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Back from Italy - a food report

13 years ago

First of all, that recent question on the forum about what type of cuisine you'd want on a desert island? Italian, hands down. We got back Wednesday night after nearly 3 weeks in Italy and last night we had friends over for dinner --- melon and prosciutto, bruschettas of many varieties, a couple of bottles of Rosso di Montalcino, bucatini all'Amatriciana, sauteed broccoli rabe, and lemon tart with espresso. I definitely can eat pasta every day (and gelato on demand is not a bad thing either!)

But on to the report...

Tomatoes... It's nearly impossible to make bad sauce, with a base ingredient this good. A couple of my favorite tomato-based pasta dishes on the trip: Spaghetti al Tonno (tuna) - I'm pretty sure it was simply oil packed tuna, tomatoes, parsley and maybe a bit of onion and garlic. Bucatini all'Amatriciana - I had this a couple of times in Rome. On our last night at dinner, it was the best ever. I had a discussion with the restaurant owner about the preparation -- saute onion in olive oil and butter, add diced guanciale (cured pork cheek) and saute a bit more, then add whole peeled tomatoes and slow cook for about five hours; at the end stir in grated pecorino cheese. Since both the cheese and the guanciale are quite salty, use less salt in your pasta water and no added salt in the sauce. He said no to pancetta as a substitute, but when I made it last night, that's what I used since I could not get the guanciale from our local Italian market. It came out quite close to what we ate that last night.

Gnocchi/gnoccheti - many, many interpretations on what this actually is, from the tiny light as feather potato dumplings, to more orchiette-shaped firmer dough morsels. And the sauces, just as varied. One particular highlight was a pesto made from arugula instead of basil, with the gnocchetti surrounded by a ring of fresh arugula. It was a wonderful combination of very rich and just the right amount of bitter.

Dried pastas - It's so much easier to achieve the right consistency of "al dente" with a good dried pasta. I can't really explain it, but even the dried pasta seems fresher, so you get that "toothiness" without any gritty/chalky sensation if that makes any sense.

Non-tomato based pasta dish favorites: spaghetti con vongole (fresh clams, olive oil, garlic, parsley) and spaghetti cacio e pepe (olive oil, a bit of pasta water, grated pecorino and pepper whisked into an incredibly creamy sauce).

Fresh pastas - all I can say is, lasagnes and crespelles (more pasta-like than crepe-like to me), pure heaven, melt in your mouth, rich, again as many varieties of preparation as you can imagine, but none like the standard heavy tomato/cheese/many-layered standard in the U.S.

Eggplant parmigiana - most like what you find here, but on the menus, it was listed as an antipasti (appetizer) and served as a smaller portion (which was perfect because it is so rich).

Vegetable side dishes in restaurants - most often sauteed, and very heavily cooked. Not my favorite method of preparation except for spinach.

Secondi Piatti (or main meat/fish dishes) - most often simply prepared roasted, grilled, sauteed meats, fish, chicken. I don't have too much to write here as it was so hot on the trip, that many of our meals were more antipasti and pasta and not bothering with the second plates. Also saw items like saltimbocca and osso buco on the menu, but those will have to wait for a winter visit when I can think about eating those heavier dishes.

Fresh fruit and vegetables - lots of straight-from-the-farm fresh options - zucchini, artichokes, tomatoes, greens, melons, cherries, plums, peaches, berries... a wonderful variety this time of year, and readily available even at the smallest markets.

Deli cases - pickled anchovies, lush sundried tomatoes, marinated baby artichokes, olives of all kinds, vats of fresh made pestos.

Cheeses - stick with the local specialty and you can't go wrong, and the local specialty changes maybe every 20 miles... cow's milk mozzarella (called fior di latte) from the Lattari Mountains, bufala mozzarella from the plains south of Salerno, pecorino from the hills an hour or two north of Rome... I could go on...

Cured meats - salami/salumi --- beef, pork, cinghale (wild boar), fine or coarsely distributed fats, so good, so many choices! Prosciutto and melon - the best summer appetizer.

Desserts - gelato, lemon granita, wonderful. DH was on a quest for the best tiramisu, but I don't think he found it.

Bread - most often a very simple, heavy loaf, unsalted. Pretty much used only to sop up that last bit of sauce. Never served with butter or olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Occasionally, a good ciabatta would be used for bruschetta (if that was the restaurant specialty).

Pizza - two distinct choices: thicker crust breadlike squares found in the bakeries for a breakfast or mid-morning snack, or woodfired, thin-crust pies I'll dream about for a long time. If tomato sauce was on it, it was always a simple fresh tomato puree. Tried a few varieties, but it's hard to beat the purity of a margherita.

Coffee - all I can say is Starbucks will now taste really weak! And a fine cappuccino and cornetti for breakfast can be found at any corner bar.

Buon appetito!

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