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October 28, 2014

Eating Italian Style in Tuscany

Tuscany is a beautiful region in central Italy, with rolling hills, vineyards covering every valley and slopes and olive groves rising up throughout the countryside.

The wine and extra virgin olive oils produced here are essential ingredients in many of the typical dishes of the Tuscan cuisine. While we were in Tuscany I wanted to experience as much of the food and culture as possible. According to the Tuscans, Tuscany has the best food in the world and they are very proud about being the best. Some of their specialties include home made pasta dishes, Florentine steak is at the top of the list, and soups and stews are very popular especially seafood and hearty bean and tomato. Here are a few of our favorite meals.

Thinking back on our trip I can't help but laugh at some of the Italian customs. As I've mentioned, they love their food and they also have many opinions about how things should be done. For example did you know that it is frowned upon to dip your bread into a bowl of olive oil? Well we do it all the time at home but I won't ever dip my bread again while I am in Italy at least not while anyone is looking my way.
We had so much fun learning from the locals. Next time I will blend right in with everyone when eating out. And I will know how to find the best restaurants now that I have a few helpful tips.

It was a little challenging for us to find local, non-tourist restaurants since we were walking most everywhere we went. We opted to take the train as often as possible. Some of our friends had rented a car but even they opted for the train as often as possible. Driving in Italy is insane.

We took the train to Florence and so glad that we did considering the traffic. Since Florence is one of the most visited cities in Italy, with millions of visitors (1.8 million in 2012) annually and over 370,000 inhabitants in the city alone, it can get very congested. Because it is such a tourist spot, there are many restaurants to accommodate everyone. In fact there are over 1,940 restaurants in Florence. Thankfully, we have fabulous friends who did some research prior to our visit and they found a fabulous restaurant, Trattoria (family owned) Acauacotta.

The menu was very extensive including very enticing dishes. I was learning though that my stomach couldn't accommodate an antipasto, first coarse, second coarse and a dessert. So I choose very carefully what I wanted to try. I was looking for something different
The salad was recommended so we started with salads of baby Spinach with Parmesan Cheese, Truffles and Pine nuts.

The spinach was fresh and tender and the combination of truffles and pine nuts was perfect. I skipped the first (pasta) coarse and went straight for the second coarse, selecting the stuffed rabbit.

It was a good decision. It was beautifully presented and it was delicious. I believe it was stuffed with pork sausage and herbs but since our server didn't speak English I decided to just enjoy my meal. As I’ve already eluded to, the pork in Italy is amazing.

Dennis selected a pork chop that was also beautifully presented.

He reported that it was tender, juicy and very flavorful.

Stacey enjoyed the home made Ravioli with Spinach, Scamorza cheese and Tomatoes. Scamorza is a semi-soft cheese made from Italian cow's milk very similar to mozzarella.

It too was very good. There isn't anything like home made pasta. At one time that was all you were ever served in Italy but times are changing and many people are choosing the easier, less time intensive commercial products. All I can say is what a shame but I do understand about convenience.

We left Florence very happy. It was an amazing visit. It is hard to imagine how it could get any better but it did!

We had a very unique experience on Wednesday. We hired a nature guide who took us bird watching. It was a cloudy, slightly dreary day but we saw many birds. We also saw wild boars out in the distance. I enjoyed the adventure which also included lunch at a local Italian restaurant, totally off the beaten track, not in a tourist area at all. I Gelsi Restorante and Pizzeria seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere.

Our guide had to interpret for us because the menu was totally in Italian and no one at the restaurant spoke English. I had been told if we really wanted true Italian food, we needed to find a restaurant that did not have a menu in English. So we did and it was great. The highlight of the meal was eating lunch with our guide, Marco. He was very entertaining and informative. He was quick to point out that Americans did not know how to eat. Stacey was about to sprinkle Parmesan cheese on her mushroom pasta when out of the blue Marco exclaims, “NO! you can’t do that”. We all jumped and said, “what”? He continued by explaining that it is an insult to the chef to add parmesan cheese to mushroom and fish dishes. He said that it covers up the delicate flavor of the fish. Mushrooms have a very special flavor on their own. So we learned something new. We asked if there were other tips, things that we should know. This is what he shared with us:
Parmesan Reggiano is added to meat and tomato dishes only.
Never order coffee with milk after 10:00 a.m.
Never use your bread to soak up olive oil, it is supposed to be drizzled on the bread.
Don't cut up the pasta and use your bread only to soak up any left over sauces in your plate after you have eaten.

So we enjoyed a delicious meal and learned how to eat Italian style.

I selected risotto. I love risotto and the beet risotto I had the week before was so good. This time I choose the shrimp risotto.

It wasn’t what I expected but it was delicious. The shrimp was pureed and folded in as a sauce. Just in case you are not familiar with risotto, it is a rice that is very high in starch. It must be cooked very slowly and the liquid is added about ½ cup at a time, allowed to absorb before adding in more liquid until the rice is al dente. The shrimp risotto was perfectly cooked, creamy and very rich in flavor.

Dennis ordered Tagliatelle with boar meat and it was wonderful.

Steve and Stacey both ordered pasta with mushrooms,

one with porcini and one with truffles. Dennis was allowed to add Parmesan but Steve, Stacey and I were totally forbidden to insult the chef.

Tuscan food just kept getting better! Our next day was one of my most favorites. We had a guide who took us for a wine tour to Montepulciano a medieval and Renaissance hill town in southern Tuscany. We all love Montepulciano food and wine.

The first winery was Talosa. At one time they aged their wines in the underground caves that date back to the 16th century. It was an incredible experience stepping back in time, walking through the passageways, ducking around the walls and seeing what was around the next corner. We completed the tour with a wine tasting with a very clever, unique instructor. He humored and entertained us while we tasted the wines.

We purchased a few bottles to take with us to lunch.

Christiano, our tour guide recommended the restaurant for lunch and I am so glad we followed his lead. It was one of the best meals we had in Italy, right up there with San Mattia. We asked Christiano to order for us. Wow! The restaurant was Osteria Acquacheta, a very special place where everyone sits together at long tables. The food arrives in large bowls and platters for passing around the table, family style. The pasta dishes were pici pasta with wild boar ragu, and tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms. Pici is a hand rolled pasta that is similar to spaghetti, only longer and fatter. It originated in southern Tuscany.

The steaks were prepared Tuscan style and referred to as Florentine steak. They were cooked in a wood fire oven, seared on the outside and medium rare on the inside. The seasoning for this preparation is very light and simple, usually just salt and pepper.

The pears were served as an appetizer and were slightly baked atop melted sheep cheese. The food was amazing and the service was excellent. The owner put on a show while chopping the steaks to order.

I think these pictures speak volumes. The food was even better than it looks. Our time in Tuscany was incredible.
Next stop Rome in the Lazio Region.

Posted by terri at 01:44 AM | Comments (0)

October 20, 2014

The Food in Parma and Bologna

Since I am a foodie, I knew I had to go to Parma and Bologna. Actually I would loved to have spent more time In Bologna. It was one of my highlights. My only regret was that we didn't spend the night in Bologna, allowing more time to see the city, shop and eat more of their delicious food.

But first we went to Parma where we ate pizza at Orfeo Ristorante and Pizzeria. It was the best pizza I had during our trip to Italy. I mean how could it not be, with Parma hams and sausage, the porcino wild mushrooms and the cheeses.

Porcino mushrooms appeared on the menu often during our time in Italy. They are pale brown in color and can grow to about a pound each. Most of the mushrooms we ate were about two to three ounces. Porcini have a woodsy flavor and are meaty in texture. They are not commonly found fresh in the U.S. so I ate a lot of them while I could because they are very delicious.

The next day was a gourmet food tour through "Amazing Italy Tours." It was awesome. Our tour guide, Natalie shared so much information about the food and history of Bologna that I was amazed. We tasted chocolate from one of the most famous chocolate producers in Italy, The Majano family. Many years ago the most noble sat around a table and discussed the quality, taste and texture of the chocolate and all agreed that Majano's was the best. I am not a chocolate expert but it was very good.

We tasted toasted chocolate, cream chocolates, and light and dark chocolate to compare the difference. I liked the bitterness of the dark chocolate the best. The last chocolate was a chocolate dipped slice of chewy orange flavored candy. Wow, what a way to start the day. I am on a sugar high.

Next we tasted salami, prosciutto, and Parmesan Reggiano and Caciotta Bell' Emilia cheeses. By now we are "salami experts. The meats were wonderful. We've also had a fair amount of Parmesan Reggiano by now and I've really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the Caciotta. It is a soft cheese that has about the same texture as Mozzarella but actually has a little more flavor. I bought some to take with me.

Parmesan Reggiano comes from Freisen cows. There are 471 cheese makers in Parma and over 275,000 cows. Parmesan Reggiano is lower in fat than many cheeses but it spends about 21 days in salt. I have always loved Parmesan Reggiano cheese and it was a dream come true to be enjoying it in Italy. Often it was served with different jams and this was delicious. I will try this at home.

Next was the pasta tasting. I discovered that I really love home made pasta. As I will share later pasta making is not difficult but it is pretty time consuming. So I tried really hard to eat as much as possible. I even took a cooking class where I learned how to make delicious home made pasta. I thought I knew all about pasta making but I learned a few new things in my cooking class.

During the tour, we tasted two pastas, both made to order. The tortellini was stuffed with chopped ham, chopped mortadella, chopped loin meat, eggs, nutmeg and salt. Again, northern Italian cooking isn't heavy with tomato sauce. The lasagna was layered with spinach noodles, ricotta cheese, a béchamel sauce and ground beef. Both pasta dishes were unbelievably delicious, so far the best pasta I've had.

We finished the tour with Gelato. Dennis is becoming an expert. He said that this was the best so far but very close to the first gelato he tasted in Lake Como. Maybe that was because it was his first real Italian gelato. All I know for sure is that this gelato was very good.

Posted by terri at 02:33 AM | Comments (0)

October 15, 2014

San Mattia Food and Wine

San Mattia, the agriturismo where we stayed is situated at the top of the ridge overlooking Verona, Italy taking about 20 hairpin turns to reach the top. It is a lovely place, surrounded by beautiful flowers, trees, and farmland. We were given a tour of the vineyards where Silvia, the winemaker explained the process for making Amerone wine.

She explained how they grow the grapes, cutting the center growth and letting the sides shoots grow. They prune and allow only one bunch of grapes to grow per shoot, concentrating the grapes for more flavor.

The grapes are hand picked for the best grapes. These grapes are then placed in shallow boxes and stacked in a shed for drying. There must be continuous air flow for the next 3 months. The result is a very flavorful wine, high in alcohol. We enjoyed learning about this wine and most importantly we enjoyed drinking it. After the tour we had a wine tasting. We tasted three wines, each with a great story about how they were named or how they decided on the art for the labels.

We had a delicious dinner our first night complete with very typical Italian dishes. Verona is also in the Veneto region that I spoke about in the last blog. The food was amazing as you will see.

We began our dinner with an antipasto of local salami, prosciutto, and cheeses. The hams are so good in Italy in part due to the strict regulations for raising the pigs. The pigs must be from farms in central northern Italy. They are fed a special diet including the whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese production.

Next we were served the first coarse family style that included beet risotto and pasta with Bolognese sauce. The beet risotto was beautifully colored from the red beets and it was rich, creamy and delicious.
The pasta was equally good. The Bolognese in Italy has a lighter tomato sauce than we usually have in the U.S. providing more meat flavor.

Then the second course. I know what you must be thinking and yes I was so full that I couldn't believe they were bringing out more food. But that is the Italian way of things. They begin with antipasto or appetizer as we routinely call it. The first course is a pasta dish and the second course is the meat dish with sides. There was dessert but I gave up and declined dessert.

This was the best meal we've had so far and San Mattia was a wonderful place to stay. The staff were very friendly and the food was amazing. Breakfast was served everyday and it included meats, cheeses, farm fresh eggs, pastries, and jams.

We especially enjoyed the story about the geese and chickens that were at one time were free to roam about until they started eating the grapes. However, they only ate the grapes when they were at their peak, ready to pick, helping to staff to know it must be harvest time. After that season the birds are inside a pen until after harvest- must save the grapes for the wine!

Posted by terri at 01:42 AM | Comments (0)

October 07, 2014

Eating in Italy

If you've ever been to Italy, you will know exactly what I am talking about when it comes to eating. Italians love their food. What we learned is each region and even each city we visited offer their own specialties and they all claim to have the best ingredients, dishes and recipes. We soon realized we would have to find out for ourselves who had the best food. We made it our personal mission to find our favorite Italian food. We quickly became an authority on salami, pasta dishes, pizza, and gelato. It was a labor of love.

There are many types of places to eat depending on what you are interested in. When selecting a place to eat, think about what you want, a more formal dinner with all the frills or local food with a family atmosphere. A Ristorante can be fancy and expensive offering an extensive menu. A Trattoria is a family run restaurant that offers home-style cooking, moderately priced, with a more casual atmosphere compared to a ristorante. An Osteria or rustic wine bar serves regional food. They tend to be moderately priced, trendy and a little more upscale than the trattoriais. The Pizzeria seemed to be the most popular type of eating place in Italy. Originally they served only pizza from wood-fired ovens. Now they provide other dishes especially pasta and are less expensive than a restorante. Bars serve coffee, snacks and sometimes sandwiches. These seemed to be very popular for the on the go Italians and tourists who wanted take away items. We saw many people walking quickly on their way somewhere, eating a sandwich on the go. But be aware if you sit down in a bar you may have to pay a table fee, making that normally 2 Euro cone of gelato about 6-8 Euro. Make sure you ask before sitting down if the prices are the same or different. There are other types of places to eat but these were the ones we experienced.

Our eating adventure began in Lake Como which is in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. The Lombardy region is best known for its dairy products and fresh fish since Italy's largest lakes are within this region. From there our eating tour got better and better as we became more comfortable with the Italian way of things.

We had to adjust our time table for meals. Many eating places especially in the smaller, less tourist cities close between 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. I like to eat dinner early but that did not happen in Italy. We were often touring around and were ready for a light lunch around 1:00 p.m. Because we were on the go all day, we worked up an appetite again by 5:00. But as we found out, we would have to wait until 7:00 or 7:30 and in some cases 8:00. We learned quickly we would have to sleep when we got home because meals in Italy could take hours. A friend of mine once said, "party, party, eat, eat, drink, party some more and sleep when you get home".

Our first dinner in Italy was in Lake Como at Bella Vista restaurant where we enjoyed a spectacular view of the lake and a fabulous dinner.

The most adventurous way to get to Bella Vista is by the Funicular railway that actually connects the City of Como with the Comune of Brunate, 750 meters above sea level. It takes about 7 minutes to reach the top where the view of the Italian Alps is breathtaking. The restaurant offers patio seating overlooking this view. Since we were on Italy's third largest lake I decided to try the local fish. No one could tell me exactly what the fish was but I believe it may have been perch. It was a very mild white fish that they prepared by baking and it was served with a sage and butter sauce. The sauce was light and flavorful without overpowering the delicate fish. The dish was served with white polenta that looked more like mashed potatoes. It was the best polenta I've ever eaten, creamy with a very fine texture. I also had a fennel, carrot and orange salad. I enjoyed a glass of Lugana, a crisp white wine with citrus flavors that was a great pairing with my meal. Lugana is produced in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy at the Santa Sofia Winery.

Dennis stepped out of his comfort zone and ordered venison. It was slow roasted with a rich brown sauce. He selected a spicy and acidic red wine from Montepulciano in the Tuscany region, a great choice for the venison. We did splurge a little on this meal but after all it was our first meal in Italy and we really enjoyed it.

The service at Bellavista was good. Our dinner reservation was for 7:30. It was very quite when we arrived. But by the time we left a band was getting ready to play and the place was filling up. We didn't know it at the time but that is how it usually is in Italy. People eat fairly late.

With jet lag and our first meal under our belt we headed back down the mountain to our hotel to turn in for the night. On our way we saw ice cream (gelato) shops everywhere. It was a hard to decide where to go but Dennis decided on a place, walked in and ordered his first gelato. We were amazed at how many places, called Gelatoria, there were to buy gelato. I believe there was at least one on every block. He orders, smiles and sighs. "Oh this is the best ice cream I've ever eaten." I know that look; he was hooked.

Tomorrow would be another adventure with more great food and wine. Next up is a trip to Bellagio via a ferry boat. It will take about 2 hours to get there and I know we will see a lot of beautiful scenery along the way. Bellagio is referred to as the "Pearl of Lake Como.

While in Como, we stayed at the Continental Best Western. They provided a very typical breakfast with salami, ham, cheese, fruit and pastries. The hotel was great and we enjoyed our stay there. Since we had a really big breakfast at the hotel, we didn't get hungry until around 2:00.

After we toured around Bellagio we found a little bar and ordered a glass of wine and a snack for a special price of 7 Euros, thinking that would hold us until we got back to Lake Como. We were surprised that the snack was so much. Like I said, they like their food in Italy.

The snack was served with the house red and it was drinkable. I learned quickly when to order house wine and when to spend a little more for better wine. In the upper scale restaurants the house wine was good but in the smaller eating places trust me and spend the few Euros for a better glass of wine.

You might get the impression that all we did was eat. We did eat a lot but we also enjoyed a lot of other things about Italy like the history and the art. But since this blog is about eating in Italy here is a summary of our next meal.

We arrived back to Como around 7:30, about an hour later than we thought. We began walking back to our room when we saw a wine bar and restaurant that was crowded with people enjoying food, wine and live music. We decided to try it out. During our entire stay in Italy this was one of the friendliest places we ate. I have to mention that usually the staff at most of the eating places we visited were polite but not overly friendly. They provided good service but they didn't take much interest in us, except for our waiter at Bargiuliant Pizza de Gasperi. He was great. When he realized we were leaving after our meal he tried his best to get us to stay, giving us a bad time about leaving so early. Hey it was 10:30 and we still had a little jet lag going on. I was full, tired and we had to walk another 2 miles back to the hotel. Since we were walking we didn't have to worry so much about all the food we were eating. Hopefully we walked off the pounds.

Back to the dinner at Gasperi. I ordered tagliolini with Pesto and Dennis had Spaghetti Bolognese. Tagliolini is a long, thin noodle, cylindrical in shape and often made with eggs. The pesto sauce had great flavor but a little heavy with extra virgin olive oil, making it fairly rich. I selected Dolceto D'Alba, a very good red wine being one of seven Dolcetto-focused DOC wines produced in Italy's north-western Piedmont region. The wine is named after the grape from which it is made and the area where it is produced. It is considered the most notable of the Dolcetto classified reds, thanks to the considerable number of quality producers in the vicinity. The wine was even better with Dennis's Bolognese and a great deal for the price. The glass of wine cost 6 Euros.

Bolognese is a meat based sauce usually made with tomatoes and enhanced with wine and milk or cream. It was very good. We were served a big bowl of parmesan cheese and I added a heaping spoonful just because I was in Italy. But I learned something about parmesan cheese and food. They really do have a lot of food rules in Italy and I was shocked. More about that later. See the blog coming up about eating in Tuscany.

The next morning we slept in a bit before we had to leave to catch the train back to Milan then to Venice. Our next meal will be with friends at Birraria La Corte in Venice which is in the Veneto Region of Northeastern Italy extending from the Alpine Mountain Range to the Adriatic Sea. In the Veneto region they are known for their risotto, polenta and seafood. The most popular wines are Bardolina, Valpolicella, Soave, Prosecco and Amarone.

Birraria La Corte was a wonderful place. We really enjoyed the meal. I ordered a seafood salad with shrimp and smoked swordfish. It was probably the best salad I had the whole time I was in Italy, at least a close tie with the salad I had in Soave.

Dennis had Pizza with buffalo salami and ham with truffle cream. I thought it was a very creative and delicious pizza. We all shared the house Pinot Grigio and it was a good choice.

The truffle cream added a earthy garlic and onion flavor to the pizza that was unique and different from any pizza I've ever eaten. I used to think our little pizza restaurant at home had the best pizza I've ever eaten but now I know that Italians are experts when it comes to pizza.

Truffles are mushrooms that grow underground. When the spores of the truffle mature, the fungus produces aromatic compounds making it possible for trained dogs to smell and hence the mushroom can be retrieved. But the hunter has to make sure he gets to the dog before the dog eats the truffle. Spring truffles are white and fall truffles are black. More later about the truffle.

Tuesday night, our 4th night in Italy was our last night in Venice. We decided to go back towards our room, about a 15 minute walk from Saint Mark's Square and eat at one of the restaurants in Garabaldi. One of the staff at our hotel recommended three and we selected the one that didn't charge a table fee (coperto), Hostaria All' Ombra. They were offering a special of the day, or della giorno for only 15 Euros. It really was a great deal but the food was just ok, not fabulous like I thought it would be. I think it was also the fact that the atmosphere wasn't what I thought it would be.
The next day we head to Verona. I didn't know much about Verona except that we would be drinking Amarone and Soave and we will be staying in an Agriturismo called San Mattia close to a really cool castle. An agriturismo is a farm that has been converted into a villa/hotel. This provides the families with additional income and a tax break for being a farm.
The food at San Mattia was fabulous. We had one of the best meals I've had so far. Wait till you see the pictures. See new post for San Mattia.

Posted by terri at 02:30 AM | Comments (0)