■ 20 April 2015 by James Martin
Ok, here’s the question. Would you be attracted to a bar with an entrance like this? (Click to see it larger.)
La Farmacia dei Sani, as this wine bar is called, is a clever play on the Italian idea of pharmacy. In fact, their mission translates as something like “born with good idea to interpret everything like a pharmacy, to cure every symptom of appetite.”
The Maratea coast is quite beautiful, especially at sunset. It’s in Basilicata, a little slice of it that peeks into the Tyrrhenian sea. Americans don’t go there much, despite the tag line “the Pearl of the Tyrrhenian”. They prefer to cram into the Cinque Terre. Maratea is just another beautiful place in Italy.
This picture above was taken from the grounds of the Santavenere Hotel, right on the Maratea coast with, as you can see, great views. It’s the off season, so rooms are affordable, despite the luxury, and the folks running it are family, rather than a corporate conglomerate.
Just up the hill from the hotel and coastline are villages where everyone makes something good from the earth, the kinds of villages Italians like to visit because they can knock on random doors looking for the best regional salami or cheese—and they know they will find it.
Nearby, just above the little villages, is the small town of Maratea. Main street looks like this, all pretty in pastel:
Above that is the tip of the hill with, as anthropologists say frequently, “has religious significance. And great views by the way.
So you can take this vertical itinerary and have it all. Just set your GPS to “UP”.
In any case, I am extremely attracted to that little bar. You can get all the regional wines and things to eat that involve artisan cured meats (cold cuts to you) and cheeses. Don’t be intimidated. Belly up to the bar and ask the pharmacist what’s good for you—to eat and drink.
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ 13 March 2015 by James Martin
When you allow big industry to provide your food, the evolution of that food always follows the same lines. A humungous company will introduce something cheap yet relatively tasty. People buy it. The company that makes the food cranks it out in as cheap a way as possible because the CEO gets paid an unimaginable amount of money and politicians don’t come cheap these day. The company is publicly traded, so it has to make ever more money or risk getting bought out for cheap, even when the product becomes, well, shall we say stale? So the product is redone, not so that it tastes better, but so that it offends fewer and fewer people and thus reaches into the furthest cracks of over-fracked America. That’s why people like the “Italian” food at Olive Garden. It doesn’t offend you with that green color of pesto or the “unexpected” taste of capers. It is Italian in name only.
The same has happened to bread. It no longer offends people with a crust that is actually crust-like. A slice can be used to sop up unsightly kitchen spills. It is light enough that a truckload of loaves uses hardly any fuel. It has a list of ingredients a mile long. You never knew it took so much chemical mining to make bread, so you give up trying because you don’t own a mine—which means you buy more non-offensive bread @ 50 cents a loaf which equates to 59 dollars a pound.
Artisan bread follows a more traditional evolution, the one we used to associate with a free market. It finds its market, it creates a better mousetrap so to speak, and serves that market by changing only when tastes change.
So if you actually like crusty bread with flavor and an interior that isn’t blindingly white and soft as a baby’s bottom you might pay through the nose in the good ol’ US of A because the artisan baker isn’t getting the tax breaks the big boys with their paid political clout are getting—but your nose knows, and your well-being benefits.
Then again, you can make bread at home for very little money. Yes, generous people sick of crap bread are working tirelessly to show you how you don’t need a wood burning oven or a steam-pressurized professional oven to make fantastic bread (but you can, as I do, lust after one). You need a push. You need a mentor. You can do this.
If you travel, you know the rest of the world has great bread and a great many bakeries. (I know, America has decent bread too, but it’s a specialty item, not an everyday thing.) You can go to Germany and be amazed at the bread on your breakfast table. Southern Italy bakes what I think is Italy’s best bread. Thus, what I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter what country your mentor comes from. It’s all good if the bread is made of yeast, flour, water, a touch of salt and love.
So, here’s the deal. Why not learn bread in Piemonte from a Dutch master? You can. I’m telling you, it’s cheap, you will enjoy being in a place where Italy’s best wine comes from, and you’ll be hosted by people I guarantee you will enjoy.
I’m talking about Marla and Fabrizio over at beautiful Bella Baita and their collaboration with “Dutch Baker Extraordinaire, Ralph Nieboer.”
Artisan Bread Making Workshop May 22 through 24
This hands on 2 day three night hands on workshop will feature Ralph Nieboer sharing his secrets for making and maintaining a wild yeast starter and making various types of lean and enriched breads with wild yeast and poolish varieties of dough. You will also be learning various decoration techniques including his very intriguing mesh covered loaves. We are still working out all the finer details which will follow. Fabrizio and I will be cooking and making dough as well.
The workshop is small and personal, so contact Marla and she’ll set you up.
If you’d like to research further, here are some links I’ve come up with in my research:
Bella Baita Bed and Breakfast
Italian Alps Retreat
Borgata SerreMarchetto 1
10060 Pinasca (TO) Italia
Bella Baita GPS Coordinates
N° 44.96050 E° 007.24000
■ 24 October 2014 by James Martin
You ever take a boat ride through a cave? You can at the Pertosa Caves or the Grotte di Pertosa as the Italians call them. Here in the Salerno district of Campania a trip to the caves (“a work in progress for 35,000 years” says the lit) can be combined with a trip to the nearby Certosa di Padula, making it a day you’ll never forget, especially if you happen to encounter a guy named Carmine—but more on that encounter later.
After you buy your tickets you walk up to the cave entrance. Way up. Then you enter the cave. It’s not one of those deals where there are a few big rooms where you stand in the middle and gawk at the maze of stalactites and stalagmites, wet and glistening under carefully aimed spotlights. It’s a long cave you walk and boat through. There’s a lake inside. Your guide will load you in a boat. The boat has seats but they’re always wet so nobody really sits in them. You could bring a small towel and outsmart the environment, of course, but nobody did.
Your guide will then launch you into the still waters, dragging the boat by means of a carefully strung wire above your head. It’s anchored to the walls, strung not unlike the wires that power the electric buses of a city like San Francisco, except that the wires aren’t electrified, or at least the guide didn’t do that macabre dance you see people do when they grab a wet, live electric wire.
The way is lit by colored lights your modern camera won’t take a liking to. No matter, the new lighting system, which is turned off when a group leaves the area, represents a savings of 80% in electrical power compared to a previous system which probably provided enough light for a decent photo.
The cave takes a good 2 hours to walk through. Time passes in a flash though. You’ll be amazed and entranced—and cold if you didn’t bring a jacket, because the temperature hovers around 60 degrees F and it’s damp—very damp.
After you’re done and get back to the parking lot, leave your car and continue walking down the street until you see the hand-painted sign for the Bar Ristorante Venoso. Have a meal. Learn what southern Italian cuisine is all about. Order the restaurant’s special pasta with eggplant. It will tell you all you need to know about the flavor intensity of southern food. The pasta has been kicked up notches unknown. Don’t worry about the bill. It won’t be much. The pasta runs 5 euro. Have something grilled for a second plate.
Introducing Carmine from Naples
We ate right beside the table of this man, Carmine, and his wife:
Carmine, having noticed me taking pictures of our trout and rabbit, wanted to show off his lunch too. Except that he had eaten about half of it.
When I struggled to cut the excellent grilled rabbit with the butter knife I’d been given for the task, I happened to glance at Carmine and he, too, had picked up his lamb in his hands.
So, I took that as a cue and ate the rabbit clean off the bone with my hands.
Carmine loved it. “Aha! Yes, the knives are useless! He uses his hands! Bravo!”
He said this in a voice that could have woken the dead, or amused a packed opera house.
So we’re swiping bits of wadded-up bread through the juices and excellent olive oil, a process the Italians call “fare la scarpetta” or “making the little shoe.” Years ago you wouldn’t do this, especially at a formal meal. Now it tells the waiter you really liked the food. Even sopping evolves.
So Carmine says, “In Naples, when we don’t have bread…” and he makes a swipe with his index finger as if he’s dragging it over a plate and pretends to lick it.
I like Carmine. Especially when they asked him if he wanted coffee. He bellowed, “I’m from Naples (where they are reported to have the very best coffee), I don’t drink coffee anywhere else.”
You gotta love Carmine. It’s this insistence on not accepting crap food that keeps Italian food honest. There’s not enough of it, methinks.
Popular These Days
■ 7 October 2014 by James Martin
Cremona is one of those cities in which everything is focused on a single square—and it’s not the typical “Piazza Duomo” either. It’s the Piazza Comune, with all the religious architecture on one side, so that the cathedral, baptistry, and Torrazzo (tower, the tallest in pre-modern Europe @ 112.7 meters, and you can climb it for some fantastic views) are all facing the administration center, the Comune. It’s all about the contrast between gleaming white marble and the red bricks.
Then you turn around and see this:
In the daytime there’s a Commune bar where you can sit and stare at the cathedral all day long if you wish. At night it closes. Unfortunately.
Osteria La Sosta
The street that continues to the left in the picture above is a street of political symbolism, violin makers, and restaurants. We ate in one that was fantastic, just down the street. It was called “La Sosta” and it delivered.
For starters there was the wordy “Tiepido di Lingua salmistrata e Testina di Vitello con Salsa verde e Olio del Garda,” a warm plate of tongue and a bit of calf head with green sauce and lentils with olive oil. It was quite good but the snails! Oh, the snails! Not those French snails that have been cooked down to eraserness so that you have to douse them in all manner of butter, parseley and garlic to add forgiveness to the poor garden destroyer. No, they were succulent and tasty with just a little complimentary sauce.
I had to order the “Gnocchi Vecchia Cremona (antica ricetta del 600)” which came as three giant gnocchi stuffed with sausage and baked with Poppy seeds, Sesame and Parmesan. Don’t think the dish comes from 600 Ad, that’s 1600 AD in American. But still, old enough to be very traditional.
Martha’s Bigoli with sardines and parmigiano reggiano bread crumbs was also tasty.
And the good news on the wine front is that you can get many wines by the half bottle.
For me, La Sosta gets five stars, and you’re not far from the piazza where you can be immersed in the Medieval—during the day. At night you’ll have to find an open bar/restaurant on the back side and be content with a view of the cathedral’s big apse.
■ 27 September 2014 by James Martin
Amble Ligurian shoreline; beaches full; Lerici to little San Terenzo; ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley; Villa Magni aglow, full sun; search for granita; none; new restaurant appears; La Creuza de Mauri; waiter lounging in doorway; island dark; jowls rutted; black sard brows; eat; balls of fregula roll like pearls on partched toungues; clam shells clatter on white plates; octupus boiled and grilled; good both ways; bottle of Vermentino; i; happy happy; gelato a limon, gelato a limon; now to walk back; soon breasts; unleashed; yes; a singular pair; harken to days past; before breasts were turned to bullets; murduring moral values; a shot in the unwanted eye; a blackness; bronzing couple with plastic plates of little fish; bottle of olive oil; douse; turn away; then uphill; dog lies on sidewalk; left side; leashed woman concerned; man rubs chin; looks to find different angle at which to view dog; chooses behind; we pass; car found; then Tusc___; rather the territory of Lunigiana; home for a nap;
■ 29 May 2014 by James Martin
Getting to the Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is not easy. From the town of Gallicano in the Garfagnana you follow a freakishly twisty, narrow little road uphill towards the Eremo di Calomini. It is the Italian custom to beep your little horn before you brave each blind hairpin, but here you might as well lean on the thing the whole darn way.
We eventually reached the parking lot at the Eremo and strolled over to Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita. It’s just down a little strada bianca, a white road of more or less one lane. Our friends parked below, and walked up the steep stairs.
We meet at the top. “Dori and I were thinking that this looks just lake someplace in Hawaii,” Robert said upon greeting us.
Yes, lush, green and fragrant in a drizzle, the place had that Shangri-La thing going on.
But let’s talk about that roasted trout up there, shall we? It didn’t seem very Italian, covered with all those herbs. You wouldn’t be surprised to see such a thing in Provence, but this is a tiny corner of unknown Tuscany, not Provence.
The more you learn about “Italian” food, the more things on a plate rise up and slap you in the face, demanding further research.
Monastic outposts relied on herbs for medicinal purposes. There was a reason the Eremo was placed where it was, including the abundance of water that gushed from the rocks all around. This water has, they say, curative powers as well.
So, on with research. More herbs:
Today I went to the Sagra della Minestrella di Gallicano. Minestrella is a soup of wild herbs and beans made only in Gallicano, a town of fewer than 4,000 people. Today it is the southernmost town in the Garfagnana. ~ Why the Garfagnana?
So there is a cultural reason for so many herbs, even though it seems to break the cucina povera tradition of simple preparations with few ingredients.
Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is your chance to see what this whole thing is all about. You can eat the special bread of Gallicano called focaccia leva, a thick flat bread cooked between two iron plates to be eaten with cold cuts and the restaurant’s smoked trout (they raise their own trout here!). They also raise farro, which appears in the farro soup. You can taste or buy eggs from their free range chickens. You can buy packets of the dried herbs they collect from along the little white road. Then, when you’re totally stuffed, you can go visit the Eremo. When you do, note the chapel carved out of the hillside.
Then you hit the road. Don’t forget the horn. Blow for all it’s worth.
■ 27 May 2014 by James Martin
On Sunday, Italy’s National Day of Stuffing Yourself with Friends and Family, we ate at one of those restaurants tourists always say they seek out but never find, the unlabeled eatery full of Italians.
I didn’t find it. That honor goes to Mike of A Path to Lunch. He had the good sense to know that if a place has one of those old signs announcing a public telephone (remember them?) that there was a story there somewhere. And thus he found his path to lunch and was the first American they’d ever seen sticking a fork in their spaghetti. Bravo.
But another thing I like about Italy other than unlabeled and unsigned restaurants is the variety of things to eat that are common, even lowly, like the onion mentioned in the title. We Americans think, “an onion is white, brown, or red and they all taste pretty much the same” as if the color was merely painted on. But in Italy, we have so many different kinds of onions with different flavors, I’m wondering if anyone has ever cataloged them all. Sometimes you go to a food festival (a sagra) and it’s an entire weekend celebration of a particular kind of onion and you don’t even know it because the name of the onion is disguised by being written in dialect, like our experience in the village of Moncigoli at the Sagra di Cigola.
So six of us are eating our antipasti and my friend Roberto leans over after tasting this amazing onion tart-like thing and says, “this is rich, like French onion soup. Do you think they make it like that?”
It would be a stretch to think of a country Italian trying to mimic something French. Anything French. So I answered in the negative. There was no evidence of having been cooked in beef broth, no thyme, No stringy cheese—nothing like that.
So time passes. Then this:
It’s a simple pasta, paglia e fieno, straw and hay, spinach and normal pasta. It’s sauced with…sausage. Tiny bits of sausage. You can hardly see them. It looks like the dish isn’t sauced at all.
But then you taste. The onions you can’t see rise to make the dish triumph, the sausage playing a decent second fiddle.
Man it was good. And onions made it that way.
So I take my hat off to the onions of Il Borgo di Canossa. I should say the secret onions of Canossa. You see, I asked our waitress about them. Were they special? “Yes.” Where do I get some, where do they come from?
“Just ask if we have them when you make your next reservation.”
I guess if you don’t put labels on your restaurant you don’t put them on your ingredients either. Fair enough.
So, I’m going to do something I am inclined not to do. I am going to come clean with all I know about this restaurant. There is parking in front, but it is on a road that will require you to back your car all the way to the main road if someone decides to come down off the hill (experience speaking). I am going to show you a map of this secret place and tell you the name, which will do no good because not many people will know it. I will trust you not to tell anyone else. Ok?
Ristorante Bar Capetta di Luciani Maria Paola. TEL: 0187.850.063
And whatever you do, ask about the onions. Eat anything that has them as an ingredient.
■ 24 May 2014 by James Martin
Lari has all you can ask for in a small, Tuscan hill town. Good pasta is manufactured right in the town center. A short walk away is a great restaurant. Climb a little hill and you’re in the courtyard of Lari Castle. It’s a pretty little place. People are friendly and generally happy.
Then there’s the past. The 16th century past. You can see it in the photo above—a picture only Dick Cheney could love. I know, I know, tourists like torture, and will pay big bucks to see how the medieval folks did it and I will exploit that fact to bring this weirdness to you. Yes, what you see it is a bit of Tuscan torture. But, according to the recording, it was quite a “humane” torture. You see, when you strung someone up like this, the alleged miscreant didn’t often die. The worse that could happen would be something small, a little shoulder separation perhaps.
And this is not, the little voice out of the yellow plastic box told us, a torture session. The miscreant was merely being interrogated. If he confessed while his shoulder was being wrenched from its moorings, it didn’t matter—as long as he didn’t confess in court, which was across the hall. At least this is how I understand it. It’s not like waterboarding, when they get what they want out of you and then they’re done with you. No, you got a second chance in the actual courtroom. Bully for justice—or something.
The little prison in Lari castle was used until well after the Nazi era. The more things change, the more they stay the same, evidently.
But on a brighter note, we went back to Lari’s little gem of a restaurant, Antica Osteria al Castello and had lunch outside in the piazza. Lari is called “the cherry city.” Signs pointing the way into town inform you of this fact, except, of course, in Italian rather than English. I know, it confuses me, too.
The town hosts a cherry festival the first week of June.
It’s almost June, so one of us was bound to order the duck with cherries and Marsala. It was quite good. Here’s the food porn part:
This, some pasta, a couple of new friends to pranzare with and air clean as a bell really made a special day. If you’ve never heard of Lari, well look at the map and it will show you how the little hill is configured and show you where the restaurant is.
And whatever you do, don’t get in trouble with the law or you won’t get to see this view from your cell in Lari Castle. They’ve cleverly put the windows very high up on the wall.