Biting into Ischia Italy peaches is like tasting a little piece of Heaven. That sounds like an exaggeration. But words can hardly describe the sweetness of the fruits you’ll find on this little island off the coast of Naples. Indeed, the island is known as L’Isola Verde or The Green Island for its lush vegetation. All around you in Ischia, you see green hills and the emerald sea. The island is an inactive volcano. As a result, its naturally thermal soil and waters draw tourists. But it’s the soil that counts when growing delectable fruits and vegetables.
What You’ll Find Here to Eat
As a result, you won’t want to miss these peaches. Lots of people eat them just like this. There are actually three varieties in the photo – red, yellow, and white peaches. Another favorite way to enjoy them is in Italian wine, which soaks in the fridge all day. Then, natives drink the wine with dinner and eat the peaches for dessert. I think of it as Italian sangria.
But peaches are not the only stars of the summer season. Soon, you will also find figs, which pair nicely with prosciutto. It’s a good alternative to cantaloupe and prosciutto, which has become popular even Stateside in recent years. In the early summer, the natives enjoy apricots. They’re actually a pretty big deal around here and seem to be much more available than in New Jersey, the Garden State. You won’t find many blueberries. But wild strawberries and frutta di bosco (fruit of the woods) are widely available in early summer. When fall hits, the grapes become abundant. With the grape harvest comes winemaking, which is actually quite celebratory here. People gather for picnic meals and to harvest the grapes. They call it the vendemmia, and it’s like a holiday around here.
Fior di latte gelato is a creamy base flavor ice cream in Italy. Well, I guess I should not classify it as “ice cream.” Anyone who has read my recent article for the Our Paesani column at ItaliansRus.com knows there is a big difference between ice cream and gelato. In any event, it’s a cool, delectable treat. In my opinion, it’s much better than vanilla gelato because it’s lighter and fluffier. Oh yeah, gelato can be fluffy.
Gelato is my drug of choice whenever I’m in Italy. I should just get it injected in my veins. I. just. can’t. get. enough. So, I decided a long time ago to learn how to make the stuff in my own kitchen, even when I’m home in the United States. Seriously, I’ve become an expert at making French vanilla.
Every year for Halloween, my cousins expect me to make pumpkin and for Christmas, I better have the gingerbread. Fior di latte, however, was always the goal. And I kept getting it half wrong. Then, one day the stars aligned and fior di latte happened. Miracolo!
Now, I want to share the recipe with you. This is based on the recipe provided by Misya.info, an Italian site. I’ve adapted the recipe for Americans who know nothing of the metric system measurements. And I’ve also provided my own explanation.
Recipe for Fior di Latte Gelato
1 cup of heavy whipping cream
1 cup of whole milk
1/2 cup of sugar
1 stick of vanilla (or 2 tsp of vanilla extract)
Put all the ingredients in a pot under medium heat on the stove. Stir until the sugar melts. I like to use a whisk to get some air into the mix. Then, shut off the gas. Let it cool. Remove the vanilla stick (if that’s what you used). Place the mixture in the refrigerator for eight hours or overnight. Finally, mix it in your ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Editor’s Note: I have found that it is really important to freeze the base of your ice cream maker well to get best results. I use the ice cream maker attachment for my Kitchen Aid. I try to keep the freezer less full when I’m freezing the maker, and I might even lower the temperature on the fridge.
Fresh mozzarella, as Americans know it, is not even close to the real thing. For starters, it is sold in plastic wrap in the refrigerated section of your supermarket or deli. The real stuff comes in a double plastic bag and is filled with water that turns white from the milk leaking from the mozzarella. It’s nothing like the traditional mozzarella (think Pollyo string cheese and the like) used in the United States.
How to Tend to Your Fresh Mozzarella
You’re never supposed to refrigerate it. First, you open the bag and pour its entire contents into a bowl. It sits in the liquid. Then, the bowl remains on your table or counter until you finish eating it. Some Italians (myself included) own a special ceramic bowl. It is a regular bowl on the bottom, but the cover looks like a half moon. It sits on top of the bowl, so that you can see the drowning mozzarella underneath. The half moon cover has holes in it to drain the liquid when you lift the mozzarella on top to cut it. Many of these bowls are handmade and hand painted. Mine comes from Ischia, of course, and it features the island’s famous lemons.
Eat It Fast
Now, the mozzarella won’t taste fresh unless you eat it right away. You risk the mozzarella souring if it is left out too long. If it gets less than fresh, most Italians will put it in the fridge and then use it to cook. They’ll add it to baked pasta or la parmigiana (eggplant parmigiana). Frankly, any recipe that calls for melting mozzarella is going to include the fresh stuff. That other stuff we call mozzarella does not exist here. Indeed, the fresh mozzarella is a big difference between pizza in Italy and pizza in the United States, even New York.
Truthfully, however, most pieces of fresh mozzarella never make it to the point of souring. They’re just too irresistible. When you cut into one of those big balls of fresh mozzarella, the milkiest cream oozes out. The texture is soft and even somewhat creamy. And the taste is slightly sweet with a touch of tang. It is best served on its own with a hunk of bread. Or you can pair it with deli meats, such as prosciutto crudo. Of course, the most popular way to eat fresh mozzarella is in a Caprese salad. This is a salad of fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, and salt.
Where Does It Come From?
Also, in the United States, we classify mozzarella as cheese. In Italy, it is not considered cheese exactly. It’s in a class by itself. Many distinguish between mozzarella and cheese, in fact. The best fresh mozzarella is believed to come from the Campania region, specifically Naples. Artisans make the fresh mozzarella largely by hand, and it’s truly considered an art.
In the United States, at least in the Northeast, you can pick up some decent fresh mozzarella in Italian specialty stores. I hear it’s near authentic at Eataly. Also, local Italian American delis often make the real fresh stuff. Personally, I can attest to the authenticity of what you’ll pick up on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Still, most of the time what you’re getting is a cow’s milk based fresh mozzarella. Occasionally, it’s the real deal with buffalo’s milk.
Another Story in Italy
See, mozzarella in Italy comes from buffalo’s milk, not cow’s milk. In fact, you’ll read “mozzarella di bufala” on the package. There are some variations worth sampling. You can get smoked fresh mozzarella, known as mozzarella fumigata. Or you can taste fior di latte (flower of milk) mozzarella, which offers the same creamy, milky deliciousness. But it comes from cow’s milk. Often, this version comes braided and is therefore known as treccia. Whichever version you choose, it’s all delicious.
Ristorante Bar Dai Tu’ is a small eatery perched over the sea on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples in Italy. Located in Ischia Porto, the island’s capital, the restaurant offers delicious seafood in an ultra romantic setting. I would love to inform you about price. But this is southern Italy, where the prices are never set in stone. If you know the owner, you pay one price. If you don’t, you pay another. That’s just the truth. Still, from what I’ve gathered no one has ever been gouged here. So, we can call it affordable. Whatever you call it, you’ll be calling the food delicious.
Essence of Romance
See those lights in the photo? That is the restaurant. It looks like a tiny shack, but it’s absolutely charming. The inside features an arched doorway to the kitchen and long farm tables. But the luckiest diners score a table on the terrace outside. The lovely breeze and the view of the sea make Ischia all the more alluring. I was there with my husband, his entire family, and our son. But my sister-in-law had been there with her husband for their anniversary and raved about the pumped up romance level, especially when seated outside. The nice part is that some “romantic” restaurants are elitist. Or they’re so fancy that you feel uncomfortable. This is not like that at all. The restaurant is casual and beachy, so it does not come off as stuffy at all.
See the Seafood
Of course, the best part of the restaurant is the food you are served. Seafood in Ischia is hard to beat. It’s super fresh since this is an island. It never has that fishy smell or taste like you sometimes experience in the United States. At this restaurant, you can experience the sea’s treasures and a touch of sweetness to boot. You won’t be disappointed. Discover the plates my group sampled:
Shellfish is my absolute favorite whenever I’m visiting Ischia. The best way to eat it, in my opinion, is in “saute.” This is when the juice from the shellfish, white wine, olive oil, and some seasoning, including garlic come together to form a broth. The mussels and/or clams sit atop a shallow pool of this broth. And there are always pieces of grilled, crusty bread adjoining them. I’ve shared with friends visiting the island; they always tell me they want to drink vats of the stuff. It’s seriously addicting. When I’m not in Ischia, I dream about it. This version at Dai Tu’ was one of the best I’ve had.
Served still warm, the octopus are boiled to make them soft for this salad. I’ve had this kind of salad cold, too, which is just as delicious. This warm version was doused with olive oil and lemon. The ruchetta (known to Americans as arugula) was particularly spicy, which was a nice contrast to the mild octopus.
This plate of fried fish was the very reason we headed to this restaurant. One of the people with us was having a craving. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of fried fish with “spina,” bones. And I don’t really know how to clean these fish well. So, I mostly steered clear of this dish. But it included a few types of fish, including merluzzo, a mild white fish popular on the island. My husband enjoyed this dish and gave me a few bites of his. It was truly delicious, especially with a spurt of lemon. It made the flavor pop.
Normally, these kinds of eateries disappoint when it comes to dessert. After all, the emphasis is on the fish. The sweets are an afterthought. But this place has it all. For starters, the presentation is gorgeous. The light, fluffy cheesecake is served in a bowl made of cookie crust. Then it is topped with homemade sorbet and sauce. I believe it was a wild berry sorbet and topping. Everyone at the table was envious of those of us who ordered this.
It was divine. The sorbet was refreshing and cut into the sweetness of the creamy cake. That bit of crunch from the crust was just perfect. Others at the table ordered tiramisu (in a cup) and panna cotta. They were all satisfied with their dessert, but I focused on the cheesecake. I didn’t even feel the need to taste the others. It was the cherry – err, wild berry – on top of a delicious night.
Lavazza, one of the big coffee companies in Italy, is promising to bring imagination to the country’s restaurant scene while invigorating its hometown. Its new headquarters in Torino, which is slated to open at the end of 2017, is more than mere office; it’s also a destination for visitors. One of the biggest draws is CONDIVIDERE by Lavazza, a restaurant that is aiming to change the way people think about food and eating. Lavazza announced the restaurant concept early in March, so there are still few specific details. Learn about what we know so far:
Coffee to Jolt the Experience
Appropriately, coffee will take the main stage in the Lavazza restaurant. “Lavazza is strongly committed to creating a new restaurant where the coffee experience is at the forefront of every dish, making it a unique concept found nowhere else,” according to the press release. There is little explanation of what this means. But am I wrong to imagine coffee rubs on meat or espresso in desserts or even a hint of coffee in a pasta dish? I’ve had a gourmet meal in Ischia, where chocolate was used in a pasta sauce, and it was surprisingly delicious. Maybe Lavazza could make coffee and pasta – among Italy’s main food groups – marry and live happily ever after. Who am I to judge? Lavazza is, after all, the company that gave us coffee caviar. True story.
Lavazza Hires an Experienced Team
Chef Ferran Adrià
Interestingly, Chef Ferran Adrià, who co-created the concept for the restaurant, isn’t Italian. He’s Spanish. More than celebrity chef, Adrià was called a “gastronomic genius” by The New York Times. During his time as head chef of elBulli, which Restaurant Magazine named as world’s best restaurant five times from 2002 to 2009, according to the Times, he helped people reimagine food. Americans would know him as the guy who turned food into foam and made that a thing in foodie circles. When he shut the doors of his restaurant in 2011, people wondered why. It might have been money troubles and family in-fighting or it could have been the desire to avoid repeating himself; you can decide for yourself after reading the Times article. Either way, Lavazza now has him helping it, presumably to reimagine how people consume coffee and the traditional dishes of Torino and its region.
Chef Federico Zanasi
Federico Zanasi is the chef at the helm, however. Italy’s La Stampa described Zanasi as “giovane e brillante,” which means “young and brilliant.” He comes from Hotel Principe delle Nevi, a five-star restaurant in Cervinia, which is alpine resort territory known for skiing. Indeed, Zanasi is the chosen one. Adrià, who had worked with him, according to La Stampa, selected him for the job. The restaurant is already promoting its commitment to “food democracy,” an idea that has galvanized many Americans recently but has long been a part of the Italian culture. Basically, it’s a belief that food should be food without chemicals or byproducts. Everything should be fresh. But it’s not just about being healthy; it’s also about making everything delicious in its simplicity.
Set Designer Dante Ferretti
The trifecta of greatness would be incomplete without the set designer, three-time Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti. He’s developing the interior of the restaurant. It will be urban, modern, and colorful, and will perfectly reflect Zanasi’s concepts for the menu, according to La Stampa. His Oscar-winning touch brought us The Aviator, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Hugo Cabret. Now, he’ll bring his vision to a place where people will gather to eat. The interior will undoubtedly be a showstopper, but it’s not just about looking at what’s around your own table. The place is going to be like a character, one can imagine. There will be movement. In fact, the press release explains that guests will actually move from one setting to another to enjoy different parts of the meal.
More Than Good Eats
The restaurant is more than a restaurant, of course. Yes, it’s also the Lavazza company headquarters. In addition, visitors will find the Lavazza Museum, which is being designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History. A convention center and a farm-to-table dining hall for employees and students of the nearby Istituto d’Arte Applicata e Design (IADD) round out the offerings. Of course, a place like this wouldn’t be Italian if it didn’t include a “lush, green” piazza for people watching and gathering. There visitors will find artifacts from a 4th and 5th century A.D. paleo-Christian basilica that the company found during construction, according to the press release.
A Higher Purpose for Lavazza
Finally, the name of the restaurant, CONDIVIDERE, is significant. It means to share. This place is intended to be as much about new concepts in food as an affirmation of the human need to break bread together. Perhaps, Adrià put it best in his discussion with La Stampa, where he waxed philosophical about the place. “You will find a place in which you feel at ease and have the desire to be together,” he said, according to my translation. “The intention is to provide exceptional cuisine that brings to the forefront man’s need to socialize, share, and analyze what’s on the table in a show of love for food.” Now, that kind of thinking couldn’t be more Italian.
Food Network Magazine Educates Readers on Italian Food
The Food Network Magazine surprised me by dedicating the entire March 2017 issue to Italian food. Of course, one cover featured Food Network star chef Giada De Laurentiis and the other featured her lemon spaghetti. This issue of the magazine has a few purposes that interest us.
In March, Food Network Magazine educates Americans on authentic Italian food traditions, offers interesting recipes, and provides new twists on old favorites. That’s why I recommend investing in the Food Network Magazine issue (or borrowing a copy from someone who has a subscription) even if you learned everything you ever needed to know from Nonna or Mamma.
While Americans still have serious misconceptions about what Italian food really is, Food Network Magazine goes a long way to try and separate fact from fiction. For starters, the cover star lends credibility. De Laurentiis, whose grandfather Agostina “Dino” De Laurentiis was a famous film producer and grandmother Silvana Mangano was a famous actress in Italy, was born in Rome herself. Her stories and recipes offer insight into the Italian experience. She’s usually great about providing information on authentic Italian dishes. Just by having her or her recipe (depending on whether you’re a subscriber or newsstand purchaser) on the cover gave the impression that this would be the real deal.
Food Network Attempts to Undo Ugly American Syndrome
Next, the magazine’s Editor in Chief Maile Carpenter sweetly revealed how she and her husband immediately gave away their Americanness on a recent trip to Milan by trying to order an iced latte in Italy. There’s no such thing there. After that flub, the couple ordered only cappuccinos and always before noon to comply with societal standards, she wrote. What she doesn’t know is that every Italian I know pokes fun at tourists for even drinking cappuccinos; real Italians never order them. My Italian friends identify you as tourists if that’s on your order.
Still, Carpenter admits that authentic Italians, who immigrated, and their authentic food have been Americanized over the years, and she unashamedly boasted about some of these Italian American hybrids, which are featured in the issue, including tiramisu doughnuts and pizzagna (a combination of pizza and lasagna that has me intrigued). Another story, “How Italian Is It?” features a photo and brief history of dishes commonly associated with Italian food, such as Penna alla Vodka and Eggplant Parmesan,” to help you identify which you’ll find in Italy and which are an Italian American thing. You might be surprised at what you discover. (At the same time, there are probably many foods you didn’t know were Italian.)
The cover boasts 101 recipes, and most of them had my mouth watering. In fact, the food porn in this issue would be triple X rated if food porn was really porn. The ones I’m most interested in trying are meatball marsala, tortellini in brood, and just about everything in the “50 Antipasto” booklet that comes with the issue. Oh yeah, you don’t want to miss inventive suggestions for bruschetta, rosemary-lemon frico, and arancini.
I know what you’re thinking, “You must already have some of these recipes and they are from your family and they are therefore probably better.” That’s true, I do have some of these recipes. But I find trying different versions of recipes helps you build on your repertoire. It also makes the original recipe that much better because you can blend the best of both.
In conclusion, I am thrilled to see that Food Network Magazine is sharing Italian cuisine – both the authentic version and the Italian American evolution and invention of certain recipes. My only complaint about the issue is that the celebrity chefs asked to share their favorite places in Italy to visit ignored Ischia, the small island off the coast of Naples that is home to my ancestors and husband. Capri was on the list, but they don’t know the culinary masterpieces they are missing in our native Ischia.
I won’t bother singing the praises of tiny pillows of potato pasta smothered in made-from-scratch tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. You already know how delicious gnocchi all Sorrentina can be. But you probably believe that it’s the kind of complicated dish to leave to the professionals and Nonna.
My relatives in Italy often make this dish for a special Sunday lunch or holiday because it carries a big punch. Many of them make a pasta and not actual gnocchi; instead of using potato, they use flour alone. I myself prefer traditional gnocchi with a little more weight to it, thanks to potato. Believe me, gnocchi is actually pretty simple to make, and it can be lots of fun. It’s the kind of thing the kids will love to do with you. And you can make it alla Sorrentina as I’ve done here or choose another sauce. I also enjoy it in a simple brown butter and sage sauce.
Now, I used to often go through the lengthy, difficult process of following Lidia Bastianich’s directions for making gnocchi at home. It took a long time to perfect, and it would take hours to complete. Was it worth it? Definitely. But now I no longer live in LaLa Land because I have a child. I learned a new way to pull off one of my favorite dishes. I adapted a recipe from Iron Chef Marc Forgione that appeared in the April 2012 Food Network Magazine. Here goes:
3 Russet potatoes (But you could use other kinds if you don’t have Russet)
1 cup of flour
Grated whole nutmeg (optional)
You’ll need a potato ricer
1 Can of peeled plum tomatoes
2 to 3 Cloves of peeled garlic (peeled and either smashed or cut in half)
1 to 2 tbsp Olive oil
1 to 2 Bunches of fresh basil
Heavy pinch of fresh oregano
Heavy pinch of salt
Light pinch of sugar
The first step to gnocchi is cooking the potatoes. Many people boil the potatoes, but baking them brings out a great flavor. So, place aluminum foil under each potato. Poke holes in the potatoes with a fork. Douse each one with olive oil and sprinkle salt on top. Then, wrap each one in the aluminum foil. Put them in a pre-heated oven at 400 degrees F. Bake for about 45 minutes or until tender.
Next, unwrap the baked potatoes as soon as you can after they come out of the oven. Scoop out the potato out of the skin when it’s still hot. Use oven mitts or a clean towel to protect your hands. The quicker you work, the more likely you’ll end up with light – as opposed to heavy, dense – gnocchi. Lightly flour a surface, such as a marble board or countertop. Pass the potato you scooped out through a potato ricer and drop it onto the floured surface.
Spread out the riced potatoes so they form a single layer. Crack the egg into a cup and beat it. Then, spread it over the potatoes along with the cup of flour. Sprinkle salt on top. I also sometimes like to shave fresh nutmeg on top (but I leave it out if I want my mom to eat it because she’s not a nutmeg fan). Using your hands, bring it all together to form a dough. Create an oval ball of dough.
Let it sit for about 10 minutes. Then, cut the dough into roughly equal-sized logs. Roll those with your hands into roughly foot-long ropes. Cut each rope into small, equal-sized balls. Roll them in the palm of your hand and place them onto baking sheets lined with clean, lightly floured dish towels. If you want to be fancy (or want to guarantee the sauce sticks to the gnocchi), you can lightly press on each ball with the bottom of a fork to create grooves.
When you’re all done, boil salted water and place a handful of gnocchi in at a time. When they come up to the top of the pot, they are done. Put them into a bowl and continue boiling gnocchi until you’ve finished.
In the meantime, you must make the sauce. I sometimes make it the day before and just reheat it while the water is boiling, so I can place the gnocchi directly in it and don’t let them sit at all. Whenever you’re ready to make the sauce, you should begin by sautéing two to three cloves of garlic that you’ve either smashed or cut in half in about one to two tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy sauce pot. Once the garlic gets lightly browned, remove it from the pot.
Next, add the entire can of peeled plum tomatoes, including the liquid, to the pot. Smash up the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon while stirring. Add basil, oregano, salt and a little, tiny bit of sugar (it’s just to take away the acidity of the canned tomatoes). San Marzano tomatoes are the best, but any will do, by the way. My mother doesn’t like pieces of tomato in her sauce. If you are like her and prefer it smooth, you can use an immersion blender or food processor to puree the sauce. The sauce is done after it has simmered until it thickens to your preference. Stir it every once in a while and keep the flame low after it initially boils, so it doesn’t burn or come out dry.
Finally, Put the gnocchi in a baking dish, top it with sauce, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil. Put it in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees F. Cook it until the mozzarella melts and the sauce bubbles a bit. Last but not least, take a bite of that good stuff and let the gnocchi melt in your mouth.