Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Pleasant Italian-Style Dinner

For dinner tonight, I made three easy Italian-type dishes:
- A fig, prosciutto, salami, and greens salad
- A vegetable and pasta soup
- Orecchiette pasta with prosciutto and bread crumbs.

The salad and orecchiette dishes were really good. The soup was nice. All three were easy.

The orecchiette dish was from page 89 of Giada de Laurentiis cookbook, "everyday italian."
The fig salad was from page 16 of the "frame>by>frame italian" cookbook.
The soup was from page 24 of the "frame>by>frame italian" cookbook.

The first cookbook was a Christmas gift from our daughter, the second from our son and daughter-in-law.

The fig salad had figs, prosciutto, salami, basil, mint, and arugula with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. It called for fresh figs, which were unavailable, so I used preserved figs calimyrna from Fresh Market. I also forgot to buy the mint. Nonetheless, the salad was very tasty. It would have been fantastic with the fresh figs, and even better with the mint.

The soup was a filtered puree of onion, plum tomatoes, celery, and garlic, to which chicken stock and soup pasta are added.

The pasta was very tasty and easy to make. One browns Italian-style bread crumbs in olive oil, then adds the cooked orechiette pasta. After adding the pasta, one adds prosciutto and parmesan.

With the meal, we had an inexpensive Santa Cristina Sangiovese by Antinori. Since we once stayed at the Antinori Fonte de Medici property in Chianti Classico next to where this wine is produced, it always brings back fond memories.

A Sarasota New York-Style Deli

Had a delicious lunch today with my friends "I" & "J" at Pastrami's NY Deli in Sarasota. My friend "I" had eaten there before and highly recommended it. Since he knows a lot about deli food (and lots of other food), I knew it would be good.

I had a delicious pastrami reuben on rye with seeds and a side of potato salad for $9.59. The sandwich had a generous portion of pastrami and included sauerkraut, russian dressing, and swiss cheese. It was mouth-wateringly delicious. There were three choices of sides - cucumber salad, potato salad, or cole slaw.

There were 18 types of sandwiches as well as the 50-50 sandwich in which one could combine any two meats, and choose the bread and topping - for $8.49.

There were three soups - chicken matzo ball, sweet and sour cabbage with beef, and broccoli and cheese. There were also several types of hot dogs and six salads. There were four desserts, including NY cheese cake with strawberry or blueberry topping.

The place doesn't have much atmosphere.

It's located in a Publix Shopping Plaza at 5170 Clark, one block west of Honore and on the south side of Clark. Phone 941-925-3100. They also do orders to go.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Olive Tree Cafe and Bar, Sarasota - Once Is Enough

I was excited to read about The Olive Tree Cafe and Bar (http://olivetreecafeandbar.com/), a new Sarasota restaurant serving Middle Eastern cuisine, so I suggested to a friend that we have lunch there today. I'm sorry I suggested it.

We were given both a lunch menu and a dinner menu.

We each started with soup. My friend had lentil soup. It was good. I started with a cold cucumber and yoghurt soup. That was also good.

We were served pita bread with olive oil and zaatar, a mixture of spices like oregano and thyme. That was tasty as well. However, the meal went downhill from there.

My friend had the Felafel Platter from the lunch menu. The platter had felafel, green beans, and rice. The felafel was rock hard on the outside and difficult to eat. The taste was terrible. The green beans appeared to be out of a can, and the rice was blah. My friend has had felafel many times and knows how it should be cooked. When he mentioned to the waitress how bad it was, she explained that it was cooked the way it was supposed to be prepared.

I decided to order stuffed grape leaves, one of my favorite dishes, from the dinner menu. There were two types of stuffed grape leaves on the dinner menu - one type with ground beef and one type without. Both types had rice, onion, tomato, and dill. I ordered the type with meat. This was an appetizer plate with three small grape leaves and five olives for $6.25. When I ate the first stuffed grape leaf, I could not find any meat. I discussed the issue with a waiter. He showed me some microscopic dark specks, and said that was meat. If they had been much smaller, they would have been subatomic particles. I have had stuffed grape leaves with meat hundreds of times at home (made by my mother, my wife, and my sister), at the homes of relatives, and in many, many restaurants. I have never seen such small particles of meat. The waiter explained that they were prepared as normal. The taste of the rice mixture in the grape leaves was decent.

I had baklava bits for dessert. They were decent, but seemed expensive for what they were.

I had a glass of Italian red wine, and it was nice.

Several of the menu items I tried to order were unavailable. The waitress explained that the menu was in the process of being changed.

The man who appeared to be the owner seemed to spend much of his time talking on a cell phone. He might have been better served getting feedback from his customers in order to improve the quality of his offerings.

The waitress was very efficient and friendly, but she was very poorly informed about the ingredients in the various dishes.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Il Pizzico, An Italian Gem in Maryland

The night before last, I had a great meal at il Pizzico (http://www.ilpizzico.com/home.shtml), a real Italian restaurant in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. The meal was terrific.

I started with an appetizer of Arancine Rivisitate for $9.95. Arancine are Sicilian rice croquettes. These were filled with veal and mozzarella cheese, with a taleggio cheese sauce. They were fantastic.

My second course was a half-serving of a pasta dish, Maltagliati al Ragu di Vitello - maltagliati pasta in a veal ragu - $8.95. (They do half-servings of their pasta dishes.) This dish was incredibly delicious. The pasta was home-made, as are all their pasta. Maltagliati pasta is flat pasta made from scraps of other pastas. The name means something like "bad cuts" or "badly cut."

For a second course, I chose Tagliata di Manzo Boscaiola - grilled Hereford steak with wild mushrooms in a Barolo wine reduction sauce - for $25. This dish was very tasty, but not incredible like the first two.

For dessert, I had Torta di Mele, an apple torte, for $7.25. It was very tasty.

After dessert, I had a nice espresso for $2.75.

The wine I had was a half bottle of Lamole di Lamole Chianti Classico for $19. It was very nice. The wine list was excellent, and included wines by the glass and half bottles.

The ambience was very warm and friendly. The dining room was full of patrons who were clearly enjoying their meals.

The Maitre d', who is from Palermo, was the perfect maitre d' - constantly overseeing every aspect of the dining room operations.

The service was terrific. Although my server was from Latin America, he spoke excellent Italian, which he had learned on the job. He was very professional.

Il Pizzico is located in a small strip mall at 15209 Frederick Rd. (Rockville Pike). It is one the east side of the road just below Gude Dr.

Mamma Lucia in Maryland - Not Worth the Bother

During a recent trip to Maryland, I was looking for a restaurant close to my hotel. I saw Mamma Lucia Restaurant, a restaurant and pizzeria. I had read mixed reviews on the Internet, but thought I'd give it a try. I knew better than to expect real Italian at a place like this. All I hoped for was good food. My entree was decent, but not worth a return trip. The garlic bread was pathetic. After three weeks of incredible Italian food in Italy two months earlier, this was a poor comparison.

Mamma Lucia's (http://www.mammaluciarestaurants.com/) is a local Washington, D.C.-area chain with eight restaurants. They advertise "down-home cooking."

I had Penne Norcina, penne pasta with sausage in a cream sauce for $14. It was decent, but nothing to tweet home about. The garlic bread that came with it was pathetic. I took two bites and gave up.

They had no wine list, just three reds that the waitress mentioned by type. Only one was an Italian type - chianti, and one was a Malbec - from South America. How hard is it for an Italian restaurant to carry a few Italian reds. They also had a couple of whites. I had a glass of the Chianti for $7. It was ok.

One sign of attention to deal in an Italian restaurant is the use of correct Italian names for its dishes. It's very easy to get this right. Mamma Lucia's menu is full of errors. A couple of examples are:
- "Penne Norcina" instead of "Penne alla Norcina"
- "Pollo alla Florentina" instead of "Pollo alla Fiorentina"
- "Ravioli Romana" instead of "Ravioli alla Romana"
- "Spaghetti Carbonara" instead of "Spaghetti alla Carbonara"
- "Spaghetti al Funghi" instead of "Spaghetti ai Funghi"
- etc., etc., etc.

One curious menu item was the "Pollo Brunello." Pollo is chicken, and the only Brunello I know is the famous red wine type from Montalcino, Italy. The menu describes this dish as being cooked in Marsala wine.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Maryland Crab Cake Mecca

There are many restaurants that claim to have great Maryland-style crab cakes. However, few if any can hold a candle to G & M RRestaurant & Lounge (http://www.gandmcrabcakes.com/).

On a recent trip to Maryland, I had to have a crab cake fix. The first thing I did after arriving at BWI Airport and picking up my rental car was to head to G &  M.

G & M did not disappoint. It was fantastic. I had a single crab cake sandwich for $13.75. The sandwich was very large. You can have it served on a roll or crackers. The sandwich comes with a choice of cole slaw, chips, or fries.

I also had a cup of cream of crab soup. It was very tasty, but I've had better. My friend Bill B., who grew up in Baltimore, considers cream of crab soup a yuppy abomination. For him, the only real crab soup is the traditional tomato-based version. However, cream of crab is a favorite of mine. The soup was $4,95.

G & M has 10 draft beers - domestic and imported - ranging in price from $2.75 to $5.50.

They have 29 wines ranging in price from $26 to $46 and one for $58. They also have several Beringer wines for $4.50 a glass and $22 a bottle.

My waitress was Amanda, and she was excellent.

It's very easy to get there. From the airport, head north on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. You take the Nursery Rd. exit which is the first exit north of the expressway to the airport. At the traffic light at the top of the exit, you turn left onto Nursery Rd. You take the Nursery Rd. west to Hammonds Ferry Rd. G&M is located at that intersection - at 804 Hammonds Ferry Rd.

The restaurant is large, but it is very popular and can be crowded. I was there at abot 2 p.m. on a Sunday, and it was almost full.

It has an extensive menu, which you can see on its web site. However, I only go for the crab cakes.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Trattoria la Torretta - Another Spoleto Gem

Trattoria la Torretta (http://www.trattorialatorretta.com/) was another wonderful recommendation of Signor Diotallevi, the owner of Palazzo Dragoni, our hotel in Spoleto. I had asked Signor Diotallevi to recommend restaurants where I could find the best dishes typical of Spoleto and Umbria in general. The trattoria was located at 43 via Filitteria, a couple of blocks from our hotel.

Trattoria la Torretta

We were greeted by Signor Stefano Salvucci, one of the owners of the restaurant. He was very pleasant and dapper, attired in a sharp suit. The atmosphere inside was warm and comfortable. One of the walls was antique brick and mortar, several walls were a warm light orange, and there were sections of more modern brick. The tables were covered with an elaborate dark red table cloth covered by a white cloth. There was a rose on each table. There were also a couple of tables outside, but it was too cool to dine al fresco.

Signor Salvucci

As with many of the restaurants where we dined, an English-Language menu was available.

The meal was superb.

Linda and I shared an antipasto plate called The Tastes of the House (Gli Assagini della Casa) for €10. It had seven different items, including:
- Warm eggplant medallion with fresh tomato & basil (Medaglione caldo di melanzane con pomodoro fresco e basilico)
- A small salad of spelt, rocket, cherry tomatoes, shavings of grana padano cheese and balsamic vinegar (L'insalatina di farro con la rucola, i pomodorini, le scaglie di grana e l'aceto balsamico)
- Prosciutto & melon
- Vegetable quiche (La quiche con le verdure)
- A warm sausage and vegetable tart (Sfogliata calda con verdura e salsiccia)


Linda had:
- Thinly sliced veal in a sauce of a sweet Montefalco Passito wine (La Piccatina con il Sagrantino Passito di Montefalco) for €13
- Grilled vegetables (Verdure alla Griglia) for €4. The vegetables were zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes from the trattoria’s garden.

I had Spoleto-style strangozzi pasta (Strangozzi alla Spoletina), made with fresh rather than dried pasta. for €8. Spoleto-style strangozzi is cooked in tomato  sauce, garlic, red pepper, and parsley. Strangozzi is an Umbrian pasta. Another name for this pasta is strozzapreti. It means, “priest strangler.” Strangozzi also comes from a word meaning, “to strangle.” Supposedly, these names derive from the tradition of families inviting the parish priest to dinner and vying with one another to see who could best fill him with food. Strangozzi alla Spoletina is a typical dish of Spoleto. You can find a typical recipe for it at

For dessert, we both had Crescionda Spoletina, a traditional Umbrian chocolate cake, for €4 each. The ingredients were:
- eggs, milk, chocolate fondant, amaretto cookies, flour, sugar, anise, and lemon zest

Our wine was a red 2007 Antonelli Rosso di Montefalco made from sangiovese and sagrantino grapes for €13. It was very nice.

We ended the meal with an expresso for €1 each.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Norcia & The Sibillini Mountains National Park

During our stay in Spoleto, we made an easy day trip to the gastronomically famous town of Norcia, and the nearby Sibillini Mountains National Park (Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini). Norcia is famous for its pork products, truffles, lentils from nearby Castelluccio, and chocolates.

Norcia was 44 km (27 miles) east of Spoleto. The drive took about an hour and was very easy.  We arrived there about 1240. We took the SS3 about 5-6 km north from Spoleto and then took the SS685/SR209 (same road with two names) all the way to Norcia. The road was a good, 2-lane road that went through wooded valleys, small villages, etc. Just after we got onto the SS685/SR209, we went through a tunnel that was about 4 km long.

Norcia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norcia) is a town of about 4,700 people and is about 2,000 feet above sea level. It was conquered by the Romans in 290 BC. They called it Nursia. It was the birthplace of St. Benedict (founder of the Benedictines and patron saint of Europe) and his twin sister Saint Scolastica. They were born there in 480 AD. The main basilica in town is dedicated to St. Benedict.

The old center of Norcia is flat, which is unusual for Italian towns, and it is surrounded by 14th Century walls. It has suffered many earthquakes, including several that were devastating.

 It is famous for its butchers, pork products, and lentils. In fact, butchers from Norcia are so well known for their skills throughout Italy, that one word for a “butcher” is a “Norcino” (man from Norcia). One story that accounts for the skill of the butchers is that the butchers learned their “surgical skill” from a well-known medical school in Norcia. Another is that the medical school learned from the butchers.

Many people emigrated from Norcia to the U.S. in the 19th Century.

We parked our car in a pay parking space just outside the walls and next to the Roman Gate (Porta Romana) through the old walls of the town. I went to a parking machine and paid 2 for 4 hours parking. The machine printed out a receipt, and I put it on the dashboard so it would be visible through the windshield.

The Roman Gate was massive and appeared to be at least 35 feet high. Toward the top were the words, “Vetusta Nursia” (Ancient Norcia).



The Roman Gate

We walked through the gate and down the corso Sertorio. There were a number of very nice food shops along this street. One of them was Moscatelli Tartufi (Moscatelli Truffles - http://www.moscatellitartufi.com/) It was full of truffles, hams, sausages, lentils, etc. One size jar of black truffles was the 50 gram size (1.76 ounces). It was selling for 45. The clerk working in the store said that the prosciutto (hams) hanging in the store were aged for at least 2 years before they were sold. On our way back to our car when we left town, I stopped back in this store and bought a bag of Castelluccio lentils for 6.50. These lentils, from the town of Castelluccio up in the nearby mountains, are perhaps the most famous in Italy. I have not been able to find them in the U.S.




Moscatelli Tartufi


Hams, Cheeses, & Wild Boar in Moscatelli Tartufi

One of the food stores displayed a box of “Cojoni di Mulo” (Mule Balls). They are not the real thing, but rather a type of salami that has the shape of the real thing. They are sold in pairs.

We walked into the small Piazza Vittorio Veneto, where there was a nice produce stand, a theater, and a memorial to fallen soldiers. Above the buildings at the rear of the piazza was a beautiful view of mountains rising up over the town.

We then stopped for lunch at the restaurant Granaro del Monte, the oldest restaurant in Umbria (http://www.bianconi.com/english/restaurant_norcia_granaro.asp). We sat at an outdoor table under awning. The temperature was perfect for dining outdoors. Our waiter was a gentleman named Franco.



Granaro del Monte

We started with Le Norcinerie, an antipasto of seven different types of cold cuts including regular prosciutto, wild boar prosciutto, and various salamis. There were also a couple of pieces of cheese. There was a fresh fig in the center of the dish. This wonderful platter cost 7.50. I had chosen this dish to taste some of Norcia’s justifiably famous pork products.

Linda had grilled sausages (Salsiccie alla Griglia) for 7.90 and rosemary potatoes (Patate al Rosmarino) for 3.50.

I had mixed mushrooms, including porcini, with garlic and parsley (Funghi Trifolati) for 3.80 and sausage and Castelluccio lentils (Salsiccie e Lenticchie di Castelluccio) for 9.90. I had chosen this dish because it combined local pork sausage with the famous Castelluccio lentils.

Our wine was a bottle of red 2007 Scacciadiavoli from Montefalco, made from Sagrantino grapes, for 14. It was very nice. “Scacciadiavoli” means, “Chase devils.”

We also had the usual bottle of mineral water.

The total cost of this wonderful meal for Linda and me was 53.70.

After lunch, we continued walking down the corso Sertorio to the Piazza San Benedetto (Piazza St. Benedict).

Among the buildings around the piazza, were the 13th Century Basilica of St. Benedict and the town hall. According to one account, St. Benedict and his twin sister were born in a house that once stood on the spot where the basilica was built. Attached to the basilica is a Benedictine monastery.

Looking up a street between the basilica and the town hall, one can see a mountain rising up over the town.

Basilica of St. Benedict

On another side of the piazza is the Castellina, a fortress built in the 16th century for the papal governors.

To the left of the Castellina is the town’s cathedral, St. Maria Argentea. Between the Castellina and the cathedral, one can see another of the mountains surrounding the town.

In the center of the piazza is a large statue of St. Benedict.

We walked out of the piazza onto via Giuseppe Mazzini and immediately came to a well-known chocolate shop, Cioccolateria Vetusta Nursia di Verucci. Above the store was an English-Language sign that stated, “We produced and we sell the bestest chocolate of the world.”  We enjoyed browsing around and chatting with the two ladies working in the shop, however, didn’t purchase anything because we did not want to carry chocolates with us.


Cioccolateria Vetusta Nursia

After leaving the chocolate shop, we returned to our car via the piazza and the corso Sertorio.

Our next objective was to drive up into the Sibillini Mountains National Park (http://www.sibillini.net/en/index.html ). I had read about the park in Michael Tucker’s book, Living in a Foreign Language. I then checked it out on YouTube and elsewhere, and discovered it was as beautiful as Tucker said it was. If fact, it is even prettier in the spring when the Piano Grande, a high plain up in the mountains is carpeted with blooming flowers. This spring flowering is called, “La Fioritura” or “La Fiorita.” To get an idea of the beauty of the Piano Grande and the Fiorita, do a Flickr search on Castelluccio or see the following YouTube videos:

I also had looked at YouTube videos to check out the road to the park. It looked fine, if occasionally a bit narrow.

The distance from Norcia to where we stopped in the park above the Piano Grande was 20 km (12.4 miles). We drove on the SS685/SP476 on the west side of town and then due south about 7 km. Then we turned onto the SP477. From that point, we climbed up into the mountains. The higher up we went, the more spectacular were the views we saw - miles and miles of lush forested mountains and a long valley.



On the Drive up to the Park

During the last half of that drive, we climbed at least 700 meters  (about 3,000 feet) in altitude. The drive from Norcia took us about half an hour.

When we came up over the top of the hills, we pulled over to the side of the road and got out to enjoy the spectacular views. Below us was the Piano Grande stretching for miles and surrounded by mountains. Above us was a beautiful blue sky with scattered clouds.  On a hill in the distance was the small town of Castelluccio.




Piano Grande

In addition to the beauty of the Piano Grande and the surrounding mountains, we were greeted by a pleasant surprise - a number of horses, a baby mule, and an adult mule were walking nearby. They were very tame and easily approachable. They walked on the road and across the grass, and then continued on their way.



After enjoying the views for a while, we drove back down to Norcia and continued back to Spoleto. Shortly after we started down the road toward Norcia, our GPS lady, whom we had named Carmela, tried to take us back to Spoleto via a different route. I already knew from having studied the map that the GPS route would have been a mistake. Nice try Carmela.

 It took us an hour and 25 minutes to get back. We saw carabinieri (police) at four different places along the side of the road between Norcia and Spoleto. We arrived back at the hotel at 1805, after an easy drive.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

La Locanda del Castello - Fine Dining in a Tuscan Truffle Capital

La Locanda del Castello, San Giovanni d’Asso

I had decided to stop at the small town of San Giovanni d’Asso for lunch. This town is famous for its white truffles. There is a white truffle festival there in November. I had read that a very large percentage of this small town’s inhabitants were truffle hunters. The town is situated on a hill overlooking the Asso River Valley in the heart of Tuscany’s Crete Senesi. The town centers on the 16th Century Castle.

Entrance to La Locanda del Castello

In the castle is a restaurant called La Locanda del Castello (http://www.lalocandadelcastello.com).
 I had read wonderful reviews about this restaurant on Trip Advisor, and so I decided it would be the perfect place to stop for lunch en route from Spoleto to Montalcino. I made reservations via email. It turned out that our dining experience would be even better than I had expected.

We sat at a table on an outside terrace. The dining area was surrounded by waist-high plants. All of the other outside tables were occupied. One long table was occupied by what appeared to be a group of diners from one of the Nordic countries. The weather was perfect.

The restaurant owner, Massimo, was very charming, articulate, and attentive to our needs. He mentioned that he had lived in Southeast Asia for a number of years. His suggestions as to what we should eat were right on the mark. Every bite of every dish was mouth watering. (Massimo indicated that he also owns a restaurant in Pienza.) Although Massimo spoke excellent English, I preferred to chat with him in Italian because that was a lot more fun.

Massimo


As an antipasto, Linda had a selection of four different pecorino cheeses from the Val D’Orcia with honey and fig jam, and about five slices of toast (Tagliere di Formaggi Pecorini della Val D’Orcia) for 12. The Val D’Orcia is a valley with low hills. It extends from south of Siena to Mount Amiata. It includes Montalcino, Pienza, and of course, San Giovanni d’Asso. It is famous for its pecorino cheeses.

 Linda's Cheese Board

Donna and I each had small potato pie with grilled tomino goat cheese and white marzuolo truffles from the Crete Senesi (Tortino di Patate con Tomino alla griglia e Tartufo “Marzuolo delle Crete Senesi”) for 12.

As a main course, Linda and I had fresh tagliolini pasta with white marzuolo truffles (Tagliolini Freschi al Tartufo “Marzuolo delle Crete Senesi”) for 15.

Donna had wild boar stew (Cinghiale in Umido) for 12. Massimo said he himself had hunted the wild boar 2 days earlier.

Our wine was a very nice 2003 Duemilatre di Argiano Rosso di Toscana for 20.

We also had a large bottle of mineral water for 2.50, and the cover charge was 2.50 each.

Massimo also treated us each to a glass of 1997 Avignonesi Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo wine made from Prugnolo Gentile grapes. This was quite a treat - a half-bottle of this wine currently retails for about $150 in the U.S.

Additionally, he gave Linda and Donna each a gift of a small oak plate with a ceramic dish insert.


 View from the Small Piazza Outside La Locanda del Castello

Porchetta Sandwiches - A Central Italian Delight

Porchetta is a type of wonderful pork that is used in sandwiches and is celebrated in central Italy (and by us). It is said to have originated in Umbria or Lazio (the region where Rome is located). It is most common in Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio. It is also popular in some Italian communities in the U.S. and in southern Ontario, Canada - in areas such as Toronto, Hamilton, and St. Catherines. That probably accounts for why Donna, who lives in Ontario, has had great porchetta made by a friend of Italian origin. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porchetta).

Basically, fatty suckling pig stuffed with garlic, fennel, rosemary, salt, and pepper is slow-roasted for hours. The skin is cracklingly crispy and the meat is moist. The porchetta is served on wonderful rolls. It is generally sold from trucks.

I had read about porchetta in Michael Tucker’s book, “Living in a Foreign Language.” He had written about buying porchetta sandwiches from trucks on the via Flaminia outside of town. However, Signor Diotallevi, the owner of Palazzo Dragon, suggested that the best place to get porchetta would be to go to the Friday outdoor market and look for the porchetta truck with the longest line. We followed his advice and hit the jackpot.

The truck with the longest line was Mazocchi Serafino’s. His porchetta sandwiches were absolutely incredible. Linda, Donna, and I each had one. I can’t begin to describe how delicious they were. They cost 2 each. One could buy just the porchetta meat and not the sandwich, and pay by weight. Many people were buying just the meat.



The name “Serafino's” is inside the truck behind the counter. On the awning above the counter, it says, “Porchetta Panini Bibite.” At chest height, it says, “La Porchetta.”

In this age of social networking, even Serafino’s has a Facebook page and a blog, and there are even YouTube videos. The Facebook page has lots of complimentary posts in Italian, along with a photo of a hapless/delicious pig. The blog has very little. The YouTube video was taken in January, demonstrating that Serafino’s fans are devoted even in winter.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ristorante Tric Trac, Piazza del Duomo, Spoleto

Our first meal on this trip to Italy was at Ristorante Tric Trac (http://www.trictrac.it/) at Spoleto’s Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Piazza). It was recommended by Signor Roberto Diotallevi, the owner of our hotel, Palazzo Dragoni. I had asked him for recommendations of restaurants that served the best Umbrian dishes. Like all his recommendations, it was superb.

We were warmly greeted at Tric Trac, and the ambiance was very elegant. In addition to the tables inside, there were also tables outside on two platforms at the edge of the piazza.

Every dish we had was really delicious. It was a great start to the wonderful dining experiences we would have on this trip.

During the meal, we enjoyed chatting with the owners, Giuseppe D’Amelio and Spartaco Grilli, and our waiter about food and wine. The conversation was very interesting. (See the discussion below about truffles.)
Entrance to the Interior Dining Room

We started with the Antipasto Tric Trac for €14. It had three items:
- Scrambled eggs with truffles
- Crostini with tomato
- Peach with prosciutto

Then Linda and I each had Risotto with Provola Cheese and Truffles (Risotto Mantecato con Provola e Tartuffo) for 23.90.

That was enough food for Linda, but I then had a typical Umbrian dish - Guinea Hen in Salmi in a Casserole Cooked over a Slow Fire (Faraona in Casseruola Cotta a Fuoco Lento in Salmi) for 20.50. (Signor Diotallevi had recommended this dish.) The salmi sauce at Tric Trac was made with guinea hen livers, chicken livers, capers, lemon, garlic, sage, rosemary, white wine, and vinegar. (When I sent Tric Trac an email asking about the ingredients in Salmi, Signor D’Amelio replied very quickly.)

Our wine was an Umbrian red - a 2005 Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco for 35. Sagrantino is an indigenous Umbrian grape grown in the town of Montefalco. The wine was a perfect accompaniment to our meal.

The total cost for the meals for the three of us came to 152.60 ($206.01).

Truffles (“tartufo” - singular & “tartufi” - plural) are mushrooms that grow underground. They can cost several thousand dollars a pound. White truffles are more expensive than black truffles. Truffles are very light in weight, and shavings of truffles are placed on foods. Having truffles on a dish can add $15 or more to the cost of the dish. However, it is worth it.

Truffles are not raised, but are found in the woods. Dogs are now used to find them, although pigs were once used.The areas of Italy best know for truffles are the Piedmont, Umbria, and Tuscany. There are white truffles and black truffles. There are also truffles in France and Spain. There are summer truffles and winter truffles.

One of the owners explained the truffle seasons to us. He said that the winter truffles are best, and are available from December through February. He mentioned that the summer truffles are available in July, August, and September. He said we were approaching the end of the summer truffle season.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Palazzo Dragoni - Our Hotel in Spoleto

Our hotel in Spoleto was Palazzo Dragoni, which we selected on the basis of Trip Advisor reviews. It was terrific! (http://www.palazzodragoni.it/Inglese/indexing.htm)

Side View of Palazzo Dragoni

(I could not get a nice front view because of the narrow street. However, see the hotel's web site for a beautiful rear view and other info.)

The building was constructed in the 14th Century by the illustrious Dragoni family. It is located at 13 via del Duomo in the upper end of the town, close to the Cathedral. The hotel is owned and operated by Roberto and Erminia Diotallevi. Roberto was gracious and very helpful. His wife Erminia, who was responsible for preparing the breakfast, was charming, energetic, and talented. She delighted in making beautiful flower and plant arrangements to decoratecommon various rooms in the hotel. She collected the makings for these arrangements in nearby fields. The breakfasts she prepared were excellent. One morning, one of the items in the breakfast buffet was a marvelous blackberry tart she had made from blackberries she had picked herself. She showed us a huge bucket with blackberries she had not yet used.
An Arrangement by Erminia


The breakfast room is very comfortable and through its large glass windows, it provides a magnificent view of the Umbrian hills and the town. There is a nice salon with fireplace on the ground floor. There is also a large room for dining or special functions. There is also an elevator.

 Breakfast Room with View

My wife and I stayed in room number 8, and our niece stayed in room number 3. We were all happy with our rooms and loved the hotel.

Our room was very spacious and comfortable. The bed was large with an elegant canopy over the top. The mattress was firm and comfortable. There was a small balcony, with large French doors onto the balcony.

The view from the room was superb. The view was toward the north. In the distance, we could see a range of high hills. To the center right was a large, elegant-looking mansion, at least four storeys high, with a formal garden. A massive retaining wall dropped down below two sides of the garden. Beyond that was the 12th-13th Century church and monastery of San Ponziano. To the right of the mansion was the Duomo - the Cathedral of Spoleto. (Unfortunately, the bell tower of the cathedral was covered in scaffolding.) Beyond the Cathedral and looming above it at the top of a hill was the massive fortress - La Rocca Albornoziana. Between the Cathedral and us were several massive old fir trees. To our left below us was a large section of the city of Spoleto. The buildings we could see appeared to be primarily stone buildings and some with painted walls. The buildings were colored brown, beige, pale yellow and even ochre. Immediately below us were the hotel garden and a couple of large houses.




 Views from Our Room

The breakfast buffet at the hotel was very nice. It included cereals, fresh bread, pastries, a variety of fresh and dried fruits, baked apples, cheese, salami, juice, coffees, teas, and bottled water. Erminia would take orders for the coffee or tea, and provide as many refills as requested.
Part of the Breakfast Buffet, Including Erminia's Blackberry Tart

Signor Diotallevi was very helpful in help us in planning our itinerary for our stay in Spoleto, including trips we had planned to Gubbio and Norcia.

He was also very helpful with ideas on how to fulfill my wish to try Umbrian foods. I had prepared a list of unique Umbrian dishes I wanted to try. He looked at the list and explained which dishes might be available. Some dishes were only available during certain seasons. Others were dishes for holidays or special occasions.

At our request, he suggested a different restaurant where we could try local foods each night of our 4-nights in town. The restaurants he suggested were: Ristorante Tric Trac, Ristorante il Pentagramma, Trattoria la Torretta, and Ristorante il Panciolle. All of them were excellent.

He also suggested that the best place to get a porchetta sandwich was at one of the vendors at the weekly Friday outdoor market.

For those who are driving, there were two drawbacks to the hotel, but I would stay there again in a heartbeat and would strongly recommend it. First, it is a bit difficult to reach, and second, the parking is not the most convenient.

We had a Nuvi GPS with our rental car, but it did not always provide the best directions. The hotel’s web site has detailed directions and a map. The hotel’s directions are accurate, but navigation is still difficult because street signs are often missing or not easily visible on buildings. Before I left home, I had used Google street view to follow part of the directions to the hotel, but I still had trouble.

The GPS suggested entering the town from the southern entrance off the SS3, the via Flaminia. That did not work out and it took us a while to get things sorted out. The hotel’s  directions suggested entering the town from the northern entrance off the SS3. That is the right way to go.

What I would like to see hotel owners do is to create a video of how to reach their hotel and post that video on their web site. A guest could load that video onto a smart phone or iPad and use that to help navigate.

There were one or two tight parking spaces on the narrow street outside the hotel. There was additional parking about a block away.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Spoleto

The first stop on our recent trip to Italy was Spoleto in the hills of Umbria. I had chosen Spoleto after reading Michael Tucker’s book, “Living in a Foreign Language.” Tucker and his wife, Jill Eikenberry, starred on the hit TV series, L.A. Law. Their book describes their adventures in finding and renovating a home near Spoleto, and enjoying life there. (I highly recommend the book.)

While we enjoyed our Umbrian stay very much, if you were to ask me to choose between Tuscany and this part of Umbria for a first visit, I would choose central Tuscany, specifically Siena, the Chianti Classico area, Montalcino, Montepulciano,  San Gimigniano, Volterra, and Cortona - plus a compulsory stop in Florence. Why? - because of the Tuscan scenery, foods, wines, and attractions. After leaving Spoleto, we returned to revisit most of the aforementioned areas of Tuscany.

We were in Spoleto for about 3 & ½ days in late September. The weather was excellent, with high temperatures in the mid 70’s.

While we were there, we visited two other Umbrian towns - Gubbio and Norcia, as well as the Sibilline Mountains National Park near Norcia.

Spoleto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoleto and http://www.spoletonews.it/storia.php) is a charming hill town of about 39,000 inhabitants. It has nice shops and restaurants, and appears to have a vibrant and youthful population. Its attractions include a massive 14th Century fortress above the town; an impressive 14th Century aqueduct; some Roman ruins; Monteluco - a mountain which offers beautiful views of the countryside; and a decent weekly outdoor market.


Outdoor Market, Cathedral, Fortress, Monteluco


(In upcoming blog postings, I will describe our wonderful hotel in Spoleto, the restaurants we tried, other Spoleto experiences, and our visits to Gubbio, Norcia, and the national park.)

We were not in Spoleto for its most interesting attraction - The Festival of Two Worlds (Festival dei Due Mondi). This huge annual festival of the arts - art, theater, music, opera, and cinema - lasts for over 2 weeks. This year, it was held from June 18 to July 4. You can see the extensive schedule of events at http://www.festivaldispoleto.com/interno.asp?id=115&lang=eng  and http://www.festivaldispoleto.com/interno.asp?id=121&lang=eng.

Charleston, South Carolina has a similar festival called the Spoleto Festival.

Spoleto is at least 2,500 years old. It was settled by Umbrian tribes. Two kilometers of walls from the 5th Century BC still survive. It is 1,300 feet above sea level.


 From Our Hotel Room

The town was conquered by the Romans in 295 BC. The town proved to be an important ally of Rome. When the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s army defeated the Roman garrisons at nearby Lake Trasimeno, the Spoletans engaged the Carthaginians in battle and inflicted heavy casualties on them, forcing Hannibal to divert his army toward Piceno and Puglia rather than moving on Rome.

During the period of the Roman Empire, Spoleto was used as a vacation retreat by wealthy Romans, who built villas there.

The city was subsequently conquered by the Lombards and ruled by them for several centuries.

In 1155 AD, the city was destroyed by Frederick I Barbarossa, King of Germany, King of Italy, Holy Roman Emperor, etc. At the time of its destruction, Spoleto had been a very rich, prosperous city. Needless to say, its destruction had a disastrous affect on every aspect of its life.

In 1231 AD, Frederick II gave control of the city to the church under Pope Gregory IX.

In the middle of the 14th Century, the Catholic Church decided to use Spoleto as a strategic base for the reconquest of lands for the Church. In 1362, Cardinal Albornoz, who had been entrusted with heading this endeavor, commissioned the building of the massive fortification to be named after him - the Rocca Albornoziana.



Spoleto from the Fortress

During the Napoleonic occupation of Italy (1809 - 1815), Spoleto played an important role as the capital of the Department of Trasimeno. There was a great renewal of political and social activity, accompanied by a building boom. That all came to an end with the return of control to the Papacy.

Side Street off Via del Municipio


With the reunification of Italy, progress returned to the city. However, the impact of World War II and a 1958 crisis related to lignite mining caused severe economic and demographic damage to the city.

Several subsequent events led to the revival of the city. First, was the A1 expressway, which connected Umbria to Rome. Second, was the establishment of the National Experimental Theater and the Italian Center for Medieval Studies. Third, was the establishment in 1958 of the annual Festival of the Two Worlds

Monday, October 18, 2010

Trip to Italy

Our recent trip to Italy with our fantastic niece was terrific. We met with friends in different towns and enjoyed great food, wine, scenery, and meeting terrific Italians. I hope to begin posting some of our experiences soon.

Last Night's Dinner

1. Rocchetti past with sweet peppers, prosciutto, broad beans, pecorino
2. Asparagus with parmesan & butter
3. Fake Tuscan bread

My daughter had given me an Umbrian pasta called, "rocchetti." The name means, spools. I had a hard time finding a recipe that appealed to me. I found one in Italian at the URL: http://www.lacucinaitaliana.it/community/forums/p/24240/174328.aspx
The Italian name of this dish is rocchetti con fave, prosciutto, e peperoni. It tasted pretty good. I modified it a bit by using one thick slice of prosciutto rather than two. I'd add more sweet pepper in the future. My translation of the recipe is below.

The asparagus recipe was simple and came from page 402 of the English version of the huge Italian cookbook, "The Silver Spoon." It's basically asparagus, boiled or steamed, with parmesan and butter put on after it's cooked. Easy and delicious.

The bread was a "Tuscan Loaf" from our local Fresh Market supermarket. I love it, but it's not real Tuscan bread because it has salt. After just spending a couple of weeks in Tuscany and eating lots of Tuscan bread, the difference is very noticeable.

My translation of the rocchetti recipe:

Ingredients for four servings:
14 ounces of rocchetti
½ a red pepper
½ a yellow pepper
2 thick slices of uncooked prosciutto
7 ounces of shelled broad beans
3 T olive oil
1 clove garlic
pecorino romano or aged ricotta

Cut the peppers into little cubes and take the beans out of the bitter outer shells Cut the prosciutto into cubes and saute them for 1 minute in a frying pan with the crushed garlic and olive oil.

Mix in the beans and saute them for 2 minutes. (If the beans are very fleshy, it’s best to put them in after the peppers and to cook them longer.) Put in the peppers and cook over medium for 5 minutes.  Add salt and pepper and a little bit of water from the cooked pasta.

Cook the rocchetti al dente, drain, then saute in the frying pan with the sauce. Serve immediately with grated pecorino romano or aged ricotta. (The author prefers aged ricotta.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Moroccan Delight

On Friday night, we were treated to an incredible home-cooked Moroccan meal by our friends G & P. The impetus for this meal was a dinner the four of us had enjoyed at a local Moroccan restaurant. One of the dishes I had eaten was called Bisteeya. G, who was very familiar with Moroccan cuisine, understood that this dish was hard to prepare properly in a restaurant. He offered to treat us to a Moroccan meal prepared by him. Since he is the best chef/cook I have ever known, I knew this would be a special treat.

(On a previous occasion, before a trip to Provence, I had asked him if he could describe daube, a Provençal stew I had seen mentioned in a book on Provence. He not only described it, but he prepared a complete Provençal meal, including daube. I tried daube three times in Provence, including at Les Deux Garçons in Aix and Le Safari in Nice. None held a candle to his daube.)

On Friday, he prepared two main dishes for us - bisteeya and lamb shanks in Moroccan spices. Both were incredible.

Bisteeya is a chicken pie with chicken, onion, eggs, spices, and a layer of gound almonds, wrapped in filo dough and topped with confectioners sugar and cinamon. (The dish was originally made with pigeon.) It requires a great deal of time to prepare from scratch, the way he prepared it. I cannot begin to describe how mouthwateringly delicious this dish was.

Needless to say, the lamb was equally delicious.

The wines he served were two whites:
- Hugues Beauvignac Coteaux de Languedoc made with the Picpoul de Pinet grape
- Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand

Both were perfect accompaniments to this feast.

There are many examples of this recipe on the Internet. One of these recipes, with a picture of the finished product, can be found at http://www.suite101.com/content/bisteeya--moroccan-chicken-pie-a259546

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Today's Dinner for Friends

I enjoyed making dinner tonight for our friends Ivan & Iris, and Jack & Mary Ann:
- A simple Lombard antipasto salad of celery, walnuts, grana padano cheese, and olive oil (insalata di sedano e noci)
- Acquacotta Maremmana, a soup from the Maremma area of Tuscany. Acquacotta means, "cooked water." It refers to the fact that this soup is made with water rather than a broth. I combined two different acquacotta recipes. This one had onions, tomatoes, celery, carrots, swiss chard, eggs, garlic, and a bit of chili powder. It was poured over toasted stale Tuscan bread covered with pecorino Romano cheese. Many Tuscan soup recipes use stale bread (pane raffermo). I bought a fresh loaf of "Tuscan bread" from Fresh Market a couple of days ago and let it age. Of course, it was not real Tuscan bread because its ingredients included a bit of salt, which is not used in Tuscan bread.
- Stracotto alla Fiorentina - Florentine-style eye of round larded with carrots and pancetta, and cooked in wine, tomatoes, carrots, and celery, and simmered for a couple of hours. At the end, I made a sauce by using a hand blender to blend the vegetables.
- Panna cotta with a caramel sauce. It took me two attempts to make the caramel sauce. The first attempt produced a slightly burnt brick.
We had three nice wines:
- An Umbrian white made with Greccheto and Vermentino grapes and produced by Colle Solato. Colle Solato also produces a nice, every-day red.
- a 2008 Morellino di Scansano Maremma red with 85% sangiovese and 15% Canaiolo Nero produced by Mantellassi.
- a 2005 Casalino Chianti Classico Riserva

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Home-Cooked Meals in Italy

Homefood is a very interesting organization in Italy. It is dedicated to preserving traditional home-cooked Italian food. Every month, they offer home-cooked meals at homes throughout Italy. These meals are prepared by women called, "cesarine" (singular "cesarina"). They will also try to set up private home-cooked meals. The meals are reasonably priced. One has to join Homefood to participate. I'm currently trying to arrange a meal during our upcoming trip to Italy. The web site for Homefood is http://www.homefood.it/. The site is in both Italian and English. To change languages, look for the drop-down menu toward the top of the home page.

Wine Database

On my mobile phone (HTC Tilt 2), I keep a wine database of most of the wines I've tried since 2002. (I did have a catastrophic loss of about a year's worth of data in 2003.) I currently have 1,365 records of wines we've tried. I use the database to help me when I order wines in stores or restaurants.

I used the HanDbase mobile database software to create this database. (I've used this software to create other databases for my phone.) I originally used this software with Palm phones I previously used. I kept the same software and converted it to work with Windows Mobile with  my most recent phones.)

The fields in my database are:
- Name
- Type
- Origin (Country, Region/Province/State, Town)
- Grapes
- Vineyard
- Year
- Rating (My rating system)
- Vintage
- Store
- Price
- Date (when we had the wine)
- Negociant