Italia '05: Arrivederci!


MfitaliathBlogs are supposed to be oh-so-up-to-the-minute, but this series of posts on our July visit to Italy has bucked that trend. Months have passed, seasons have changed, and even a child was born while the Moveable Feast soldiered on. One unintended benefit has been the opportunity to look upon all of those images of Italy in summer as winter in New York draws near. It's 19 degrees right now!

If you happened to have arrived late to Moveable Feast: Italia '05, here's the entire series, from start to finish:

»Destination: Italy
»Seeking Santa Margherita
»Send in the Clowns
»Restaurant Redemption
»Baby Gastronomy
»Camogli: Market Day
»Liguria: Random Acts of Eating
»Best Focaccia Ever
»Cowboy (and Cashmere) Country
»Lunching on Higher Ground
»Maremma: Random Acts of Eating
»Next Stop, Rome
»Roman Pilgrimage: Tazza D'Oro
»Roman Pilgrimage: Campo de' Fiori
»Roman Pilgrimage: Forno Campo de' Fiori
»Rome: Random Acts of Eating

SWEET AND VICIOUS Above, a stuffed toy cinghiale, or wild boar, purchased at a gas station in the Maremma.


Rome: Random Acts of Eating


MfitaliathFor your dining pleasure: Above and below, a random selection of food porn from Rome -- from candy and grattachecche (shaved ice with syrup) to Cose Fritte (fried things) and Brooklyn Gum.











Roman Pilgrimage: Forno Campo de' Fiori


MfitaliathThe third and final act of this pilgrimage to a trinity of holy roman food sites concludes at Forno Campo de' Fiori, the amazing bakery at Campo de' Fiori which is justly famous for its pizza bianca -- a chewy, crunchy, olive oil-rich flatbread sprinkled with sea salt.

Ordering was a challenge. The small retail space inside the bakery was packed full, and I had to order quickly or I would get squeezed out and miss my chance for the warm bread. I made eye contact across the counter and using both hands made the international gesture for "just about so big." Immediately, the pizza bianca, which had just landed on the chopping block from the oven, was quickly sliced, deftly wrapped in butcher paper, and handed over to me. We bought some peach iced tea and took our slices out into the square to savor in the sun.

On the opposite side from the busy counter area is a view to where the bread is made. There, you can see the process firsthand in all its glory. A handful of men work like clockwork, quietly and methodically (yet quickly) transforming a seemingly endless supply soft mounds of dough into the thin, dimpled, golden flatbread.









Roman Pilgrimage: Campo de' Fiori



MfitaliathOutdoor food market mecca Campo de' Fiori is stop #2 on our pilgrimage to Roman culinary shrines. Under the canopies, bustling with Roman shoppers and tourists alike, were the most vibrant figs, artichokes, and peaches -- which, of course, look all the more mouthwatering when you glance at these photos months after summer has passed and we are now on the cusp of winter.

Truth be told, amid the fresh and abundant produce, you will find some schlocky housewares sold (we bought a cheap duffle bag), and a used car salesman of a spice seller (I walked up to snap a photo and before I knew it, he had sold me a bag of dried herbs). But, they can't mar the rich display of fruits and vegetables sold in this historic gastronomical destination.

Click below for a photo gallery of Rome's Campo de' Fiori:

» Launch Photo Gallery of Campo de' Fiori


Roman Pilgrimage: Tazza D'Oro


MfitaliathWhen we last left off, we were on a pilgrimage to three of Rome's holiest food sites.

First stop: A visit to La Casa del Caffe Tazza D’Oro, coffee roaster and café located just around the corner from the Pantheon. Better known simply as Tazza D’Oro, the cafe, established in 1946, is a gastro-tourist draw not only for its coffee, but also for its granita di caffè con panna.

Every recommendation for traveling in Rome -- whether given personally or found in a guidebook -- demanded a visit to this place for this special dessert. As we circled the streets surrounding the Pantheon, I suddenly came upon clusters of happy people dipping spoons into cups filled with black and white deliciousness. We had found our destination.

Just one and a half euros buys you a cup full of the tiniest crystals of lightly sweetened frozen espresso layered with whipped cream. Imagine a frozen, slushy caffe shakerato with cream, and there you have the granita di caffè con panna. Perfectly bittersweet, creamy, and luscious, the granita deserves its hallowed reputation.




Next Stop, Rome


MfitaliathFrom the Maremma, we headed south to Rome, the final destination of Moveable Feast: Italia '05. This would be the shortest leg of our trip -- too short to explore the city in any real depth, be it gastronomical or cultural. Yet, we did our best to take in as much as we could during our three-day visit, touring the usual sites (the Colosseum) and the unusual (the Museo Criminologico).

We came armed with personal recommendations on what to see, and (most importantly) where and what to eat, from Jess at L.A. Ritz and Judy at Divina Cucina. Along with several travel books, the information-rich Rome issue of Gourmet magazine was essential. Particularly useful was the recently published Cucina Romana by Sara Manuelli. Part city guide and part cookbook, the book's chapters are organized around each of Rome's neighborhoods, with stories, recipes, and photographs from local restaurants, cafes, bakeries, markets, and food shops.

With all of the reading and research, a consensus seemed to emerge on a handful of "must see/eat" places. Next up, a pilgrimage to three of these holy epicurean sites.










Maremma: Random Acts of Eating


MfitaliathAbove and below, a random selection of food porn from the Maremma region of Tuscany. Top to bottom: Macelleria, complete with wild boar's head (Pitigliano), custard-filled bombolini (Castiglione de la Pescaia), apricots (Castiglione de la Pescaia), inedible, but beautiful, artichoke flowers (Castiglione de la Pescaia), caffe shakerato (Porto Ercole), macelleria sign (Pitigliano), bruschetta (Castiglione de la Pescaia), acqua minerale (Vetulonia), rest-stop panini (Grosseto Province), and gelato (Castiglione de la Pescaia).











Lunching on Higher Ground


MfitaliathThe drive from Grosseto to Pitigliano is truly stunning. The winding road bobs and weaves through rolling hills lined with neat grids of grapevines and shimmering olive trees. Yet, as beautiful as the view may be, the journey has an unfortunate side effect. It's an appetite-killer. All those twists and turns gave me a serious case of car sickness. As we arrived at our destination, which looks as if it has risen straight out of its rocky hilltop foundation, eating was the last thing we wanted to do.

The town is a major attraction for travelers, not only for its jaw-dropping skyline, but also for the architectural remnants of the town’s medieval Jewish community. After a bit of exploring Pitigliano, the car sickness waned, and our appetites returned. Good thing -- because we had one of the best meals of this stretch of our trip at Le Logge Dell'Orso, a tiny restaurant located in front of the Duomo in the Piazza San Gregorio VII.

Everything at the restaurant was taken care of by one man, the restaurant’s proprietor, who took our order and then disappeared into a kitchen in the back to prepare our lunch. When he returned, he brought us a spread of focaccia doused with olive oil and sea salt, along with a variety of crostini, plates of pecorino, and an insalata caprese like I had never seen it before – two big hunks of bufala mozzarella served side by side with a pile of quartered tomatoes. We also had an amazingly creamy risotto swirled with a purée of asparagus. It was a great technique, and it got my mind thinking about replicating this risotto-making method at home with other vegetable purées.



* * *

Another great lunch -- also eaten high up -- was in Vetulonia, a hill town located closer to Grosseto. Vetulonia may pop up in a tourist guide for its historic Etruscan remains, burial tombs, and a small museum of ancient relics, but that’s about all you’ll find in the minuscule village.

Vetulonia has just one street passable by car. We winded our way up the hill (no motion sickness this time) and ate lunch at La Vecchia Cantina, a little restaurant at the lower end of town. We walked inside, which was dark, extremely hot, and empty, save for an old man in the back who said something to us in Italian and waved us to the back. We stepped around to the side of the restaurant, where there was an overgrown backyard with several picnic tables shaded by olive trees. There was a family, another couple, and two construction workers sharing a carafe of wine. For all the American attempts at creating "rustic Italian" menus and restaurant settings, here was the real thing.

We had crisp bruschetta topped with chopped tomato and olive oil. For an entrée, I had a fantastic pasta with crumbled norcino, a spicy and salty pork sausage. After an espresso, we took off to head back to our hotel. On the way out, we passed the old man inside and I peeked into the kitchen, where you could see nonna preparing the next table's meal.






Cowboy (and Cashmere) Country


MfitaliathFrom Liguria, we headed down the coast toward the Maremma, Tuscany's southernmost region, and the Grosseto province. Ironically, when we later returned from Italy to New York, "Maremma" seemed to be everywhere in the guise of the much-hyped opening of Cesare Casella's new restaurant of the same name. A press release for Maremma (the restaurant) traded on the region's reputation as Italian "cowboy country":

Named for a region in Southwest Tuscany regarded as Italy’s Wild West, Maremma is Casella’s tribute to the Italian Spaghetti Western and features a whimsical melding of Tuscan and American cowboy fare. "Maremma and the American West are so alike that I thought it would be fun to bring the foods together to create a 'Spaghetti Western' cuisine," says Casella.

Throughout history, Maremma, a beautiful, rugged terrain on the Southern coast of Tuscany, has been a haven for bandits and i butteri, Tuscan cowboys. The region was also part of the inspiration behind many of the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970’s that were Casella’s favorites to watch growing up. Even today, Italian cowboys roam the vast land with their big, sturdy maremmano horses, herding long-haired maremmano bulls.

We didn't see any Tuscan cowboys, much less long-haired bulls on our visit. And while the sparsely settled rural area surrounding Grosetto has a quiet, frontier feel (if you can see past the terraced vineyards and olive groves), the Wild West analogy seems a little anachronistic, at least based on our experience. After all, as we exited the main highway, we were greeted by a huge billboard advertising "Golf and Cashmere," and the countryside is studded with the kinds of agriturismos familiar to any visitor to Chianti. Megalo-restaurateur Alain Ducasse has thrown his hat into the ring by opening an over-the top resort hotel to woo elite travelers to the region.

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Best Focaccia Ever


MfitaliathHappening upon Camogli's market may have been sheer luck, but we had a very specific target in mind on this visit. We had returned to the town in search of the most amazing focaccia we have ever had. This might sound like an overstatement, but upon looking at these photos again from our trip, I'm convinced that this is, hands down, the best focaccia ever.

Its source is a small focaccieria located at the Eastern end of Via Garibaldi, where the sunlit promenade loses the view of the beach and narrows into a darkened alleyway between two buildings. Blink, and you might even miss the place, but for the aroma of bread baking.

There's focaccia topped with chopped tomato, another with thinly sliced onions, and one with olives. There's pizza too, but the real draw is focaccia col formaggio, a specialty of the region, and in particular the neighboring town of Recco. Loaded with olive oil, the bread contains fresh, soft crescenza cheese stuffed between two extremely thin layers of dough.

I had never tasted anything like it on our first visit, and when a New York City restaurant opened a few years ago promising authentic focaccia col formaggio, I was disappointed to find something closer to a quesadilla instead. I tried to make the focaccia once after my last visit, but it just wasn't the same. After tasting it again this summer, I realized that I had forgotten how incredibly thin the layers were -- paper thin, almost crepe-like. You might need to use a pasta machine to make dough that thin.

I spied a menu posted on the wall of the focacceria detailing the ingredients: "Farina tipo '00,' acqua, olio di olivia e di sansa, cereali maltati, lievito, sale, crescenza."

Unable to translate cereali maltati, I tried to ask some questions about how the focaccia is made, but no one who worked there spoke any English and my phrasebook Italian was not up to the task (if anyone can translate, please comment below). Lievito, which appears to mean yeast, is a surprise ingredient since every recipe I have found for focaccia col formaggio uses an unleavened dough made from just flour and water.

Thoughts about how I might go about reconstructing the focaccia upon our return home quickly turned to eating, as I paid for a focaccia trio -- con pomodoro, con cipolle, and col formaggio.

There's nowhere to sit inside (plus, it's too hot even if there were tables), so you take your focaccia, carefully folded in paper, and quickly find a spot along Via Garibaldi to sit in the sun and unwrap the bready, cheesy goodness. It's gone in seconds, and all that's left is the olive oil covering your fingers.