Friday, October 31, 2014

One Hundred Steps, a View or Cantina Stop Away

One Hundred Steps, a View or Cantina Stop Away

     Typically, before any sort of athletic contest, it is customary to see participants stretching and performing various calisthenics to loosen up.  They know what’s ahead and limbering up this way assures the flexibility and added agility needed for an uninjured winning performance.  Getting into proper form, in advance of heading to Italy, also has its requisite preparatory phase.

     Recently, we started to get ourselves into vacation shape for a return visit to Italy at The Quill.  Operated by the culinary school of the University of Southern New Hampshire, The Quill is a gourmet, fine-dining restaurant where students manage every aspect of the operation - from meal creation, to guest seating and serving.  Its very name evokes history, encompassing memories of the university itself, first founded as a school of accounting.  Throughout history, the quill has given life to men’s thoughts.  It has made it possible to create and retain great pieces of literature, extending to historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, each painstakingly hand-written using such a device.  The feathered pen was even used by colonial book keepers, their fingers perpetually ink stained in testament to their digital toil.  What other than this early form of the pen could have served these early scribes as effectively?  That day it would be a fork, not a quill, that served us well in consuming the student creative masterpieces laid before us.  There at The Quill we enjoyed an exquisitely prepared Italian meal in advance of our upcoming return to Italy, where equal jousts of fork and knife across a porcelain field of play would unfold.  Something like stretching exercises indeed, although strictly limited in our case to the jaw muscle and paunch!

     Italy breathes history.  It is everywhere.  It is evidenced by its magnificent museums, historic churches big and small, themselves filled with art treasures, and of course in the eroded remnants from the past - Pantheon and Paestum to Pompeii.  Its food, in contrast, is an important element of present life.  For me, Italy’s food and the places that attend to it, serve as museum, shrine and historic edifice combined, testimony to Italy’s lifeblood, past pumping through its veins to present.  Our renewed initiation there at The Quill, was a real treat, thrilling our palate in full dress rehearsal for whatever Italian gourmet regionalism lay ahead.  

     For starters, serving as a Primo Piatto, we chose from a sort of antipasto station buffet.  The choices were both extensive, and while not speaking for myself, filling.  Here we found Ribollita, a hearty Tuscan soup made with bread and vegetables; Vitello Tonnato, a well-known Piedmontese dish of cold, sliced veal covered with a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce; warm Corn Frittata wedges; an Artichoke & Rosemary Tart with a polenta crust; Arancini (a favorite of mine) baseball size rounds of rice filled with cheese, coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried; Chick Peas & Couscous with Pesto; unforgettable Pickled Peach & Prosciutto Crustini; and an assortment of salads including an Orange & Fennel Salad, a Faro Salad with tomatoes and almonds, and a hard to forgot Panzanella, a Tuscan salad with chunks of soaked stale bread and tomatoes, onions, basil, all dressed with olive oil and vinegar.  Finally, for a cooling finish, there was Shaved Melon with Goat Cheese & Sherry Vinaigrette.  I’m sure I may have missed something, but are you still hungry?  Training camp was in high gear and clearly tough going.  It was like swinging those weighted bats before getting to the plate (no pun intended)!  

     Once up at the plate, by then well limbered, it was time for our Secundo.  It was a difficult decision, for once at bat, looming over the plate, where you usually get three strikes at the ball as it twists and curves by at high speed, we had but one swat at whatever plateful we fancied in our strike zone, pitched at us by a student waitress backed by a bull-pen of chefs.  We could choose from among the following entrees:

  • Sautéed Chicken Scallopini with sage and prosciutto served with Marsala Sauce over Mushroom Risotto
  • Angel Hair Pasta with an Umbrian basil, spinach, arugula and mixed nut Pesto 
  • Sautéed Monk Fish with White Wine and Buttered Polenta
  • Gnocchi with a savory Tomato & Eggplant Ragu Sauce
  • House-made Ricotta filled Ravioli sautéed with Rosemary Browned Butter
  • Braised Wild Boar Ragu with Fresh hand-cut Papparadelle Pasta
  • Crespelle Alla Fiorentina, a crepe with Crimini Mushrooms, smoked Chicken and sundried Tomatoes in a cream laced pan sauce

Tough though the call was, I went for the Wild Boar and Maria Elena swung for the fences, going for the Monk Fish.  Delicious, simply delicious!  The dolce choices of chocolate-amaretto ice cream sandwiched between chocolate almond cookies and a traditional panna cotta served with a seasonal rhubarb compote and coffee, were the walk-off home runs to this pre-season opener of ours.  We’d won this game with margin and were now well prepared to re-invigorate both girth and psyche in the Italian big leagues.  On a timeline back to simplicity, always on the lookout for the authentic Italian experience, we were soon packed and headed off once more to the village life we’ve discovered in Calitri, our Italian address.

     By now, elastic enough and seeking our delicious escape, we caught a hop to Germany. From there, by a now familiar bus ride through the Brenner Pass, we arrived in Vicenza, Italy.  There we enjoyed two nights seeing the sights in its historic downtown complete with flag throwing performers (sbandieratore) dressed in medieval garb so reminiscent of festive Tuscany.  Our visit complete, we went by train to Padova (Padua).  The ticket lady was kind enough to ensure we’d be on a train that wouldn’t go on strike the day of our trip!  The word was intentionally out, for God forbid it prove too disruptive to the system or overly inconvenient to travelers like us.  It was nice of her when later, watching the massive train schedule board, “Cancelled” after “Cancelled” replaced the track information as the system collapsed into some sort of mild protest, commonplace in Italy.

     I always wanted to ride one of Italy’s high speed trains.  After only a short wait in Padova, we hopped aboard an Italo bullet train.  We’ve messed up in the past, so this time we made sure we boarded the correct car and found our assigned seats,  thus avoiding the need for a bag-drag through crowded aisles.  The Italo whisked us first through Bologna, on to Florence then to Rome and our final destination, Naples, in a little over four hours.  A mesmerizing speed of 250 km/hr made it possible.  A bus ride from Naples and finally a jaunt by car through the countryside, thanks to friends, brought us to Calitri.  Planes, trains, buses and car rides now behind us, we were finally home.  Our long journey concluded, we turned in early that night gladly relinquishing the floor by flopping into a familiar bed.  We needed a good night's sleep with rem cycles, some degree of rapid eye movement and a flock of sheep thrown in for good measure if we hoped to recover.

       Calitri occupies a high plateau.  Dimmed by distance, the dull-edged mountain ridges of the Apian Way, once ancient Rome’s superstrada, circle around us.  On their slopes are still higher towns.  One of these is Pescopagano.  It is in Pesco where some friends of ours live.  Joe, better known as “American Joe” to everybody in Pesco, is a retired ex-U.S. Navy Master Chief.  His lovely wife, Anna Maria, is a native born daughter of Pescopagano and accounts for why Joe has retired there.  Not long after our arrival, Joe called and asked us “up” for lunch.  They have a beautiful multistory home, which they’ve worked hard to create, partially built into the stony side of an ancient castle mount.  Along with our visiting friends, Jack and Dotty, we looked forward to our pranzo (lunch) together but had not expected the meal that awaited our arrival.  

     Our luncheon began with tumbleweed looking coils of Barilla pasta, this one a varietal we’d not tried before called Taglierini all’Uovo.  Legend has it this narrow pasta, even narrower than the flat ribbons of Tagliatelle from which it gets its name, was inspired by the hairstyle of femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia and dedicated to her when a skilled court chef first created it on the occasion of her marriage to Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara.  Doubtful any other pasta shape, delicate though rough and porous enough to absorb sauces and enhance their flavors, can boast such a romantic origin.

     Anna Maria, with her kilowatt smile, who Joe lightheartedly refers to as “the woman who must be obeyed”, had prepared what at first I thought was a vegetarian topping for the Taglierini of grated zucchini and carrot slivers in a creamy sauce. For meat lovers like myself there were also tiny cubes of smoked pancetta to further inspire its flavor.  Sorry, I was so eager to try it that I forgot to take a picture.  Instead, there high atop a mountain where once Roman legions trod, I settled in to thoroughly enjoy the subtlety of its full measure.  I ate deliberately, savoring each forkful.  The hours soon slipped by in conversation interrupted only by the arrival of further delights to include a platter edged with slices of prosciutto surrounding specially selected cheeses.  One was a burrata cheese, something else we had never sampled before.

     Burrata is an Italian premium cheese made from mozzarella and cream.  When making burrata, the still-hot mozzarella cheese is formed into a pouch that serves as an outer shell.  The inside is then filled with stretchy strings of mozzarella and topped with fresh cream before being closed.  It had an unusual, soft buttery texture like no other cheese we’d ever tasted.  Sitting there on the platter, with its top tied in a broche-like topknot, it had the appearance of a drawstring purse.  It wasn’t long, however, before this purse’s prize had vanished.  The burrata was accompanied by an inverted basket mold of ricotta cheese (see photo above).  Here again this was not your run of the mill ricotta, even by Italian standards.  No indeed, for this was a Pace Becce ricotta, produced by two brothers in nearby Potenza, whose limited production naturally rationed its distribution and thus its availability.  Slathered on hunks of beard, fresh from the local forno, it could be a meal in itself.  Somehow still not enough, this platter of special treats was accompanied by a trencher of assorted green and shriveled black olives, hard cheeses, marinated artichoke hearts and checkers of cured soppressata salami.  All this, along with a spell casting bottle of Casasole Orvieto Classico (DOC).  You can appreciate why we lingered at table for over four hours only to conclude with fruit no Adam could refuse, "shots" of Italian coffee and soothing digestivi.  Clearly not all refined dining is confined to restaurants with multiply stars to categorize their finery!

     While we have many pizzerias and an osteria or two in Calitri, there are few true to form restaurants in the city proper.  La Locanda dell’Arco is one such establishment located a short distance from the borgo’s tunnel entrance, or from the opposite direction, only about one hundred steps from our door.  Classified as a gourmet restaurant, it attracts customers from far and wide.  With the saw-tooth profile of Mount Vulture, a long extinct volcano filling the panoramic horizon as backdrop, the Locanda offers another fine culinary experience.  Its kitchen quickly wins you over for here you'll discover the flavors of traditional, no-nonsense, Calitrani cooking ... homemade Cannazze (on the order of ziti) and Cingul (like little ears) pasta, chops a la brace and sauce so delicate, you can only imagine the hours of preparation involved.  We had not been there for some time, so one Sunday afternoon we decided to walk over for lunch.  

     La Locanda’s dining atmosphere is quiet and romantic.  There is nothing modernist about it.  It has all to do with its dining room, once an ancient grotto hollowed into the tufa rock mountainside.  Soft accent lighting and damask tablecloths add an elegant flair.  We were fortunate to find a seat for it was close to being filled with many a table already taken by large groups and extended families.  Thankfully, small tables were apparently in little demand that day for we were quickly seated at a cozy and relaxing table for two by the maître d’, whom we recognized from the local menswear shop.  No fusion here, all is strictly, what else but, Italian.  We began conventionally with a typical antipasto, this one a combination of local cold cuts and cheeses, along with a half-liter of vino rosso.  It wasn’t long and I was ready to try their pasta offerings.  

     At first it was a toss-up between the local finger rolled pasta known a Cingul, which I have enjoyed many times before and the Ravioli, filled with ewe’s milk ricotta.  In the end, however, I opted for something totally different.  Its name alone, Sp’haett alla Pasciut, was intriguing.  Relying solely on the message in its name, I initially assumed it was simply spaghetti with some prosciutto added.  I sometimes get into trouble guessing like that!  I soon learned the lineage of the dish, taken as it was from the exclusive recipe of an old Calitrano restaurateur by the name of “Pasciut”.  The sp’haett, probably dialect, did turn out to be, as I’d guessed, spaghetti.  That, however, was all that was familiar about it.  Old “Pasciut” had something going here.  Again it was the sauce, this one with a hint of something that at first I couldn’t identify.  It turned out, even as removed from the sea as we were, to be anchovy.  My guess had been capers!  Forget about those canned salty anchovy cousins familiar and dreaded by most Americans.  Here, if you could sense it at all, its delicate flavor was just perfect.  I hated to see the last rolled up forkful disappear.  Maria Elena, to my dismay, her English-Irish pedigree likely the culprit, has never been a big fan of pasta.  Instead, she went with a side dish of ualanegna potatoes seasoned with chili and pepper.  Unlikely though it may be she'll order pasta, she doesn’t shy from the piccanti (spicy)! 

     Next, came the meat courses.  Mare loves lamb.  It was a no-brainer then that she chose the Agnello alla Aglianico, leg of lamb roasted in extra virgin olive oil and local Aglianico red wine.  She was presented with three, bone-in, chop-like slabs of lamb in a dark gravy.  You could tell she thoroughly enjoyed it, all doubt removed when she announced it actually tasted like lamb.  At times she has been served what I can only describe as a mystery meat claiming to be lamb but altered or otherwise overly marinated, leaving scant proof from the flavor.  My choice for secundo was a variation of bresaola, here dubbed vraciola, similar to what might commonly be referred to as meat roulades.  Here they were particularly spirited due to the excellent sauce that accompanied my serving in addition to the first-rate quality of the meat itself.  Following this repast, we were more than pleased we’d had that table for two, spur-of-the-moment thought to drop in at the Locanda.  

     Yet another typical example of food hospitality, “Italian style”, occurred when we briefly stopped by at the home of some local Calitrani friends, winemaker Peppe and his wife, Vicenzina, herself a kitchen diva extraordinaire and keeper of traditionally inspired cuisine.  I had taken a picture, on a previous visit, maybe a year earlier of one of her sewing projects.  It was a beautiful Battenberg lace piece, maybe a curtain, maybe a tablecloth, I’m not really sure since it was still tucked under the needled foot of her classic Singer sewing machine at the time.  The picture came out just great.  I thought she might enjoy a copy.  I’d met Peppe downtown earlier that week and asked if we could stop by to present our 'small gift' in a few days after we'd dropped Jack and Dotty off in Lacedonia (Lach-ah-doe-knee-uh), a neat sounding little town with a popular bus stop.  There had been a mess–up because apparently Vicenzina thought we were coming for lunch!  I shied from the thought; had I somehow invited myself to lunch?  The misunderstanding, maybe mine, maybe Peppe’s, was soon resolved with a playful swat at Peppe’s head, thankfully not mine!  They were mid-meal so we insisted on quickly leaving.  I should have known better and not stopped by during lunchtime.  This was as quickly rejected as Vicenzina insisted we sit and join them.  I was game and surprised when Mare, who is more hesitant than I in these matters, agreed.  With little hesitation then, we joined the table.

     As part of the soon to appear antipasto, Peppe served some homemade salami, sheathed in an imperceptibly thin casing.  What was interesting was that in the same salami, to one side of the elbow turn, for it was quite long, the sausage was piccanti, while on the other end, it was mild.  With my limited understanding of Italian, especially when a little dialect is thrown in stirring things up as it were with a big spoon, it wasn’t clear if they were all made this way or that this particular salami was the last of a batch where he’d just switched from one type filling to another.  It didn’t matter, from either end, without additives, fillers or preservatives, it was just great stuff!  When the next serving arrived, it triggered a memory from an earlier visit when Vicenzina had just finish making giant rectangular shaped pizzas in her cantina wood-fired oven.  They were so large they could barely make it through the mouth of this gaping forno.  She did this ahead of the al fresco breakfast she would serve in the vineyard, the next day being the vendemia or grape harvest.  Nothing wrong in my book with pizza for prima colazione (breakfast) out in the fields, especially after picking for an hour or so.  Who’d dare complain?  It was her pizza sauce that I recalled most.  So when she served up a bowl heaping full of cannazze, family style, dowsed in her special sauce, it could have been ambrosia from Mount Olympus!  Pasta, even a few grams a day, is enough to keep any true Italian going and with the right sauce, they’d march until they dropped or at least strip a hillside of its grapes.  Chunks of tender beef, apparently slow-cooked in the sauce, along with a jug of wine from their cantina brought our meal to a more than pleasing conclusion.  This simple act of sharing at mealtime, the unadulterated kindness and open friendliness, call it hospitality to say the least, in my eyes is simply extraordinary.

     Tasting our way through Italy, well prepared as we were, we’d fallen on the food.  It is sinfully easy to do where food is such a part of the culture and so firmly linked to Italian traditions.  The hard part, especially in the company of fellow pleasure-loving diners, is knowing when to push away from the table, thus acknowledging you’re done!  The grandchild of an immigrant, what better way to unearth my roots then through its food from the hands of its people, some whom I've profiled here, probably the friendliest and most generous in the world.  The sumptuous food-rich fabric of Calitri can be as close as one hundred footfalls away in the formal setting of the Locanda.  From our terrazzo it can be within sight across the valley through a morning’s cotton fog on up to the lofty heights of Pescopagano and the home of an expatriate.  It can just as easily reveal itself, a cantina stop away, in the spontaneous form of a brief visit to the home of local, down-to-earth Calitrani like Peppe and Vicenzina.  In the thrall of this regional cuisine, be it in little Calitri or elsewhere, you soon come to appreciate not only the food but also Italian everyday life, ladled out one long relaxing meal at a time.  It is often said, we don’t remember days, we remember moments, moments like these.  

From That Rogue Tourist,

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled "One Hundred Steps"