Sometimes you hear so many clichés about a country you begin to wonder if they’re real or exaggerated. Like pasta, pizza, outstanding wine, charming men, stylish women, fast driving and frequent hand gestures in Italy. I was pleased to find all these charms truly do exist there. Especially the pasta part.
My first full day in Citta di Castello, I made my way to the food market to study local inventory and stock up. I was amused to find both sides of an entire aisle were dedicated to only pasta! Every market and menu I encountered thereafter was equally pasta adorned .
Fair enough to say I ate my way through Italy (7 pounds worth to be exact – and worth every American meal I had to skip to lose them). Italy doesn’t produce a bad tasting product, - ok, I’m still grappling with what’s so great about grappa - but food and drink are not taken lightly in Italy – from where, how and whom it’s grown by to when it’s taken in and the company it enjoyed with. Italy is home to the “slow food movement” started in the 80’s by Carlo Petrini, an Italian food and wine journalist who was crushed by the appearance of a McDonalds on the Spanish Steps of Rome. And a pretty effective movement it’s been. I covered a lot of ground on this trip and saw not only any other fast food chains polluting Italy’s proud culinary heritage, but even very few McDonalds. Even then, many of the menu offerings were very much in keeping with local, organic beef/produce standards.
It was further explained to me by a local that it’s been even slower to catch on because it’s just out of rhythm with Italian meal rituals; long and slow. Which is another aspect I fell in love with – very much like Spain, don’t expect to do any retail, food shopping or business in the afternoon until 4, and don’t expect to have your evening meal before 7 when everything reopens (less so in the major cities but an absolute in the smaller towns). Afternoons are for leisurely lunches with friends and family and relaxing before returning to work refreshed, friendly and ready to stay open until 10, 11 or later, depending on how long it takes the last customer to enjoy their multi-course meal.
And if all of this doesn’t convince you of the serious Italian attitude towards food and relaxed living, you might be surprised to learn that the Mediterranean Diet is not simply a category of certain foods, It’s an UNESCO Protected Heritage defined as;
“...a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food. Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighborliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity. It plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes. It includes the craftsmanship and production of traditional receptacles for the transport, preservation and consumption of food, including ceramic plates and glasses. Women play an important role in transmitting knowledge of the Mediterranean diet: they safeguard its techniques, respect seasonal rhythms and festive events, and transmit the values of the element to new generations. Markets also play a key role as spaces for cultivating and transmitting the Mediterranean diet during the daily practice of exchange, agreement and mutual respect.”
Whew! And that pretty much sums it all up in a Mediterranean Mussel Shell.
So without further ado, I want to share a few simple recipes I learned from the locals. Oh! And the greatest tip I learned? Cook your pasta for exactly 9 minutes for the absolute best consistency. I’ve struggled for years to get the perfect “al dente”, and every dish has been pasta-perfect since.
Thank you for reading and bon appetite! (Yes, they really say that too!).
You’ll notice there are rarely measurements (#lovekitchenanarchy), so playing around with your food to get proper consistency is key. Enjoy!
Giampaolo’s Angry Pasta
Spaghetti that bites back!
Extra Virgin Olive oil
Fresh Red Tomatoes or Tomato Sauce
Sheep Cheese (like Pecorino Romano – a mainstay in the diet of Roman Infantrymen, a little side triva ;))
Fry garlic, chili and parsley in olive oil until garlic becomes a little golden, then add fresh red tomatoes or tomato sauce I used both). Let this slow cook as long as possible (all afternoon I was told his grandmother did) on low fire and add a little water if needed during cooking.
When the pasta is boiled (9 minutes for al dente perfection!), add it to the pan of sauce and mix for 2 minutes. Add in some sheep cheese to preference and voila!
Although simplicity is the key ingredient in Italian cooking, I learned that when it comes to making pizza in Italy, there’s a special level in Dante’s Inferno just for you if you don't use the proper weighted flour, "00" or "doppio zero". But if you're outside of Italy, all-purpose baking flour is fine.
7 Cups Flour
2.5 to 3 Tbsps. 925 grams) Fresh Brewers Yeast
2.5 Cups of warm water
5-6 Tbsps. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Pinch of Salt
Pinch of pepper
Carrots & Celery (more for pasta sauce but I loved the unexpected addition in the pizza sauce too!)
Mince carrots, celery and onions and cook in olive oil until soft. Add to tomato sauce with a pinch of salt and slow cook over low flame until water is cooked out. Refrigerate until cold.
Dissolve the yeast into warm water. Make a volcano of sorts with your flour and pour the yeast mix, salt and olive oil into the center and begin kneading (about 10-15 minutes) on a lightly floured, flat surface. Coat a large bowl with olive oil and place the dough ball inside, turning until it’s completely coated in oil. Cover with damp cloth and let rise in a warm area (near a sunny window is great) for several hours (at least 5). Preheat oven to 400. Put the risen dough back onto the floured surface, punch it down to get rid of excess air bubbles. Divide the dough in two and roll to desired shape. Put the dough onto a slightly oiled baking sheet or pizza round and the cold add sauce. Brush the edges with a little more olive oil and bake for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and add the mozzarella along with any other toppings you desire and bake until cheese is melted and the top and bottom of crust is browned. Take from the oven and add fresh basil leaves. Enjoy!
Elena’s L’Osteria Tiramisu
500 GR Mascarpone
120 GR Sugar
This one comes without instructions and I didn’t convert the measurements so you can experience a little of the fun of cooking abroad – hey at least it doesn’t have a Celsius conversion in addition! But really, I’ve ate a lions share of tiramisu in my time, even in Italy and this is hands down the best version I’ve ever had. Give it a go if you’re feeling adventurous and let me know what you think!