Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Afternoon Gelato, Or, Eating for Markie Butler

Pal Mark Butler asked roundabout the other day what our problem was on the Italy blogs: a lot of wine, muscular medieval walls, rolling valley vistas, and plates of pasta--but no gelato? Well, he’s right in most ways, as gelato is an essential part of the Italian experience (at least culinarily), with it’s delicious chilly nature and exploding flavors. Both Nat and I love gelato, too. While we’ve had a few gelato afternoons (afternoon seems the finest moment for gelato-ing), we’ve discovered that in winter, many places stop serving gelato, with some even shutting down. Ack. Today though, at Mark’s urging, we went on a gelato hunt (and let no-one ever say we won’t do anything for a pal, or a blog reader). We had recently been to a gas station/café/gelateria that had perhaps the most unfriendly mustachioed counterman, but good gelato, and so we headed out for it (it was also close to the Italian answer to Home Depot called Leroy Merlin, and we wanted to stop by there, too). When we pulled up--closed. After thinking it through, we figured we’d have to go to a larger town, and so went south to a city called Foligno. I’m trying to forget about it, but let me say two things: no gelato, and our first interaction with the Caribinari. Then I had an “ah-ha” moment--Assisi. Perhaps the most lovely and striking and “wow” hill town of them all, Assisi is not only the home of St. Francis, but a tourist haven. And where tourists gather, gelaterias stay open. The first three shops advertising gelato had cases full of pastries, but nothing remotely chilled. The fourth shop: voila! Gelato. Somewhere, Mark smiled in his sleep (I think it was 4 pm here, so 7 am in Seattle, so it may have been a smile on his dog walk). I went for an intriguing combo of pistachio (perhaps the tops in gelato for me) and frutta di bosco (or fruit of the forest--a berry combo). Not the freshest or the best gelato ever, but you know what? It was darn tasty even with the temperature having dropped to single digits outside (single Celsius digits, that is):
Natalie went for a more classic and chocolate combination, rich dark cioccolata and smooth crème caramel:
These may look like large servings, but let me assure you, we were happy for every bite and left no gelato uneaten:
Mark, thanks for kicking us into gelato gear. And here’s to spring and the opening of more gelato shops arriving quickly.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Castiglione del Lago and Lunch at La Cantina

After spending the morning a few days back at Panicale, we needed to catch some lunch (as the eating spots were closed in Panicale due to the November restaurateur exodus) and wanted to catch some more sites as it was fairly sunny and our sightseeing glass hadn’t been filled. We didn’t want to head too far (hey, it was lunchtime), though, which led us to Castiglione del Lago, about 15 minutes from Panicale and a little closer to the lake (Trasimeno). Castiglione del Lago is a bit bigger than Panicale, with a well-developed reputation for being  a beach town, leading to it having somewhat of a sprawl to handle the summer influx (it has quite a beach). Some kind of settlement has been in this spot at least since Etruscan times, and at one point fought a lot with Perugia (like most towns in the area), and the older part of the town is anchored by, and focused on, a large rocca.

First, before exploring and expanding our medieval fantasies, we had to alleviate our stomach’s growling. We scouted the local ristorantes, narrowing down our choice to a spot called La Cantina. It was hooked into a hotel, and had a big outdoor eating area that was closed off—neither usually good signs. They were out-weighed however by the hanging sign, which had a jaunty Dodge-City-ness I appreciated, and by a decent amount of veggie options on the menu in the window. Once inside, we knew it was a good choice because La Cantina had a welcoming atmosphere and staff, rustic brick walls and brick arched ceilings, a big open brick fireplace that we got to sit beside, and (best of all) the door to the bathroom was cut out of a giant wine cask:
Enough décor—let’s get to important stuff: the menu. There were enough veggie choices that we both went for antipasta and primi. Nat started with frittata with red onions from Cannara (which is famous for its onions), and while the picture doesn’t look like it contains famous onions, trust me, it did:
I started with a patate sformatina with Scamorza cheese, or (basically) a cheesy mashed potato soufflé, served with a mushroom sauce. It was delish, smooth but with a little edge and with bursting potato and cheese flavor accented by the creamy mushroom sauce:
From there I went for a black truffle polenta. It came in a pretty brown baking dish, was toasty hot, and looked somewhat like it was topped with a spider web. The spider web was made of truffles and gorgonzola cheese though, and was a flavor explosion of earthy truffles and the beautiful bite of the cheese:
Nat also had a delightful main, though quite a bit different, a risotto with cheese of the fossa (or “hole”--think melty and also aged) and hazelnuts. The risotto itself was al dente-rific, with the cheese creaming and the hazelnuts providing a crunch and woodiness. Outstanding:
We also had some chocolate-y madness for dessert, but I figure I’ve caused enough salivating, so let’s move on. The town (the old town centro at least) is longish and not too wide, but with a nice honestly old feel to it. We walked around town a bit, stopped into the Church of the Maddalena, saw some art, and then headed to the main event, the castle. To get into the castle, we first stopped at the Ducal Palace:
The Ducal palace belonged to the della Cogna family, a family that was the tops in this part of Italy for quite a while. The Marchesi della Cogna lived in this very palace, and it’s decorated with a series of frescos on the ceilings in the rooms. There are two series of frescos, one celebrating the military might of Ascanio and another (perhaps more interesting) one that’s mostly mythological scenes and characters from Roman mythos, with the frescos making up instructional stories and pictures. I suppose they didn’t have videos. The focus is on growing up to be a strong leader--and on avoiding the mistakes that the Roman gods and goddesses and their pantheon seemed to fall into regularly. The palace was cool (in a “wow, people lived here” way), but even better was the castle. To get to it, you have to go from the palace through a long tunnel:
You end up on one tower, which you walk up to reach the walls of Rocca del Leone (or the fortress of the lion), which was built in 1247 when the city was conquered by the unfortunately named Frederick the II of Swabia. You can walk all around the walls (just remember not to lean out too far--it’s high) and up in the towers, circling a large center area as you walk (in the summer they have concerts there—which would be amazing):
Sometimes the walkway gets thin, and sometimes it has stairs, and sometimes you even have to walk under tree branches:
It’s worth the walking though. Partially because the structure itself is solid, and solidly amazing. It’s rare to be in a space like this and be able to stroll complete circuit of the walls, picturing yourself with a crossbow watching the surroundings for approaching armies (or traveling wine sellers). I’m hoping that those folks tasked with watching for approaching war wagons didn’t get as distracted by the views—but I sure did. The castle walls are tall enough that the views over the lake and over the surrounding fields are almost otherworldly:
On the tallest tower, there are also perfect views over the city of Castiglione del Lago, a city that’s well worth spending an afternoon residing within:

*See more Italian restaurants: Capponi, Nestor's,Nonna Gelsa, Le Capannine di Sommavilla, Calagrana, Trattoria Il Saraceno, L Enoteca Wine Club, Mastro Dante, Bar Fizz

*See all Italian restaurants

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bar Fizz is Back! Bar Fizz is Back!

One of the massive oversights on this blog (I’m sure there are more--Rory and Sookie think they need to be mentioned more, for example) is that I haven’t done a full post on Bar Fizz (which is also called Ristorante Guillano, after the owner, and Ristorante Fizz). Bar Fizz is our local-est eating spot, in Lisciano Niccone (the town closest to us). It’s a low-key, family spot (the son is usually eating when we go in), very homey and very friendly. We’ve been in to eat multiple times (though I’ve only mentioned a couple), and have also gotten pizza to go, which is awesomely handy (cause you don’t always want to sit pretty in the crowds)--they serve pizza and pastas, as well as antipasta and salads (and seafood on weekends, as shown when we went there with Keith and Tasha). We really rely on Bar Fizz--but didn’t realize it enough until they were closed recently for 10 days (try to hear me singing “don’t know what you got until it’s gone” in your head now). Lots of Italian ristorantes close in November, as it’s the most “off” off-season, and Fizz was closed for what seemed like forever, finally reopening last night. We were there as early as we could be without seeming silly (which is about 7:30 pm). We started with Bruschette Tartufo and a half liter of the house red. The toast was crisp and the truffle puree earthy and fragrant:
Then we shared an ensalata mista that was simple but perfectly put together: crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and grated carrots:
Nat went for a pizza, one of her own creations a bit (Bar Fizz has been very accommodating with our requests, even though they don’t speak much English and our Italian still leaves something to be desired): Quattro formaggio con cipolla (or four cheese with onion). I love that the Fizz puts gorgonzola on their Quattro formaggi. Nat’s addition is the onion and they loaded it up:
I had spaghetti pesto (which was the first dish I ever had at Bar Fizz, too), and it was delicious, with the pasta just rightly al dente and the pesto accenting the pasta, not overwhelming it:
We’d eaten enough (too much, some might say) that there was only one real dessert choice: grappa. I’m not sure of the vintage, but wow, I need to ask cause it was grappa-tastic:
Bar Fizz, never close again (at least not until after next April), and thanks for being our local-est eatery.

*See more Italian restaurants: Capponi, Nestor's,Nonna Gelsa, Le Capannine di Sommavilla, Calagrana, Trattoria Il Saraceno, L Enoteca Wine Club, Mastro Dante

*See all Italian restaurants

Thursday, November 25, 2010

An Umbrian Thanksgiving

Okay, honestly, our Umbrian Thanksgiving was pretty much like a Thanksgiving at home—on the menu, at least. It’s not like we moved here to get rid of all of our traditions, just to get rid of some of the daily traditions. The one thing that was different (the one big thing) was that we weren’t sitting at a big table with my family. That part’s sad without a doubt. But the food was great: mushroom patties (a family tradition for the vegetarians in our family, which subs for turkey), stuffing (with sage and onions), mashed potatoes, and gravy over everything. The veggie Thanksgiving can turn into too many shades of brown (partially cause gravy is over everything), so we also had steamed broccoli topped with aged Asiago, with Bindolo red wine from Domini to drink. Yummy:
Oh, we also didn’t have luck tracking down pumpkin for pumpkin pie, but (this is one positive about being here where Thanksgiving doesn’t close down shops) our local scrumptious bakery, Dolce Forno, was open today, so we got a pair of cream puffs (yummy):

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Short Visit to Pretty Panicale

We headed out exploring the other day (the same day we saw the Trasmino vistas mentioned below) and ended up first at a hill town called Panicale. We didn’t know much about Panicale before heading there, except that it supposed to be a very attractive spot that’s been there since medieval times, and one that has held on to much of its medieval feel. That seemed like a worthy place to visit, and you know what, it was. Extremely pretty, the loveliness starts from when you see it driving up (sadly, no great picture was taken) and includes even the ivy-covered elegantly brick arches on the way into town:
Unlike any Umbrian hill towns, that have their pretty centers but then include a newer sprawl, Panicale is mostly still what’s within the old town walls (with a little tasteful newer buildings on the outskirts, and a nice mountain-view park), starting with the Palazzo Pretorio, which is a mid-sized central square highlighted by the fountain built in 1473:
The whole town is a sort-of oval, with streets circling up and around and back in and occasionally under:
Even the sturdiest of towns needs help here and there though, so Nat pitched in and held up one wall:
When wandering through Panicale, you come across amazing vistas, a few cute ristorantes (most sadly closed when we were there—November is when many restaurateurs take vacations), enchanting houses, and the Church of San Michele Arcangelo (dating back to the 10th to 11th century):
which houses some good frescos and other art (not photographable though), and a doorway that’s welcoming even though the sculptured ladies above it are chilly:
There were a few other churches to see, and a host of views over the valleys surrounding Panicale, but my favorite part of the town was the little Piazza Masolino, which was at the highest part of the town. Unavailable for cars, and home to a church-turned-museum, this little piazza has a number of small apartments facing in to it, all built within the old city walls. This picture is when walking out, so doesn’t do it justice:
The Piazza Masolino to me is a wonderful example of Umbrian hill town life. If I was ever able to buy a spot in Italy and didn’t have dogs (a lot of if-ing I guess), it would be in a square like this, calm, historic, with just enough space to dream about the years that were there before you. Oh, of course, the fact that it has a view over lake Traismeno doesn’t stink, either:

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sun and Clouds and Fog Over Lake Trasimeno

We haven’t mentioned it much (outside of ferrying across it with Keith and Tasha), but we live fairly close (about 20 minutes here or there) to the largest lake in central Italy, Lago Trasimeno. Not only a lovely lake, it’s also the site of a famous battle between Hannibal and the Romans, where Hannibal mopped up the floor (or the lake) with the Romans due to some fancy strategizing and a serious ambush. It also has lots of nice towns around and near it, and yesterday we were heading out to visit two of them (Panicale and Castiglione del Lago both of which I’ll write about later). On our drive, we had to pull over though, because the views of the lake and the islands on it as we wound around the mountain drive were amazing (these two pics in no way do it justice, but at least you’ll get an idea of our lake and the skies and the vistas. Oh, one pic’s just of the lake, and one’s a closer up shot of Isola Maggiore):

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lunch at Mastro Dante

One of the dilemmas when moving to Italy without great (over even solid) language skills is that you’re spotlighted with a “tourist” tag. This means it can be hard to get pointed in the direction of restaurants (tavernas, osterias, ristorantes, and more) that locals actually eat at (as well as not being invited to stomp grapes—does that even happen anymore?). Luckily, Andrew and Marianne (if you don’t know they’re our jolly landlords yet, then you need to read more posts) have lived in this area for oh, 25 years, and so they are definitely locals, and were nice enough to take us to lunch recently (full disclosure: this is the second time they’ve taken us here, but the first time I didn’t want to get camera crazy) at Mastro Dante, in Coldipozzo, which is frequented by locals only (or at least not caught on to, or appreciated, by tourists):
Mastro Dantes reminds me most of a truckstop you’d find in Kansas. Not necessarily on the food quality scale (though there are some truck stops that serve up wonderful roadside cuisine), but on the clientele, which weighs heavily on single working men stopping in for a filling meal, as Mastro Dantes is in an industrial zone. It also serves up a no-frills, but full of flavor, luncheon. It’s a set menu, with a couple pasta choices, a couple secondi choices (usually three of the former and two of the latter), and an antipasta bar. You can get a bottle of wine or a beer, too, all for 12 euro. Dolce and coffee is extra. A fantastic deal, I must say, because you never leave less than full and the wine bottle is per person. When we went recently, we skipped the secondi (cause it’s meat-tastic), but loaded up at the antipasti/contorno buffet:
Here are my picks:
Then both Nat and I had the orecchiette (or little ears), which had chunks of potato and leek (porro) in it and was hearty and tasty:
Andrew and Marianna did get the secondi, and went with the goose with roasted potatoes (shown here for meat-eating pals):
Everything was served up right, and brought hot to the table (except what we picked from the buffet) by our friendly waiter (who could slip in some English as needed)—not only friendly, but well-dressed:
Though you’d think we’d be stuffed to the gills, Nat and I decided to try Mastro Dante’s dessert options as well (hey, we’re on pre-tirement, don’t judge), with Nat getting the panna cotta and me getting some crème brulee (though I think it had a slightly different name). Both were sweet delights:
The Mastro Dante experience was both homey and yummy, with a welcoming atmosphere that drove nostalgia for the Midwestern truck stops of my youth. And, we got to eat with, and feel like, locals. Now before signing off, I want to use a last moment and a couple photos to woo my meat-eating pals who might be coming to visit, or who are weighing it out. See, at Mastro Dantes, you can also order up a meat plate from the meat case (notice the red peppercorn encrusted salumi) and/or the haunch of pancetta:

*See more Italian restaurants: Capponi, Nestor's,Nonna Gelsa,Le Capannine di Sommavilla, Calagrana, Trattoria Il Saraceno, L Enoteca Wine Club

*See all Italian restaurants

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cielo Chiaro Special: Lasagna Vegetariana con Tartufo Crema

This is a somewhat special Cielo Chiaro special (hah!), because the recipe isn’t actually in the post, but over at Nat’s blog, Bella Cinghiale. This lasagna was so delicious we both wanted to post up the recipe, but since I normally get to post recipes I let her put it up on her blog. It was the first lasagna I’d had since moving here (there’d been some on menus at ristorantes before, but always with meat in them) and was amazing: homemade pasta, spinach, onion, and carrots, multiple cheese, and a truffle cream sauce made with the truffle salsa we picked up at the truffle festival. Layers upon layers of goodness:

So, head on over to Bella Cinghiale and get your lasagna going!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Limeoncello, Part 2

Way back when, I talked about starting Limeoncello (after finding some great lemons at the market in Umbertide). Now, the seasons have passed, and it’s time to harvest the Limeoncello. First, take a look at the deep yellow (almost amber) hue it’s taken on, now that the lemons, spirit, and sugar have mingled with time and Italian air:
I had to work a number of straining options, as I couldn’t track down any cheesecloth at any of our local markets (I was going to just go ahead and use pantyhose, but then thought that I didn’t want to tarnish any of my favorite hose). I first strained the larger lemon peels out via a colander, and then double strained it through my fine strainer (which you know I brought if you read six bar tools I’m taking to Italy):
the straining worked pretty well (though maybe it’s a wee nudge more cloudy than if cheesecloth would have been used. Now, it’s just a matter of chilling and drinking (with maybe a little drinking before it’s even chilled. Hey, I can tell you the truth, right?):