliced and sandwiched between slices of crusty bread with sautéed greens, or with prosciutto, or even better: paired with blistered shishito peppers. Day-old bufala is perfect for mozzarella in carrozza fried sandwiches.

mozzarella in carrozza, fried bufala sandwiches

Would you like to know more on the topic of mozzarella di bufala? Read this article Tasting Mozzarella di Bufala Straight from the Source

I purchase my mozzarella di bufala at the following dairies:
Caseificio il Casolare
La Baronia
Tenuta Vannulo
Caseificio Giuliano

May 17, 2018

Italian Aphrodisiacs (it's food-related)

Named after Greek love goddess Aphrodite, aphrodisiacs were identified by early civilizations and cultures that associated potency and virility with power and prosperity. Their fascination has lingered over millennia. Though science has yet to prove a link between rumored "romance remedies" and increased sexual performance, aphrodisiacs still thrive.

Sex can drive humans to brutal solutions. The extinction of the northern white rhino is due in part to the fine powder made from its horn which is considered a potent aphrodisiac. Other nonsense includes consuming animal testicles and turtles' eggs. Lack of evidence aside, the massacre continues.

Instead of decimating endangered species, the best way to heighten a romantic experience is simply to browse your pantry. Though science may shrug, some enzymes and vitamins contained in everyday foods do lend varying stimulant effects.

Italians like to think of themselves as fantastic lovers, ascribing their sexual prowess to their mamma’s cooking. If you agree, here's an alphabetical index of Italian aphrodisiac ingredients to include in your next date night menu.
Continue Reading →

Mar 18, 2018

Northern Italian Recipes

The Alps, Apennines and Dolomites –– to mention a few Italian mountain ranges –– where the temperatures are cold year round, are the home of extraordinary cuisine.

Italian mountains have strong cultural identity. Traditions and economy are based on farming, cheese making, and woodworking. Tourism began growing in the early 20th century and expanded after World War II to become the dominant industry. But in montagna, sumptuous traditional cooking can be just as important as ski slopes.

While olive oil is a staple throughout Italy, butter takes on greater importance in the mountain uplands. Local cuisine has Hapsburg and French influences. Climate, politics and geography all contribute to a lesser-known but rich array of food. Here are just a few Alpine specialties.

Continue Reading → Go North, food lover as appeared in The American Magazine

Feb 14, 2018

Meatballs and more

You may have caught on to my meatball obsession. Beyond consuming ridiculous amounts of cheese, the lure of leftovers reused to make polpette is, culinarily speaking, what defines me. Eating meatballs hurls me back into childhood bliss, they are my Proustian madeleines.

Meatballs and more Photo © Serious Eats

Small morsels bound together by a little starch and an egg go such a long way. Polpette are fun and easy to make, and equally fun and easy to eat.

Rolled in breadcrumbs and fried, baked, steamed, drowned in sauce––whatever the cooking method, polpette are sensational fridge-cleaners. In my family we eat meatballs at least once a week.

Homemade veal meatballs browned in butter

When I was living in Naples 18 years ago, my boyfriend at the time would have me over at his family's house for lunch quite often. The highlight of the week was on Tuesdays, the day his Nonna made meatballs. Her fried polpette will go down in history as some of the best I've ever eaten.

I can't feel like I'm truly in Venice until I bite into the meatballs served as cicchetti at Ca' d'Oro alla Vedova, a legendary bacaro in the Cannaregio neighborhood. The suspicion of minced garlic, the soft chewy interior revealed under the crisp, breaded crust is enough to make my mouth water at the thought...

meatballs Ca' d'Oro alla Vedova photo © Aperture Tours

In Rome, when not making my own, I embark in impossible-to-find parking in Borgo Pio just for the lemon veal polpettine served at Romolo alla Mole Adriana.

We're carnivores, so the meatballs I make at home use leftover bollito, or ground veal, some are made with fish even. Those who love beef tartare or carne cruda all'albese are served their raw chopped meat in the shape of a patty and variably dressed with taggiasca olives, capers, minced onion, mustard and so on.

Meatball madness doesn't stop at meat however, infact vegetarian polpette are just as popular in my household. Think winter broccoli croquettes, or a personal favorite, polpette di melanzane, eggplant vegetarian meatballs: a recipe published 8 years ago that's still one of my most popular posts to date.

In South Tyrol I learned how to make Knödel, the Alpine version of matzah balls, which––if you think about it––are "meatballs" made with bread. Similar bread-recycling is found in a typical Abruzzo peasant recipe called Pallotte cacio e ove, where instead of costly meat, bread and grated pecorino are bound together with beaten eggs. These are then braised slowly in a rich tomato sauce and served piping hot along with a glass (or five) of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo wine.

pallotte cacio e ove photo © In Cucina con Max e Andre

In the realm of bite-sized fried balls, I cannot forego mentioning the universe of arancini and supplì made with rice, or baccalà and potato croquettes and the famed olive ascolanestuffed olives from Ascoli!

But polpette don't have to be exclusively savory.

Sweet dessert polpette are a sinful treat. One of my favorite ways of repurposing leftover panettone is shredding the crumb, wetting it with some milk and squeezing out the excess moisture before mixing the "dough" with an egg. I shape small bite-sized balls and place them on a greased cookie sheet. In the hot oven they go briefly to develop a golden crust, so no more than 5-7 minutes at 350°F. And it's suddenly Christmas all over again.