Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Making Gnocchi

The other weekend when pondering what to make for dinner, I looked around our kitchen and saw we had a bag of potatoes and really not much else so I decided to make gnocchi. I looked at the recipe and it seemed doable until I got to the step where I had to add the flour to the mashed potatoes...for the quantity of flour the recipe said q.b. which stands for quanto basta and basically translates to "enough". This is a common notation for measurements in Italian recipes. It is as if the recipes assume that we all grew up in the kitchen helping our nonne (grandmas) and mamme (moms) make pasta and sauces and such. As I did not have any such exposure growing up, I just winged it and as a result my first batch of gnocchi had a much too high potato to flour ratio. They barely survived being cooked in the boiling water and were a mushy mess. Into the compost bin they went. I added more flour to the dough and it transformed into something much more malleable. Rolling the dough into a long, snake like shape and cutting it into small pieces reminded me of so many times during my childhood when I did very much the same thing with playdoh (so maybe I did have a little childhood gnocchi training after all).

My gnocchi - waiting to be cooked.

The cuoco (chef) and her gnocchi with a much deserved glass of vino.

Unfortunately, there are no pictures of the finished product. As soon as the gnocchi were done cooking (which is remarkably fast - it takes only 2-3 minutes after being dropped in the boiling water for the gnocchi to rise to the surface signalling they are done) I mixed them with the sauce and served them. Andrea ate his with a tomato sauce and I had mine with gorgonzola (if you are a fan of gorgonzola, the easiest sauce ever for pasta is to heat up a little milk and a hunk of gorgonzola cheese in a small sauce pan until the cheese melts and then pour it over your pasta. Yum!) much to Andrea's olfactory dismay.

This recipe made a ton of gnocchi and I found the leftovers to be even better the next day - it seems the gnocchi firmed up a little more being left overnight in the refrigerator. I also sauteed the gnocchi a little after cooking them in the boiling water. This gave them a nice, slightly crispy edge and immensely improved the overall texture and flavor.

I am excited to try these again. Next time, I would like to do spinach and ricotta gnocchi for a lighter take or gnocchi made with squash instead of potato like we tried last year at a restaurant up in the Dolomites.

I highly recommend trying your hand at this dish. It is an economical dish to make and it gives you an excuse to get your hands dirty and reconnect with childhood pleasures.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lunch in Florence

The other day I had to go to the US Consulate in Florence to renew my passport so Andrea and I decided to make a day of it.

We strolled around the city and finally ended up at the Trattoria Sostanza. This restaurants second name or nickname is Il Troia which is quite funny as it means the whore. The restaurant is one long, narrow room and as soon as you enter you can see all the way back to the open kitchen where quite often the chef, who also serves as the butcher, is wielding a cleaver and butchering the famous Fiorentina steak.

The Fiorentina, a Tuscan specialty, is the Cadillac of steaks. It is huge and it is normally served nearly raw and often quite bloody.

We ordered a quarter of a kilo - the smallest portion it was possible to order and which is normally intended for only one person.

This is my half of the steak along with the cime di rapa (broccoli rabe) and of course, vino rosso.
 As you can see they leave the steak quite rare in the middle - essentially they just char it on either side and call it good. Although I must say that this was probably the most well done Fiorentina I have ever seen. The taste was incredible! When they cook the meat they only add olive oil, salt and pepper and as a result the taste of the meat is showcased.

After lunch we went to Piazzale Michelangelo above the city to admire the panorama of Florence. The view never fails to take my breath away.

Ponte Vecchio is to the left and the Duomo in the center.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Carnevale in Venice

When I first arrived in Italy it was during Carnevale. I remember walking around the main piazza in Bologna and seeing children in costumes and wondering what was going on. I had heard of Carnevale but solely in the context of the celebrations in Brazil and I did not realize, at that point, that it was also celebrated in other places including Italy.

By year two I had figured it all out and I wanted to visit Venice to witness one of the largest Carnevale celebrations in all of Italy. I had heard there would be many people and that some people wore masks and I was excited to check it out but I was not prepared for the reality.

It was spectacular! The people who dressed up put tremendous amounts of time, energy and passion into their costumes and their characters. They were very serious about the roles they were playing and and they did not break character...even when stopping for a coffee and snack.

We met the couple below when we stopped for coffee at the beautiful Caffè Florian. They informed us that they had travelled from Spain to be a part of the festivities.

There were many couples elaborately dressed in different kinds of costumes. I loved the details and the colors!

There were also some larger groups of presumably friends or family all dressed in matching costumes.

There were even some families with children in full costume as well!

This little guy made my heart melt. He reminded me of a very young Benjamin Franklin. 

It was such a wonderful experience and I highly recommend visiting Venice for Carnevale if you get the chance. Yes, it is crowded (there were times when we could not move because the small streets were overflowing with people) but it is worth it. It was like being transported to another time and place for a day.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Three Years

Monday was my three year anniversary of living in Italy!

It is bizarre to write that because it does not feel like it has been that long. I remember deciding to come here and how nonchalant I was about it. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and how this experience would change my life. At first, I was to stay here for six months but that turned into a year and then another year and all of a sudden I have lived here for three years. In the end I guess in large part it comes down to expectations. When I came here I had certain expectations (I would quickly become fluent in Italian, I would easily make the transition into the Italian culture and lifestyle) and of course, as it usually happens, the reality was very different. I guess I am still trying to bridge that gap. There are still so many things to learn and challenges to face that it feels impossible that I have been here for three years - aren't I suppose to be an expat, Italian expert by now?

To commemorate this anniversary, I thought it would be fun to share some excerpts from a journal I was keeping when I first arrived. These are some of the things that surprised me about life in Italy during my first few days here:

"People dress fancier here than in the US (i.e. no flip flops, hoodies, regular jeans)."

"Coffee always equals espresso and people drink it like shots of liquor. Nobody gets it to go. You stand at the bar, drink it quickly and leave."
"The keys to the front door look like they are for a castle."

"Eggs are not refrigerated at the grocery store."

"There are no dryers. You see people's laundry hanging out of their apartments everywhere."

 The funny thing about writing this post is how normal all of these things seem now.

So maybe in the end I have learned more and integrated more deeply into the lifestyle than I notice or give myself credit for.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


It snowed in Bologna!

This was the scene from our back patio this morning.

This morning, I was dutifully hitting the snooze button and avoiding getting out of bed when Andrea walked in and said, "I have a problem...I don't know if I am going to be able to go to work because there is so much SNOW!". I literally flew out of bed and ran to the window to check it out. Then I threw on my coat, hat and a pair of shoes to go out on the patio to take pictures.

For this California girl, who has never really lived anywhere where it snows, it was a pretty exciting way to start the day!

scooters buried in the snow

The streets around our house were empty this morning as most people opted to stay home.

It continued to snow all morning and into the afternoon. After lunch, Andrea and I went for a walk in the city center. It is amazing how the snow made me look at the city in a whole new light and with a renewed appreciation and excitement.

trees heavy with snow

bikes in the snow

People flocked to Piazza Maggiore to marvel at and play in the snow.
There were snowmen being built, snow ball fights in progress and people making snow angels.

a snowman standing proud in front of San Petronio

Neptune covered in snow

Piazza Santo Stefano

It was a magical day! The snow has stopped now after dumping a record 45 cm (1.47 feet). I hope that we get at least a little more in the coming days. Bologna truly was transformed into a winter wonderland and it was fun to enjoy the city in a new way and to tromp through the snow without a care and to feel reconnected with simpler pleasures.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!