Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Leon d'Oro Restaurant - Piazza Dante, Naples

We arrived at our bed and breakfast a bit too late for lunch, but Simona, the delightful owner of the Dante B&B, suggested that we stop down at the Leon d'Oro restaurant & pizzeria to make our dinner reservation as it books up quickly for the evening. Even though it was almost 4 pm there were still a few people finishing lunch and both owners, Antonio (Tonino) and Salvatore, were at the restaurant. As Tonino saw that I was curious to have a look around the restaurant  he invited us to come in. When I peeked into the kitchen from afar he grabbed my hand and took me into the kitchen. There, the very shy Salvatore and his kitchen help, were at work preparing for the evening service. Salvatore was making eggplant parmesan and I made a mental note to order it for dinner.
Tonino, who works the sala, is the kind of Neapolitan restaurant owner I love: so welcoming you feel like you've been friends for years, anxious to show you every corner of the restaurant and share every detail of the manicaretti (tasty delicacies) they are preparing.

The interior of the half century old Leon d'Oro is simple and brightly lit, with checked table cloths and. Inside the pizza oven flanks the kitchen and one of the dining areas. We didn't try the pizza only because we had already decided on other dishes. When a soccer game is on the waiters have half an eye on the game, but still manage to take good care of the customers. And if Naples is playing, well.....

Seafood abounds in Naples and we'd seen some scrumptious looking fresh clams at the market earlier in the day so that was an easy and obvious first choice.

We ordered the eggplant parmesan after our pasta. The eggplant was cooked to perfection with just the right amount of fresh buffalo mozzarella & provolone cheese and a delicate tomato sauce.

A typical Neapolitan dish is the frittata: spaghetti, eggs, tomato sauce and parmesan or pecorino cheese pan fried in a large, deep frying pan and served sliced. Tonino brought it out just as we were finishing our eggplant and served us a slice to try: such a simple dish but wonderfully flavorful.

Based on our experience the first night we decided to have our final lunch at Leon d'Oro and Tonino was clearly pleased to see us again. We had a chard and bean soup and pasta genovese. Genovese is a slow cooked ragu' made from the muscolo cut of meat, frequently pork. It's cooked for hours with olive oil, tomatoes and lots of onions and then served with a short cut bucatini. Often the meat is broken up into pieces or, as in this case, served as one piece.

We finished with mandarini and freshly made graffette, a sugar-coated donut-like dessert made with almost equal parts potatoes and flour, served by our affable waiter Giuseppe.

We left Naples with a freshly baked loaf of bread in hand to take back to Rome and an invitation to come back to cook with Salvatore. In Naples these are not just pleasantries but solid invitations.Although Naples can be crazy and disorderly, Neapolitans are some of the warmest and genuine people I've come across in my travels.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Capri: an Indian summer day before Christmas

Capri is my husband's favorite place and I have to agree that the island's beauty is indisputable. Unfortunately what Capri has become, at least in the centro, is a high-end tourist location for the very wealthy. No characteristic, artisanal items on sale here; what you're most likely to find are the top designers, and costly jewelry & gift items.
So why do we keep going back to Capri? It is so spectacularly beautiful and once you get out of the center you can walk and hike for hours and every turn you make reveals another view of unparalleled beauty. We loved these old, blue row boats at the end of the port area which is mostly frequented by fishermen.

The last Sunday of November Capri was almost a ghost town. Normally we would already be well into winter and the likelihood of getting an aliscafo from Naples to the island unlikely. Instead, it was a gorgeous Indian summer day....and the island was ours for the taking. When you first get to the main square following the funicular ride up the mountain the characteristic view is the ceramic clock.

After we'd spent the day hiking and were ready to return to the mainland it was already getting dark and the piazza was transformed, glowing with Christmas lights.

The piazza was magical and almost fairytale-like.

A gorgeous Christmas tree had become the focal point of the piazza.

When we arrived on the island in the morning we first walked around the port area and enjoyed all the colors and the view up into the hill town of Capri.

Capri is probably best known for its faraglioni: two spectacular rocks emerging from the sea and reaching up towards the sky. The view is timeless. At each hour of the day and from various spots on the island the faraglioni always have a slightly different look.

As you walk along the pathways of the island you come upon immense cliffs and rock structures that reach to the sea and nearly obscure your view of the sky.

Capri is full of amazing gardens, replete with flowers and sculptures; this one is part of the Augustus Gardens on Via Krupp.

The villas you encounter along the way are each one different from the next, an explosion of color and varying architectural style. The red earth tones of this villa were accentuated by the piercing blue sky. The villa was covered with simple frescoes, fading from the wear and tear of the elements.

Many villas are white and often incorporate the characteristic ceramics of the Campania region, mostly coming from Vietri.

A creamy white and beige columned villa, again gorgeous against the deep blue sky.

Once we'd rounded the island and the day was coming to an end we came upon a view of the Amalfi coast, off in the distance.

Some kind soul, probably a dog-loving villa owner, had created this watering hole for dogs, with a marble slab indicating the spot, in Latin: Bibe Canis:  i.e. place for dogs to drink.

By this time in our hike, well over an hour from town, there was no source of water in sight and the stone water bowl was bone dry.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Colors of Napoli....

In his book Seeing Naples Barringer Fifield says: " Some cities are born for commerce, some for religion, others for reasons of state. Naples began with a song." Naples is all about the sensual: the music, the sounds, the language, the food, the smells of the sea and cafes and food, and the colors. It's one of the most spectacularly beautiful cities in the world. I've been exclaiming to my husband for days now "I could live here, I want to live here!", but he keeps telling me I'd tire of the the inherent lawlessness and the craziness. I don't know. I'm still in the blindly in love phase. It's not my first time here by any means but it's been awhile and I'm simply enjoying a rekindled love affair with Naples at the moment. Let me share some of the colors of Naples with you....
Old doorways with old lace curtains and motorini
The clock in Piazza Dante, above the Vittorio Emanuele boarding school: Convito...with room & board
Popolare housing in the centro storico, laundry hanging out to dry
Garbage and graffitti
Multi-colored and multi-style buildings, triple parking, full of life
Via Portalba, famous for its book stores, church with mustard yellow and gray
Colorful decades old books on Portalba
Local pescheria
Winning lottery tickets
Pensive Neapolitan man perched on a railing
Upcoming tombola schedule advertising a magical, irreverent, piquant event...
Red and gray exterior of the San Gaetano church
A local roadside beverage and aperitif stand
Gray & beige eggs with gray and beige man
Red palazzo with gray stone
Lemon yellow limoncello

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream

As today is Thanksgiving it seemed to make sense to make some typical Thanksgiving foods in today's cooking class. I'm on an ice cream kick at the moment and I really love pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie ice cream was the perfect variation on the traditional Thanksgiving dessert theme. Fresh, pureed pumpkin, cream and sugar plus all the wonderful spices you'd normally see in a pumpkin pie.
We also made pumpkin souffle's. Piping hot from the oven accompanied by pumpkin pie ice cream made for a perfect Thanksgiving dessert combination.

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream

  • 120 ml / 1/2 cup cream
  • 120 ml / 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 100 grams / 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 160 grams / 3/4 cup pumpkin:  steamed until tender, pureed and thickened over a double boiler
  • 2 egg yolks 
  • Whisk together cream, condensed milk, egg yolks, spices, salt and granulated sugar in a small heavy saucepan.
  • Bring to a simmer over a double boiler, over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Do not let boil.
  • Remove from heat and whisk in pumpkin.
  • Cool to room temperature.
  • Process mixture in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.
  • Transfer to container and freeze.

Monday, November 21, 2011

An artisanal julienne tool from the market

Every time I go to the market I find something new and fascinating. Usually it's the food; some prepped and ready to cook vegetable dish or a new seasonal arrival at the market that merits being photographed and then eaten. I also love to chat with the vendors and see what they're up to. It's no small task to clean dozens upon dozens of artichokes daily, to prepare the minestrone and ribollita that's for sale and, in this season, to clean the puntarelle.
Puntarelle, pre-cleaning, look like this:

and once cleaned and placed in acidulated water (cold water with lots of fresh squeezed lemon juice) they look like this:

and once you get them home, drain and toss them in their olive oil/garlic/anchovy/white wine vinegar dressing they look like this:

and what do they taste like? Well, nothing short of amazing. Hence, they sell like crazy when they're in season. They are so easy to make, that is, assuming you're not doing the cleaning. I don't know anyone who actually buys the uncleaned puntarelle. It's a laborious, time-consuming task that yields very little satisfaction in the food-prep department.
The market vendors are amazing to watch cleaning all the different types of produce and they are incredibly fast and adept at these tasks. Yet even they look for the faster, easier way. Today the elderly zio of one of my vendors was cleaning puntarelle with a hand-made tool that I would best describe as an artisanal julienne device. He was using it to clean the puntarelle by pushing them through the device, rather than slicing them with a knife the traditional way.
I loved this little tool and managed to purchase one of their spares from them. I thought I'd be able to use it on other vegetables (no, I still had no intention of cleaning puntarelle) like carrots and zucchini. Once I studied the tool better at home and realized it was a bit too delicate to use ona hard veggie like a carrot, I decided to steam the vegetables briefly to make them more tender and then pass them through the device. It worked:

So here's how this cool little tool is made. There's a square of wood about half an inch thick with a whole cut out of the center. On each side of the circle there are two staggered rows of nails. A guitar string has then been woven back and forth between the nails creating the criss-crossed rows that you see here:

It's really quite ingenius in its simplicity and I'm glad to have welcomed it into my collection of odd & unique, but highly functional kitchen tools.

By the way, here's how to make the puntarelle dressing:

Place the following in a small blender:
  • About 1/2 cup olive oil
  • About 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 small garlic clove
  • 4 to 5 anchovy fillets
Blend until creamy, toss on your puntarelle and serve!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pumpkin & Amaretto Ice Cream

Who says ice cream is just for the summer? I love it all year round!  There are so many fruits, veggies and treats that you only see in the fall and winter that lend themselves beautifully to ice cream. One winter flavor combination I love is pumpkin and amaretto. Pumpkin and amaretto are used together in the Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna regions  as a tortelli (large tortellini) filling. So why not use them together in ice cream? Pumpkin is readily available in a can in many places, but avoid the temptation. There's nothing like fresh pumpkin for this ice cream.
I'm trying to keep things light these days so I used skim milk instead of cream. I also used brown, demerara sugar instead of white sugar:
  • Pumpkin - 600 grams
  • Egg yolks - 2
  • Skim milk - 400 ml
  • Brown (demerara) sugar -30 grams
  • Salt -1/8 tsp
  • Amaretti biscotti, crumbled - 60 grams
  • Steam the pumpkin unrtil a knife slips through it easily
  • Puree the pumpkin, then cook over a double boiler until thickened
  • Cook the milk,sugar, salt and egg yolks over a double boiler, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the ack of a wooden spoon
  • Whisk the pumpkin into the milk mixture
  • Cool thoroughly, then place the mixture in the ice cream maker
  • Five minutes before the ice cream is done add the crumbled amaretti biscuits

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Day trip to Cortona, in the Tuscan province of Arezzo

The town of Cortona is easily reachable by train from Rome: a pleasant and affordable 2 1/2 hour train ride ((Euro 16 in first class). Once you reach the Camucia / Cortona station you can take a bus (runs about every 40 minutes) or a taxi (Euro 10) up to Cortona centro.

The entrance way to Cortona is flanked by two enormous wooden doors. I've always thought that crystal topped doors like these would make a spectacular dining room table...

Camucia / Cortona station
 The train station has taxi driver phone numbers listed, but in case you want to book in advance:

Every Saturday morning in the centro storico's Piazza Signorelli plan to enjoy the outdoor market: cheese, porchetta, fresh produce, local salumi.

The market has a nice assortment of handmade tablecloths, inexpensive print tablecloths, brightly colored linens and clothing. as it's olive season I bought two print tablecloths with an olive motif: perfect to decorate a casual, fall lunch table.

Olive Motif Tablecloths
Aprons and dishtowels displayed in inverted umbrellas
Lots of locally produced cheese...

and porchetta, prosciutto and Tuscan salami.

Cortona is small (about 2,000 residents in the winter and triple that in the summer months) so it's easy to explore the whole town on foot in a day....and to enjoy a nice meal and local wines.
Cortona is filled with ancient stone walls and doorways, each hinting at a story from the past. I love the juxtaposition of this charming green door with the assortment of winter veggies and herbs for sale, right around the corner from Piazza Signorelli.

Piazza Signorelli takes its name from Luca Signorelli, the Italian Renaissance painter.

At 1 pm I met up with my IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) colleagues and friends. We lunched at the quirkily decorated restaurant Osteria del Teatro. Stairs leading up to the restaurant entrance were laden with flowers.

What once must have been an apartment has been turned into a restaurant with a number of small, cozy dining rooms. Each room is chock full of an eclectic array of decorative items: paintings, bottles, knick-knacks, jars, candles.

The oddest room by far was the ladies room: filled with dolls...on the shelves and windowsills, hanging, propped everywhere. So many so that it was hard to find the soap, towels and flushing mechanism among the menagerie.

Our lunch, a delicate play of sweet and savory in the menu: pears and pesto, sweet tomatoes and Cinta Senese ragu, fillet with prunes...
  • Fennel Stuffed with Pecorino di Pienza
  • Fagottini filled Pasta Stuffed with Goat Cheese, with Walnut Pesto & Slivered Pears
  • Strozzapreti with a Cinta Senese Ragu' and Seared Cherry Tomatoes
  • Filetto al Lardo Colonnata, with Prune Sauce and Sauteed Rape
The wines were local: 2010 wines from the Montecchiesi Dal Cero Tenuta. We started off with a chardonnay: Il Bianchino. Our main course was accompanied by a robust Selverello sangiovese. With dessert we had a Vin Santo del Chianti Geografico 2007.
Although I'd planned to do more wandering following lunch I opted instead for an earlier train getting me back to Rome at dinner time. After our hearty lunch in Cortona I bowed out of dinner and finished the day with a bowl of fruit instead.

Hills surrounding Cortona: beautiful despite the overcast day