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Like a Hug on a Fork

15 May

Cartoons often have a character hankerin’ after a certain kind of food.  Have you noticed that?  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crave pizza (and poor dialogue).  Then there’s Dagwood and his monster sandwiches and Wimpy with his burger.  Then there’s Garfield with his beloved lasagna.  Can you blame him?  That big orange cat is on to something.

Ah, Kraft's Tangy Italian. Like it says on the box... "Classic"!

Pasta is amazing.  I’ve been wanting to write a post about it for some time.  Mainly because every site I visit in my research on Italy has something about pasta on it.  And why shouldn’t they?  Did you know that the average Italian eats 60 pounds of the stuff a year?  For comparison, your typical yankee scarfs down 20 pounds.  So besides the fact that there is a job involving weighing food, we also learn that the Italians really are serious about pasta.  It’s not just a stereotype.  In fact, they eat so much that they have to import the most of the semolina used to make it.

Another thing that these Italian info sites have in common is that they want to make absolutely, positively, definitely, unquestionably, affirmatively sure that you know Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Italy.  This is important to them because the Italians have a long history of eating noodles and it started much earlier.  Try the early 800s.  And when you’ve been doing something for that long you get really good at it.  You allow it enough time to dry properly in the right heat, unlike most mass produced pasta.  And then you put butter and truffles on it or olive oil and garlic.

But things got really serious when pasta met the tomato.  Tomatoes were foreign to Italy and were brought over from the new world.  Initially they were thought to be poisonous as they belonged to the same family as nightshade.  When this bad press was corrected the tomato got cooking, literally, and the Italian love affair with the little guy is legend.  However, this love story only goes back to the late 1830s.  If you’re doing the math, then you know that a thousand years came and went where pasta didn’t have red sauce to mate with.  The Mister may have lived on as he’s a fettucine alfredo sort but I don’t know if I’d have made it to the ripe old age of 33 without marinara.  But enough about me…

The other thing that happened during Italy’s long pasta history was the different shapes we know today.  Some shapes are attributed to a certain region of Italy.  A bunch of thought was put into the design of each shape.  For example you may notice that some have ridges to hold onto the sauce.  It’s like someone got a hold of a Play Dough Fun Factory and got creative.  And delicious.  And you may find it interesting that spaghetti was originally called macaroni.  Or you might just be reading this to find out more about Garfield.  No dice.

I’m hoping that we’ll get to try a bunch of different pasta dishes while we’re in Italy.  I’m not going to wait until then to eat up though.  If you’re in the Twin Cities you may want to visit some of my favorites below.  Mangia bene!

Get Your Pasta On

Degidio’s – huge portions, á la Kid Bullets

Carmelo’s Ristorante

Broders’ Cucina Italiana – fresh pasta

Cosetta’s Italian Market-Pizzeria – cafeteria style

Jakeeno’s Pizza and Pasta – amazing red sauce

Amore Victoria

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Yes, Sardines

6 May

Photo by Sue Alex on Flickr, "nom nom" noises by me.

The Mister and I love to frequent restaurants where people love food and love preparing it.  A few years ago I was on a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives kick.  Though we’d feel somewhat overwhelmed by the number of highly-caloric food options Guy picked, we enjoyed seeing people who loved food doing their thing.  I saw a pattern.  Many of the best cooks had picked it up from a relative, a cookbook, or just a need to eat something the way that they liked it.  They had thought of details in the preparation that would only occur to someone who sat up at nights wondering if corn meal would be good on a pizza crust.  (It is, it so totally is.)

When traveling it’s good to seek out these people and ask for their best dish.  Dad has always liked to walk into a restaurant and ask what their special is, even if that “restaurant” is McDonald’s.  It makes sense though.  What’s on special is typically what is fresh.  Dad’s other trick was to ask the wait staff what they liked and just order that, no questions asked.  Let them feed you what they are really proud of and then lean back and rub your belly in contentment. 

This does require that you go to places where people care.  The more off the beaten path, the better.  If mom and pop are running the place with junior working the tables they are going to be serving food they enjoy to locals.  They don’t have the time or resources to see if chipotle is trending right now.  And they don’t care because that’s not the food that they love.  But when you tangle with someone’s love, be prepared.  Their idea of wonderful may not be yours and this is where I want to encourage you to try. 

Speaking of trying, how about our little friend the sardine?  I know that he’s typically hated on along with his pal, the anchovy.  Oh, and the herring.  They get hated on, too.  I get that.  Maybe you don’t like things out of a can.  But what about fresh?  What about just caught off the coast in a fishing boat that morning?  What if given TLC and attention by a cook who knows them best?  Think of it this way.  What if someone told you that they didn’t like ham based only on their trying Spam?  Or if I told you that I can’t stand asparagus because I’ve only ever had it boiled within an inch of its life?  I think that’s what those who think highly of the sardine would want us to remember.  Now, I’m going to try it and I promise to report back if I regret this post.  But look at that picture I found on Flickr.  It’s from the Cinque Terre, a group of five small towns in Italy where the Mister and I will be spending two nights.  If I can eat White Castle sliders, I can definitely give this guy a whirl.

One last plug for the sardine, this guy is currently a safe choice according to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood WATCH list.  This is the group that tells us when to back off from eating certain kinds of fish for awhile so as not to eliminate them altogether.  So I’m guessing they are yummy but at least we know that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, which is good.  The last time I liked something they discontinued them (I’m looking at you Planter’s Cheez Balls!)