Recently in Italy category

Tuscan and Torino Treasures

Having returned from my trip to Italy, narrowly escaping the hairy fangs of the too-vigilant EasyJet luggage police, I returned with a suitcase full of great Italian foods: chocolates from Amadei, and Domori, coffee (and more chocolate) from Slitti, jars of bittersweet chestnut honey, 12-year old syrupy Balsamic vinegar, luscious sun-dried tomatoes, and of course, bottles of fruity Tuscan olive oil.

Fresh Dried-Pasta
I’ve seen a lot of noodles in my time, but stopping in Pastificio Defilippis (via Lagrange, #39, in Torino) I had to take a moment to collect myself. Lining the walls were every kind of dried pasta imaginable, all made right there on the premises. Members of my group made a beeline for the pasta al cioccolato, but for some reason they ignored the coiled-up stewed eels available for antipasti.

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Mesmerized, I found these two pastas irresistible. One I nicknamed ‘bellybutton pasta’, which I had to translate for the pasta maker by lifting up my shirt (“Boys Gone Wild: Torino!”), and the other is a whole-wheat pasta. If you haven’t had whole-wheat pasta, it’s great tossed with fresh or good-quality tinned tuna, pitted olives, sun-dried tomatoes, finely-shopped anchovies, fresh thyme leaves, topped with crumbled feta cheese.

Cocoa Beans
Is chocolate good for your health? There’s no easy answer for that (although a simple yes would do.) Some research proves that the antioxidants in chocolate have health benefits. Yet a chocolate-maker that I know says most of the antioxidants disappear during processing.
What I tell people is that any health benefits in chocolate are likely found in the cacao beans. Either way, it’s unlikely you’ll get any health benefits from, um, say, Chocolate Cheesecake. Skip the ‘cheesecake’ part and just go for the chocolate.

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These are cacao beans from Domori that I was blogging about earlier. They are the best beans I’ve tasted.

Lardo
(If you’re kosher, or vegetarian, skip this section….)
I don’t know what prompted me to try lardo in the first place. It’s pork fat, thinly sliced, and served on warm toast with a flint of rosemary leaves. But it’s one of those things that if you eat it once, you’re hooked and you will never, ever get over the craving for. We don’t get Food Network in Europe, but it seems every time I see it in America, Mario Batali is going on and on (and on) about lardo.
The name alone is a blatant indication that it’s probably not good for you. But imagine grilled Tuscan bread moistened with just-pressed olive oil, draped over it are soft, rich and buttery slices of lardo. MMmmmmm….

Here’s a photo so you can avoid a similar fate:

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Formenton Garfagnana
I love polenta. And it’s impossible to find in France. You have to make do with instant polenta which isn’t bad, if you like baby food. At a lunch in a villa near Lucca, the chef gifted me a sack of artisan polenta, called formenton garfagnana. When I asked him what made it different from polenta, he began getting very excited, explaining it in detail, in rapid-fire Italian. I didn’t have the heart to interrupt and let him know that I had know idea what he was talking about, so I kept nodding, avoiding the deer-in-the-headlights look. So if anyone can edify us all, post it in the comments section here. (Preferably in English!)

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Chestnut Honey
Years ago I innocently dipped my finger in a jar of Italian chestnut honey, anticipating sweet syrup. Instead I recoiled from the bitter taste which lingered way too long in my mouth. Now that I’m all grown up and so much more sophisticated, I begin each morning with a smear of velvety, savory chestnut honey on buttered toast. Yum! Is this stuff good. It can be expensive in the United States, but in Italy, it’s common. Italians use so much of it that I even bought some from a street vendor in Pisa. I ended up lugging home in my carry-on enough jars of chestnut honey to last me for at least a year, I hope.

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Two extraordinary vendors in the Central Market in Florence will mail order authentic Tuscan foods directly from their stands:

And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can visit the warehouse of Village Imports, which has open warehouse sales throughout the year.

Gianduja and Gelato

Here I am in Torino, or Turin, if you’re familiar with the shroud.
Being on the road means that I’m in unfamiliar hotels with less-than-ideal access. When I attempted to change the thermostat in my hotel room, the digital display read ‘PARTY’. I don’t know what the ‘party’ mode is, but when I pressed the switch again nothing exciting happened.

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I’m leading a fabulous chocolate tour as I write. Torino is not on the tourist route. But it should be if you’re into chocolate. Gianduja is the star chocolate attraction here, a blend of milk chocolate and hazelnuts ground until smooth then formed into a paste. Hazelnuts are a specialty of the Piedmonte region and during wartime, cocoa beans were scarce so someone had the great idea to blend them with chocolate, and gianduja was born. (If you’ve had Nutella, you know what a terrific alliance chocolate and hazelnuts can be.)

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Once the gianduja paste is made, it’s formed into mounds that are molded into a flat peak, then wrapped in gold foil. I’m not much of a fan of milk chocolate, but when mixed with hazelnuts, it’s dreamy and truly delicious. The best gianduja that I’ve had was at A. Giordano (Piazza Carol Felice, 69.)

The other chocolate treats of Torino are Bicerin and gelato. Bicerin is great, and something that deserves to be better known outside of Torino. It’s a hot drink made with espresso, chocolate, and just enough whipped cream to make is smooth and creamy. It’s a fabulous combination, and each afternoon residents of Torino line up at bars for a warm Bicerin.

The gelato here is thick, gooey, and delicious. Like nothing you’ve had in your life. Flavors include caffe, gianduja (my favorite, of course), pistacio, tangy yogurt, and torrone loaded with almonds and sweetened with honey. Here’s my favorite gelato maker at the Caffe San Carlo (Piazza San Carlo, 156). He is perhaps my new favorite person in the world.
At least in Italy.

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Italians in Torino walks down the street eating gelato all hours of the day. Businessmen at lunchtime slurp cones while avoiding dripping on their Armani suits. Afternoons, swarms of teenagers with low-slung jeans send text-messages in between licks, and elderly women wander through the passages and window shop savoring gelato.

So I’m off tomorrow with my group for the mountains of Biella, where we’ll dine at an Agriturismo, a farm that serves meals made from ingredients only grown on the land. Then onward to Genoa, where we’ll stop along the way at Domori chocolate, one of the world’s great chocolate manufacturers.