Before the year is out, I want to round up the chronicles of my European trip. I had imagined that I would have luxurious amounts of time while I was travelling to blog about the trip, but I didn’t. I’ve had even less time since I’ve been back home. But it would not feel right to let 2011 pass away without at least one blog devoted to the Italian part of my European vacation.
First of all, I had very, very high expectations of the food. Based on the general travel lore, I expected my two weeks in Italy to be one foodgasm after another. As such, I was bitterly disappointed. This brings me to my first food memory of the trip, and the only one that was bad enough to remember for its awfulness.
Assisi (Umbria), October 25th, 7:30 pm: I am served a ”tomato salad” consisting of one tasteless and raggedly-sliced hothouse tomato and nothing else, to the tune of 4 Euros (about $7 CDN). This was followed by grilled lamb chops so overcooked that, but for the slight smell of dog food, I would have thought they were pork.
This horrible meal aside, and several mediocre ones that I will brush under the carpet, most of the food I ate in Italy was very good, some of it was incredible, and I enjoyed enough amazing eats to fill several blog posts with drool-worthy food chronicles.
I will stick to the food memories that left an impression – either because of the situation or the people I was with, or because I was not expecting something so good in that moment. And this brings me to my most enduring memory of the food in Itlay - that when I let go of my expectations I had the best food experiences. I thought I had learned that life lesson already, but I guess not.
Loro Ciuffenna (Tuscany), October 23rd, 1:00 pm: Our first (and best) pizza in Italy. It was an exciting moment, let me tell you! Pretty much the only place to grab a meal in Loro, A Tutta Pizzaserved the best pizza we have had. Crisp, flavourful crust, various delicious and fresh toppings, perfect amount of cheese. Your choice of white pizza and red pizza. And cheap! All the other pizza we had in Italy was pretty bad, but this place (which we ate at several times) made up for it.
Loro Ciuffenna (Tuscany), October 24th, 1:00 pm: the kids and their friends have gathered chestnuts from down by the river and the surrounding hardwood forests and have brought them in to roast in the oven (or maybe we used the microwave) of our condo. So I am sitting with family and friends eating spur-of-the-moment wild harvested chestnuts that, you know, we just went and picked up. Off the forest floor. In Tuscany! The chestnuts were really good, the kids were vibrating with excitement, and I was having a Pinch-Me moment.
Near Cortona (Umbria), October 25th, 1:00 pm: This meal stands out for two reasons: it was amazing, and it happened earlier on the same day as the awful Assisi meal (above). On our way to Assisi, driving aimlessly through the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside in our little fuel-efficient rental car, I was determined to eat at one of the locally-famous Agriturismo restaurants. I had it all planned out: an out-of-the way spot, just stumbled upon, with food and wine fresh from the farm, unpretentious, simple, delicious. But as each Agritourismo we stumbled upon appeared to be closed on Tuesdays, or closed for the season, or impossible to find in the labrythine maze of farm roads, and as the children got hungrier and crankier, I gave in with bad grace and pulled up to the first roadside restaurant I saw. From the outside, it looked suspiciously like Umbria’s answer to ‘Denny’s’. I was not amused. We were the only ones there, “no doubt because the food is so awful,” I told myself. But of course I was wrong. When the food arrived, it was unbelievable. Juicy homemade sausages, perfectly spiced and cooked. Succulent grilled vegetables, drizzled with fragrant oil and sprinkled with coarse salt and oregano. Silky pasta with fresh artichoke and sharp cheese. Oh my god. The kids ate all of our sausages, so we had to order more. I want one of the sausages right now.
Loro Ciuffenna (Tuscany), multiple times: grape focaccia. Two thin layers of focaccia dough, two layers of concord-type purple grapes, cooked together in perfect harmony. Simplest and one of the best things we ate in Italy.
Azzano Decimo (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), October 29th, 8:00 pm: In the town square during a Hallowe’en party, my friend Daria hands me something meaty and tells me to eat. “What IS this?!” I gasp as I chew on a delightfully rich and sticky slice of sausage yumminess. She tells me it is the local answer to cotechino. The slice I ate had so much collagen and gelatin that it coated my mouth, but in a really, really good way, in a way that said, “Please give me more.” But this was memorable also for the surreal-ness of the moment: I was dressed in a garbage bag costume, watching the strange Italian interpretation of Hallowe’en swirl around me, drinking mulled wine, eating roasted chestnuts (“Where’s the candy?” my kids ask), listening to ‘Monster Mash’ on repeat, and suddenly being handed something so unexpectedly delicious. Oh, it was so good!
Azzano Decimo (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) and various other locations, around 8:00 am: grapes for breakfast. The table grapes in Italy are way better than the grapes here. They look like globes of captured sunlight and taste like nectar of the gods. When I wasn’t having olive oil and Chianti for breakfast (see below), or cookies with caffe latte, I was eating a big bowl of delicious green grapes topped with creamy yogurt and chopped buttery walnuts. Sigh…
Tiberio Vineyard, near Loro (Tuscany), October 28th, 9:30 am: freshly pressed and unfiltered olive oil drizzled thick like honey on slices of Tuscan bread, dry slices of salty prosciutto handed to us by a sweetly smiling farm Mama, fresh crisp fennel, and a glass of their Chianti for breakfast. This was definitly in my Top Three Italian moments – a moment I had come half way around the world to experience. The boys and I had stayed behind in Tuscany for an extra couple of days so that we could sleep in an Agriturismo and get closer to the vines and olive groves and salt-of-the-earth people. We were well rewarded by our lovely stay at Tiberio and by the warm friendly welcome of Enzo and his mother, Giulietta. It was all very postcard-like – sunset walks through olive groves, lemons picked off the tree outside our door, morning mists hanging scarf-like on the hills of slowly bronzing hardwoods and grape vines, tall thin cypress trees in the distance, Enzo driving us to the train station even after a night spent pressing his olives in the nearby mill. And the oil! We were very lucky that Enzo was pressing his oil so early. I did not expect to be able to try any fresh olive oil, but I am so very glad I did. The oil was fluorescent green, thick and cloudy, and tasted like the most delicious olive-vitamins going down. My kids LOVED this experience and each ate more raw oil that I would have believed possible. Please make sure you go to Italy in the late fall so that you, too, can do this.
PS – extra honours go to Tiberio for extending my pleasant memories of Italy to the holiday season back in Canada, when we enjoyed several different types of excellent wine I brought home from their vineyard.
Pordenone (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), October 30th, 2:00 pm: the BEST gelato in all of Italy. The boys and I had made a vow to eat gelato every day of our stay in Italy and we fulfilled our vow, no doubt, even when we had to eat gummy-textured chocolate-mint gelato in touristy places. Thankfully, no tourists come to the bustling northern town of Pordenone, in the heart of what my friend Daria refers to as “the Austria of Italy”. Therefore, the gelaterias there will only survive if they sell actual, real, smooth, creamy, GOOD gelato. And they do. Definitely the best gelato I tasted was in the northern towns of Azzano Decimo and Pordenone, with top honours going to the gelateria in the old part of Pordenone because they sold a pear gelato with local walnuts and milk chocolate chunks. Yeah, you heard that right – are you drooling yet?
Loro Ciuffenna (Tuscany), Oct 22nd, 8:00 pm: tiramisu at Ristorante La Ferriera. Too bad I was so exhausted from my red-eye flight from Morocco and 7-hour overland journey to Tuscany to properly appreciate how good the food was at this restaurant. The memories of that meal are vague, but that tiramisu made an impression on even my fogged-out brain. The best tiramisu I have ever had – the coffee soaking the cake was the best, the luscious mascarpone cheese filling was the silkiest and creamiest, the dusting of cocoa was the perfect finishing touch. And I still slept like a log that night.
Loro Ciuffenna (Tuscany), October 26th, 8:00 pm: Bistecca alla Fiorentina at La Ferriera. I had this twice, but this time I was able to appreciate it (see above). This was my all-around favourite meal in Italy. At La Ferriera, Bistecca alla Fiorentina was made with free-ranging Tuscan veal steak, sliced, and dressed with shaved Grana Podano cheese, wild arugula and cherry toms, as well as the standard olive oil, salt and pepper. This was hands-down the bext steak I have had in my life. And it tasted even better the next day eaten cold on the train.
Loro Ciuffenna (Tuscany), October 26th, 8:30 pm: Crema Catalana at La Ferriera. It was like a creme brule with orange-scented zabaglione under the crackling burnt-sugar crust. And this is what the Crema Catalana looked like 30 seconds after it arrived at our table:
somewhere near the foothills of the Alps, north of Pordenone, October 30th, 7:00 pm: My memory of this meal is a tribute to friends in far places – I thank them for inviting us out to this outdoor party of mushroom enthusiasts. After a sunny afternoon of playing frisbee and walking in the woods, we came back to the picnic grounds where a special meal was said to be waiting for us. We were bundled up against the chilly evening, sitting at rustic lamp-lit tables, nursing our Aperols, nibbling on soft prociutto sandwiches and roasted chestnuts. Suddenly, a small styrofoam plate filled with a brown-flecked porridge was placed in front of me. It did not look appetizing, and I am not a fan of mushrooms at the best of times. My kids refused to touch it at first. But again, our expectations were upset at the first bite. The BEST RISOTTO EVER! So woodsy and fresh-porcini-mushroomy that I could not stop eating it. Actual fresh local porcinis, too, not the dried stuff we usually make do with in Canada. So heavenly!
Azzano Decimo (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), October 29th, 9:00 am: Pomegranates that I picked myself off my friend’s tree!!!!!!!
Firenze (Tuscany), October 26th, 1:00 pm: what a find! A cheap, fresh, and delicious lunch place in such a tourist trap as Florence! We feasted on perfect pasta topped with robust ragu, fantastic tomato-bocconcini salad, ribollita, and wine for next to nothing. I went there a second time a few days later and enjoyed the Italian version of beef dip. This lunch place was tucked away in the covered market in central Florence, it was crowded, busy and loud, you had to share tables with all the other supplicants, but we enjoyed every bite.
Azzano Decimo (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), Oct 21st and Oct 29th, 1:00 to 3:30 pm: the first of these meals I did not experience first-hand, but my children talked so much about “the lasagne-thing” they ate at Matteo’s grandma’s house that it has become part of our important memories of the trip. While I was spending my last few days in Morocco, my kids were already in Italy with family friends and they enjoyed a traditional Italian lunch at Nonna’s house complete with a lasagne-style dish she calls ‘pasticcio’. Lucky me, Nonna repeated the perfomance over a week later, when I got to enjoy bruschetta, simple pasta, salad, breaded chicken cutlets with lemon, and biscotti with caffe latte, all after a nice bike ride through the counrtyside. Definitely in my Top Three, this leisurely traditional Italian midday meal with friends could not have been purchased for any price at a restaurant.
Variuos places in Italy, almost every morning of our stay: my kids asked me to include this one – coffee and cookies for breakfast! The traditional light Italian morning meal of a very milky bowl of coffee used to dip a few dry, but tasty, cookies. We bought all kinds of assorted cookies, but the favourites were square with pictures imprinted on them and dissolved to creamy perfection in the mouth. I ate this a lot, and I’m not even a coffee drinker.
my first food in Italy
Mestre (Venice, Veneto), October 22nd, 12:00 pm: As I sat with my piles of luggage on the train station platform, feeling sorry for myself and unwrapping my lunch, I contemplated how I never expected that my first meal on Italian soil would be a McDonald’s hambuger! Yeah, I KNOW! It’s been over 15 years since I have even eaten at a McDonald’s, but I was starving, looking ahead to a 4-hour journey by train, and the only place to eat at the Mestre train station was a McDonald’s. Enter the Italian panini burger, which, after the first bite, and at that moment, seemed liked one of the best things I had eaten. Crusty bread, juicy meat, fresh crisp lettuce and tomato, secret sauce of exceeding yumminess – I take my hat off to the Italian version of McD.
Or maybe I was just really hungry.
And finally, all the places that I did not visit for its food: Assisi, Firenze (Florence), Siena, Venice. Venice stands out for the unrelenting high expense paid for its horrible food (after day one, I brought sandwiches cobbled together from the hotel breakfast buffet). The food in Siena was neither bad nor good enough to remember fondly. Firenze and Assisi you have already read about (above). BUT, in these beautiful historic places, I was able to forget about my stomach for once. And that’s saying something.