Friday, January 10, 2014

Tuscan-Style Vegetable Soup: Minestrone alla Genovese

On a cold winter's night, there's nothing more satisfying than a bowl of steaming hot minestrone soup and a loaf of crusty Italian bread to warm the soul and please the palate. Unfortunately, many vegetable soups are thin and tasteless. But Minestrone alla Genovese, an Italian vegetable soup with a healthy dollop of pesto swirled in before serving, is a hearty soup bursting with fresh flavors. You can use just about any vegetables in this recipe but I like to add onions, carrots, celery, zucchini, and green beans. You can add potatoes, too, but I'm not a big fan as they add a starchiness that I simply don't like.

I start my soup by sautéing a few puréed vegetables in olive oil. It deepens the flavor and thickens the broth. I then slowly add the vegetables throughout the cooking process starting with thicker ones first (carrots) and ending with the thinner ones (zucchini). I simmer the soup for approximately three hours. A long, slow cooking time really enhances the complexity, melding the flavors seamlessly. Finally, just before serving I mix in fresh basil pesto sauce. It's garlicky kick livens the dish up.

a bowl of vegetable soup with a slice of bread
Minestrone alla Genovese

Purée carrots, celery, onion and garlic in food processor.
Purée one medium carrot, a stick of celery, one small onion, and three cloves of garlic in food processor. Sauté the puréed vegetables in about three tablespoons of olive oil in tall stock pot over medium heat until fragrant and soft, about 10 minutes. Add chopped leeks and sauté for several minutes more until just soft. 

Add approximately 6 quarts of water and turn heat up to high. Once soup reaches a boil, return heat to a low simmer and begin adding your vegetables. Carrots, celery and green beans first as they're the thickest and take longer to cook.

After about an hour and a half, add the softer vegetables like zucchini plus a 16-ounce can of chopped tomatoes, including juice, and a 16-ounce can of white cannellini beans, rinsed and drained. Simmer for approximately one and half hours more. Add salt and pepper to taste.

A few minutes before serving, add cooked pasta to your soup (I boil about 3/4 cup of a short pasta like ditalini separately) and swirl in about 1/3 cup of fresh basil pesto. Serve with additional grated Parmesan cheese.

Minestrone alla Genovese
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 stalks of celery, peeled and diced
1 small onion, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
12 oz. green beans, trimmed
1-16 oz. can chopped tomatoes
1-16 oz. can cannelllini beans, rinsed and drained 
2 zucchini, cut in half down the middle, and chopped
3/4 cup (dry) short pasta (ditalini or other)
1/3 cup fresh basil pesto
salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese

Buon appetito!


Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Best Little Mom-and-Pop Trattorie in Rome

With just one more day to go in National Italian Heritage Month, I thought I'd give you an excerpt from Chow Italy: Eat Well, Spend Less (Rome 2013) to whet your appetite!

Near the Piazza Navona

Trattoria da Ugo e Maria

Via dei Prefetti, 19
Telephone: +39 06 687 3752
Closed Saturday and Sunday
Cash only
Google map:

A tiny trattoria with six tables—tops—and wood-paneled walls located in Old Rome, sandwiched between the Villa Borghese to the north and the Pantheon to the south, da Ugo e Maria is a family-run affair since 1942. The handwritten menu changes daily depending on the time of year and the whim of the chef. Try the homemade gnocchi (Thursdays only) or spinach ravioli and then move on to coniglio alla cacciatora, a savory rabbit stew, or abbacchio al forno con patate, roasted lamb with potatoes. No wine list but reasonably-priced house wine.

Near the Pantheon

Enoteca Corsi
Via del Gesù, 87
Telephone: +39 06 679 0821
Lunch only; closed Sunday, Christmas week and August
Cash only
Google map:
Open only for lunch, this wine tavern-cum-trattoria prepares simple Roman fare at reasonable prices. Check out the menu printed every morning on a chalkboard outside their door then venture in where you’ll often find yourself eating alongside other diners at tightly-packed communal tables. Watch for homemade gnocchi on Thursdays, the house specialty, tripe, on Friday or baccalà and potatoes simmered in tomato sauce. Enoteca Corsi, obviously, has an impressive wine list with more than 300 labels from which to choose but we vote for the equally impressive house wine for €4 a liter.

Near the Villa Borghese

Fiaschetteria Marini 
Via Raffaele Cadorna, 7
Telephone: +39 06 474 5534
Lunch only; closed Sunday, Christmas week and part of August
Google map:
Fiaschetteria, located on a quiet side street just off the Piazza Sallustio, began life as a wine shop back in 1913. Today it’s one of the best kept dining secrets in Rome with daily specials such as gnocchi al sugo, penne alla burina (pasta with a rustic tomato sauce), saltimbocca alla romana as well as a few choice Austrian dishes—all for next to niente. (Primi or pasta dishes average €5 while secondi meat dishes average a mere €7.) The tidy dining room with small, marble-topped wooden tables dressed with sheets of paper pays homage to its roots as a bottle shop with floor-to-ceiling shelves of wines (for sale). Wine served by the glass.

Near Termini Station

Il Cappellaio Matto 
Via dei Marsi, 25
Telephone: +39 06 664 4735
Dinner only; closed Tuesday
Cash only
Bing map:
“The Mad Hatter” is one of the oldest eateries in the San Lorenzo neighborhood, just southeast of Termini Station. (It began life as a crepe house back in the 1950s.) A bit rough around the edges—think graffiti-covered exterior and tiny interior with well-worn marble-top tables—this trattoria delivers with tasty Roman specialties such as rigatoni all’amatriciana, riso radicchio e taleggio (risotto with radicchio and taleggio cheese), saltimbocca alla romana, at hard-to-beat prices. Tempting selection of sweet and savory crepes, too. 

In Trastevere

Dai Due Ciccioni
Vicolo del Cedra, 3
Telephone: + 39 06 581 2652
Closed Wednesday
Google map:
This unofficial eatery (no one knows if they possess a restaurant license), Dai Due Ciccioni or “Two Fat Guys,” is hidden down a narrow, graffiti-filled side street just off of Via dei Panieri. No frills and no menu; you eat what they cook, and cook they do—fresh and authentic. The dining room (if you can call it that) is sparse—a few card tables dressed in vinyl cloths, a refrigerator, sink and stove. A good deal at €25 for three courses plus dessert and unlimited wine. Rough around the edges but what an experience!

Read the rest of Chow Italy: Eat Well, Spend Less (Rome 2013). On sale now for $1.99 (Kindle) or $5.99 (paperback).

Amazon Kindle
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B&N Nook

Friday, August 30, 2013

Chicken Parmigiana with Oven-Roasted Tomatoes: A 45-Minute Recipe

A few weeks back, I wrote a post on how to roast tomatoes in the oven. Not only are oven-roasted tomatoes a delicious way to preserve summer's bounty (they'll keep for several weeks in the refrigerator preserved in olive oil) but they are so versatile in a number of classic Italian recipes like this one, chicken parmigiana. As an Italian-American, I used to love it when my mom would make this quintessential dish. I've simplified her recipe to one pan (great for clean up) and with the addition of the oven-roasted tomatoes, I've improved it, too! (Sorry mom.)

chicken parmigiana in a pan just out of the oven
Chicken Parmigiana straight from the oven!

several chicken breasts on cutting board
Two large boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into single servings and pounded thin.

chicken breast in a bowl of egg wash
Dip each chicken filet in an egg wash.

chicken breast sitting on plate of flour
Dredge each chicken filet in flour seasoned with salt and pepper.

four chicken filets cooking in a pan
On medium heat, cook chicken breasts in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until lightly brown; about 3 minutes per side.

hand with paper towel wiping dirty pan clean
Once chicken is done cooking, wipe the flour residue from pan with paper towel.

chicken with tomato sauce cooking in pan
Add about 1 and 1/2 cups of fresh tomato sauce to pan and then place chicken in single layer on top.

oven-roasted tomatoes on top of chicken
Add another cup of fresh tomato sauce over chicken and then several slices of oven-roasted tomatoes.

pan with cheese-covered chicken
Sprinkle 1 and 1/2 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese on top, then about 3 tablespoons of grated Parmesan.

pan with chicken parmigiana in oven
Bake at 375° for 10 minutes until bubbling and cheese begins to brown.

Chicken Parmigiana with Oven-Roasted Tomatoes

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into single servings and pounded thin.
1 beaten egg with 2 tbsp milk (for egg wash)
1 cup flour (for dredging) with salt and pepper to taste
3 tbsp olive oil (for frying)
2 ½ - 3 cups fresh tomato sauce (you can use jarred if you must), divided
7 - 10 large slices of roasted tomatoes
1 ½ shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pictures of Venice: The City Through a Lens

red boat on Venetian canal
Colorful boat floating along quiet canal.

boxes in green boat floating down Venetian canal.
Moving goods along the canal.

two waiters serving coffee in Piazza San Marco.
Waiters in the Piazza San Marco.

Woman sitting in chair reading newspaper.
Woman reading newspaper outside of trattoria.

Pedestrians crossing bridges at sunset.
Pedestrian bridge in Venice.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Oven-Roasted Tomatoes: Preserving Summer's Bounty

three beefsteak tomatoes in sunlight

It's the end of July and my tomato plants are bursting with more fruit than I know what to do with. Last week I made panzanella, that hearty bread and tomato salad so popular with the Florentines; the week before that I served caprese sandwiches for dinner. Light, fresh and flavorful. And yet I've barely put a dent in the number of ruby-red globes sitting on my counter.

Time to start roasting.

I love oven-roasted tomatoes and use them religiously to perk up sandwiches, hamburgers, even salads. When you roast tomatoes, the flavors concentrate bringing forth a sweetened taste and pleasant texture that brightens any dish. But unlike most Italians who usually use smaller, roma tomatoes, I tend to roast beefsteak-style tomatoes as they add a larger-than-life and appetizing presence to the dishes they grace.

one beefsteak tomato in sunlight

I have a few roasting rules, however. First, make sure the slices are thick - about a third of an inch - otherwise they'll shrink to nothing during the cooking process, or worse, burn. Second, season lightly to enhance rather than mask the flavor.  (I use a mixture of sea salt, pepper and sugar but you can come up with your own herb combination.) And finally, remember patience - slow and low is the way to go. I roast mine on a cookie sheet at 250F degrees for about three hours. Once cooled, transfer the tomatoes into a sealed container where they will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.

several slices of tomatoes on cutting board
Slice tomatoes at least a third of an inch thick.

tomato slices on baking sheet
Lay slices single layer on baking sheet and brush lightly with extra virgin olive oil.

Spoon over tomato slices
Lightly season each tomato slice with sea salt, pepper, sugar rub (equal parts).

cookie sheet with tomato slices
Roast at 250F for approximately 3 hours.

tomatoes after they've been roasted in the oven
Sweet and delicious, roasted tomatoes will dress up nearly any dish.

Next week: what to do with your delicious oven-roasted tomatoes. 

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Traveling to Italy For the First Time? Let Larry Be Your Guide!

Larry Aiello knows Italy. This Italian-American not only speaks the language fluently but he also visits the country he loves often, writing about his experiences on his blog, Addicted2Italy. 

I recently spoke with Larry about his life growing up in an Italian-American family, and his latest venture - a new travel book, First Time to Rome Vacation Planner.

1) With the name Larry Aiello, you're obviously an Italian-American! What's your background?

Answer: I was born outside of New York City in a town called New Rochelle, which lies between the Bronx and Connecticut. My father was born outside of Cosenza, Calabria and my mother is from Palermo, Sicily.

All of my father’s family emigrated from Italy to New York back in the 1930s. My mother’s family, however, is still in Sicily. As a boy I spent many a summer with my mother in Sicily and my father would come and join us when he had vacation. We moved to Florida during my high school years after my father retired from the Coast Guard.

2) When and how did your love affair with Italy begin and what made you start writing and blogging?

Answer: It really started back in college during a summer break from the University of Florida. This was back in the 1980s (I’m dating myself). I found a six-week study abroad program which counted as elective credits towards my degree but I ended up spending the whole summer with some of the friends I met on the program traveling by train through Rome, Florence, Venice, Calabria and Sicily.

The writing and blogging was just a natural way to express some creativity while at the same time sharing my passion with others. The blog was a great way to do so.

3) How often do you get to visit Italy? I believe you're going again soon? Tell me about where you plan to visit and why.

Answer: I try to get back every few years and visit my family in Sicily. I will be going again this September to Sicily along with another location that I still haven’t planned out yet. I’d like to visit some place I’ve never been before, so I’m still in the planning process. I love visiting Sicily - obviously because of my family - but also because of the various traditions, culture, cuisine and ruins. I love the street markets and the people which make it such a fascinating place. The island has been ruled by many groups including the Arabs, Greeks, Phoenicians, Normans, and so on. Each civilization has left its mark on the island which makes it one big “hodgepodge” of culture and architecture.

4) You are obviously fluent in the Italian language. How did you learn to speak it? And tell me how your book 37 Ways to Learn the Italian Language came about. (I see it's doing well on Amazon!) Do you teach Italian in Florida?

Answer: Thank you. I was blessed that my parents spoke Italian to me at an early age and because of the summers I spent in Sicily as a boy, it helped lay the foundation for my fluency today. Although, technically my dad’s family spoke in Calabrese dialect and my mom’s family spoke Sicilian. It made for interesting conversations to say the least, but I was able to pick up the proper Italian just by studying books when I was on the trains in Italy and of course, being immersed in it helped tremendously. When you are forced to learn something it’s amazing how much your mind can actually learn!

On occasion I do teach Italian here in Florida and donate the proceeds to a local non-profit called Florida Institute for Community Studies, an organization that helps at-risk youth in our area by trying to keep them out of gangs and off of drugs. They try to also teach them life skills. I’m honored that they’ve chosen me to serve on their board, so I try to help them out with little fundraisers whenever I can. And sharing my knowledge of Italian is one way I can give back.

5) You just released First Time to Rome Vacation Planner, the second in a series. Why did you start writing the "First Time" guides? Any plans for a First Time to Florence? or Venice?

Answer: I didn’t originally plan to start a “First Time” series when I wrote the first book. I just noticed that in my classes there were so many people that had never been to Italy and wanted basic information. So I thought I should just put everything together in a book. It’s been one of those “bucket list” things I’ve always wanted to do. So I decided to give self-publishing a try.

Yes, I do plan on writing more books and I also have some other ideas I want to implement including some video tutorials on YouTube.

6) What's your favorite Italian city and why?

Answer: This is tough since there are so many great cities in Italy and they all have unique characteristics and beauty. Florence is one of my favorites, but I’ll share a city that I’m sure many have never heard of - Cefalù, Sicily. Cefalù is a little city on the northern Sicilian coast about an hour east of Palermo. It’s an old fishing village that has now turned into a tourist resort. It often gets overlooked by Americans who tend to opt for Taormina, but it attracts a lot of German and French tourists. It’s a small town that is easy to get around and has a lot of architecture from the Norman period (1200s). Once you get off at the train station it’s about a five-minute walk to the beach, and it has one of the best beaches in Italy.

7) What's your best money-saving tip when visiting Italy?

Answer: My best advice would be to start your planning as early as possible. If you can avoid the high season (spring and summer) and focus on the off season travel, you are going to find the best deals as far as airfare and hotels. It’s also a good idea to follow your favorite airline or get on Alitalia’s mailing list and take advantage of any specials that they offer. You usually only have a few days to act, but I’ve seen some good deals come across from time to time.

As far as lodging, if you keep your options open, Italy has a lot of different types of accommodations that you can consider from staying in a dorm room to a religious institution, camping or even a private apartment. You can find some good deals compared to traditional hotels. With regard to dining, I would look for the trattorias as opposed to the restaurants (ristoranti) because that is where the locals go, and as you know from your own research and experiences. That is where you will find the little mom-and-pop “gems” that serve excellent food. It’s also a good idea to find a local supermarket where the locals go as well. You’d be surprised how inexpensive the wine is and when you pair it with a loaf of bread and some cheese, prosciutto and or grilled vegetables, you have the makings of a nice Italian lunch or dinner!

Thanks, Christina, for giving me the opportunity to share my story. I hope everyone can make it to Italy at least once in their life and enjoy what the country has to offer.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Trattoria? Osteria? What's the Difference?

When you head to Italy, you will find lots of different eating options. There's the ristorante, the trattoria, and osteria - but that's just the beginning. If you look at the signs above storefronts you'll also see tavola calda, mescita, hostaria, bottiglieria, and even the hard to pronounce, fiaschetteria. But what do they all mean? And is there really a difference between a trattoria and an osteria? 

Good question.

Long ago there were very distinct differences between say a ristorante, a formal eating establishment, and a trattoria, an informal spot that focuses on home-style cooking. These days, however, many trattorie have morphed into ristoranti, and vice versa. Don't let this frustrate you, though. It's still easy to spot the degree of difference from the moment you walk into an eatery or check the menu posted outside. In the meantime, here's a primer on the differences among all your eating options.

Ristorante: A restaurant. Here you'll find the ambiance a bit formal or at least the decor is thought out and cohesive. Tables are usually dressed in linen; tableware and china all match. Waiters are professional and knowledgeable. The menu is usually extensive and the food is often inventive (in other words, you may not find the traditional poor-man's dish of trippa). Expect to pay for all this service and forethought.
copy of the book Chow Italy

Trattoria: A small, family-run eatery that often serves a few choice regional dishes (think carbonara in Rome; ribollita in Florence; pesto in Genoa), with many of the recipes past down from generation to generation. Mom or grandma usually cooks. Dad handles the cash register. The kids wait tables. Decor can range from neat and comfortable to a real "hole in the wall." Prices are usually much less than a ristorante.

Osteria: Back in the day, an osteria, or inn, was a local gathering spot where the old men played cards and drank local wine from the innkeeper's oak barrels. It was almost like what we'd call a bar. Some served food but that wasn't the main focus. Today, however, an osteria is an eating establishment very similar to a trattoria in that they serve simple, home-cooked meals. Some have a "rustic" ambiance to them.

Hostaria and Taverna: Once bars or taverns, these establishments have slowly transformed into osterie and trattorie. They can also have a bohemian or rustic feel to them.

Mescita, Fiaschetteria, Enoteca, Bottiglieria: All wine shops, wine bars or taverns. These days, most sell a variety of panini (small sandwiches), light nibbles such as olives and cheese, as well as a few pasta and meat dishes.

Tavola Calda: Translated it means "hot table." We'd know them as quick-service fast-food places or a cafeteria. They are a great spot to get an inexpensive, home-cooked meal.

Rosticceria and Girarrosto: Quick-service fast-food establishment that mainly sells high-quality, fire-roasted chicken and other fowl. Eat in or take out.