Tag Archives: Italy

Hadrian’s Villa Update

My dad was the one who always did the serious research for our travels, though he never considered it a chore, as it was his heart’s delight. Among the places his research turned up that he wanted to visit, the first time we went to Italy as a family, was Hadrian’s Villa (or Villa Adriana in Italian), which is about 20 miles outside of Rome. Even at 15 years of age, and with not particularly great experience of the world, I could tell this place was special. It was, in fact, mind-blowing. The huge, sprawling villa covers 250 acres—because the ruler of the Roman Empire needed more than a nice palace—there were ponds and monuments and buildings everywhere.

I was delirious. Like my dad, I loved history, and I took tremendous delight in “running around in ruins,” as I stated it back then. The day we spent there was one of my favorite memories (among many) of that trip.

The reason it came to mind today is I just saw an article in Gastro Obscura about the villa—or, rather, about the ancient olive trees that grow there. Apparently, there are no trees like this anywhere else in the world. Local farmers now make oil from those trees, though it’s only available to visitors at the villa. But That almost constitutes a reason to return to Italy.

If you’re interested, here is the link to the story. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/emperor-hadrian-villa

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Florentine Steak

When lemon pepper seasoning first appeared in U.S. markets, I had a good idea what might have inspired it. Thanks to dad’s job with the airlines, I’d gotten to Italy quite young (first trip, age 15). Dad always did a huge amount of research before trips, so we knew—in addition to history, art and language—what foods to eat and where to find them (kind of sounds like I take after my dad). One specialty that dad particularly wanted to try, and which we managed to enjoy in a few different restaurants during our ten days in Florence, was bistecca alla fiorentina—Florentine steak

As I often found in Italy back then, a lot of dishes were finished at the table—and as one who loves ritual and process, that always delighted me. Even the simple whisking of oil and vinegar dressing directly over the salad delighted me.

Florentine steak was part of just such a ritual. A thin steak was salted and cooked over charcoal quickly at high heat, with the result being meat that had flavorful char on the outside but still had a pink interior. In some restaurants and trattorias, the grill was visible from the dining area. The steak moved swiftly from fire to plate to table, where the waiter would squeeze fresh lemon juice over its surface and then grind over it an abundance of fresh, black pepper. It was wonderful.

I think the taste of charcoal is indispensable to the success of this dish. But if you have a charcoal grill and a thin (about ½ an inch) steak, you might want to try this. Salt applied to the steak before cooking is the only seasoning other than the lemon and pepper – but the lemon should be actual lemon, not bottled lemon juice (and I use bottled juice often, just not here) and freshly ground black pepper.

And if you visit Italy, while Florence remains famous for steaks, know that many upscale places now target tourists rather than locals, and the steaks are often very thick. Not a bad thing, by any means, but a different experience. But it’s simple enough to not have to wait for that trip abroad. Buon appetito.

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Alfredo

I first had fettuccine Alfredo in 1966–served to me by Alfredo.

I was just fifteen, traveling with my parents. Getting to Italy was a lifelong dream of my dad’s, and we had the pleasure of coming along when he fulfilled that dream. He’d studied Italian history, art, and culture for years, and had been drilling us on useful Italian phrases for nearly a year before the trip–where is my hotel, a table for four please, how much does that cost, bring the check please, and so on.

Long before we arrived, dad had figured out many of the places where he wanted to dine, mostly historic venues (such as Hostaria dell’Orso, which had been a favorite of Dante’s), while leaving plenty of room for discovering charming little trattorias. Among the must-visit places was Alfredo al Augusteo, the source of fettuccine so good that Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had given Alfredo a golden fork and spoon for consuming the dish.

At fifteen, I was not as saturated with history as my dad was, and I probably could not at that time have told you who Pickford and Fairbanks were, but I knew if my dad was impressed, I would be, too. The restaurant was a delight, walls covered with photos of movie stars and heads of state who had dined there. Overhead, a massive marble frieze showed Alfredo in a Roman chariot, one hand holding the reigns, the other holding a plate of the namesake pasta.

The menu at the time bore the words Il vero re della fettuccine–the true king of fettuccine. However, when he signed our menus, Alfredo gave himself a promotion, to Imperatore, or Emperor, a title that now seems to have eclipsed his claim to being king.

Alfredo Di Lelio was already famous even then, but far from stuffy or impressed with himself. He was a showman, and he loved anyone who loved what he did. For people with whom he connected, he would toss the fettuccine tableside. Order the crepes, and he would come out dancing, ladling flaming brandy into the air. It was great fun. My dad, who could make friends with a doorpost, charmed Alfredo, and we went back often, each member of the family being offered the golden fork and spoon on subsequent nights (a sign that Alfredo had taken a fancy to you). He related how the fettuccine recipe was born–it was something his wife could keep down while she was pregnant.

A few visits into our first trip to Italy, my dad jotted a bit of light verse on a piece of paper and handed it to Alfredo, sealing the friendship. I sometimes think that our trip back the following year was just so dad could go to Alfredo’s again–and, happily, Alfredo remembered him and welcomed him enthusiastically.

In the photo below, I’m the teen on the left, and that’s Alfredo with his arm around me. The handful of pasta is dry, kept handy as a prop for photo opportunities. Mom thought she was getting out of the photo.

Of course, the experience was memorable, but for me, it was one more reason to be amazed by my father.

And here is the poem:

To Alfredo
Firenze, Roma, or Milano,
Who’s the number one Paisano?
Who’s “tops” with burro and formaggio?
Who should sit for Caravaggio?
This charming Re. This handsome fellow.
No, He should sit for Raphaello.
Better yet, call for Bernini
To sculpt the King of Fettuccine!

And should you be headed to Italy, here is the website for Il Vero Alfredo–the true Alfredo. http://www.ilveroalfredo.it/
family-with-alfredo-2

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Saltimbocca

I recently entered a contest for food writers, which, alas, I did not win. However, because it was fun to write and brought back some good memories, I thought I’d share my essay here. The theme of the required essay was “My Favorite Dish.” Of course, what is favorite often depends on the day and the mood and where you are, but this is what I settled on.

JUMP FOR JOY

Saltimbocca alla romana. The name really says it all for me; saltimbocca is Italian for “jumps in the mouth.” It certainly seems to jump into my mouth—at least it does in Italy. I generally approach it with some trepidation in restaurants in the United States. While Fettucine Alfredo probably holds the record in this country for versions unrelated to the original, saltimbocca is also among those dishes that frequently fail to match the Italian versions. And yet, I love this dish so dearly, I keep trying—because when it’s right, it is a thing of joy.

I first had saltimbocca the first time I visited Rome. I was just 15 and still traveling with my parents, which was wonderful, as my dad was big on trying everything. Being daddy’s girl, I had been infected early on by his enthusiasm for culinary adventure. In Italy, dad introduced me to calamari, artichokes (carcciofi), and profiteroles. But it was I who discovered saltimbocca. Continue reading

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World War II Italy

Okay–this is not about food. But it is about travel. And history. I just reconnected with a cousin I haven’t seen in many years, and it turns out that she’s a writer, too. She’s got a great book out titled A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy: Museums, Monuments, and Battlegrounds. It’s a must-have guide to sites important to Allies and Partisans alike in a part of “The Good War” that folks don’t focus on much.

I definitely recommend this book if you have an interest in World War II. In addition to background information, maps, and photos, it includes places to stay that are convenient to the key sites. Simply a terrific guide book. For more information, you can visit the website: Travel Guide Press. Of course, the bonus of visiting sites in Italy is that you get to eat Italian food!

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