Ahhh, Italy. So much to talk about, so little time. When people ask me, "How was it??" I feel like I have nothing to say. I say, "It was amazing, I had a great time". Then, I feel like I'm obligated to say a little more. After all, I was there for nearly a month, visited more sites than I would have thought to be humanly possible in that amount of time, and all I can say was, "It was awesome." I feel like a dweeb. Fortunately, pictures can convey a story much better than my overwhelmed brain. If someone asks me, "Did you have any real Italian pizza while you were there?," what says it better, "Yes, it was really good." or this:
I'd have to go with the latter. Fortunately, I took about 1300 or so pictures during my trip, so that when I try to tell my loved ones all about my time there, I don't have to sound underwhelmed by saying simply "Italy was great, we did stuff."
Anyway, back to the food. Pizza in Italy comes in little individual pies, like in the picture. At first, I was really intimidated by the size of the portion. Everyone told me not to worry about it, its a thin crust, you can easily eat the whole thing. But when they slapped that big pizza, the enormous plate struggling to contain it, I thought it was just too much for me to handle - I put the fork there for scale. Then...i started to eat it. Needless the say, it was absolutely delicious. Quite different from our pizza here: Fresh basil, less greasy, fresher ingredients, a simpler but much better taste. Before I knew it...well...
Yeahhh, I'm not sure where it all went. My thighs, perhaps, but it was worth it. It is much lighter than our pizza, and the thinner crust does make it easier to eat more than one slice, but there WAS a fair amount of, "I can't do it... I can't eat anymore... ok, maybe just ooone more half piece" heard from around our table.
Another one of my favorite days on this trip, gastronomically speaking, was our wine tasting at Salchetto in Montepulciano. We were taken down to see the barrels and given a little lecture in Italglish about how they grow their grapes, their choices for the wood for the barrels, etc etc. It was actually all quite interesting. The only other time I had done a wine tasting was at the Brotherhood Winery in New York, and since it was a few weeks before my 21st birthday, I wasn't allowed to take part. But come ON, I was only a few weeks away! My pride prohibited me from paying much attention to the rest of the day. So here, in the Tuscan countryside, was really my first experience like this.
Then, we were brought outside to see the vineyard.
Interestingly, the rose bushes on the end of each row have a purpose, not just to make the Tuscan countryside all the more irresistible. Whatever bugs or bacteria (I can't remember exactly, but something harmful to the plant) that threaten the vines, will attack the rose bushes first. So at the first sign of damage to the rose bushes, the people at the vineyard know to act before there is damage to the precious grapes. Cool, right?
Our little Italian man told us all about the grapes, and even showed us what little baby grapes look like which I thought was particularly adorable...
After our tour and lecture about the vineyard, we sat down to a beautiful lunch of meats, bread with delicious olive oil, & cheeses with honey that perfectly complimented their amazing wine.
I'm not even a big fan of red wine, but theirs were spectacular. Its the first red wine I think I could sit down to dinner with and actually enjoy. My absolute favorite was the Rosso di Montepulciano. Fruity, easy to drink. But that wasn't even their "good" wine. My second favorite was what they call their 2nd best, their Vino Nobile. And their crew that they take pride in was the Salco. All of them were quite delicious, and it was a lot of fun to learn how to taste properly.
By now, time was whizzing past. Our second cooking class was already upon us. Originally, our menu was Sformatino di Zucchine (Zucchini Flan) with a Pesto di Radicchio Rosso, but we shot that down opting for Polpettine Fritte (fried sicilian meatballs) instead.
The recipe for the polpettine, as provided by the school, is as follows:
500 gr (17 oz) pork, minced
60 gr (2 oz) bread crumbs (very fine breadcrumbs, almost like a cornmeal)
1 tomato, peeled and chopped
50 gr (1.5 oz) grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1/2 onion, chopped
salt and pepper
30 gr (1 oz) raisins, coarsely chopped (we shot this down too...these didn't find their way into our polpettine)
30 gr (1 oz) pignoli (pine nuts)
oil for frying (we used sunflower oil)
Work together all the ingredients besides the breadcrumbs in a bowl. Take lumps the size of one egg, pass in breadcrumbs, fry in hot oil, turning once over to brown them all over. Drain on absorbent paper before serving."
They were quite good. The pine nuts mixed in added a nice little nutty crunch, and the breadcrumbs on the exterior, rather than mixed in like I've always known, was really different and delicious. I'd definitely make this recipe again at home for a variation on my traditional meatballs.
To go with our Polpettine, we made Gnocchi di Patate (Potato Gnocchi) with a Basil Pesto...
Gnocchi di Patate
1 Kg (33 Oz) potatoes
350 gr (13 Oz) flour
2 egg yolks
Wash the potatoes and cook with the skin in salted water, then peel and mash them.
When the potatoes are cold, work on a table, and add the flour, salt and egg yolks. Form a type of dough without kneading too much.
Sticky. Add more flour if it is too sticky.
Roll out into pieces and cut the pasta into small pieces.
Make lines on the gnocchi by using a fork or a grater.
Once the gnocchi are ready, cook them quickly in salted boiling water (save) and once they float to the top, remove from the water and allow them to cool; cover with oil. Once it is time to serve the gnocchi, drop them in boiling water again and dress with the sauce. (which brings us to the sauce....)
"Serves 4 - 6
60 fresh basil leaves
60 gr (2 oz) Extra Virgin Olive Oil
60 gr (2 oz) Grana Padano cheese, grated (can't find this here... I used parmigian)
30 gr (1 oz) Pecorino romano cheese, grated
30 gr (1 oz) Pine Nuts
1 Garlic Clove
Salt to Taste
(I left this out the garlic both in the cooking class, and when I made it at home. Garlic does NOT agree with me, and the taste of the fresh basil is enough to carry this dish. Many people sampled it and agreed. In fact, the pesto is So good, and So easy to make, I've made it twice already since getting home!)
Rinse and pat dry the basil leaves.
[These are my cute little basil leaves from making it at home. In New York I found no problem finding a large amount of fresh basil, but here in Florida, I've gone to 3 stores so far, and haven't found any fresh basil, let alone large amounts of it. It was all dried and in pre-packaged packets. So, I bought a sweet basil plant at Lowe's which provided more than enough leaves for one batch of this pesto for considerably less money, was just about as fresh as you can get it considering I cut it off the plant right before using it, and now, I'll hopefully have new leaves in the future!]
Put in a blender the cheeses, pine nuts, and olive oil (and garlic if desired) and mix to creamy consistency.
Add the basil leaves; salt to taste. Mix pulsing in order to avoid heating the basil.
The leaves in the food processor. Good bye my precious leaves!
Put in a glass vase, covered by olive oil and keep refrigerated. (Lost in translation, a bit? I just stored it in a glass jar)
My cute souvenier nutella jar!
Use to dress fresh or dry pasta (good with potato gnocchi, fresh egg tagliatelle, dry Reginette, typical Trofie)."
Our second cooking class was not yet over. Last but not least, Cannoli Siciliani!!
500 gr ricotta cheese
1/2 tsp cinnamon
100 gr confectioner's sugar
40 gr candied orange peel
30 gr bitter chocolate, chopped
chopped pistachio nuts
Press the ricotta through a sieve, or whirl in a food processor until smooth. Beat in cinnamon, sugar, and all the other ingredients. Refrigerate.
1 C flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt
20 gr. lard
8 tablespoons marsala or white wine
Vegetable oil for frying
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, except the oil. Kneed the dough until smooth. Cut the dough into 4 pieces, make balls, and let sit for 30 minutes.
Take each ball, dust with flour, and start rolling it out with a rolling pin on a floured counter top. Cut out circles with a cookie cutter of 10 Cm, or take a rolling paste cutter to cut squares, and save the scraps.
Re-roll and re-cut with scraps. Center a metal canoli form on a sheet of dough, making sure not to let the dough extend longer than the form (the form must come out further than the dough). Roll one end of the dough over the top of the tibe, lightly brush the far edge of the dough with water, and gently roll up so the edges overlap. Press lightly to create a good seal so the shell won't open during the drying. Heat the oil in a pan to about 375 F. Gently lower the shells 3/4 into the hot oil.
They will puff up and turn golden brown in about 3 minutes. Drain the excess oil and set them on a platter. Cool them briefly before removing the tubes.
Scoop the filling into a pastry bag. Pipe the filling into each cannolo. Sprinkle with sugar.
The cannoli were quite tasty. They were different from any cannolo I'd ever had before. The filling was not nearly as thick as I'm used to, but they were definitely good enough to try and make again at home... in fact, I picked up a package of cannoli forms and the rolling pasta cutter from an Italian kitchen store while I was there :)
Ok signore e signori. That's all for part due of my Italy trip. I hope you enjoy the recipes I learned from my cooking classes and try them on your own!