Sunday, December 27, 2009

Better Than Sugarplums

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Christmas is full of traditions. I already blogged the pizzelles, I make sugar cookies 365, and if we spent the holiday with my family it would mean prime rib and pita. One Christmas back in 1996, Southern Living featured a present cake on its cover. I make it as a red velvet, an old family recipe I am not inclined to share. It has been a staple ever since. It's really too big for just my family, although I have successfully cut down the recipe. But it is a show stopper every time I make the cake as a present. I used to make one for my Christmas party every year, but since I haven't had the blowout party in a number of years, I have to find reasons to make this cake. This year it was Christmas Eve with friends.

The frosting recipe, like many in my repertoire has changed from its original version, that is from trial and error, and I have a difficult time trying to explain these things. This year I made 4 layers of red velvet, about 7X10 each. It was a cute little cake, quite tall. And that frosting....needless to say it was a hit. Here is the recipe for the frosting. Mind you most people like cream cheese frosting on their red velvet. I don't care for cream cheese frosting on anything.

Almond Frosting
2 cups shortening
1 tea salt
1 tea almond extract
1 tea vanilla
3 16oz. packages of confectioner's sugar
1 cup evaporated milk

Beat until fluffy , makes 7 cups.

The ribbons on the cake are made with fruit by the foot, brushed with water and then sparkling sugar.

On to other traditions. Many years ago when we were spending Christmas just the 4 of us, I decided to do something a little different for Christmas dinner. No one was really excited about prime rib, turkey is a once a year food for us unless you count turkey burgers which appear every Monday night, so I decided fondue. I thought it would be perfect, not too much mess or prep, and after a retail holiday season, easy was my mantra. I have my mom's old copper fondue pot, I have my mother-in-laws old avocado green pot, and I have a copper Ruffoni pot from Williams Sonoma with a ceramic insert of which I was lucky enough to buy an extra insert. So fondue it was, and our own tradition was started. It begins with shredding cheese and cutting veggies, bread, cleaning shrimp, washing fruit and small tasks that everyone can help with. I love that it doesn't abandon the women in the kitchen cooking.

We always start with cheese. Emmental, gruyere, Colby, I have tried them all in various recipes. We dip French bread, roasted fingerling potatoes, steamed broccoli even cauliflower is yummy dunked in wine-laced cheese. It always reminds me of the Alps although I didn't eat this when I was there, but I am certain Grace Kelly may have, and looked fabulous while doing so. Then we move on to meat. The idea of boiling hot oil on the table unnerves me, so I always do beef broth. I boil it first and transfer it to the pot, as if boiling broth can do less bodily harm than boiling oil? We cook beef and shrimp. The beef gets a little grey in color and can take a while to cook if there are lots of forks in the pot, but this year we did the cheese and meat at the same time so the pot was never crowded, and we grilled the steak to rare to give it a head start on cooking and add a little more flavor. I always have an abundance of condiments, steak sauce, BBQ, hot sauce, cocktail sauce, it is all about the dunking, and a fondue plate has all kinds of compartments to sauce up!

This Christmas, the kids are a little older and I thought maybe they would enjoy beef wellington or lobster or something a little more grown up for dinner. There was a resounding NO! This is apparently our tradition, and I can see many years from now my grandchildren gathered around multiple fondue pots on Christmas Day! Honestly, I love the image, it is a fun and relaxing way to enjoy an afternoon.

This year we ate fondue a little later in the day, and we just couldn't muster up the hunger for dessert, of course chocolate fondue, yum. I have said many times that I am not a chocoholic, I like it, but when it comes to dunking a banana or marshmallow in it, well I love it! We decided to wait and do fondue dessert after a nice fish and Ceasar salad dinner a few days after Christmas and opted to eat leftover red velvet cake on Christmas Day. Not a bad trade off. We were lucky enough to find raspberries, strawberries and lady apples to dunk in our fondue, we also added a pear, banana, marshmallows and peppermint Peeps to the mix. I can't imagine eating pumpkin pie, mincemeat pie or even sugarplums (whatever that is) or really anything else for dessert during the holidays, red velvet cake and chocolate fondue, perfect.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dinner in the Style of Celle di San Vito

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Dinner in Italy. Sounds romantic, luxurious, decadent and delicious. While traveling in October with my parents and sister, we went to this little town, Celle di San Vito for lunch. I am sorry I don't know the name of the restaurant, but I doubt there is more than one or two there, and I believe it is really famous for its pizza. Pepino, our friend from Faeto really wanted us to go to dinner there, but Lori, my sister and driver was pretty adamant about going to this village in daylight. As navigator, I was a little surprised at her lack of adventure, I mean she was a trained stuntwoman, how hard is it to drive around Italy? We were in Faeto, sitting on one side of a small mountain, and Celle was across the valley on another mountain.

It turned out to be a wise decision for a number of reasons. First of all it was cold and rainy so, not a lot to do in Faeto. Second, the road was full of hairpin curves and one portion was down to a single lane where it had washed away, (gulp, that's me swallowing the crow), and last, based on the amount of food we consumed, we could have never gone to bed within hours of eating. I declared it the best meal of the trip. Nothing fancy, nothing exotic, nothing new to my palate. It was so delicious, the table next to a fire, it was perfect. This weekend I duplicated this simple meal for a few appreciative friends. The photos are from the Italian dinner, with the exception of the table setting, the cannoli and the pizzelle.

I rearranged my house last year and turned my keeping room into the eating area and the table is next to the fireplace. We started with Antipasti. A platter of prosciutto and salami, bruschetta which was grilled bread with fresh chopped tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil, and finally assorted olives, marinated mozzarella and peppers. The olives and mozzarella were the only additions, otherwise it was the same as in Celle. Sadly, I didn't have Anna Sabatino's bread to make my bruschetta. We sipped red wine and savored the smell from the oven.

For Primo we had baked pasta. The pasta in Celle was apparently hand rolled, like a gemelli, but I found Torchetti, imported from Italy and made on 150 year old bronze molds. I made a marinara with Pomi tomatoes and added some mild Italian sausage. The sauce cooked all afternoon, and at the end I added a Tablespoon of homemade pesto for a little brightness. I tossed the sauce with cooked (al dente) pasta, added a few chunks of mozzarella and baked it for about 25 minutes in a very shallow dish. In Celle, I am certain it was baked in a wood fired oven, it was crusty on the top and the sauce was sweet and burnt in places. In Celle it was served in individual terra cotta type vessels that were shallow and held in the heat on that chilly day. Mine was equally as delicious.

For Secondi, we had grilled pork chops that had been marinated in extra virgin olive oil, lemon zest and bay leaves. And for Contorni we had roasted potatoes and salad. The potatoes were not as crispy as they were in Celle, and I opted to not make them with the sausage, but I tossed the wedges with olive oil, garlic and onions and baked it in a hot oven. I think the potatoes cooked with the sausage would make a fine winter meal on its own. The salad was simple, mixed greens with white wine vinegar and olive oil. The salad is last, that is the way we always eat it at my house, and in Celle too.

We then brewed some coffee (no espresso here) and poured a little Sambuca. In Celle we had fresh roasted chustnuts (cue the music, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.... but as wonderful as they smell, they are too mushy for me. We opted for Dolci and had handmade cannoli and pizzelle, and more Sambuca. Many of our guests had never had Sambuca con la mosca which translates to Sambuca with ants. Really, it is 3 coffee beans which represent health, happiness and prosperity.
It was a great dinner. Fun to relive it and tell about my great Italian roadtrip. Everything I made will be standards in my recipe repetoire, but not all at once! Buon Apetito!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cookies and Cream Cake Truffles

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To whom do I owe this idea? Well, around the web, Bakerella gets the credit, she seems to be the first "mainstream" blogger to put these up, although she called them cake balls. First posted in 2007 and over 450 comments, well, this is a bloggers dream post. I stumbled on her blog a while back after Googling cake balls. Let's face it, that is a bad name. It makes teenage girls giggle, and frankly, they are the target customer for these sugar bombs. My sister in Iowa, the viticulturist sister not the singing, glitter sister, told me last year she made cake balls. I admit I was a little curious. She told me mix cake and frosting, roll 'em, dip them in candy melts, done. I thought YUK! But after my web search, that was pretty much how everyone, including Bakerella was doing it. I love to bake homemade cakes, fine crumb, great cocoa, vanilla bean, but I could see no reason to waste a homemade cake on cake balls, so fine, a box would work. The candy melts, well, yuk again. They are greasy, and after years of hand made truffles coming out of my kitchen bathed in Guittard I broke down and said, okay, candy melts, no tempering for cake balls.

Then came the frosting. I do not like, nor buy canned frosting. I used to sell it. Yep, cans of Duncan Hines frosting by the case, "Please Mr. Grocer, wouldn't you like a display devoted to cake mix and canned frosting?" But that wasn't my big seller, you see in 1984 or so, the #1 selling item in the grocery was Crisco, and I was the Crisco girl. Did you ever notice how closely Crisco and canned frosting look? One of our pitches was to fill a Crisco can with vanilla frosting and take it in a store and pitch the manager on a Crisco end cap, and open up the can and eat a spoonful of the "frosting" Crisco to gross him out and explain that Crisco is never bought alone, there are dozens of add on possibilities. Yes, it worked, but I was so over the frosting fascination. Quick buttercream is SO easy, why bother with the canned stuff. So I mentally filed my cake ball ideas.

One balmy fall weekend we were heading to an out of town volleyball tourney and I offered to bring dessert. I thought maybe cake balls would work well. Thankfully 16 year old girls could care less about how the sweet things look, because it was disastrous. Remember my instructions were mentally filed, and things are a little crowded up there. I had a few boxes of Williams Sonoma Cookies and Cream pound cake mix that I bought on clearance. I baked one in an 11x7 pan and cooled it. I whipped up a yummy vanilla bean buttercream frosting and mixed cake and frosting. rolled them out and dunked the crumbling balls in gloppy faux chocolate. They looked disgusting and everyone loved them. I knew I would return to this since I had 2 more boxes of mix, so here we are. I returned to the Web and was thrilled that the name cake balls had morphed into cake truffles, they were better already!

I again baked the cake in an 11x7. In the 15 million Google results for cake balls, half tell you to cool the cake, the other half to not. I cooled it and then crumbled it into a bowl. I made a basic quick buttercream, 1 stick unsalted butter, ~3 cups of xxx sugar, vanilla paste, dash of salt and milk to get the right consistency. I then incorporated small amounts of frosting at a time to get the stuff to stick. Not gooey greasy balls, but balls with texture. It does help that this cake mix actually has bits of an Oreo-type cookie in it. Then I chilled it. After about an hour I rolled, and I rolled them small. Then I chilled them again. Then I melted the faux chocolate. It's even more temperamental than the real thing, or maybe I have used the real thing for so long it seems easier to use Guittard. Regardless, I used a double boiler and got the water to a good simmer without anything in the top pan, just letting it get hot, and removed the whole thing from the heat. Then I dumped in the candy melts (which is a brand name for Wilton) and a small amount of Paramount Crystals which are like a dried shortening (get them from a candy making store), it makes the chocolate very smooth. I was surprised how smooth the chocolate stayed not being on any heat source but the water. My mistake the first time was overheating the chocolate and it got lumpy, which by the way, is unattractive and quickly melted my buttercream. I then sprinkled a few nonpareils on top for the contrast and voila.

A few more steps, but the chill time made a big difference for me. I'm not a huge fan of the taste of the concept, I prefer my cake in a slice so I can eat cake, then the frosting, but these are great small nibbles of cake. Less mess than a cupcake, lots of decorating possibilities, and endless flavor combinations. It made so many I boxed up a few dozen for the mail lady. So, what are you waiting for? Get in there and bake!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

White Christmas and Pizzelles

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Ahhh, the perfect Saturday. Cold and sunny outside, smelling like a bakery inside. Today was pizzelle day. For those of you unfamiliar, they are a flat Italian cookie made in a press. Mine is electric, I have had it for about 10 years, and I think today was its last hurrah. My delicious pizzelles are obviously browned more on one side than the other, an apparent electrical problem. Oh well, it has had a long life, and has been without a leg for years. So next Christmas I won't have to balance a hot electrical appliance on a cork.
The recipe I have used in the past few years is from Nick Malgieri's book Cookies Unlimited. There are a million variations on the web, and it really is personal. My family has always gone with the crispy anise flavored pizzelles. There are thicker soft versions, pizzelles with anise seed, fennel seed, almond and chocolate. The chocolate isn't bad, but I love the anise. I choose to use anise oil instead of extract. It takes a small amount, less than ¼ teaspoon for a double batch. With the extract you could easily use a teaspoon or more. The key is to know when enough is enough, because too much anise oil and the whole batch is ruined, I know, I've done it. So what better way to kill time while making pizzelles than to watch the old standard White Christmas. My favorite holiday movie. So much to love! First of all, the Sisters song. My sister Lori and I can butcher that song beautifully after just one glass of wine.
Then there is Vera-Ellen, and I don't care what all the haters say, I would enjoy a 17" waist for a day or 2. She is an amazing dancer and perfect with Danny Kaye.
How about the clothes? Edith Head was so talented. I love the color, the silhouettes the movement of the fabrics when they dance. If those dopes on the design shows recreated the gorgeous black velvet gown Rosemary Clooney wore in her song, Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me, they'd be lauded for their simplicity and vision, and yea, plagiarism, but it is fabulous.
Which brings me to the song The Best Things Happen When You Dance. I love that, the words are perfect. When I was in high school, slow dancing was better than making out. Kids today have no idea...and the dance Vera and Danny do with it is swooning! Brendan Fraser brings that song to the masses in the movie Blast From the Past (very funny) and he dances pretty good too.
Of course anyone who knows me knows I love anything military, so the theme of the General and his boys is a nice story to boot, and those uniforms, the patriotism and the camaraderie of the troop, makes for a timeless theme.
If I had any singing talent at all, I would find some folks to harmonize the Snow song with. And the cocktails and class in the railroad car, it so makes me want to take a train. Geez, I was born way too late.
And then the famous finale. The kids in their pointe shoes (red ballet go Edith), dancing around that huge tree covered in tinsel. We used to tinsel our tree when I was a kid, I loved the way it sparkled. And the cast dressed in Santa inspired gowns and suits with the fur and the glitter, the snow falling behind them and the best selling song of all time. What a great movie....

I finished the pizzelles before the movie was through, so I engaged in a little cork craft. I admit, it is a little weird, but still cute at the same time. My sister (the one I sing with) has sort of gone "over the edge" with these and covered her entire flock of reindeer (and anything else that will take a little glue) with Martha's fabulous glitter. Apparently she bought the variety pack and things are sparkling in living color all over Santa Monica.
For me, back to the ovens. Much more to prepare. Go on, get in there and bake!

Nick Malgieri's Pizzelles
1¾ cup flour
pinch salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
1 egg yolk (save the white for meringues!)
¾ cup sugar
2 Tablespoons anisette (what is that? I use a trace of anise oil)
1 stick butter, melted and cooled
Mix dry together and set aside. Beat eggs, sugar anise and butter. Add dry ingredients. Bake on pizzelle iron. YUM!
Says it makes 24, but you'll eat a few in the process...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Daring Baker's Cannoli

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Yes, I am aware it is December, but seriously, a house full of relatives: parents, in-laws, siblings, children, nieces, nephews, a couple of baking orders, 3 days of retail including Black Friday and Poof! November was gone. So here we are, making cannoli. The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.

I am a seasoned cannoli maker. It is best made ahead regardless of what any non-Italian tells you. My grandmother would make hers in November and layer them on brown paper in boxes in a cool room. The paper absorbs the oil, the cannoli ripen and dry out a bit. Nothing is worse than a soggy cannoli, therefore, you never fill it before you want to eat it, and the frozen ones pre made? Forgetaboutit!

I made my dough after dinner one evening and let it rest in the fridge overnight. I was concerned. I had always used a sweet white wine in Grandma's recipe, but because it is Daring Baker's, I went with the recipe posted and used Marsala. Now I am not familiar with it, so my requisite for the wine guy was that it had to be drinkable as I rarely get into a project like this without a little nip for me. The color of the Marsala was deep amber, beautiful, tasted divine, but made my dough very brown.

The next morning I rolled them with the trusty pasta machine so they were super thin and sort of made 5" circles and wrapped my tubes. I have inherited quite a collection of tubes and recently added to it. One year I did an Italian dinner fundraiser for my alumni club (Go Hawks!) and made about 70 ahead.

This recipe made about 24 very dark cannoli. Now please don't get me wrong here, they are DELICIOUS, but they are not pretty. My Grandma's recipe follows, I suggest you try it. It doesn't have the vinegar which the Daring Baker's found so important, but if my memory serves me right, I fried up batch after batch of them and they were perfect. It also doesn't have cocoa and of course the wine is specifically white, my preference.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 eggs
6 T powdered sugar
2 T melted butter
½ cup sweet white wine
1 tea vanilla
1 tea cinnamon
Mix well. Chill a few hours and then roll and fry.

The Daring Baker's recipe called for 375° oil, but when you drop 2 shells in the oil, the temp plummets. I preferred the cannoli that went in closer to 380°. They got that beautiful blistered effect, but a degree higher led to brown/burnt cannoli. The entire batch was really less than perfect, my fault entirely.

The blog problem here is that although they are made and leaching out their excess oil, we are not filling and eating the little guys until I have a reason. Like my son home, or company coming, or a little something to celebrate. So here is my blog to that point and you Daring Baker's will have to wait until later in December to see the finished product with sweetened ricotta and chocolate, maybe even some pistachios. Until then, Buon Appetito!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Food Shopping Italian Style

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While driving through the beautiful country sides of Italy, I was impressed by the diversity of crops and the tenacity of the farmers to plant in every nook and cranny. It reminds me of Iowa, where you drive for hours and virtually every square of land is cultivated. The grape vines and olive trees roll with the hills in Italy! As we drove from one end of the country to the other, we would read about the various cities, history and agriculture. But the beautiful thing is Italy is relatively small, (slightly larger than the state of Arizona), so its bounty is available everywhere.
It has always been my habit to peruse supermarkets when I travel, whether I am in Spain or Boulder. There are so many specialties, and I want a chance to at least see them all! My most impressive supermarket experience came in Cernobbio, sitting on the gorgeous Lake Como. From our room at the Regina Olga, we could see the lake and the boardwalk that takes you to the water taxi. As we were getting ready one morning there was an enormous amount of people walking the boardwalk with shopping bags, many of them older women. We couldn't tell where they were going or coming from. When we walked to the water taxi, we were greeted by an entire supermarket outside. Every vendor had a specialty, and they had specialty trucks that opened on the sides and set up shop. I learned that this traveling grocery spends 6 days a week traveling to different lake towns to sell their wares.
The first truck I encountered was the meat truck. The glass window ran the length of the truck, and was filled with everything from steak, ground meat, chickens, pork chops, veal, lamb and every other cut of fresh meat you can imagine. Clean and on ice, when they sold out, it was gone. Behind the counter were enormous rotisseries with a hundred or so chickens cooking. We all know how intoxicating that smell is! The butchers were all in white aprons and haggling with the customers.
Maybe you were in the mood for fresh fish? The next truck was stocked with fresh seafood. Dozens of different whole fish, shrimp, squid, octopus, urchins even fresh water fish from Lake Como. There was even a section of seafood already cooked. It appeared to be breaded and perhaps fried or baked, but convenience food has a place in all cultures. But I press on, because I am amazed every time I approach the next truck.

No table would be complete without fresh flowers, even on a brisk fall morning. The selection was staggering, and they had pansies, ornamental cabbages, mums and more varieties for planting. There were numerous bins with fresh stems for making your own arrangements and the selection would rival any florist.

And we move on, to the cheese and salami truck. How the Italians love their cheese. Wheels and bricks, blue and white and yellow, hard and crumbly and soft and creamy. I wanted to taste them all. I love the pungent aroma of cheese. Did I mention the Buffalo Mozzarella? Contrary to the name it isn't made with buffalo milk as we know buffalo. But milk from domestic water buffalo. The cheese was in balls in vats of water and cured in jars with olive oil and red pepper. I love the melt from a fresh mozzarella. And the salami. I remember the long salamis we would have in our house when I was a kid, and I laugh when I see the skinny 5" rolls at the market now. But there they were, 24" long hanging in bunches. I can see my brother with his pocket knife right now slicing us pieces as kids, peeling the skin and tossing it to the dog. It was real salami skin, not plastic or wax that you see on that disgusting American invention, summer sausage. Yuk. And of course the prosciutto. Not one kind like you see here, but many different cuts, a variety of prices. When we get to Parma I learn about the cuts and discover that Culatello is my favorite. And here is the produce. Zucchini flowers, fava beans, strawberries, baby artichokes, clementines, chestnuts, apples, bananas, figs it never ended. The most gorgeous I have seen. But only a basket of this and a basket of that. No huge overhead, no wilting lettuces. Pardon my photographic indulgence here, but I wanted to remember it all.

And then the cured and pickled truck. Olives, huge bowls of olives. Jars filled with peppers, olives, tomatoes they were colorful and edible. There was a craze here for awhile of decorative bottles filled with these sorts of things that people bought for display! Why? These are meant to be eaten! Baskets of sun dried tomatoes, jars of marinara, whole nuts for eating. It was amazing. And yet there was more. There was a truck with nothing but dry foods. Cookies, crackers, boxes of mixes and candies. Another truck of bread. Homemade bread of every variety. Focaccia, ciabatta, baguettes, rolls, pizzettes, breadsticks. Every shape. And then a truck that sold, well, socks. Seriously, there were a few pair of shoes and slippers, but it was mainly socks. A truck of linens. Kitchen linens, bath towels, sheets and pillows. What a fun way to shop! I imagine it is a traveling grocery that makes it easy for the villagers to get what they need. Most people don't drive like we do, they walk for everything. It would be difficult to shop in a supermarket when you have this outdoor market every week. When we got to Parma, I could see the small shops that mimic all these trucks lining the blocks. You have your favorite market for everything and I am sure you become a regular customer quickly shopping like this. I like it. I think every foodie would like it. The Fresh Market and Dean and Deluca are the closest versions we have. But I doubt I will ever shop such selection surrounded by such beauty until I go back to Lake Como.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Eating My Way Through Italy

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So I have rehashed the European Adventure for my family mostly, hopefully others enjoyed it as well. But the highlight for a foodie like me was the food, (duh). Europeans have it all figured out, I would move to Parma in a heartbeat if I could, what a way of life! For obvious reasons I am skipping the Croatian and Bosnian food. It was good, don't get me wrong, but, it wasn't Italian! Every time we sat down to a meal, the waiter would bring our plates and I would say "Wait! I have to shoot a picture!" We also took along a stack of my sister Patti's wine labels from her vineyard. We slapped one on every bottle of wine we drank so it was sort of like she came along with us. This blog will be a little longer than usual, but it is necessary to get the food all in one!

First a word about breakfast. I love Italian hotel breakfasts. Prosciutto, salami, fresh baked bread, Nutella, sometimes eggs, that fabulous coffee, and even a few Italian pastries. I could eat salami for breakfast every day!

We begin in Venice where my parents and I met my sister Lori. Venice makes you think of Harry's Bar, Cipriani, gondolas...or Crazy Pizzeria, that's where we ate. We avoided the big cities, this was about Italy, not the touristy stuff, although we did partake in places. It was late when we got to our hotel outside Venice, a small Autostrada problem, navigation problem, call it what you want, we were lost. Crazy Pizzeria was rather large for an Italian restaurant, probably because we really weren't in a high tourist area and many locals were there, always a good sign. The menu was extensive with pizza and pasta. We ordered red wine, salad, pizza and pasta.

The pasta was delicious. It was simple spaghetti tossed in olive oil, red pepper, and parsley. It was the perfect amount of heat. The pizza was the Crazy Pizza. Classic thin crust, sliced Italian sausage, hot banana peppers and black olives. It was the perfect first meal of the trip.

When we left Venice the next day, we headed North to Lake Como, or Lago di Como. What a spectacular place. The playground for George Clooney, Madonna and Richard Branson. Honestly, it'd be a bit more fun to go there with their bank accounts. The outstanding meals were first in Cernobbio at the Hotel Miralago. It was a chilly fall afternoon when we arrived in Cernobbio and nothing but the bars were open, so naturally we drank. We walked around the small village, went to Villa d'Este, gorgeous but eerily empty, and killed a little time in our own hotel bar until 7:30 dinner. Leonardo our waiter at the bar was quick to offer us a little tray of olives, capers (huge capers from Sicily) and sun dried tomatoes. It was perfect to keep us satiated until dinner.

Dinner was the perfect autumnal meal. The wine was delicious and the staff got a kick out of us putting our label on their bottle. For my entree I ordered chestnut pasta with bacon and pumpkin. Just thinking about it makes me swoon. It wasn't colorful, but it was earthy and delicious. The pasta was a dingy brown, but nutty and flavorful. Bacon of course is a bonus in any dish and the pumpkin was bright and fresh in a small dice. Lori had the pumpkin soup which was velvety smooth and delicious. We had to have the chestnut cake for dessert because it just seemed appropriate. Dessert in Italy is always a bit of a disappointment. Unnecessary if you will. The cake was great, but I would like it at 3 in the afternoon with a cappuccino!

The next day we took the water taxi to Bellagio and shopped the narrow cobble stoned streets. We had a small lunch, pizza and salad, and a little wine at a small cafe called Carillon. The pizza was thin and delicious and the owner was all too happy to take me to the kitchen and meet the pizza guy throwing it to the ceiling and slowly stretching the round of dough. Of course a wood burning oven is why the crust cooked perfectly! We went back later for coffee and dessert and the owner took a wine label and posted it on his shelf with other memorabilia.

Our last meal in Cernobbio was at Harry's Bar. Because it was off-season, the restaurants seemed to rotate their nights. Harry's was a disappointment, expensive, crowded and they did their very best to ignore us. The gnocchi I had wad light and delicious, but that was the highlight of the night.

When we left the lovely lake area, we headed southeast toward Parma. Lori had a friend of a friend who had moved there to go to culinary school and sort of start over. We really had no idea if we would spend the day with her or grab lunch or what. It turned out to be one of my highlights of the trip. Parma is a smaller town and home to a University so there is a young population. It is also the home of Verdi and he is everywhere! We poked our head into a salumeria and were astounded by the wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano and the many cuts of prosciutto and salami hanging. The next shop we poked around in was Pasticceria Torino. I felt transported to a wonderland of pastry. It was spectacular. The wood, the glass, the assortment of pastries. I bought a box of candied violets, and the flavor of them is impossible to describe. I bought them to put on truffles, but I don't think I could part with them, one little taste transports me back to that spectacular store.

These little devils were a small shortbread disc with a cone of bittersweet chocolate mousse and a sprinkle of bittersweet chocolate. They were deathly rich and I was not inclined to share, sorry Lori. We also bought some shortbread type of cookies that we saved for a later date. They were good, but they weren't the chocolate bombs! We walked into Parma past the Duomo (easily the most spectacular church I have seen in Italy) and the city center.

We ended up on a charming cobble stone street and ate al fresco with the large heaters cranked and taking off the fall chill. Antipasti of culatello (my hands-down favorite), stroghino, salami and coppa with fresh bread and local olive oil. Next, ravioli, 3 kinds, pumpkin, sweet herb and ricotta, and porcini. The pumpkin was my favorite! Next course was veal cheek with basalmic vinegar, (guanciale di vitello), with cippoline onions with tomato sauce, kind of sweet, and finally roast potatoes with rosemary. It was all delicious.

We said no to dolce and walked around this charming town that was off at siesta, or whatever it is they do from 1:30 to 3p.m. every day. We stopped at a cafe for a quick shot of espresso and then to to Chocolat Milano, wow. The gelato was dark and rich and wonderful. We also bought chocolate bars because we weren't getting near enough oxidants from the red wine we consumed every day. And then sadly we left Parma. We decided Pesaro on the Adriatic was our stopping point that night but we had a quick detour into Maranello to order a Ferrari before we headed East. Just kidding, we watched 2 shiny red ones come off the line and although we tried to really take in the cars, we were taken with the very handsome Italian race car drivers who left Ferrari at 100mph. Vroom, you bet!

We noshed in Pesaro because we were still digesting our Parma lunch. The next day we headed South into Puglia, we decided lunch would be with the locals at the Autogrill which I describe in the European Driving Adventure. No chicken fingers or burgers here. We arrive that evening in Faeto, the hometown of both paternal grandparents. Nestled in heart of Puglia, it is a small town clinging to a hillside. Our small hotel prepared a birthday dinner for my dad's 80th and the food was simple and rustic. It was the experience in Faeto that we will never forget.

My favorite meal of the trip was the last full day in Italy, it deserves its own blog as I plan on recreating the experience for a few lucky friends. And I also have to devote a blog to the Cernobbio grocery that miraculously appeared one day on the plaza and disappeared with in hours. Hang on until then! Buon Appetito!