Before and After: Some culinary observations and inspirations

It is a balsamic party!

A few times on our trip, I felt like balsamic was practically on everything, especially vegetables and fish. I am quite a balsamic lover, but also a believer in appropriate and judicious usage of balsamic. I must admit that some of those applications made me go, “What the hell?”

However, one of the many, many pleasant memories of this trip involved being left alone for a good 45 minutes with a very nice 12-year old aged balsamic at Donna Rosa. It was fun putting it on all sorts of things for the sake of experimentation.

Pickling, etc.

Italy certainly reignited my interest in pickling and other ways of preserving food.  I knew right way that I wished to explore the sott’olio technique for making preserved vegetables hands-on. My current guinea pigs are the Thai and Japanese eggplant from the farmer’s market, which I am planning on slicing very thinly, blanching for a few seconds, and then preserving in a mixture of olive oil, vinegar, and spices.


Before the trip I had never really thought of celery as an herb and a condiment. In the US, you typically see very mature stalks being served as crudite with ranch dressing (I detest both). Now, here it was offered alongside prosciutto on our very first day at L’Angolo Divino wine bar in Rome. It was delicate and aromatic, and it had an incredible synergy with the silky, savory meat. Later on, we had it a number of times in some fantastic pastas, especially orecchiette in Puglia (such as the rare black orecchiette with swordfish, tomatoes and celery at L’Arco del Porto in Monopoli).


In the US one’s experience with licorice (if any) is limited to the licorice candy. In Italy it is a much, much more staple flavor; for example, there was licorice-flavored gelato at every artisanal shop we visited. Who knew? We also very much appreciated an introduction to a fabulous digestif, – liquirizia.

Pink peppercorns

I just placed an order with an online retailer the Spice House, containing some nice tellicherries, and pink and Szechuan peppercorns. Technically speaking, pink peppercorns are not peppers but fruity and delicate rose baises; they belong to the piper nigrum family.  I am looking forward to experimenting with those sassy berries:

 Wine glasses

Salivating over dramatic, angular bowled wine glasses at several Roman enotecas resulted in an online purchase of Luigi Bormioli “Atelier”pinot glasses. I don’t know if they were afraid I would change my mind, but the glasses arrived in the mail a day and a half later, despite the regular free shipping designation. They were promptly christened upon their arrival on Friday night. I love them (and by the way, they were only around $35 for a set of 4).

 Everyday wines

I think it is fair to say that a significant focus of the trip was on humble, everyday wines. I have been involved with wine, in one capacity or another, for almost 10 years (now as a drinker).  I will admit that over the years, I have tasted some pretty incredible wines; interestingly enough, this has also afforded me a perspective for appreciating less pedigreed wines. I am a firm believer in the appropriateness of wine choices: more modest everyday fare should be accompanied by inexpensive bottles, whereas inspired haute cuisine commands more complex and striking wines.

What I look for in an everyday bottle is balance, acidity, aromatics, and light-to-medium body. I personally prefer not to drink reds over 13.5% or even 13% with my food; I feel like a lot of nuance is lost in the higher alcohol food-and-wine combination, and I don’t particularly enjoy the sensation of numbed taste buds. With whites, I really like lots and lots of acidity and minerality. I like to feel my mouth water asking for more wine, then more food, then more wine….you get the picture.

Here are just two examples of wines under $15 (that we drank over the weekend with several meals) that fit this bill:











I have always had a strange relationship with beans. I have always wanted to be the kind of person who makes these fabulous rustic bean soups, but because of my lack of patience, it never materialized.

Last weekend, inspired by the zuppa di fagioli com pomodori e rosmarino (cannellini bean soup with tomatoes and rosemary) at Donna Rosa in Montepertuso on the Amalfi coast, I was determined to succeed. At Donna Rosa, as I was stealing some soup from Jeff’s bowl, I made a brash statement, “oh, I could probably try to make something like this”.

I am not so foolish as to believe I could actually make a bean soup on par with Donna Rosa’s chef, or try to steal the recipe (as I don’t use recipes anyway). All I did was steal some small ideas, such as using whole sprigs of rosemary and thyme to perfume the soup (which, by the way, is sheer genius as getting the little bitty thyme leaves off the sprig and chopping them is a pain in the ass and is totally unnecessary). Another detail is using tomatoes to add acidity (critical, in my opinion, for a soup like that), and some nice fennel and celery as my base, along with onions and garlic (which I don’t typically do). Mountain oregano from Amalfi, bay leaves, basil, parsley and mint push the aromatics just a bit further.

So, after 5.5 hours of pre-soaking and 3 hours of cooking time, this is what it looked like:


Less Is More (Difficult)

At $24, spaghetti  with tomato & basil at NYC-based Scarpetta is priced within a couple of dollars of the other, impressive-sounding, meat-centric entrees, such as short rib and bone marrow agnolotti, duck & foie gras ravioli with a marsala reduction, etc. It seems to be a deliberate (and laudable, in my opinion) choice by the chef who is trying to make the point that a simple dish of spaghetti with tomato and basil can be on par with (if not superior to) the other menu items in terms of complexity and enjoyment.

Spaghetti with tomato & basil at Scarpetta, NYC

I have always believed simple dishes were infinitely harder to execute well, such as a perfectly cooked piece of fish or an omelet. “Simple to the point of austerity”, – one of my (and Jeff’s) favorite quotes and inside jokes from Sarah Caudwell, a late barrister and murder mystery writer with a sense of humor as sharp as her intellect. The spaghetti was pretty amazing; especially washed down with a glass of a “simple” 2004 Cosimo Taurino Salento Rosso Notarpanaro from Puglia. Still, how hard can this really be?

Hint: it is all about attention to detail (plus a secret ingredient – butter!). Chef Scott Conant, in his interview with’s journalist Katie Quinn, says, “Anything simple is difficult, to be honest with you…It’s a culmination of just small things that are really done properly “.

The Virgo in me smiles…

P.S. Anybody curious as to how this glorious dish is made step by step can follow the link below: