Strange things at the fish market

A September day in Naples brought us to this fish market, and a lot of unfamiliar seafood to look over. It reminded me of a meal we had in Sorrento with our host, Maria, when we were studying Italian. She was very pleased to have a special meal of fish for the first Friday of Lent, telling us it was ‘seppia’. I had no idea what that was, and even looking it up in my Italian-English dictionary didn’t help. I didn’t know what a cuttlefish was. She showed me a covered pot in the sink, and then lifted the lid.


The ugliest creature I ever ate stared up at me.

Now tell me, does that look like food to you?

Well, we ate it for dinner, and it was very good. Maria was an excellent cook, and we enjoyed many good meals during our two weeks in her home, but that was the most shocking one to me.


Ravioli Tostati–St. Louis Italian Food

My daughter and her husband moved to St. Louis, Missouri in early January, and three weeks later, we visited them, eager to see “The Hill”, St. Louis’ Little Italy. They took us out to dinner at Gian-Tony’s Ristorante, where I had my first taste of Ravioli Tostati.

This deep-fried ravioli is a tradition of St. Louis–but perhaps somewhere in Italy too, the cook accidentally knocked a raviolo into hot oil instead of water, inventing a crispy appetizer. I was told that several chefs on The Hill have claimed that fortunate mistake, sometime in the 1930s or ’40s. The popular dish is available in many parts of the Mid-west now, and some East Coast restaurants too.

So we enjoyed a plate of Ravioli Tostati before our dinner at Gian-Tony’s, dipping the crunchy squares in marinara sauce as we visited. I have to say, the cooks of St. Louis are on to something! Since coming home, I’ve looked for recipes, and am sharing links to a couple of them with you. Here’s a fast-food version from All-Recipes website. Charlie Gitto’s, one of the restaurants that claims the invention, provided this recipe on the Food Network website.

The ancient sacred olive, in modern times

An olive tree in the Cilento region.

This tree was planted before the nation of Italy was born, when the Italian south was a kingdom apart. It could well have been producing olives when Naples was at the height of glory, one of the leading cities on the continent, and a must-see stop on the Grand Tour of the eighteenth century.

The olive is mentioned in ancient literature, including thirty times in the Bible. Its oil fueled the original Olympic flame. Kings were anointed with olive oil, and it is still used in religious ceremonies.
Theophrastus, a student of both Plato and Aristotle, wrote about olive husbandry. “The olive tree grows, one may say, in more ways than any other plant; it grows from a piece of the trunk or of the stock, from the root, from a twig, and from a stake…” He warns that olives grown from seed produce a wild olive, of poor quality. He also quotes Androtion in saying that olives require heavy pruning for the best production, and also need “the most pungent manure and the heaviest watering.” He describes the damage they suffer from hot winds or freezing temperatures. Though he wrote this in Greece in the third century B.C., these classical methods were carried into the Magna Graecia and applied to olive culture there.
I find fascinating the common knowledge of the natural world in earlier times. A statement of Theophrastus illustrates this, in regards to the summer solstice. How do I know when the solstice is? I check a calender, reference book, or (more likely) find it online. But two thousand years ago, people checked their olive trees for that information: “There is a peculiarity special to the olive, lime, elm, and abele: their leaves appear to invert the upper surface after the summer solstice, and by this men know that the solstice is past.”
In Roman times, a garden was not considered complete without some olive trees, and olive oil served as liquid money. It is still highly prized, with Italy consuming about 30% of the world’s olive oil, most of which is grown in the Mediterranean region.
Next time you break open a rustic loaf of bread, pour a little olive oil in a dish, add some balsamic vinegar, and think about the ancient origins of your small feast as you enjoy it.

Agriturismo: Farmstays in southern Italy

Olives awaiting harvest in Abruzzo

To enjoy the atmosphere of a working farm, the rural setting and fresh foods, try a farm stay. WARNING: There are many listings at but not all are working farms. They have a wide variety of amenities, so read carefully and search for the kind of place you want to visit. Some have spa facilities, some are country bed and breakfast properties with limited agricultural production. Others offer cooking classes, boating excursions, swimming pools, or children’s programs.

As I browse the various listings, a question comes to mind: How difficult is it to find a native (or at least fluent) English speaker to review the content of a website? The market appears to be wide open for this kind of service. It’s easy to find listings like these:

(Various kinds of spas therapies) “are the ingredients of our relax.” “It is possibile to have breakfast, lunch, or supposer in the farmhouse.” “As of 1754, the owner’s family give birth to the ancient farm building where oil and wine have been produced with their own traditional tools.”

Of course, I did appreciate the full disclosure of this description: “This place is not recommended to those who want to enjoy only the ocean or only the mountain, or are unable to live without the new technolgies, or are scared of farm bugs, or are unable to handle the fireplace or the wood-burning stove.”

Here are links to a couple of olive farms that appealed to me: First, the Agriturismo Madonna Incoronata, named for a 17th century church on the property. Located on the south side of the Gargano peninsula, they offer cooking classes, boat trips to private beaches, and an ancient olive mill and museum highlighting the history of olive production–which continues on the property today.

Near Matera, L’Orto di Lucania offers a varied farm stay. They grow and process organic wheat, olives, artichokes, eggplant, and tomatoes. They also have a beautiful swimming pool, as well as cooking classes, and bicycles for rent. Guests can take part in farm activities, or simply observe. And unique historical sites like the city of Matera (an ancient cave dwelling site), Castel del Monte built by Emperor Frederick II, and the trulli houses of Alberobello, are all easy day trips from the farm.

Have you stayed on a farm in southern Italy? Share your experience in the comments!

Culinary Tourism: Taste the olive oil.

In my part of the world, wine tasting is popular, and when I lived in Texas, I participated in a chili cook-off. And chocolate tasting? I’m nibbling some right now.

But in the south of Italy, you find tours dedicated to tasting olive oils. I never gave much thought to variations in olive oil until I visited Italy in 2004. Then, it seemed quite a curiosity to me, the interest people took in their oils. Now, I’m eager to explore olive oils myself, and where better but Puglia?

According to The Olive Oil Times, about 40% of Italy’s olive oil grows on roughly 60 million trees in Puglia. You can read descriptions of different types of oil, and a great deal of olive knowledge.

How do you taste it? At Olive Oil Source, you can learn from professional olive oil taster Nancy Ash, owner of Strictly Olive Oil. You can learn the lingo and see what the pros are looking for in their oils.

For the more visual learners among us, here’s a video of Bill Sanders (called the evangelist of olive oil and wine) showing us all how to taste olive oil:

If you can’t make it to Italy, how about olive oil tasting in California? Yes, it’s available there too, so go out there and try a little EVOO! That’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil–soon you will be a pro in the tasting room.

Bergamot oranges from Calabria

“This precious product delights the senses and often inebriates the brain with iridescent images which make life beautiful and dreamlike and floods the soul with romantic sweetness.” Sound like a recreational drug, something you can take to help you leave your troubles behind?

No. Giuseppe Sergi, an Italian anthropologist, wrote this statement in his 1925 monograph on the bergamot oranges grown around the southern coastline of Calabria.

Bergamot oil gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavor–the tea that reportedly became a sensation in London when Lady Grey (wife of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1830 to 1834) served it. There are many stories about the origin of the tea, but the Grey family claim that a Chinese mandarin (a bureaucrat in imperial China) formulated the tea for them to offset lime in the water at their estate in Northumberland.

A more common use of bergamot oil is in perfumes. The Consortium of Bergamot in Reggio Calabria has a website (available in English) packed with information about the oranges. They claim health benefits and a wide variety of uses for the oil, and provide a recipe for cologne. Bergamot is also used in pastries and confections.

The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail published an article in 2010 about bergamots, the “green gold” of Calabria.

Now, I have finished my cup of Earl Grey tea, which I enjoy for the flavor of bergamot and the reminder of southern Italy.

Good Luck for 2012: Lentils and grapes

Many regions and cultures have symbolic foods for holidays, including the celebration of the new year, or “capo d’anno” as Italians say. I was happy to discover that lentils are a traditional Italian food for the new year, because I like lentils a little better than black-eyed peas, which are eaten in the southern U.S.

Lentils symbolize coins, and are eaten in hopes of a prosperous new year. Grapes symbolize good health, and are eaten at midnight, just as the new year begins.

I found an interesting article with a couple of recipes from famous foodie Nigella Lawson, a food writer with a terrific website. The recipes sound delicious, and I plan to make one of them for my own New Year celebrations.

I hope you enjoy the article, and wish you the very best for 2012. Felice Anno Nuovo!

My most Italian Christmas tradition: Torcetti

Mary (Arcuri) Sanders, at age 77

My Italian grandma, born Mary Nancy Arcuri, was a great cook. She lived into her 90s, and now her many dozens of descendants like to share “Gram’s recipe” for various foods we associate with her. Somehow, though, each of her seven kids has a different version of “Gram’s recipe” for spaghetti sauce, each claiming to be authentic, and the rest charlatans.

At Christmas, Gram always made torcetti (tor-chet-ee). The lightly sweetened pastry was rolled in powdered sugar, shaped in figure 8s or candy canes, or folded into little half-moon turnovers filled with mince or cherry pie filling. I always imagine her learning to make it at her mother’s side, in Italian–the only language her mother spoke. Gram came from a big family, and it is a big recipe–I have penciled in on my recipe card a smaller version, one-fourth of the original recipe. But for you, readers, I am providing the full meal deal, the recipe for 12 dozen torcetti. Enough to share with lots of friends!


1 lb. butter or margerine

1 lb. vegetable shortning

10 cups sifted flour

1 cup warm milk

1 T. granulated sugar

1 T. vanilla

2 pkgs. yeast

4 eggs, beaten

2 lbs. powdered sugar

Cut shortning and butter into flour until it is like corn meal. Combine milk, granulated sugar, vanilla, and stir in yeast. Add liquid to flour mixture. Add eggs and beat. Add more flour if sticky. Knead slightly. Put in a greased bowl, cover in a warm place, and let rise until double in bulk, about one hour. {I must tell you, this is a heavy dough, and has rarely doubled its bulk for me!}

Cover a bread board with some of the powdered sugar. Break off egg-size pieces of the dough, roll in powdered sugar into one long piece, and shape into figures–pretzel, figure 8, knots, candy canes. Bake on a greased sheet 12-15 minutes at 375 degrees. For filled turnovers, roll out dough, sprinking with powdered sugar if sticky, and use a cookie cutter or water glass to make 3″ circles. Fill with a spoonful of your favorite fruit pie filling, fold in half, and seal by pressing a fork along the edge.

If you try Torcetti from Gram’s recipe, I’d love to hear from you. And do you have an Italian Christmas food you love? Let’s hear about it!

Food: Caciocavallo and other cheesy delights

I paused in front of the cheese display at a little market in Scigliano. “Look!” I said to Vern. A herd of little horses, shaped from ivory strands of caciocavallo cheese, were lined up in the window to amuse me, and that they did!

Those Italians really know what to do with cheese! Going to the cheese-and-sausage stores was one of my favorite shopping delights in Italy. We always found interesting cheeses, and succumbed to many temptations there. The volume of cheese alone is enough to amaze someone used to the typical American cheese shopping experience. Giant wheels of cheese cut into thick wedges, balls and chunks, fresh and aged, cheese to try with figs, meats, pasta, bread, cold or melted. I salivate at the many tasty memories.

Caciocavallo was a special delight. It normally comes in double balls, something like a snowman, with a cord around the ‘neck’ where it has hung to dry. Someday I’d love to see the process of making some of the cheese into little horses (cavalli). I really wanted to buy little caciocavallo horses as souvenirs to take home, but they were a little too perishable for that.

If you visit Italy, even if the trip is short and your time tightly scheduled, take a few minutes to find a cheese shop, and explore the abundance. Choose something intriguing, and buy a few ounces. Savor the flavor. The experience might become your favorite memory of Italy.