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Squacquerone

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It's not every day that you come across a food with a name as fun as squacquerone. So when I noticed it on a menu in Bologna, my interest was piqued.

Squacquerone is a fresh cow's milk cheese. It's eaten when it's only a few days old. It looks something like cottage cheese, with curdy bits suspended in a milky slurry. The flavor is similar to cottage cheese as well, though it's a little tangier. It's typical of the region of Emilia-Romagna, and I saw it all over the place while I was there.

The traditional way to eat squacquerone is on a piadina: an unleavened flatbread kind of like a tortilla that you fill with cheeses, cured meats, and vegetables. At the piadineria (the name for a shop that serves nothing but a few dozen kinds of piadine), you're almost sure to find a piadina with squacquerone and arugula. It's a killer combo: the peppery arugula is tempered by the tangy, creamy cheese, all wrapped up in a hot, thin, soft yet crisp wrapper. Ultimate …

Philadelphia

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Everywhere I went in Italy, I saw Philadelphia cream cheese. It showed up in the refrigerated aisles of groceries in Venice and Rome. It was employed with arugula and speck in sandwiches served at rest stops along the autostrada. It even popped up amongst a dozen kinds of cured ham at a very high end food shop in Bologna (one that sells the same Roi olive oil and Carnaroli risotto rice that we do).

So what's that all about, anyway?

In pursuit of wild boar and ricotta

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"Come," said Emanuele. "We are going to the wild boar festival."

So the two of us climbed into Emanuele's small white van and drove the narrow, winding, mountain roads to the nearby town of San Gregorio. "When I was a boy, my friends and I would ride our bikes to San Gregorio," he told me. "It was hard to get there, uphill the whole way. But going home again was easy."

The drive into San Gregorio was perfectly romantic. The town is precariously perched along the ridge of a mountain peak. A medieval castle still defends the entrance to the old part of town (though today it is guarded by policemen who tell you where to park). As we approached the town, passing under the branches of blossoming redbud trees and the tiny, bright green foliage of early spring, it almost felt as though we were driving into a fairy tale.

Walking the streets of the town was less romantic -- especially with Emanuele as my guide. He pointed out the tiny rooms protrudi…

Asparagini selvatici

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Hello, Goodbye

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In France, every interaction starts with a "bonjour" (or, if it's past about 5 PM, a "bon soir"). It doesn't matter how small the interaction is: buying a baguette from the boulangerie or asking for directions, you start every conversation with a hello. To not say hello is very rude; I suspect that, when people talk about how rude the French are, it's partly because they don't know this basic facet of the culture.

In Italy, you don't necessarily say "buongiorno" when you greet someone. In fact, on the phone, you don't start with "hello" at all, but "pronto" - essentially, "I am ready, speak to me." But if what I have seen in the past few weeks is typical, you always say goodbye. When you leave a restaurant or shop, you are sure to hear "arrivederci." And, just for good measure, you'll probably also hear "grazie," "buona giornata" or "buona serata" (have a go…

The family pantheon

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Last week I visited Vecchia Dispensa, an acetaia [balsamic vinegar maker] in the province of Modena in northern Italy. Like most Modenese families, the family behind Vecchia Dispensa has been making balsamic vinegar for generations. In the past, every family kept a batteria, or set of barrels for making balsamic, in the attic. The production was small - just enough for the family to use the balsamic to cure occasional headaches or indigestion. 

(As a side note, I stayed in an agriturismo in Modena one night last week. We got to talking about food with the owners, one of whom then led me over to the attic closet to show me their own family's balsamic batteria. Even as balsamic becomes a known entity around the world, the small family production tucked away in the attic remains a part of Modenese culture today.)

Today Vecchia Dispensa produces a little more balsamic than the family requires; we sell hundreds of bottles of their vinegar every year. The tradizionale vinegar - the st…

Rest stop theory

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I'm working on this theory. It goes like this: you can learn all you really need to know about how a country eats by visiting one of its highway rest stops.

In the US, at an interstate rest stop, you find Starbucks and shitty burgers and pizza. In Belgium, you can chow down on mussels, fries, and beer when you stop along the road. And what did I find at a rest stop along the Italian autostrada last week?

An espresso bar.


Sandwiches (fairly decent ones, I might add), served hot. Buttery pastries filled with creams.


A buffet with four courses (antipasti (hot and cold), primi, secondi, dolci), plus wine to drink and an oil and vinegar station for dressing your food to your taste.


Bags of pasta and bottles of wine to take on the road.


I don't think I could design a more perfect microcosm of Italian food culture if I tried. The only thing that's missing is the gelato case.

The exploits of Ugo

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Monday through Thursday of this week, I was on the road in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany visiting some of the folks who produce foods we sell. Foods like balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and pasta. (More on those soon.) To reach the small towns where those producers are located, I rented a car.

Before I left the US, I made a reservation to rent a cute little Smart Car. I chose it because it was small, and cheap, and, most importantly, it has an automatic transmission. I can't drive a stick shift.

When we got to the car rental agency on Monday morning, the man at the counter told me that they had made a mistake. They didn't have any Smart cars.

"You drive a manual?" he asked, hopefully.

"No," was my emphatic reply.

After a few minutes of searching his computer, he told me, "the only automatic we have is a Mercedes Vito." With a chuckle, he asked, "you know what it is?"

Again, my reply was, "no." I know approximately nothing about cars.

Bologna pasta primer

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All over Bologna, you see pasta. The serious food shops with bountiful cheese counters and a dozen kinds of cured hams hanging from the ceilings have displays full of fresh pastas. Most bakeries have a selection of bagged dried pastas behind the counter - and not necessarily the fancy stuff. Down the street from my apartment there's a little shop that sells nothing but homemade fresh (uncooked) pasta.

Pasta here is usually made with egg, so it is very yellow in color. (Sometimes it's made with spinach too, so you see a few green pastas as well.) All pastas start with the same dough. If you just cut the dough into long, thin strips, you've got tagliatelle. If you leave the strips fatter, you've got lasagna. If you decide to stuff your pasta, you can make little navel-shaped tortellini, or large navel-shaped tortelloni, or occasionally triangular ravioli. Most displays include several varieties of tortellini and tortelloni with different stuffings: ricotta, truffle, spe…

How to make French toast in your apartment in Bologna: an illustrated guide

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1. Buy bread at Atti.  Discover that it is delicious but that you have way too much. Decide to make French toast.


2. Buy milk and eggs at the grocery.


3. Remember that your apartment is not equipped with a bread knife. Buy one at the 99 Cent store.


4. Dig through all the cupboards in search of a bowl large enough for beating eggs. Above the stove, find a large tupperware that will suit this purpose. Also find a large frying pan. Consider this a major success, given that your previous inventory of pans consisted of one large pan for pasta and one metal cup for boiling water.


5. Turn on some music (preferably Beethoven piano sonatas). Slice up some strawberries, sprinkle them with sugar. (You did remember to buy strawberries this morning at the Ugo Bassi market, didn't you?)


6. Assemble all your ingredients and tools. Now you are ready to begin making French toast.


7. Slice the bread. Mix together the milk and eggs; one recipe I found online suggests 1 cup of milk to 4 eggs, but ju…

Carciofi

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Everywhere you look at markets and grocery stores and floating vegetable boats there are piles and piles of carciofi [artichokes]. Big and small, green and purple, whole and trimmed and just the hearts. I forgot to pack my Personal Artichoke Chef to prepare them all for me. A rookie mistake; I won't make it again.




Last night I ate my first artichokes of the trip. (Unfortunately, they weren't nearly as pretty as the ones in the market, so I don't have a picture.) We picked them up from La Baita, an excellent little cheese, meat, and dry goods shop in Bologna. The hearts were simply prepared with olive oil and vinegar, and yet they were so outstanding that they forced you to sit up and take notice. Bright, rich, acidic, supremely flavorful. Best artichokes I have ever eaten.

Things I've seen in groceries

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Focaccia alla Veneziana

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"Every Thursday," writes Fred Plotkin, "[Pasticceria dal Nono Colussi] makes focaccia alla veneziana... It is sold until Sunday but is best sampled on the day it is made."

My only Thursday in Venice was yesterday, which was also the day I arrived. So no matter that I was jet lagged and dopey; my one and only goal for yesterday (okay, my goal after finding our apartment and taking a shower) was to hike across town from Castello to Dorsoduro and get some focaccia.

Focaccia alla veneziana, or fugassa alla venexiana in the Venetian dialect, is not the same as the focaccia we're familiar with in the US. That flat, savory bread, topped with olive oil and herbs, is a product of Liguria, a region on the Italian riviera. Focaccia alla veneziana is a sweet yeasted cake. It looks a lot like panettone, an Italian cake eaten at Christmastime that's shaped like an oversized muffin with straight sides and a puffy top. In the picture above, the things that look like muffin…

Italy bound

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A few weeks ago, during a long weekend in Baltimore, I dragged a friend across town to Fell's Point. I needed to visit a shop that I was hoping would have a certain map of Italy in stock. My friend indulged me, in part because she is a good friend and in part because a visit to Fell's Point was also a good excuse to pick up some gelato. Our trip was a success; we both got gelato and I got my map. Now it's hanging above my desk, just beyond my computer screen as I type these words, a happy distraction.

Italy has been a happy distraction for the better part of a year now, ever since I started imagining the month I'll be spending there this spring. A few months ago imagining transitioned into planning, and since then every shelf and side table and spare flat surface has been buried under stacks of guide books and tomes of Italian cookery. Now that my trip begins in two weeks (!!), many of those books have been buried under to-do lists.

Here's the plan as it stands no…