Dec 19, 2018

Frutta secca: nuts used in Italian cuisine

Italy is a small country. Sixty million inhabitants occupy 301,338 square kilometers (think California minus 40,000 square miles). But thanks to its natural resources and historical influences, the local cuisine boasts a staggering wealth of diversity many larger countries can only envy. One constant in the Italian bounty is the use of nuts.

Frutta secca is nuts, very used in Italian cuisine

While Americans tend to enjoy nuts as snacks or with drinks, Italians tend to use them as ingredients.

Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, chestnuts and pine nuts are all typical Italian crops. Though cashews, peanuts, Brazilian nuts, macadamia nuts and pecans are not grown locally, half-a-century of market globalization has given them passport into the Italian diet.

Known as frutta secca—botanically speaking correct since a nut is indeed a dry fruit with a seed encased in a hard, woody shell—nuts appear in all manner of regional dishes.

For nut lovers, here's an alphabetized shortlist of locally grown Italian nuts with notes on how they're used.

Continue Reading In Praise of Nuts as appeared on The American in Italia Magazine

Dec 12, 2018

Cheese and wine pairing tips

Premise: There is no right and wrong cheese and wine pairing. Ultimately, it’s your palate that determines what works and what doesn’t. What follows are personal suggestions based on lots of research. Many wheels of cheese mixed and matched with different wines followed by many sleepless nights and midnight swigs of pepto-bismol. You can use this post as a starting point.

Wine and cheese have a lot in common, other than the fact that they go so well together. Cheeses vary in moisture and fat content, texture, pungency and flavor; wines too, differ in elements like acidity, sweetness, body, and structure.

Both cheese and wine require careful tending by skilled artisans. Both reach their maturation and peak flavor through aging. Although not effectively part of the actual cheese making processes, aging can make or break cheese. This is the same for wine.

Riesling grapes


So the first consideration for a good cheese and wine pairing is age.

Young, fresh cheeses have a higher moisture content and a more milky and delicate texture. As cheese ages, in a process called affinage, the moisture slowly evaporates, leaving behind fat and protein, which carry flavor. Older cheeses tend to be more rich and savory, while fresher cheeses are more delicate and mild.

In addition to drying and concentrating the cheese, time spent maturing in the cave also introduces new aromas and flavors. Bloomy-rind cheeses (think Brie) remain gooey and spreadable, but pick up earthy notes. Blue cheeses develop pungent notes from the noble mold in their veins. Older cheeses like Fontina, Parmigiano and Asiago acquire nutty accents. Stinkers, like Taleggio, own a funky, bacon-like redolence that only comes with repeated washing of the rind during aging.

Pairing wine and cheese

Like cheese, wine also can be delicate, bold and everything in between. A wine's depth and complexity often has a lot to do with age. Young wines are fresh and spirited, with lively aromatic profiles and bright notes of fruit, flowers, spices and herbs. Wines that have spent time in a cask/tank or in the bottle have had a chance to build up a bigger personality. Just like cheese, in addition to their primary flavors, wines take on secondary elements of oak, earth, minerals, umami, and more. Like cheese, older wines tend to be more complex and savory.

It's therefore clear how younger cheeses partner best with younger wines that are fruity, fresh and juicy: sparkling wines, crisp whites, dry rosés, and reds with good acidity and vibrant fruit notes.

Older cheeses need wines with bigger shoulders. The oldest cheeses, those that are the most savory and rich and nutty (think a 36 month-old Parmigiano Reggiano) pair best with wines that have even heftier body and structure.

Testure plays a big role in cheese pairings


But age is not the only factor to keep in mind when pairing cheese and wine. The texture of a cheese also influences a wine pairing. By congruity, rich, creamy cheeses pair well with similarly buttery white wines, creating a somewhat harmonious balance on the palate. But pairing by contrast is even better in creating that balance. The bubbles in sparkling wines are a nice counterpoint to rich, unctuous cheeses, scrubbing the tongue clean and causing salivation: the body's way of asking for another bite. That's why camembert and Champagne; robiola and Franciacorta and burrata and Prosecco are such perfect combinations.


Another good rule of thumb to follow when pairing cheese and wine is, "The funkier the cheese––the funkier the wine." A odoriferous cheese will do wonders when matched with a very rustic wine, so with a washed rind Taleggio I choose a natural wine from Etna or Abruzzo, whose rural backbone can hold court with the pungent cheese. In the same way smelly Taleggio finds an excellent counterpart in aromatic Riesling and perfumy Gewürztraminer.

Pungent blue cheeses pair best with sweet wine

Sweet and salty

As mentioned above, contrast is where cheese and wine pairings work magic. Sweet dessert wines like Passito beautifully balance the boldest and most savory cheeses like gorgonzola or other blue moldy soft ripened cheeses. The salt content in the cheese heightens the perception of the sweetness in the wine. By the same token, the sweetness in the wine complements the savory character of the cheese, providing balance––a perfect pairing.

tannic wine


Big reds are terrific with rich, fatty aged cheeses, because the tannins in the wine literally bind themselves to the protein and fat, and sweep the palate after each bite. Cheeses that are very soluble will benefit from tannic wines' astringency. Tannin does not work with younger, less fatty cheeses, and leaves a chalky sensation in the mouth and a slight metallic aftertaste.

country cheese spread

A word about goat cheese

Goat cheese is a sensational cheese to pair with wine: as the jack of all trades of dairy, goat cheese––depending on age and texture––can marry sparkling wine, white and red!
Sparkling Trento DOC (made like Champagne but with Chardonnay grapes) is the perfect wine for ultra-fresh goat cheese and mixed goat-sheep robiolas. Acidic, mineral-driven, and citrusy as hell Vermentino is perfect with 30-40 day-old chèvre logs. As it ages, goat cheese develops a creamline and spiciness that will match up fantastically with Sauvignon Blanc or a softer, more easy-drinking red like Dolcetto from Piemonte. Deeper, earthier and more aged goat cheeses will need a wine with bigger structure: think Nerello Mascalese from Sicily.

Italian cheeses

Pairing by terroir

Both cheese and wine ultimately flourish in specific climates and geographical conditions. Which is why when pairing wine with foods the old adage, "what grows together, goes together" is particularly appropriate when it comes to pairing wine with cheese.

Italian cheeseboard

Cheese is the product of milk, and milk is the product of an animal's diet. What the animal grazes on grows from a very specific soil, influenced by a particular climate. So where terroir influences wine, it ultimately does the same with the area’s cheese. Pastures and vineyards share the same chemical, climactic and physiological conditions.

Some examples

An ancient Roman cheese like Caciofiore della Campagna Romana, which to this day is still intrinsically part of the area where it’s produced, will pair beautifully with Cesanese wine, an indigenous grape that grows in the vicinity of Rome in the Ciociaria wine region. Likewise, Pecorino Romano––practically still made like 2,000 years ago––pairs well with a fine Frascati Superiore made in the Castelli Romani wine lands located only a few miles from the Colosseum.

Caciofiore della Campagna Romana, Slow Food Presidia

With an aromatic and pungent stinker like Puzzone di Moena I pour a ruby wine with a floral bouquet like Marzemino or Teroldego, both grape varieties indigenous of the same Alpine valleys of Trentino-Alto Adige where the cheese is made. See what I did there? I applied the concept of aromatic contrast (nose) as well as the same terroir.

For a fatty cheese like Mascarpone, I go for bubbles. The carbon dioxide concealed in the fine bubbles of Franciacorta, Lambrusco or Prosecco is capable of cleaning and balancing the creamy, adhesive mouthfeel of the triple-cream cheese. The majority of Italian bubbles have northern Italian origin, like mascarpone.

For long-aged cheeses like Provolone del Monaco DOP, a good pairing is with a fine pedigreed, well-structured red like a Aglianico, or a vivacious Gragnano or Lettere Penisola Sorrentina. These wines all grow in the same volcanic area where the cheese is made. Caciocavallo Podolico from Puglia finds its best mate in Nero di Troia and in Primitivo di Manduria.

Fresh, young cheeses like Mozzarella di Bufala, Ricotta or Burrata beg to be served with a tender and vivacious wine capable of bringing out the sweetness of the cheese. Think southern Italian Fiano di Avellino, which offers balance with acidity, creaminess and musky notes, all in one sip. Other good wines to pair with fresh, young cheeses are Moscato, unoaked Chardonnay and Champagne.

A spicy cheese like aged Castelmagno, Asiago or Comté pair well with a voluptuous, round and velvety wine: Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, or even a sweet liqueur-like wine like Barolo chinato. Here too, cheeses and wines share the same geographical characteristics.

In the Veneto region, Garganega grapes make the wines of Soave, a crisp white with a slightly bitter almond finish. The bitterness in this wine makes it a fascinating match for young Asiago, which––you guessed it––is a Veneto cheese! The more aged versions of Asiago go surprisingly well with fruity, off-dry Prosecco or Moscato d'Asti, again from the Veneto.

bubbles pair well with creamy, fatty, young cheeses

What is your go-to cheese and wine pairing?

Dec 6, 2018

Amaro, the bitter craze

It's not amaretto (a sweet Italian liqueur flavored with the pits of stone fruits) nor should it be confused with amarone––which is a rich Italian dry red wine from Valpolicella––amaro, Italian for "bitter," is a herbal liqueur gaining increasing attention overseas.

Amari in Italy - Tasting amari

Unlike bitters like angostura, that mixologists add a few drops of to season cocktails, amari (plural) are commonly consumed on their own as an after-dinner digestif.

With their bitter-sweet flavor, a texture that goes from inky to syrupy––and an alcohol content that ranges between 16% and powerhouse––bracing and often challenging amari are now widely popular with palates all over the world. But bitters are no recent trend. Historically, post-prandial bitters date back several centuries.

Amari in Italy -

Like many of the world's alcoholic beverages, amari were first created hundreds of years ago in monasteries, historically the repositories of herb lore. Intended as a way to preserve herbs and spices, these bittersweet tinctures were also consumed for their medicinal use.

Bitters are typically produced by macerating herbs, roots, flowers, bark, or citrus rinds in alcohol, mixing the filtered product with a sugar syrup, and allowing the mixture to age in aromatic casks or bottles.

In the Middle Ages, thanks to the Arab domination, Italy acquired improved infusion and distillation techniques. Then in the 19th century the invention of column distillation made elixir production more efficient and which led to purer, better tasting spirits. It was at this point that the production of amaro moved out of the apothecaries and into the mainstream.

Dozens of varieties of amaro are commercially produced, the most commonly available brands are Averna, Ramazzotti, Fernet-Branca and Amaro Montenegro––all started as family businesses that later grew into acclaimed international industries. However, that homespun nature of the beverage has endured over the centuries. Many Italian families in fact still make their own homemade amaro.

Amari in Italy - Genziana bitter made with gentian root

In addition to an assortment of botanicals, alcohol and sugar, all amari contain what is known as a "bittering agent," which gives them their distinctive bitter zing. Genziana is a bitter made with gentian root, one of the most-used bittering agents in the production of amari. Gentian root, which is found in the mountains of central and southern Europe, in addition to lending intense bitterness, also aids with digestion, making it a common ingredient in after-dinner digestives. In central/southern Italy, genziana liqueur is also enjoyed on its own. Many other bittering agents include wormwood, rhubarb root, aloe, and mugwort.

Amari in Italy - Ratafià liqueur made with cherries and wine

Italian amari are closely linked to their terroir, employing local ingredients in their blends. Think Ratafià, representative of Abruzzo. This sweet, juicy and fruity liqueur is made with whole or pitted sour cherries, red wine (usually Montepulciano d'Abruzzo), alcohol and sugar. But many variations of ratafià exist across Italy, with different botanicals depending on the peasant recipes. Black cherries are used in Piedmont, for example, with grappa as a starting point. In some areas of the Lazio region (of which Rome is the capitol) it's common to serve ratafià with few drops of coffee. Another example is Centerbe, among Italy's oldest and most powerful amaro. This particular bitter is still prepared in monasteries and homes throughout Italy, and particularly in the mountainous regions of Molise and Abruzzo. The recipe, probably related to the Roman centum erbis that Pliny the Elder raved about, varies from monastery to distillery, but usually includes sage, rosemary, laurel, basil, parsley, chamomile flowers, peppermint, juniper berries, cinnamon and cloves.

Amari in Italy - Nocino liqueur made with unripe walnuts

Digestives can also be produced from single ingredients, like universally renowned limoncello. Nocino is made with unripe walnuts; Mirto, typical of Sardinia, is produced with wild myrtle berries. Another example is mandarinetto, a Sicilian specialty made much like limoncello but with mandarin orange peel instead of lemon. Amari can be made with virtually every plant, bark, root and spice.

Amari in Italy - Amaro tasting

Not properly a bitter, but equally distinctive of the country's digestivo history and culture is rosolio. This is a type of liqueur made with rose petals that became popular during the Renaissance, especially at the court of Catherine De Medici. Widespread throughout Italy, it became representative of Sicily in the 19th century, where it was customarily produced at home and offered to guests as a sign of hospitality. If you've read Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, you're surely familiar with rosolio. Over the centuries the liqueur lost its acclaim, but fortunately Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, made in Piedmont with Calabrian citrus, recently revamped its popularity.

Amari in Italy - Italicus Rosolio made with bergamot citrus

We Italians believe that digestion greatly influences a person's mood. Amari are typically enjoyed neat or on ice, poured into small shot glasses, sipped slowly after coffee at the close of the meal, offering an excellent excuse to linger at the table. This has given amari the nickname ammazza-caffè (coffee-killer). In restaurants, hosts will place a bottle of digestivo on the table of special guests for free, as a gesture of gratitude for ordering such a big meal.

A few favorite amari for you to try. The majority of these are distributed overseas.

Acqua di Cedro – Bassano del Grappa (Veneto): citron infusion. Move over, limoncello.

Amara – Misterbianco (Sicily): bitter orange and secret herbs.

Amaro Abano Luxardo – Padua (Veneto): tastes of anise, clove, cinchona, orange peel, fennel, cinnamon.

Amaro Ciociaro – Lazio: powerful orange peel and cinnamon.

Amari in Italy - Amaro dell'Erborista

Amaro dell’Erborista – Marche: aromas of smoke, honey, collard greens, dry mustard, spearmint, caramel, dust.

Amaro dell'Etna – Catania: bitter orange, vanilla, licorice, spice, smoke.

Amari in Italy - Amaro dell'Etna

Amaro del Sole – Lombardy: black pepper, rhubarb, eucalyptus, saffron, orange and lemon peel, vanilla, cardamom.

Amaro Lazzaroni – Saronno (Lombardy): burnt sugar, crème brulée, peppermint, chamomile, bitter greens.

Amaro Lucano – Matera (Basilicata): tastes of bitter orange, grapefruit, anise, fennel, cinnamon, cocoa.

Amaro Nonino Quintessentia – Bassano (Lombardy): orange, rhubarb, cinnamon, licorice, tamarind.

Amaro San Marco –  Collepardo (Lazio): secret recipe with high quality spring water

Amaro Santa Maria al Monte – Genoa (Liguria): mint, jasmine, orange peel, ginseng, menthol, gentian.

Amaro Sibilla Varnelli – Macerata (Marche): honey, gentian, smoky oak, sandalwood, honey, dried chamomile flowers, cinnamon, pepper, juniper.

Amari in Italy - Amaro Tosolini
Amaro Tosolini – Udine (Friuli Venezia-Giulia): fresh fennel, roasted rhubarb, bitter orange, cinchona, cinnamon.

Averna – Caltanissetta (Sicily): licorice, citrus peels, chocolate.

Amari in Italy - Bràulio

Bràulio – Bormio (Lombardy): gentian, juniper, wormwood, yarrow, chamomile, pine, menthol.

Cynar – Milan: artichoke plus 12 other herbs and plants

Fernet-Branca – Milan: myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, saffron, menthol, eucalypthus.

Amari in Italy - Gagliardo Bitter Radicale

Gagliardo Bitter Radicale – Vicenza (Veneto): balsamic, spicy and a long, bitter aftertaste

Meletti – Ascoli Piceno (Marche): orange peel, caramelized sugar, saffron, chocolate, licorice, cardamom, cinnamon.

Rabarbaro Zucca – Milan (Lombardy): rhubarb, heavily charred wood, mint, citrus, cardamom.

Vecchio Amaro del Capo – Capo Vaticano (Calabria): fennel, licorice, peppermint, mandarin orange peel, coriander, anise, juniper, chamomile.

Interested in learning more? Casa Mia Tours offers a 3-hour Amaro Tasting in Rome. 

What's your favorite after dinner amaro?