One of the cucina povera (poor kitchen) Christmas traditions in Italy is Polenta alla Spianatora (polenta on the board), a rustic meal of polenta served as a dinner during the cold nights between la Vigilia (Christmas Eve) and Capodanno (New Year's Day). What makes this meal so unusual is the manner in which it is served. In the old days, hot polenta was poured and spread out directly on the family's wooden table. A slow-cooked sugo (thick, meaty tomato sauce), peas and possibly sausages or pieces of braised pork were arranged in concentric circles. The bits of meat were a real treat for children in the poor, farming communities. Young and old alike were given forks and everyone would make their own trails in the hot mess of deliciousness, each staking out their own section. But as I've been told, in some homes there were rules: you weren't allowed to eat the meat until you ate a path to the center, with some slow eating children not having such luck!
This manner of eating is a celebration of nature from the 15th century when corn was introduced to Italy from the New World. This dish is a celebration of the recent harvest... the circular shape of the polenta represented the sun, and it's corn having come from Mother Earth herself. All the ingredients topping this sun would have also been nurtured by the sun during the growing season: lentils, chickpeas, pork, chicken.
This is an ancient meal that also celebrates life--and family. So everyone was at the table digging in. This is a big meal... with a large amount of polenta traditionally prepared in a copper pot resembling a modern wok.
Nowadays, people tend to use a Spianatora (or spianatoia)--a modern day wooden cutting or pastry board--to pour the polenta onto. There are even some restaurants in southern/central Italy that will service this during the holiday season.
To make this warming meal for your famiglia, first you need to make a Sugo. Here's a link to my own family's Sugo Recipe.
For the Polenta
Top this beautiful, hot mess with Parmigiano Reggiano or Romano and invite your amici and famiglia to start scraping.
Buon appetito, Buon Natale and Felice Anno Nuovo!
When I was a child, my mother would make meatloaf... plain, American style, ketchup covered, meatloaf. Filling, yes, but usually a bit dry and boring. After learning of the various types of polpettone (Italian meatloaves) they make in Italy, I wanted sometime more tasty with a little bit of a spicy kick. Here's my Polpettone con Salsa di Mele...
For the Polpettone
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large egg, beaten
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (honey wheat), cubed
1 cup cinnamon applesauce (of course, you can make your own)
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 pound ground beef, extra lean
1 pound ground pork
For the Glaze
1 cup cinnamon applesauce
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey Dijon mustard
2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons barbecue sauce (apple maple)
20 “cracks” of freshly ground black pepper
Serve with some of the glaze on top of each slice, with a side of either potato croquettes or homemade spätzle (like they make in the Alto Aldige region of Northern Italy).
Of course, best served with a bottle of Italian sparkling cider.
Recipe copyright GrandVoyageItaly.com
Just in time for the holidays... Autumn Beet Tart!
(Easier to say than Torta d'Autunno con Barbabietola, wouldn't you agree?)
For the Crust:
1 cup of all purpose flour
3/4 cup almond flour
3 teaspoons yeast
1/4 cup water
4 tablespoons of cane sugar
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground fennel seeds
1 pinch of salt
1 beaten egg
For the Filling:
2 large beet roots, steamed
1/2 brown sugar
In Italy, there is a saying, "buono come il pane"... or, "It's as good as bread". This saying is used to compliment the best cooking. Think about it... that's how high Italians value a food as simple as bread, to compare other meals to it. You can't get simpler or better than the humble panino...
During our Voyage throughout Italy, one of the simplest and affordable lunches was the panino. Most types of eating establishments have them: the trattoria, pizzeria, ristorante, osteria, taverna, tavola calda (a sort of Italian fast food shop) or bar (all bars are open for breakfast or lunch). In a tavola calda (literally, cold table) might include a wide range of lunch options, both sandwich style and stuffed. A new type is called a paninoteca, which is a shop dedicated to panini and typically open only in the middle of the day for lunch. They are designed as a grab-and-go place, but many will have a few tables.
In tourist areas, the restaurants tend to overcharge, but a panino was always an affordable and very satisfying option. In mornings, we also would stop in the local alimentari (like a corner deli) and pick up some cold cuts, cheese and bread to make our own panini while on the road.
One of our favorite (and most used) kitchen appliances is our panino press, the Cuisinart GR-4N 5-in-1 Griddler. We've had ours for about 5 years and it's still in perfect condition (the plates are non-stick and clean well). You can't beat their low price, either.
We use the flat platens for making pancakes and switch to the ridged grill plates to make panini. We buy ciabatta with olive oil from the supermarket and can make a couple of fantastic panini in about 5 minutes. One of our favorite ways to make a panino is to slice up some supermarket mozarella-salame rolls (some brands market these cheese rolls as "panino") along with slices of heirloom tomatoes on ciabatta. Set the panino press on high, give it a press for a few minutes and we're back in Tuscany!
A Short Panino History
The word "panino" literally means "little breads". In Latin, panis means bread. A panino doesn't really need to be heated, as in Italy it is often eaten as a quick snack on the run, in the field, or in the case of an Italian bachelor....
"Ehi! Mamma, make me a snack!"
Stuff some peppers and ham inside a small bread roll and Mama gives her big "bambino" a satisfying, quick snack without much effort. (She thinks, "After he gets married, HE is going to look after ME.")
This type more precisely is called a panino imbottito, literally "stuffed little bread". Basically it's the same as any American "hero", "hoagie" or deli sandwich. Similar to a panino is the tramezzino, a grilled/pressed sandwich made with slices of hearty white bread, sliced diagonally with the edge crusts removed.
If you want a sandwich in an Italian bar, they will ask if you want it "da riscaldere" or "riscaldo" (reheated), "alla piastra" (literally, on the plates), then they will usually place the panino onto a press in between two flat platens, although many will use ridged ones.
Throughout early history, bread was considered an entire meal, until it became the support (think foccacia or pizza) or container for a condiment or filling--the sandwich. Historians have found recipes for grilled sandwiches in cookbooks from the ancient Romans and it is belived that sandwiches were common across many ancient cultures. (Take that, Earl of Sandwich!)
The bread in the photo above recreates a Roman bread, baked pre-cut into wedges (to pull-apart) and with a string tied around its waist to create a division to help pull the bread apart into two halves. The reason? To put fillings between the slices, what else? In hotos of carbonized breads found in the ruins of Pompeii, while the top was pre-sliced, the bottom half was not. Perhaps they could alternately use the bottom as a support (an edible plate) for fillings?
The first reference of a panino appeared in a 16th-century Italian cookbook, with the first mention of "panini" appearing in 1954 in the New York Times in an article about an Italian festival in Harlem: "The visitors ate Italian sausage, also pizze fritta, zeppole, calzone, torrone, panini, pepperoni, and taralli."
Panini as we know them today, became trendy in Milanese bars, called paninoteche, in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, in Italy during the Eighties, a cultural fad developed in Milano where teens would meet in panino bars,... the teens were called paninnare. In Sicily, Panini cresciuti ("grown rolls") are fried Sicilian potato rolls containing ham and cheese. Today in Italy, shops that specialize in panini are called panineria, although many of these have morphed into offering a smörgåsbord of many types of sandwiches, not just the classic panino. In Italy, sandwich shops traditionally wrap the bottom of a panino in a sheet of white paper, a way to keep hands clean, making this a true finger food.
It couldn't be simpler...
This time I made our panini with slices of salami-mozzarella roll (Boar's Head brand "Panino" roll is nice and spicy, and they also have a Prosciutto version). I find so-called "panino rolls" are becoming a commonplace item in the supermarket fresh cheese section.
I learned in Italy that some of the best things can be very simple. This lunch is a good example of this philosophy. Quick, healthy, simple.
You can also get more creative too... using grated cheeses like fontina, asiago, smoked gouda or cacciacavalo and using leftover chicken, prosciutto, sausage, caramelized onions, olives, peppers... whatever. (I love making a panino using leftover chicken parmesan!) I highly recommend using a bit of smoked cheese which adds tons of flavor. Today's panino, however, was an ad hoc, simple lunch, like the ones I threw together in Italy.
I cut the ciabatta in 4 inch long sections the sliced each horizontally and unfolded them to open. I then slice the salami-mozzeralla into slices a bit less than 1/4" thick and lay 4 on each ciabatta. Some say you need to butter the outside of your bread or brush it with olive oil to make grill marks or a crust, but I omit this step, preferring less fat intake. Besides, I tend to buy "olive oil ciabatta", which helps the browning. if you want more browning, feel free to lightly brush some olive oil on the outside of the panino before cooking. Butter is rarely used in Italian cooking and is never spread on bread, so I wouldn't use it.
You can drizzle the contents of your panino with a little olive oil or perhaps a good balsamic, or even a decent store bought Italian dressing. I like to add slices of the best tomatoes I have around, adding moisture to my panino. Black olives or other giardinaria (pickled veggies) are also a good choice. My son, Lucas loves sweet pimentos on his. Try spreading some pesto on the bread too!
Setting my panini press to "grill" and to high heat, I let it preheat for a couple of minutes and then load the panini (I can only do 2 at a time of this size). I give it a good pressing at the beginning and try to position the bread (front to back... there's a sweet spot) so the press lid sits flat. After about 2-3 minutes, I give a final press--hearing the panini sizzle. I hold this press for about 30-40 seconds, pull them out, plate them and slice diagonally into triangles.
With panini, the longer you press it and hear the ingredients sizzle, the more crunch you will have in your bread. Too many people think a panini is buttered and grilled bread with cold cuts put inside unheated, and many restaurants order packaged sandwich bread with grill marks factory-burned into their crusts, then use it to make make a normal sandwich, calling it a panini. I've even seen sliced factory "panini bread" with the "grill" marks already there. Shame!
A true grilled panino must be pressed and heated to meld the ingredients (that's meld, not melt) into one cohesive, gooey mess of deliciousness. And take note, if you use cold cuts and sliced cheese, the cheese must be placed both on top and on the bottom--the melted cheese helps hold the bread together. A grilled panini is not like a normal sandwich... you should not be able to lift the bread off after it's been pressed and cooked. That is, unless you're in Italy, where most basic sandwiches are known as "panini". What I make is a grilled panino.
So, get yourself a panino press (no need for an expensive one) and start cooking. Buon appitito!
When we spent some time on the Amalfi Coast, one of our goals was to visit "the" ceramics town--Vietri sul Mare, just west of Salerno. One of its must-see places to visit was the amazing Ceramica Artistica Solimene, one of the most iconic artisan shops for Vietri ceramics. Rather than the geometri, Renaissance designs of other ceramic design shops, Solemene's designs are childlike, with free-handed strokes and creatures and colors of the life along the Amalfi Coast... fish, octopus, pigs, chickens and donkeys.
The building which houses the "factory" (if you can call it that, since all the ceramics are made by and painted by hand), is itself a work of art, commissioned by Vincenzo Solimene and completed in 1954. Architect Paolo Soleri designed this masterpiece of architecture, a mid-century modern homage to ceramics, with its inverted, cone shaped exterior covered with terracotta discs.
The interior houses a sales area on the first floor open to the skylights on the roof, with a ramp that spirals upward (no stairs, but there is a small elevator) to different levels where the clay is formed, sculpted and then painted. The spiraling design is similar to modern parking garages.
Chain smoking artisans welcome visitors and will even give short lessons on their techniques (our son--then 11--was shown how to attach a handle to a cup). Visiting the Solimene factory can be considered the highlight of spending some time in Vietri sul Mare's ceramics district--there are scores of ceramic shops within a few blocks.
The family business has been creating ceramics for more than a century and has produced tableware, garden ceramics and pots, sculptural pieces, floor and wall tiles--all worked and painted entirely by hand, using a combination of modern and ancient techniques, such as the potter's wheel. Their tableware is food safe (they utilize lead-free glazes) and can even withstand dishwashers. In our own Pennsylvania villa, we serve our meals on Solimene ceramics. So far, in about 5 years, no chips--just compliments.
Random pieces decorate the outside of the Solimene building
Pungitopo (also known as Butcher's Broom) might be a popular plant for use in natural healing remedies, but it is often found while hiking in the mountains of Italy for use in local, traditional Italian recipes. Pungitopo tends to grow wild as an evergreen bush (looking like a short, bushy holly) with asparagus-like sprouts in fall. It is gathered in bunches about 12" tall and used in la cucina in the same was as asparagus. Tied with string and steamed until tender, it's often eaten as a side dish or wrapped in prosciutto, The sprouts, called ruscli (rusculins in English) are the tenderest part.
Pungitopo is actually a member of the lily family closely related to asparagus botanically speaking. It and was once used in Europe make small brooms to clean butchers' chopping blocks. It's scent had the ability deter rodents from taking an interest in meats hanging to cure. The plant is well known throughout Italy, Europe and to the British Isles. Other common names are jew’s myrtle, sweet broom, kneeholy, pettigree, knee holly, kneeholm. In Italy, they will also be known as asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus) or portafortuna natalizio (Christmas Luck), referring to the time of year it is usually enjoyed in the Italian kitchen.
It is mostly harvested nowadays for its thick, brown rhizome, which is harvested in the fall when the plant stores most of its energy for winter. It's herbal use is to make healing teas.
There use can be as simple as boiling or steaming and served with butter or olive oil, the was asparagus are served. The softer buds are used in fritatta, frittella (fritters), risotto or in pasta dishes. Their taste is bitter but the buds alone are a bit sweeter. Here are a few ideas...
I was shocked when my wife Lisa unpacked the new shipment of wines and saw a boxed wine--Fregi Barocchi's Salento Rosso from Palama Vineyards. I mean, I'm anything but a wine snob, but the few times I've had to swallow boxed wines at friends' homes I wasn't the least bit impressed. But, OK, she had spent the amazingly low sum of $25 for three liters, so I thought I'd give it a quick sniff, swill and spit and while exile the remaining contents to our kitchen sink's drain.
But wait a second... (sniff). is that clover I smell? (Sniff... sniff). Is that cinnamon? Apple slices? I could swear I smell honey... and hay... and a touch of rosemary? Now to taste. Surely tasting the stuff is going to prove that this box has been in the heat of a container on a ship for Lord knows how long....
I expected vinegar but what I got was nectar!
We've been in love with wines from Puglia ever since we Voyaged there and sampled great wines throughout the region. I don't think we ever had a bad bottle--even cheap, €4 bottles from local alimentari. We loved them so much that we always have a stock on hand (especially Primativo). And they are affordable here in the States, too. I don't think we've ever paid more than $20 for a bottle from Puglia.
But a boxed wine... 3 liters for under $25? How can this be SO good!?
The Palamà family vineyard was founded by Arcangelo Palamà in 1936. A family of Greek origins, they settled in Italia about two thousand years ago, and have been making wine ever since. For 70 years had only sold their wine in their restaurant–until Small Vineyards (a specialty wine importer) came knocking on their door. The current winemaker is Ninì Palamà, son of Arcangelo, a larger than life character who will burst into song without notice, a man with a lust for life--and wine.
His wines are full-bodied, intense and often spicy, like the Salento Rosso (also available in bottles). His wines capture the climate, sold and everything gown in fertile and dry Puglia. There is also an elegance in his wines that is becoming more and more common with Pugliese wines. Apulia has had a Renaissance or sorts since the post war period. Due to his estate’s proximity to the sea, the value of Southern coastal reds is that they pair as readily with seafood as they will with hearty meats.
For us, this amazing boxed masterpiece paired well with pizza, a rich Ragu alla Bolognese and even risotto. We can't recommend this wine highly enough--even though it pours out of a silver Mylar bladder stuffed inside that box. Oh, and if you are a bit of a wine snob, no worry... it's also available it very presentable bottles.
--Buy it at Astor Wines
Acquasala (or Acquasale, Acqua Sala) is one of the cucina povera--poor dishes--of southern Italy, especially in the Lucane Dolomites of Basilicata and olive oil rich Puglia. this simple fare was enjoyed by farmers and shepherds. Its close cousin is panzanella, a sort of salad that uses torn up pieces of stale bread reconstituted with water as its base. Acquasala is a dish made from the simplest ingredients that any peasant contadina had around: eggs, onion, water, peppers or tomatoes and especially, the stale bread. Think of it as a mashup between eggs Benedict and an Italian broth, where the broth replaces the Hollandaise sauce. Perfect for breakfast, brunch or even a light dinner.
In it's simplest form, an acquasala is stale, crusty bread topped with a poached egg and a flavored broth poured over. The bread soaks up the resulting broth and its flavors. I'm certain that others in southern Italy might replace the stale bread with Friselli, a bagel-shaped, bone-dry toasted bread sold in bags in southern Italy. One easy to find bread nowadays is the ciabatta, left to go a bt stale or with the thick slices toasted before use.
Don't think of this recipe as being ironclad in terms of the ingredients. Be creative. This is cucina povera, after all, which means that cooks used what they had on hand depending on the season: eggs from their chickens, stale bread, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, white or red onions, a bit of garlic, mushrooms and greens. Southerners loved their greens, whether a bit of dandilion, arugla or chives. To be absolutely authentic, warm water (not boiled) is traditionally used to make the "broth", with the peppers and onions added to it for a light fusion of flavors. In Puglia it's often made without eggs and many more more ingredients, a cross between a soup and a salad.
Ingredients (serves 2, with one egg each)
Copyright 2019, Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageitaly.com - All Rights Reserved
Not to be published without expressed authorization
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is one of the oldest and best-known pizzerias in the United States. Known by locals as simply Pepe’s, its original location is in the Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven, CT.
This Connecticut landmark pizzeria was founded in 1925 by Frank Pepe, born in the Amalfi Coast town of Maiori in 1893. As a poor, illiterate immigrant, he came to the U.S. when he was 16 years old and managed to get a job at a New Haven factory until World War I broke out when he returned to his homeland to fight in defense of Italy.
After the war he married Filomena Volpi in Maiori and returned to America to start their new lives. Frank at first worked for Genneroso Muro's macaroni shop and next for Bread baker, Tony Apicella where he fell in love with and learned the art of making bread. Once he had learned the art of bread-making, he opened his own bakery at the original Wooster Street location where Frank Pepe’s the Spot (operated by the Boccamiello family) sits today. At first he started delivering bread to his customers, but because of his lack of reading and writing skills, he found it difficult to keep the addresses in order. What to do? Invent a business where the customers come to you.
His wife Filomena had learned to read and write which helped enormously for their next adventure... in 1925 they decided to start making something very new to Americans--Pizza! The local Italian-Americans, still today, call it "ah-BEETZ". They offered two types: Tomato Pie with grated cheese, garlic, oregano and olive oil and a second with anchovy. Their "Original Tomato Pie" is still offered at the 157 Wooster Street location, as well as at the others. Keep in mind, however, Pepe's Tomato Pie is thin-crusted and round, very unlike the Philadephia/Trenton are Tomato Pie which is thick, bready and square.
Frank Pepe originated the New Haven-style, thin crust pizza baked in brick ovens fired by coke, a byproduct of coal. In the late 1960’s coke became unavailable, so he converted the ovens to being coal fired, which gives a very distinct, smokey quality to the darker parts of the crust.
As time went on, Pepe's developed another signature pizza, the White Clam Pizza. This later innovation was an homage to Frank Pepe having originally served raw little neck clams on the half shell from Rhode Island as an appetizer. Today, it's one of the most popular choices on their menu.
If you are a confessed pizza addict and want to eat a little bit of pizza history, stop at a Frank Pepe's Pizzeria... there are locations from Yonkers, NY throughout Connecticut and all the way Chestnut Hill just west of Boston.
Copyright 2019 Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageItaly.com - All rights reserved.
Article not for reproduction without expressed permission.
In Italy, pizza toppings are not exactly limited, but there are a few rules. For example, only meats made with pork are acceptable on an authentic Italian pizza. Salami, prosciutto, ham, sausage – all are pork. Chicken and beef are not used. Beef is rarely seen on top of pizza. Even bresaola, a thin sliced (sliced paper thin, like proscuitto) is hard to find on a pizza.
As far as vegetables and cheeses go, there seemingly is no limit to what Italians might find appetizing on top of their pizzas.
Common Meats - Sausages and Salumi