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Comfort Me With Potatoes: A Tale of Two Tuber Dishes in Italy

Pity the poor American who can only find comfort in the familiar flavors and food textures of home. Pity me for not taking kindly to the coniglio (rabbit) or swooning at the sight of chicken liver crostini or the tripe truck in Florence. It’s not that I don’t have an adventurous palate. I’ve happily chewed on chunks of guanciale (boar’s cheek), the fatty meat that gives bucatini all’amatriciana its savory lusciousness, and I’ve even snacked on lumache (snails), all garlicky and buttery and served with a hunk of bread to sop up the juices.

When I travel, I try to have an open mind when it comes to trying new foods. But meats have never really been my thing. I’m more interested in seeing what different cultures do with their vegetables – how they saute them, roast them, steam them, sauce them, dice and shred them for salads, or bake them in casseroles. The world is keenly aware of what the Italians did with the tomato, a vegetable (or fruit, if you’re being technical) that didn’t even arrive in Europe until the 1500s but is now the cornerstone of dozens of dishes found in every region of Italy. Making its arrival in Italy at the same time as the tomato was the potato, which, like the tomato and other edible products from the New World, “stimulated the native genius [of Italy] by giving it new materials to work with.” (See Waverley Root’s The Food of Italy.)

The potato is a vegetable that no one really associates with Italy but that features in two dishes that either make me feel at home when I’m Italy or give me a fit of nostalgia if I try them here stateside. In this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable, we look at comfort foods in the context of Italy. Here are two of mine.

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How to Eat Fish in Venice

Dining is one of the best parts of the Italy travel experience. Of course, as you’ve probably read before, there are rules when it comes to enjoying a meal in Italy. I hate rules. But I do appreciate tradition, as well as learning about how Italians use and eat different ingredients.

So I was excited when Nan McElroy, author of the Living Venice Blog and the “Instructions for Use” travel series, approached me with a post about eating fish in Venice. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did and I also hope that her tips come in handy when you’re in Venice for your next dining adventure.

Nosh Venice Fish, But Leave That Lemon Alone: Advice from a Fresh Fish Fanatic

Venice CalamariYou’re town for a few days, for the Biennale, for the Film Festival, for the Regata Storica; before cruise, after cruise, or for the month, and tonight, you’ve chosen the restaurant where you’ll treat yourself to Venice’s precious pesce.

If you’ve done your homework and chosen your eatery carefully, you’ll rarely be disappointed. Even non-fish fans, if they can be tempted, become converts, as often this freshest of fish bears no resemblance to the more common frozen fare — something that, should a restaurant even consider serving to a local, will at best cause them never to return; at worst, incite a heated argument that can end with the guest either storming out or being asked to leave. Harrumph.

Venice has always treasured (if not totally depended upon) its fish, whether from the lagoon or the upper Adriatic, and never tires of finding new ways to consume it and serve it to their guests. You’ll select from baked, grilled, sauteed, raw and even whipped versions of familiar (or less so) species; flat, fat, large and small; shellfish and mollusks, with and without shells, without and without backbones. Traditionalists will opt for the fabulous frittura, often rating various locales’ versions on crispness, abundance, and the fish-to-vegetable ratio — each important when defending your choice for the best fritto misto fried fish platter in town.

Fish Plate with LemonAnd the lemon wedge? A common fish-dish accompaniment anywhere else in the world, but  to a Venetian fish purist an appalling idea. Figurati should a slice wend its way to the plate.

Come mai, why is that? Because (explained the self-proclaimed fresh fish purist), the fish served at your dining table is a treasured thing: it’s just arrived from the sea (or better have), “swimming with its brothers” as they say, only hours ago; it’s expensive (we had to wait years for that branzino to get to a catchable age — not six- or 12-months for a force-fed farm-raised antibiotic-ingesting mutant); and a delicacy, whether a tiny schie lagoon shrimp, a robust rombo turbot, or a magnificent blue or yellow fin wrestled from the Japanese sushi trade.

And you want to put lemon on it? Macché! Don’t even think about it.

Branzino fishIt’s true — where lemons are concerned, what’s obvious to maniacal fresh-fish devotees may not be so obvious to everyone else. If you ask a few of them, they’ll tell you there are actually some fairly logical reasons to let the lemon lie.

First, the fresh fish you find served in Venice have marvelous, sometimes delicate flavors (mostly non-fishy, by the way); the chef has prepared today’s catch to enhance them. If you smother them with lemon juice, what will you taste? In their eyes, the lemon homogenizes these very distinctive fish dishes — and nobody wants that. In fact, lemon is more for fish that’s, well, been around, that has defects to overcome — not for fresh fish flesh. Finally, expert fryers will work tirelessly to serve you the crispiest frittura possible. So what happens when you squeeeeeeze a half of lemon over the mound of crunchy fried fish?

Lemon mush, that’s what. Una tragedia, a real heart-breaker.

In a labor-saving move, or perhaps because they lack the fish-faithful culture of a born-and-raised Venetian, many restaurants have just given in and included the lemon as garnish. There are other eateries though, who will flat refuse to serve you the lemon (along with any sort of grated cheese, by the way), so best be prepared.

Rhombo ChiodatoWhy not compromise? Before you request a lemon wedge, or crush the one on your plate over its contents out of habit, why not simply sample what’s been served to you as is? If you’re eating in a restaurant famous for its fish, you’ll be surprised at how unnecessary the lemon might seem (try a light olive oil drizzle if you must). And — you’ll be immediately categorized as a informed fish fan. (When in Venice, and all that…)

So, will you become Venice’s next fish purist? Who’s to say? In any case, the fresh fish found here is certainly worth indulging in. Enjoy!

Dining in Rome: Rooftop Restaurants and Special Occasions

Rooftop Dining at Rome's Hotel 47

Refined Rooftop Dining from Rome's Hotel 47

In the first installment of “Ask the Italy Expert,” a feature in which I ask Italy travel specialists to help me answer reader inquiries, Stefania Troiani of Rome Shopping Guide about outlet shopping and pastry shops in Rome. This week’s questions are also about Rome and eating. What can I say…? Those are two topics I get asked about the most!

So, I called in another Rome expert. This time it is Erica Firpo behind the gorgeous travel blog Moscerina, to which she has been posting anecdotes about life in Rome since 2005. If you follow Italy travel news on Twitter, you may know Erica as @moscerina or @NG_Rome. The “NG” in the latter stands for Nile Guides, for which Erica is the local expert in Rome. After contacting Erica, I also learned that she wrote the Rome Little Black Book, a dining and entertainment guide for the Eternal City. Once again, I knew I had called on the right Italy expert for the job!

Following are the questions submitted by real Italofile readers and Erica’s expert advice.

Question 1: Rooftop Restaurants
Hi, Melanie! Can you recommend the best restaurants in Rome? Non- touristy and relaxing? ;). I am looking for a client. I’m not sure where she is staying, she has not set a budget- just wants great food and nice atmosphere- any rooftop restaurants with views maybe? Thanks, Laura

Rooftop restaurants in Rome are almost always, as a rule of thumb, atop hotels, which can mean they are touristy and perhaps a little too stuffy. Since a Roman sunset is a sight not to be missed, my advice would be to have a champagne toast on a rooftop– St. George Hotel (panorama of all the domes of Rome), Hotel Raphael (above Piazza Navona), Grand Hotel de la Minerve (view of the Pantheon’s dome), or Forty-Seven Hotel (looking toward the Tiber to the Temple of Fortunus), and then make your way around the neighborhood to a fabulous dinner. My favorite restaurants? Santa Lucia and San Teodoro — both are nestled in piazzas, away from the hubbub, and have delicious menus. Santa Lucia’s specialty is fish, while San Teodoro is creative interpretation of Roman cuisine.

(I also recommended San Teodoro in this post about Restaurants Near the Roman Forum.)

Question 2: Special Occasion Restaurants in Rome
Hi, Melanie. I wonder if you can help please. It will be my daughter’s 21st birthday on the 15th July. As a surprise, we are looking to take her (and her sister who is 26) to Rome for a few days. On her actual birthday, I would like to go to a nice restaurant (but maybe somewhere that’s more fun than posh) and as part of that, I would like to arrange a special birthday cake (which they would bring at the end of the meal). Would it be possible to arrange something like this in Rome and have it booked in advance? Any ideas appreciated! Thanks, Linda

Most restaurants will ask that you choose from their desserts, or if desiring a cake, choose from their pastry chef of choice. Casina Valadier, which may be more posh than fun, has an excellent pastry designer whose cakes are fantasies in marzipan. La Pergola‘s pastry chef is perhaps Rome’s most creative: his chocolate creations are unique to the world. [La Pergola is also Rome’s most coveted restaurant with 3 Michelin stars for cuisine, service, and price.] For a fun evening of eating (and less taxing on the wallet), Felice a Testaccio has excellent Roman cuisine and a fun, hip atmosphere. I just asked about birthday cakes since I’ll be celebrating there- the chef suggested a pick from his desserts, and order one in advance especially for the evening.

Laura and Linda, I hope these answers will help you plan the perfect Roman holidays for your client and your daughters. Thank you so much, Erica, for your extremely useful answers.

If you’d like to submit a question or if you are an Italy expert who’d like to offer some advice, contact me. Hopefully, we can collaborate on the next installment of Ask the Italy Expert!

Photo ©

Five Favorites: Recipes from Rome

Here’s another installment of Five Favorites, this time from a born-and-bred Italian. Eleonora (Lola) Baldwin writes not one, but two food blogs – one in English and the other in Italian. I’m very excited that this native Roman wanted to share with Italofile readers her five favorite typical Roman dishes. And you don’t have to wait to go to Rome to try these as Lola has provided recipes!

Five Favorites: Recipes from Rome

I’m a favorites freak. I have favorites in every category – authors, colors, artists, foods, cities, wines, bands, movies – you name it. So imagine how excited I was to participate in Italofile’s fabulous new feature Five Favorites. And since I am a Roman citizen, and among my favorite activities are eating, cooking, writing, and traveling, here is my Five Favorite Roman Dishes, listed in dream-menu order starting with an antipasto, followed by a starchy opener, a protein entrée, a delicious veggie side dish, and a non-sweet meal ending. All of these are traditional and authentic recipes hailing from the Eternal City. Shall we begin? Unfold your napkin and prepare to salivate.


Fiori di Zucca Fritti – Fried Zucchini Blossoms
There have been millions of words written on the zucchini flower. The forerunner of the ever-burgeoning mottled cylinders, are edible. More than edible, they’re delicious! That which some just chuck away as waste, can in fact become a delectable antipasto, part of a pasta condiment or even a salad element. Gather those blossoms while you can and prepare for yet another true Roman taste bud epiphany.

15 zucchini flowers
4 salted anchovy fillets (optional)
200 gr (1 cup) mozzarella, diced
100 gr (1/2 cup) unbleached all purpose flour
Oil for frying

Trim pistils and stems off the flowers, paying extra attention not to break them, they are quite delicate. Wash carefully with water and baking soda, rinse with plenty cold water and pat dry with paper towel.

Cut the mozzarella in strips and finely chop the anchovies (if you’re using them). Stuff each blossom with some mozzarella and a dab of anchovy mash and uncork a bottle of white Colli Albani wine.

In a mixing bowl, blend a 1/2 glass (or more) of chilled sparkling water, flour and salt until fluffy and add a dash of beer or a pinch of baking soda for an even more lightweight batter.

Dip the stuffed flowers in the batter open side up and deep fry in scalding olive oil. Briefly park on paper towel and serve hot with the remaining wine, if any is left.


Bucatini Cacio e Pepe
This typical Roman pasta dish is a simple cheese and pepper combination hallmark of Testaccio, the ancient housing project development and ex meat slaughtering district in the southern section of the Peninsula’s capital. Cacio e Pepe is particularly suited as a rewarding quick fix for self-invited last minute guests or post-fornication midnight munchies.

500 gr (1 lb) bucatini, thick hollow noodles. They can be substituted with virtually any ribbed or long strand pasta (in U.S. supermarkets, look for perciatelli if you can’t find bucatini -MMR)
1/2 cup sharp Roman Pecorino cheese, grated
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
Lots of freshly ground black pepper

Cook the pasta al dente in 1 gallon of lightly salted boiling water. Drain and save some cooking water for later. Toss with the grated cheeses and pepper, blending well and if necessary adding some starchy cooking water, should they become too thick and dry. Devour at tongue-burning temperature and revel.


Saltimbocca alla Romana
Roman-style “jump in the mouth” cutlets whose name is remarkably appropriate–you can never eat enough of these deliciously tender veal cutlets topped with prosciutto and sage. Serves a hungry 2 (or regular appetite 4).

500 gr (1.1 lb) lean veal, cut into 8 thin playing card-sized scaloppine
60 gr (2 oz) prosciutto, cut into wafer-thin slices, about 4
Unsalted butter for sautéing
8 Fresh sage leaves
Dash of salt
Wooden toothpicks

If your butcher was lazy when he carved the veal and your slices are too thick, hammer them with a kitchen cleaver held flat. Lay half a slice of prosciutto on each, and a sage leaf. Fasten these to the veal cutlet with one or two toothpicks.

Heat a couple tablespoons of unsalted butter in a skillet and sauté the cutlets until just done, cooking them more on the veal side than the decorated side (salty, overcooked prosciutto tends to become leathery). Season your saltimbocca to taste and hop them in your mouth, along with their savory drippings.

Puntarelle are the sprouts of a chicory variety called cicoria di catalogna, puntarelle chicory or asparagus chicory, picked while still young and tender. They are in season from November to January.

The preparation of this salad is a little complex, fortunately puntarelle are sold in Rome’s farmers’ and corner markets already trimmed and “curled”.

The sprouts and shoots of the puntarelle are cut lengthwise into long, thin strips and soaked in acidulated ice-cold water for an hour. This causes the crunchy pale green chicory to curl up in extraordinary Shirley Temple-style curls, become juicier and less bitter. The recipe for the punchy dressing of this very particular salad dates back to ancient Rome.

Assemble the following ingredients for a taste of true Roman flavor.

1 kg (2.2 lbs) puntarelle (can be substituted with Belgian endive or the youngest curly chicory you can find)
8 anchovy fillets packed in salt, cleaned (can be substituted with regular oil-preserved anchovies)
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
The juice of 1/2 lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Prepare a creamy pesto with minced garlic, anchovies, splash of lemon juice (not too much!) very little salt, pepper and plenty olive oil. Pestle and mortar would be best, but if you use a mezzaluna or a kitchen knife to chop finely and then mix with a wire whisk, I won’t tell anyone. Stir and allow the dressing to sit for 10 minutes.

Drain the puntarelle, dry with a kitchen towel or spin-dry carefully. Trickle the obtained velvety beige dressing over the chilled and curled puntarelle salad, toss, allow it to sit for another few minutes, and expect to face reduced social life for the next 3 days (garlic).

Note: If you’re particularly in a rush and decide to use anchovy paste instead of fillets, just cut down on the salt and–again–count on my discretion.

fave1 fave2

Fave & Pecorino
April 25th and May 1st are very important Italian National holidays. One celebrates the Country’s liberation after 20 years of fascism, and the other is Italian Labor Day. On both dates all activity stops, newspapers don’t go into press, all business shuts down and people migrate to nearby rural locations laden with copious amounts of packed picnic food. Bucolic folly and loud outdoor snoring are a must because the milder climate, blooming vegetation and diffused hormone surge, make a pastoral occasion on such holidays a necessity. Families and friends make for their countryside destinations loading their cars with picnic tablecloths, soccer balls and baskets of Pantagruelian delicacies, which require among them large amounts of fresh fava beans and sharp Roman Pecorino cheese. The tangy crunch of the raw beans and the aggressive dairy combo is downright divine. It is a synonym of Roman spring. And quite a potent digestive too!

Buon appetito!

headshot-lolaWhen she’s not shooting on location around the world on a film set as script supervisor–or writing a food/travel column–you’ll most probably find Eleonora (Lola) Baldwin busy cooking in her Rome kitchen. Eleonora is currently editing her Italian cookbook/lifestyle manuscript, and is the author/editor of two popular weblogs: AGLIO, OLIO & PEPERONCINO, focuses on Italian cuisine, food history, travel musings, and local hang-outs. FORCHETTINE, written in Italian, is a food-lover’s online guide in which the author reviews restaurant facilities and regional specialties in Italy. You can also follow Eleonora on Twitter @passerotto.

Photos © francescav, madgrin, frabattista, su-lin, Italian Notebook

How To Make Bolognese Sauce

Here’s a great way to bring Italy home – learn how to make Bolognese sauce! There are dozens of instructional videos out there, including this recent one from But two of the best I have found – that adhere to the original ingredients and techniques from Italy – come from Mario Batali, the Italian-American chef who used to have a fantastic show on the Food Network, and from, an Italian language website devoted to food.

It’s fun to see Mario and Chef Alessandro preparing the ragù. I’m definitely inspired to make my own!

Chef Mario Batali’s Bolognese Sauce

Ragù alla Bolognese fron

Photo by Carpe Feline

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