Sunday, August 31, 2008

Italy, Day 7, 6/21/2008

  • breakfast: roll
  • lunch: penne with tomato sauce; turkey cutlet fried in bread crumbs with red pepper jam; home-canned vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce; waffles with fig jam
  • dinner: bruschetta with tomato and basil, with "truffle" spread, and with artichoke spread; pizza with mozzarella, tomato sauce, walnut cream, and arugula

We had lunch with Elisabetta and Lucia. The best part of the meal was the homemade red pepper jam. The vegetables were also delicious, crunchy and tasting slightly pickled (or maybe that was just the vinegar in their sauce). Must learn to can!

We went to a pizzeria for dinner with Elisabetta. There are many possible pizza flaws. Here are some of them, in case you ever want to make a pizza scorecard:

  1. doughy crust
  2. flavorless crust
  3. soggy crust
  4. bad tomato sauce
  5. overly thick layer of low-quality cheese
  6. low-quality toppings
  7. poor taste in toppings

This list more or less describes Hungarian pizza, especially #7 (ketchup on pizza, anyone?). This pizza was guilty of #3, #5, and most egregiously, #6. It's shocking in Italy to get mushrooms as bad as the ones Giovanna got on her pizza. I think they were canned, and not in the good way like the vegetables at lunch. My pizza was a bit better. The walnut cream had a great flavor that went nicely with the arugula. And arugula on pizza is so great that U.S. pizzerias should adopt it. (Potential imitators: add the arugula after the pizza is cooked, so it only wilts a tiny bit.)

Before the pizza we had bruschette, which were soggy in the middle. I don't know what truffles taste like, but the truffle spread tasted like bad olives to me. I don't think its truffle content was very high.

A fountain in Sulmona

Italy, Day 6, 6/20/2008

Special guest post!

As Toby was suffering from his regular vacation illness (it first struck in New Orleans, then Prague and Munich, and now Italy), I faced our first homecooked Italian meal alone. We went to Sulmona to visit Fabrizio, a very distant cousin of mine, and arrived to find he was stuck in America. Even from America, though, he arranged our hotel room and generously footed the bill! Luckily there were other relatives to show us around. His sister Elisabetta invited us over for dinner cooked by their mother Lucia. Lucia is quite the cook (well, maybe just an average Italian one given my experience with the Italian cuisine).

Upon stepping foot in their apartment, I was reminded of the Italian custom of harassment (it’s at least a custom for the old Italian women I've met in Sulmona). They (mostly Lucia, and only in Italian) repeatedly harassed me for not knowing Italian (‘why hasn’t your mother taught you, even though you’ve been an ocean away struggling with the Hungarian language?’), for the ridiculousness of the English language (as it’s clearly my fault it’s written one way and spoken another), for my brother’s apparent lack of interest in Italy (which was evident to Lucia, though not to me, from the fact that he wasn’t traveling with me), and even for my father’s failure to master Italian. But I was most frequently harassed for not eating enough. Granted, it’s wonderful food, but there’s a limit to how much your body can take. So, while they pressured me to eat more, I tried to figure out how to avoid joining Toby on the sick bed.

Despite the ridicule, the meal was quite pleasant. We first had gato di patate (which is not ‘cat of potato’ as I first interpreted, but the French gateau, not that I’m familiar with that). It was like a fritatta, but, to my knowledge, eggless. It had a base of potatoes (of course), some kind of cheese (if Toby had been there you’d probably know what kind), prosciutto and mortadella. It was delicious, though quite creamy and filling. It was followed by one of my Italian favorites, prosciutto e melone. The homemade, natural meal was concluded by Magnum ice cream bars (a strange choice in my opinion in the country of gelato). My accomplishment for the evening was getting away with not finishing my ice cream bar.--Giovanna

Italy, Day 5, 6/19/2008

  • breakfast: the usual
  • lunch: cheese; sandwich with bresaola, eggplant, pecorino, eggplant, and arugula
  • dinner at Hotel Pinguino: gnocchi with tomato sauce; roast beef; roasted potatoes; roasted peppers; crema Catalana

The owner of our hotel in Pescasseroli was a wonderful woman who helped us out with everything, despite barely speaking English. She drove us out into the Abruzzo National Park and picked us up there at the end of the day. In between, we hiked all over the park. We stopped in the town of Citadella at lunch for sandwiches and a plate with two types of cheese. The first was forgettable, but the other one was sharp and tangy and came slathered with honey.

We ate dinner at our hotel, where the friendly owner cooked for us and a huge group of children. The gnocchi were pleasantly pillowy, and the beef was juicy and tender.

Hotel Pinguino
via Collacchi, 2
67032 Pescasseroli (AQ)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Italy, Day 4, 6/18/2008

  • breakfast: pastry, cappuccino, fruit
  • lunch: bruschette with tapenade, roasted peppers, roasted pepper dip, sausage, and ham; olives; Campari and soda
  • dinner: cheese plate; pasta alla chitarra; ravioli with eggplant in tomato sauce; broccoli; tiramis├╣

Our day's trip was from L'Aquila to Pescasseroli, and to get there we had to switch buses in Avezzano, a town that I'll always remember for its ugliness. (Ugliness stands out in Italy.) We found a bar for lunch while we waited for our bus. Behind the counter they had some nice-looking plates of toast, spreads, and focaccia. When I ordered one, the bartender said something about "un aperitivo" and when we shook our heads, she fetched an English speaker who thought about the translation for a second, looked confused, and then asked us if we wanted an aperitif. Apparently, the plate came with one, because he insisted that we have one. We brought the plate and my Campari and soda (it came in a pre-mixed bottle, like a soda) back to our table. Before we had sat down, the bartender brought us a bowl of olives. As we ate, more and more things were delivered to our table. First there were some extra pieces of focaccia, then some extra toasts, and finally an orange dip that tasted like roasted red peppers. We tried to turn down each of these when they brought them since we worried we'd be charged for each of them. When we were done, Giovanna went to the register to pay. The total price? Four euros, including the drink.

After an afternoon hiking to the Castel Mancino--or actually, an afternoon wondering around Pescasseroli looking for the trail that went there--we were hungry. We found a restaurant whose menu was scribbled on a piece of graph paper out front. The cheese plate we started with had two hard cheeses and some jam, and this satisfied our immediate hunger. Giovanna's pasta was really terrific: a bright, fruity tomato sauce on top of ravioli stuffed with eggplant. My pasta was good, too. It's traditional to Abruzzo, as I read in many tourist pamphlets. Here's an article from the New York Times about it. Each strand of pasta was long and rectangular with funny little bumps. It was wonderfully chewy, something I've never been able to achieve in my own homemade pasta. The sauce was made from oil, pancetta, and an enormous amount of pepper. It didn't look like much but it was incredibly flavorful. Last we had some broccoli, which was served as its own course because I hadn't quite figured out all the details of Italian dining. (More about that later.) A broccoli course is silly, but it was delicious, garlicky broccoli.

This restaurant was tiny and completely abandoned. Unfortunately, I have no idea what its name was or where it was, and I cannot direct you to this undiscovered gem. But if you're in Pescasseroli and see a tiny, empty restaurant with a handwritten menu, you should go there.

Italy, Day 3, 6/17/2008

  • breakfast: cappuccino and pastry; fruit
  • lunch: porchetta sandwich
  • dinner: prosciutto and melon; pizza with olives, anchovies, oregano, tomato, mozzarella; pizza with tomato sauce and raw cherry tomatoes, arugula, mozzarella, and corn from Pizzeria Ristorante da Nonna Cristina

Porchetta--a whole pig deboned and roasted on a spit--is the perfect combination of pig parts: juicy meat for depth, herb-scented fat for richness, and crispy skin for, well, crispiness. Some arugula would have been nice on the sandwich to cut into the porchetta's saltiness, but the place in the market where I got the sandwich only had meat and rolls.

The pizza at dinner wasn't particularly good. The memorable thing about the meal was how the France-Italy soccer game had transformed the restaurant. A projector beamed the game onto a wall, and the patrons had moved their chairs to the same side of the tables to watch it. We left in the middle of the second half. The waitstaff thought we were crazy.

A church in L'Aquila

Pizzeria Ristorante Da Nonna Cristina
Via Paganica, 36
67100 L'Aquila (AQ)