The simpler the better

Fancy ForkThe United States is brimming with swanky, chic Italian restaurants. Walls, napkins, and candle holders in trendy colors like burnt umber passion or titanium flambé. Artfully displayed and long-winded dishes like mahi-mahi penne with a Napolitano ponzu sauce reduction or mini pesto torts topped with a whipped brie and artichoke chutney. Creative restaurant names like “Linguini & Tinis”, “Scampi 38″, or “Ciao Bella Fashion Lounge”. There’s nothing at all wrong with these types of places. The food is creative and tasty and the atmosphere is funky. It’s just that you’ll have a hard time actually finding similarly lavish places in Italy … at least, that is, if you want the food to be any good.

There are some cool, “in”, expensive looking restaurants in Italy, especially in Milan. However, if you’re looking for properly priced delectable dishes I highly recommend going to a “hole-in-the-wall” place that looks like it was last refurbished in 1973, perhaps by somebody fond of tacky wood panelling and frightening tchotchke. These places are where the real Italian dining experience is to be had.

Italian restaurants – good Italian restaurants – offer no-frills service and atmosphere. I’m talking no music, simple decor that borders on ugly, and a straightforward menu lacking any unpronounceably trendy words. No squinting at the menu through mood lighting. No having to ask the waiter what a “zucchini ribbon nest with a Pugliese compote” means. No pushing open 8 different doors (Oops! Broom closet! Oops! Kitchen!) to find the one to the delightfully ambiguous bathroom. Just food. Honest, good, and lovingly prepared.

Red Checkered TableclothIf you’re picturing those oh-so-stereotypical red checkered tablecloths in your mind’s eye, then you’re getting the right idea.

One great example of a down-to-earth Italian restaurant in Milan is Trattoria Bolognese da Mauro. This restaurant, opened back in 1969, mostly serves dishes from the Bologna region, which are, in my humble opinion, the best of the best. If you are ever lucky enough to eat there I recommend, nay, insist, that you try the salsiccia gramigna. Strepitosa (amazing)! Honestly, I make a mean salsiccia gramigna, but da Mauro’s is 10 times better than my own. Not only is the food spectacular, but it’s boatloads less expensive than most restaurants in Milan and the people that work there are welcoming with a hint of bohemian kindness. I just dig the whole vibe of the place and think it really sums up the concept of what a real Italian restaurant is all about.

Good eatin' goes on here!

Good eatin’ goes on here!

Here are some pictures I took of my last trip to Trattoria Bolognese da Mauro. Hungry yet? Jealous? Wanna be me? :-P


So remember, when it comes to Italian dining in the home country: the simpler the better. Oh, and grated parmesan goes with just about anything!

Grated Parmesan Cheese

About these ads

It’s electric orange. That means it’s good for you!

Though the food in Italy is really great, sometimes I just get tired of healthy, natural-tasting stuff. For this reason, whenever I go home to the USA, I always bring back a suitcase full of American goodies such as A1 Sauce, Hamburger Helper, Nerds Candy, Country Time Pink Lemonade Mix, and brown sugar (which oddly, you can’t find in Italy). Oh yeah, I also always bring back lots and lots of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese!

The Cheesiest!

So, one evening, back in the days when I lived in Bologna, I decided to organize a dinner with my Italian roommates and some American friends that were also living in Italy at the time. The star of the show was to be Kraft Macaroni & Cheese! I don’t remember exactly what form the macaroni had, but it was definitely one of those fun shapes like Sponge Bob, Scooby Doo, or Spider Man.

The excitement began even before the dinner was served as my Italian friends looked with horror upon the meal I was preparing. I think the best way to sum up this culinary adventure is to just provide you with some contextual quotes from the evening (obviously not uttered by my American friends):

  • Oh my goodness! Why is the pasta shaped like a dog?
  • There’s a packet. Why is there a packet in the box?
  • How long are you going to boil the pasta for? It’s already way past al dente!
  • You’re adding more butter into the pot than I have ever seen or consumed in my entire life!
  • What is that orange powder!!?!? Is it an insecticide?
  • What flavor does “orange” taste like?
After withstanding all of these insults and exclamations, it was finally time to eat. We all sat down together and I plopped out scoopsful of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for my now-speechless Italian dinner guests.We used plastic plates, because we didn’t have enough mis-matched ceramic ones to go around. However, even if there had been a complete dinner service in our apartment I think I still would have stuck with plastic plates just the same… it helped to add to the “drama” of it all.
At this point, I was thinking to myself, “ok, so they pre-judged my Kraft Macaroni & Cheese before even trying it because of its aesthetic aspects, but now I’m going to bowl them over with cheesy flavor!”
Well, they hated it and I ended up getting angry because I felt as if I has wasted my precious stock of American food on their unappreciative and snobby Italian taste buds.
But, after having the same thing happen again in Milan with a different group of Italians, I’ve learned my lesson. I just wait untill a night when I know my boyfriend is going to get home late from work and I haven’t made plans with any of my friends. Then I make myself a “guilty pleasure” box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, to be enjoyed all by myself …. I may even cut up some hotdogs and throw ‘em in, if I’m feeling frisky!

Really focaccian’ good!

 

 

 

Garrett's Focaccian' Good Bread

 

Focaccia is a delicious, fluffy, salty, olive oily, typical Italian flat bread. Originally from the Liguria region, this Italian treat can be found all over Italy (and all over the world). I’d really be surprised it you didn’t know what focaccia was. The “simple” version just has some coarse salt on top, but really, the sky’s the limit with toppings that range from cherry tomatoes to onions to rosemary and potatoes to pesto sauce. Focaccia is even used as the girthy bread for sandwiches stuffed with other delicacies like prosciutto and mozzarella. In order to come to Italy and not come across focaccia, you would pretty much need to stay in your hotel room with a stomach bug (not that I’m trying to jinx you or anything!).

My first run-in with this bread was during my college summer job waiting tables at a restaurant called Papa Razzi. Serving freshly baked focaccia to every table in this busy Boston area restaurant was the standard, so we were churning out loads of the stuff! I was surrounded by it, and I couldn’t help but fall in love. Usually, if my customers were asking the manager “Excuse me, have you seen out waiter, Garrett?”, then I was probably hiding in the kitchen scarfing down some of that focaccia. Hey, some of the wait staff took cigarette breaks, so wasn’t I entitled to a focaccia break?

Since moving to Italy, I’ve had my fair share of focaccia in all its wonderful variations! Since I love cooking and love trying out new recipes, I decided to try making focaccia myself at home. My first go at it resulted in a flavorless sheet of overbaked cardboard. My second try didn’t even make it into the oven because it was so oily that the dough wouldn’t even compact together. They say that the third time’s a charm, but not for me: it was eatable, but didn’t rise all nice and fluffy like it should have – the border was too crispy and the middle was undercooked and gummy.

Finally, I figured out how to make the perfect focaccia that’s so good that my friends usually think that I bought it at the panetteria (bread shop). Since I did all the hard work with the trial and error thing, I thought I’d share my recipe with you guys!

Garrett’s Focaccian’ Good Bread

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup warm (not hot) water
  • 1 cup room temperature water
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 25 grams (1 cube) fresh yeast (the kind you keep in the fridge)
  • 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons table salt
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup room temperature water and 1/4 cup olive oil
  • a few pinches of semi-coarse salt
  • 250 grams pitted green olives (optional)

here's what goes in it

Step 1

Add the yeast and sugar together in a cup with the warm water. Gently stir  until dissolved and it becomes a little bit creamy on top.

this'll make it rise

Step 2

Mix the flour and table salt in a large bowl. Stir in the warm water/yeast from step 1 and mix well. Add the olive oil and mix until all the dry ingredients are absorbed and a somewhat sticky dough is formed. If need be, you can add a little extra room temperature water 1/2 tablespoon at a time until all the dry ingredients mix together to form the dough.

flour power

measuring

dough mix

Step 3

Knead the dough on a floured surface for about 8-12 minutes until the dough is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticks to your hand or the surface. Feel free to add a little more flour here as you are kneading if it remains too sticky.

kneading

Step 4

Wipe out the bowl that you used to mix the flour and yeast (making sure to get rid of any sticky pieces that remained stuck to the inside of the bowl). Add enough olive oil to grease up the inside of the bowl. Grease up your hands in olive oil and form the dough into a bowl, lightly covering the entire exterior in oil. Place the dough in the greased bowl and cover it with a damp dishtowel. Leave the dough to sit and rise at room temperature for at least 2 hours, though 3 is best. Making focaccia is fairly easy, but the key is really allowing enough time for the dough to rise properly.

finished dough

risen dough

Step 5

After the dough rises, take a 36 cm x 33 cm baking pan and either grease it with olive oil or cover the bottom with baking paper. Being in Europe, I work in centimeters now, but the ideal pan would be about 14 inches x 13 inches. A pan that’s slightly bigger or slightly smaller won’t make that much of a difference. Place the dough in the middle of the pan and slowly work it out into all four corners so that it evenly covers the entire pan. This will take some patience, as the dough tends to pull back in on itself. Then, leave the dough to relax again fo another 30 minutes at room temperature.

Step 6

After the dough relaxes again it’s time to finish up! Preheat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius (445 Fahrenheit). If the dough shrank up again, then re-stretch it out evenly to all four corners of the pan. If you decide to use the olives, then evenly distribute them all over the top of the dough, pressing them slightly into it. Then (olives or no olives) mix 1/4 cup room temperature water with 1/4 cup olive oil until they blend as well as they can (though, you know what they say about water and oil). Spoon this all over the top of the dough.

ready to go in the oven

Step 7

Place the dough quickly in the preheated oven (trying not to let too much heat escape). Leave the dough in for 6 1/2 minutes. Then, turn the pan around and let it cook for another 5 minutes. Take the focaccia out of the oven and let it cool on the pan before transferring it to a cutting board. Cut as desired and enjoy!

Mmmm! Smells great!

Buon appetito!

Let me know what you guys think! If you try my recipe, let me know how it turned out (unless, of course, it was a disaster!). Share your own focaccia recipes or your favorite topping by leaving a comment!

time to eat

It’s healthy… and doesn’t taste like nothing!

Great Grains!

I am not, in any way, what anybody would ever consider anything even close to a healthy eater. Got that?

I like to eat what I like to eat, and that includes a lot of stuff that you’re not suppose to enjoy like fried stuff, and junk food, and loads of melted cheese, and sweet stuff late at night, and … (etc. etc.). It’s not that I don’t like healthy food like fruit, and grilled skinless chicken breast, and salad, but if I had a choice between a bacon cheeseburger with french fries or a walnut chicken salad with a fat-free dressing, well.. let’s just say that I’d gladly leave the salad for you, my friend.

However, I would like to share with you one healthy choice meal which I have come to discover across the ocean from the USA… and it’s good!

I live  in Italy, the pasta capital of the world where pasta costs next to nothing and makes for a quick and easy “no-brainer” meal. Pasta is cheap and easy to make so spaghetti and ziti can often be found on the plates of hungry Italians. Since both my boyfriend and I work, we don’t always have a lot of time to prepare an elegant meal (which stinks, because cooking is one of my hobbies). Pasta was always an easy solution because you just open your fridge and mix whatever you find inside with it. Got some meat and tomatoes? Hearty ragu’ sauce! Veggies and ricotta cheese? A light and satisfying veggie sauce! Nothing but olive oil, hot pepper, and garlic? Simple, but still great! However, “they say” that eating carbs at night is not the best thing in the world, so I was looking for a less bad-carby option.

Then I discovered the wonders of the 5 cereali, as they are called in Italian. These consist of durum wheat, barley, spelt, oat, and rye. I know that eating something called “spelt” sounds horrifically boring, but it’s really good! They cost about the same as pasta, you can mix n’ match these 5 grains however you want, they come out perfectly “al dente”, and you just use them to substitute the pasta in any dish. It’s probably the only healthy thing that I’ve ever tried that I like just as much if not more than it’s less-healthy counterpart.

Plus, if you eat 5 cereali for dinner, you can feel better about going back for seconds of dessert! ;-)

Bon appetito!

 

My friends Barley and Spelt