Italia on 3000 calories per day
by Janice Nigro
Yes, I surrender. It is not possible to be budget conscious when it comes to calories in Italy.
When you are there, you can see no reason not to try just about everything that you see. You pay for the bread on the table (coperto) so you might as well eat it, and while you are doing that sop it up with a little extra virgin olive oil (which is good for you anyway).
My only strategy is to try to minimize breakfast even though eating breakfast is one of the better strategies for controlled eating for the rest of the day. I treat it as an appetizer to the rest of the day because as soon as you leave your hotel, you are assaulted by sights and aromas that you will not be able to pass up. The calories in the croissant at the breakfast buffet are not worth indulging in when, for example, you could have an exquisite piece of pizza like nowhere else.
That nowhere else is Pugi in Firenze. It is an understated spot off the beaten path, but crammed with locals nearly always. You wait anxiously for your number to be called, revising your menu as each new pizza arrives from the oven in the back.
I know what pizzas they have, so when they don’t have those pizzas, I know to ask for them. Four days in Firenze seemed like plenty of time to have a taste of all of my favorite pizzas but suddenly we were down to the last day. I was desperate to see my favorite pizza through the glass, but it was not there. So I asked for it in Italian.
“It is coming,” was the response. I think she went back and asked them to make it. I figure that since I knew what to ask for, radicchio with tartufo oil, the woman behind the counter knew that I was a serious Pugi fan. In the meantime, she gave me a snack (as if I needed that) while I was waiting for my pizza. Finally, the deliciousness came out, warm, and the first cut went to me.
If only Pugi existed nearby…or maybe thankfully I have to go all the way to Italia to eat this kind of pizza.
I have been treated many times to the kind of restaurants in Firenze with dim lights and candles and menus in daily development. There is another type. The kind where you might share a table with strangers, the lights are bright, and the menu is handwritten and taped to the window. This is Trattoria Sostanza situated on the narrow dimly lit Via del Porcellana. We tried unsuccessfully one evening just to drop in, but for the level of casualness it looks from the outside, there is no chance to eat there without a reservation. Luckily we were able to book a table (or rather 4 seats) for our last night in the city.
It is a small narrow restaurant-really it seems as if there is no room for you if you have already eaten too much. Our table was near the kitchen so we saw each dish as it went on its way to another customer. The view is better apparently if you pass through the kitchen on your way to the facilities. Despite all of the relative simplicity, we still conferred with our waiter on what to order. The primo piatto which was really a secondo was easily decided for me-tortino di carciofi. Something with artichokes…And I went with a signature dish, a chicken breast which looked something like what I was familiar with-a batter of eggs and bread crumbs-only this one was sauted in butter.
The waiter still managed to convince us to have dessert just because they are famous for it. Simply stated on the menu “dolce con fragoline” roughly tells you that is it was something sweet with strawberries. It arrived with four forks/spoons-layers of meringue with strawberries and cream mixed with bits of dark chocolate. There was not much time to linger as the second seating was starting at 9 so we were kindly asked to move our evening onto another spot.
Sometimes it is hard to remember what brings you to a place time and again at certain times of the year. I always thought my parents traveled to Italy in the fall because it was both their anniversary and my father’s birthday. But a lot of other people travel there then too. I forget that it is the season of harvest-for grapes, vegetables, and most importantly diverse fungi.
One of our main missions in Bologna was to reach a small old restaurant in the heart of tartufo country. It is the season in fall for the tartufi-truffles as we know them-that delicacy that we view under glass like precious jewels here in the USA. They are a delicacy there too, but they have a lot of them.
The restaurant was located in a small town outside of Bologna, Savigno. A private car with a driver was arranged for us in order to reach the restaurant, Trattoria Amerigo dal 1934. It took about an hour to drive up into the hills and through the forest from Bologna.
It couldn’t have been cozier. And before you even have a taste, the aroma of the tartufi surrounds and perhaps enchants you (which you might say anyway if you were Spanish). It was impossible to decide what not to eat. We had help, in fact from the chef/owner himself. Not only was his English super, so were his jokes. When we told him what we were thinking of having as a first course-he said it was not possible to serve them all together as the dishes with truffles and the one with balsamic vinegar would be like a thunderstorm. So we all got our primo piatti but in a specific order (like primo piatti A and then B) that he suggested in order to avoid the thunderstorm on our palates.
Truffles are not cheap, and one tends to think of them as rare. Yet, this restaurant did not use them sparingly. Primo piatti A consisted of polenta fluida and a local dish called passatelli. Passatelli look like pasta but they are made from bread. While I messed around taking photos, the chef told the others to start eating. Both dishes had grated white truffles (grated doesn’t seem like the right word here) liberally sprinkled on them, and well they were absolute heaven to eat. Both the polenta and passatelli so delicately accompanied the white truffle, so as to make the most of it. Stuffed pasta with a sauce made of balsamic vinegar (primo piatto B) followed.
For the main dish, I chose pork with white truffles. I faltered for a moment, secondguessing my choice. The chef pointed out that the main difference between the dishes was the price, i.e. white truffles, as if that would help me. I stuck with my initial choice, and it was not a mistake. My mother not surprisingly ordered the pheasant and could not eat it fast enough. The chef gave some useful advice here as well-you can use your hands if you would like.
Although I love chocolate and gelato, I can usually skip dessert. But there are times when you know that if you don’t try something somewhere, you will never have the chance anywhere else.
Ricotta desserts are unique to Italia, although cannoli (which are Sicilian to be correct) are well known worldwide. We can get ricotta in the USA, but it is never like the ricotta in Italia. So at Amerigo dal 1934, I went for a simple but exquisite dessert, something I would only have there. It was whipped ricotta, slightly sweetened with something else I had never heard of–saba. If it sounds like something alcoholic you are partly right. It is a clever ancient way of concentrating sugar from the juice of pressed grapes and thus used as a sweetener.
It is difficult to emphasize in writing and in photographs the fragrance of truffles filling the restaurant. I have to say this was truly a sense of smell kind of trip-some I can not get out of my head-balsamic vinegar, truffles (both the fungus and the chocolate kind), and freshly pressed grapes at the wineries.
I had never been to Bologna. The oldest university and medical school in Europe are here. I had wanted to go to the Universita di Bologna when I was a university student to learn Italian one summer. I was unable to do so, and I often wonder how different my life might have been had I gone. Like would I have ever come back? A young chef at the restaurant was from San Francisco and worked at a restaurant I knew. He was there to learn, but therein lies the dilemma-how could he possibly go back and cook like this in San Francisco?
The one thing I was told to do in Bologna was to eat tortellini. It is truly the capital of tortellini if such a place should exist. I thought I would die if I did not have tortellini before I left Bologna.
Our driver, Rosanno, from the Amerigo 1934 adventure, suggested a trattoria for lunch on a tour to Modena from Bologna. We were a bit lost trying to find it even in a small square, all because we forgot to look up-or Rosanno forgot this one key detail. After a phone call and then asking one stranger and then a second, we found it. There it was, across from the market as Rosanno said, but on the “first floor” right above our heads. Trattoria Aldina was simple, a large room like in someone’s home filled with small tables covered in white tablecloths, and it was mostly Italians dining there.
This time there were no real decision making issues-I knew exactly what I was going to have-tortellini in brodo. Now this is something worth discussing for a moment. I thought I knew what tortellini were my whole life, but I was wrong. I know the shape, but real tortellini have only meat in them. No ricotta, no spinach. Furthermore, there are only two ways to eat them: in brodo or con panna. Served in broth or with cream. Apparently if you see them with ragu, this is only for the tourists, at least according to Rosanno. Rosanno went on to further explain why ragu doesn’t go with tortellini-because the flavor of ragu is too overpowering for the tortellini. I would have to agree.
Any other stuffed pasta however can have whatever else in it. Tortellini are not to be confused with tortelloni. And ravioli have different stuffings as well. The exact mix of meats Rosanno did not know-his mother-in-law is the one who makes them in his house.
I once asked the concierge in my hotel in Paris if there were any good restaurants nearby. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I felt like an idiot. It is no different in Roma…At this point in the trip, I was saying to myself, “I am only going to have the secondo.” Maybe a salad too. But it is impossible for me to pass up on anything with artichokes in it. So there I was, over two weeks into a European adventure and still ordering a primo piatto-ravioli with carciofi at Le Sorelle near the Spanish Steps.
It was porcini time (another famous fungus also served to me as steinsopp or steinpilz) so my secondo was filet with porcini. I always wonder whether all of these mushrooms/fungi have anything in them that is good for you-you cook them and they shrivel up into next to nothing. For something that grows on dead stuff, though, they taste unbelievably great. Porcini even have the honor of being distinguished by which kind of dead stuff they grow on. I actually saw a handwritten sign in the market at Campo dei Fiori distinguishing between which tree types the porcini were harvested from.
At the end of all of these days of eating, I still looked forward to my favorite gelateria in Roma-La Romana. I partly appreciated La Romana because it was a good distance from the hotel. That meant mostly locals would be there (or next to no one) and I would feel as if I burned off a few calories-it even includes a hill-before ingesting the calorie bomb. But now there is more than one, and one is much closer to the hotel (I only went once).
I am not shy-three flavors for me: bacio di dama con mandorle tostate, crema di pistacchio, and ciocolato fondente. Only it wasn’t bacio di dama con mandorle tostate this time; I had to improvise, so it was crema di nocciola (hazelnuts) al cacao. And it all starts with a few drops of liquid milk chocolate dripped into the bottom of the cone…if you so desire.
There was a whole lot of eating in between so-called meals-especially in Firenze where the Lindt chocolate store is right in the middle of everything. Some of the hotels seem to be aware of this issue of the overeating traveler (or they are sending us a message). An exercise bicycle was in our room in the hotel in Bologna. None of it helped because despite the fact that I walked over 10 miles most days, when I arrived back in the USA, I felt as if I could barely fit into my pants which were already the forgiving kind.
The crazy thing is, if you think you can escape an entire day without surrendering, forget it, because there will be one last temptation…the chocolate on your pillow…
The most confusing part is what to eat when you return. When I lived in Norway, I simply did not eat for about 48 hours. Even in LA with such a diversity in available cuisines, nothing compares. And maybe it is better that way.
Good night and sweet dreams wherever you are…
PS My food photographs rate as pretty poor, but it is a conflict of interest to take them while trying to eat!
©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com