Monday, May 30, 2011


Focaccia di Recco was a must try for my vacation in Liguria. It's one of those specialities that I heard about for very long and never got round to try, since you can only have it in Recco. Liguria is very famous for its Focaccia Genovese, which I blogged about in a couple of previous posts, and you might think of Focaccia di Recco as a variation of that.
Wrong. Focaccia di Recco is totally different. In actual fact, you shouldn't even think of it as a focaccia, besides the fact that they are both flat breads.

We were visiting Cinque Terre, with its long, steep walks and breathtaking views of tiny villages miraculously built onto the rocks. Recco is only a few miles distance from there, and we decided to try Focaccia at Manuelina, which besides being the most reputable place to try this focaccia, is also a great restaurant with one fork on the Gambero Rosso guide.

The restaurant is located just off the exit from the motorway, and it was extremely easy to find. Right at the entrance, there was a large brass emblem stating "Authentic Focaccia di Recco", to officialise the fact that there you can have the "real thing". There are in fact many places in Recco and its surrounding where you can have this type of focaccia, but of incomparable quality, to the point that you could call it a fake focaccia :) This is one of those incredibly simple dishes, so simple that it's very difficult to make properly.

The restaurant has a beautiful dining room, warm and classic, and displays the most impeccable service that we encountered during our trip in Italy. As we sat down at our table, we were served a complimentary glass of prosecco, and a few slices of crispy bread. There were many interesting options on the menu, but without a doubt, the set menu was a must try, for 58 EUR per person.

When they came with the appetiser, a real focaccia di Recco, we were terrified. The focaccia came on a trolley, laid on a wooden board, and it was probably 50-60cm in diameter, or in any case of a size that would have been sufficient for two people to eat and be fully satisfied. I initially thought we were going to be given a couple of slices and share the rest with other diners, but well... no, it was all for us!
It is hard to describe the beauty of this focaccia, golden and crispy, with craters of bubbling fresh cheese that erupts from the inside. As our waiter Emilio started to cut across it, the noise confirmed the first impression, of a flat bread that's paper-thin and crispy throughout.

We were served three slices each, and the rest of the focaccia was left next to us, to continue to tempt us as we tasted the initial portion. This was without a doubt one of the best breads we had in our lifetime, but we were most inclined to think that it was the best. It was heavenly. The delicate crispiness, the softness and flavour of the cheese flowing from the inside. Unprecedented.
It was with great regret that after eating the initial portion, and having an additional couple of slices, we had to leave a good quarter of the focaccia back to the waiter not to waste the rest of 5-course meal that was going to be served.

The 'Polpo, brunoise di verdure e prescinseua su vellutata di melanzane' was an octopus salad with chopped vegetables and prescinseua cheese (the same one that is used for the focaccia) on an aubergine pureé. The flavours were subtle and the sauce nicely brought them together.

Less impressive was the 'Carpaccio di ricciola affumicato con pepe rosa e sale affumicato'. A carpaccio of amberjack, with pink peppercorns and smoked salt. The portion was huge and the fish was great, but the intense acidity of the sauce killed the delicate, tender fish. Finding the balance in salt and acidity on fish carpaccio is not simple, and it's not the first time I come across this problem.

The meal was re-lifted by the 'Taglierini alle triglie di scoglio', which was a tagliolini with red mullet. The pasta had a good bite, and the flavour of red mullet was very distinct in the sauce. Well executed.

The 'Corzetti dei Fieschi all'ortolana' was a Corzetti pasta dish with a vegetables sauce. Steering away from the classic recipes, this was a more delicate and refined but tasty sauce.

The best of all dishes (leaving the focaccia aside) was this 'Pescatricie in sfoglia di melanzane su vellutata di pomodoro'. The rich meat of Monkfish was wrapped in tasty grilled aubergines, on a bed of mild tomato velvety sauce. This was our favourite overall, with an indisputably Italian combination of ingredients, and all the right flavours.

The second main dish was a 'Fagottino di branzino in pasta Fillo con farcia di scampi'. Essentially a seabass with minced scampi, wrapped in filo pastry. This was also very good, and most notably the flavour of the scampi really added an extra kick to a seabass which has great texture, but is normally very plain tastewise. Despite how good it was, I was unable to finish this dish since every portion of this tasting menu was a full portion, in true Italian style. Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps), I am not used to eating at this rate, and I felt rather overwhelmed by the amount of food. The fought of having a dessert at that point was dreadful, and our waiter advised to wait 15 minutes or so, to recover.

So we did, and went ahead with the desserts. Very good overall and quite classic, with a creamy/chocolaty dessert, and an orange creme bruleé.
Unless you have a very capable stomach you will struggle a bit with the full set menu, and in that case I would recommend ordering a la carte. We managed in the end without too much wastage, but the food is so good that every bit left uneaten feels like a real pity.

Manuelina is a must-visit if you are in the area: great Ligurian food, exceptional service and cozy setting made it a very pleasant evening for us. The focaccia is unmissable. There is a focacceria next door, where you can buy and eat exactly the same focaccia if you are not game for a full meal. However, the food at the restaurant is well worth the full experience.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

La Bottega

In the search for rustic local food while staying in Chianti, Tuscany, we came across this popular Osteria, rated one prawn on the Gambero Rosso guide. Located in Radda in Chianti, one of the tiny villages of the area, right at the end of a very curvy and narrow road, is this jewel of an Osteria with a large terrace dominating the Chianti valley.

The Barucci family, owners of the Osteria, continue the tradition by serving classic Tuscan dishes, making use of their own garden grown vegetables. There is plenty to chose from on the menu, but the portions are very filling, so be cautious not to over order! We had 5 dishes for 2 people washed with plenty of Chianti wine, and for a total of 47 EUR it was a bargain.

The classic unsalted Tuscan bread is served with Parmigiano Reggiano and olive oil. Generous spoonfuls of the cheese help adding flavour to the naturally insipid bread.

The radicchio e pecorino con aceto balsamico was a very large portion, too large for one or even two people, so unfortunately I had to leave some on the side. This is just what it says on the label: radicchio, chunks of medium aged pecorino, and a balsamic dressing.

Grilled vegetables are a classic antipasto throughout Italy. Here, they serve Melanzane grigliate al profumo di menta, which is grilled aubergines with mint. The large slices were nicely covered in dried herbs and spices, and paired nicely with the bread.

I couldn't resist from ordering Pici once again. It is a type of pasta that is not commonly found outside of Tuscany, so every opportunity should be exploited. This was a truly rustic version, when compared to the ones I had at Walter redaelli, and I felt really quite full by the end of it.

The main dishes were the forte of this place, and the reason why, I believe, it deserves a prawn on the guide. The Coniglio al tartufo was absolutely amazing. Slices of rabbit topped by a creamy truffle sauce, with slices of black truffle right on top. At 9.50 EUR, you can't really argue!

Finally, the Cinghiale in umido con olive still remains one of the significant culinary memories I brought back from Tuscany. This stewed wild boar with black olives had such an intense meat flavour, you would never get from pork. This must be the first time I really appreciated wild boar meat. This is what Tuscany is about.

La Bottega

Walter Redaelli

One of the memorable meals during my trip to Tuscany is the one at Walter Redaelli. I found this restaurant on the Gambero Rosso guide, which rates it with a score of 73, although it didn't award it a fork. From my experience of all the restaurants I tried out of this guide during my vacation, I would say with confidence that Walter would surely deserve a fork.

The first bonus is the location of the restaurant, which is placed within a renovated farmhouse, on the edge of a hill, giving a spectacular view of Valdichiana. The building is made of the unique bricks that seem to characterise the whole village of Bettolle, which is about a kilometer from the restaurant. The brickwork can also be appreciated in the arches and ceilings within the restaurant. The combination of the scenic countryside view and the rustic architecture gave me more than ever a complete feel of being in Tuscany.

While browsing through the menu, we were served a basket different varieties of homemade bread. This included the classic Tuscan unsalted bread, a couple of types of rolls, some focaccia and grissini. These were all fresh, and well accompanied with some locally produced olive oil of the highest standard, branded with the restaurant name itself.

I stimulated my appetite with a Cinta senese marinata su misticanza con mele, noci e sedano. This was basically a porchetta made with the local pork (so called Cinta Senese), with a salad of celery, walnuts and black olives, and topped by a few chunks of lightly cooked, warm apple. The delicacy of this dish was outstanding, with every flavour on the plate gently emerging without dominating the rest.

Impressed with the starter, I was eager to try the pasta. I ordered a Pici con guanciale, asparagi, fave e pecorino. Pici is a typical local pasta made of flour and water (egg is generally not added, hence, the white colour) and hand rolled into fairly thick and irregular sort of spaghetti. It is indeed that unevenness that makes this type of pasta taste so rustic. This recipe was of course a refined version than the Pici that you would have in a normal trattoria, but all the flavours were there, with the guanciale and pecorino playing the main role while asparagus and broad beans provided texture and variety to an otherwise common combination.

One of the mains we had was the Costolette di agnello con mandorle, liquirizia e patate gratinate. The lamb was tender and cooked medium rare, but what really animated this dish was the licorice sauce. I never thought of licorice as an ingredient for meat sauces, but it did work perfectly. Such an inspiring combination, that I will probably try this at home, some day.

The tagliata di vitellone al dragoncello con purea di cannellini e insalata verde was also well executed, with tender juicy veal accompanied by a fabulous pureé made from Cannellini beans. This is another inspiring element, so much that I bought some Cannellini while in Tuscany and brought them with me to Singapore to try this out.

We had a selection of quality, hard Pecorino cheeses and a couple of soft goat cheeses, all served with Italian mostarda and honey.

The least impressive of all courses was the dessert, which is often the case with Italian restaurants. It was a sort of soufflé with a cappuccino sauce on top. Quite nice, although not outstanding enough to make me finish it, after such a fulfilling meal.

The total bill including wine was 76 EUR for two people, which makes this restaurant incredibly attractive considering the quality and amount of food, cozy setting and service overall.

Walter Redaelli

Teatro dei Medici

It's worth mentioning a small restaurant that was recommended to us by the owner of our accommodation while we were staying near Vicchio, in Mugello. This is a modest restaurant that serves no frills, traditional food from the area. It was not particularly easy to find, due to the fact that there is no access to the parking area directly from the main road, so we ended up parking 50 meters away and walked to the restaurant.

The interior was spacious but rustic, with various Tuscan style antiques laid around the entrance hall. The main dining room follows a more classic renaissance style and is more grand, as the name of the restaurant suggests.

The most notable dish was the Tortelli di patate con ragú: potatoes filled ravioli in a tomato based ragu sauce. This is a typical peasant dish from Mugello, which represents an exception for a region that is most famous for its soups. This is what every diner shouldn't miss!

Less distinguished was the grilled free range chicken with rosemary. Well executed with quality ingredients, but not something you could have in identical flavours elsewhere, including Singapore.

I was far more impressed by the Peposo Imprunetino. The name of the dish derives from pepper, which is plenty in this dish, and Impruneta, which is where the dish is originally from. Impruneta is famous for producing bricks and terracotta ware. It is actually in the bricks furnace that this dish was originally invented. They used to put all the ingredients into the pot, leave it in a corner of the furnace for 5 hours or so, and the dish was ready. The predominant flavours were without a doubt the reduced Chianti wine and the black pepper. The flavours are extremely intense, and it's best eaten with accompanying bread.

There were certainly some interesting regional dishes to try at Teatro dei Medici, although they are only a few out of a big list. I would still recommend stopping over for a peasant lunch, if you happen to be in Mugello.

Teatro dei Medici

Osteria Le Logge

While visiting Siena, we stopped for lunch at one of the recommendations on the Gambero Rosso guide. Osteria Le Logge is rated one fork on the guide, and I was a bit skeptical, given that the restaurant is located only 50 meters away from Piazza del Campo. In a city that is so centered on tourism such as Siena, it is extremely hard to find a good restaurant, let alone in the immediate surroundings of its main attraction. One encouraging note was the open kitchen, which is completely visible directly from the street. You can watch the Chefs at work from the outside of the restaurant and at the time we got there, we could see a couple of them peeling kilos of ripe tomatoes with extreme dedication.

I started off with Polpo al vapore con salsa Ponzu, olio al prezzemolo e patate. This dish was the most delicate I had during my trip to Italy, but it tasted more Japanese than Italian. As I savoured it, the subtle dashi flavour immediately brought me back to the experiences of Kaiseki during my trips to Japan.

The Pasta alla chitarra con profumo di pino, astice e patate was pretty good, seasoned with a delicate lobster broth and small chunks of potatoes. What I liked the most of this pasta was its very firm texture.

Now the most amazing of all, and without a doubt one of the top pastas I have eaten in my whole life. The Spaghetti Faella con Guanciale "Parisi", cipolla e pecorino was an incredibly simple spaghetti dish, seasoned with various types of onion (red, yellow, white, leeek and chives), an extremely good guanciale (from Paolo Parisi). It is hard to describe how simply tasteful and delicate this was, but clearly the quality of the ingredients is key to the success of such a dish. This is what made me come back to this restaurant the next day, and it was the only "repeat" of my trip to Italy.

The Piccione arrosto con spezie dell'Osteria e coulis di frutta was another hit. The crispy coating gave variety of texture and flavour to the dish, while the fruity coulis added the tang required to break the 'gamyness' of it all.

The Insalata di lingua con salsa antica e pomodori cuore marinati in birra e cipolla was a very light salad with quality fresh vegetables, very thin slices of cow's tongue and little chunks of its cooking gelatin. A well executed, enjoyable salad.

We were too full and decided to share a single dessert: the Mousse di mascarpone com crema al caffé, gelato di amaretto e albicocche confit was divine. A dome of mascarpone mousse was sitting next to a gelato made from amaretto biscuits, on a bed of coffee sauce. The apricot confit, together with a couple of mint leaves, were a nice touch to break the richness of the flavours.

The summary is that if you happen to visit Siena this is without a doubt a must try restaurant, and considering that it's so easy to find, I don't see why not. The place tends to get busy, especially at weekends, so a booking hopefully one day in advance would be advisable to secure a table.

Osteria Le Logge

Saturday, May 21, 2011

I Croxetti

I have been dreaming of making Croxetti pasta ever since I saw it illustrated on an Italian cooking book. I never heard about Croxetti (or Corzetti) before reading that recipe, since this is a regional dish of Liguria and cannot be found outside of it. This is why I couldn't get hold of the mold required to make them, despite my previous attempts, which also involved my mother looking for them in Italy.

My trip to Liguria was an unmissable opportunity to taste the dish and find the tool required to make it. I was under the impression that these molds could be commonly found anywhere in the region, but as I asked people, I discovered that actually this dish is rarer than I thought, and there is only one carpenter left, named Pietro Picetti, who is still dedicated to maintaining the tradition. I managed to find out his location and headed off looking for him in the small town of Varese Ligure. Without a specific address, I was given a description of the site of his workshop, and with my fingers crossed, hoping that the man would be there at the time of my visit, I drove to the town determined to find him.

With great relief, as I spotted the entrance to his workshop, the door was open, displaying a large Italian welcome sign. I opened the conversation informing him that I am based in Singapore and I went all the way to Varese Ligure to buy some of his croxetti molds. He wasn't surprised at all. He humbly explained that he has a constant flow of visitors from all over the world, in particular Japan, who travel from far away to this small town to get their hands on his work. He showed me the orders from American and Japanese culinary schools, and told me how once he was handed over a business card by one of his Japanese visitors, only to realise a few days later that he was actually the ambassador of Japan.

We then spent some time designing my personalised mold, and he showed me the original wooden molds from his great grandfather, who used to be in exactly the same trade (see picture below). Some of them are cracked, others have been slightly damaged by termites, and you can sense that these pieces are over a hundred years old. His designs are still based on the original designs from his great grandfather: wheatears, stars, crosses, olive leaves, and of course the initials of the owners, or the names of the restaurants.

Besides ordering a custom made mold, I also bought a couple of ready made ones. One in beech, and the other one in walnut. The first has two different star symbols on each side. This is a reproduction of the original mold passed to him by his great grandfather. The second one represents a sun surrounded by wheatears.

I was amazed by the beautiful designs, and the richness of detail. Just looking at them brought thoughts of the middle ages, the powerful families and their attachment to their own emblems, to the extent that they used to engrave them even into their food. Such intricate patterns, once printed into the dough, make its surface uneven, enhancing its ability to absorb pasta sauce. In Liguria, croxetti are traditionally eaten with a pine nuts sauce, pesto, or a tomato sauce. The recipes for the dough and the sauces are handed over by the man to all his customers, as he is keen to spread and maintain the tradition of the original sauces.

All molds are autographed by their creator on the cutting side - it states "Pietro Picetti made this in Varese Ligure". The experience of buying an utensil directly from the artisan made me reflect on the value of what we buy. Nowadays we are all so used to shop around, find what we like, on a shelf and buy it. I must admit that buying from the artisan evokes completely different emotions. You are not just given an utensil, but also the history of it, and the passion that went into it. The value of what you buy becomes priceless, since it is not just a commercial item - it has been uniquely crafted by an artisan.

These wooden molds serve the purpose of cutting and shaping the croxetti. The bottom of each mold is very sharp, and is used to cut out a circle of dough from a 2.5 mm sheet. The circle is then placed inbetween the two pieces of wood, and compressed so that the drawings remain engraved into both sides of it - just like a coin.

Pietro also recommended a place where I could stop for lunch and have the traditional Croxetti from Varese Ligure. The restaurant is within a hotel called "Albergo Amici", located a 5 minutes walk from Pietro's workshop. I had a portion of delicious Croxetti with pine nuts sauce. I loved the texture of this pasta, very firm and rustic, paired with a flavorful nutty and herby sauce. It goes without saying that every single medallion I ate was imprinted with a drawing made by Pietro specifically for that restaurant.

A video of Pietro Picetti on the topic can be found on YouTube.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kitchen Tools from Italy

Finally I am back from my 2 weeks trip to Italy. The trip was an enriching experience through the lands of Toscana and Liguria, and it gave me the opportunity to discover even more of my native land: the colors, beauty, flavours and traditions of the countryside.
Sightseeing in tiny villages, I came back with a few tools that I purchased from their little shops.

Visiting Toscana and Liguria, the lands of olive oil, it felt natural to buy some olive wood utensils, such as this bread tray. This is ideal to let my focaccias and loaves rest just after baking, letting plenty of air circulate below the bread.
I found it rather unusual that while I was visiting two of these utensils shops in Pienza, in both shops I came across some foreigners who were looking for spatulas for cooking. Both were looking for metal spatulas. I have difficulties understanding why somebody would want to buy a metal spatula in Italy, in a town where the speciality is beautifully carved wooden tools... :)

I love the beautiful veins of the wood that show on these olive wood bowls. These are all one piece, carved out of a log. All these utensils have been treated with oil, so that they won't absorb any more liquid during their use.

I have been looking for terracotta pots for the longest time, but unfortunately they are hard to find in Singapore. I bought this set of pots that are originally from Siena (Vulcania brand) and can be used not only for serving food, but also for cooking. This is a very classic Italian design, which brings back memories from when I was a kid.

I love ravioli, but what discourages me from making them regularly is the amount of work required to assemble them one by one. Making the filling and the dough is not a big deal, but cutting the sheets and sticking them together with the filling does take some time, if you intend to make a few dozens of them. I didn't need to think twice when I bought this ravioli making mould to make that process a breeze. The good thing is that the mould is designed for large ravioli, just the way I like them. I am looking forward to try this out!

One of the things I will never forget is visiting my grandmother in Abruzzo and having her "pasta alla chitarra", very rich in egg yolks, and dressed with her tomato sauce, made of her own home grown tomatoes. I still remember her using this tool, which is rather hard to find outside of Italy. It wasn't the cheapest buy, but worthwhile having, as it felt like buying a piece of tradition. The tool can be used both sides, to make thin tagliolini, or wider fettuccine.

This tool is called chitarra, which in Italian means guitar. The reason is pretty straightforward, given that it's a set of strings mounted onto a wooden frame, just like the well known music instrument. Once you lay the thin sheet of dough, a gentle roll over it is sufficient to cut it into perfectly regular tagliolini, which will have that characteristic square section.
I am back, enriched with experiences and 3 extra kilos around my waist, so I will wait a little before making the most out of these tools. Nevertheless, it's all extremely tempting!
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