Our Favorite Dishes of the Trip

Best gelato:
-Herb-based offerings from Gelateria del Teatro in Rome (sage & raspberry; wild fennel & caramelized almonds, and lavender & white peach.

-Fig gelato from Fior di Latte in Trastevere, Rome managed to capture the essence of seasonal small figs called “settembrini”.

-Crema della Nonna (custard-flavored gelato) from Natale, Lecce.

Best seafood dish:
-Grano con cozze: grano with mussels in a simple tomato base at L’Arco del Porto, Monopoli, Puglia. Grano is one of those fascinating ancient whole grains: http://www.sunnylandmills.com/grano_ancient_grain.shtml

NB: Grano was one of the very few food items we brought home from Italy.

Best fish dish:
Tuna steak (and I don’t even really like tuna and never order it!) as part of the 10-item appetizer course (antipasti della casa) brought to us at L’Arco del Porto in Monopoli, Puglia. It was seared on the outside (with a slight balsamic glaze), pretty rare on the inside, and was unlike any tuna I have ever had. I was already full, but I still wolfed it down with pink peppercorns and red onions from another appetizer. It was as big as my head.

Best pasta dish: We ate MANY pastas on this trip, so I think it is fair to include several:
-Cacio e pepe with fried zucchini flowers at Antico Arco in Rome (pasta with pecorino romano and freshly ground pepper). Jeff also wanted to make sure I gave a shoutout to Roscioli’s version because of its amazing texture :-):

cacio e pepe at Roscioli

-Orecchiette integrale con broccoli e capocollo at Il Ritrovo degli Amici, Martina Franca (whole-grain pasta with broccoli and grated local cheese). It is impossible to describe the complexity and texture of this dish, so I am not even going to try.
-Fusilli mollica e crusco (if you thought the previous pasta was not basic enough, here is a pasta with breadcrumbs and crushed red Senise peppers, a Lucan specialty). The ultimate embodiment of cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine), this dish does not feature any fresh vegetables, fish or meat. The owner of Le Botteghe quizzed me about the translation of “crusco” before I was allowed to order it (I passed); quite understandable, since it sounds like some very rare and delicious crustacean.
-Ceci e tria at il Frantoio in Puglia: a ribbon-shaped pasta with a sauce of whole and pureed chickpeas.
-Bottarga spaghetti at Antico Arco featuring mullet’s roe from Cetara on the Amalfi coast. It was topped with the most amazing seabass carpaccio (actually, “carpaccio” was their description; the pieces of fish were actually pretty substantial, much to my joy.

What all these pastas have in common: absence of fancy ingredients and complex sauces.

Best appetizer:
-Very lightly marinated zucchini with mint (part of the 14-course appetizer offering at Parco di Castro, Puglia). Zucchini were in season, and during the course of the trip, we had them on pizza (at Forno del Campo dei Fiori in Rome, – it was incidentally the most inspired by the slice, or rather, “by the chunk” pizza we had);

zucchini pizza at Forno Campo de' Fiori, Rome

as a carpaccio in a salad, and in a number of pastas.
-Bruschetta at A’Paranza, Atrani, Amalfi coast (crusty country bread, tomatoes and olive oil). Brilliantly simple, it was our favorite rendition of the ubiquitous classic.
-Caponata at Al Vino Al Vino, Rome. This delectable Sicilian dish is made fresh every day by the Sicilian mother of the wine bar’s owner. I am fascinated by the sweet-and-sour combinations, especially by something that is as incredibly balanced as this version.
-Lampascione and other preserved vegetables (verdure sott’olio) at Il Cucco, Cisternino, Puglia.

Best cheese:
-Burrata with semi-dried pugliese tomatoes at Roscioli in Rome
-Different types of ricotta, scamorza, mozzarella, all eaten within 10 seconds of being made (and the smoked and aged stuff – straight in the cheese aging room) at Caseificio Crovace, Puglia:

Best contorno (side dish):
A plate of porcinis with parsley at Cumpa Cosima, Ravello.

Best fruit:
-Moscato grapes from the neighborhood market in Rome on via Montebello.
-A fig from the orchard at b&b Casa Cuccaro, Nocelle

Best dessert:
Miniature cannolo from Cristalli di Zucchero in Rome
Best soup:
Zuppa di fagioli (bean soup with tomatoes and rosemary) at Donna Rosa, Montepertuso, Amalfi coast.
Best pizza:
Di Matteo
I Decumani

(both in Naples…)

Best pastry:
Warm frolla from Sfogliatelle Mary, Naples (more on that later).
Pasticciotto con pignoli from Avio, Lecce, Puglia (Leccese specialty pastry with a custard filling and in this case, pine nuts).

Best sign:

sign in front of a shop in Ravello

Random Awards – Part 3

Shortest Reservation Reply Award

is hereby presented  to Parco di Castro masseria/restaurant in Speziale, Puglia; the email reply in question was:

ok.

 That’s right, not even an exclamation mark…

The Italian “ok” (very different from the American “ok”) merits a discussion of its own. I have found it to be a more enthusiastic expression, almost equivalent to “great!” Still, upon receiving the email, I was taken slightly aback. I am not going to provide an excerpt of my reservation request, but rest assured that, in my, admittedly less than perfect, Italian, I did try to express all the giddiness we felt about the prospect of eating at their most excellent restaurant. Also, I could not help but compare/contrast it with the elaborate, very thoughtful and professional reply from another high-profile, slow-foodish azienda/restaurant Il Frantoio, just a few kilometers away.

Parco di Castro

Ironically enough, Il Frantoio ended up cancelling our confirmed azienda tour (in all fairness, they did email me the day before but we did not have access to email in Italy, nor could we change our travel plans at such a short notice). The meals were pretty fantastic (and similar in quality) at both places (except that the bill at il Frantoio was twice as high).

http://www.masseriailfrantoio.it/cuisine.htm

 Best Drinks Award:

  Is to be shared among the aforementioned Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso “Guardiola” 2007 at Antico Arco in Rome;

Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo “Vigna Cicogna” 2009 (listed for 18 euros!!!) at il Ritrovo, Montepertuso (Amalfi coast);

Padre Peppe nocino (bitter walnut liquer) at L’Arco del Porto, Monopoli (Puglia), much needed after an unspeakable amount of seafood consumed :-);

House-made finocchietto (wild fennel liquer) at il Ritrovo, Montepertuso; and

Grappa at Le Botteghe, Matera (brought to us by the owner despite my protestations, since we could not follow up our fantastic lunch with a siesta). Unfortunately, I did not get the name of the producer, as I was too overwhelmed by the aromatics :-).

By the way, the key to surviving multiple courses in Italy is digestivi , - various liquers and other alcoholic beverages taken after the meal, such as grappa, amaro, rosolio (herb- and fruit-infused concoctions, often house-made), limoncello, finocchietto, brandy, etc.).

Rosoli at Il Frantoio

On the same note, the

Most Overpriced Wine List Award

without a doubt, goes to Ristorante Donna Rosa in Montepertuso (Amalfi coast). One of the revelations of the trip was the availability and choice of very enjoyable bottles of wine in the 15-25 euro range (and 3-6 euros by the glass) at all the restaurants and enotecas visited. Donna Rosa was the only exception of the trip (which almost makes it a national champion :-), with 10 euros/glass pricing and an expensive bottle selection (most bottles starting from 30 euros and up and up and up). Of course, it should come as no surprise that the check stated that “service is not included”…

Random Awards – Part 2

Most Decadent Drinking Experience

involved drinking finocchietto (wild fennel liquer, a popular digestif) straight from the bottle (ok, a very small bottle) in a hammock overlooking the Amalfi coast, at I Limoni, a b&b in St. Cosma, Ravello:

Best Customer Service Award

goes to…drumroll…il Cucco, restaurant/enoteca in Cisternino, Puglia. When we arrived at the enoteca (which doubles as a retail wine shop) around lunchtime and asked about the possibility of tasting a couple of glasses of local wine, not only were we not sent away (which would have been totally reasonable, as the enoteca part was closed for business), but the cleaning lady immediately called the enoteca employee at home. She arrived some 15 minutes later apologizing for the wait, just to serve us two glasses of wine at 3 euros each, along with a large selection of marinated vegetables (verdure sott’olio) at 6 euros, including the fabulous lampascioni (wild hyacinth bulbs), a local specialty. She proceeded to explain in detail what each item was, along with the method of preparation. She also brought us some  fresh taralli (a refined version of a pretzel) from a local bakery.

I guess they really mean what they say on their website, which can be translated as “wishing to create the kind of place they themselves would want to frequent as customers”…

Best Unexpected Views Award

will probably have to be shared by two bus stops, – Bar Internazionale stop in Positano and Nocelle stop, along the view from my bed at b&b Casa Cuccaro in Nocelle (taken without lifting my head from the pillow!!!):

(in case you are wondering, that is the island of Capri in the distance)…

Then again, perhaps, the top award should rightfully belong to the Bar Internazionale bus stop, as it happens to include the outside seating area of the bar serving my favorite non-alcoholic drink of the trip: “Emozioni di Frutta” cocktail (Sanbitter blended with grapefruit juice). Alternatively, you can stare at the Lattari mountains while munching on an ice-cream cone or drinking an espresso. Not a bad place to wait for a bus…

 

Countdown to Italy

Many of you know that this blog was started in anticipation of our upcoming Italian trip. The time has come to say good-bye for the next 3 weeks, as we eat and drink our way through Rome, Amalfi coast, Napoli, Matera (Basilicata), and Puglia.

It is important to mention that I am seriously indebted to the following individuals for their help in shaping this food itinerary: fellow Chowhounders, Michael Housewright and Antonello Losito of Southern Visions, and Katie Parla.

Trips are most often defined by cultural and architectural landmarks; ours, to a great extent, by food & wine experiences we seek. Of course, our travels will include some very renowned museums and fabulous ruins, “Pathway of the Gods” hiking trail, three UNESCO heritage sights, and an outside classical music concert at Villa Rufolo, Ravello (just to name a few).

When we return at the end of September, expect detailed accounts of:

  • Rome’s “holy trinity” (of traditional Roman pastas – carbonara, amatriciana, and cacio e pepe)
  • Artisanal bakeries
  • Farmer’s market trips for picnic fare
  • Daily perfect tastes of gelato
  • Artisanal food culture off the beaten path in little mountain villages of Montepertuso, Atrani, and Nocelle
  • Quest for the world’s best pizza in Napoli
  • Adventures in the sea urchin country (Savelletri, Puglia)
  • Humble and amazing cucina povera in Puglia (one of the best places in the world to be vegetarian)
  • How burrata, mozzarella, scamorza, etc. are made
  • Centuries-old olive trees and olive oil press in action
  • Surviving multiple appetizer courses and still managing to eat at least a pasta and a dessert (by the way, I have NO idea how that is going to work)
  • Results of the wine revolution in Campania, Lazio, Basilicata, and Puglia
  • Southern Italian pastry eating contest

And many, many others!

Ciao,

Jeff & Natasha