Tag Archives: travel

San Gimignano, Italy: Home of the Original Skyscrapers

San Gimignano is a small town in Tuscany, about an hour by bus from Florence. Given its key location in between Florence and Siena, it was once an important stop on the Medieval pilgrimage route, and the center of two warring factions in the 12th century. At the height of its power, the many wealthy families in town built a total of seventy towers to showcase their wealth and power–also referred to as the “original skyscrapers” by locals. Today, the 14 remaining towers are a testament to the city’s ability to withstand war, weather, and time.

Although traveling during the winter means imagining what the countryside might actually look like when things are lively and green, the slightly eerie empty fields create a very beautiful but ghostly effect.The town is surrounded by a large fortress-like medieval wall, that shelters the most picturesque little Italian town. This was the peace and quiet we had been looking for! Besides the occasional tourist and/or local milling about, there was pretty much nobody and no cars in sight. In fact, the one prevailing sound within the entire 10 mile radius of San Gimignano was that of the thunderous wheels of my friend B’s little suitcase as they rolled and echoed loudly over each and every bumpy cobblestone across town– much to the dismay of all the locals who peered at us from their windows because they probably thought a space shuttle was blasting off dangerously close to their town. B and I couldn’t stop laughing hysterically at our sad/hilarious tourist attempt.

There were plenty of leather and food specialty shops along the main road, where there were about ten people (and plenty of boar heads)…Tuscany is all about the wild boar (cinghiale)!  Wild boar prosciutto, salami, and meat can be found at various specialty shops all over town.

There are several points around San Gimignano with panoramic views of the countryside. The tallest tower measures approximately 54 meters (a bit more than 10 stories), and is one of the main attractions in town, as you can climb a decent amount of stairs to the top for magnificent photo ops of the San Gimignano skyline and a chance to count all 14 towers. Beware of the steps down though– I’m not very afraid of heights but I did have trouble going down the stairs because they are made of see-through metal grates!

It got dark pretty quickly, and B and I tried to find something to do after our amazing dinner– to be detailed in my next post. It was dangerously cold out, but we put on our extra pairs of socks, sweaters, and ventured out to find something to do. By this time of the night, the streets were completely deserted because all of the smarter people were nice and warm at home or in their neighborhood restaurant. We were already full and all the stores were all closed, so we ducked into a local wine shop that was about to close and found an Italian family completely settled into what seemed to be their permanent seats at the bar, relaxing and chatting animatedly. We asked for a recommendation for an inexpensive bottle of local wine and retreated back to our hotel room, where we watched a bizzaro vintage Italian movie on the only tv channel that worked. I loved that the feeling of having only two options in front of me for once– to either stay outside in the freezing cold with multiple layers of socks or to stay inside in a warm hotel room and decipher the plot of a 1970s romantic comedy that suddenly turns into a dark murder film at the last second.  Wouldn’t you have done the same?


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The truffles are here!

Truffle hunting: an intense, risky treasure quest requiring skill and instinct, traditionally shared by both Italian men and wild female pigs. (For culinary enjoyment and out of mistaken identity during mating season, respectively). Upon unearthing these treasures, the truffle hunter can sell each truffle for approximately 250 euros per 100 grams in Italy. In 2006, a wealthy businessman from Hong Kong purchased the most expensive truffle in the world at $160,406– an Italian white truffle weighing in at 3.3 pounds. Truffles are prized for their strong, unique flavor that infuse naturally with other ingredients and enhance any dish. They require several years to grow undisturbed in the root systems of oak, pine, or beech trees, before they are found by trained truffle hunting dogs that can also cost several thousand dollars. Truffles were traditionally hunted by wild female pigs who confused the strong scent for that of a boar. But because pigs are essentially un-trainable, dangerous, and end up destroying many delicate root systems, dogs make much better truffle-hunting companions.

During my Bologna market tour, I visited a specialty store that sold fresh white truffles. As soon as the store owner opened one plastic bin filled with fresh white truffles, Continue reading

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Dreamy Capri

Sometimes when I’m a million miles away in daydream-land (or Pei-land, as I like to call it), I think about sitting in a nice beach chair on a beautiful little island and enjoying the sun, eating endless amounts of incredible food.

Then not so long ago, I went to Pei-land…

The Italian island of Capri does not have sandy beaches, but elegant high rocky cliffs. Continue reading

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Five Reasons Why Bologna is a Food Lover’s Dream

In Italy, the city of Bologna is known as “la grassa” (“the fat one”) because of its fantastically fatty and flavorful cuisine. Although I’ve hardly seen anyone I’d actually consider to be fat in Bologna, I can attest to the fact that “la grassa” is indeed an appropriate nickname. Tell anyone who has lived in Bologna for a while that you had a “traditional Bolognese meal” the other night and they will smile and groan while reminiscing about the last time they had five courses of tagliatelle Bolognese, crescentina, salumi, frommagi… the rest is just a blurry haze from the onset of food coma. Food, good company, and the leisurely pace at which you eat, make each meal in Bologna memorable.

1) The food is simple, satisfying, and amazing.

Case in point, pepata di cozze from the Ristorante Pizzeria Il Saraceno. Via Calcavinazzi, 2, 40121 Bologna.

This dish is made with the freshest, most tender mussels, pepper, some wine, and lemons on the side for some acidity.

2) Ingredients are fresh and easily accessible at local markets. Via Pescherie Vecchie features beautiful specialty food shops with large cuts of prosciutto hanging in the window, fresh cheeses still submerged in water, fresh pasta lightly dusted with flour sitting in wooden trays, and a variety of dried spices on the shelves. There are market stalls with fresh produce and fresh fish every morning. The fishmongers sell all kinds of seafood from langoustines to mackerels to squid. Butcher shops offer cuts of meat, whole chickens, pigs, and beef. If you’re wondering what the white piece of paper on the pig’s head is in the photo, it is a sign telling all prospective buyers that they’re too late- it’s sold!

3) Fat is embraced as an integral and natural part of food. Italians strategically incorporate fat into a dish to enhance its flavor and texture. Which is part of the reason why everything is so good– they don’t sacrifice or substitute taste to meet specific numbers such as calorie or fat counts. Continue reading

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Food Explainer: Buffalo Mozzarella

What exactly is buffalo mozzarella? Mozzarella cheese made in Buffalo, New York– much like the city’s alleged “buffalo” wings perhaps?

This time, buffalo literally means buffalo. Buffalo mozzarella, or mozzarella di bufala, is a rich cheese that is made from domestic water buffalo milk. Water buffalo milk provides higher levels of protein, fat and minerals than cow’s milk, which contributes to the cheese’s high quality, fresh deliciousness. Buffalo mozzarella is produced in many locations around the world, but originated in Italy, where buffalo mozzarella production is still a key industry and cultural tradition. The majority of buffalo mozzarella produced in Italy comes from southern Italy– namely Salerno, Napoli, Basso Lazio, Caserta

and Foggia. It is served in salads, melted on pizzas, on top of bread, or on its own. Fresh buffalo mozzarella is very dense, but soft and can be cut easily with a knife. It still retains a lot of moisture so some liquids may come out when you cut it. Therefore, making pizzas with buffalo mozzarella often requires using types that have lower moisture content.

There are many theories on how water buffalos first arrived in Italy. It is widely believed that they were introduced to mainland Italy by Norman Kings around the year 1000, after Arabs brought them to Sicily. The presence of buffalos and their by-products have since been traced back to the 12th and 13th centuries.


Domestic water buffalo. Image from http://www.mlive.com

The name mozzarella originates from the Italian word, “mozzare”, or “to cut off”, which represents the stage in the production process where cheese makers hand-cut the freshly made cheese paste.

How it’s Made

These are the main steps for buffalo mozzarella production. For more details and photos, visit the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP page.

1. Milk processing and curdling- Raw buffalo milk is stored, heated and then allowed to curdle by adding natural whey.  The curds are then stirred and broken up manually. The solid matter is then separated from the liquid milk.

2. Curd maturation- Curds are left in the why to ferment for 4-5 hours. When the paste is ready, as determined after a few manual tests, it is placed on a table to drain off the excess whey, cut into strips and placed into special vats.

3. Spinning- Boiling water is added to the cheese mixture and manually spun using a bowl and wooden stick. It is continuously kneaded and stretched until a homogenous paste is obtained.

4. Shaping- Shaping the cheese can be done using traditional or industrial methods. Traditional methods entail one cheese maker holding up the spun paste while another cuts it manually. Industrial cheese makers have mechanical molds. Buffalo mozzarella is usually shaped into bite-size pieces, knots, braids, or its well-known spherical shape.

5. Packaging- The cheese is packaged on-site in liquids for preservation.

How to Identify Authentic Buffalo Mozzarella from Italy

In Italy, certified buffalo mozzarella producers belong to a consortium and follow strict guidelines that ensure authenticity and freshness. In 2008, it was discovered that some uncertified buffalo mozzarella contained a high level of carcinogens, most likely from contamination caused by the illegal trash problem in Naples. Buffalo mozzarella can only be sold if it is pre-packaged at the source. By Italian law, if the cheese is packaged in a knotted bag, the manufacturer must place a seal of guarantee above the knot to prevent possible contamination.

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Recipe: Tagliatelle alla Bolognese

In the U.S., spaghetti bolognese consists of spaghetti with tomato sauce and ground beef. During my few weeks in Bologna so far, I’ve tried many versions of the original ragu bolognese, city’s most prized and well-known sauce. Instead of spaghetti, it is served with fresh tagliatelle— long, ribbon-shaped pasta that is made with flour and eggs. Since it is freshly-made, the pasta is especially porous which makes it ideal for soaking up delicious, rich sauces.

I had tagliatelle alla bolognese at Da Silvio, a fantastic restaurant down the street from me, and had cravings for bolognese sauce for the rest of the week. I finally broke down and decided to find a recipe for the dish, and make it myself. After all, I had access to fresh ingredients and the official recipe developed by the Italian Academy of Cuisine Association and the Brotherhood of the Tortellino back in the 70s, filed with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce.

Ingredients for 4 servings:

– 1 pound Ground Beef
– 1/4 pound Ground Pancetta (or fresh bacon)
– 1 Carrot, finely diced
– 1 rib Celery, finely diced
– 1/2 medium onion, diced
– 4 tablespoons of Triple concentrated tomato paste
– 1 cup white or red wine
– 1 cup of whole milk
1 1/2 cups of beef (or other) broth*
– Kosher salt and black pepper
– 1 pound of (fresh) tagliatelle
– 1 tablespoon butter
*my own addition

This is definitely not a low-fat recipe so beware… but it is pretty amazing. I made some slight modifications to the original recipe to make measurement conversions easier. Just make sure that you are not ravenously hungry when you make this, because it is best after two or more hours of simmering.

Preparation:

1. Brown the pancetta in the pan.

2. Add the chopped vegetables and cook until translucent.

3. Add the ground beef and stir until meat is browned. Add about one teaspoon of salt.

4. Add the wine, a little stock, and the tomato paste. I also added a cup of canned whole tomatoes that I broke apart, because I like more tomato in my sauce, though it is not in the original recipe.

5. Let the mixture simmer over medium-low heat for at least two hours, adding the milk and broth as the mixture thickens. Add salt as needed. (I also added a half teaspoon of sugar because I wanted to) The longer it simmers, the more flavorful the sauce will be. By this point, the sauce should be very smooth and should blend together nicely.

6. When the sauce is about 20 minutes from being done, cook the pasta. Fresh pasta should only take a few minutes before it is al-dente. When it is done, drain the pasta.

7. Add the cooked pasta to a saucepan and toss with some butter. Add your preferred amount of sauce.

Final product! With chunkier veggies and tomatoes. 🙂

Although the original recipe does not detail this last part, all restaurants in Bologna actually mix the bolognese sauce with the pasta in a separate saucepan so the sauce is spread evenly and absorbed by the pasta. It is absolutely delicious, so I would recommend it!

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Food… and Fashion Week in Milan

There is nothing I love more than combining some of my favorite things in life: hazelnuts and chocolate (Nutella!), Yankees stadium and foot-long hot dogs, impromptu dance parties and karaoke, and of course… food and fashion!

It is Fashion Week in Milan from September 22nd -28th this year, and the stars have finally aligned—I am in Italy, I am traveling and I am on a mission. I want to see Milan for the first time, have some great Milanese (north Italian) fare and catch some fashion shows.

We arrive at the Milan train station and are welcomed by a grandiose train station that leads directly to the Centrale metro. To get to the metro, we pass by fancy shopping areas constructed with light marble, small food shops and a distractingly gigantic Cristiano Ronaldo Armani ad. A few metro stops later, we are right in the center of the city, where Milan’s Gothic-style cathedral (Duomo) stands. The interior of the cathedral is beautiful, and can make any non-believer feel just a bit more spiritual. For an additional 5 euros, we climb to the top of the Duomo, which is actually much quicker and less strenuous of an experience than climbing to the top of the Duomo in Florence.

Right next to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele– a shopping area enclosed with glass ceilings, similar to the one in Naples, but with luxury stores such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada. The crowd is overwhelming and persistent, as people elbow their way through to the center, where we see a large stage with stairs and mannequins set up. There are three ready to wear (literally…ready to wear) Italian fashion shows lined up for the evening, and we get to catch two of them: Mabrun and Camomilla Milano.

Mabrun

(Faux) Fur is in! And love the full sheer skirt under the heavy jacket.

Camomilla Milano

Looks like colors are in for spring at Camomilla Milano!

Off the Piazza Duomo on Via Spadari is the most gourmet of gourmet grocery stores, Peck.  It is three floors of shiny deli machinery, Italian cured meats, imported produce, delicate chocolates, and freshly made everything.

The first floor is a brightly-lit, open space with long counters for each section. The second floor (no photos allowed, apparently) is stocked with large selections of coffee beans, tea, biscotti, and has a small café area with a few tables for patrons. The basement features a vast wine collection with bottles from 14 euros (the Peck brand) to thousands of euros. There are some super skinny and stylish models milling about in the store, probably taking a break from the fashion shows to take a look at some amazing food. Everything looks fantastic and tempting but there is nothing I really want to get at the time, (except for the 8,000 euro antique deli meat slicer below) since I am busy thinking about the great dinner we are about to have.

I had read some great reviews of the Trattoria Milanese (Santa Marta, 11) and suggest that we go there. It takes a little bit of walking—and one quick stop for directions—before we get there. But alas, it is CLOSED! On a Saturday night! Oh, the heartbreak! We are so hungry and don’t have a Plan B, so we decide to wander around the area and leave it up to fate to find us a good place to eat.  After about 15 minutes of walking, we see a little courtyard and a sign for Ristorante Al Mercante. I have a good feeling about this one, so we run across the street and step into our chance restaurant pick. It is a very warm and inviting place, full of what appear to be local Italians. The host immediately asks if we have reservations… uh oh… can it be that this place wasn’t meant to be after all? The host thinks for a minute and then signals to a waiter, who then leads us upstairs to another dining room, where he takes the “reserved” card off of a table and seats us. Success!

Ristorante Al Mercante

Piazza Mercanti, 17 Milan 20123

Milan, and the Lombardy region of Italy as a whole, is known for its rich dairy products such as milk, cream, butter and cheese. Milanese cuisine incorporates these ingredients into its signature dishes, particularly pasta with cream sauces and risotto, which is fantastic for absorbing all of the rich flavors it is cooked in. A family gathering of about 20 people livens the atmosphere, and makes us even hungrier with all of the great Italian food spread out buffet-style, including a giant wheel of Parmesan cheese that they directly cut out of.

The ravioli with cream sauce and prosciutto is thick and rich. The ravioli is soft and chewy, with a thin meat filling. The sauce is incredible! The entire platter is so fresh and minimally processed that the coloring is a light, creamy white. Great pick by Pietro!

My pappardelle with zucchini flowers and small pieces of fish (below) is very subtle and light. Pappardelle is a type of very thin and large, broad pasta that is soft and almost resembles wonton skins when it’s cooked. Zucchini flowers are delicious. When you see them at the Italian markets, they vary in size and have green stems with bright orange blooms. The pasta is cooked with the two main ingredients- tossed in some olive oil and butter. Because the pasta is fresh and so delicately thin, it all kind of sticks together and you have to cut it with a knife.

Emma orders the classic cotoletta alla Milanese, which is one of Milan’s specialties. It is a very thin veal cutlet of buttery and fried deliciousness, along with a few small yellow potato wedges. I don’t normally eat veal, ever since I learned about where it came from back in middle school, but I feel like I have to make an exception (since I thought that maybe veal was happier here in Italy) and have a tiny sample. What can I say, it is battered and cooked perfectly.

For our secondi course, Pietro orders the grilled calamari. Unlike the calamari we’ve ordered at other various restaurants, this calamari is chopped into larger pieces and is soft, rather than tough to chew. It is seasoned and grilled with fresh rosemary, which makes it super flavorful and fragrant.

Milan is a great cosmopolitan city that is modern, efficient, hectic, and full of stylish people that walk fast– kind of like the New York City of Italy. Brings me a little closer to home. On the slow train ride back, I leave Milan feeling like I just had great mix of it all- a delicious, incredibly satisfying meal; next season’s fashion trends; great company…and to top it all off, food fate was on my side! Mission accomplished!


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