Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Do The Artusi

Last night, for the first time in about three years, I went to a movie. With so many other things to do in Italy, we didn’t spend much time at the cinema. Truth be told, I’ve never been a big movie-goer anyway, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice, especially when there were concerts in the piazzas, plays in the opulent opera house teatro, and various festas to attend year round.

But, having just finished reading the book, Julie and Julia, and being interested to see how it was adapted to the screen, my sister and I walked down to the neighborhood cinema.

Let me just say that we loved it. The dual storyline was woven together nicely, and Meryl Streep inhabited Julia Child’s persona. It almost made me want to purchase a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is obviously a desire that has seized millions of others, because the book has skyrocketed to the top of the best-seller list for the first time since it was published nearly 50 years ago.

I’ve never owned a copy, nor has my mother (or, at least if she did, I’ve never seen it on her kitchen bookshelf), because quite frankly French cuisine has not held great appeal for either of us. That’s not to say I don’t acknowledge and laud the woman who brought it to the masses; Julia Child is an icon, and even I watched her on TV occasionally. Who couldn’t like her and her enthusiasm, and her ability to make a complicated cuisine accessible to casual Americans?

I do have my own cooking legend to revere, however. I’m devoted to Artusi, the Italian cookbook author who did for Italian cooking in Italy what Julia Child did sixty years later for French cooking in America.

If you're not familiar with Artusi, let me introduce you. He's so famous only one name is necessary. Every Italian regardless of age knows immediately who you're referring to, and will normally tell you about their favorite recipes or witticisms. In the butcher shop, it was enough for me to tell him that I was making Artusi’s Filetto colla Marsala for him to give me the right cut, and truss it for me, as well.

That is because Pellegrino Artusi wrote the book on Italian cooking, literally. His cookbook, La scienza nella cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) was the first to be made available to the masses, and the first to unite regional specialties of the peninsula into one tome. It was also the first one to be written in Italian. Up until Artusi, cookbooks tended to be written in French and distributed among the upper classes, or they were penned as booklets in regional dialects, focusing on the local dishes of a small, provincial area. Cooks from Lombardia couldn’t read a booklet from Sicilia, and vice versa. His book was considered to be an excellent example of the usage of modern Italian language.

Artusi’s book was first published in 1891, and has been in continual circulation ever since. He couldn’t find a publisher for it, so he financed the printing himself. After a couple of years, word spread and he was printing more and more runs. By the time he died in 1910, he had sold more than 200,000 copies.

Even today, there is hardly a household without one, but the most prized copies, with treasured hand-scrawled notes and splatters, are passed down as heirlooms from mother to daughter.

Artusi expanded the book through the years, adding recipes that were sent to him by readers. It grew to a hefty 790 recipes, though he seems to have included only those that he liked personally, leaving out popular regional dishes that apparently didn’t suit his palate.

Pellegrino Artusi was born in the central region of Emilia-Romagna, then moved to Florence at the age of 32. His tome is very heavy on recipes from Emilia and Toscana, which is understandable, but he did take care to include the dishes from other regions, such as ossobuco from Lombardia, riso from Veneto, maccheroni from Napoli, and sorbetto from Sicilia. This was completely unique, and in doing so, he cracked the kitchen window to the air and aromas of the diverse regions of the country.

Like Julia Child, who made French cooking accessible to “servantless American cooks,” Artusi made Italian cuisine doable by all: “With my book, if you can hold a wooden spoon in your hand, you’ll be able to make something,” he wrote.

But it's so much more than a mere collection of recipes. Artusi gives advice on hygiene, on proper digestion, and practical wisdom. “Excessive salt is the enemy of good cooking,” for example. And, “Those who don’t do physical labor should eat more sparingly than those who do.” He also implores readers to “stop eating the moment you feel full,” and says wisely that the day after a meal of heavy, filling food, you should eat lightly.

He spins stories, tells anecdotes, has rather humorous notes -such as saying that lentils are “less thundering” than normal legumes, and gives such basic instructions for the dishes that you can’t help but feel confident that anyone can prepare them successfully.

There are a few translations available in English. The one I prefer is edited and translated by Kyle Phillips, a great expert on food in his own right, who lives in Tuscany. It is, sadly, out of print, and like the treasured used copies in Italy, this translation can be hard to come by. Phillips’ editorial side notes are of immeasurable help; he explains some of the finer points and historical references we would not otherwise understand, and helps to refine the recipes to the American mentality of measurements, something Artusi –and many Italians - rarely use. (I’ve never once seen my chef friend Giorgio measure anything!) Cooking all'occhio, by the eye, is the norm around the peninsula, and Artusi assumes the cook knows how to do this, so Kyle Phillips provides some explanation.

Artusi also included a helpful section on the varieties and seasons for fish, an interesting thesis on coffee, and a chapter on meal-planning by the month, so that you eat what is fresh and appropriate for each season.

I have a collection of Italian cookbooks, but this one is the stalwart, the point of reference in many respects. It's not only full of fantastic recipes, but is a good read, to boot.

*Find my favorite Artusi recipe, and more scrumptious goodies, at La Cucina.*

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tour del Gelato

The weather has finally turned hot; good grief, it took long enough! I was starting to think that 'summer' was not on the northern Ohio calendar year and that only two seasons existed here: winter, and not winter.

Seizing the opportunity to get some sun and some Italian atmosphere, we headed down to piccola Italia (Little Italy) for the blow-out party of the year, the Feast of the Assumption. Just like la vera Italia, the holiday known as ferragosto is the highlight festa of the season. But I'll let Bryan tell you more about that.

No, I'm here to talk gelato. Or, maybe more aptly, the lack thereof. We tried some; it was only so-so. Obviously made from a starter mix and lacking in the fresh fruit pieces or real nuts that give so much 'oomph' to real gelato. And that got me pining for my favorite gelateria in all of Italy, which is very conveniently located in the heart of Ascoli Piceno. (Maybe a little *too* conveniently located near our apartment!)

Yoghi is a narrow piece of paradise right on the Piazza Arringo. But don't let the name fool you. Sure they serve up yogurt three ways (frozen whirled with mix-ins; frozen soft-serve with toppings; or fresh yogurt with toppings). What you want here is the gelato.
Let me warn you: avert your eyes from the chocolate cases as you walk in the door. Yes, they're decadent and decoratively beautiful. Yes, they're made on-site. But don't let that side-track you from the gelato. Because we're talking home-made from the freshest of ingredients, flavors changing daily kind of gelato.

Since the master gelataio is always concocting new taste sensations, each visit is a treat. And because she is also a master chocolatier, there are always at least two gelati incorporating that (which I consider to be nature's most perfect food). The "plain" chocolate is anything but mundane; it is so rich with so much pure, quality cocoa that you must "cut" it with another flavor alongside. Other chocolate flavors I've selflessly taste-tested include milk chocolate-cinnamon, ciocco-cocco (chocolate-coconut), and white chocolate-cherry.

But you're going to want to try more than one flavor. Trust me. While the creamy and sweet-nutty nocciola (hazelnut) is a good stand-by, if the noci (walnut) is on offer, I choose it every time. The taste of crushed walnuts packs a palate-pleasing punch (especially next to the chocolate). Their stracciatella takes vanilla-chocolate chip up a few notches, as it uses an insanely good fior di latte as its base and comes with abundant, optimum chocolate pieces (remember, she's a chocolate maker, too!)

I've enjoyed cannolo, pistachio, blueberry, strawberry, sacher torte, vaniglia (which is surprisingly hard to find in Italy), and Kinder (based on a chocolate-hazelnut children's snack). None have disappointed. Seriously; never (and I've spent a lot of time in this place!)

Because Yoghi is also a pastry shop, chocolate shop and yogurt shop, they offer only eight to ten gelato flavors a day, but they are always fresh. Besides, it gives them the chance to rotate flavors more often, giving us more variety to try. It also means that you can order a nice piece of cake or a chocolate brownie and get it topped with gelato! They make only the creamy kind (no dairy-free sorbetto, at least I've never seen any).

Once you've eaten your swoon-worthy gelato, you're free to peruse those chocolate cases. The artful and tasteful truffles and filled treats are some of the best you'll ever eat. Free-trade coffee is also served here.

Yoghi - Gelateria, Pasticceria, Yogurteria, Cioccolateria
Piazza Arringo (between Bar Ideal and Bar Delfino)
Ascoli Piceno's centro storico
Tell Gregorio and Giusy we said hello!

Find more tempting gelaterie over at Ms. Adventures in Italy, the brain behind the Tour del Gelato.

Monday, August 10, 2009

La Buona Notte di San Lorenzo

Today is San Lorenzo, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, a popular festa throughout Italy. He is the patron saint of librarians and is called upon by comedians and cooks, owing to his famous quip during his martyrdom, "I am roasted enough of this side, turn me over now". He is also one of the patron saints of Rome. The notte di San Lorenzo is widely celebrated, though I suspect it is because his feast day falls in August while the entire peninsula is on vacation and in a party mood.

Why notte? San Lorenzo coincides with the Perseid meteor shower, the most predictable show in the sky. The shooting star event arrives like cosmic clockwork, littering the nocturnal heavens with a glorious light show that inspires romance, awe, and the hope of wishes come true. As kids we would lay down in the backyard, braving mosquito bites, and wish upon the falling stars. When it was a particularly active shower, we called it stardust, which wasn't far from the truth, since meteor showers are the stream of debris shed from a passing comet.

The experts are saying that best viewing will begin at about midnight tomorrow night and continue into the early morning hours on August 12. (But do they *really* need to point out that laying down in the middle of your street is not recommended?!) It is supposed to be a good year, with about 30 shooters per hour.

In Ascoli, the feast of San Lorenzo is the biggest bash of the year as it is designated la notte bianca, or "white night," which turns the entire centro storico into an all-night street party. Shops and museums stay open. There is a communal aperitivo hour in both of the main piazzas, and music and dancing are lined up in various venues all over the historic core of town. In one street you'll hear blues, while another stage boasts tribal music, and yet another cranks out ska. The acts and genres rotate all night long. This year there is one dance spectacular scheduled called Orgasm of Flamenco (do I want to know?).

The party peaks at 3:00 AM with the high-flying antics of a theatrical troupe called la Compagnia dei Folli, or the company of crazies, which in fact they are, as they "dance" and perform while suspended from bell towers and church domes.

The night caps off with a concert at dawn, then everyone traipses off for breakfast before bed. (And you wondered why we couldn't sleep during the summer while living in the heart of the centro?)

While Ascoli's notte bianca is headlined as the festa di San Lorenzo and stars do feature prominently in their logo, there really isn't any attention given to the actual feast day, so I didn't put it together with the Perseid showers or know how that fit in with Saint Lawrence until I read about it on Bleeding Espresso last year (thanks Michelle!). Sometimes Italians take it for granted that you know your saint's days and their signficance.

This year we'll be missing out on the party in the piazza, and, knowing the crazy weather around here, it will likely cloud up, but late tomorrow night we'll go outside, brave the skeeters, and turn our eyes heavenward just like when we were kids, hoping to bask in the stardust and cast our wishes on a star.

Photo credit: Flickr flattop341

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Rose in Barcelona

My grandmother’s name was Rose. She had a cousin Rose, who traveled to Italy a couple years agoto meet us, accompanied by my cousin Celia. We all spent a wonderful week on the beautiful Costa del Cilento, hanging out together, cooking together, and visiting the Motherland together.

Both of these Roses were named for their aunt Rosa, who was the sister of my grandma’s mother, and who is referred to around the family as Great Aunt Rose for clarification purposes. If you think that is confusing you should try to keep track of things in my step-father’s family. His mother was named Katherine, his step-mother was named Katherine, and he has two sisters named Kathy, each dubbed for their respective mothers. Yeah, I know. You can't make this stuff up.

Cousin Rose is quite a gal. When she decided that retirement wasn't for her, she took a short-term job in Barcelona teaching English. That was twenty years ago. She is still there, living la vida loca, which keeps her a very young 85.

It also keeps her a cool 85, as you will see. Always a beauty, Rose has done some light acting work through the years. Her most recent role is in a music video...where Rose gets the guy! (You go, girl!)

Watch her whoop it up in Hasiendo el Amor. The catchy song is annoyingly redundant and gets lodged in your brain. Don't say I didn't warn you.