Saturday, January 30, 2010

One Last Pit Stop - Fontanellato, Parma

After a coffee with N, it was time to get back on the road.  We hooked up the gps and gawked at the number of kilometers: 591 or 367 miles.  It seemed like a long way home, at least by Italian standards.  Back in my American days, we used to do that many miles with barely a blink of an eye.

Our car was now laden with the fresh cheese, and snacks from N.  A Pugliese olive and onion torta or pie and a bag of taralli, a twisted breadstick type snack found in Puglia.  These were deliciously seasoned with fennel and helped make our trip go by faster.


Along the way, the iPhones were whipped out and our next stop was selected.  The choice was based entirely on restaurant reviews.  The winner?  The town of Fontanellato in Parma, perfectly situated so we could have dinner and be home an hour or so later. 

It was dark by the time we arrived.  It wasn't quite dinner time yet so we killed some time visiting the small town's landmark castle.  The Rocca Sanvitale castle is one straight out of a fairytale.  It is surrounded by a water-filled moat, and connected with a drawbridge. 


Then it was time to eat.  The restaurant was Trattoria Teatro, just a stones throw away from the castle.  For starters, we had their own house mixed salumi plate, served with crispy fried polenta bits.  


Then we had tortelli, the pasta that the Parma region is most known for.  I had the tortelli di erbetta or herbed filled tortelli that was good.  The boys had a tortelli in brodo or tortelli in broth that they enjoyed.  However the consensus was that it wasn't as good as the dish S had at Trattoria Petito in Forli at the very beginning of our road trip.


I don't remember if we had dessert.  Did we have dessert?  A semifreddo perhaps?

Soon we were speeding back towards Milan.  Our road trip had finally come to an end.  New Year's 2010 has indeed been a memorable one!

Trattoria Teatro
Piazza Giuseppe Verdi 5, Fontanellato 43012 (PR)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Burrata from Andria, Puglia

Only a short drive inland from Trani lays the town of Andria.  We were excited to meet N in her hometown, but the real reason we had to stop here before heading back to Milan?

The burrata.

You see, Andria is the birthplace of the burrata, the rich and creamy cousin of the mozzarella.

I first met the burrata during my very first visit to Italy some years ago.  S knew of a shop that made them fresh in Milan.  It was sweet and creamy, a sort of mozzarella inside a mozzarella, and it left a indelible inprint in my memory.  Not all mozarella is created equal and a good burrata outside of Puglia is even harder to find.  Now here we were where the burrata was invented.  And if there's one thing I've learnt in Italy, it's that nothing is ever as good than at its source.  There's something about the air, the ingredients, the craftsmanship that is impossible to replicate elsewhere.

We picked up N outside her home and she led us to her favorite caseificio or dairy store.  As we drove through the town, we saw countless of caseificio's, many of them packed with people.  But we were excited and confident that N was taking us to the best of the best.

We arrived at the store to find this.  The locals sure love their cheese.

While waiting, I looked at the price list of their offerings.

And studied the contents of the glass cases.

But the real action was happening behind the counter in the laboratory.  There were several cheesemakers hard at work making the various fresh cheeses.  The burratas were definitely being made fresh to order.  Hence the long wait.  We watched as one cheesemaker painstakingly forms each ball of mozzarella with his hands, and then stretches it to form a small pouch.  He then fills it with cream and stracciatella, which is basically shredded mozarella strands left to soak in cream.  Finally, he closes the pouch with a knot on top.


We picked up a selection of burrata, stracciatella and ricotta cheese.  We told them we were traveling and they packaged it all neatly with some ice in a styrofoam box.  I suppose it is not such an uncommon request.  It took 45 minutes to get out the door with our purchases but we were happy campers.  Here we are outside the store with our friend N, proudly holding the prized goods. 

And here's a picture of the lovely milky burrata on our kitchen table the day after. 

It was definitely worth the trouble.

Caseificio Domenic Asseliti E De Fato
Andria, Puglia

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trani, Puglia

The next morning was a Saturday and it was the day we were going to head back to Milan.  We wanted to avoid any possibility of running into traffic on the highways from other holiday travelers.  We had a leisurely breakfast and then packed up the car with our luggage.

We had the whole day ahead of us and what's a road trip without some impromptu stops?  We actually only had one planned stop, and that was to stop and say ciao to our friend N who was home for the holidays in her town of Andrea.  As we exited the highway, we spotted a sign for Trani and decided to check it out.

Trani was one of the most important trading port in the Adriatic Sea in the Middle Ages.  The landmark is the breathtaking cathedral by the seaside, built in local white limestone. 

Even the inside is of white limestone.  It's hard to imagine that such a building was built in the 1200s. 

We admired the cathedral and the harbor view, breathed in the salty air and continued on our way.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Sassi di Matera, Basilicata

We had just spent our entire afternoon on the first day of the New Year eating and visiting our friend's hometown of Palo del Colle.  It was already dark and a frosty wind had picked up.  My belly was full and I would've been perfectly happy to call it a day, but S and D had other ambitious plans.  They wanted to visit one more town, Matera, which was supposed to be less than an hour away.  And even better, Matera's location in Basilicata, a region neighboring Puglia.  Perfect for checking off another region on our roadtrip.

So we arrived after an unecessary detour on a deserted country road.  Our gps unit desperately needs a map update.  We wandered around trying to find what we were looking for.  The air was cool and crisp and the moon shone brightly in the clear sky.

We ended up having to ask some locals.  Finally we found what we really came to see: the famous 'sassi di Matera' or the stones of Matera.  A UNESCO world heritage site, these are houses that are dug into the rock itself, and believed to be the first signs of human settlement in Italy.  

We had this beautiful night view of the sassi.  The area is actually larger than the picture depicts.  It's hard to imagine people living in homes that are over 9,000 years old.  This was just a quick stop.  Soon we were speeding back towards our hotel outside of Giovinazzo.  We need to come back to see it in daylight.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hello, Catania!

Finally, my weekend can start!  I'm about to leave the office after another long day.  Tomorrow we're hopping on a low-cost flight that will take us to the city of Catania in Sicily.  S has to work there next week and we decided to go and make a weekend of it.  I'll be back on Monday morning and going straight to the office though, so it'll be a short trip for me.  I've never been there and I'm hoping for some warm sunny weather and most of all, some good eats.  ;-) 

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New Year's Day Lunch in Palo del Colle

Back to our trip to Puglia.

It was the first day of the New Year and we had just visited Santo Spirito and Giovinazzo. Now it was time for lunch with M's family again. This time his older brother E, his wife F, as well as V's mother joined us.

source: DB

We again had lots to eat. I don't know how his mother does it. We were just there till way past midnight the night before and the very next day she had managed to prepare another huge feast for over ten people.

We started eating around 2.30pm.  D commented that he'd never eaten lunch that late.  Not that we were hungry... we were still full from last night's meal.  There was a fresh cheese selection, olives and smoked salmon to start. Then homemade oriecchiete pasta with the tomato sauce of the famous Pugliese braciole or meat roll dish. First we had the pasta with the sauce that the meat rolls are cooked in, then the meat rolls themselves are served. If you recall, we had it once in Milan prepared by V herself. Now this was her future mother-in-law's version.

source: DB

This was a dish made with years and years of experience and tradition. It seemed like every family has their own 'trade secret'... that little tweak to the recipe or an addition of a special ingredient to make theirs better. It was delicious of course!

Then we had some sausages made from veal from a local macelleria or butcher. These were cooked on a grill right in the camino or fireplace in the corner of their kitchen.

source: DB

They were really really good. And that's coming from me who's not a huge fan of sausages in general.

For dessert, there was a cake, sort of the local version of the St Honore, and this traditional dessert which I absolutely cannot remember the name of. Anyone? Basically it is a pastry topped with a warm sugary syrup.  And of course, another bottle of spumante was opened to toast the New Year.

By the time we finished all that, it was almost 6pm.  The 'kids' decided to go for a walk and get coffee at a neighborhood bar. We got a walking tour of their lovely town, Palo del Colle. I was impressed with the many beautiful churches and historical buildings in this relatively unknown town of 20k inhabitants.

When we got back, the family dog, Laika, was there to greet us. Isn't she the sweetest thing?

I really enjoyed the warm welcome and hospitality of M's family and the peek into the local life. Thank you so much and we hope to be back for a visit soon!

Monday, January 18, 2010

More Skiing

We had to take advantage of the beautiful sunny weather. So the next day we headed outdoors again, this time for cross-country skiing.

Look at the beautiful view driving up. We were headed to our usual cross-country spot in San Giuseppe in the Valmalenco valley.

They must've had some fresh snowfall because there was an amazing layer of clean and powdery soft snow all over.

What I like about cross-country skiing:
1) Light equipment - skis, boots and poles that weigh much much less compared to downhill gear. So much easier to get from parking lot to starting point
2) 'Soft' boots - you can actually walk around in them unlike the stiff clunky downhill boots
3) Lower cost - where we go, the course is free. Elsewhere, it's usually only 3-4 euro per entry. And the gear generally costs less than downhill equipment.
4) Good workout - you can work up a good sweat in two hours or less. Great, if you're short on time. And it uses muscles in the shoulders, back, abs, butt, legs - an excellent all-around aerobic exercise.
5) Lower risk - there's less risk of serious injury compared to downhill skiing. Fewer steep slope = slower speeds.
6) Nature - all that and you get to enjoy the snow and the beautiful outdoors.

That's a good number of reasons!

I'm still practicing my skating technique. I think I'm very slowly getting the hang of it. It's tough teaching an old dog new tricks!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Skiing at Oga, Bormio

It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day!

This was one of many ski areas in the area. I was amazed how quiet it was on a Saturday afternoon. Here, the month of January is usually considered low season, as people are generally recovering from the holidays, and apparently it's too cold.

I am happy to report that there's nothing broken, and that I haven't forgotten how to ski downhill. Of course, I'm still nowhere near expert (there were some hairy moments when confronted with some steep slopes... I blame my scaredy-cat tendencies!) but overall I'm decent enough where I can still have fun.

My favorite was at the very top where there was lots of fresh snow and wide open trails.

Wasn't it just a gorgeous day?

This was at Oga, in the Bormio ski area. I rented my ski equipment and got some nice gear at 13 euros for a half day rental. Much nicer stuff than the standard rentalsat Tahoe. We did the pomeridiano, or the afternoon session, and the lift ticket cost us ~19 euro. The prices are higher for the bigger resorts but overall are really not that bad, especially if you have your own skis.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Buon Weekend!

Wow, the week just flew by. Work kept my days long and busy. And then there was our tree that had to go back for recycling, which was the only reason we could be found wandering the aisles of Ikea on a Monday night. But we made it in and out in record time. We were home by 9pm. Phew!

Then on Wednesday night we had some family and friends over for dinner. F lives and works in Milan, but is home in the valley most weekends. He lives just upstairs from Stef, and when we were there last weekend, he mentioned he'd never even been to our home in Milan. So we said, come on over this Wednesday! We also invited our friends D and N to join us.

We had the Calabrian spreads that we bought at the Fiera in Dec, pasta with smoked salmon, and artichoke pastry, all washed down with the red and white wines that N and F brought.

And to finish off the night, these gelato dessert cups that D brought. They tasted as good as they looked. Stefo also pulled out his latest batch of limoncello and limoncello cream.

Nothing like good food and good company to make the week go by even faster.

We're back in the mountains for the weekend. Tomorrow will be my first time downhill skiing in the Italian Alps. I hope to keep my klutziness to a minimum. Let's not even talk about me running smack into a door while going to the kitchen for water in the night. Yes, it looked like I got beat up, no thanks to the swollen lip.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Giovinazzo, Puglia

We still had a little time to kill before heading over to M's house for lunch. Yes, we were invited to eat with the family again. So we decided to drive to the next seaside town nearby called Giovinazzo.

We were quite impressed. All the locals spoke highly of this town and rightly so.

We wandered around the historical part of town that was beautiful and very well restored.

I loved the green shutters on many of the buildings.

I wondered how they got all the residents to agree to paint their shutters green. I guessed, free green paint? I mean, we can't even get our apartment complex to agree on installing road bumps, not to mention a whole town.

I was quite amazed with how clean it was in all the towns we had visited in the region thus far. I had expected different, but I suppose I've been influenced by the preconceptions of the Italians from the north.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Santo Spirito, Puglia

After the festivities the night before, we woke up and had a leisure breakfast at the hotel before driving over to Santo Spirito, a town just a few minutes away from where we were staying. Santo Spirito is a fishing village, and there were a number of colorful fishing boats in the harbor.

The first day of the new year was another beautiful and sunny day in Puglia. We walked to the main piazza where there were many locals enjoying the day.

We knew that this was the hometown of one of our coworkers, R, and that he was home for the holidays. Stef decided to surprise him and gave him a call. He was surprised alright and it took him only a few minutes for him to leave his house to join us.

We also got to meet his dad. His father is a fisherman and happened to be nearby in the piazza. He was smartly dressed in his Sunday best, in a suit, tie and hat, as were the other gentlemen meeting in the piazza.

It was really nice seeing R in his own hometown.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Capodanno in Puglia

Now where did we leave off? Yes, it was capodanno or New Year's Eve and we were in Puglia. Most of the restaurants were offering il cenone or 'big dinner' for the occasion, which usually meant big crowds, mediocre food, silly hats, entertainment and well, high prices. We weren't really interested. Instead, M invited us to his family home for dinner. We were honored and thrilled.

His parents and younger brother warmly welcomed us to their beautiful home. His mother in typical Pugliese tradition really outdid herself in the kitchen.

We started off with homemade foccaccia with tomatoes and a Pugliese torta filled with olives, onions and anchovies.

An assortment of local fresh cheeses: mozarella, ricotta, stracciatella and I can't remember what else.

Oriecchiete con cime di rape, or 'little ears' pasta with rapa, a local vegetable. This pasta dish is synonymous with the region of Puglia. The pasta was handmade by mum herself.

Dario could not resist a second helping.

A second primo or first dish of spaghetti with scampi. Really good. I was already full from the appetizer but this was impossible to resist. Plus, I wouldn't want to offend our hosts!

We were so lucky to be there!

Picture with the family. The stove and sink is actually in a little corner behind the wall on the right of the warm fireplace. It's tiny but obviously works as M's mom kept bringing out delicious food.

We looked up at the clock and realized it was almost midnight! M jumped to action bringing out the firecrackers.

The last couple minutes was a frenzy as the guys tried to figure out how the firecrackers worked while running around trying to decide which terrace to set them off from. The volume on the TV was turned up high so we could hear the countdown.

At the stroke of midnight, the explosion of fireworks went off all around us. It seemed like every family had their own set of fireworks. Some were really LOUD and others quite elaborate and colorful exploding high up in the sky. In the distance we could see the fireworks going off in the neighboring town of Bitonto. I was quite amazed by the display and noise. This went on for quite a bit. Buon anno! Auguri!

We also all had a plate of lenticche or lentils, an Italian tradition to usher in good luck in the new year. Their round shape is reminiscent of coins, so bring in the wealth!

A champagne toast for the new year!

And last but not least, M pulled out his stash of cigars and for a celebratory puff. What a night!
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