Nov 24, 2015

Will travel for cheese

If you've been reading this blog for some time, you're already familiar with the strangely obsessive relationship I entertain with cheese.

I have written many articles on this blog on the topic of my beloved dairy:
For the past 6 years I've been leading gourmands and Italy-lovers on food-themed city walks, and six months ago I launched a independent travel company with two other partners. Many of the adventures I lead revolve around cheese.

Over the course of the almost 7 years of blogging and food-writing, I have discovered that many of my readers and followers share my same cheese fetish. This means what I write about resonates, and that's a good thing. Did you know that casein, the main protein present in milk and in cheese, is addictive? That explains a lot!

Other good cheese-related news came early this spring when the pitch of a TV show I co-authored received a green light. And when I say co-author the show I mean that I also star in it. Guess what the topic of said show is? You guessed it.

The show has been taping for the past four months all around Italy. Episode 1 premiered on November 12 on Italy's prime food network Gambero Rosso. It airs every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. (competing against big TV shows like X-Factor) on SKY, the Italian digital satellite broadcasting service. We still don't have definite numbers for the ratings, but people have begun recognizing me in the street. I say that's a pretty good sign the show's being watched.

The show is called ABCheese (in Italian this wordplay works better because we start the alphabet 'ah bee chi'). Not much fiction (other than the fancy sponsor car I drive) – as I play myself: a food writer who's in love with cheese, and is dedicated to traveling around Italy in search of the country's best, most famous, but also more obscure, lesser known and ultimately most delicious cheeses, on the basis that "I have to try them all".

When I first started writing and teaching about food, the idea of a book immediately took shape, but nobody knew Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino, back then I had very little visibility and investors were justly skeptical. I remember how one big cookbook publishing company, turning down the manuscript, told my literary agent back then, "Unfortunately she is still a 'nobody', she should get a food show gig before we consider her."

Well, it only took a few years of hard work, hundreds of articles published, thousands of Likes and accolades, awards and the firm will to succeed... and here I am. Thank you! I owe it all to you, my loyal readers, who have always supported my writing and put up with my inconsistent updates and my cheesy slant.

The majority of my readers is overseas, where SKY Italia satellite TV does not broadcast. While waiting for new episodes to be streamed online and become accessible to a wider public, here's an episode a fan uploaded. There are no subtitles and it's all in Italian, but see this as an opportunity for linguistic practice. And to see me eat lots of cheese.

I hope you like it!

Nov 11, 2015

The food in my 'hood

I have written at length about the well-known food stores and markets in my fancy Parioli neighborhood, these are places which get constant attention from blogs and press. But it's the small, unpretentious businesses on my block that I find the most charming. Still managing to resist through the bad economy are a handful of small family owned businesses that manage to combat the growth and popularity of larger convenience stores and supermarkets. These tiny shops scattered on my block is where I buy most of my food.

New, younger businesses have taken over as older generations have retired or passed away, sadly changing the last remaining authenticity and character of this old part of town. This means that where the old tabaccaio used to be – selling cigarettes, lottery tickets and boxes of sea salt – now is a tattoo parlor. In place of a boutique where residents knew to find elegant interior design items and vintage wallpaper now is a hipster clothing store that I don't think is doing very well (it's always empty).
The Bangladeshi mini market that occupies the space once managed by a family-run photo developing studio (obsolete, the landlord branded it) is ok for quick emergency cleaning supply runs, but given their not-so-competitive prices, it's not really worth it.

Fortunately the best, more historical places still hold fast and provide us residents of the block with the best, most reliable service and constant product quality. And a good bit of neighborly conversation.

My shoe repair man Francesco, for example, where I take my boots and best leather shoes for a good buff or to fix a broken heel, is holding on by the teeth to keep his little shop open, because less and less clients prefer to fix rather than buy new shoes. But, boy does he know how to live: every year he takes the luxury of closing his business down for a week to go with his wife for "cure termali" at a spa town in northern Italy where he detoxes drinking special spring water.

Rosalba, the lady that sews hems and fixes zippers in her little workshop just up the road is a chain smoker, but her needle work is unrivaled. If I need a good replica of a designer item she can do that too, at an affordable price.

Then there's GioFerCas, a small family owned store that is a little bit of everything haberdasher-type place: a cross between a giocattolaio (toy store), a ferramenta (hardware store that also makes copies of keys), and a casalinghi – the place where you can get home supplies, from brooms and shaving cream to alkaline batteries and stainless steel pots. Patrizia, who now helps her retired parents, put on the best store front decorations on Halloween this year, and all the Italian neighborhood kids got heaps of candy.

The little "Pica Pica Porro" specialty store is where I get my exotic fruit fix. If I want avocado and dates, sweet mango and proper papaya, this is where I go. The sales are managed by the father and daughter in law, while the son (owner) is always out and about delivering groceries with his 1974 Moto Guzzi which I can hear roaring in the street even with my windows closed.

Antonio is the neighborhood fruttivendolo and his shop – once dubbed by us residents 'Bulgari' for what he used to charge for fruit and vegetables – has drastically reduced prices to reclaim customers back from the new Bangladeshi minimart competition. Antonio boasts the area's best seasonal produce (his clementines for example are the juiciest) sweetest on the planet. He's serious about seasonality and doesn't give in to the haywire primizia trend of selling produce out of season, therefore his fruit and vegetables are always top-notch. He also sells beers, a few bottles of average wine, fresh eggs, a few kinds of pasta and small choice of canned foods and bottled goods. When I get home late after work, it's great to pick up some rinsed and trimmed salad or pre-chopped minestrone, cubed pumpkin and cauliflower florets, which Antonio prepares himself. In case of bigger emergencies, his sweet Slav assistant delivers the groceries to your doorstep, for free.

My favorite neighborhood store is however Forno Nonno Franco.
As I approach my neighborhood bakery, attracted by the aroma of freshly baked bread, I know I'm in for a sensory overload and a long wait in line.

I'm here every morning to get bread and there's always a crowd elbowing to the front of the small counter. The bread is baked around the clock from dawn 'til sunset, and store opening hours reflect that. In the oven area works the young and passionate heir of retired baker Franco Fiorentino who opened the shop in 1994. His two sisters manage the front end dealing with customers. The three communicate, fight and laugh through a window that connects the bakery ovens and the actual shop, and through which the products are fed on large hot pans before everyone's eyes.

After 10 a.m. is when the place gets the busiest since that's when the hot loaves of Lariano, Altamura and Pane della Salute are ready, and sell still warm, in a matter of minutes. A thick crunchy crust conceals a fluffy, airy wholegrain crumb studded with assorted seeds. A large loaf of this 'bread of health', if properly stored, can last 4-5 days. In my house, it only lasts a few hours. As soon as I buy it, I break off the end and eat it in the street, still warm.

Besides the various types of sourdough, farro and grano tenero bread, the Fiorentino brothers also bake and sell different products, like breadsticks or low-hydration bread pockets filled with an ever changing selection of fillings that range from sautéed dandelion greens to pumpkin & gorgonzola. Their focaccia pugliese is award winning, as is the crisp "scrocchiarella" cracker-like pita, plus buns, savory croissants and ciabattas of every size.

The pizza romana stuffed with porchetta or mortadella is weighed, cut and wrapped in €1 squares ready at 7 a.m. for kids to stuff in their school backpacks for merenda (mid morning snack time). They even make a whole wheat or plain version without yeast called "suolo". The quality of their other types of pizza al taglio (sold by weight) is nothing short in terms of quality compared to the one sold in the more famous centrally located bakeries. Crisp yet chewy, it comes topped with good quality homemade tomato sauce, select cheese and fresh charcuterie. The choice is not ample but turnaround is rather fast.
And this is just the savory offer.

There's a whole universe of pastry that Forno Nonno Franco excels at, in which the strudel and artisan cookie galaxies shine the brightest. The other day I nearly threw a tantrum in the middle of the small store because they had run out of their cinnamon sablé biscotti. Mini crostatas filled with homemade jam; custard and pine nut torta della nonna cakes; lemon curd tartlettes, fried donuts and flaky sublime cornetti (forget the crappy industrial 'croissants' you find at coffee bars in the morning) are sold fresh daily. And there's always something baked new every day, so it's fun to walk in just to see what they've come up that morning. Oh, and the fridge in the entrance near the cookie shelf is stocked with bottles of fresh milk... and chocolate milk. Help!

The secret ingredient that makes the products taste better at this little neighborhood establishment is not a flavor enhancer – there's been lots of controversy around how commercially sold bread in larger Italian wholesale bakeries has been known to be spiked with a "miglioratore", a chemically obtained flavor improving agent. No, what makes this place really special is the courteous, friendly service. The girls are always smiling and crack jokes with customers, despite the frantic crowds pushing at the counter and lined up in the street. You can call ahead of time to reserve your bread should you be running other errands, and they will bake cakes and other typical Italian party food (mini pizzas, bite sized stuffed sandwiches, quiche and other snacks) on request.

Low prices, constant quality, wide variety of products and friendly service.
No wonder the cue outside is so long.

Opening image - All other photos in this post © Eleonora Baldwin

Oct 26, 2015

Wine-pairing tips (non-Sommelier version)

As a cook and a diner who writes about food I'm often asked about wine pairings. While my sommelier friends tell me I have a decent nose — I can recognize the aromas in a glass — that doesn't qualify me to go around dispensing serious wine-drinking advice.

What I can do is share some partisan views on which wines tend to work with the dishes I make and enjoy. Here's my layman's guide on what to drink when served Italian mealtime classics.

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Oct 7, 2015

Mal d'Africa

I cried the first time I flew out of Africa. I sat numbly gazing down as the plane pulled away from the thick gum tree foliage and the red dirt roads I'd gotten to know intimately. That moment taught me mal d'Afrique, the inexplicable sense of loss and heartache rooted above all in a place. When it bites hard, the Africa bug leaves you bittersweet and charged with mysterious longing and nostalgia.

A similar kind of irrational, romantic attachment enters American journalistic essays on the Italian experience. The angle? Very often it's food. Long-form articles promoting Italy speak less of Stendhal Syndrome and the Bel Paese's world-famous artistic attractions, natural wonders and historic treasures than of the eating experience. These enraptured pieces, a mainstay in newspapers and magazine, prompt a mal d'Afrique-style question: What it is about the Italian mood (and the food) that sweeps Americans off their feet and leads them to write unbridled love stories and food-forward reportages?

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Sep 28, 2015

Recipe for Scabbardfish Involtini

Some people are under the (wrong) impression that cooking fish is a complicated affair. It is not! Actually fish is much easier to cook than meat.

When I last visited Siracusa in spring, the Ortigia market was jumping with activity already in the early morning, with the fabulous fish stalls attracting my attention. A vast array of fresh-from-the-sea gleaming, silvery creatures of every sort, including scabbardfish, which is such an underestimated marine delight.

Should you be lucky enough to chance upon sensational scabbardfish, here is a fantastic involtini recipe I learned in Siracusa...

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Sep 22, 2015

ProLoco D.O.L., dining in the Centocelle suburb of Rome

ProLoco D.O.L. is not easily categorized. It's a place where you can shop for sublime local products as well as pick up your CSA box every Wednesday. But, it's also a place where you can stop for a quick lunch, grab a glass of wine or a beer with snacks after work, or book a table for a full five-course dinner.

And, this is no ordinary dinner! Dining at ProLoco D.O.L. equals traveling across Lazio – the region of which Rome is the capital – without ever leaving your table. Vincenzo Mancino, mastermind behind this deli-restaurant in the Centocelle suburb of Rome, is a tireless scavenger. He scouts out the region in careful search of the area's best ingredients originating in Lazio (the acronym D.O.L. stands for "di origine laziale") and he succeeds: his shop boasts an unrivaled and always growing supply of local, quality products, such as...

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Aug 28, 2015

Guide to the Beaches of Positano

Forget long sandy stretches, the majority of beaches on the Amalfi Coast are mostly rocky. Shores in this part of Southern Italy are pebbly coves pulled from towering cliffs, with rapidly plunging deep blue sea underfoot.

Positano is often known for its main spiaggia grande central lido, but the “natural crèche village” boasts several other beaches to choose from. You can pick one of the Positano beaches listed below and lounge there all day, or hop from one to the next, chasing the sun as it starts to dip behind the mountains when evening approaches.

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Aug 21, 2015

Etna is a "she"

Locals refer to Mt Etna as a "she", and it doesn't surprise me since constantly active 'a muntagna is a goddess of fertility and energy. Its rich volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread all across the lower slopes.

During my recent stay in the Etna town of Linguaglossa I had a nearly constant view of the volcano. Every morning on our way to a granita breakfast we'd always peek uphill to look at "her", and punctually she'd greet us with white billowy plumes, or hide  in dark veiled clouds concealing her summit craters.

On our last day we decided to meet Etna face to face. We drove up in the late afternoon in order to see the volcanic landscapes at sunset. The twisting hairpin curves carved into the slopes winded in and out of thick pine forests, tall and dark, redolent of piney resin and clean mountain air.

At 1400 meters above sea level we switched off the AC and rolled down the windows. In the woods the sticky summer air quickly shifted to crisp, with an even more intoxicating woodsy aroma. Vegetation and surroundings abruptly changed as we turned a curve, finding ourselves cut off from the ancient forests and plunged into a jagged lunar landscape of more recent lava flows. It felt like someone had used a dimmer on the color dial in our vision: as we proceeded upward, it all became black and white. Shiny snow-colored birch trees replaced the pine trees, creating a bizarre contrast with the dark lava rock forest floor.

Grazing sheep on Etna, Sicily

And then more monochrome magic happened when in the silence of this powerful moonscape we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of sheep herded by not a single human and a pack of Maremmano sheep dogs and mangy pups. These duly defended the herd that grazed on lichen and sparse tufts of dry mountain grass, chasing the car and barking loudly – even going at the tires if we dared to move. We waited patiently, showing the pack that we had no intention of harming the herd and the dogs eventually moved away allowing us to proceed.
When we stopped further ahead, we saw the herd slowly making its way into another birch forest. It was an incredible, surreal vision which I will never forget.

Grazing sheep on Etna, Sicily

Grazing sheep in an Etna birch forest

Grazing sheep in an Etna birch forest

Further up along the climb, past ski facilities with chairlifts and rental shacks at 1800 meters, we decided to get out of the car and walk up the 2002 eruption lava flow. Off the road we negotiated a leisurely climb up the lava fields with crunchy black pumice gravel underfoot and clouds so close above our heads we could actually reach up and touch them.

My child was giddy and – charged up by the electromagnetic energy the surroundings exuded – ran around bouncing like a little mountain goat.

my child on Etna, Sicily

I couldn't believe the silence.

No wind whistled among the lava rocks. Not a sound blew through the trees way, way below. No echoed voices came from the small group of hikers up at the Sartorius mound (the remnant of an 1865 eruption) three hundred yards from us on the flank. Nothing.
The silence was pneumatic and still. And it screamed in my unaccustomed ears.

Monte Sartorius, 1865 eruption Etna - Sicily

After a meditative moment, and a few captured stills, we gathered a handful of black volcanic gravel and filled our pockets with it to bring home some of the mountain's magic force.

Volcanic gravel and rocks, Etna Sicily

The drive down was quiet, each of us still pervaded with deep emotion. Under a crescent moon, a solemn promise was made to return here soon and climb up even further. The word "camping" was uttered as well as donkey trekking. I also am curious to meet Gianni, a seasoned guide who can take us to even more remote and unvisited locations, lending his geologic and botanical knowledge.
Therefore this is not good-bye, Etna.

This is the closest moment to when we shall meet again – this is only arrivederci.

More photos and media on my Sicilian vacation can be viewed on my Facebook profile, Twitter and Instagram feed, and on the Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine blog.

Aug 6, 2015

Recipe for "Focaccia Pugliese"

There are some dishes that improve overnight.

Focaccia Pugliese – a summer spongy, feather light and tasty baked specialty from the region of Puglia (Apulia) in southern Italy – is one of such dishes. Baked fresh, this particular focaccia is fantastic, but the day after... it's even better!

Round, fluffy with it's typically crisp edges and caramelized topping, Focaccia Pugliese (also known as "ruota di focaccia barese") is quintessential street food and the perfect picnic item. When I make it for my son, we always try to leave some for the next day and pack the leftovers in the beach bag for post-swimming munchies.

Focaccia Pugliese's secret is in the dough, which includes boiled potatoes. This gives it a unique soft, springy texture and a beautiful aroma.

500 g (2 cups) 00-type flour
2 large potatoes, boiled and peeled
25 g (<1 oz) brewer's yeast
1 tsp sea salt, plus more to taste
250 ml (1 cup) lukewarm water
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
10 black olives, pitted
1 tbsp dried oregano
Extra virgin olive oil

Let the boiled potatoes cool before peeling, and set them aside.
Place flour in a large mixing bowl, and using a ricer, add the potatoes.

Dissolve brewer's yeast in the lukewarm water and add that to the mix as well. Fold in a small pinch of sea salt and begin kneading to obtain a sticky, firm ball.
Wrap in cling film and leave the dough to rise for 2 hours in a warm, dry place.

Preheat your ventilated oven at 240° C (428° F), or set it at 260° C (500° F) if static.
Use olive oil to generously grease a large round baking dish (9 or 11-inch) and stretch the dough to fill it evenly.

Press the halved tomatoes in the dough, cut side down, add the olives, a good dusting of oregano and lashings of sea salt.
Drizzle the surface with more olive oil and bake in the hot oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the surface appears evenly browned and tomatoes are caramelized.

Buon appetito.

Aug 4, 2015

La Tradizione gourmet deli in Rome

It all started with a passion. Two competent and adventurous young Umbrians, Renzo Fantucci and Valentino Belli, joined forces in 1980 to take over an old Rome delicatessen not far from the Vatican with the objective to pioneer a mission: provide the eternal city with prime quality and forgotten products. Passion drove them to start the business and passion is the leitmotif that is at the core of their store, "La Tradizione" which literally means 'tradition'.

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Aug 1, 2015

What produce is in season in August?

Fact: produce is of better quality and taste when in season.

Though Italians have cooking and eating a selection of produce that rotates seasonally in their DNA, lately mass distribution and globalization have confused these rhythmic, natural guidelines, making the calendar distinction on our plate a little fuzzy.

Here is a list of what fruits and vegetables are in season in August in Italy, gracing our market stalls from Sicily to the Alps.

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Jul 31, 2015

Saturn Peach Gingersnap Tartlets

No, I'm not baking, are you kidding?! Italy is suffering the worst heatwave in 135 years. Nope, not a typo: one-hundred-and-thirty-five years. It's so hot I hardly have the energy to cook, let alone bake.

But every now and then, I allow myself a small digression from the "eating plan" and make something sweet. I make dessert, even in the middle of this crazy Italian summer (See what I did there? I called it an eating plan, I didn't use the D-word).

Plus, taking advantage of the season's amazing fruit, I convince myself that these desserts don't even constitute a danger for said diet eating plan. A great solution for eating sweet yet healthy in summer is making large batches of fruit smoothies. The best employment of the smoothie? Mixing in 1 tbsp of sugarless jam (of the same fruit you pureed), pouring it in plastic cups and stacking them in the freezer. Hello, healthy homemade popsicles.

If ice lollies are not your thing, and need something a little more substantial to chew on, you could always make my failsafe "tartellette alle pesche saturnine". Saturn (or donut) peaches – also locally called tabacchiere because they resemble tobacco snuff boxes – are my favorite stone fruit. If you've been reading this blog long enough you may remember how I even made tiramisu with Saturn peaches. Today's recipe is an ode to sloth and laziness. No cooking, no baking, just putting together great seasonal ingredients for a sweet summer cuddle.

These particular tartlets combine the aromatic, succulent pinkish flesh of the Saturn peach, with the spiced kick of ginger contained in the base, and the cold, creamy middle. I use ricotta, but you could use mascarpone, gelato, cream cheese, Greek yogurt or – if you're feeling particularly sinful – gorgonzola. Or even burrata.

Yes, I said burrata, stop salivating.

There's no need to turn on the oven to enjoy these Saturn peach tartlets. Just start with a great cookie to begin with, and assemble your way up. I'm using Pepparkakor biscuits, known outside of Sweden as ginger snaps, or ginger thins.

Quantity of units is up to you. I put out all the ingredients and eat as I build, while binge-watching my favorite Netflix series.

Ingredients, in liberal amounts
Ginger thins
Ricotta cheese (or gelato, mascarpone, cream cheese, Greek yogurt, gorgonzola or burrata)
Saturn peaches, rinsed and sliced

Slather your dairy cream of choice on cookie. Top with sliced peaches. Devour.

Buon appetito!

Jul 29, 2015

Rome: Top 10 neighborhoods for food and drink

Rome is packed to the rafters with varied food and wine options. We've singled out 10 of the city's most popular food-centric neighborhoods and suggested a handful of places out of the many we know that are worth visiting in each area.

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Jul 26, 2015

Drink wine like an Italian

Italians regard wine an essential expression of their culture, it's in every Italian's DNA! As a fundamental testimony to the land's incredible biodiversity and ultimately a part of any meal, Italians – even the non-connoisseurs – give great importance to their vino and respectfully drink it accompanied with delicious regional dishes.

So when in Italy, drink wine like an Italian. But what's the best way to enjoy it like a local? Here are some wine-drinking tips that will add a little Italian flair to your next glass.

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Jul 17, 2015

The best granita & cremolato in Rome

Granita and other ice-inspired refreshments provide ideal relief from torrid Italian summers. I won't be in Sicily for another month, but I'm already dreaming of granita smeared in a French style brioche.

The best granita I've ever tasted was bought for pennies in a little gelateria run by a grumpy woman in Santa Maria la Scala, near Catania. Her pistachio, almond and mulberry granita flavors have forever spoiled me.

While I pine for Sicily, here's my shortlist of where to score the best granita and cremolato in Rome, and what signature flavors shine in each.

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Jul 11, 2015

New challenge: going on a diet

I have purged the fridge. Emptied the pantry. Gifted neighbors with full jars of marmalade, hazelnut spread and precious oil-preserved Taggiasca olives. Monday marks the beginning of a new project. Project ME.

In the past few weeks I have eliminated refined sugar and alcohol. In the following 14 days I will have to deal with further detoxing. I will be eliminating foods that are slowing down my metabolism and are essentially being stored as fat because my body can't deal with them like it used to.
That means no more processed food.
No more salt.
No dairy.
No yeast.

Next after that, I will be embarking in a 5-day paleo shock, to be followed by a 40-day metabolism regime. The gym membership has been renewed. The Fitbit fully charged.
Everything has been carefully planned, and I am now ready.

Back from my sunset run, I took a "before" polaroid and glued it to the bathroom mirror.

Fortunately, shifting my eating habits during summer in Italy will be easy, given the abundance of this...


But it will also mean saying bye bye to this for a little while...

This doesn't mean I'll stop publishing articles and posts about recipes, restaurants and food tours, on the contrary. I will continue to write about my favorite food & wine related topics and share photos of beautiful, healthy Italian dishes. It will be the ultimate zen challenge!

{Just be prepared for the occasional rant, frustration and (hopefully) cheering related to my weight loss program}

Wish me luck!