■ Oct 20, 01:08 AM by James Martin
It was a foggy day in October. As the Peugeot chugged up hills and around sharp bends, we wondered if our little excursion to the notable hill town of San Leo in Reggio Emilia would end up a bust.
Then, as we crested the final rise: sun.
By the time we slowed for our arrival it was the late morning. The crag upon which the fortress was built was just peeking out from the valley fog. I hollered for Martha to stop and scrambled up the hill and into the muddy furrows of a plowed field to catch a snap of it while Martha waited in the car snuggled into the verge, watching the mirror apprehensively.
Sun, of course, is seldom a good thing to the serious photographer. But a medieval castle rising from the mist was a decent morning surprise.
San Leo offered countless surprises. The old Romanesque church in the town’s main piazza, Santa Maria Assunta, was a gem as they repeat endlessly in the travel biz, and it would close its doors to host a wedding that morning—but the kind priest let us in for a look anyway.
On a little rise next to the parish church sat the Cathedral. Liturgical music wafted down the hill. We took a look around inside, then approached the modern organ in the front, expecting it to be played by a monkish-looking old coot. But no, the keys were professional caressed by a young man in a tee shirt printed with one of those odd renderings Italians recklessly print on shirts: “Dreaming Aloha Beach Club Surfing 1953”.
Then, feeling a little peckish, we walked the town’s main street, reading menus and looking into stores with compelling little displays in front. You could sense a little play for the tourists, but then when you entered you discovered locals quietly shopping. A bit of paper with cubes of cheese tempted me, and I couldn’t resist trying a bit of the local “fossa” cave-aged cheese. The flavor was astounding, with none of the funkiness of other versions I had tasted elsewhere. The restaurants were affordable, filled with local specialties, and each of them enticing.
More wandering the little village would be needed before we could decide on a place to eat. We were just in time to see stone carver Georgio Moretti step from the shadows of his little shop, the outside walls festooned with his carvings which remained unsold on a Saturday, even the nudes.
By the time we chose to chow down at the Ristorante Osteria Belvedere, at the edge of town on Via Pietro Toselli, 19 (promising a fine view of the castello) the fog had begun to rise, and the Cathedral’s bell tower was turned into a ghostly vision. Snap snap, then on to lunch.
We chose the Belvedere because they offered the first white truffles of the season generously shaved over potato ravioli. My kind of place: waiter with a nervous tick, rotund owner, pair of local characters discussing cheese and archaeology over heaping plates of pasta, roasts and prepared vegetables stacked up by the pizza oven waiting to be baked the old fashioned way (the gallo —a tasty rooster—cooked in the wood oven was fabulous!) The three course meal with a very tasty local wine and coffee set us back a bit over 50 euros, a bargain in my book. Don’t miss the ravioli with fossa.
After lunch the town was quiet. The fog had won; puffs of it wandered the empty streets. It was time to go.
San Leo is worth at least a day of your time. It offers the perfect combination of tourist services without completely breaking down into a fake Disneyland experience. The locals are friendly, the food is good and if you choose right, local. Go in late October into November for truffles and an almost tourist-free environment. It’s a very nice place off the beaten tourist track; not a single word of English was heard all day.
Click any picture to see it larger.
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■ Oct 13, 11:56 PM by James Martin
“Make my food look pretty,” she said, excitedly grasping her pigtails and flinging them behind her back, her freckled cheeks pinking slightly.
“Close your eyes.”
“Mmmm. Arty baby gonna make surprise of my chops?”
“No. I mean close your eyes and eat.”
New research out of BYU finds that looking at too many pictures of food can actually make it less enjoyable to eat.
Let’s face it: the web is clogged with food that does not look like food. Food porn they call it. Underage veal lies pretty in garter belts of truffled cracklings, while mamma bangs pots in the kitchen.
You see, lazy researchers are recycling the old, tired, and generally untrue porn research and inserting food where the pulsing sex organs used to be. “Porn desensitizes you.” You get big bucks for this sorta thing.
So let me cure you.
Welcome to your 1 step anti food porn program, a free feature of Wandering Italy
Now close your eyes for real. Open them when I say open.
Think of long simmered pork. On the bone. Salty, but then think of the essence of sweet chestnuts. Together, a marriage made in heaven. A balance, salty/sweet. Try to keep from swooning.
Now open. Look:
Ok, before you retch, I didn’t say this was gonna be easy.
What you’re looking at, if your head isn’t face down in a toilet bowl, is Polenta di Neccio and Ossi di Maiale. You can say Polenta con ossi and the good folks of the Garfagnana section of Tuscany will understand. Polenta with bones.
What you have is a polenta made from chestnut flower, plopped unceremoniously beside a heaping helping of long-simmered pork bones. True cucina povera, except for the heaping helping part.
And it’s one of the great things in the world to eat devised by people who valued flavor and nutrition over pretty.
Let me tell you about the bones.
When my neighbor Armando slaughters his pig in December, he uses a great deal of it to make various cured meats like his prize winning salami. Then the butcher cuts the prime cuts for the family to eat right away. Then the bones and feet go in a big barrel with lots of salt and are stored under the house with the vino he’s made. When they want something for a winter meal, they just go under the house and get out a foot or two and some bones, wash off the salt, and boil them up until you can suck the meat off the bone.
Ok, the whole dish is very primal. Under the house dirty. Ugly.
A bit like the best sex, no?
But not to worry, the chestnut trees in Tuscany are dying. Chestnut blight. Endothia parasitica, first seen in 1938, is ravaging the countryside.
And pork is going industrial. The odd bits will go in your wieners.
So, don’t worry, there will be pretty food that won’t challenge your sensibilities. It will be around for a long time. You will be happy. I will be sad. That’s the way the world spins (if you let it).
■ Oct 11, 02:20 AM by James Martin
The cornetto is the be all and end all of Italian breakfast. It is (usually) just a bready fuel. For all their concern about food, Italians seem to view the cornetto like a pill you take to get started in the morning, washed down with a caffe or cappuccino, a habit from which Italians can’t seem to escape.
Cornetti often come in sealed plastic bags. It bothers no one that they must grit their teeth and use what forces are left from the night before to attempt to rip open the industrial seal in order to remove their morning pill, either.
You can get cornetti filled with stuff. It’s better, because frankly, you seldom find a flaky, buttery, “wow, this is the way to start a morning!” cornetto any more. If you were in France, you’d be looking for a croissant, of course. And these days you’d have the same problem. The world has industries whose whole reason for being is to make the food you used to eat in the good old days a mere (and quite pleasant) memory. Subtraction of flavor is more than a cottage industry these days, it’s a corporate way of life.
So we’re in Rome. Our day has started with a drizzle. We headed toward our beloved Testaccio neighborhood, where we were joining a Rome food tour called Taste of Testaccio Food Tour from a group called Eating Italy. At the moment we met our guide, Luna, the skies opened and the rain buzzsawed down at us like it meant to rip our clothing off. Luna provided us with colorful body condoms that made photography of the group into a rather colorful and somewhat ghostly pursuit.
But back to Cornetti. You take them for granted. They don’t break your teeth. Then you go to Luna’s secret place. Here we are:
You see two things on that tray. One of them is a gaggle of the best cornetti you’ll ever eat—trust me on this—unless you make them yourself and you are a pastry chef not afraid to use something tastefully fatty in your pastry.
Behind them is a little tiramisu in chocolate cups. That was cute and the women loved them.
But the cornetti were the triumph. Or maybe it’s a guy thing.
If you’re in Rome, head to Testaccio to eat. It’s been where Roman food starts for thousands of years. After all, the neighborhood is named after a Roman amphora dump (think wine and olive oil coming in from everywhere). If you want to eat and walk for four hours like we did, take a Eating Italy Food Tour.
Otherwise, just come to the Pasticerria Barberini for a cornetto and coffee. The address is Via Marmorata 41. Via Marmorata is a big street. The famous Volpetti food emporium is just a few steps away. Knock yourself out, foodie-wise.
The Pasticceria Barberini has been around for a long time, probably about as long as some of those industrial cornetti have spent in their plastic bags.
Perish that evil thought, chow down on the best.
Eating Italy Food Tours
See Martha’s Review: Eating Italy Food Tours in Rome
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■ Oct 10, 02:25 AM by James Martin
We had just settled into the Ristorante Cipriani in the borgo surrounding the castle at Ostia Antica for Sunday lunch, a popular endeavor on the Lord’s day. We’d booked the last table.
At the next table was a family. Doting parents and the young male, the obvious apple of their collective eye. He had what appeared to be an iPhone in his hands which he made use of frequently in an effort to ignore the older folks. Apple indeed.
They ordered. Pasta for the kid. What did he want on it? Ragu? Butter?
“Nulla.” Nothing. Maybe a little cheese? No, he’d gut it out. There was a calculated hardness in his face. He gripped the phone in both hands tightly.
Then it began. His grasp of the phone was not unlike Nuvolari at the wheel of the old Alfa P3, his eyes fixed intently at a point just beyond the starter’s flag. Shortly thereafter the kid’s eyes light up like he’d seen his first breasts.
The flag has been dropped.
So there he sits in the cat seat, this nameless child flanked by his doting parents who eye him with those google-eyed looks parents give their children even when they are being obnoxious. He’s rounded the first bend, the car gives a little squiggle at the end and he adjusts his iCar smartly as he accelerates out of the sweeping curve, eyes big, hanging on as the car gains speed down the little faux straight, then a right, a quick left, a whip of the phone/wheel, a little gasp.
Meanwhile, the pasta arrives. Doting dad pulls the plate to his gut, grabs a fork and starts twirling.
Through the big left bend, then the real straight. Thank God, a time to breath. Then, at this very opportune moment, as the driver’s heart rate tries to return to normal, the forkful of pasta rockets toward his mouth. He sucks it in. It’s a messy thing.
Then, from the left side, Mom is at the ready. A quick swipe of the napkin she’s been holding makes his mouth clean again, a maneuver so quick it needs some kind of instant replay.
He’s not had to look away from the screen. A pit stop like no other. These Italians have a flare for it.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And the tonnarelli was good, too.
■ Sep 28, 06:00 AM by James Martin
The “Riviera del Brenta” stretches from Venice to Padua, its fame hanging squarely upon the reputation of one of the favored architects of his time, Andrea Palladio. In the 16th century rich merchants of Venice started having Villas made on the mainland to expand their empires through agriculture, supplying Venice with the food it needed while living in luxury and partying hearty.
The Riviera del Brenta is a popular place to visit via boat or van tour. It’s best to do it in a car, for reasons I’ll explain later.
If you were traveling down the Grand Canal of Venice in a Gondola and crossed the lagoon to the mouth of the Brenta river, the first notable Palladian villa you’d come to is the Villa Foscari, also called “La Malcontenta.”
We’d learned of this villa from our B&B owner, who told us we just had to see it on our way out of the town of Mira, because it was “just like the White House.” (Although, I must note, the usual suspect in the Palladian Villa to White House continuum is the Villa La Rotonda )
In any case, it didn’t take us long to spot the villa hidden behind the willows along a bend in the Brenta.
Why is it called “La Malcontenta”? Well, it depends upon what you read. There might have been a place, a town or an estate close to the villa called “Malcontenta.” On the other hand, there’s a fresco inside the villa featuring a woman who doesn’t look exactly content. Then there are two similar explanations that concern a wife and either her infidelity or her reluctance to perform her “conjugal duties” for which she was locked up in the house.
Take your pick. I’ll stay with the messy one.
You should see Villa Foscari—but plan your trip well. It’s got some great frescoes inside, but its only open for visitors two days a week, so check the website. Scenes from the 1970s flick Casanova 70 were filmed inside.
Descendents of the original Foscari now own the villa and are restoring it. As you can see from the picture, Palladio worked with ordinary materials, cheap and easily procured. So rather then marble columns, what you get is brick columns covered in a marble-like plaster. No doubt this contributed to his fame.
Where to Stay and Why a Car is a Good Idea
I’ve mentioned our B&B above. We spent a couple of wonderful nights at Barchessa Levi Morenos B&B in Mira along the Villa trail. For the price of a dinky hotel room we got a small apartment with kitchen and a terrace with free wifi that worked very well, inside and out. Each morning breakfast was brought to our door, and the owners provided excellent information on the area and its attractions. The B&B is also adjacent to a villa in decline, the Villa Levi Morenos, which is worth exploring on an evening before your fish dinner (Mira is noted for two things, we were told: artisan shoes and seafood).
And thus I come to the part where I tell you that an independent tour in your rental or lease car is the best way to go. I find the aging ruins quite compelling—and I rather like overgrown gardens. So the chance to root around an old structure is as interesting to me as seeing the “best” villas. To the right is a study of the colors of decay in the Villa Levi Morenos.
Ok, maybe it’s just me. Carry on.
■ Sep 18, 04:23 AM by James Martin
We had a great day yesterday exploring the Riviera town of Genova Nervi. The day climaxed, like it always does, with the great, wooly tourist herd stacked six deep at La Spezia Centrale, the transfer station to the Tourist Pilgrimage Spot You Must Not Miss, Le Cinque Terre.
See, It goes like this: you get on the early morning train sleepily. The car you choose is almost empty. It clacks along happily until La Spezia. Then Wham! It is suddenly packed with sandal-wearers.
I scan the crowd. Which ones have e-mailed me asking where they could go because they wanted to avoid touristy spots at all costs?
Nevermind. All of them are likely to have had tickets. Many even validated them.
Why are you talking about this validation thing, you old coot?
Ok, so we’re returning to Tuscany from our quiet and tourist-free visit to any of the other Italian Riviera cities and again, the train fills to the gills with tourists. We are surrounded by Germans with iPhones. Just before La Spezia, the conductor asks to see their tickets. He casually turns one over.
A frown creases his forehead. He begins to speak English, the default languages used in situations like this, as in when you’re going to read someone foreign the riot act or complain that their dog has peed on your shoe.
“You have not validated your ticket,” he says gravely. “There is a fine. It is 50 euro. You must pay now.”
“Can’t we just run in and validate it in the next station?” a young and beautiful blonde woman asks. You could almost hear the batting of eyelashes.
“Yes, I know the Renoir that has been stolen has been found inside my backpack. May I just return it and avoid the mess of being booked into your very nice (I’m sure) prison?”
“No, you must pay the fine. The next station, does, however, have a police station…”
Since the “I’ll just validate my ticket on my time” strategy was a bust, the woman who held the first ticket without a validation stamp tried strategy number two. It did not work either.
“She can cry as much as she wants, what do I care?” said the conductor to the few stranglers in our now almost empty car as it pulled out of the station.
Regional train tickets in Italy are good for a period of time. You can use them whenever you want within that time (currently a month). When you’re ready to ride, you run your ticket through a stamper that essentially says, “Look, I’m using up this ticket right now and I’m leaving a mark that will tell one and all who observe my ticket that it is no longer valid for another trip.”
Bitching and moaning—or crying—used to work on the small lines where it wasn’t obvious that making a spectacle of a tourist would do any good. Italy is in need of cash. It no longer works folks, save your tears.
If you don’t have a clue of what I’m talking about and are hot to take the train on your next trip to Italy and don’t want to spend 50 euro on a 5 euro train ride, see: How to Read and Validate Italian Train Tickets
■ Sep 15, 07:02 AM by James Martin
Anatomy of a Lunigiana Feast
A Sagra is a celebration of food. It’s not an ancient thing, it’s a relatively modern word and concept. These feasts happen most every weekend. You learn to read the sagra posters tacked everywhere and decide upon which to attend.
When you move to Italy, you come to understand that some sagre are more important than others in your area. We’ve learned that some of our neighbor’s more lofty accolades go to the Sagra delle focaccette di Vaccareccia.
Vaccareccia is a tiny village in the Lunigiana whose whole reason for being seems to be this once-a-year festival. 2013 was no exception, despite the drizzle.
Everyone is here. The neighbor without eggs because her chickens were eaten by a wolf was there. The almost toothless woman who wins prizes at Karaoke competitions was there, as was her almost blind husband, who insists on driving the car, albeit so slowly hardly anyone notices unless they have the misfortune of being behind him.
How They Make Focaccette
It’s simple. You build a fire to warm up the teste, little terracotta plates. They get quite warm. Then you get one of those those nifty stacking devices you see in the picture below and put down the first testa. You put a ball of dough in the testa, then cover it with another testa, more dough, etc., etc.
When it’s up to the top, you squish it all down, let it cook for a short period of time, then disassemble the whole deal, throwing the resulting focaccette in a basket to be sliced open and stuffed with pancetta, stracchino, Gorgonzola, or sausage. 2 euros are charged for each at the festival.
You’d think with all the food worship that seems to go on around here, the “kitchen” for making these things would be a palace of stainless steel that would be the envy of Mario Batalli or something, but no, what we have is a Focaccette Shack. There are no cats on the hot tin roof, but then again, it was raining.
I’m sorry you missed it. Man, was it good.
■ Aug 27, 12:13 PM by James Martin
The more you study the a place that has had a long history of poverty, the more likely you are to become amazed at the sheer amount of creativity that flows from severe need.
As the world tries to cope with the unimaginably daft notion that we’d all be better off if we’d just contribute more of our hard-earned wealth to the already wealthy, I wonder when the time comes that we suddenly realize someone should be curating these creative survival tactics?
When we’re all parched and ill-mannered from not having enough to eat and the fat-cat rich are on their own little planet or space station or some such, far away from the planet they’d ravaged for filthy lucre, we’ll wish we had a catalog. Ideas you can eat. Bet on it.
What got me to thinking about all this is Faith Wilinger’s piece in La Cucina Italiana called Adventures in Puglia.
Burnt wheat. What do you think of that notion?
…It was our first encounter with hand-made orecchiette, little ear-shapes, the region’s most important pasta. They were made with burnt wheat flour, an ingredient born of poverty that’s made a big comeback. (Note: After wheat was harvested, fields were burnt, but before being plowed under, people of little means would glean the burnt wheat, combine it with more costly hard wheat for their flour. It became an acquired taste and is now produced on purpose, toasting instead of burning the wheat.)
Pulia, along with Basilicata and Calabria, is a hotbed of these types of ideas as modern politicians found every excuse to ignore the folks of the hardscrabble south. Poverty will get you more poverty in the modern world unless you’re clever.
Of course, things come full circle, and now the rich want their share of this tasty treat, so the cucina povera gets mass produced, driving the poor out of the market so that prices can rise…
The idea of burning grains—or at least roasting them until they’re quite unmistakably dead—isn’t a new technique. You find burned barley in your Guinness or any stout beer of your choosing. It broadens the flavor profile of the beer while not adding alcohol as lightly toasted barley malt would.
Yes, someone should start curating the creative cleverness of poverty soon. From burnt wheat to filtering water with papyrus, another clever Puglian re-invention, starting with the ancient Egyptians.
Or we could just eat the rich. I suspect they’re too fatty though.