It was two years ago this month that we visited Ferrara. Located only about half hour by train from Bologna this city is definitely worth a visit. It reminded me a lot of Bologna, only smaller and without all the tourists.
The city has one of Italy’s best preserved Medieval neighborhoods. The quarter is a mix of churches, palaces and ordinary houses. I loved the variety of arches, windows and shutters lining the jumble of streets.
Right in the center of town there’s the castle built by the Este family complete with a moat. If you’re in Ferrara definitely tour the castle. Be sure to check out the dungeon!
Similar to Lucca, Ferrara is also surrounded by a wall. Yes you can walk up there, but it’s not paved like Lucca’s and it’s quite a bit longer, although are a few interruptions.
While walking around the neighborhood near our apartment in search of a pizzeria we came upon this track built around a grassy area. Later we discovered that this is where the city’s annual palio takes place. You’ve probably heard of the famous palio (horse race) in Sienna, but Ferrara’s is the oldest in the world. It usually takes place the last Sunday in May, but it’s doubtful that this festival will take place in just a few short weeks.
A good portion of the centro is free of automobiles and there are bikes are everywhere. Since it’s a very flat area it’s the perfect mode of transportation.
Truth be told we didn’t have enough time in this lovely city and plan on a return visit. Oh, and the food is similar to and just as good as Bologna’s.
The first time I tasted a sformata we were in a trattoria in Acqui Terme in Piemonte. I ordered it not knowing exactly what it was and was pleasantly surprised when I was served a light and creamy vegetable custard. After returning home I searched for recipes and made one with spinach. That was quite some time ago and I then I apparently just forgot about them.
I’ve been reading a lot of cookbooks in my abundant spare time and saw this recipe in Katie Parla’s book Tasting Rome. The beauty of a sformata is that it’s texture is similar to a souffle, but without all the work and the worry.
Are you familiar with romanesco? It’s sort of a cross between cauliflower and broccoli. I’ve never seen it in the grocery store and only one farmer at the market had exactly one romanesco which I quickly grabbed!
Sformatini di Broccolo Romanesco (adapted from Tasting Rome)
1 pound Romanesco cauliflower (may substitute green cauliflower)
Vegetable oil, for the ramekins
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, sliced
1/4 cup dry white wine
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
Core and trim the romanesco and separate it into florets; you should have about 5 cups. Steam until tender, about 10 minutes. Cool, then coarsely chop (to yield about 3 cups).
Preheat the oven to 320 degrees. Use the vegetable oil to grease the insides of the ramekins. Line a roasting pan with a folded dish towel and arrange the ramekins on top of the towel.
Bring a large kettle of water to a boil over high heat.
Meanwhile, heat the extra-virgin olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in the onion; cook for about 8 minutes or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add the cooked romanesco and wine; cook for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender (with the center knob of its lid removed, so steam can escape). Puree until very smooth, for several minutes, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl or blender jar.
Whisk together the eggs and cream in a large bowl and stir in the pecorino Romano, then pour in the blended romanesco mixture, stirring to incorporate. Divide the custard mixture among the ramekins, leaving about 1/4 inch of head space.
Pull the middle oven rack forward just enough to slide the roasting pan onto it, then carefully fill the pan with the just-boiled water so it comes no more than halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the custards are a bit jiggly in the center and a knife inserted into the center of them comes out clean.
Carefully transfer the roasting pan to the stove top (off the heat). Let it sit for 10 minutes, then use coated tongs to transfer the ramekins to a cutting board to cool further.
To serve (warm or at room temperature), invert and gently unmold each sformatino.
The one bright spot in this incredibly strange time is that my local farmers market is sill up and going full force. Most of the other markets in the San Diego area have been closed for the past five weeks so I feel very lucky to be able to support these small family owned farms.
Just about every week I purchase a bunch or two of chard from a brother and sister team that I’ve been buying from for years. Usually I saute the greens with a little garlic and red pepper flakes, but when I saw this recipe in Katie Parla’s book Tasting Rome I knew I had to make it. I had all the ingredients on hand, or so I thought until I took the puff pastry out of the freezer and it was a soggy mess. Three stores later looking for the pastry and I was ready to go. I guess I should add here that three stores later with J. shopping for me and I was ready.
Katie explains in her book that this torta is often found in Rome’s wine bars and bakeries. It’s just the sort of thing that I would buy in an instant if I saw it on display. It’s perfect with a glass of wine or prosecco or makes a nice light lunch.
1 tsp sea salt, plus more for salting the water
1 pound fresh spinach leaves
1 pound fresh chard
¼ pound dandelion greens
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
3 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ carrot, finely grated
½ pound ricotta
1¼ cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 large eggs
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound puff pastry store-bought or you can make your own
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Salt the water. When the salt has dissolved, add the spinach, chard, and dandelion greens and blanch for 1 minute, until the stalks are tender. Drain and allow to cool, about 20 minutes. Squeeze out excess water very well and chop into small, confetti-size pieces.
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the onion and cook until softened and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the greens and cook until they are tender and have darkened, 15 minutes more.
- Transfer the greens to a large bowl and add the parsley, carrot, salt, ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, three of the eggs, and pepper to taste. Mix well and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Line an 8-inch pie pan with parchment paper. In a small bowl, lightly beat the remaining egg. Set aside.
- Slice off a third of the puff pastry and set aside. On a lightly floured surface, roll the remaining pastry into a 10-inch round, 1⁄8 inch thick. Place the pastry in the prepared pan, pressing it into the corners and leaving enough overhang to rest on the top edge of the pie pan. Trim the excess pastry with a knife. Spoon the filling into the pastry and level it to the top of the pie pan.
- Roll out the reserved pastry into a 10 × 6-inch rectangle. With a knife or fluted pastry wheel, cut it into twelve ½-inch-wide strips. Use these to make a lattice over the top of the pie, trimming the excess strips and pressing them to adhere to the edge of the bottom layer of pastry. Brush the lattice with the beaten egg.
- Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.
- Remove the torta rustica from the oven and allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving. The pie is best served at room temperature. It will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for 2 days; remove it from the refrigerator 1 hour before serving
*** My torta was done in about 30 minutes
Twenty years ago when we started planning our first trip to Italy J. proclaimed that he didn’t care about visiting Rome. He thought it would be too big and too noisy. Knowing that we could only see so much in two weeks I wasn’t bothered that we wouldn’t make a stop in Rome. Somehow I knew we would eventually spend time there.
Two trips later and Rome was on our itinerary. Yes it is big and it can be noisy especially if your hotel is right on a famous piazza, but it is one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
Since then we’ve returned time after time and now when traveling to Italy we prefer to start in Rome for a few days and then end up there before heading home. There’s endless sites to see, neighborhoods to explore and of course meals to eat. No matter how much you see, there’s always much more to discover.
We’ve stayed in various areas of the city and discovered that we love the Testaccio neighborhood. A food tour by Eating Europe was our introduction to this un-touristy part of Rome and since then we’ve made it our base.
Home to a variety of family run trattorias serving Roman specialties Testaccio also boasts a well known Mercato with stalls selling produce, meat, cheese, fish, bread, pasta and prepared foods. Like most local markets there are also vendors selling clothing, shoes and household items.
Just across the river is the popular neighborhood of Trastevere. One of my absolute favorite restaurants in the city is located there-La Tavernaccia da Bruno. Their suckling pig with roasted potatoes is hard for me to pass up. If you’re there on Sunday definitely order the lasagna.
Here’s to the hope of making new Roman memories this October…
As we only had two days in this part of Puglia we didn’t get to the famous town of Alberobello. As that town is well known for its concentration of trulli, it’s also known to be quite touristy so we decided to save it for another time. Instead we drove to Locorotondo which we could see from our roof deck.
This white washed town was bedecked with plants spilling over balconies and framing doorways. It was another picture perfect day and the combination of the white buildings, blue skies and colorful flowers proved to be enchanting.
The streets were pretty much deserted since it was market day and most of the residents were busy shopping for their fruits, vegetables and other household items. I was more interested in the mercato all’aperto than I was in the churches and quaint buildings. We knew we wouldn’t have to time to cook a meal with the stunning produce, but we did purchase olives, bread and cheese-just the basics!
Leaving town we passed this cluster of ancient trulli. Driving the back roads between Locorortondo and Cisternino we passed similar scenes in addition to once again getting hopelessly lost!
Driving south from Calitri towards Lecce we passed fields with olive trees, but it wasn’t until we were off the highway heading towards Cisternino that we came upon the ancient trees that Puglia is known for.
The gps directed us onto a dirt road through a grove of trees lined by short rock walls. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before. The trunks were twisted around and around. Some were even knotted. There was no one else around and it was as if we had discovered some magical place.
As we got closer to Cisternino trulli started to appear in the fields. I was fascinated! Some of them seemed to be incredibly old and were obviously abandoned. Others were painted white and had been incorporated into other buildings being used as homes. I couldn’t wait until we found what would be our trullo for the next few days.
I won’t go into the long story of us actually finding our trullo. Suffice it to say there’s not a lot of signage out in the countryside and we learned that your gps may to get you to where you want to go. Maybe because it was so hard to find that when we pulled into the driveway I could barely contain myself. Just look at this patio! I was immediately smitten by the shades of blue and flowers spilling out of ceramic pots. The interior was equally as charming.
I couldn’t wait to climb the steps to the roof top deck which offered an incredible view of the valley and to the town of Locorotondo off in the distance. The deck was our go to spot for cocktails in the evening.
One evening we opted to eat in and were treated to a typical Pulgiese meal prepared by Giovanni, son of the owner. B & B Piertaviva is located a few miles outside of Cisternino and we will be there this fall if at all possible.
I took this last shot at dawn as we were reluctantly leaving for the airport. The bright side was that we weren’t leaving Italy, but heading to Rome!
Lecce had been on my “must visit” list long before it ended up being a hot spot for a lot of other tourists. For one reason or another we didn’t end up actually going there until last spring. Despite knowing of its popularity, I was surprised by how crowded it was.
I was most interested in seeing the Baroque architecture that it’s known for and it didn’t disappoint. Around every corner was another stunning church, one more ornately decorated facade. The weather was superb, especially after the cold and rainy days of the previous three weeks.
Our apartment had a rooftop terrace which was the perfect spot to watch the sunset, sipping on a Primitivo and snacking on local cheese. Our restaurant meals showcased the traditional food of Puglia. My favorite meal was at Alle Due Corti where we began our meal with a vegetable antipasto that included about seven or eight dishes-one more interesting than the next. My main was the eggplant meatballs in the photo below.
We walked through the gates of the city towards the university area for pizza at La Succursale, recommended by Katie Parla and it did not disappoint.
Farewell Lecce. We probably need another visit…
About an hour away from Calitri outside the town of Paternopli is Tenuta Fonzone, a family owned winery. We spent an incredible afternoon here tasting their wines accompanied by plate after plate of local specialties.
You need to make a reservation to visit the winery and I urge you to make a stop here if you are ever in the area. The wines were spectacular and unfortunately I haven’t been able to find them back home.
Closer to Calitri is the town of Monteverde located on top of hill about a half hour away. When looking for a place to visit I saw Monteverde listed on the website I Borghi Pio’ belli d’Italia. The town is dominated by a Norman castle and we were lucky to get a private tour by a very nice gentleman who was very proud of his town and was a little reluctant to let us leave for lunch!
Another drive we took a few years back is worth mentioning. Having read about a restaurant in Melito Irpino we set off on “the slow road” passing a shepherd (wearing a New York Yankees cap) and his flock. The old town was destroyed in the 1962 earthquake and we found ruins in the middle of nowhere.
The restaurant-Di Pietro-is the most interesting spot in the new center of town (you can read about it here). The lunch was a three hour affair where we were spoiled by Enzo, the owner. It’s definitely worth a return visit.
We look forward to exploring more of Irpinia and of course sampling a lot more of the local cuisine.
After my week in Lucca last spring we spent a few days in Rome and then took the train across the country and south to Calitri (birthplace of my grandparents). You can’t actually take the train there, which we found out on our first visit. We discovered that what we thought were train tickets ended up being for one train and two buses in order to get up to the town. Now we take a train to Foggia where we rent a car which you absolutely need if you want to explore the beautiful countryside.
One of the best things about spending time here is the pace of life. This is not a town that most tourists would visit unless they had a family connection. There are no famous sites, but the entire town-both new and old sections-is authentic small town Italy at its best.
Of course I feel at peace in this hill town since my family came from here. A few years ago I was fortunate to spend time with the town’s genealogist researching the records for my grandparents. The door in the photo below is to the home where my grandmother was born.
The food is classic southern Italian. I am addicted to the pastries at the local pasticceria where we always start our day with a cappuccino and and a pastry or two. Of course then I feel the need to take a few things to go which they wrap up like a little gift.
The pasta of this area is cingul which is similar cavatelli. It’s made with semolina flour and hot water and served with a tomato sauce. I never tire of eating this dish and have tried it in various restaurants. I’ve recreated it at home, but it’s never quite the same as eating it in Calitri.
The photos of these ruins were taken at the very top of town in an area that has been abandoned since the 1980 earthquake. It was almost haunting to walk up there through what was once a thriving neighborhood. Nature has completely taken over and wildflowers blossom in and out of the buildings.
One evening we stood on the patio of a pizzeria outside the centro at sunset and were treated to this view of the town in an almost magical light.
And perhaps one of my absolute favorite pics was taken up on the patio of our rental. We’re looking out over the hills to Basilicata, the neighboring region.
Best case scenario we will be making new memories back here in the fall.
For the past ten years April is the month when I pack my bags and head to Italy for my Panini Girl week in Lucca. This year due to a wedding in California in early May I planned my tour for mid September. Little did I know that our world would be shaken up and now I’m wondering if I’ll even be traveling to Italy in the fall.
I stumbled upon Lucca on my very first trip to Italy nineteen years ago. J. and I were driving from the Sienna area to Milan (clueless as to how far this trip really was) and saw a sign for Lucca’s centro storico. It was lunch time, we were hungry and we got off the road, parked, found a restaurant and walked on the wall. What a charming place!
My heart goes out to the Italian people. It’s hard to imagine them not out and about socializing, standing at the bar for their morning coffee, sitting in a piazza chatting with friends, sharing meals with family members. Of course we aren’t doing these things either, but I’ve always felt that these rituals are much more part of the lives of the Italian people than we Americans.
I’m holding out hope that I will be back in Lucca this September, that I’ll be sitting around the dining table with my group, touring wineries, eating gelato, baking bread, making pasta, visiting Florence and being enchanted by all that makes Italy so spectacular.