Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Italy Remembered

Two years ago today, my wife and I headed off to Italy for our honeymoon. We were married in June, but waited to take the actual trip at a later date. Good idea. September In Italy is quite pleasant. The weather was warm, but not scorching. It rained two days in 2 weeks. Worked for me!

We flew in to Rome and stayed there for a couple of days. The Vatican wasn't far away as we were staying at a nice hotel in Trestevere, The Trilussa Palace Hotel (http://www.trilussapalacehotel.it/). A nicely located hotel on the trolley line, fairly close to the Vatican as well.

We decided to go see the headquarters for the worlds Roman Catholics. After a short trip on the trolley and then the bus, we were at the Vatican. As we walked up to see about the line to get in, a girl came over to us and asked if we wanted to take an "unofficial" tour. We checked the tour guide out and she seemed legit. As we were waiting, the tour guide approached us to say hello. She was a British woman who lived in Rome, did the Vatican tour and wrote for a British ex-pat magazine doing restaurant reviews. Score!

We started having a conversation about the local hot spots and where to eat. She asked what we looked for when eating at a restaurant. I told her we wanted unpretentious, simple and not over the top. We could get that in our home town. I wanted good, rustic, regional cooking and a nice atmosphere. "I have the place for you!" she quickly stated.

The place she told us about didn't have an official name nor did it have a sign out front. The Two Sisters she thought was the name of the place. She had not been to this establishment, but noted she has heard nothing but fantastic reviews from other people and will visit there very soon herself. She circled the address where she thought it was on our map and away we went on the tour of the Vatican.

Later that evening, we went in search of the this little hole-in-the-wall. We walked around in the rain for about an hour until we found it. Outside the front door was a man and what looked like his wife having a conversation. He noticed we looked a little lost, so he called me over. "Eat?" he asked. "Yep!" I replied and nodded my head. He motioned us to go inside, being careful not to step on the dog lounging on the doorway steps. The old boy did the cooking, his son did the serving and cleaning up. The wife sat at a big table with family and drank wine.

We sat down and the son came over to ask what we wanted. He knew a little more english than his parents, so he dealt with us. He served us a 1/2 litre of red wine from a jug which had no label on it. Pretty nice wine. I was a little worried at first about the quality, but then I remembered where I was.

We started the meal with antipasti. This consisted of bruschetta, baked beans and mashed sweet potato. Awesome! Great way to start a meal. The sweet potato mash I have tried to copy many times, but just can't get it exactly the same. I won't ever give up on this dish. I asked him what was in the recipe, and due to the fact my Italian is extremely limited, I had a hard time understanding. I believe it consists of mashed sweet potato, peperoncino or chili flakes, shredded onion, Pecorino, EVOO and salt and pepper.

For the primi or pasta course, Mrs. Urban Eater had penne with a light cream sauce and parmesan. I had the Penne Alla Carbonera. Al dente pasta with a ton of flavour. Pretty much finished the whole thing. As a long time pasta lover, I was in heaven!

By this time, we were getting quite full. If I was eating either of these dish's in North America, I wouldn't have been able to finish. The pasta there seems to be lighter. I think it has something to do with the gluten content being lower, but who knows. I was nicely full and had enough.

The wife's table next to us noticed me wiping my brow as they were having their little party. One of the fellows, brother-in-law I think, plunked a bottle in front of my wife. "Lemoncello!" he blurted. He then pointed at me and said it again. I shook my head and said no. The wife obliged and had a shot with him. The he grabbed another bottle and said "Grappa!" I nodded my head. What the hell? I've only tasted the low grade stuff before. I had a shot with him, about 2 ounces. He made me take another, and I downed that as well. Potent, but nice stuff.

As I looked around the room trying not to make eye contact with him again, I noticed a few magazine and newspaper articles hanging on the walls. The old boy was pretty well known, and not just around town either.

The son approached us again. He asked about the secondi, or the entree. I looked over towards the stove where the old boy was. He was cooking a chicken dish on top of the stove which smelled too good to be true. I noticed he had thyme in there, but not much else as I couldn't stand to look anymore. I was full, but not bloated. This means I should stop eating and run away, right now! We said no thanks to the chicken, and they all looked at us like we were asking them to jump off a cliff. "Sorry", I told the son. "We are full to here" as I held my hand up to my throat. "Ok, 20 euros each" he said. With that, we were out of there. The trip went on and we visited lots of different restaurants. I will talk about these in more columns to come.

This was one of the best dining experiences I have ever had. A small place, around 400 sq. feet. Great food, nice atmosphere, friendly faces. These people have this idea all figured out. Everyday, go to the market with something in mind you want to cook. Then, look around to see what's available. Make your menu up for the evening in your head, then go see who you need to see, buy what you need to buy. Most chefs over here in North America need to plan days, even weeks ahead to make good food. Think about it. Wouldn't you rather eat like we did in that tiny restaurant more often than we normally do here? I would, and I do. This is the way I cook almost everyday. Mind you, I have those days where I can't think straight and choose not to cook, but it doesn't happen very often.

This weekend, I roasted off some vegetables in the oven for my parents to eat. Potatoes, which I boiled for 6 minutes before putting them on the baking sheet, red and yellow peppers, red onion, 3 whole garlic cloves, carrots and zucchini. With these I added rosemary, thyme and parsley from the garden. Mixed it all together with salt, pepper and EVOO. Roast at 350 F for ten minutes, mix it all around as to not let anything burn and put back in the oven for another ten minutes. Put it all in a bowl and serve. Great as a main dish or a side. I also mix it in with pasta for Pasta Primavera, without the potatoes of course. We paired it with a bottle of Phebus Malbec 2009. This is usually a nice wine to pair with meat, but we just thought it would be nice to have with the veggies. We could also use the veggies as part of Little O's menu options. Speaking of which.....

Little O's Menu

For a quick meal on Sunday, my wife bought a roast chicken at the grocery store. I was out of town and let's face it, she can't cook. So she took some of the roast chicken, mixed in a bit of the roasted veggies and created a small meal for O. She put quite a bit of it down. Lots of flavour and vitamins in the veggies, protein in the chicken. Good meal for her. I was glad the missus thought of this. We could make this a regular thing as we eat quite a bit of chicken and roast a lot of veggies.

Breakfast is still all about the fruit (peaches, plums, blueberries, saskatoons and mangos) with yogurt and rice cereal. We have started adding little pieces of toast to the mix on the side. She likes to gum it to death and eventually gets most of it down. We use organic sprouted grain bread and she doesn't seem to mind.

When it comes to cooking, be spontaneous, creative and bold. Try to keep a healthy vision on top of this. It isn't that hard to accomplish if you do it all of the time. It's like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Also, the more you do it, the better you feel and the more confident you are. Never stop trying something new things. Your body depends on it.

Todays quote:

"Food is our common ground, a universal experience"
- James Beard (1903-1985)

Until next time, good eating everyone.

Mark

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