Weekend Escape: Naples & Pozzuoli (part 2)

IMG_9663Finally on to Naples!  Now I have heard 2 versions... one that it is a chaotic, dirty, crime-ridden mess, and two that it is one of the most beautiful cities in Italy.... obviously I will have to see for myself!

We took the standard Metro train (line 2) from Pozzuoli to Naples, which, in theory, takes about 30 minutes... but could take much longer for no apparent reason as this train likes to just stop for awhile every now and again.  Do not take this train if you have an appointment that you need to be on time for!  But if you just want to arrive in Naples at some random point in time during the day, it is fine.  Welcome to Southern Italy. 
The train dropped us off in the Chiaia district of Naples which is pretty much the opposite of everything you have ever heard about this city.  Large, tree lined boulevards, gorgeous palazzos, and all of the major designers from Prada to Gucci to Louis Vuitton... there was even a nice Umbrian representation from our high end designers like Brunello Cucinelli and Luisa Spagnoli.

But I did not come to Naples to see the same shops I can see in every major city.  I want to eat!  So we walk along through the center for two very important first stops:  Sfogliatella Mary and Gran Caffè Gambrinus.  I have eaten a few sfogliatelle in my day, but never hot out of the oven, crispy pastry, with warm, steaming lemon scented sweet ricotta on the inside... I now fully understand what all of the fuss is about.  Don't let your eyes be bigger than your stomach - there is a lot to eat in Naples so do yourself a favor and keep moving. 
Up next is an espresso from Gran Caffe Gambrinus, one of the most famous, historic bar-caffetterie in Naples, known as a meeting place for the cultural elite of Italy.  Apart from the beautiful 19th century decor, you will be amazed by the service.  The day I was there, the long bar was packed with people 5 deep, and 3 men all in their 60s & 70s (maybe even 80s) served us in minutes - these guys will put any coffee house anywhere in the world to shame.  And the coffee..... it takes a few extra seconds to make a true caffè Napoletano with the traditional manual lever machine, but it is worth the wait.  Served in a screaming hot porcelain tazzina, the stiff crema on top is enough to bring tears to any coffee lover's eyes.

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Moving deeper into the centro antico, the streets narrow and the air becomes laden with the perfumes of deep fried food and pizza.  So we stop again for a snack (why not?).  This time a frittatina napoletana.  I don't even know how to begin describing this... I only know that 4 days later, I am still full from having eaten it!  Basically it is gooey macaroni and cheese (but made with broken spaghetti) formed into a ball and stuffed with meat ragù.  Then closed back up, breaded, and..... fried.  You get the picture.  Across from the frittatina place was a (self described) enoteca.... this is one of those 'only in Napoli' type places - a guy with a few bottles (wine, prosecco, beer) sitting on top of a barrel with plastic cups.  Everything that could be misspelled was and everything cost either €1 or €1.50.  Sooooo, yeah, why not?

We decided that maybe it was time for a little culture break to aid the digestion so we dove into the Napoli Sotterranea, or Naples Underground.  Here you can do a guided or self guided tour through 2400 years of history - into the real 'old town' of Naples!  We also popped into the Chiesa di Gesu Nuovo a church which looks like a fascist war barracks from the outside, but inside holds a bomb of Baroque religious art and architecture.  And of course, no visit to Naples would be complete without a trip down Via San Gregorio Armeno, aka, Christmas Alley.  Here you will meet all of your Nativity scene needs, as it is packed with workshops and stores hocking everything from made in China holy family knick knacks to elaborate handmade porcelain and silk models.  This was the busiest, most congested street in all of Naples. 

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Believe it or not, all of the above was accomplished before 1:00pm, and believe it or not, it was now lunch time and we were starting to feel a little peckish... Naples is the first and only city I have ever been in in Italy (so far) that did not completely empty out at 1:00, especially on a Sunday.  Usually, this is when restaurants open for lunch and anyone in town either dives in hoping for  a place or heads home.  Honestly, other than pizzerie, I didn't really even see a whole lot of restaurants in the old historic part of Naples... and this is because this area is known for its Street Food (of which we had been partaking all morning).  Walking back up Spaccanapoli, the main road of this quarter, we stopped at a Friggitoria with a huge line (mob of people), so, we got in it too.  We pushed our way up to get paper cones overflowing with fritto misto (mixed fried fish & vegetables and of course, fried dough).

Do I want to explode at this point? Ummm.... yes.  We took a break at another local bar for a much needed digestivo and another amazing caffè, this time sweetened, at Bar Mexico, before meandering our way back through the byways of Naples.
The food portion of the day was pretty much over now, so how about a little shopping?  One aspect that really stuck out for me were all of the small, locally owned artisan shops, especially the Sartorie - you can find amazing tailored men's clothing all over the city - I was actually a little jealous - the women's clothing were all pretty standard... but the men's....!

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A walk along the waterfront to take in a cloudy view of Vesuvius and Capri and our day in Napoli was complete.  So what is missing from this anecdote?  Crime, trash, chaos....  I didn't see any of this.  Naples is a city, and like any city, it has a certain grime to it, but I found it to be much cleaner than Rome.  I also didn't see any obvious pickpockets and gypsies like I do in Florence and Rome.  Obviously there are bad areas in Naples, really bad, but they are far enough from the historic center and you wouldn't go walking around looking for trouble in those neighborhoods, just like you wouldn't go walking around in South Central LA...common sense.  The town moves at a frenetic pace as it is densely populated but I didn't feel overrun (of course, I was visiting in January... I don't think I would have enjoyed myself as much with the added tourists and heat of July).  I found Naples to be vibrant, lively and completely charming, not to mention delicious, and I cannot wait to return!

Grazie Mille to Bryan & Ellen Barletto for guiding us through Pozzuoli and Naples!!!


Weekend Escape: Naples & Pozzuoli (part 1)

FullSizeRender-3Naples is not for first time visitors to Italy.  Even I have been wanting to visit Bella Napoli, home of the only real pizza (in my opinion) for  a very long time, but, we all know the stories about Naples... pickpockets, trash, mafia... so I wanted to wait to visit to go with someone who knows their way around.  Lucky for me, a few Americans living in Pozzuoli came up to Umbria to do a Food & Wine Tour with me and we quickly became friends... and consequently, I got a tour guide for Naples!

We opted to stay in Pozzuoli, a lively little port town just west of Naples.  This is  a great place to base yourself if you want to ease yourself into the Napoletano experience.  Like most towns along the Campanian coast, it is built into steep cliffs.  We stayed in a residence at the top of the town, which gives the option of escaping the late night revelry of the port, plus the climb helps you to walk off all of the fried food and pizza that you will inevitably be eating!
You do not need a car once in Pozzuoli.  In fact, I discourage it.  I haven't seen so many banged up and beaten cars since the last time I drove through North Philly.  If you arrive with a car, make sure your hotel has a parking lot (preferably gated... things happen... wheels get stolen...) and just get around (easily) on foot.

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Pozzuoli is bursting at the seams with bars, restaurants and pizzerie.  In the morning you can enjoy a fantastic brioche or sfogliatella (more on that later) with the best caffè and cappuccino in Italy and an amazing freshly squeezed orange juice - it was mandarino season, so they threw a few of those in as well!
For lunch try one of the seafood restaurants down by the port.  Most serve an antipasto misto of cold and hot seafood dishes, accompanied by little balls of fried dough, called zeppollini.  You will become extremely acquainted with zeppollini by the end of your stay.  Then, if you have room, everyone serves the standard seafood pasta dishes and main courses.  Wash it all down with a local Falanghina, the white wine of the area.
If you can stand to eat more food, check out a traditional Pizzeria for the best pizza you will ever have in your life.  This is the area where it all started, so you might as well take advantage!  We had a Cornucopia (fried dough filled with fried things) before our pizza (which was after an Aperitivo (accompanied by fried things)) to really make sure that we weren't going to go hungry.... don't worry, a limoncello afterwards helps with the digestion (I guess.... ;-) ).  We had an especially good time at La Dea Bendata - apart from the amazing pizza, when the owner/head Pizzaiolo, Ciro Coccio found out that we were from Umbria (he makes a special "Taste of Umbria" pizza with products imported from our region), he immediately bumped up our reservation and a table appeared out of nowhere for us - true Neopolitan hospitality!

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One caveat about the restaurants in this area:  there is always a TV and it is always on.  Usually it is muted so that you can hear music but not miss any of the Italian game shows or sporting events that might be happening during your meal.  We happened upon one restaurant where the TV was actually off (shocker), but alas, at a certain hour, the music went off and the TV went on, with the volume relatively high because it was time for the news.  And by news, I mean all things related to Napoli calcio (the Naples soccer team) with a sprinkling of Formula 1 and motorcyle racing thrown in for good measure.  Welcome to Naples.

Unfortunately we didn't have a lot of time to explore the sites (we were too busy getting from one meal to the next), but there is really a lot to see and do, especially if you are fond of Greek and Roman ruins - Pozzuoli is even home to the 3rd largest Roman amphitheater in Italy.
The port area is great for food shopping.  We found a fruttivendolo who was also selling homemade passata (tomato sauce) and preserved peppers.  The bakery had wonderful bread as well as local Taralli - which is basically a type of savory biscuit composed of lard, flour, black pepper and almonds.  In theory, you could eat tons of these things, but you will feel the lard aspect hit you like a ton of bricks!  Nearby the local caseficio (cheese shop) has fresh mozzarella di bufala daily as well as scamorze and provolone.  Every morning you can also find the local fishermen with their catch of the day down by the water if you feel like trying a local recipe at home.

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Next stop, taking the train to Naples... (to be continued...)

Where to stay: Villa Avellino Hotel Residence

Best Bars:  Giorgio's Caffè, Bar Primavera, Il Capitano Cafè

Where to eat:  La Dea Bendata Pizzeria, Ristorante Il Faro a Ninella, Putipù Bistrot, La Cucina degli Amici

Chickpea Flour Torta

IMG_5736Monday night dinners usually mean a 'clean-out-the-fridge-frittata' in my house, however, my son was recently diagnosed with a (hopefully temporary) egg allergy.... so the frittata is out.  Perusing the (gulp) vegan blogs I found a lot of recipes for chickpea flour 'eggs.'  Umbria is legume country, especially from the area known as Colfiorito, meaning we have no shortage of chickpea, or ceci, flour.... so I thought I'd give it a try... and what do you know? It was great!  Mind you, it has nothing to do with eggs now matter what the vegans and vegetarians will have you believe, but it is delicious all the same (and I know that because my 2 year old devoured it). It is reminiscent of a baked version of Sicilan panelle, which are basically fried chickpea flour patties.  Here is my version:

  • 165g chickpea flour (about 1.5 cups)
  • 2 cups water
  • chopped spring garlic
  • 1 med zucchini, small diced
  • 1 cup cooked swiss chard, chopped
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • heat oven to 400F/200C

In a cast iron pan, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. 
Add garlic, zucchini, chard and cook until zucchini starts to turn golden brown.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, slowly whisk together the water and chickpea flour until smooth.
Pour the chickpea mixture into the pan and cook over medium high heat for a few minutes, season well with salt.
Then, put in oven to set, about 15 minutes.
Let cool slightly before cutting.


Decoding Italy: Wine!

IMG_6179One of the biggest challenges for visitors to Italy is usually trying to understand Italian wine labels.  Yes, it can be daunting task for the uninitiated, but after learning a few simple rules, the whole endeavor becomes much more potable...

Classification  All Italian wines are classified according to their designation or denomination.  It is a way to help guarantee to the consumer what type of wine to expect in the bottle.  I like to think of these designations as concentric circles.

The smallest circle would be DOCG Denominazione di Origine Controllata e IMG_3312Garantita.  These wines are identifed by a purplish tag placed on the cap of the bottle.  DOCG controlled wines have very strict requirements which range from how densely the vines can be planted, to how much alcohol is in the wine, to aging requirements, color, fragrance, and of course, which grapes to use in each wine.  The wine must also be produced from grape to bottle within a very specific zone, and the bottles are counted and analyzed by government officials.  These wines typically carry a heavier price tag due to the costs of production.  This is not a guarantee that it will be an amazing wine - it is only a guarantee that the winemaker followed the specific rules of vinification during the winemaking process!  Here are a few examples: 

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Decoding Italy: Cheese!

This is the first in a new blog series that I am starting, Decoding Italy - I hope to demistify some daily aspects of Italian life (food, wine, cultural) for future visitors to Italy!

IMG_0008Hunting for cheese in Italy is usually on the top of everyone's bucket list.  Here are some helpful tips to help you whey(d) your way through the Italian curds!

The Italian for cheese is formaggio, from the Latin formaticum, meaning 'form' and (according to legend) the month of May, maggio, when milk is at is best.  Another word we see often in Italy is cacio, from the Latin caseus.  Cacio is just a generic word for formaggio, but we see it frequently:  pasta Cacio Pepe (pasta with cheese & black pepper), Caseficio (a place where cheese is made/sold), and caciotta (a form of typical local cheese - we see this everywhere in Umbria).

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Checking out the Competition in Pienza

So... yesterday I went to the forbidden land... you know that neighbor to the north of ours that begins with a T.... and yes, if you are wondering, my husband (good Umbrian that he is) did threaten to change the locks on the doors. 

That's right.  I went to Tuscany (gasp!).  The lovely town of Pienza to be exact (double gasp!).  I had been hearing a lot about Pienza from passing tourists and since some friends of mine wanted to check it out, I thought I would tag-along. 

Now, it really bothers me when journalists treat Umbria as a sort of lowly step-sister to Tuscany, but I have to admit, after my visit yesterday, I kind of get their mentality.  I could compare Pienza to my favorite Umbrian town, Bevagna.  Both are medieval towns set in the idyllic Tuscan/Umbrian countryside.  They are similar in size, as well as aritistic and historic offerings.  But, there was one big difference:  Pienza was OPEN FOR BUSINESS.  Enotecas and restaurants started tastings at 11:30.  Shops were alive and inviting, not to mention open all day (a shock for someone like me who lives in the land of the never-ending pausa).  The sun was shining, the wine was flowing, it was a perfect Tuscan afternoon... but yet, something was amiss...

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Where were the Italians?  Ok, obviously the shopkeepers were Italian (all of whom, right down to the gas station attendent, spoke perfect English (and probably German as well)), but where were all of the old people sitting around on their plastic chairs, where were the men arguing about local politics in the piazza?  Where was the real Italian life?  Where was the bric-a-brac hardware store, and the alimentari?  Everything was just a little too slick and polished and the town seemed to be created for tourists.  This feeling was confirmed when, getting a coffee, I asked the barista where she liked to eat.  She couldn't tell me one place (as she neither lives in, nor frequents Pienza) and so referred me to the owner, who gave me a glazed over 'all of the restaurants are good' answer.  Hmmmmmm.

It seems to me that both regions have to work on their toursim a little bit.  Tuscany has certainly paved the way to greatness, but has gone off the rails and now seems to have a Disneyland type mania going on.  Tuscany is a brand.  I engaged in a conversation with a tourist from New York, and, when I told her that I lived in Umbria, the next region over, she said to me (as do many tourists) "Oh yes, I just love all of Tuscany!"  That kind of thing breaks my heart, while at the same time makes me happy that Umbria is not saturated with these hapless "UnderTheTuscanSunTourists".  Umbria, on the other hand, could learn some things about marketing and attracting tourists:  swinging wide open those doors and shaking off that closed 'member's only' feeling... and maybe cutting down the hours of the mid-afternoon pausa - we can't eat four hour lunches every day.  Time to throw your hat into the ring, Umbria!


On to the important stuff, here's where I ate:

La Bottega di Pienza:  we stopped in here for a tasting of local cheeses and Ercolani wines produced by this family.  At €5.50 for a jumbo size glass of wine and tons of cheese, this was a bargain - the wines, however, were unexceptional in my opinion.

La Buca di Enea:  Lunch.  Cute little trattoria with good local food - we had a Fonduta of Pecorino with porcini mushrooms and lardo di Colonnata, Pici (the local Tuscan pasta) with duck ragù, and Ribollita (Tuscan bread soup).  The food was decent, but rushed - I still had my pasta in front of me when the owner slammed down 3 bottles of digestivi on our table - nice touch, but we had been thinking about trying one of the meat courses, let alone dessert - I guess not!  That is something that will never happen in Umbria - they don't even think about turning tables, in fact they seem to get really annoyed if they have to reset a table during service!

La Bandita:  Not satisfied with the wines we had consumed so far, we decided to try one more place.  La Bandita is a modern restaurant/wine bar in a boutique hotel of the same name (owned by Americans).  It is worth the trip alone just to sit outside on their patio, sip wine, and watch the chef pick fresh herbs for your cheese plate.

Il Camino

PhotoLining the back of my fireplace, or camino, are two iron plaques:  one is of a griffin, the symbol of Cannara and also Perugia (which makes sense, as we live in the town of Cannara in the Province of Perugia...); the other, however, is the image of a large ship (like an Argosy...or a Clipper... or maybe a Galleon.... ship identification is not my area of expertise...), which I would like to believe is maybe the symbol of some other province, and placed there as an homage to the seafaring life that person had lived before transferring to land-locked Umbria.  From my 6 minutes of research that my infant and toddler allowed my to complete, I found that both Rimini and Savona have ships as their symbols.  The one from Savona looks a little a bit more like my ship, but I will have to investigate this further (which means getting the gossip from some of my older neighbors) at a later time.

So, in honor of the nautical side of my fireplace, I decided to make Zuppa di Pesce con Pasta alla Chitarra (Fish Soup with pasta made on the Chitarra), a dish from Abruzzo.  Cooking this slowly in the fireplace gave the soup an even richer flavor.  Here is the recipe:

  • In a terracotta pot (if you have one, otherwise enameled cast iron or a heavy bottomed stainless steel pot will work as well), heat extra-virgin olive oil with chopped onion, carrots, celery, a few whole garlic cloves, a few hot peppers, and 2 bay leaves.  Cook until the onions are translucent.
  • Add shellfish and cook in the oil until the shells start to darken
  • Add small whole fish and squid cut into rings
  • Deglaze with a glass of red wine (that's right red)
  • Add crushed or pureed tomatoes to cover by about an inch and season well with salt
  • Simmer for about 15-20 minutes
  • With a strainer, remove the fish from the sauce, set aside in a warm place
  • Add hot salted water to the sauce - this will depending on how much your sauce has reduced, but you will probably need at least a liter, bring to a rolling simmer
  • Add your Chitarra (recipe to follow) and cook for about 10 minutes, the sauce should reduce almost completely
  • Serve the pasta alongside the fish and enjoy with a glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo!

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Pasta alla Chitarra

  • on a wooden cutting board, make a well with 300g semolina flour, 100g AP flour, and 4 whole eggs
  • mix together and knead until smooth, about 15 minutes
  • let rest for 45-60 minutes
  • divide the dough into 4 pieces and roll out into rectangular sheets 3-5mm high
  • place a sheet of dough over the chitarra, and pressing firmly, roll over the dough with a pin until the pasta is cut by the strings of the chitarra
  • toss with semolina flour and cover with a towel until ready to use

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Al Mare... or 'Down the Shore...Italian Style


(For those not familiar with Philadelphian dialect, 'down the shore means at the beach.)

I've been writing about my time in Italy for almost 8 years now, and somehow it seems that I have never written about my absolute favorite part of Italian life, going to the beach! Here is my quick guide to navigating the shores of the boot:

1.  Which coast?
I haven't been to all of the beaches in all of the regions yet, but I have hit quite a few... and my conclusion is that, being an East Coast girl myself, I also prefer the beaches on the East Coast of Italy.  The main reason is that they cost less (at least those within a 2 1/2 hour drive of central Umbria)- the chic beaches on the Tyrrhenian Sea (Tuscany and the Amalfi area can cost more than double of those on the Adriatic).


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 IMG_7242My bumper crop of lemons this year has me begging the question:  am I in Sorrento or Cannara (thanks global warming!)??  Well, I'm definitely not in Sorrento.... but that doesn't mean I can't do lots of fun things with the abundance of citrus fruits right now.  Obviously, the fruit I use comes from southern Italy, in particular from Sicily.  Since we are expecting a new addition to our family (any minute now!), I won't be making my annual pilgrimage to Verona to get my favorite candied fruits to make my Easter Pastiera (yes, I'm already thinking about Easter lunch); so I decided to take a stab at making my own candied citrus peels - time consuming, but simple.  I also made a citrus marmellata and was left with some flavored simple syrups as a by product from my peels to use in the future. Citrus

But first, the peels....

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♪ These are a Few of My Favorite Things ♩ ♬

This time of year, "my favorite things" have nothing to do with Christmas (well, with one exception), but with the seasonal products that we can only find NOW!

-1Who is better than Babbo Natale?  The Orange Man!  As soon as the temperatures start dipping, I keeps my eyes peeled, waiting patiently for his truck to appear one day on the side of the road.  My particular orange man comes up from Sicily a few times a week, loaded with the sweetest oranges, mandarins and lemons.  Just take a look at this picture - the mandarin is the one on the left - it is as big as a baseball!  You won't find those in the supermarket!

Continue reading "♪ These are a Few of My Favorite Things ♩ ♬" »