Italy

These are notes and images from a trip I took with my daughter Mary in July 2002. My thanks to Giacomo Pesaturo, Carol Johnson and Jean Duruz for tips I chased up, to the David Leavitt, whose recent book on Florence also whet my appetite for some particular regional treats there.

My apologies to anyone who wants to know what wines I had - I was slack in not noting them! You can take it as read that I would have asked for a red or white typical of wherever I was at the time, and most often drank it by the glass. I do recall enjoying my vin santo and amaretto bickies after dinner in Venice and Orvietto, however. Actually, in Orvietto, they forgot my initial wine order and were so embarrassed when they finally brought it that they brought me a vin santo on the house.

If you want to check out some of my other impressions of Italy, click here Vespas & Vespers.

But now, to table.......

Roma

Dittirambo, Piazza della Cancelleria (just off the Campo di Fiori), Roma. Tel. 687 1626. Mod Italian and roots Italian done exquisitely. We tried and went ecstatic over anchovy pudding with tomato, olives, fennel and radicchio; thin tagliatelle with a sauce of finely chopped vongoli and octopus in a fish broth; marinated octopus with lime, radicchio and red beans; carpaccio de spigola con marinata - sea bass carpaccio with marinated leeks and a corn salad; testavoli dela Luigiana al pesta Genovese - thin bread ravioli with pesto; and a desert of mandarin, plum and walnut sorbets in their respective shells. My foodies mates Jean Duruz and Carol Johnson have also enjoyed rabbit and red wine stew here. Try the house white of grapes from vines on the outskirts of Roma. And wait till the City Councils in Sydney see how close to the traffic you eat - you can shake hands with a Vespa just by reaching across the bay hedge.

The Jewish quarter in Rome around Via del Portico d'Ottavia is the place to head for carciafo all Guida - deep-fried artichoke, not crumbed or stuffed, just deep fried so the outer leaves a crisp and the heart is silky soft. I also had an ox-tail stew, while Mary had a risotto pescataro. We finished it off with a limone sorbet with the tiniest, sweetest, deepest scarlet strawberries, like what I've seen of truly wild strawberries.

Campo de' Fiori: I can think of nowhere I would rather spend my last years than at the Campo. The first time I saw the square with its fruit and vegetable market, its statue of Giordano Bruno, a homosexual heretic burned in the square, its cafes and trattorias, and it's dogs happily licking at the water pouring in a steady flow from its public taps, I broke into the hugest smile, and it happens again and again as I go back there, no matter what time of day. I love the morning before the stalls are set up, when the street-sweepers brush up the beer bottles and papers and cigarette stubs of the night before with their twig brooms they swoop in a curious sideways motion. I love sitting sipping the first espresso of the day and chomping down on bread and soft cheese as the fruit and veg is un-crated, washed, chopped for salads or nonchalantly arranged just right to display its perfection. I love the cigarettes hanging from the lips as they salads are made.

I love buying a bag of tomatoes or figs and wondering around Rome dipping into them, having them burst in my mouth like the surprise of finding a new square and a new fountain. I love that fish and meat is sold here open to the dust and the heat, you just know you are devouring microbes and bacteria that are going to get your system's antibodies pumped and ready for the next round. I love lunchtime over a glass of beer and a foccacia watching it all come down again, when some stallholder starts singing, others yell him down or shout encouragement, gypsies with child at hip are combing through the leftovers and the buskers start moving in. Then the drift into evening and the first white wine and crostini topped with roe and mayonnaise or pate and olives.

Finally the night when the trattorias are full, students are drinking at Giordano's feet, locals are walking their dogs, and the gelato shop's sign luridly brings to the night the colours of the absent market.. There's an apartment that looks down into it with two window boxes of purple ivy geraniums that I have my eye on. Mary has her eye on one of the rooftop apartments with a courtyard garden.

Campo De' Fiori
Porcini Cherry Tomatoes
   
Zuchini Flowers
Radish Garnished Insalata Misto


There's a guy comes here everyday selling the most delightful small plastic kitchen utensils - I came home with several; one that makes this kind of thin curling streamer out of a potato or other reasonably firm vegetable; one he sells for making minestrone where you pile thick slices of say carrot, potato, pumpkin and zucchini on each other like a tower of Babel, and then put this barrel over them, hit down hard and instantly create perfectly even dice, so even that the judges at the Sydney Royal Easter Show would pickles and jam section would applaud. Then there's the one the creates a spiral tube out of the flesh of the zucchini, which you can then steam to make it look like a curly pasta, while at the same time you stuff some other vegie in the now hollow zucchini and cut slices off for the sauce to accompany it. Amazing stuff!

Gino in Trastevere (Via G Modena) is one of a string of trattorias around the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere and the surrounding streets. You pretty much take pot luck here, and we got very lucky, enjoying frittura fiori e mascardini - lightly battered baby squid and zucchini flowers, an amazing octopus salad made from paper thin slices of pressed octopus (like you'd get if you cut from a salami made of octopus), a salad of radicchio and lettuce, osso bucco, and scamorza al tegamino - a lightly smoky cheese baked in the woodfired oven and served in a deep dish (so damn delicious that I urged it on a Brit couple who sat next to us and the wife, a cheese fancier, was equally taken with it)


Venizia
Le Bistrot, Calle del Fabbri, San Marco, Venize. Tel: 041/5236651. This place runs two 'historic menus', one a pre-renaissance Venetian menu - no tomatoes, no chilli, no potatoes etc etc - the other a selection of Doge dishes. Stunning risotto de sepe (in nero) - squid rissotto - uses both the squid ink and small pieces of perfectly sauteed squid. I also enjoyed my baked sturgeon in spice and blackberry sauce. Or you can have the brodetto de pesse con ravioli ripene with crostini al nero de seppia - a fish soup with ravioli and squid ink crostini . Squid, and squid ink was one of the treats I wanted to chase down in Venice. For the dessert - fritelle da Imperador magnifici, salsa al vin Cocto - cheese and almond tartlet in a sweet red wine sauce; and perseghi al forno e amaretto la crema - baked peaches garnished with macaroons and vanilla ice cream. Hard to find and hard to beat - but then what isn't in Venice.

Venice Central Market

At the market near the Rialto in Venice, the fruit and vegetables arrive from the mainland by boat. I loved the crane system some of the boats used to get the stock onto the dock. If there are any market gardens left in Venice I didn't find them. A curious note - the Doge's Palace at San Marco is built on what used to

be a convent market garden. The word for this place was apparently 'broglio'. Venice had quite a reputation as a place where people plotted each other's downfall, and this happened in the courtyard of the Palace. Hence we get the English word 'imbroglio'.

Fruit and veg arriving at the Central Market and being unloaded. The old guy is the mobile grocer to the island of Murano.

 

At a trattoria near the train station I also had a treat of eel in a tomato based sauce, accompanied by the thinnest and whitest slices of polenta imaginable, really melt in the mouth (almost, sacrilegiously, like a communion wafer!). I refuse to name the place because we got charged 12 euro ($A24 at the time) for a bottle of water!




In Venice, as elsewhere, coconut slices were for sale, a real thrill for a Sri Lankan like me. And it's also so sensible as a summer treat. The stalls keep it wet so it doesn't dessicate. I snapped the cooling system I saw in Venice which I loved for it's wedding cake approach. You can't get the full effect in the shot, but there's water dripping down the outside of the up-turned shell, which then falls down through the two layers of coconut and onto the drinks below


Coconut slices in the best cooler in Venice
Found this elongated onion in Venice - sweet enough to eat raw, as I did.
Basil, pigeons, sunlight and the inevitable tap, Central Market. Berries from the Central Market 
 



The other great meals I had in Venice were the ones I had in the Pensione Seguso where we stayed (Zattere 799, Tel. 39 + 041522340). The cook was a big black frocked Italian mamma who loved nothing more than to see you enjoy her cooking. She had the wonderful habit of nattering away to us in Italian all the while knowing full well we understood nothing of it, but absolutely understanding that one wanted to hear it anyway. She was the first to introduce me to the insalata misto that's the go around Italy at the time - lettuce, radishes, and carrot slices of all things!

I know that as a foodie I should have had a chocolate or a coffee at Caffe Florian or Caffee Quadri, reputedly the first coffee houses in Venice. But it was more than I could do to fork over $A14 for a cuppa there. Some barriers just ought not be broken.


Firenze

Trattoria Baldovino - Via Guiseppe 22R (Piazza San Croce), Firenze. Tel: 055241773 - a sort of mod internationalist style with Italian notes. Tried their smoked swordfish carpaccio with arugulo and radicchio and their veal and chicken sausages with seasonal vegetables, and dollop of their wonderful truffled mash potatoes. My daughter, Mary , who I was travelling with, had a tuna salad - green, tuna, olives, egg, radish, spring onions - almost a nicoise. It prides itself on changing its menu monthly to work with the best of what's seasonal. It's got a case of the post-modern eclectics, - think half-timbered walls up to a thin mirror dado followed by gelato colour bagged plaster, a huge steel flambeau chandelier, mis-matched table/chair settings- but it works. You need to book as it gets crowded.

Trattoria La Casalinga - Via Dei Michelozzi, (in Oltrarno near the Basilica Santo Spirito) Firenze - the best trattoria bar none - go for lunch in particular - huge servings of earthy, strong flavoured food, like the tripe a la Firenze and a yummy thick ribollito (bread soup). The place was chockers - with locals, locals, locals, and the odd Japanese single woman who spoke Italian. There's a claque of regulars who pour through the door and lots of loud greeting from all parts of the floor. It's family run, with everyone chipping in on the serving. It's buzzy and noisy in the best way, with a high turnover at peak times. It also didn't have its hours anywhere obvious so we went there a couple of times only to find it closed.

Just down the street is the Baby Yoghurt shop. Here you get tubs or cones of frozen yoghurt with your choice of toppings - usually a mix of one of the diced fruits in syrup (like lemons, blueberries, apple etc) and crushed nuts. Or you can ask them to puree the fruit with the yoghurt. Mary got addicted to the stuff, well, to frozen yoghurt generally.

Around the corner, in the Piazza Santo Spirito there's a Sunday market. One of the stalls is a mobile deli at which I bought three capsicums stuffed with a mix of anchovy, onion, olives and chilli. Sensational!

Borgo Antico (Piazza Santo Spirito) is also just around the corner from La Casalinga. It's renowned for its big salads, which indeed they are as Mary found out having ordered an insalata Fiorentine - beans, lettuce, carrot and bologna - which she couldn't quite finish off. We also enjoyed their crostini tipica Tuscana - crostini with a warm runny pate; lingua con salsa verde - thin slices of tongue with a salsa of parsley, garlic and vinegar; and gnocchi sugo povera - which was gnocchi in a plain an tangy tomato sauce.


 
 Chooks in the Central Market in Firenze
. Hamburgers in the Central Market in Firenze
  Dried fruits in the Central Market in Firenze


Central Markets - naturally.

The building itself is a wonder - the upper floor an airy light steel girdered hall for the fruit, veg and knockout dried fruits. The bottom is all butcher, delis, chooks and cheeses. Looks like a renovation of an old market. Mary, my daughter with whom I was travelling, and I bought a mess of things for lunch and had it on the steps of the market - including a Florentine bread salad (bread soaked in water then squeezed out and mixed with fresh onions, parsley, capsicum, garlic, and a little vinegar), a loaf of what was called Arab bread (thin, shaped a little like a wobbly oblong puddle and crispy - and can you really call something that's flat a loaf?), some smoked cheese, and dried nectarine, orange, and star fruit. Also noticed hamburger patties embedded with slices of lemon and zucchini, but didn't get a chance to try them for lack of a handy barbie.

Tripe sandwich stall at the Central Market in Firenze.

 

But mainly, the Central Market is good for this, one of the things I went to Florence to find this - a tripe sandwich. You get it from a small Harry's Cafe de Wheels pie-cart kinda caravan thingy - check the picture. Speaking of which, the picture of the sandwich itself, doesn't do it justice, but if you like tripe, then this is one major taste thrill. It's kept in large sheets in a warm stock. When you order it, the chef hauls out a piece and slices it thin as you salivate. Then you can have it with a sharply garlicky/vinegary salsa verde, or a salsa picante that has enough heat to satisfy a chilli addict - or you can do what I did and have both. You can eat it out of a plastic tub standing at the caravan counter, using the roll as emphasis as you gesture your conversation. Better still, though, is to get it as a sandwich. You get it in a plastic bag that's slit so you can hold the sandwich and eat it without dripping all over yourself. I also bought a compact balled radicchio so bittersweet that I ate it up raw on the spot.

The other little treat I found was the craziest range of marizpan fruit and vegetables in a cake shop/cafe on the corner of Via de Cerratani and the Via Roma, opposite the Baptistry of the Duomo. I bought a selection of the more outrageous ones pictured above - it's not every day you can eat what looks like fly agaric but is just almond paste and it's an extreme pleasure to bite into a prickly pear fruit and not get a mouthful of spines.

La Castellano, Montefiorole (just out of Greve de Chianti), a perfect small castellated town). Stop in to La Castellano, just out of town, for a superb gnocchi quatro formaggi (I mean, the gnocchi was the most astonishing yellow, almost into lime green, and the sauce had great pieces of cheese ring to gnaw on!) or the carcofino cantinado - small artichoke hearts, grilled and served with sprigs of rosemary and parsley and black peppercorns in a light olive oil, or the simple spaghetti with pesto and small small small tomatoes. Sit outside under the pines by the wall on the road. You would have a gorgeous view down into the Chianti valley across villas and grape vines - except for the power lines strung across close enough to spit on.

 

Montelfiore outside of Greve de Chianti, and yes, grapes for said wine. (And no, I didn't just bung in a photo from the Hunter Valley in Australia, Marg!)

 

 


Fiesole

Around 8klm to the north east of Firenze is Fiesole, perched on the spine of the range of hills that cup Firenze. Mary and I hopped on 50cc scooters and rode up there at a snail's pace - well, it didn't look so steep from down below! It was worth it for the gradually unfolding view back into Firenze across the olive and fig groves. The village itself is tiny with one street of trattorias that inevitably spill out onto the footpath. I've been slack and lost the name of the place we ate at, but I can describe it to you just as my friend Giacomo described it to me - it's on the left just as you enter the piazza, the first of the trattorias. I had a risotto verde there - basically spinach and cream, but with the spinach so reduced that you just thought you were eating exquisitely rich rice.

Orvietto

I've forgotten the name of the deli/cafe we had our meals at in Orvietto, but I can tell you it's on the left hand bottom corner of the main square as you sit across from the cathedral. (It's bound to be have been called the Etruscan something or other, Orvietto being one of the major Etruscan sites in Italy). Being in Umbria, I figured I had to try something gamey, so enjoyed slices of wild boar stuffed with pepper, garlic and fennel, and some smoked goose breast. This is the kind of place, by the way, that when you order some slices of meat your plate comes back with half of the animal you ordered. Later that day we had a light evening snack of a slice of thin, crisp pastry topped just with tomato and herbs. Mary, who used to work in a pizza shop back in Australia, was stoked that pizzas we had along the way for lunch virtually never had cheese on top and were always thin crust.

I also couldn't resist nicking some apples from the Etruscan necropolis at the base of the town, and a couple of pears that had fallen to the ground in a small house garden. Mary was absolutely horrified.

The town is riddled with caves of which some 4000 have been discovered so far. None of them are natural, all being dug out of the two kinds of volcanic rock that form the outcrop - tufa, the soft stuff, and pallozi, the harder stuff that gives the structure. The caves have good gastronomic pedigree, being used by the Etruscans for digging extraordinary wells deep underground to reach the water table as there is bugger all opportunity for it to collect on top (you can see in the wells on show, the foot and hand holds cut into the sides of the wells which they would climb down to get the water); underground mills for crushing olives into oil; then having dove cotes cut into their walls (small open box-shaped spaces in rows from floor to ceiling) to provide food for the town, seriously, the buggers lived on doves for years during the siege times, each dove cote being linked to an eatery above; and now as cellaring for wine. They've only recently realised how fragile the site is on which the town stands. A few years ago the local bus fell through the roof of one of the caves. As a result, there's very little traffic allowed into the town itself. The funicular ride up from the station is a treat.

Bugger the villa in Tuscany, gimme a shed outside of Orvietto any day

The walls of Orvietto

 

Olive press in the Orvietto caves
 

 

 

Millstones in the Orvietto caves

I went to Italy to find a few foodie treats like the tripe sandwich. I was also looking for gelato in brioche (which I note in a recent Good Living in the Sydney Morning Herald is now being served at Gelatissima in the city and also at La Cremeria in Leichhardt according to my sis-in-law). On the second last day, I found it in a gelateria in Orvietto. Looks sicko, tastes like - well, just exactly like those wonderful ice cream sponges my mum used to buy for desert in my teen years in Singleton in the 60's, only with more flavours.

And the brown gunk in the plastic container is my second favourite takeaway treat in Italy. It's half filled with peach flavoured tea, and then the other half has little crostini and nutella. Really, what more could you want. As Homer Simpson would point out, it has three of the essential daily food groups - carbohydrate, fruit, and chocolate. I found it in the train station at Orvietto.



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All text and images are © Paul van Reyk 2002