Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Famous Beans of Lake Trasimeno

Soon after (how soon? Hey, too much is happening for me to date every thought I have) moving here I read for the first time in one tourist book or another about the famous beans of Lake Trasimeno, the fagiolino del Trasimeno. Even though I tend to enjoy me some beans (but not obsessively, or anything), I hadn’t managed to track down these illustrious beans until a few days ago. It’s probably not just me having trouble finding the beans—they were almost extinct (is saying foods are “extinct” correct phrasing by the way? Or is that giving too much weight to a legume?), due to the challenging cultivation process, which not only takes a while, but also has to be done by hand. Luckily, they were preserved, and Slow Foods gave them some props, and now they’re around, but not all around. We did find them on the contorni menu at La Cantina in Castiglione del Lago (which was detailed more here) on our second visit to that worthy restaurant, and so ordered them up. Were they worth it? For sure: small, delicate, but with lots of flavor (not as Texas-bayou as Black Eyed Peas, but not as place-holder-ish as other bean, they brought hints of lakeside living and creaminess). They were served almost soup style, with broth and veggies and a hint of local olive oil. And now I’ve eaten famous beans:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sleepy Italian Dogs

Some evenings even the elusive black squirrels of Niccone can’t nudge the dogs off the couch. Whether it’s Rory trying to break out-under-through the world’s flimsiest fence to chase the yappy neighbor dogs, or Sookie scouting out how to slip through the front gate to skip across into the olive grove across the street to chase deer (eleven were there the other morning), some days just wear puppies out:

Maybe it’s not just puppies that get worn out though:
Hey, pre-tirement isn’t always go-go-go.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lunch at Mencuccio, or Why Giving Second Chances Is Often a Good Idea

In Trestina (a little town not far from where we live that we’ve spent a good amount of time in, as it’s near some other Amici Villas we stayed in, on past visits) there’s a hotel/restaurant pretty much in the middle of town. For some reason (it has an odd German-tourist-town feel, or looks like it’s trying to be fancier than it needs to be) we’ve always skipped eating there, from our first visit onwards. We finally tried to go for lunch when we first moved here on our pre-tirement, because it says “pizzeria” along with “ristorante” and “albergo” and we wanted pizza. When sitting down we were the only ones there, and then also found out they had no pizza for lunch (now we know that’s regular), and felt, well, weird. So, we didn’t go to Mencuccio again. Until last week, when we were starving and at the end of our ristorante rope. It ended up being lucky for us, as the experience was completely different. It was bustling with lunchtime activity, the staff was nice, and the food, well, it was dandy. We started with a delicious salad, called La Campagnola, which had radicchio, lettuce, mushrooms, and cheese:
One of the finest, tastiest, salads I’ve had here so far. From there, we moved into pastas. My choice was the homemade spinach and ricotta ravioli, topped with butter and sage. The pasta was very good, with the creamy filling mingling with the bright butter and chewy pasta:
Nat had the tagiatelle with porcinis, also picking it because it was marked as homemade, and also loving it (luckily, we always share) due to the al dentely-awesome pasta and the huge amounts of forest-y funghi:
Maybe even more fun was our contorni: Anelli Cipolla. If you’re not sure what that is (it took me a second to figure it out on the menu), just look below:
Onion rings! The first I’ve had in Italy, and not bad at all, very crisp and the onions were very fresh. Of course, after savory pastas and fried goodness, a little sweet is necessary. We went for profiteroles Nero, or chocolate, and it about knocked me out:
A nap was definitely in order after lunch, and a pat on the back for our second-chancing at Mencuccio.

*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, Da Cesari, Calagrana Lunch, al Frantoio, La Balestra, Lo Strattoio

*See all Italian restaurants

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pistoia, Emanuele, Caterina, and Emiliano

Pistoia is an under-rated city (most books that mention it, mention that not enough people visit) in Tuscany, a leap or two west of Florence. And I have to admit, we may never have discovered it and its charms as it’s about 1-1/2 or 2 hours (depending on the A1 traffic) away, and not on the tourist maps as much as other places (and, even though we’re all about going off the beaten path, going that far to go off the beaten path is a tough choice sometimes). However, we’ve now been there twice, for three great reasons: Emanuele, Caterina, and Emiliano. Caterina was our tour guide (she’s a super-knowledgeable Florence-and-other-Tuscan-spots guide if you ever need one) the first time we stopped in Florence, and besides learning a lot about history and art she also didn’t mind our cultural questions and was incredibly nice and fun. We’ve been pals ever since, and on later trips met her husband Emanuele and their son Emiliano (who wasn’t even around yet that first meeting). They used to live in Florence, but moved recently to Pistoia, which is where Emanuele’s family lives and where he grew up. The first time we visited them, it was raining at a level which would have made Noah nervous and so none of our pics turned out well enough for a blog post. But our last visit was on a recent sunny January Saturday, when we got to visit our Pistoia pals and visit the large Pistoia market, which is laid out among the medieval streets and right up against the Baptistery (which is built in a local Romanesque style of black and white stone or tile layers):
Across the square (the main square, that is, the Piazza del Duomo) and past a few market stalls is the Pistoia Duomo. Its outside is statuesque if not ornate, except for the beautiful doors, topped by a lovely Andrea della Robbia Madonna and Child:
Inside there’s the crypt of Cino da Pistoia, the town’s famous poet (and teacher of Dante—the story goes that one of the students within the statue on top of the crypt is Dante himself), a number of fine paintings and sculptures, and the massive silver Alterpiece of St. James (none of which I can show you, cause no pics are allowed inside). The market itself is a type of living art, with people selling clothes on certain streets, vegetables in one or two main squares, a whole square of shoes (Nat picked up some snazzy boots), and flowers (which I hadn’t seen at a city market before) that Nat and Caterina took advantage of:
After walking the market, we met Emanuele and Emiliano for lunch (we’d seen them earlier, too). Emiliano is five, and is a bundle of energy, silliness, and friendliness (reminding me a ton of my nephews of course), and doesn’t seem put off at all by our lack of Italian—or wait, maybe he is:
At one point, he had to get mom into the games:
Not sure where he gets it from, but maybe dad has something to do with it:
After lunch, we walked around town more, admiring the comfortable and pretty city streets, with a stop at the amazing Ospedale del Ceppo (an operating hospital that's been there since the 13th century). It has the largest della Robbia piece I’ve ever seen (this time one by Giovanni della Robbia—della Robbia works are speckled throughout Tuscany and Umbria), a tapestry of sorts, with colored panels (not seen much in Della Robbia works, which are usually white with blue) and incredible detail. The panels show the Seven Works of Mercy and the Theological Virtues (very hospital-y scenes):
Here’s a close up, too, of one circular piece off the main, so you can see more of the craftsmanship and artistry:
Really, I think this piece would be worthy enough for a long drive especially if you like terracotta work (but even if you just like great art). Walking back to Emanuele and Caterina’s house, we also stopped to visit Sant’Andrea, a smallish church that (not to keeping dropping the “this was also good”)was also lovely. No inside pictures allowed, but here’s the subtle outside (showing again the black and white layered motif):
The inside was plain, but plain in an austerely beautiful way, reflecting the age of the church (not a lot of light or decorations but a lot of serenity)—it dates back to the 12th century. The one more ornate piece in the church is the pulpit, which is a very detailed sculpture more than a plain speaking platform. From the legs carved as animals to the human forms (scenes from the life of Jesus) around the top, it has an energy and depth that’s hard to convey adequately. It was carved in 1297 by Giovanni Pisano and is another Pistoian piece that’s well worth a stop. I’d better stop though, before I say too much more about Pistoia (I don’t want to over-stuff Pistoia with a bunch of tourists and ruin the relaxed ambiance after all—and it does feel relaxed, especially when you consider it’s where the word “pistol” comes from, and has a history of wild-west-ish-ness). But one final giant "thanks" is needed for Emanuele, Caterina, and Emiliano, who were (as always) fantastic hosts.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hillside Soccer Field

We went for a little drive through the hills the other day, even though it was quite foggy, and sorta chilly—I could sense that the blue sky was going to seep in and sweep the clouds away. While we were walking around a town called Castel Rigone (lovely little town, more photos later), that’s perched way up about Lake Trasimeno, I looked over one town edge to see a wonderful soccer field, perched on the hillside in between trees and a field. Amazing, really. It made me think of my soccer-playing nephews Kaiser and Coen, too, who would freak at the number of soccer fields here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Cielo Chiaro Special: Homemade Ginger Ice Liqueur

After making limeoncello (as detailed here and here), we had the generally necessary equipment for homemade liqueuring, and so I decided to make another batch--but then realized that maybe I should try and make something different. After weighing out a few options, I went a non-Italian liqueur route (because really, I can get endless and endlessly good Italian liqueurs right outside my Italian door): Ginger Ice. First, because I love it (the below recipe’s from Luscious Liqueurs, which if you didn’t know is my book of homemade liqueurs). Second, because I found a passel of good ginger at my local shop. The first step is peeling and chopping the ginger:
Then, adding it to the big ol’ jar with some clear liquor (in this case, I used vodka, but if you want more umph, grain alcohol works):
After a few weeks, I added the simple syrup. Then came a fortuitous happening (one of those moments where you get bubbly and happy just from finding something you never even knew you were looking for in the first place). We were in a store in Umbertide (a store where we picked up some nice beer glasses, too) and found a funnel with a filter built in—isn’t that genius:
If I had some cheesecloth, maybe I would have strained it through that, too, but the filer in the strainer was fine enough to do the trick pretty well. Here it is in action:
The end result was a persuasive ginger explosion. Oh, here’s the full recipe:

2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
3 cups vodka
1-1/2 cups simple syrup

1. Put the ginger and the vodka in to a large glass container with a secure lid. Stir well, seal well, and place on a shelf in a cool, dry place. Let sit two weeks, shaking occasionally.

2. Once the two weeks have passed, add the simple syrup. Stir again, and seal again, and place the container again on a dry, cool shelf. Let sit two more weeks.

3. After the second two weeks, strain the liqueur through double sheets of cheesecloth into a pitcher or other container that can be poured from easily.

4. Next, using two new sheets of cheesecloth, strain it into small bottles or jars that have secure lids, or one larger bottle. I strongly suggest letting the Ginger Ice sit one or two more weeks in the freezer before serving. If you absolutely can’t wait, shake well over ice before serving.

A Note: As this is so tasty chilled, and as the flavors continue to come out in the freezer, be sure that when giving this liqueur as a gift that you add a note to this affect, so that whoever receives it can take full advantage.

*See more specials: Penne e Noce, Zuppa di Pomodoro e’ Fagioli,Torta Vegetariana, Lasagna Vegetariana con Tartufo Crema, Homemade Tagliatelle e Gorgonzola, Orzo Vegetale con Crema, Four Italian Drinks, Capellini Aglio e’ Olio con Porro

*See all Cielo Chiaro Specials

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lunch at Lo Strettoio

After our long, but eventually bird-tastic morning at Ponte a Buriano and the Bandella wetlands (detailed below) we were quite hungry. As we wound around into Bandella, we’d noticed a restaurant right on one of the park’s edges (it’s Italy, what did you expect--no restaurant?). It had been closed when we drove in, but the parking lot was full on the way back--even though there were only like three houses within shouting distance--which we thought was a good sign. As we walked in to Lo Strettoio, which was the name of the restaurant, we were at first a little, um, ostracized? Walking into a local spot in any rural area (I think this is worldwide phenomena) you run the risk of being given the outsider treatment, and at first we got it here: put into another room, not a very friendly waiter, some frowny stares. Then, though, a second table (three laughing Italian men) was sat in our room, and a super friendly Italian waiter (he was the owner, actually, I think, or manager at least) pulled up a chair with them so he could chat, and during the chatting he always kept an eye on us, keeping our water and wine filled wiand accompanying every stop with a huge smile and generally giving the whole room and experience a sunny feel. Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if the food wasn’t any good (or would have mattered a little less). But the food was delish. I had a creamy porcini tagliatelle that was rich and filling in that perfect way where you know you’ll end up stuffed but happy:
Even though I’m every jolly to be diving into a cream sauce, Nat’s simple pasta with truffles made me a smidge jealous. The homemade pasta was so perfect and the slices of truffles freshly shaven off and aromatic and chewy:
Since we’d walked much of the morning, we layered on some cortoni after our pastas (even though I had that rich cream fullness, I wasn’t overfull by any means), a big plate of fagoli with fresh sage and a light tomato sauce:
and a plate of vedure fritta, or fried veggies (I’m always a fan of the fried veggies in whatever culture): cauliflower, artichokes, zucchini, and fries:
Even that (and the nice, light, white wine accompanying everything) didn’t completely sate us, however, so we split a panna cotta topped with frutta di bosco. The panna cotta was good (if not the finest ever), but the frutta di bosco was fresh juicy berries (with frutta di bosco, you often just get a berry sauce, and I thought having berries and sauce was excellent):
Overall, a great lunch at a place worth searching out (they do weddings, too, if you’re thinking of tying the knot Italian style).

*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, Da Cesari, Calagrana Lunch, al Frantoio, La Balestra

*See all Italian restaurants

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Birds, Buriano, Rain, and Bandello

If looking over the blog, it might seem that Italy only has artistic cities and pretty vistas dotted by an occasional castle, large brick house, or hunter’s cabin surfacing from trees or fog or trees in fog. But Italy does, also, have areas of purely natural focus (or so we’d been told). As Natalie is a keen birder, and I’m not opposed to seeing nature in a non-human-presence state, and as we have been in the midst of some unseasonably sunny and warm January weather (60 degrees yesterday!), we decided to explore a nature reserve we’d read about: Ponte a Buriano (which is a lake-ish part of the river Arno, and as the name implies, laid out around an ancient bridge—hey, in Italy it’s hard to ever completely get away from human history, cause there’s been so much here). Sadly, we picked the one day in two weeks where the fog didn’t dissipate into sun, but into clouds and rain. Natalie, though, wasn’t dissuaded, and got her binoculars out and ready once we found a parking lot and hiked to the water:
The rain, though, kept on coming and coming, and our trail was soon cut short by a gate. Which we went around (maybe it was closed for the season? The nature center was, but as we were the only ones there, it seemed okay to bypass the gate). We ended up walking paths through this corn-field-y type area (you can sorta see how it was on the other side here):
They must have had both snow and mud a plenty though, because as we got closer to the river, we ended up in thick mud. My shoes were soon very clown-ish, as I got mudded and then the mud picked up stones. The rain kept on, and that plus the mud led us to leaving the area, though we did see some nice birds on the water, a nutria, a rabbit, and a dog before scraping shoes(oh, and when we left our house in the morning we saw two deer crossing the road) and loading back into the car. We didn’t give up though. First, we thought, why not check out one of the towns nearby? But then, we decided to hold out hope for lessening rain and headed to another nature reserve, one not too far: the Bandella wetlands (which have the complete name of the Valle dell’inferno e Bandella). It took a bit of driving and one short retracing of steps, but we found the sign for the Bandella visitor’s center and started up a hill. We wound around into a forested area, down some single car roads, past some houses (somewhat like Discovery Park in Seattle, which has military housing in the middle of the park), all with the park around us, but no visitor’s center. Then, we ended up in the middle of the wetlands, with a sign for parking:
So, we parked. The wetlands are also off the Arno like the Buriano above, but in a valley. The rain had stopped (yay!), though the skies were still cloudy (it was quite a dramatic effect). It was a lovely spot, and we were greeted (from a short distance) by a lovely Great Egret (really, it was an amazingly balletic bird):
We watched it hunt the water, glide up on large wings into the trees, and then swoop down again to perch in the water looking for lunch. We’d driven over a bridge to park, and spent some time with the Egret before going to the other side of the bridge to watch a host of Little Egrets, ducks, Cormorants, and other birds. Then back to watch the Great Egret. We gave our visitor’s center search one more try, driving back up out of the valley, but stopped when ending up in a farmer’s backyard. On the way back down, there was an amazing view, showing how the wetlands are cornered against the A1, the largest highway in Italy. This, to me, was amazing. I’d probably driven by the wetlands on the A1 50 times and had never even noticed—much like 99.9% of the people driving the road every day:
Before leaving the center of the wetlands, we took one more look at the Great Egret, who had a friend now, a large Gray Heron:
A little bit back farther up the road, we stopped to walk through the wetlands Botanical Garden area. It wasn’t in full flower, but we did learn the names of numerous plants, trees, and shrubs:
Now, though, it was well past 13:00, and we needed to follow the egret’s example and get some lunch (though not before taking a second to say so long to the Bandella, and to be glad we’d stuck it out through the rain—cause by now the sky was mostly sun).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cielo Chiaro Special: Capellini Aglio e’ Olio con Porro

While we’ve been experimenting with making our own pastas (and naturally eating lots of pasta at other places outside our own house), sometimes with great luck and sometimes with a little less luck, sometimes it’s easier to use the store-bought pastas. Especially when you have a desire for capellini, which is needle thin and which most pasta machines don’t have a setting for. With a thready pasta such as this, you don’t want any sort of heavy sauce--I like it best with a simple (and simple delicious) aglio e’ olio, a spiced oil more or less. Our one deviation from the norm was the addition of “porro” or leek, since we’d picked up some fine looking leeks at our local market recently. It’ll look like there are tons of leeks after they’re cut, but they cook down. Oh, another hint—don’t be afraid to add more oil then mentioned here, remembering that you want enough oil to cover all the pasta. Really, you’re flavoring the oil that then accents the pasta:

1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil (more as needed)
3 leeks, sliced thin (use just to where they turn green)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon (or as desired) red pepper flakes (see Note)
1 package capellini (or angel hair pasta)
Salt and pepper to taste
Freshly grated parmesan cheese


1. Fill a stockpot or other pasta-cooking pot up with water over a high heat (you’ll want to be able to cook the pasta quick once the oil is ready—pasta this size only takes minutes).

2. Add the butter and oil to a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Once the butter is melted and bubbled, reduce the heat the medium. Add the leek to the pan, and sauté for a few minutes, stirring regularly. You need to watch the heat, to ensure the delicate leeks don’t burn.

3. Add the garlic to the pan, stir and sauté for a minute or two, and then add the pepper, as well as a little salt and fresh pepper. Sauté a few more minutes, until the leeks are soft and the garlic is edging towards golden. At this point, if you don’t think there’s enough oil (should be a good amount) add a little more. Reduce the heat to low, stirring here and there.

4. Add a little salt to the water, and then cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, then add it back to the pot. Pour the oil mixture over the pasta and stir until all pasta is coated with oil. Serve in bowls topped with fresh parmesan cheese.

A Note: If you have small hot chilies and would rather use a couple of those chopped up, then go go go!

*See more specials: Penne e Noce, Zuppa di Pomodoro e’ Fagioli,Torta Vegetariana, Lasagna Vegetariana con Tartufo Crema, Homemade Tagliatelle e Gorgonzola, Orzo Vegetale con Crema, Four Italian Drinks

*See all Cielo Chiaro Specials

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Trip Over the Hills to Preggio and Beyond

We usually, when leaving the house to go farther than our local towns (being the twin cities, Lisciano Niccone and Mercatale), heading into Umbria (or Le Marche), go along an East-rolling-and-curving-road (the SS something or other) that’s a small highway, taking us through towns and fields to Niccone, where we either turn left to Verna (where Nestor’s is) and such or right to Umbertide and bigger highways. There’s another road from Umbertide that heads to Cielo Chiaro, but it’s mountainous and via a small hill town we’d never visited before called Preggio. We’d driven past the Umbertide exit for this route, I dunno, hundreds of times, but finally recently decided to take it. It was a fairly swell day, and it ended up being a wonderful drive. Firstly, because there were tons of vistas on each side as we drove:
and then all-of-sudden we went around a corner and saw this stately-but-homey castle:
Someone lives there (lots of “privato strada” signs), and what I say is: “lucky them.” Dang. Who gets to live in a castle like this up in a remote part of the Umbrian hills? George Clooney’s second Italian home perhaps? We passed many attractive smaller houses, too, a couple eating spots tucked into the hills, and one handsome horse who decided he was going to try and open the gate to visit us:
After about, oh, fifteen or twenty minutes we came upon Preggio (which is about say 14 kilometers from our house after driving a “U”), which was a lovely little hill town:
Mostly famous for its chestnut (or “castagna”) festival when loads of folks descend (enough that there’s a whole parking lot outside the town for folks coming to it), Preggio is another picturesque example of a hill town tourists rarely even drive by. Which is shame, because we spent oh, twenty minutes walking around its attractive stone streets, looking at the church, which has an super intriguing, pagan-y-folk-art-y cross on the side:
and at the views into and off the edge of the town:
There’s also a snug restaurant (La Castagna) that wasn’t open for lunch (when we were there), but which we can’t wait to go back to for an evening meal. Now, sometimes, isn’t it better to go the backroads?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teaching Rory to Play Yahtzee

The Italian pre-tirement isn’t solely pizzas, pastas, and artistic and natural wonders. There’s also plenty of time to play Nightmare Before Christmas Yahtzee (ya-ya-yatzee!), which was sent over the sea as a holiday present from my awesome nephews (and sister and brother-in-law). The only bad part was that Nat won the first game and that Rory got a smidge overly excited by me shaking dice in the pumpkin king’s head:
He got used to it after a while (and I won the second game--thankfully on both counts). Sookie? She was nonplused about the whole ordeal, kicking it Sookie style (which is a bit diva, between us--but if you're a star like Sookie, you can be a bit of a diva. Look at Beyonce) on the couch:

Friday, January 14, 2011

Nestor’s Pizzeria Fridays: Hipstamatic

Now, I know I’ve put up a number of Nestor’s pizzeria pics and told a number of Nestor’s stories here on the Six Months blog, and I don’t want to overdo it (even though Nestor’s is worthy of each word of praise). But we were there recently, and, well, it was awesome. To make this post stand out from the rest, and to try to reduce Nestor’s overload, I took each picture with Nat’s iPhone using the “Hipstamatic” program (which lets you chose film, flash, and lenses from history). So, artsy pizza for everyone! I had the Perigina, a favorite from past visits to Italy and to Nestor’s, but one I hadn’t tried on for size yet this trip. It has asparagus strips, the traditional Nestor’s perfect crust, and (the key) an egg in the middle:
Nat had one of our regular top ten pizzas, the Venezina, which boasts onions on top of the traditional cheese and tempting tomato sauce (looking rather hip here with the Hipstamatic):
Nat’s mom and sister were with us, too, and while I didn’t get a Hipstamatic Nestor’s pic of mom’s pie, I did snap one of Christie’s sausage and onion item (which she seemed quite fond of, with sausage hearty and filling):
Another exquisite pizza evening at Nestor’s: this time in groovy coloring.

*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, Da Cesari, Calagrana Lunch, al Frantoio

*See all Italian restaurants