Eat here: Flavio Al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy (Italian)

Flavio Al Velavevodetto
Via di Monte Testaccio 97, Rome
http://www.ristorantevelavevodetto.it/en/home

In Rome’s Testaccio district, the ex-garbage dump of the ancient Romans (literally, there’s a hill around the corner from here that we found while walking around to kill time before lunch that was made from broken Roman terracotta), where the tourists rarely venture, is a bowl of pasta that is the stuff of legends.

It’s a dish that’s just now gaining momentum and becoming trendy (god help us), and it’s so simple it sounds downright boring, made with only three ingredients: pasta, cheese and pepper. Seriously – that’s it. Well, it’s not, there’s a real art to it, and Elizabeth will explain it to you better than I can if you want to take a quick detour to her blog.

I knew we were eating cacio e pepe when we visited Rome, and there’s only one person I trusted to recommend the right place to eat it – and Elizabeth Minchilli didn’t let me down. Having seen a ridiculous number of bowls of this dish on her Instagram account in the year leading up to our trip, all from the same restaurant, it was decided we’d make the trip out to Testaccio to visit Flavio’s.

The restaurant itself is one of those you’d-miss-it-if-you-weren’t-looking-for-it kind of places. No big flashy signs out the front, no neon lights in the shape of pasta bowls, just a little gated courtyard with the name clearly printed above it.

We rolled in right on opening time, because we heard it got busy fast – it did. The place is surprisingly big inside, with several dining areas seperated by walls and corridors. The tables were laid with crisp white linen, and the staff gave the immediate impression of being a very well-oiled machine, to the point of being almost mechanical – I’m guessing the Roman regulars have a bit of a warmer welcome, though.

I knew what I wanted to try well before I saw the menu – cacio e pepe, obviously. A deep fried artichoke. And pasta carbonara. Oh, and a bottle of wine, because, when in Rome…

I’m used to my family’s artichokes, which are marinated in oil and herbs (and are very good), so a deep fried one was very different – and so, so good. The petals were like salty little artichoke chips, and the heart was still soft and sweet underneath all that crunchiness. Perfect starter, clearly, because every other table in the room had one, too.

Then came the pasta – the tonnarelli (like fat spaghetti) cacio e pepe did not disappoint. Perfectly al dente pasta smothered in cheese and pepper is a thing of beauty. Husband said it was the best bowl of pasta he’s ever eaten. Again, a clear winner, because every table seemed to have at least one bowl of this.

The other bowl of pasta I chose was rigatoni carbonara. This is one of my favourite meals, but I don’t order it at home, because most restaurants don’t know how to make it. Contrary to popular belief, carbonara is not made with cream; it’s made with eggs. So when restaurants make it with cream and call it “authentic Italian,” it makes my blood boil. But here, they make it right, with eggs. And guanciale (cured pork jowl, one of my favourite meaty things). And more cheese. And let me tell you, even though it may not look like much, that was the best bowl of pasta I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Nonna).

We washed it all down with what was left of the bottle of wine, used the contents of the complimentary bread basket to mop up what was left of the sauces, rolled out the front door and continued to talk about lunch for the next three days. If you’re only going to eat pasta at once place in Rome, make sure it’s at Flavio’s. And that’s coming from an Italian.

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Eat here: S.Forno Panificio, Florence, Italy (bakery)

S.Forno Panificio
Via Santa Monaca 3r, Florence
http://t.ilsantobevitore.com

My auntie is a wonderful artist; she often travels to Italy to paint (because it’s impossible to not be inspired by such a gorgeous country), which means she has plenty of opportunities to find some real hidden gems. When I told her we’d be visiting Florence again, she told me I had to go to S.Forno. She was right.

The beautiful little bakery we found actually looked like it’d be more at home in Fitzroy or Collingwood than a tiny side street in Florence, but the retro decor and feel isn’t just fabricated to be reminiscent of the past. This is actually an old bakery that’s been rescued from certain doom by an enterprising  group of people…

The space has been a forno (bakery) for over 100 years. For the past 40 years, baker Angelo has walked into the store every morning to prepare freshly baked bread for the local Florentines. But something happened lately. After years of 7-day weeks and 18-hour days Angelo needed time beyond the bakery business and local restaurant team behind the successful Il Santo Bevitore came to the rescue. Partnering with Angelo, they have brought the business, but kept the baker, to ensure its place in the neighbourhood is secure for the future.
                                                                            – Lost in Florence

The daily offerings were written up on a chalkboard behind the counter, and assorted baskets were filled with loaves of bread. The front counter’s display case was filled with a mixed bunch of cake trays topped with an assortment of sweet treats, and the air smelt like freshly baked bread. Heaven. Husband and I were told the food was delicious and it didn’t disappoint; we ate cauliflower quiche and a prosciutto-topped slice of foccacia for lunch, and they were divine. While we ate, we watched customer after customer come through the door and leave with arms full of fresh bread.

We weren’t ready to leave after lunch; the atmosohere and people watching was too good. Sitting in there felt like total immersion in Florentine life, and we couldn’t have been happier to be sitting in the middle of it. Also, the sweets looked too good to leave without sampling.

Just to be clear, this is not a coffee shop. There’s no fancy espresso machine or 2 page caffeine menu. The focus is on the dough. But they are kind enough to offer some self-service, stock-standard American coffee and boiling water for tea, so we grabbed some of that and chose two typically Tuscan desserts – a baked rice cake, and a piece of castagnaccio, made from chestnut flour, rosemary, pine nuts and raisins.

Don’t be fooled by the nondesctipt façade; the service and atmosohere are both so warm and welcoming, and the food is some of the best in the city. It seems that they’ve arrived at the perfect balance between old traditon and new innovation, and that should earn them a visit when you’re next in Florence!

Through my eyes: Siena, Italy

When we talk about Tuscany, everyone’s heard of Florence. But not quite as many people know Siena. And the few who do generally only know it for the horse race held there every year, the Palio – horses topped with bareback riders race around the Piazza del Campo in an ode to the times of old. If you’re still unsure about what I’m talking about, maybe this scene from Quantum of Solace will ring a few bells.

But I’m not talking about the Palio this morning, because there’s so much more to Siena than a horse race. The beautiful little city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1995, still looks every bit the picture book medieval town it probably was back in 30AD when the Romans plonked a military outpost there. There are uniform terracotta roofs as far as the eye can see, those beautiful but somewhat difficult to walk upon cobbled paths, and symbolic and religious iconography around every corner. There’s also the incredible Tuscan food, the sweet little corner stores, the steeply sloped alley ways that you just have to wander up and down, and the best door knockers you’ve ever seen.

Welcome to Siena, through my eyes 🙂

Read this: La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy by the Italian Academy of Cuisine

La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy
by the Italian Academy of Cuisine


So, at almost 1000 pages long, it’s not exactly a “curl up with a pot of tea and read it on Saturday morning” kind of book. But, it’s also a lot more than just a cookbook. I’ve found myself picking it up and flicking through it more than usual lately, and as you can probably tell by the top of the dustcover, I spend a bit of time with this book…

A few decades ago, some thoughtful, clever Italians came together with the idea of preserving their culinary legacy. They formed the Italian Academy of Cuisine and set their sights on the lofty goal of recording the classic Italian recipes from all over the country. Including/especially those very specific, regional ones that have (until now) only been passed down verbally through the generations.

With over 7,600 members across the country, they were able to get their paws on some 2,000 recipes, covering everything from pasta to vegetables to desserts and literally everything in between. These are the precious recipes that are cooked in only this or that region of Italy. Recipes that have graced the dinner tables for generations. Recipes that would have eventually been lost as the generations stopped cooking them, or stopped remembering how much flour and salt Nonna said the dough needed.

Not only are there the recipes, but like in the photo below, scattered throughout the book are little snippets of “local traditions;” with half of my family from Northern Italy and the other half from Southern Italy, there’s a lot in between I don’t know much about! And if you love to travel and learn about other cultures through their culinary traditions half as much as I do, you’re going to find a veritable treasure trove in these pages…

One of the most beautiful things about this book is the point made in the introduction – it is very much recognised that every Italian has their own way of making a dish their own (I can vouch for that), so this is not intended to be a “correct to the last letter” type of cookbook…

“Interpretation, improvisation – these are essential characteristics of Italian coking. Thus while we have strived to present the most iconic version of key regional dishes, it is up to you, the home cook, to make them your own.”

Pick up a copy here and start reading/cooking!

Photo essay: an Italian family tradition – tomato sauce making day

There’s actually not all that much I want to write this morning; I’d rather the photos do the talking. Last weekend heralded our family’s annual tomato sauce making day at my grandparents’ house, something I’ve been meaning to capture on film for a few years now. As you may have notices from my blogging habit, recording memories is important to me, and I wanted to share some of the pictures I took to give others a bit of an insight into a centuries old Italian tradition that continues in the backyards of countless emigrants in Australia today…

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Eat here: Lievità V.2 – bringing in a new menu

Lievità
298 High St, Northcote
http://lievita.com.au/

I couldn’t have been more excited to get an email from the lovely Luca at Lievità a few weeks ago with an invitation to the showcase their new menu and toast the people who’ve supported their mission to bring pizza al taglio from the streets of Rome to the streets of Northcote.

Ok, so they’re bringing in a new drinks menu, but as any Italian will attest, the drinks are just as important as the food. And the pizza menu changes regularly anyway, because Luca’s a clever man with the Italian way of cooking front on mind – use what’s fresh, local and in season. Ingredients change, as does his menu, which is the way it should be.

On the new drinks list you’ll find that classic Italian aperitif, the Aperol Spritz, as well as a new pre-dinner drink, the Lucchetto – 2 parts Amaro Montenegro, 2 parts soda, a dash of orange bitters and a slice of fresh orange. Highly recommended.

They’ve got their own beer now, too – the Lievità Pilsner (4.8%), but I’m not a beer drinker, so you’ll have to wait for the husband’s verdict. That said, they were going down pretty quickly, so I’m guessing its a good brew!


Enoteca Sileno are bringing the wine to the party, with their DOC and DOCG wines (menu below)- I like a nice red, and I love a good white, but my favourite is always a cold bubbly Prosecco. The Umberto Luigi Domenico Prosecco gracing the menu (from the Veneto region, where my mum’s family is from) was amazing, and will henceforth be my choice of bubbles there; perfect for a hot summer night to accompany trays of pizza!

Food and drink aside, this was also an awesome opportunity to see how things really work behind the scenes; Luca managed to leave a successful corporate career and turn his dream of a pizza place into reality, and after meeting and speaking to his family and friends, it’s easy to see why. Not only is he clearly incredibly talented and pretty determined, he has the most amazing support network behind him. In true Italian style, the whole family was there to celebrate his success; being an Italian girl myself, knowing what the family culture is like, and seeing just how much love goes into this operation makes the pizza taste even better.

 

Disclosure: I was kindly invited to this event as a guest of Lievità, however the opinions contained herein are completely based on my own experience. If you need further proof, here’s the first post I wrote about them 18 months a several trays of pizza ago 🙂

Cook this: Italian Margherita Cake

As you may have noticed from quite a few of my recipes, I rarely, if ever, actually follow a recipe word for word. I’m a rebel. No; actually, I’m Italian. I grew up in a world where women didn’t use recipes; they kept it all up in their noggins and baked by feel. They also didn’t have blogs back in the old days in Italy, so recipes were pretty much just handed down through the generations.

Unlike my Nonnas, I literally have a world of recipes available to me, which is brilliant! One of my favourite sites on my blog roll, which consistently gives me new recipes to try from all around the globe is Honest Cooking, and when Veronica Lavenia’s recipe for an Italian Margherita cake popped up on my blog roll last week and I saw that she’d already stuffed around a bit with the traditional version to create her own, I figured I wouldn’t screw around with it anymore too much more; I had to a little bit, because I found the original recipe a little fragmented and hard to read/follow.


While the original version uses lots of eggs, milk and butter, Veronica’s version uses less eggs and olive oil to give it a nice little twist. The only changes I made were to add a little milk when I found the batter to be too dry, and I used caster sugar instead of raw sugar, and regular plain flour instead of Farro flour – because I already had them in the pantry, and I didn’t want to wait for cake. Because I’m Italian. Here’s my version…

 

Ingredients:
– 2 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
– pinch of salt
– ⅓ cup caster sugar
– finely grated zest of 1-2 lemons (depending on how lemony you like your cakes)
– ⅓ cup olive oil
– 275g plain flour
– 1 tsp baking powder
– ¼ cup milk
– ½ cup toasted almond, chopped

 

Method:
1. Pre-heat oven to 170°C and line a round cake tin with non-stick baking paper.

2. Pour the egg whites into a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer with the pinch of salt until white and stiff; set aside.

3. In another, larger mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until light and creamy. Add in the lemon zest and oil and beat again until combined.

4. Sift in the flour and baking powder, and mix together with a spoon or spatula.

5. Finally, fold the egg whites, followed by the milk, into the egg yolk mix.

6. Pour the batter into the cake tin, sprinkle with the almonds and bake for 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.