A cultural and culinary celebration of everything that makes Italian cuisine great, from Rome’s resident gastronomic expert
After a lifetime of living and eating in Rome, Elizabeth Minchilli is an expert on the city's cuisine. While she’s proud to share everything she knows about Rome, she now wants to show her devoted readers that the rest of Italy is a culinary treasure trove just waiting to be explored. Far from being a monolithic gastronomic culture, each region of Italy offers its own specialties. While fava beans mean one thing in Rome, they mean an entirely different thing in Puglia. Risotto in a Roman trattoria? Don’t even consider it. Visit Venice and not eat cichetti? Unthinkable. Eating My Way Through Italy, celebrates the differences in the world’s favorite cuisine.
Divided geographically, Eating My Way Through Italy looks at all the different aspects of Italian food culture. Whether it’s pizza in Naples, deep fried calamari in Venice, anchovies in Amalfi, an elegant dinner in Milan, gathering and cooking capers on Pantelleria, or hunting for truffles in Umbria each chapter includes, not just anecdotes, personal stories and practical advice, but also recipes that explore the cultural and historical references that make these subjects timeless.
For anyone who follows Elizabeth on her blog Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome, read her previous book Eating Rome, or used her brilliant phone app Eat Italy to dine well, Eating My Way Through Italy, is a must.
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About the Author
Elizabeth Minchilli is the author of numerous books on the joys of Italian life. She has written for over 40 magazines and today shares her passion for Italy through her blog, her best-selling apps, and her tour company. She divides her time between a rooftop apartment in Rome and a restored farmhouse in Umbria, with her husband, Domenico.
Read an Excerpt
Food in Mind ...
I've always traveled with food in mind. This is the way I was brought up. When people ask me what religion I am, I have to say I have a hard time figuring that one out. Yes, I'm culturally Jewish, and we celebrated the high holidays, but we also put up a Christmas tree and certainly looked forward to our Easter basket.
If I have to cite a book that was our family bible growing up, that would be easier: the Michelin Red Guide. I'm writing "we," but I'm not sure my sisters held this tome in as high regard as I did. And by growing up, I mean the formative years after I turned twelve, and life as I knew it changed drastically.
After growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis my father decided it would be a good idea to pick up and move to Rome for an indefinite period of time. While I'm sure that I was as upset as any other twelve-year-old at being ripped from everything I knew, the experience has obviously had a profound and lasting effect on me. I mean, here I am, forty years later, still in Rome. My life, my career, my family, my friends: it all has to do with my father's fateful decision.
But getting back to the Michelin Red Guide, when we moved to Rome we definitely settled in. We had an attic apartment in a Roman palazzo, I went to school, my parents shopped at the daily market in Campo dei Fiori, but we also had a car (a Fiat 124 if you're curious). We used that car to head out of Rome almost every weekend and most of the summer.
My memories of bumping around in the backseat with my sisters (there were no seat belts of course) alternate between fights of who had to sit in the middle and me ignoring the scenery to get through yet another volume of Agatha Christie (the only English language books readily available).
While I may have been a typical twelve-year-old in terms of ignoring the Alps as they passed by outside our window, the inklings of my future career of me telling other people what and where to eat were already beginning to show. Before we got anywhere near our destination, I would lay down my "mystery-du-jour" and grab the copy of the current Guide Michelin that was sliding around on the back windowsill to decide where we would be dining.
I was a master of deciphering the arcane little symbols that were printed on the little bookmark that came with the guide. Forks and Knives? At least two. And if they were red? Even better. And the little flowers that were, in fact, stars? We actually did make it to a few of those as well.
But it wasn't just the red guide that I was using to navigate. I was also cross-referencing with the paperback Michelin Green Guides of historical sites. Because for me (and this is key) food has never been an end in and of itself. Yes, we had to eat well. But the entire experience — getting there, ordering, talking to the people who prepare the food, walking around the place — was always just as important. Somehow I understood, from an early age, the cultural import of each bite we were taking.
In other words, food may have been the map we used to get to a specific place, but it was also the key that opened up an entire world.
And that is what this book is about.
Today, after a lifetime living and eating in Rome, a lot of people consider me to be an "expert" on Italian food. While I am proud to share everything I've learned, cooked, and devoured in this ancient city, I'm quick to correct them. Yes, I know the byways of cacio e pepe,pizza bianca, and other Roman specialties. But these are Roman specialties. So when you ask me to hold forth on Italian food, you're going to have to be a bit more specific.
Did you mean the type of dried fava beans that only really show up in a certain region of Puglia? Or maybe the deep-fried chickpea fritters that you can buy from street vendors in Palermo? Risotto you say? You better get on a train headed north.
What most people don't realize is that the entire concept of Italy is more a state of mind than a geopolitical — much less a gastronomic — reality. Italy has only been a country for the last 150 years. While that might seem quite a while to American ears, it's just a baby in terms of the millennial-long reality that is the Italian peninsula.
So when I tell you that there is almost nothing left that can surprise me about Roman cuisine, just the opposite is true for the rest of Italy. Luckily for me, I've had the great opportunity to travel — for work and for pleasure — from the tip of the heel in Puglia to the shores of Lake Como in the north. I've traveled to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia and to the hills of Umbria, Abruzzo, and Tuscany. I've walked the beaches on each of the long coasts, and visited almost all of the major cities in between.
Eating My Way Through Italy takes up where my previous book, Eating Rome, left off. If all roads lead to Rome, they also lead out of it. I have taken to those roads, and I am excited to share the dishes, customs, and recipes that I've discovered over the course of my career.
When I first thought of this book, my main aim was not to provide an encyclopedic or comprehensive guide to Italy by way of food. Instead, I wanted to tell you stories of my own experiences. Experiences — and meals — that led me off the beaten track to discover places, people, and food that may be outside your comfort zone.
To me, the most luxurious aspect of travel these days is to end up in a place where there are few tourists. I know this is almost impossible. And I'm not telling you to completely ignore cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice. But I am suggesting that, with food as your guiding star, you might wander off those overtreaded paths and discover places you never knew existed.
In Eating My Way Through Italy, I share my stories of travels through Italy in search of food. Through the exploration of specific meals or ingredients, I hope to inspire you to do the same.
Each chapter takes one type of food as its theme (sorry, but that's just the way I roll). So while I might appear to be talking only about Parmigiano Reggiano, for instance, what I'm really getting at is something that reveals a past and current history that exists only in one very specific place. It is that sense of place that I hope will inspire you, whether you travel there, or simply use that ingredient in the comfort of your own kitchen.
These are simply the tales of where my own stomach has led me, more often than not, down new paths. You can use it as a blueprint, following my trail of bread crumbs, or — as I hope you do — follow your own appetite to meals yet unknown.CHAPTER 2
Capesante, Scampi, and Vongole in the Suburbs of Venice
When I first started thinking of this book, I envisioned itineraries that would take you out into the wilds of lesser-known regions like Puglia, Friuli, and Umbria. Florence, Venice, and Rome? Been there, done that, right? Wrong. Especially when it comes to Venice.
These days when most people think of Venice, it's the crowded, almost Disneyland-like area around Saint Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco). Hordes of tourists make this part of Venice a kind of nightmare to navigate — especially in high season. The tiny alleys get jammed with day trippers, off big cruise ships, ticking off as many of the major sights as possible, and every year it seems to get worse.
But I love Venice. And often I am there, for better or worse, at high season. Usually visiting during the Biennale (what my friend Gillian refers to as the "Death March of Art"), which takes place every two years in the summer, I find myself struggling to get through the throngs on my way to the exhibition grounds and the various shows scattered throughout the city.
So I've developed a plan for the times when the city seems just too full. I head to the suburbs. And, no, I don't mean the ugly industrial area of Mestre, which is filled with squalid 1- and 2-star hotels and hostels. I'm talking about the original suburbs of Venice: the islands of the lagoon.
My relationship with the lagoon dates back to a time before I ever set foot in Venice. My father, coming back from his first fateful trip to Venice (we were to move to Italy within the year) brought me back a small gift, as he usually did. A hand-blown family of glass crabs, the largest no bigger than a walnut. I was fascinated by them, arranging them and rearranging them on a shelf in my bedroom. How did their fragile legs make it back intact in my father's suitcase? And what was this place where — or so he said — there were shops full of these creations.
That is when he told me about Venice. Not only was there an entire island dedicated solely to the production of my little crabs and other manner of glass creations but also a string of islands where people lived, worked, ate, and played.
And this is where I go to beat the crowds: the islands. As it turns out, these days Murano (the island closest to the center of Venice, and where my glass crabs were crafted), is almost as crowded as the Piazza San Marco. I am not the only person to fall for the charms of hand-blown glass. But over the years I've ventured farther, taking all manner of boats to reach my goal of finding tranquility.
San Pietro di Castello
One of my favorite oft-ignored jewels in the lagoon is actually one that is closest and easiest to get to from the main city. San Pietro di Castello is located way at the eastern end of Venice, tucked into the area between the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale. Although I had walked up and down Via Garibaldi in Castello many times, I'd never continued beyond where the street splits and then becomes the narrow Fondamenta Sant'Anna before turning into a wooden bridge, spanning the water, to end up on the island of San Pietro di Castello until recently.
My aim was to visit a building a friend had recently restored, which was the ex-house of the bishop of the church, which gives the island its name. And, in fact, that church, with a classical facade by Palladio, is reason enough to head there. The wide lawn in front of the church is scattered with benches, beneath shady trees, and is almost always empty save for the few elderly locals letting their dogs off the leash for a run.
But that is by far the fanciest part of this island. There is practically nothing else on it. Not even a bar or store. Which is in itself pretty miraculous in overly touristy, hyper-commercialized Venice.
So what do you do on San Pietro? Not much. Just walk around empty alleys. If you find the gate to the right of the church open, pop into the church's courtyard. And when you're hungry head back over the bridge to Via Garibaldi, which is where you'll find one of my favorite restaurants in Venice.
The holy grail in Venice — at least for foodies is finding that little hidden-away place where locals go. In a city like Venice, which makes its living from the tourists who come here each year, these simple places are a dying breed.
Trattoria alla Rampa is the exception. This small restaurant, with a hand-painted sign outside, is located in an area of Venice where few tourists venture. Just north of the Biennale gardens, the small streets leading off of the wide Via Garibaldi are hung with laundry belonging to the mostly working-class families that live here. La Rampa opens its doors at 5 a.m. Yes. You read that right. They open that early because that is when the men who live in this neighborhood — policemen, firemen, garbage men, and other workers — head off for the day. They stop by La Rampa for a quick breakfast, and the place remains open for the rest of the day until just after lunch.
Since the trattoria is slightly below the level of the sidewalk, a ramp (where the place gets its name) leads into the restaurant. There's usually a few men lined up at the bancone, enjoying a coffee or a glass of wine and maybe a sandwich. A low doorway at the back leads to the dining room, where a dozen tables are set for lunch.
The menu changes daily. If they have it, I always order spaghetti al' nero di seppie, thick strands of spaghetti coated in inky sauce. But this is also the kind of place that will have nearly forgotten recipes that never appear on menus throughout the rest of the city because they don't appeal to tourists. And, in fact, this is where I discovered La Castradina.
I had actually seen these haunches of cured meat hanging in all the butcher shops near the Rialto earlier in the day. I'd never noticed them before, in all the times I'd been to Venice, but all of a sudden they were everywhere.
The butcher told me that they were castradina, a Venetian specialty. Since it was a Saturday, he was sort of rushed, and maybe even a bit bothered by my questions. He hurriedly explained that castradina was a leg of lamb that had been soaked in salt water for a few weeks, and then smoked.
Sounded good to me.
The butcher whacked one in half, wrapped it, and sent us on our way along with a xeroxed recipe.
It wasn't until the next day, at lunch at La Rampa, that I got the full castradina story. As it turns out, the reason I'd never seen castradina before was because it's only eaten one day a year: on November 21, the day of the Madonna della Salute. And since I'd never been in Venice in November before, it was completely off my radar.
Pilgrims would come from all over, including from Eastern Europe, to pay homage to the Madonna della Salute on this festival day. After traveling all that way, they would be offered a warming bowl of soup, which included castradina.
It's definitely hearty peasant food, made to warm you after a wet November day on your way to pay homage to a saint. But it's not nearly as heavy as it sounds, since the bulk of the soup is actually meat broth and cabbage. But if you're hoping to find it on your next trip to Venice, make sure your vacation coincides with the Saint's day, and pay a visit to La Rampa as well.
If you've never heard of Mazzorbo, don't worry. Not many people have. It's a tiny island in the lagoon, connected to Burano by a bridge. On the surface, there really is not much reason to go there; just the feeling of having stepped back in time and into a rural agricultural landscape that happens to be in the middle of the lagoon. In other words, the complete flip side of the Venice you know.
About eight years ago though, Mazzorbo came onto the international radar (including mine) when one of Italy's biggest wine producers, Bisol, took over and restored one of the original vineyards on the island. They now run the estate, Venissa, and have turned it into something truly magical. Working together with local agronomists, they have managed to revive one of the oldest vineyards in the entire Veneto as well as the walled vegetable gardens. Today in addition to the hotel and restaurant, there is also a center for agricultural research, vocational training, and an education center.
Whenever I visit Venice, I try to stay at Venissa at least one or two nights. While I love the drama and beauty of Venice, my time on Mazzorbo makes me want to buy a house and spend the rest of my life on the lagoon. The combination of being on a farm but also on the sea, is so magical that it's hard to describe.
My aim in exploring the islands in the Venetian lagoon is usually to get away from the massive amount of tourists that clog the alleyways of the main part of the city. Heading out to Mazzorbo, Burano, Torcello, and beyond is my game plan. This usually works very well. But like anything, timing is essential.
While an island like Mazzorbo remains pretty much empty all day long, Burano, only a walk away across a wooden bridge, is another story. The island used to be home to famous lace-makers, and up until recently most tourists came here to visit workshops and bring home a doily or two. These days I have a feeling that most of the lace is probably coming from Asia. But the island continues to draw its share of tourists because of its unique kaleidoscopic technicolor buildings. The two-and three-story homes are each painted a distinct and bright color. My understanding is that the locals, who were fishermen, painted their buildings so distinctively so that they could spy their homes from far out at sea. The tradition still continues (as does the fishing) but in these days of social media sharing, they also provide the perfect backdrop for one-of-a-kind selfies.
Avoiding the tourists is pretty easy. Either head to Burano after 4 p.m. (for some reason all the tourists head home in the evening), or else duck into one of the oldest restaurants on the island like Da Romano or Gatto Nero.
In my mission to get out of the center of Venice and onto the lesser trafficked islands, there is one place I always revisit: Torcello.
Torcello is located in the upper reaches of the lagoon, just north of Mazzorbo and Burano. When the vaporetto lets you off, there is no choice: take the little canal-side path through fields to finally arrive at the most perfect Romanesque church imaginable. There are a few houses and a couple of restaurants along the way, but for the most part it's a natural paradise.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eating My Way Through Italy"
Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Minchilli.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Food in Mind...
2. Capesante, Scampi, and Vingole in the Suburbs of Venice
3. Barrels of Balsamico in Emilia-Romagna
4. Stuffing Myself with Stuffed Pasta
5. Risotto, Cassoela, and an Understated Sense of Style in Milan
6. A Crash Course in Parmigiano Reggiano
7. A Sense of Place and a Bowl of Farinata: The Soul of Florence
8. Hunting for Truffles: Umbria Part One
9. From Farm to Table: Umbria Part Two
10. My Olive Oil Story: Umbria Part Three
11. Rustic Sardinia and the Secret of Su Filindeu
12. Naples: Where All Roads Lead to Pizza
13. Gragnano: Home of Artisanally Dried Pasta
14. Fishing for Anchovies on the Amalfi Coast
15. Eating Meat in Puglia
16. The Bari Chronicles: The Pasta-Making Ladies of Bari Vecchia
18. Savory Sicily
19. Sweet Sicily
20. Home to Rome...and an Escape to Paradise
21. The Next Trip