By Gwen Ashley Walters | NOVEMBER 28, 2010 | EAT HERE

Ah, spaghetti with clams cooked with white wine from a Venetian restaurant. There is something to be said for eating clams pulled from the sea that morning. OK, there is something to be said for eating pasta in Venice. Period.

Before my first trip to Italy, I had this image in my head about the pasta. I pictured eating in charming mom & pop trattorias, with mamma in the corner rolling out pasta by hand.

I never saw that image come to life. Most of the time we dined al fresco because the street scenes were too compelling. When we did eat indoors, the kitchen was usually hidden behind closed doors.

There are 350 different pasta shapes and I wanted to try a variety of ones I wasn’t familiar with, but in the end, I ordered more for the other ingredients than the pasta.

Many times, I ordered dishes surely made with dried pasta rather than fresh pasta. Nonetheless, I never ordered a mediocre dish.

Even a simple rigatoni pomodoro from a Roman restaurant in the Trastevere area was sublime. It tasted as if it was finished in a seasoned cast iron skillet with loads of garlic.

When we hit Bologna, I was on the hunt for authentic bolognese, and below is four samples of this classic meat and pasta sauce.

All four were different, yet all were the same. Eat enough bolognese, and you can recognize the taste with your eyes closed — meaty and less tomato-y than you’d think.

One of my favorite dishes was spaghetti carbonara from a Roman trattoria. The egg was barely cooked, resulting in a silky texture, and the salty pancetta cut through the richness.

Siena is known for pici — thick, hand-rolled pasta that looks like bloated spaghetti strands. This version was served with wild boar ragu — and a glass of Chianti, of course.

In Castellina in Chianti, north of Siena, we slurped on spinach ravioli (top left) and in Parma we had the only lasagne (spinach) of the trip.

In Florence, we ducked into a tiny trattoria on a narrow side street and had cheese tortellini with black olives (bottom left), and in Venice, we tried ink squid spaghetti at Alla Madonna, but only because it was what the gondola guys were eating.

I kept wanting to close my eyes to eat it — and it should never be eaten when wearing white — but I would order it again in a heartbeat.

In Vernazza (Cinque Terre), we tried another version of ink squid pasta, only this time, it was black chittara (square spaghetti) made with squid ink, tossed with tomatoes, garlic and minced clams.

At an upscale trattoria in Bologna, we had rigatoni with canocce, a sea creature that resembles a cross between a crayfish and a lobster. The little suckers were chopped with the shells on, so it made eating it awkward. The server assured me that I was to pick them up and gnaw on them. I was more than happy to dive into the deeply flavored dish and lick my fingers clean.

I kept wondering what kind of pasta home cooks used, so in every town, I’d duck into the grocery stores and take a look around.

Every grocery store had rows and rows of shelves dedicated to dried pastas. The brand I saw most often?



Gatto Pasta

By Gwen Ashley Walters | NOVEMBER 05, 2010 | EAT HERE

I’m working on a post about pasta in Italy from my recent trip, and I came across this photo I took in the seaside Cinque Terre town of Monterosso al Mare.

He’s just a stray cat fed on a sea wall — spaghetti alla Fancy Feast.

Even the cats love pasta in Italy.

By Gwen Ashley Walters | AUGUST 08, 2010 | EAT HERE

If there is a pizzeria on every corner in every town in Italy — and it seems there is — then there are two gelaterias on the opposite corners.

It’s widely known that Italy has some of the best ice cream in all the world, and even though it’s called gelato, and it’s made differently than the ice cream in the States, Italian gelato really is something special.

But unlike the pizzerias, where nearly every pie is perfection, not all gelaterias in Italy are turning out the same quality of frozen fare.

If you pass by a gelato shop that displays gelato flavors in Marge Simpson styled coifs, keep walking.

Because odds are that the next shop won’t be about the window dressing.  It’ll be about the flavor and texture, looks be damned.

Here’s a look at those kinds of gelaterias in Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Manarola and Bologna:

FLORENCE: Vivoli Il Gelato isn’t easy to find, tucked on a back street near the Piazza Santa Croce. But it should be on any serious gelato-lover’s radar.

Vivoli can’t keep their bins full, and although most of the flavors are traditional — cream, vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate, stracciatella — they’re all sublime, rich and creamy.

Not all gelaterias have rich and creamy gelatos.

Some focus on the Sicilian style of gelato, which doesn’t contain eggs.

Places like Florence’s Gelateria Carabe’, just a short walk from the Galleria dell’Accademia and Michelangelo’s David, which of course you will go see.

And you should go taste Carabe’s Sicilian style gelato, because what it lacks in richness from the absence of eggs, it makes up for in the fresh fruit flavors and sweet cream.

SIENA: You’ll find plenty of Marge Simpson coifs in Siena, but you’ll also find a serious gelateria (below) on the Piazza Il Campo, which has one of the deepest, darkest chocolate gelatos I found.

Every shop offers a wide variety of cones, some made on premise, or maybe you’ll expend all your carb calories on the gelato itself by choosing a cup instead of a cone.

Whichever delivery vehicle you choose, don’t choose just one flavor. Even in a small cup, three flavors can happily co-exist and you’ll get to experience a wider variety of flavors.

SAN GIMIGNANO: One of the most quaint, hilltop Tuscan towns northwest of Siena, San Gimignano, is home to a Gelato World Champion gelateria, called Gelateria di Piazza. (Pluripremiata means winning.)

No matter what time of day, there is a line out the door at Gelateria di Piazza, even though there are a handful of other gelaterias within eyesight.

Gelateria di Piazza makes plenty of traditional flavors, but you’ll also be tempted by more unusual flavors like rosemary scented raspberry and Gorgonzola with walnuts.

MANAROLA: Among the five seaside towns that comprise Cinque Terre on the western coast of Italy, the town of Manarola has the best gelateria, a tiny shop called Gelateria 5 Terre.

Traditional hazelnut and pistachio are the best selling flavors at 5 Terre, but my absolute favorite was a caramelized fig and shortbread studded gelato, made with mascarpone. (pictured below, top middle).

BOLOGNA: As much as I adored the Manarola gelateria, my absolute favorite shop was in Bologna, called Il Gelatauro.

It wasn’t just the charming interior, or the Slow Food certificate hanging on the wall, or the fact that this gelateria also makes amazing chocolates and cookies.

It was the gelato. The silkiest, creamiest, most delicious gelato in all of Italy — or at least among the 15 to 20 shops I visited.

It was the roasted pistachio gelato, made from pistachios from Bronte in Sicily.

Or maybe it was the delicately flavored gelato made with bergamot and jasmine.

Yes, Italian gelato really is special.

Maybe it’s because of the slightly lower fat content, a result of a higher ratio of whole milk to cream.

Maybe it’s because of the melt-on-your-tongue texture, a result of a slower churning method, reducing the amount of air whipped into the gelato vs. American ice cream.

Maybe it’s because Italian gelato is served a few degrees warmer than ice cream, which makes the flavors burst through easier.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the experience of being in Italy, swirling a spoonful of silky gelato on your tongue, soaking up la bella vita.

Vivoli Il Gelato
Via dell’Isola delle Stinche, 7
Gelateria Carabe’
Via Ricasoli, 60
Bar Il Camerlengo
Piazza Il Campo, 6
5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia
Via Antonio Discovolo, 248
San Gimignano:
Gelateria di Piazza
Piazza della Cisterna, 4
Il Gelatauro
Via San Vitale, 98/B

(If I’ve left off your favorite gelateria in Italy, please share it with us, and tell us why you love it.)

By Gwen Ashley Walters | MAY 25, 2010 | EAT HERE

Many of you know I just returned from a three week exploration of Italy. I know you know because I keep getting questions about when am I going to share what I learned.

I’ll be gathering my thoughts and sharing my experiences with you all in due time.

For now, I am in the throes of catching up, working on “best of” picks for PHOENIX Magazine’s fall issues, and generally still digesting all the pasta and pizza I consumed.

I thought I’d share this picture with you, because it’s something that I did a lot of while exploring Italy….peering into darkened ristorantes, eagerly awaiting dinner time.

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