Ciao Italia!

13 Feb

We’re going to Italy.

Stormy Sunday

In just over a month, Isaac and I, and my entire family, will be winging our separate ways over the Atlantic to the land of wine, cheese, cured meats and truffles. We’ll be shacking up in a little house in a hill town in Umbria for a week, and then the two of us will spend a few more days, over Easter, exploring Florence, Tuscany and Rome.

To say I am excited is one of the greatest understatements of all time.

Stormy Sunday

I haven’t been to Italy in nearly two decades, and that trip was less than ideal. The tour operator was a proud graduate of some Soviet-era apparatchik machine. Rather than floating through Italy on a cloud of culture and food, we plodded from ruin to museum on a bus, like weary soldiers on a forced march.

Upon reaching our destination,the tour guide would bark at us to enjoy the culture and then herd us back onto the bus. We would then be driven back to our cold, grey hostel were we were fed cold, grey meat and told to go to bed.

My memories of that trip involve hunger, sore feet, cold, snow and a rain.

Snowflakes, on my coat

That is, until we befriended the bus driver. He was an older gentleman with wild, movie star hair, golden skin and sparkling blue eyes. One day, as we were being herded back to the bus in Florence, I spotted him lolling on a fountain surrounded by a bevy of the most beautiful women, all at least half his age, flipping their hair and tinkling with laughter.

My friend Brian, whose family was Italian and thus spoke the language, noticed him too (but I suspect he mostly noticed the ladies) and began chatting with him. The bus driver felt sorry for us. He hated the tour guide as much as we did, and so he started instructing us, through Brian, in ways to ditch her. Our bus driver fomented rebellion.

And suddenly, there it was! Beautiful, romantic, cultured, delicious, wonderful, perfect Italia. No cold, grey, sanitized, Disney-fied, fig-leaf covered, flag-bearing-tour-guide-approved Italy.


Suddenly there was gelato and grappa, cute waiters and spicy tomato sauces, bare feet in the Adriatic and hidden galleries in Venice. We were free, and it felt delicious. But alas, this new found freedom came at the very end of our ten-day stay.

The World's Best Braised Escarole

I can’t wait to get back to this Italy. I want to try and find that delicious pizzeria in Assisi again, the one that clings to the side of the twisty road down the side of a sheer cliff, to climb once more to the top of that hill in Florence for the perfect view of the Duomo, to again dash madly across a Roman avenue without being squished by a roaring lorry, to sit in a palazzo and sip espresso as the sun sets.

Oh Italy!

But of course, what I really can’t wait for is the food. I’ve read that it will still be truffle season in Umbria. And we’ll be eating dinner each night at the house, so shopping at the local markets will actually be a fruitful activity. We’ll be able to buy vegetables and fish and meats and condiments and not just buy bread and cheese to eat while perched on a wall or on a ferry between islands (which, let’s be honest, isn’t the end of the world and I would gladly do every day of my life for eternity).

Acqua Cotta di Maremma (Olive Oil Soup)

In anticipation, I have become even more obsessed with Italian food than usual.

On Saturday night I whipped up Paula Wolfert‘s Acqua Cotta di Maremma (aka Olive Oil Soup from Maremma) and the World’s Best Braised Escarole. On Sunday night we made Short Rib Ragu with pappardelle (which came out perfect, unlike last time, thanks to you guys).

It’s all I can think about. Sugo and cinghiale and lenticchie and tartuffo and porchetta and strangozzi. Is it March yet?

Short Rib Ragu with pappardelle

But what I really want to know is if you guys have any suggestions for things to do and places to see in Umbria? We’ll have a car and just under a week, so all suggestions are welcome.

As they say in Italy, grazie!

Head below the jump for the recipes for World’s Best Braised Escarole, Acqua Cotta di Maremma and Short Rib Ragu.

World’s Best Braised Escarole

prep time: 10 minutes ~ cooking time: 20 minutes

  • Olive Oil
  • 6 cloves of Garlic, sliced
  • 2 buches of Escarole, washed, but not dried and torn into bite-sized pieces
  • Salt
  • 1/3 c Dry Vermouth
  • 1 tbsp Lemon Juice
  • Sherry Vinegar
  • Garlic Butter or Butter + 1 small clove of Garlic passed through a garlic press
  • Grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Heat the olive oil over a medium-high flame in a high sided sautée pan. Add the garlic and cook just until becoming golden. Quickly pile all the escarole into the pan, season with a good pinch of salt and pour over the vermouth, lemon juice and a healthy splash of sherry vinegar. Clamp the lid on and cook until completely wilted. Take the lid off and cook until the liquid is nearly reduced, turn off the flame, add the butter and stir to incorporate. Serve topped with grated cheese. Enjoy!

Acqua Cotta di Maremma (Olive Oil Soup from Maremma)

prep time: 10 minutes ~ cooking time: 45 minutes

  • 1/2 c Olive Oil
  • 2 handfuls fresh Sage leaves, washed and dried
  • 1 Onion, sliced
  • 6 cloves Garlic, sliced
  • 1 c frozen Fava Beans
  • 1/2 c Celery, diced
  • 1 c Carrots, diced
  • 6-8 frozen Artichoke Hearts, quartered
  • 1 dried hot Chile, crumbled
  • 6 c Water
  • 1 c frozen Peas
  • 1 Egg per person
  • 1 chunk of Stale Bread or Garlic-flavored crouton per person
  • Grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Scatter the sage, onion and garlic on the bottom of a heavy dutch oven or casserole. Cover with the oil. Turn on the flame to medium-low and allow the ingredients to cook slowly until fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Turn the heat to high and the favas, celery, carrots, artichoke hearts and chile. Cook a few minutes then add the water and bring to a boil then turn down to a simmer. Cook 30 minutes. Add the peas and once they are heated through carefully drop in the eggs to poach. Allow to cook a few minutes then turn off the flame. Place a chunk of stale bread in the bottom of each person’s bowl. Carefully fish out an egg per person and place on the bread or crouton and ladle soup over. Serve with a generous sprinkling of cheese. Enjoy!

Short Rib Ragu

prep time: 20 minutes ~ cooking time: 3 hours

Cook’s Note: This recipe makes enough for at least 6 people, so adjust amounts accordingly or save some for freezing.

  • Oil
  • 4 Beef Short Ribs
  • 2 Onions, sliced
  • 3 Cubanelle or Italian Roaster Peppers, chopped
  • 1 Fennel bulb, chopped
  • 8 Garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 c Red Wine
  • 1/4 c Balsamic Vinegar
  • Boquet Garni
  • 1 large can San Marzano Tomatoes and their juice
  • Water
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 2 large bunches Red Chard, washed and torn into bite sized pieces
  • Fresh Pasta, preferably pappardelle (wide ribbons) and preferably homemade
  • salted, boiling Water

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Heat a glug of oil in a heavy-bottomed, oven-proof dutch oven with a lid. Add the short ribs and brown both sides well, starting with the meaty side.

When brown, turn off the flame and remove the ribs to a roasting pan. Place in the oven.

Add the onions, peppers, fennel and garlic cloves to the dutch oven. Turn the flame back on to medium. Cook the vege until becoming soft at least 15 minutes. Turn the heat up to high and add the wine and vinegar. Reduce by about half. Add the herbs and tomatoes. Mix well and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer.

Turn the oven down to 325°F. Carefully remove the pan with the ribs and move the ribs into the sauce, nestling them into the tomatoes as much as possible. Add water to the sauce to ensure the meat is mostly covered. Bring to a low simmer. Turn off the heat. Put the lid on the dutch oven and transfer to the oven.

Cook for 2 1/2-3 hours. The meat should be meltingly tender and falling off the bone.

Once the meat is done, carefully remove it and the bones from the sauce and set aside. Turn off the oven. Skim as much fat as possible from the surface of the sauce. Carefully bring the sauce to a simmer over a medium-low flame, season with salt & pepper.

When the meat is cool enough to touch, shred it. Add the chard and cook until wilted and tender. Add the meat back into the sauce and turn off the flame. Cook the pasta in plenty of salted, boiling water. When ready, drain. Serve a few scoops of the sauce over a mound of pasta with some grated cheese. Enjoy!

P.S. The leftover sauce is astoundingly good with a little bit of crème fraîche stirred into and eaten with a big hunk of good bread and a lovely glass of red wine as an after-work dinner on a bone chilling, snowy, sleety Tuesday night.


25 Responses to “Ciao Italia!”

  1. Lydia February 13, 2008 at 9:17 am #

    I’m so excited for you! It will be wonderful to purge the bad memories of your first trip. Seeing Italy as an adult, with control over how you spend your time, where you eat, which museums/churches/ruins you do visit, will be so much more satisfying. Can’t wait to read all about it.

  2. Ann February 13, 2008 at 11:29 am #

    I’m jealous! Afraid I don’t know Umbria well enough to give you suggestions (I’ve spent tons of time in Rome and Liguria, but only a few weeks, ages ago, in Florence). Have a wonderful time!

  3. Luisa February 13, 2008 at 12:11 pm #

    How fun! I’m so excited for you. No recommendations, unfortunately, since I’m always up in the Marches, but I know you’re going to have an amazing, delicious trip! Can’t wait to see your photos.

  4. Golly February 13, 2008 at 12:16 pm #

    Oh how exciting! I cycled thru Tuscany a couple of years ago and ate so well I didn’t want to come home. The food, the wine, the scenery – heavenly. One thing I did miss out on was stopping at the olive oil and wine tastings along the road. We bought fresh fruit, tomatoes and veg at the side of the road and ate it there and then – it would be great to have carried some to cook in the evenings but it wasn’t practical. If you are close to Orvieto it has wine food and a cathedral – what more could a person want.

  5. Julie February 13, 2008 at 2:01 pm #

    Wow! What a great time of year to be going, and having your own kitchen there so you’re really shopping for meals will be a lot more fun than having every meal out. I’m looking forward to hearing about the food and the markets.

  6. Christine February 13, 2008 at 3:09 pm #

    Oh I am so jealous! It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been. I have no suggestions for Umbria, but can only tell you to be careful on the roads, for the stereotype of the crazy Italian driver is true I’ve found. (My cousin’s fiance, now husband would laugh and laugh as I buckled myself in, in the backseat while telling me it wasn’t illegal to drive without the belt.)

    If you ever end up in Milano or Sicily, you just ask me.

  7. judithgr February 14, 2008 at 4:58 am #

    I predict a great time. I live in Umbria, so naturally I want to know which hilltown!

    It’s pretty much always truffle season although the fabulous white truffle is long over, as long as it rains we have different truffles for different seasons. The summer versions aren’t as strong, but you use more. Plus you can cook the black ones, which you cannot the white ones.

    Come on over (blogwise) and we can see where to send you for the various specialties of the area. Once we know the area. In March (and February) you can eat these little sea creatures that look like centipedes with eyes painted on their tails and agretti, our spring tonic green that looks like fat grass. Ortica or nettles will also be just right. It’s still crisp enough to make hearty food welcome.

  8. Denzylle February 14, 2008 at 8:23 am #

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy this blog:

    Scroll down labels and read all the Italy entries – lots of restaurants, markets, food and drink, culture and some amazing photographs.

  9. ann February 14, 2008 at 9:10 am #

    Lydia — I can’t wait either… It may sound dorky, but I’m soooo excited to see all the old Etruscan ruins. So much cooler than the Romans!

    Ann — We only have about 36 hours in Rome, any suggestions as to “must sees”?

    Luisa — Thanks! I can’t wait to take pictures. I’m going to be in great shape by the time we get back, because when I stop to take pictures, Isaac always keeps walking so that I have to jog to catch up ;-)

    Golly — Oooh, good advice! I’d heard that Orvieto is fantastic. Biking would be fun, but I’m hoping for some horses!

    Julie — Apparently there’s a woman that comes with the house to do the cooking. I plan on either learning tons from her or fomenting rebellion once again. So excited!

    Christine — I am so scared of the drivers. If they’re anything like the folk we saw in Croatia, I might just turn all the driving over to my better half!

    Judith — Hi! Thanks for dropping in with such wonderful advice! I’ll send you an email separately, but I’m sure everyone’s dying to know more about those little sea creatures! What are they called in Italian?

    Denzylle — I know! I’ve been meaning to go back over there and do some research. They had such a fantabulous trip!

  10. Ann February 14, 2008 at 9:48 am #

    Well, we love the coffee at Tazza d’Oro which is right across from the Pantheon in Piazza Della Rotonda. The Palatine is a beautiful place to have a picnic, and the well-hidden and Da Francesco restaurant (Piazza Del Fico near Piazza della Pace) has a superb and very extensive selection of antipasti, which we like to make an entire meal out of.

    I also adore Trastevere (across the river), where you can buy the most amazing candle clocks ( at Polvere di tempo (on Via del Moro). I buy these candles every time I go to Rome and then hoard them jealously. I think I have two left right now.

  11. Christina February 15, 2008 at 12:05 am #

    I’m looking forward to my trip too. I’d say it was all I could think about, but I have another big event just before my trip that is taking most of my attention.

    I anticipate your post-trip blog entries–I always love to read your impressions of places you travel.

    Happy Valentine’s Day!

  12. lobstersquad February 15, 2008 at 7:26 am #

    lucky you!! that´s wonderful, I love Italy so much, everything is so much better there. it´s like Spain, only miles better. Have fun, and please report back, and in the meantime cook lots of good Italian stuff.

  13. K February 15, 2008 at 10:38 am #

    I’ve never been to Italy, sadly, so I can’t offer any suggestions other than this: take lots and lots of pictures and eat until someone has to roll you out of the country! I can’t wait to hear/read/see all about your wonderful trip. I hope you have the best time imaginable! :D

  14. Toni February 15, 2008 at 11:59 am #

    Oh Ann — It’s been years and years since I’ve been in Italy, and never in Umbria. Your plans sound like perfection! To have your own place and a car is the perfect way to explore. So while I have no suggestions as to specific places, I would recommend taking off and getting lost. Getting lost was one of my husband’s favorite ways of exploring, and I came to appreciate it as a brilliant approach to tourism. Also, I would use Elizabeth Gilbert’s approach to finding restaurants – ask a regular person, like a policeman or a taxi driver or a postman where the very best place to eat is. Especially in a small town! (That’s one phrase you might want to learn and polish before you go!) Enjoy!!!!

  15. Robin February 15, 2008 at 7:30 pm #

    Oh my! I am soo excited for you two! I haven’t been to Italy in almost a decade, my sister is in Florence studying abroad now and I’m sooo jealous! I can’t wait for your photos and stories and food news!! I’ll ask my sister for some info about place to eat in Florence too. :D

  16. michelle February 15, 2008 at 7:55 pm #

    oh, jealous, jealous, jealous! i haven’t been in about 2 years (i know, i know – but my whole family except me is there!) and i can’t wait for my tax refund to be deposited so i can book soom tickets.

    i don’t have an umbria advice – i’m from puglia – but i know you’ll have an amazing time. can’t wait to hear the stories!

  17. Terry B February 15, 2008 at 9:16 pm #

    Ann—How wonderful! I’m reminded of a line from the short story “Vacation ’58” from the magazine National Lampoon [it became the basis for the first movie in the “Vacation” franchise]. The narrator/boy from the story talks about his overwhelming excitement at the news his family was going to Disneyland when school was out. He said he spent the last month of school feeling like he had to go to the bathroom all the time.

  18. ann February 17, 2008 at 8:35 am #

    Ann — Ooooooh! Those are so cool! Thanks for the advice. I can’t wait. I’m reading I, Claudius and watching the first season of Rome to prepare. ;-)

    Christina — Hehe! I’m thinking of all this advice as my long distance present to you. Happy Valentines day to you too.

    Lobstersquad — Better than Spain? Wow. That’s high praise ;-)

    K — Done and done!

    Toni — That’s some sage advice. To that I’m going to add our rule, that any ethnic eatery playing their country’s football (soccer) on TV is always a safe bet for authentic eats. It has yet to fail us!

    Robin — Ooooh, thanks! That would be great.

    Michelle — Puglia sounds amazing. Maybe in a few years I’ll hit you up for some info on places to go there. Good luck with the taxes! They’re not that bad :-)

    Terry — LOL! Yes! That’s exactly how it feels! I’m so glad someone understands :-)

  19. Jennifer Hess February 18, 2008 at 7:35 pm #

    Color me jealous! Have a wonderful, wonderful time. :)

    I have to say this batch of recipes all sound fantastic… escarole is one of my new favorites, so I’m definitely bookmarking this to try in the near future, and who doesn’t love short ribs in any form this time of year? YUM.

  20. Susan in Italy February 19, 2008 at 9:54 am #

    Ooh! Stuff to do in Umbria! Well there’s this small winemaker who actually produces the now illegal “fragolino” wine and does it SO beautifully. Problem is he’s a friend of a friend and, well his work IS illegal, so I can’t tell you who he is. Sorry.

    All I have to say is drive along small country roads and enjoy the fresh, fresh spring produce!

  21. loulou February 19, 2008 at 10:38 am #

    You are going to have an incredible trip! Italy in the spring…it doesn’t get much better!

  22. ann February 19, 2008 at 9:42 pm #

    Jennifer — I know! I’m a total convert now. Short ribs are me new best friend. As is escarole. I crave this recipe constantly now.

    Susan — Oooooh, that’s dirty trick ;-) Of course, I don’t even know what “fragolino” wine is, so I suppose it’s fair. I’m so excited that it will truly be spring while we’re there. Here in New York, March can be the cruelest month.

    Loulou — Thanks! You and Susan have got me very excited now!

  23. shelley February 20, 2008 at 9:37 am #

    You are in for such a treat! I look forward to checking out your gorgeous tales of travel when you return.

  24. sara jenkins March 8, 2008 at 12:20 pm #

    please make sure to go to Il bacco felice in Foligno Umbria. I think it is the best, most honest and authentic place to eat in all of central Italy

  25. ann March 10, 2008 at 7:49 am #

    Shelley — Thanks! I can’t wait either :-)

    Sara — Thank you!! I’ve noted it in my guidebook. I’m so excited, it sounds lovely!

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