Once upon a time—or as they say it Italy, c’era una volta—before I ever went to Italy, I had an Italian tutor who insisted I learn the basics: the tenses, the moods, the irregular verbs, the articles and prepositions, and fundamental vocabulary. Somewhere between the conditional and the past perfect subjunctive, I finally opened my mouth.
That was over 25 years ago. Today I am fluent in Italian in some instances, for example when the subject is dinner at the local trattoria or the paintings of Caravaggio, and passable when the conversation turns to politics or traffic on the autostrada. And the longer it is between visits to Italy or meeting up with another Italian speaker, the more I find the need to brush up on my language skills. In my quest to improve and maintain my language skills throughout these more than 2 decades, I’ve purchased most of the printed and audio programs on the market. Some were good, some were not so good, but all were boring.
Broccolo romanesco, just another everyday item in the markets in Rome, but a thing of wonder at a Whole Foods in Florida. Good thing I was there that day to make the ID. The shoppers were perplexed, even a bit scared. (You know, sort of how a full body snapper on ice can cause mass revulsion.)
I, on the other hand, wanted to pick up the whole bunch and hug them. How can something you cook in a steamer have such an effect?
It happens when the smallest thing can make one Rome-sick, such as seeing this broccoli-cauliflower out of its element. The effect is one of longing, of sweet remembrance for a place I once called my second home and that at times seemed more like my real home than any place I’ve ever lived.
Now if I could just find one of those purple tinged Roman artichokes, tender to the stem with no fuzzy stuff inside. How Rome-sick would that make me!
Con gusto translates to “in good taste”. If you’re eating with an Italian and he/she says gustoso, that means “tasty, good”.
My obsession with the food of Italy began many years ago. The exact moment can be traced to my first meal in a restaurant in Rome, ordered for me by Roman friends (the menu was unintelligible to me back then and contained no chicken parm or the like) that hit me like a lightning bolt from antipasto to dessert. I’ve been impossible to eat with ever since. Italian restaurants in the US mostly disappoint and finding quality Italian products for my kitchen, almost impossible. Almost!
So for all my friends and readers who wonder why I’m always talking and writing about Gustiamo, I present this video of Beatrice Ughi, founder of Gustiamo. She’ll explain.
Of course, after you watch this, you’ll want to order something. In this year of a disastrous olive harvest in much of Italy, there’s so much awful olive oil in our markets falsely labeled “Extra Virgin” and “Made in Italy” (at such ridiculously low prices it should make you wonder), I think you should do as I do and treat yourself to the real thing. Enter the code FOR and you’ll receive my discount.
I challenge you to dunk your bread in any of these incredible olive oils—personally selected, tasted, and authenticated by Beatrice herself—and then try to be happy with anything less. Like me, you’ll be impossible to eat with.
Botox is getting cheaper and so is travel to Italy. (Experts predict the euro may equal the dollar by mid-year.) While the former may smooth your furrowed brow, a dream trip to Rome, or Venice, or the Tuscan countryside can provide a lift like nothing else.
So may I suggest that instead of botox (or, if you’re able, in addition to) book a dream trip to Italy with Susan Van Allen. Susan and I have been friends since we met at a reception at the Belgian Embassy in Rome over eight years ago and together have drooled all over the wonders of Italy from Venice to Sicily. We both know how Italy (even more than those cosmetic injections) can transform, enhance, and refresh.
In my 23 years of touring, living, and loving Italy, I’ve been renewed many times over by the food, the artistic masterpieces, the landscape designed by both nature and man, by the sense of la dolce vita that permeates the culture. And each time I return home, I carry the dream back with me.
Susan knows how to bring that dream, that energizing experience, into your life. The worst that can happen is— just like botox— you might have to go back for touch-ups. It’s addictive.
OK, so I’m not in Italy this year for the Epiphany (that would be today, January 6, by the way), and I’m not a child. But if I were, I would be expecting something fun and exciting, because I think I’ve been a really good girl.
January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season for Italians and for their little bambine is the day good behavior is rewarded with presents left by La Befana. According to Italian legend, the Three Wise Men asked an old woman—famous for giving good directions—the way to Bethlehem and, if she would like to come along, that would be just fine with them. La Befana said, no, she didn’t think so, and then changed her mind and set out on her own. But alas! …her GPS let her down, and in spite of flying around in circles forever and ever, she was too late.
She never did find the Christ child and has been searching ever since. So now as a way of making up for her lost chance, she hops back on her broom and delivers toys and goodies to all the sleeping children of Italy on the eve of the Epiphany.
What she does the rest of the year has been a matter of speculation for some time in Italy. Some say she directs traffic at Piazza Venezia in Rome, others that she mans a gondola on the Venetian canals, but I have a friend who swears she has been employed by the Italian government to sweep away the mess in Parliament which takes up all her time every day of the year— except for one.
Capo D’Anno, top of the year in Italy, encompassing both December 31 and January 1, a celebration both sacred and profane.
Scratch the surface of any holiday in Italy and you’ll find traces of ancient Rome and early Christianity at the base. New Year’s Eve belongs to Saint Sylvester, and New Year’s Day and the month of January honor the Roman god Janus who with his two faces could see both the past and the coming years.
But what really counts is the food. (This is Italy, after all.) To insure a prosperous and healthy year, throughout most of Italy you must eat a bowl of lentil soup at midnight. For good reason: lentils are shaped like miniature Roman coins. So there you go!
Of course, this meal is no sacrifice since lentil soup is most delicious, especially when the lentils themselves are the soft-skinned and richly nutritious La Valletta Lenticchie from Gustiamo. Entering the code “FOR” gets you a discount, and since they’re from Roman territory, your chances for a financially rewarding 2015 is almost guaranteed.
I miss spending those long months in Italy no matter what time of year, but I have to admit to feeling safer here in Florida on New Year’s Eve. Harkening back to pagan superstitions is the Italian custom of smashing crockery, dishes, urns, and glassware (thus banishing bad spirits), and then tossing unwanted objects–anything from baskets to refrigerators–out the window, thereby making way for new and friendlier sprites.
It’s a good night to stay inside far away from flying projectiles as you slurp your lentil soup. Throw in some raisins and oranges (also edible good luck charms) into the mix, and you’ve got it covered.
A Simple Recipe for Lentil Soup from Gustiamo
Cook the lentils in cold water with chopped onion, carrot, and celery for approximately 20 minutes.
Add piennolo vine tomatoes. Saute a few cloves of garlic in a couple of spoons of extra virgin olive oil until garlic is brown, not burned. This should take about 10 minutes.
Cook the pasta al dente in abundant water, about 10 – 15 minutes. Taste every few minutes to make sure pasta still has a firm bite. We use tubetti farro grain pasta for this recipe but almost any small shape will work as well.
Mix all the prepared ingredients together. Add a few extra drops of extra virgin olive oil and serve warm.
NOTE: If you need detailed instructions for the recipe, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll help you out.
Designing the menu for my cooking classes is part of the fun. Like selecting an outfit for the grand ball, it all has to go together, you don’t want to be too fussy or complicated, and at the end, you want to look spectacular.
And so for an antipasto, I go back to a simple recipe I learned from a chef and restaurant owner in Rome several years ago.
Praline di caprino e noci con miele (little goat cheese balls adorned with walnuts, honey, parmigiana-reggiano, and balsamico) have been the starter for many meals in my home since then.
The best part is how easy and foolproof they are to make, and how wonderfully they complement a glass of prosecco, an important part of the overall design.
I’m often asked about Halloween in Italy. Do they celebrate it? Well, sort of. Do the kids dress up? Many do in mostly sweet costumes -not many ghosts and ghoulies walking around. Do adults dress up like the walking dead and decorate their homes with cobwebs? Not as far as I know.
Italy has its own customs though going back long before anyone ever took a knife to carve a pumpkin face, and, not surprisingly, many involve food.
Click below for the story.
It’s a problem. You go to Italy and fall in love with the food. Then you come back home, and you don’t know where to start. That’s when you have to think like an Italian: ingredients and simplicity.
Recipes are easy to find on the internet, on TV, or in cookbooks. But mine are all from chefs and home cooks, those mentors in Italy who opened up their homes and kitchens to me and changed my life through food, one dish at a time. Now that I’m more often at home in the US rather than in Rome, I like to pay it forward by bringing what I’ve learned over the past 25 years of eating my way through Italy—with unabashed gusto and shameless greed!—to others.
Flavors of Rome’s first in a series of cooking classes and presentations featuring the products of Gustiamo is scheduled for November 12 here in South Florida. In deference to the millions of you who won’t be able to attend, I offer one of the recipes we’ll use in the class, and my favorite of all the classic Roman pasta dishes—Rigatoni All’Amatriciana. Read more >>
Romans love their pasta e ceci so much they’ve figured out a way to make this cold weather comfort food work for them in the heat of the summer. They call it pasta e ceci freddo, the same dish served, well, not exactly cold, but at room temperature.
With that in mind, one 90-plus degree day here in Florida, I decided to cook up a pot of this classic Roman soup using the bag of Umbrian chickpeas I had just ordered from Gustiamo, my go-to purveyor of Italian imported foods.
At the end though I couldn’t wait for the cool down and ate it steaming hot.
Like many soups, pasta e ceci gets better as it sits, and so the next day I just took the chill off in the microwave, topped with a dollop of EVOO and grated parmigiano-reggiano and went at it like a Roman. The flavors were even more intense and satisfying in this “cold” state.
Call them ceci, chickpeas, or garbanzos, if you look at these little legumes (or pulses) closely, you’ll see that they resemble little ram heads which is how they got their Latin name, cicer arietinum, from aries, meaning ram.