Category Archives: ITALIA!

Let’s talk about meat, shall we?

Okay, I am completely sauced because the local really good wine here is cheaper than Coke. We are not in tourist country and I would like to say from the get-go that we are totally ignorant about how life is lived here. So. We have figured out that dinner starts at 730pm and really gathers energy about 830 pm. But we are old farts recently moved from Florida where people dine at the uncivilized hour of 430 pm. Here in Tuscany, people are still dozing off lunch at that hour. Personally, I like the idea of dining later- it seems somehow more elegant, more mature, more worldly. Nevertheless, we find ourselves spending between 5 pm and 730 pm waiting impatiently by our wood burning stove for the dinner hour to arrive.

Tonight, we were going for pizza. We had been told, by various sources that the very best pizza was to be had at Pizzeria Stroncapane and we were so looking forward to it that I spent 3 hours trying to map the 5 km to the precise location. We are staying on a road with no name, attached to numerous roads with no names; they are merely olive groves and wineries.Off we drove and 27 km of wrong turns later, we found ourselves there, only to be informed that the owner was closing for the evening to serve his friends. A private affair, which I now realize was tied to soccer, aka, football, where Italy is playing Serbia. This becomes relevant several paragraphs from now.

Pissed off with low blood sugar, we drove around and ended up at La Crappiola Pizzeria and should have known better when, at 8pm, the place was devoid of anyone but familia clustered about a table watching a big screen television showing Walker with Chuck Norris, dubbed  in Italian. But no, you see,  our blood sugar levels were so low that we were still thinking that this would be one more in a series of spectacular culinary experiences. Rich (wisely) ordered the margherita pizza and caprese salad while I ordered the bistecca alla Florentina. I ordered this because I had spent part of the afternoon reading the Frommer’s guide, which notes that ” this is an area of rich farmland used to rear cattle whose meat is used for the bistecca alla Florentina, famous steaks served in Florentine restaurants.”  Not only that but while a half liter of superb local wine was but 2 euros and the margherita pizza only 3 euros the steak was a mere 4 euros!

After a very long wait, a 3rd family member (one to take the order, one to deliver over priced Coke and underpriced wine) delivered the caprese salad and my steak. Rich said in that instant, “I wish I had the camera!” The T-bone steak was fully the size of an 8 x 11 piece of paper and two inchs thick. The first bite, although in fact as rare as I had ordered, tasted as though it came from a 110 year old cow. Swear to God, it was terrifying, Rich ate his lovely tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and local balsamic vinegar while I alternately ate, gagged, drank more red wine.

Somewhere about 30 minutes into this ordeal there was a brawl in the soccer game. Some half-naked Serbian threw some fireworks into the game that necessitated nearly 200 polizia to take to the field. Fans jeered, hissed, cheered, stormed the field. The entire extended  family of  this pizza establishment crowded around the television which was suspended over the woodburning pizza oven, rapidly going cold for lack of fuel and attention.

Quite a while later, maybe an hour (half of that time I was dozing on the table with the steak untouched save for two bites) Rich’s pizza arrived. I was ready to chalk the steak up to a bad menu choice on my part and nibble at Rich’s pizza. It was passable, better than anything in the States. Much later still we again distracted the family from the game long enough to get the check.

Do you have any idea what “l’etto” means in Italian? “Seafood and steak are sometimes sold by weight; if you see “l’etto” by the price you’ll pay that per 100 grams- about a quarter of a pound. Tourists without good language skills are commonly shell-shocked by the bill when ordering dishes sold by the weight.” Damn you, Rick Steves. Why were you in the car when I needed you?  And where in hell did this family find a 7 pound steak from a 110 year old cow? Oh, gratzi, gratzi, dinner was great, gratzi very much and now the resident cat has about 4 kilos of beef jerky to work on for the rest of our stay. So much for the budget. That steak, at 4 euros per 100 grams, was 44 effen euros.

And that raises the whole issue of meat. At home I eat very little of it. I’ve read everything Michael Pollen writes, I’ve seen Food,Inc and I have a daughter who has schooled me well on the wastefulness and inhumanity of meat, especially beef. Still, there’s enough Ohio farm heritage in me to really enjoy the occasional very rare piece of tender cow. Rarely. Rare. Here in Tuscany, meat is clearly a way of life, a part of the cycle of things. All food, from mushrooms in the forest to chestnuts boiled until tender to prizewinning sausage and magnificent beef steak, it is all a part of the adventure of dining.  Tonight’s adventure reminded me of the downside of being a carnivore. My comfort zone is omnivore, my aspiration is vegetarian. Nothing with a mouth. Dee-dee-dee-dee.

I’m thinking I’ll see what culinary delights I can enjoy for the rest of this trip, sans meat. There is a lot here in the way of earthy vegetables, fragrant breads, sensuous cheese, fresh eggs and so I think I will manage just fine. Except there’s the prosciutto. And the veal. Did you know that delightful butcher actually had certificates hanging on the wall of his shop designating the precise age of his veal; “not less than 11 mos and not more than 15 mos” ?

If I lived in this country all the time I would have to become Catholic. “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned…”

We are back in our lovely home away from home with the wood stove keeping the place toasty warm before we fall into bed. Tomorrow we plan to hit the road early, traveling to scenic- where was that we were going??

The weather is here and the men are beautiful

 

This delightful couple own and run the best butcher shop in Monte San Savino. It’s barely big enough for 4 or 5 customers and everybody is smiling and laughing and chatting. They’ve only been married for one week and he was happy to learn the word “newlyweds”; he told the next local couple in that they were “nooolywoods”.He is very very proud of his meat. Here he shows Rich his certificate from the Guiness Book of World Records that he received in June for making the world’s longest porchetta, a pork sausage of 147 feet and displayed under a 2 block long tent during some agricultural event here in San Savino. I don’t know if there is any relationship between this and his nooolywood status but in any case he was wonderfully cheerful and friendly. We bought a small roasted pollo from him for lunch.

Speaking of lunch, here are our purchases from the little shops we visited this morning. We bought the chicken, which pleased our resident cat greatly and it was herbilicious, we bought some little roma tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, four cookies, some bread, a ball of sautéed spinach (for some reason we’ve become consummate spinach devotees here in Italy) some little cheese croquettes and because it is a cool autumn sort of day, we shared some warm stracciatella soup which is a lovely sort of pasta variation of egg drop soup. You can also see that I found some little souvenirs: some Italian yarn, a baby hat wrapped up as pretty as can be and a gift box of Tuscan lavender soaps.Mushrooms are big here in Tuscany, both literally and figuratively. I’m not nuts about mushrooms but I have a feeling that if I lived here I would be incorporating them into my cuisine in short order. This is a large parasol mushroom; there are porcini in the box in front of me.

Spend, spend, spend. Actually we are doing quite well, buying in bits and pieces. All of our luncheon foods came to 13 euros or just under 18 dollars and we still have more than half of it left for a picnic tomorrow when we drive to Pisa. 5 skeins of fine Italian wool yarn plus a spool of silk embroidery thread was about 26.00, much better than at home. The beautiful baby hat was 8.00 and the soap 16.00 for 12 bars.

Our apartment here in a converted stone barn from the 1700s has a large main kitchen room, a big bedroom and a very large modern bathroom and several terraces. It comes complete with 2 cats and a swimming pool and the estate bottled Chianti and pressed olive oil; you can read all of the details here. We are paying about 90.00/night and will stay here until we head to Florence next week. The only reason I detail the expenditures is by way of saying I think you can have an amazing adventure here for around two hundred dollars a day- a lot in terms of the general state of the economy but not so very much for this special trip. Okay, enough about money.

Tomorrow, we will head

Life changing ravioli

It’s 215 am in Italy and guess who can’t sleep? After a very long travel day we tried to stumble around Reggio Emilia, Italia for most of the day, based on the “hit the road running” theory of overcoming jet lag but sometime around 2pm here we found ourselves sagged on a public bench in the most lovely town square, looking for all the world like crash-test dummies. Smiling but without the ability to coordinate from one step to the next. It was sunny and 63, perfect weather and all the town was out visiting, walking, babies in tow, children on the playground of tha large park next to the square and our hotel. The square, as you might expect is surrounded by magnificent old buildings and churches.

Backing up a bit, the flight was wonderful since we cashed in all of those hard earned travel miles Rich has accumulated over the years and flew first class,  from Charlotte to JFK and then on to Milan. We had a 5 hour layover in NYC enjoyed at the Admirals Club with free drinks and food, lounge chairs, football games on the big screens. We knew the Spartans were taking down the Woverines and I was happy for Bonnie. It is a powerful win between two powerhouse teams this year, so congrats to your Spartans, dear Bonnie. Once on board, I felt like a spoiled child as I explored my “cocoon” lounge chair, a pod with every imaginable position including full out bed mode, a down pillow and quilt that appeared new, a present of a zipped travelcase full of Burts Bees toiletries and new socks. In my heart I was wicked as I gloated while the other 300 passengers bumped past to their seats in the rear and then I felt like a bad person so I had another glass of champagne. Food and alcohol flowed freely, movies, Bose headsets and so forth but still 3 hours of restless sleep is not enough. The cocoon aspect of the seat makes for zero romantic opportunity and that was sort of a disappointment because I was thinking “mile high club” before age 60 would be a little bucket list check off. Besides, we had to make up for the miserable mess of a nasty pre-flight day. The one where I have to have every single detail of life ironed out, with the house spotless, our affairs in order, the gardens watered, make 8 pints of grape jelly, write controlling instructions for cat sitters and house sitters, all bills payed and the garage floor cleaned of stains that have been there for a dozen years before us. Rich hunkers down further and further into work in anticipation of taking 12 days away from any single aspect of his business life and between the two of us we become a wired whirling mass of bad energy with one or the other ultimately shrieking,  “Fine! Let’s just not go then!” Lovely, mature behavior, yes? We did, of course, make up en route and now we are on our great Italian adventure.

Back in Reggio Emilia, chosen because it was far enough away from the Milan airport and half way to our ultimate destination in the little town of Cepetto in Tuscany, we caved in and took the worst 4 hour nap imaginable and getting up from it was like trying to come out of anesthesia. Finally we pushed ourselves upright and into a refreshing shower while I explained the how-tos of the bidet to Rich. Men seem mystified by the notion of such an obviously practical plumbing fixture.

Our hotel is lovely and affordable and the town is beautiful with industries of the best sort. Here, they make the finest parmigiano- reggiano cheese, proscuitto de Parma (we are a mere 15 k from the rolling countyside of Parma) and engines for Lamborghinis and Ferraris.The streets are narrow, brick paved and winding with little shops and apartments and houses all side by side. And churches and convents. The desk clerk sent us off in the direction of ” a typical Italian restaurant” and she might have as well have sent us to Heaven. An unassuming store front opened in to a charming small establishment with lovely yellow linens, baskets of bread and a massive long table of local wines for the choosing. The place was almost empty and we feared they were closing; in actual fact we were “presto”- too early. One of four elderly men gestured us to a table and there we sat in semi-darkness with nary a glance in our direction, no water, no service, no nothing until 13 minutes later when the clock in the kitchen showed 730pm.The lights went up, the kitchen, completely open to the restaurant, filled with chefs in white hats and the charming elderly gentlemen were all over us with impeccable service. Within moments, local families and townspeople flowed through the door and the place was packed.

Our dinner was like the first half of Eat, Pray, Love and although I was no Julia Roberts, I stunned Rich with my ability to negotiate our dining experience with men who didn’t speak more than a word or two of English. They smiled and gestured, I smiled and gestured and in stumbling Italian I ordered us sparkling water and a bottle of the local Chianti, proscuitto de Parma, spinach stuffed ravioli, roasted pork for Rich and pounded veal for myself. With a view to the kitchen I was able to see the chef serve up a dozen of  the most beautiful ravioli ever and then pick up a 5 pound block of butter and rub it over the top so the butter melted down in a pool around them and these were served with a huge heaping plate of parmigiano reggiano which the waiter pronounced “dolce, si?” The pasta was freshly made in the kitchen,  thin, slightly al dente but delicate and tender and each  encased spinach and fresh ricotta cheese. The spinach was barely blanched and had the slightest hint of earth and that was a good thing.

Rich announced, then and there, that he was ready to give up work, his Blackberry, life in America and never ever leave Reggio,provided he could eat those every day of his life until the end. But we were just beginning our meal and with a couple of glasses of good wine, minus all the sulfites we get at home, we laughed and joked and smiled our way through another two hours of the best dining experience ever. I offered Rich a bite of my paper thin breaded veal and he declined, saying he doesn’t do veal. I don’t either at home, but this was too good to pass up. We started laughing about one of our good neighbors who draws the line at any food “with a mouth” and we tried to think of all the things she might be missing out on. Rich said, but not mussels or shrimp- she could eat those. By this time we were heavily under the influence of our dining experience and I said, don’t be ridiculous, shrimp and mussels have mouths. Rich said they didn’t and with great authority announced that they had “osmolators” that went dee-dee-dee-dee-dee and he demonstrated with wiggly finger motions. He claimed that they absorbed all of their nutrients by osmosis and informed me that what I hated most about cleaning shrimp was having to remove all those oogy osmolators. I said I knew a shrimp farmer and  I would check all this out and he exclaimed, “You know a shrimp farmer??” and I said yes and he has a big red motorcycle, too and Rich thought this as dubious as I thought the notion that there are groups of creatures with osmolators who just absorb their food by going dee-dee-dee. This reduced me and then us to fits of giggles and life, in that moment, was perfect. And then they brought out the dessert “trolley” with tiramisu, creme brulee, roasted D’Anjou pears, marinated figs…

Another reason it was perfect is this: Rich, at 145# and as fit as a man can be, has a hereditary bit of type 2 diabetes which he controls well with an oral medication. The terrible inequity in this is that the medication has caused him to lose much of  his appetite for food this past year and mostly he eats for nothing more than fuel. I work very hard to pique his interest at mealtimes but it’s tough. During this meal last night he was so in love with his dinner, with life, with my smile (he said several times)- it was really, truly perfect. In the end I was able to request, in more than adequate Italian, that the rest of my proscuitto and pane be packed for the road and we wandered out into the cool night air.

And now, without even correcting typos or spelling errors, for which I apologize but it’s tough doing this on a strange hotel TV computer, I”m going back to bed for a few hours sleep before posting this. In the the morning I will attach a photo before we hit the road for the olive groves of Ceppetto.

Oh, and because you might be interested in the cost of this priceless vacation I’m going to make a few short notes on the daily expenditures. In the past, I have done well planning trips in a way that feels luxurious but is not over-the-top budget wise. We shall see how this one goes.

Flight: free with miles. Over-priced adapter from Brookstone shop at JFK (neighbor thought she had one to loan and then, last minute, couldn’t find it) :28.00. A1 toll road (expensive but expedient. You’re going slow at 130 kmh): 8.67 euros or 12.12 dollars. Hotel,87 euros or 125. 90 dollars, two large bottle of water, 3.00 and the best dinner ever, thus far, with wine and generous tip: 104.00 dollars.

First day total:  273.02 dollars

We’re up and at ’em;It’s 9 am and  I’ve been to the cheese store, the bakery and stopped at the pasta shop to watch them roll out fresh pasta for the day. I purchased two .5 kilo blocks of fine parmigiana reggiano cheese that at once crumbles and melts in your mouth. In a broken back and forth of language we agreed I did not just want a cheese suitable for grating but rather a cheese for dining with fine wine.I also bought the second bottle in a series of ” young, old, older, oldest”  as demonstrated by her pointing to my silver hair and remarking bella! with corresponding prices of 3,6, 18, and 42 euros (about 65.00 for the oldest.} I bought a half  loaf of warm bread to eat with my proscuitto left from last night. I think perhaps I can live, easily and happily, on nothing but bread and wine, cheese and proscuitto…we’re off on today’s adventure! Sadly, no photos of all this lovely food; the internet here is way too slow and we must get moving onto the next place where we will eat some more.  I’ll make it up to you with extra photos tomorrow. Ciao!