Sweet facts about 5 bitter Italian foods

I love bitters. Bitters are so insanely good for you, it’s ridiculous. What do I mean by bitters? Well, there are bitter elixirs that go into craft cocktails like Manhattans and then there are foods and drinks with bitter components. Like coffee, wine and tea.  Foods with bitter components are things like kale, chard, cabbages, some citrus fruits, hearty lettuces, etc.

From my memory banks and personal experiences, Americans are extremely scared of bitter flavors and this makes me a bit tearful. Italians on the other hand, do not shy away from these flavors and compounds. Which is why I think they can get away with a lot of the things they do dietary which would drive nutrition authorities otherwise mad in the states. Why?

Bitters stimulate digestive juice flow. They stimulate the liver. They stimulate the gallbladder. They purify the body and the juices that they stimulate help break down fat and aid in digestion.

So meanwhile, there are sweet tooth Americans popping supplements, enzymes, tinctures from unregulated herbal shops, vitamins and the such while spending ridiculous amounts of money… to help all their digestive woes either “naturally” or pharmaceutical-ly….the Italians are enjoying life with copious amounts of delicious foods and alcohol and get away with hardly any scratches in comparison to our nutrition obsessed micromanaging American counterparts.  I really think, that part of the key to understanding how exactly can Italians get away with their dietary lifestyle, is due to their courageous bitter consumption.

Think about it: coffee for breakfast, bitter leafy greens somewhere at lunch whether it’s arugula on a sandwich or cavolo nero (kale) in a winter soup and bitter cocktail aperitifs before dinner and bitter Amaro elixirs and more coffee after dinner. It is a bitter paradise if you ask me. I may be making generalizations and leaving out a few details (like the fact a large percentage of the Italian youth are not carrying on these food and dietary traditions/habits and don’t even know how to make ribollita and do eat packaged food and soggy pastas for lunch at times) but I do feel that I am getting to the heart of the matter- and that is Italian food and drink culture is essentially bitter.

Here are some common bitter Italian foods and some sweet facts about them:

Roman "mamma" artichokes

Roman “mamma” artichokes

Artichokes: Initially considered to be a native food to Sicily, artichokes actually appear in ancient Greek and Roman literature and were grown in Spain by the Moors as far back as 800 AD. Artichokes are especially good for liver cleansing and what do you know- the Italian alcoholic spirit Cynar is made with artichoke extracts. In Venice, I discovered my love for Cynar in Spritz form. Next time you want to order an Aperol Spritz- try asking for a Cynar Spritz instead. For your liver’s sake…

Cime di Rape con Orecchiete

Cime di Rape con Orecchiete

Broccoli: Like other vegetables in the Cruciferous family, broccoli originates from the mediterranean. Italians tend to eat the heirloom variety cime di rape in the Fall and Winter with Pugliese style Orecchiete (little ear) pasta in a dish called Orecchiete con Cime di Rapa.  Broccoli is one of the healthiest vegetables in the world and boasts massive doses of folate, eye protecting nutrients like lutein and calcium. The ancient Romans prepared the purple sprouting variety by cooking it in wine and dressed with olive oil and garum, a fermented fish sauce which reportedly is still found today on modern Roman tables.

Sliced steak over Arugula or Tagliata con Rucola drizzled w/ balsamic.

Sliced steak over Arugula or Tagliata con Rucola drizzled w/ balsamic.

Arugula: Also known as Rocket and Rucola in Italian, this is a peppery, bitter semi-crunchy dry mustardy green leaf which I like to call “over-priced weeds” in America. In Italy, the stuff is cheap as it should be and I discovered my fondness for it underneath sliced Florentine steak (tagliata), under thin slices of cured beef bresaola (a Northern Italian treat), on pizza, in panini and as a pesto (try a arugula + pistachio nut pesto. It’s pretty damn tasty in pasta).  However, the Ancient Romans and Egyptians apparently were also pretty fond of the stuff and considered it an “aphrodisiac.” Not so bitter after all, hmmmm….

Che cavolo! (what a cabbage! and in Tuscan this expression is like "hot damn!")

Che cavolo! (what a cabbage! and in Tuscan this expression is like “hot damn!”)

Cabbage: Despite its sulfuric stench, this stuff will probably save your life if you make it apart of your varied diet. Cabbages are apart of the cruciferous family and umbrellas many vegetables under its name like cauliflower and kale. In Italian, cauliflower is cavolofiore and kale is cavolo nero. Cavolo meaning: cabbage. The middle ages used the stuff as healing tonics for fractures and wounds, then later treating sailors for scurvy and now it is touted for its cancer fighting compounds, high levels of vitamins and antioxidant phytochemicals- which are found in the pigment.  The more colorful your cabbage, the healthier it is. Which also means- the more bitter it results. The Romans adored cabbage- they believed that it fought melancholy. Which is funny considering people get sad at the prospect of having brussel sprouts for dinner.

Pretty much...

Pretty much…

Radicchio: Radicchio in the states in a luxury produce item, ringing in at a whopping upwards of $8 a pound. I laugh, I cry. In open air markets and grocery stores across the bel paese, the bitter stuff made for your liver’s dreams comes out at about 40cents-1eu a head. Or in other words, about $1-3 (MAX) per pound.  You may have seen radicchio on a trip or visit to the Veneto region as it is blended in with a variety of local dishes there from Risotto to rich salads and braised dishes involving fish in Treviso. Pliny the Elder gave the Egyptians credit for creating Radicchio from wild chicory varieties, it was the Italians who created modern varieties which we enjoy today. The sweetest fact: We can thank a little chemical called “Intybin” for the  bitter flavor of radicchio. This little chemical stimulates the appetite, the digestive system and here’s the kicker: assists in proper functioning of the liver and purifying your blood.

Homemade Tuscan Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi in Florence

Homemade Tuscan Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi in Florence

Spinach: By now, most people know why spinach is so healthy. It is full of vitamin C, folate, caratenoids and calcium. Being the bitter fuel that it is, you may find it draped in the comfort of sweeter foods such as ricotta and pastry based quiches.  Florence may have had a hand in making this bitter vegetable a hit across Europe when Caterina de Medici brought her favorite Italian foods like Spinach from her Florentine Medici homeland to France since she was married to Henry of Orleans (basically some boring regal French guy). So this is where the term “a la Florentine” was coined. Think: Eggs Florentine. This bitter leafy green was actually was put to use first by the Persians who incorporated it in even more bitter dishes like Kookoo Sabzi. From Iran, spinach traveled from China to Spain so that eventually the Italians could make a name for it and it is now known worldwide in a variety of Italian dishes like Gnudi, Ravioli, Pizza and more.

In love for eating your bitters,

Curious Appetite

For more about tasting bitters in Italy, consider my Aperitivo Tour. We taste lots of bitter spirits on this drink tour in Florence. Cheers!

How to use tripadvisor for Italy trip planning

Tuscan wine country at sunset

Tuscan wine country at sunset

Italy more than ever is perfect for the independent traveler and for most demographics/budgets. With all the information out there, and with sites like tripadvisor, planning a trip to Italy has never seemed easier.

Let me do my best to break it down.

Say you a are a first time visitor to Italy and you are a “foodie.” So you gotta  visit Tuscany, right?

Tuscany is renowned for red Chianti wine, Super Tuscan and Brunello wine for the more sophisticated wine traveler, pecorino cheese and cured meats like finocchiona, Tuscan prosciutto and wild boar salami. Truffles from Tuscany are not terribly bad either.

A super Tuscan feast for the eyes

A super Tuscan feast for the eyes

So you start looking for wine tours and food tours and tripadvisor is suddenly your virtual trip planner.

My suggestion for food and wine seekers planning a trip to Italy is to go on food tours, take a cooking class or sign up for a wine tour either in the countryside or by visiting wine bars in Florence. Investing in a travel consultant is not bad either because they can help you build some foodie itineraries and treasure hunts.

Fresh truffles from Tuscany. My picture which means these went in my belly.

Fresh truffles from Tuscany. My picture which means these went in my belly.

For all you DIY travel builders out there-  it is worth it to invest in a travel consultant and/or a tour guide. You may find the right place based off what other people liked and reported on tripadvisor, from a guidebook or what local bloggers are saying, but what if your palate and preferences differ from Joe the Yelper? What if you get stuck in a language barrier? Depending on tripadvisor to be your trip planner is  like going to a museum and just walking around. Yes, you found the attraction that thousands of others have rated however you may want to consider if  you are really going to experience anything other than being able to mark Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus “off your “bucket list.”

Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

Small investments in travel services automatically help increase your absorption during your travel experience. Even for super budget travelers, an audio guide is the first step to understanding what is all around you and with a little more,  a personal tour guide is the one who actually can interpret the information in an entertaining way.

Now back to food travel objectives…

I do think that in places like London, Seattle, Bristol, New York, etc, the local food culture has taught people to have a critical eye for quality culture consumption. Personally being from Seattle, I attribute part of my discernment for artisan food and demand for organic/sustainable agriculture to this food obsessed region!  But generally speaking, I don’t think you can trust that everyone who contributes reviews has the most sophisticated of palates. Therefore, when you read a review from Joe the Yelper, how can you be sure that he has the same eye for quality as you do? You can glean information from bloggers like myself, but what I do and where I go is going to be based on my personal tastes and where I fit demographically.  If you think we have something in common, great. But a travel consultant will be able to give you more unbiased advice based on your personal tastes, budget and travel objectives.

I do think tripadvisor has its place- I totally use it to see if any tour provider has a bad review or to see what people are saying about it in general. But I think travelers should treat tripadvisor as a trip planning supplement, and not as a trip planner. I of course think guidebooks are informative resources too, but I am hesitant to base my entire trip from cherry picked articles and randomly scoured travel tips. I’d much prefer to get advice from a local or someone with extensive experience either living or traveling there.

From a food tour this summer- Tuscan finger foods

From a food tour this summer- Tuscan finger foods

Going on food tours and tours in general are really fantastic, you get to do something social either with the tour group or do something more exclusive with a local guide on a private tour. Plus, when you meet your guide, they will give you tips and help you get your bearings on a new city.

So now I have thoroughly exhausted my schpeel on travel consultants and tours.

What should you do once you have found the right travel consultant?

-List your preferences and perhaps reference some articles you particularly found of interest in their blog, as every consultant/travel guide should have a blog.

-Your consultant should ask you a lot of questions. Remember- the whole point of you shucking out money for a consult is to get something you can’t get from a guidebook- and that is personalization.

- Content is key. Don’t be fooled by fancy presentations, graphics aka marketing fluff. The proof is in the pudding. If the tour company or travel consultant has compelling content in the services and experiences they provide, that supersedes their ability to master graphic design, adobe software and website plug-ins.

- Make sure they are responsive and willing to provide on the ground support. It is a major MAJOR plus if they speak the local language. Again- you are trying to get services that you would not be able to do on your own. A travel consultant who speaks the language can make bookings for you a lot easier.

In picking tours….

- Your travel consultant should have an extensive black book of tour operators and guides they trust and refer people to. And that is not easily found on the interwebs. Part of all this is that the consultant is bridging you to more exclusive experiences you would not be able to find on your own.

- Do cross-reference your consultant’s recommendations with sites like tripadvisor if possible. You don’t want to end up on a 1 star rated tour.

- Be specific about your objectives for your trip. I.e. If you really like Baroque art or fascinated by Ancient Rome- you should find a tour organized by art historians, docents or journalists. A travel consultant will know the right people. If  you’re a sommelier in training and you really want a wine tour organized by wine professionals. Or you are a total newby to wine and want a tasting tour that will not overwhelm you with wine shop talk or nerdy wine terms.

In my tripadvisor opinion,

Curious Appetite

For more information regarding travel consulting, trip planning and tours in Italy- visit my contact page.

 

Quick Cheese Guide of Tuscany

Any cheese hounds out there? This post is for you.  The beauty of Italy is the regional bounty of genuine, typical products. And if you find yourself in Tuscany (Florence, Siena, Lucca, Prato, Pisa, etc) you may find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of selection in the shops or food markets. Even in the tiny region of Tuscany, there is a plethora of local cheeses that are produced artisanally. Artisanal is not just some pretentious food word, although it is thrown around like it is. There is the textbook definition of artisanal, but to me it indicates products made from scratch, by hand, minimal mass machinery, with local unadulterated raw materials by food architects who inject a little bit of passion while respecting the history and identity of the product at hand. Artisanal foods are arduous to craft and the price tag reflects it.  But it tastes so worth it. I have been known to cry with pure joy over artisan cheese on my various jaunts and visits to working farms and creameries throughout Italy.

I would one day LOVE to host a food tour, pitting industrial products against artisanal ones to convince people that yes- that price difference is very much worth it. Life is…not too short, but too great to eat bad, plastic foods.

I digress, as usual.

Tuscany is synonymous with sheep’s milk cheese aka pecorino. Pecorino is the quite possibly the cheese icon of this roller coaster of rolling Tuscan hills Italian food mecca. One milk (sheep’s) and a wide array of curdled, cultured and aged goods.

When you find yourself in Tuscany, here are the cheeses you need to be on the look-out for (or taste on a food tour).

Primosale- "first salt" fresh pecorino

Primosale- “first salt” fresh pecorino

Pecorino Baccellone- Aka Primosale, is a white, creamy soft cheese intended to be consumed while still young, is created by salting and curing in a sort of brine for 24 hours before maturing to completion in 5 days or less. Perfect for eating on its own with some chutney or mostarda. Try a pepper jam! A light red wine or an aperitivo wine like Pecorino from Le Marche would be a tasty match.

Pecorino della Garfagnana-This pecorino is made from wild, local heritage breeds of sheep. If you are a food traveler, then you may notice this word attached to foods here and there: “della Garfagnana” and this is a Slow Food Presidia. That means this is an area that is promoted for gastronomic heritage and foods that come from here are treated with great pride. And please don’t take this as a plug for “Slow Food International” aka the big business of the artisan food industry.  As much as I cringe at their hypocrisy and resent having to bite my tongue, I can’t help but appreciate some aspects like Presidia. This cheese is a bit harder and more savory as it is aged for around 30 days before it is ready to be enjoyed with lets say some local red wine from Montecarlo.

The hills of the Mugello, where a lot of mountain aged cheese comes from in Tuscany

The hills of the Mugello, where a lot of mountain aged cheese comes from in Tuscany

Pecorino di Montagna- Always a pasteurized cheese then cultured with bacterial ferments. The great part about this cheese is that albeit aging for a pretty limited amount of time, it can be fairly complex and can stand up to aged counterparts in flavor and intensity as it is made in the mountains and usually has an ash rind or morchia (which apparently translates into oil sludge but that’s not right.) The reason that culturing this cheese in the mountains is special is because of the humidity variations which then affect the products’ acidity and overall taste. I think this cheese would be great with an aromatic white wine or even a mellow Chianti.

Scene from visiting a cheese farm in Pienza

Scene from visiting a cheese farm in Pienza

Pecorino di Pienza- This cheese is produced in the scenic agricultural area near the Montepulciano wine denomination. I’ll get to the point- you should have a Rosso di Montepulciano with this Tuscan cheese star. Pienza is very special to me for sheep’s milk cheese since I think the terroir (a snobby term for the land) is very rich and lush where the sheep graze on and thus produce a cheese with unique flavor profiles. This cheese is aged just a bit as it is usually incubated for a month-2 months. This cheese will taste different from let’s say Pecorino della Garfagnana even if aged for the same amount of time because the land in which these sheep live and graze is unique from each other. Also, the environment for cheese making is markedly higher in humidity thus affecting the acidity in the end product. This is what I find so fascinating about Italian food and why I am totally in support for safeguarding genuine Italian products and their respective territories.

The "terroir" of Pienza

The “terroir” of Pienza

Pecorino Senese- This pecorino cheese is made from low temperature processing and can be eaten almost immediately. It can be prepared either salted or unsalted and is usually released after 20 days of age. This is a  buttery, compact, soft and young bright cheese. I would have this cheese with a dry white wine from Tuscany like Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Pecorino Toscano- one of the many forms!

Pecorino Toscano- one of the many forms!

Pecorino Toscano DOP- DOP is a sort of denomination/indication of gastronomic identity for a food product.  It has a consortium that safeguards its recipe in a way and stands for “Denomination of Protected Origin” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). Pecorino Toscano is a general term to indicate sheep’s milk cheese from Tuscany. Stagionato per 12 mese means aged for 12 months and Fresca means fresh- since this is a general term to indicate the regional product, you may find it aged or fresh. I recommend the aged varieties because they will be nutty, savory and rich in umami crystals. Perfect to pair with a Chianti Classico Reserva from my favorite Chianti satellite: Castelnuovo Berardenga.

In your curious cheese and wine discoveries,

Curious Appetite

Interested in visiting some cheese farms in Tuscany? Cheese tasting on food tours? More suggestions for choosing wines (i.e. from which producers?) to go with these cheeses? Drop me a line.

The Whale Wins. Seattle.

The ocean of restaurants in Seattle collided and faded into a background of white noise when the delicate chef Renee Erickson behind the Walrus and The Carpenter came upon the very critical dining scene in Seattle. As I previously documented, my heart melted at first slurp of their bright, meaty zingy local oysters and the most memorable steak tartare of my life. Even throughout my eating adventures in Italy, nothing could erase my raw food memories of this Walrus, just like the elephant that never forgets.

The latest baby from this beloved foodie creature is one heck of a whale. And pitted against another Seattle restaurant sweetheart, Joule, rests the winner located just steps past the Fremont canal: The Whale Wins. Indeed she does.

Picked vegetables speckled in tangy mustard seed, hot mamma peppery date mostarda and a soft, ash rind slab of savory chevre-like cheese, happy brothy clickity clank meaty clams with bits of sweet buttery corn, the best (THE BEST) moist, juicy half roast chicken tucked over a puree of apple cream and a side of her boiled daughter….and alas yet another heart melting tartare of lamb with a caper and olive oil mesh. All perfectly noshed with a bottle of french rose’.

It goes without saying that local purveyors are showcased with style and seasonal grub is sourced to a precious T making this Whale a slow food winner.

Service so perfect, I could leave Seattle forever with the sweetest taste in my mouth. Graceful. Tasteful. Not overbearing. Not tearing out plates from under us the second the last bite appears on the scene. And not to mention with a gorgeous ginger beard to match. (Yes, I may be one of the few women on earth who melt for the gingers) This, Seattle, is a restaurant worth every one of your fanciful trendy dining pennies.

Please note that for the dessert- please place your bets on the chocolate rich moist yet slightly crumbly brownie with a sort of English clotted cream sauce and to steer away from the coconut panna cotta and table grapes. Unless you want to pretend you’re having something healthy for dessert but with the same amount of fat and calories.

Enjoy, nonetheless.

Pickled beets of my heart

Pickled beets of my heart

Lamb Tartare with raw, silky egg. Raw flavor!

Lamb Tartare with raw, silky egg. Raw flavor!

The best half chicken...ever. Crispy fried capers atop completes this whale of flavor

The best half chicken…ever. Crispy fried capers atop completes this whale of flavor

In love for my quality eating city,

Curious Appetite

Looking for more restaurants in Seattle that I curiously approve? Check out my archives! Smooches xo

Pasta con le sarde- Cucina povera from Sicily

I have said this once and I’ll say it until I am blue in the face- I love cucina povera aka “poor” cuisine. When the Italians faced hunger during WWII, they foraged buckwheat in the mountains and thus was born delicious hearty dishes like pizzoccheri. They gathered chestnuts in the woods and created decadent desserts like castagnaccio. And many other foods with wild foods like buckwheat and chestnuts. When Americans had to learn to survive during the depression, they came up with even more depressing meals like ketchup sandwiches and potato soups. While this is not the sort of history I intend to make light of or make jokes about- Italians definitely have l’arte d’arrangiarsi down when it comes to getting by.

They say what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. And what didn’t kill the Italians of the survivalist generations made Italian food culture to be the one of the most sought out cuisines in the world, bringing travelers in by the millions to taste Italian food.

Pasta con le Sarde is a simple pasta dish made with sardines and what is sort of lying around the kitchen (fennel, breadcrumbs, raisins, etc) Recently, I re-made the dish for the first time and in the spirit of cucina povera, I made some variations based on what I had just lying around the kitchen.

This is the recipe I followed, found through Jamie Oliver, a new world chef who found inspiration from the old world, whole-heartedly advocates to the simplicity of good food, accessible to everyone. While his private label of 3 quid pastas has raised a few eyebrows, I still appreciate the work he does in the culinary world.

Ingredients (please note my variations, crossed out!)
  • 6 baby fennel bulbs, including green tops
    6 spring onions and the tops!

  • 6 tbsp olive oil
    more like 3! I am all about healthy fat but there are limits!

  • 1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced

  • 1 tsp saffron threads

  • 40 g sultanas or raisins, soaked in warm water Instead of raisins, because I hate raisins, I used chopped DATES!!

  • 200 g toasted pine nuts too rich for my blood! I had some slivered almonds around and used about 100g of these- so good!

  • 4 sustainably sourced anchovy fillets

  • 12 fresh sustainably sourced fresh sardines, cleaned and boned, heads removed, to produce butterfly fillets

  • 2 tbsp toasted breadcrumbs

  • Bucatini, to serve Whole wheat, organic spaghetti!

Method

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over a medium heat and sauté the onion, a clove of chopped garlic and chopped green onion, tops too,  for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add a dash of dry white wine, the softened chopped dates and the slivered almonds and simmer over a low heat for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the anchovies with remaining oil in a small saucepan over low heat for few minutes until they disintegrate, then add to sauce.

Add the sardines to the saucepan and cook for 3–4 minutes. Season generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and cook for a further 3–4 minutes.

Cook pasta in boiling,salted water until al dente. Drain and serve with sauce, sprinkling breadcrumbs on top.

Pasta con Le Sarde (almonds and dates make it great:P)

Pasta con Le Sarde (almonds and dates make it great:P)

…And voila! Not pictured: Wine Pairing of a Washington Chardonnay from Kiona Vineyards (sourced from the Red Mountain AVA). Gotta drink local, right? ;)

I’d say that since Sicilian peasant food and Sicilian cuisine in general has a touch of influence from the more exotic parts of the East, the dates to me tasted better and possibly may have a better gastronomic identity than the raisins. I should write a post about the only food in the world that I hate: raisins. Anyways!

If you want help finding any of these ingredients and you live in the states and furthermore, have a Trader Joe’s near you, Mr. Joe will supply most of these of not all of these needs- especially the slivered almonds! I bet pistachios would work too! I highly suggest this alteration especially since almonds and pistachios have gastronomic identity in Sicilian cuisine, too.

In curious love of cooking,

Curious Appetite

Interested in learning more about Sicilian cuisine? Consider taking a cooking class in Sicily on your next trip to Italy! For more details,  contact me and I’ll put you in touch with the most genuine culinary activities Italy has to offer. Buon appetito!

10 things I love about Italy

Still being held (voluntarily) captive in my hometown of Seattle, I have had some time to reflect and really think about the things that compel me to want to live in Italy.

You may be wondering…so why ARE you in Seattle??

People like simple answers and simple stories. The response is not so simple especially since I do have plans to return to Florence. I have finally come to the terms with that I am a sort of professional nomad. Which is not bad. After all, Rick Steves one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the travel industry, has spent the last 30 years of his life living in between realities and suitcases.

So why am I here…well to be honest I had some family events to attend. And I wanted to take that opportunity to work more on some projects away from the distractions that Italy holds (food, wine, sun, bicycles, gorgeous men…etc) and to get some more incubation time in a city so obsessed with work and professional growth.

If you have read my blog at all, you will know by now that I digress from time to time. It is because I want to insert that little touch of humanity.

What are the 10 things I love about Italy?

1. 2. and 3.: Since these are the obvious, I will lump them all together: Food, wine and men. Seattle has some good food but it usually is drowning in sauce while lacking soul. The only places I am 100% content with are hole-in-the-wall family run joints, 9 times out of ten these are “ethnic” restaurants. Or kinda fancy joints like Le Zinc, Bar Cotto, etc which I have the pleasure of visiting on the foodie tours I get to do in Seattle. Also happy hours in Seattle…hmmm I need to write a round-up about that…

Anywho!

I love the casareccia comfort food restaurants in Florence, fresh pasta, the food trucks dolling out cow guts (lampredotto forever!) and cheap wine and the endless array of my favorite drug: gelato in Florence.

A collage of my instagram musings of all my favorite Italian things. Not pictured: Men

A collage of my instagram musings of all my favorite Italian things. Not pictured: Men

Wine produced in the US, unless it is from some high-end producer (who I am discovering on my wine tours) it basically all tastes like tart white grape juice or vanilla scented dried prune juice. The men? Italians have tragically stunning style. Some men had better style than me! I sometimes felt like a greasy hippie in comparison to their neatly ironed shirts, immaculate season appropriate shoes that matched perfectly with flattering slacks, wearing scarfs like a woman wears red lipstick. To say the least, I am very impressed with the amount of effort Italians put into their appearance. That may sound shallow, but I look at fashion as art and if you can have style, any style..even from thift store…it shows you have some inkling of taste and creativity.  If any of you have been to Seattle, I need say no more. Two pieces of advice gents: A northface jacket is not sexy and neither are your flip flops.  Yes, people may have their stereotypes about Italian men, but I should write a whole piece on that.

4. Balsamic glaze is basically treated like ketchup, but is way more classy…and delicious. Often  my instagram feed, blurts out how I use the cracky stuff.

Balsamic glaze on sheep's milk cheese and caprese salad

Balsamic glaze on sheep’s milk cheese and caprese salad

5. Dinner starts at 8 but really usually 9. I honestly feel sad about our dining culture in America. We eat around 6 or 7 because of the daily grind or…because we’re just boring. I love how when people go out to dinner in Italy, they savor and enjoy. Usually taking an evening stroll post-meal and not getting back in our cars to drive home. I mean, it’s not that this NEVER happens in Italy- people have cars and drive home and there are boring people in Italy, too. I think that thanks to lively, passionate culture the norm is more of what I am describing. Although this kind of culture is on the eroding decline THANKS TO AMERICA!

A little Italian lesson for ya!

A little Italian lesson for ya!

6. COFFEE!!!!!! A coffee is like a euro (an espresso! or 1.20 for a velvety cappuccino) and there are usually way too delicious pastries also for a euro to go with! My new FAVORITE pastry is pistachio filled cornetti (brioche). If I am feeling decadent, I’ll splurge for a nutella filled croissant. I love that getting a coffee is still an affordable luxury for everyone. Unlike the states, where getting coffee is like $5 and not something you should be spending money on everyday. 30eu per month vs $150. I think that would be a hard expense for a student, the unemployed, families and older folks living on small pensions.

This little pistachio  cornetto will average1eu- 1.50eu

This little pistachio cornetto will average1eu- 1.50eu

7. ITALIANS HAVE OPINIONS! About everything! And they don’t take heated debates to heart or personally! They are the best conversationalists.  I finally found the place where I feel at home. Where I can criticize just about everything in jest and not be put referred to as “strong minded, outspoken bla bla bla”….I JUST HAVE A MIND AND DECIDED TO USE IT!

8.  Il dolce di far niente. (the sweetness of doing nothing) I personally despise the pressure in Seattle to be the go-getter, the bread maker, the mountain climber-entrepreneur-writer-organic-eating-CSA member-musician-know-it-all do gooder. What happened to just sitting on a park bench with your own thoughts and without a smartphone?

9. The importance of friends and family. I can’t tell you how much my personal philosophy has changed thanks to the generosity and the strong values for community Italians have. When you have a friend there, you can call them on the fly and see who they are out with and join the group. In Seattle, I have found that social events are planned well in advance and there is not much of sporadic, organic gatherings mixing groups of friends. People actually like their families in Italy (or at least put on a good show of doing so) and worship their parents and siblings.

10. SUNSETS.

Taken from Ponte Santa Trinita' in Florence last year...

Taken from Ponte Santa Trinita’ in Florence last year…

This was not a very conventional list, but this is only part of what I love about Italy. And I didn’t even mention her amazing sights…

In love for Italia,

Curious Appetite

Want to know more about the things to love about Italy? Become a fan of my facebook page!

News from Curious Appetite

Hello, curious readers! I thought I’d give you all a little update and news about all the happenings over at the curious “headquarters!” As you may or may not know, I am currently in Seattle counting down the days until I can prance around my chianti wonderland of Florence again! While I am counting down, I am up to some no good food business. Well, maybe not “no good” but some goodies are in the works.

1stly- I’d like to let all my readers know that I am now on Facebook! Let’s stay connected! Why? Well, there I post more live updates and share articles about Italy whenever possible. Pictures and postcards are a given. If I find a deal, a new restaurant, a shiny new blog or some travel tips- my facebook page will be the first to see it. Come on over! http://www.facebook.com/curiousappetite

For all things food and Italy!

For all things food and Italy!

2ndly…any foodporn chasers out there? I have a pretty active instagram feed, too. If you are curious how I see Seattle, I post shots of the city as well. Just in case you’re just dying to understand Seattle and why it is the fastest growing city in America! Follow up! http://www.instagram.com/curiousappetite

Our city of Seattle

Our city of Seattle- seen through my instagram lenses;)

In Florence, I was leading walking food tours of the city. In Seattle, I am pretty much doing the same thing. I am currently giving wine tours in Woodinville, food tours of Pike Place Market and dinner + drink crawls in Belltown for a couple of pretty amazing tour companies. It’s another reason to like my facebook page- I usually post pictures from the day of touring and if you can’t make it over to Seattle for a tour- you can live vicariously through the scenes:)

If you are or will be in Seattle, I will be giving wine tours and walking food tours through the winter until I head back to Florence. The wine tours are completely escorted in fancy shiny cars  (let me drive you around while you drink the best wines that Washington makes!) so don’t worry about needing to brave the cold. And the walking tours? Well, we have many pit-stops that are nice and toasty. In any case, these will be fun activities to keep from going hungry (or bored) this fall and winter in Seattle.

If you would like to tour with me in Seattle, contact me! I’ll send you more links and booking forms.

Another piece of news is that thanks to the networking power of FoodportunityI just started working with the Pike Place Market and their new Atrium kitchen! Come join me for a market tour and cooking demo in late October. This culinary event at the Pike Place Market will demonstrate farm-to-table cooking with Tuscan Gnudi while tasting though the Pike Place Market.

Fresh, gnudi!

Fresh, homemade gnudi from a cooking class I assisted  with regularly in Florence, Italy.

In Late October, I will be taking folks to taste through the markets and meet the best purveyors of the Pacific Northwest bounty and follow up with a hands-on cooking demo (and light lunch) of these Tuscan Gnudi! Tickets can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets here:  http://bpt.me/870711

In early November, I will be offering another food event but instead of Gnudi we will make fresh tagliatelle pasta from scratch! Tickets and information for the November date can be found here:   http://bpt.me/870727

10% of the ticket proceeds goes towards the Pike Place Market Foundation. Hope to cook and taste with you this Fall at the market!

Well- that’s it! Hope to see you in the social media world, on a tour or at my food event with Pike Place Market!

For the love of good news,

Curious Appetite

5 places in Seattle to get (my) Aperitivo fix

For those of you who have not traveled to Italy and/or a first time reader of this blog- secondo me (according to me;) one of the best inventions Italians have ever made in food and drink history is the art of Aperitivo. I originally touched on it in my Aperitivo in Florence round-up and now I’m seeking it out in Seattle.  Meaning literally “to open up your stomach” and the habit originating from Milan, an Aperitivo serves to stimulate your appetite starting with a bitter based aperitif cocktail like an Aperol Spritz or a Negroni along with a buffet selection of light, salty snacks before heading off to dinner. The Italians are great not only because they are tragically chic and gave the world pizza and Chianti, but because they have a medicinal, practical reason for just about every alcoholic beverage. Aperitivo serves to help prime your stomach for the mind blowing dinner that will undoubtedly ensue. If you are in Seattle, albeit lacking the buffet mounds, there is no need to feel without it. Thanks to Seattle being so lucky with an explosively detailed food and drink scene, there are thankfully a handful of places to get an (or my) Aperitivo fix.

Here are my top 5 recommendations:

Artusi- A beautiful mother-in-law sequel of Jason Stratton’s Cascina Spinasse, Artusi is designed as an Italian cocktail with small bites bar and has one of the most extensive selection of bitters, amari to create skillful aperitifs, not to mention carefully selected Italian wines to match the food.

Artusi’s Cindy Crawford: Gin, Grapefruit, Cocchi Americano, Grapefruit Bitters

The brightly lit nook in Capitol Hill is where it’s at for a pre-meal craft Italian cocktail mixed smoothly with utterly traditional Italian bitters and amari I have only managed to find in the bel paese or ideal for a gut wrenching post-meal grappa. Drinks aside, the small bites are distinct and concise: cured meats, small pacific northwest inspired salads, artisan cheeses and tasty crostini.

Affettati (coppa) and oily, crispy crostini

Affettati (coppa) and oily, crispy crostini

Serafina Osteria and Enoteca- Want to get a feel of being in a stylish cocktail lounge in Manhattan with Italian flair? Serafina being no stranger to the Seattle food and drink enthusiasts black book, has got just the right amount of soul for a Prosecco and Aperol Spritz pitstop or a light, Italian beer, which is also something Italians tend to drink before a meal unless you intend on having a pizza which in that case the beer train would continue on. One note on the beer here is that they have managed to get their paws on Menabrea which is a brewery located in the Slow Food region of Piedmont and is a tried and true albeit lacking prestige in “craft” quality. At happy hour, Serafina’s has some flavorful twists on Italian finger foods like bruschetta with goats cheese and mint, or white bean spread accented with sweet and spicy peppers.  Happy Hour runs till 6 and only at the bar- so beware.

La Spiga Osteria- Owned by Italians in the flesh, La Spiga has no-mercy for anything else but the traditional flavors and drinks from the motherland. The bar is well stocked and primed with the best wines and Italian spirits available on the international market and not to mention a lovely happy hour list to match which are undoubtedly inspired by the regions in which they originate, what I like to call the food lover’s heaven of the Emilia Romagna. When at La Spiga, you cannot miss their prosciutto di parma with a side of castelvetrano olives and a light, Aperitivo-friendly white wine according to the barkeep’s suggestion. Since to work here, I can imagine you must be an Italian expert, you can trust just about anything they serve to you.

(La Spiga, google images)

(La Spiga, google images)

 

Bar del Corso- In Florence, legend has it that the Negroni was invented there when Count Negroni smacked his fists on the bar and said “make me an Americano but without water, fill it with gin!” For a Negroni experience outside of Florence, Bar del Corso is where it is at. Ask an Italian who adores Aperitivo even with half a smile what their all-time favorite aperitivo is and they will most likely report “The Negroni.” Or maybe just the Florentines;) The place is also famed for their gorgeous pizzas which are a great segway and quite possibly may be the object of your appetite post-aperitivo.

Antico Americano- a negroni without the gin;)

Antico Americano- a negroni without the gin;)

Barolo- Located in South Lake Union, Barolo is solid for happy hour foods and Aperitivo drinks. Aperitivo drinks need not be always a bitter based cocktail but also a good glass of wine to hold up to the various flavors and salty foods that are typical to the Aperitivo “habit” such as a Pecorino from Le Marche, a Vermentino from Tuscany or a Falanghina from Campagnia. With one of these wines, I would not be able to miss their Polpo con Patate (Octopus with Potatoes) salad which is simply exquisite during the warmer months in Seattle. Otherwise, a light red and a small pasta portion shall suffice in most other months.

And there you have it. It is official. I am going through appetite wrenching withdrawals of my dear Florence. It’s dramatically tragic. And the only way I am remedying it is by seeking out the best Italian surrogates in Seattle until I can return to my bel paese...the land of the REAL aperitivo. Non vedo l’ora…

In food and drink indulgence,

Curious Appetite

psssst. Want to paint the town red with me? I offer  “aperitivo” style food and drink  tours in both Seattle and Florence.

My 5 favorite areas for eating in Florence

Being back in Seattle, I am amazed at how big this city really is. Recently, because I torture myself to stubbornly avoid conveniences of a car or bus, I took about an hour walking from one neighborhood (Greenlake to Fremont) to another which are actually quite close to each other on the whole scale of the city. I realize this after living in teeny tiny Florence, where I could walk from one end of the city (Santa Croce) to the other (Oltrarno, Santo Spirito) in about 20 minutes.

However as tiny as Florence is, about 5 areas/neighborhoods come immediately to mind when looking for consistently good food in Florence. While I have endless places to eat in my massive food memory banks, I’ve narrowed it down to a few. Here are my instinctive opinions on where to eat in Florence:

1. Sant’Ambrogio. Commonly lumped in with Santa Croce, it is one of the best if not best neighborhoods in Florence. You can generally bank on a place not sucking if you wonder around the streets of this area. Places of note are: Gilda’s, La Drogheria, La Ghiotta, Cibreo (the tiny trattoria NOT the ristorante which is overpriced in my opinion) and La Divina Pizza.

Fruits of the sea at La Ghiotta, Sant'Ambrogio

Fruits of the sea at La Ghiotta, Sant’Ambrogio

2. Oltrarno. On the other side of the river, ya know Santo Spirito. This is what everyone coins as the Brooklyn of Florence. I kind of despise that term and standard. Florence was here 1st so isn’t Brooklyn the Florence of New York City? Anyways. Basically lots of style chasers and beautiful people hang out here.  More notably, people who want to escape the herds of tourists. And people with distinct tastes. Places of note are: Vivanda Gastronomia, Osteria Santo Spirito and Il Chicco di Caffè. No, I do not rave about Gustapizza just like everyone else. And not La Casalinga either.

fancy, artisan Tuscan appetizer platter at Vivanda. And their wine, too.

fancy, artisan Tuscan appetizer platter at Vivanda. And their wine, too.

3. Santa Maria Novella. Yes, good eating near the train station- yes you can! But be careful! There are some of the best mom and pop trattoria’s in this area but also some of the dumpiest tourist traps. Places of note are: Trattoria Sostanza and Trattoria Giorgo.

The rustic scene inside Trattoria Sostanza (google images)

The rustic scene inside Trattoria Sostanza (google images)

4. San Frediano. Take a jaunt down past Santo Spirito on Borgo San Frediano to eat in one of the cutest residential areas of Florence while being just outside the historical center. This is really the place to escape the herds. This is probably my favorite next to Sant’Ambrogio for eating in Florence. During the day, there is an amazing food truck/stand I recall as being sublime for all things offal named: L’Trippaio di San Frediano. This food stand is also amazing because they have an array of first courses for lunch like pasta dishes with boar meat and potato ravioli. So amazing, you cannot miss this if you are a street food chaser like me. Other places of note: Sabatino, Il Vico del Carmine (one of my favorite pizza joints in Florence) and I’ve read great things about Io Osteria Personale. The New York Times wrote about it so it’s gotta be good, right?

Can't ever have too much lampredotto cow guts foodporn. (google images)

Can’t ever have too much lampredotto cow guts foodporn. (google images)

5. San Lorenzo. I really think this is a bashed neighborhood. Yes, it is touristic but for good reason! It is the epicenter of Florence’s food history with the central market and still has some serious Florentine soul. Yes, it is now filled with a bunch of tourist crap and overpriced leather selling bozos, but you can’t let that interfere with you experiencing San Lorenzo and its food. Places of note are: Trattoria Mario (only open for lunch! Always a goodie!), lunch at Nerbone in the Central Market for comfort Tuscan food, Casa del Vino for a good wine/snack bar and Focaccine Bondi for one of the best, cheap hole-in-the-wall panini experiences of your life.

Bistecca at Mario's.

Bistecca at Mario’s.

Been to any of my haunts or have one of your own? Leave a comment below and share your experience!

In food hunting,

Curious Appetite

Planning a trip to Florence? Looking for more restaurant, eating and drinking tips in Florence? Drop me a line. I offer travel consults, reservation services, tours and more.

 

A weekend binge of flavors: Restaurant Roux and Shanik in Seattle

I debated making a onesy post for two very distinctly different restaurants in Seattle, but I do so because a. it’s my blog and b. because it is a testament yet again to how wonderful the food scene is in Seattle.

So granted you can in theory eat diversely in Italy, it is for sure not as abundant as what I am seeing in my larger “hometown” of Seattle.  And this is what I am rediscovering in my time back.

Let’s get to business. 1st up I have: Shanik.  An Indian restaurant in South Lake Union (Seattle) which whips up fine, modern Indian food and is directed by the chef Meeru Dhalwala who gained initial fame and a loyal following from her Vancouver based restaurant Vij’s. My curiosity was first tickled after reading The Stranger’s write up which spoke of cricket paratha (a sort of flatbread). I am a curious eater so I just had to see this place for myself. I then cross referenced yelp for reviews and found that some yelpers had some unsettling chicken korma with the quality of dishes in proportion to the pricing. I took the plunge regardless to see for myself, after all- yelpers can be whiny and untrained critics at best. A restaurant has to make money. It costs a lot to run a restaurant in American cities like Seattle.  I struggle with this statement as I have a hard time swallowing the exclusivity of restaurant dining. But you know, it’s just the way it is. Italy is a cheap place to eat because the economics of food is just different. Most great places are family fun for decades and their overhead is simply lower.

At Shanik, we were sat by the kitchen. Some people despise this but I do not. I want to see who is making my food. I am not some snob who thinks I am above being near the kitchen. I am curious to catch the behind the scene glances and the occasional whiffs of what they are whipping up which enhances my tasting experience. After all, your taste buds are only as good as your sense of smell.

At the table there were rounds of calculated rotated dishes of smoky, gamey ground lamb kebabs with a creamy fennel seed curry and a side of sprouted mung beans for health sake which served to compliment the meaty, lusty kebab’ery.

Because I believe in eating before food porning, I thank you google images

Lamb kebabs at Shanik. I thank you google images.

The quirky cricket paranta that had serious kicky spice with a chunky chutney that served as a texture buffer with a Pacific Northwest topping of sauteed cabbage and kale.

Cricket bread. Google images.

Cricket bread. (Photo credit Zagat)

Mains included a very flavorful spinach sag and housemade paneer cheese curd goodness with no mercy spicy turmeric rich dal lentils on the side. What was really the home run was the grilled venison medallions with a date and tamarind puree which provided that dolcastro sweet/salty/savory tart flavor fusion on the palate that left a pleasant unending flavorful finish on the palate. Intermittently cleaning the palate with a soft Pilsner which renewed my buds for the experience over and over.

Shanik's Saag and Daal with Chapati. (photo credits Urbanspoon)

Shanik’s Saag and Daal with Chapati. (photo credits Urbanspoon)

I disagree with disgruntled yelpers. I am glad there are sites like yelp which provide a second opinion from critics and the staff praises, but they must be taken with a grain of salt. Most of these people quite frankly don’t know what the hell they are talking about.

The service was swift, sincere and unobtrusive. Intuitive and courteous. They did not interrupt in my tasting parade 3 minutes in with my mouth full nor did they obsessively refill my water glass every 4 sips. The barman even was kind enough to sample us on a few beers and a cider before able to choose the one that was just right.

In other words, the curious approves.

Next on the docket is Restaurant Roux in Fremont (Seattle).

The chef behind this soulful kitchen is the mastermind behind the food truck Where Ya at Matt. Aside from being a handsome sight to behold with style, Matt has not ceased to impress me with his creative twists on Southern inspired food and has wooed me again with his French inspired Creole joint in the once great watering hole “The Buckaroo.” In case you didn’t already know, I spent 7 years living in the south and hush puppies and fried chicken livers were apart of my mother’s dinner menu rotation as a teen growing up. I was pretty spoiled by my mother’s cooking as she formed my palate and appreciation for gastronomic identity and place.

What I loved about this place is we spent hours here and did not feel like we overstayed our welcome. Matt is great because of his presence, the restaurant is filled with some soul. It is rare to find the chef of a restaurant in Seattle actually in the front of house, being a social counterpart to the experience greeting and meeting diners as they savor through. That is what I find missing in the fine eating scene in Seattle: soul and warmth. This is why, albeit inconsistent in quality, I love eating at mom and pop hole in the walls in Italy. We started at the bar with cheap tallboy beers and jalapeno cheddar hushpuppies. This is another 10 points for Matt in my book- he has a little something for everyone and not just 8 dollar pretentious beers. You can easily experience Roux without burning a massive hole in your wallet.

Sweet and salty hushpuppies fried to crispy, moist heavenly heights.

Sweet and salty hushpuppies fried to crispy, moist heavenly heights.

The hushpuppies were a great mix of spice, corny carb, sharp cheddar, sweet and salt as they were drizzled with a smidgen of honey, touched with lemon and specked with flaked sea salt. After we had leisurely enjoyed our bar snacks and tallboys, we were whisked over to a table for dinnertime. Roux has an open area where the plate staging and sous chef prep takes place and I love it. Next time I am in, I will definitely have to sit at this side of the bar. I was lucky enough to get to grill the sous chef on his picks and he said “you gotta have the pigtail. period.” So pigtail it was. I do not shy away from foods of the offal sort. In fact, one of my favorite foods in Florence is lampredotto (basically cow guts).

The pig tail was subtly smothered in a Korean inspired sauce and speckled with kimchi a top. The tail smacked me in the face with crisp, fat and fall off the bone melt on your fork meatiness. Please take note this is not for the faint of fat. This tail was a episode of crispy layered fat.

Smack your taste buds with pig tail at Roux. Sous chef's pick.

Smack your taste buds with pig tail at Roux. Sous chef’s pick.

Worth noting was a starter portion of fried chicken livers and gizzards with a silky, creamy spicy mayo-like sauce which brought me back to my fried organ eating days in Memphis. The batter was flavored and spiced quite nicely, not over fried nor overly overwhelming as offal can do.

Other noteworthy dishes at the table was an explosively delicious Shrimp and Grits (which I will order next time even if the shrimp do come from the Gulf) and Fried Chicken and Rice which sounds boring but was totally juicy, breaded to the perfect crumb and juicily fried. My only ONLY critique (which I should give otherwise my readers might think I’ve gone all buttery and nice) is that there was a tad much salt in just about everything.  Which was a shame since the food was beautifully spiced and balanced otherwise, it was as if someone in the kitchen made a masterpiece without the crutches of salt but didn’t have quite the confidence to make the plunge without jumping in a little more naked.  But maybe they had a salt spill in the kitchen or I am not used to the American standard of salting anymore.

So I will leave you, my dear readers with a sweet closing. My jaw dropped at the sight of the red velvet cakes on the staging platform of the open kitchen bar, but my heart dropped more at the sheer delight of nibbling (devouring) this banana cream pie with a cream delicately touched with peanut butter and a micropinch of salt. Perhaps this is where the careful salting energy was focused because it definitely had the exact precision of sweet and salty euphoria.

Diabetes, I'm coming for you with this Banana Cream Pie.

Diabetes, I’m coming for you with this Banana Cream Pie.

In your eating revel,

Curious Appetite

p.s. Looking for more tips for eating in Seattle? In addition to updates about Italy and random deep thoughts, I throw in the occasional Seattle restaurant alert on my facebook page and eating scenes on my instagram feed.  Cheers!