Some people idolize rock or movie stars, I am a big fan of food writers and chefs who have an exceptional way of expressing themselves through food. This past week, I had the opportunity to venture out on the first Los Angeles Times Expedition with none other than Jonathan Gold, Laurie Ochoa and Nancy Silverton.
Our meet up point was in Bologna, Italy where we were going to tour the cities restaurants, cafes, gelaterias and food stands with some art and history throw into the mix. I decided to fly in early to tour Bologna a few days on my own, so after checking into the I Portici Hotel, my explorations began.
That evening, I decided to dine at the hotel, just too tired to charge up my google maps and hit the road. La Terrazza – bistro on the second floor, was preparing some of the cities traditional favorites, such as Tagiatelle Bolognese. The meat sauce in Bologna is very different than the American version, minimal tomato sauce with a focus on pork and beef. The handmade pasta is also the star on the plate, the bright egg noodles are not floating in a sea of sauce, so you can actually taste them.
My first morning, I headed into the city center to meet Carmelita of Cook Italy. Carmelita was born and raised in Malta and has lived in Bologna for over 20 years. She holds private cooking classes and market tours for visitors and locals alike. Her classes are tailored to your skill level and interests and I was there to practice making handmade pasta.
During our day, we toured through marketplaces of cheese, butcher shops, produce and bread vendors before starting our pasta making session in her apartment. What fun!
Our hands were busy preparing three traditional dishes; Stricchetti al Prosciutto Cotto e Pisellini (bow tie with ham and peas), Garganelli Salsiccia e Funghi (egg noodles with pork sausage, fresh mushrooms and dried porcini) and Fagottini di Magro (pasta purses stuffed with ricotta and parmesan in butter and sage).
Mortadella is originally from Bologna, which most are familiar, however Salame Rosa (its close cousin) – handmade pork shoulder mixed with guanciale (pork cheek) and rolled into casing, is disappearing in modern Bologna food culture. This leaner cut of pork is quite tender and tastes of roasted meat and is perfection stuffed inside a piece of fried bread (pane fritto) with a sliver of lardo (cured pork fat with herbs). We sampled some great salami and cured meats from La Salumeria in Bologna – another treat that Carmelita provided during our cooking class.
Dinner that evening at Trattoria del Rosso was a casual affair. I had learned that lasagna in Bologna is traditionally made with green pasta because the farmers in the local area used to add stinging nettles to the dough. Today, these handmade sheets are mostly made with spinach, so if you are eating lasagna in Bologna and it’s not green – it’s not an original.
The following day was my day to explore Bologna on my own, before I met my Expedition Groupies. Back to the city center I headed, then ventured down a small street where Ristorante Grassilli was located. The tiny space was picture perfect for lunch and I was looking for another Bologna traditional dish, Tortellini en Brodo. These tiny pasta rings are filled with veal and floating in a clear beef broth. I’m still amazed at the skill it takes to fold these tiny filled pockets.
After lunch a little calorie burning shopping (wishful thinking) and Zinelli clothing store was my first stop. The stylish Italian garments are fashionable with a casual flair. I bought a couple scarves and a sweater that I think will translate just fine back in Los Angeles.
Roccati is the place for chocolate in Bologna – family owned and operated with remarkable handmade taste. Their Easter displays and presentation of chocolates were spectacular, along with nice customer service, even for the non-Italian speakers.
On my jaunt back to the hotel (no I wasn’t hungry), but I’m in the land of gelato and Gelateria delle Moline was on my path. Their pistachio and hazelnut flavors had nice creamy texture and a nuttiness that I enjoyed. It was nice to watch the locals partake in a neighborhood favorite.
The group accumulated in the hotel bar with a meet and greet with Jonathan Gold, Laurie Ochoa and Nancy Silverton. After a few nibbles of parmesan and a wedge or two of mortadella, we head off to dinner at Pappagallo Ristorante.
The meal was served family-style and consisted of charcuterie, tagliatelle bolognese and T-bone steak. The service was impeccable for the size of our group and I think we were all thrilled just to be dining with our experts.
Our first full day together, we headed to Modena for a balsamic vinegar tour and tasting at Pedroni. Balsamic vinegar is cooked grape must that is aged is wood barrels. In 1862, Giuseppi Pedroni, who didn’t know what to do with his empty marsala wine barrels in his tavern, decided to start producing vinegar. Today, the Pedroni products range from the traditional balsamic – aged 1 year, to vinegar aged 40 years and up. The flavors sweeten and the consistency thickens as they age – perfect for drizzling over steak, gelato and fresh berries. Their website has recipes that include – balsamic vinegar – so check it out!
In the 1900’s, the Pedroni family turned the tavern into a restaurant – Osteria di Rubbiara. Their Italian rustic cooking with balsamic vinegar incorporated into every dish, was truly a highlight of the trip. No photos were taken because our cell phones were confiscated, but just use your imagination. The Roasted Rosemary Pork and Lambrusco Chicken were a few highlights of the meal.
After a day in Modena, we headed back to Bologna for an evening at a Butcher Shop/Wine Bar – Tamburini. The locals hangout for plates of cured meats and cheeses, tortellini en Brodo, lasagna or pumpkin tortellini. The casual atmosphere is a nice place to hangout after a long day of touring.
A few of us were on the hunt for the cities best gelato and our guide, Randall (who lived in Bologna for a number of years), suggested La Sorbetteria for a scoop, before retiring for the night – probably our favorite in Bologna.
In the morning, Parma was on the agenda and we landed at Antica Fattoria Caseificio Scalbrini. Our tour began in the production room, where workers stirred fresh cows milk, after rennet was added – just before the parmesan cheese began to coagulate.
Next, forming the parmesan into molds in two stages, followed by a salt bath for several weeks.
Then, the aging room for months and month and months…
Our lunch was a few miles away at Trattoria La Buca in Zibello. This restaurant has been run by generations of women who specialize in homestyle Italian cooking. Cured plates of culatello (pork rump cured on the premises), pumpkin ravioli, tagliatelle with pancetta & butter were our lunchtime meal. This place was a real locals spot out in the Emilia countryside.
Osteria Francescana was a huge highlight of this trip. Massimo Bottura has made his name on reinventing local flavors into unimaginable plates of wonder. The eleven course tasting menu blew my mind and I couldn’t help, but think – “wow” – this chef in a genius. The food was presented on designer plates that added to the experience and made the ingredients Pop! Some of his food I will never forget – snails, hare and herbs – a plate of snipped spring greens lying over snails and tortellini, while bathing in an aromatic herbal sauce.
Rice between duck a l’orange and peking duck was my second favorite dish of the night. Have you ever tasted a burnt orange that has been dehydrated for two weeks?? Well, now I have – tender rice kernels bathing in a fragrant bitter citrus sauce, flecked with wild poultry. My mouth didn’t know which senses it liked more – bitter, salty, sweet?
The adriatic chowder – a mini pastry filled with sea snails, razor clams and blue lobster with essence of truffle was a true gem. The chicken skin lid – crispy with a schmaltzy fragrance enhanced the combination of land & sea.
The chef prepared our palates for dessert with this transitional plate – chocolate & woodstock mushroom tart. It was chocolaty, woodsy and rich as all get out, and the presentation was stunning. A smear on a toasted piece of sourdough was all it took.
The finale was the only dish Jonathan had eaten before, which Chef Massimo is famous for – Oops! I dropped the lemon tart. Yes, you too can drop your homemade dessert and still plate it for guests.
The following day we headed to Tuscany for a tour and tasting at Antinori Winery – the land of Chianti Classico. Antinori built this modern museum/winery in 2012, which showcases their production facilities, tasting rooms, offices and restaurant. Originally, Chianti wine had to be made up of 70% Sangiovese grapes with the other 30% made up of Canaiolo and Malvasia grapes. Super Tuscans were born in the 1970’s when producers wanted to use different varieties of grapes, while still keeping the majority of the formula Sangiovese.
Lunch was at the winery at Rinuccio 1180, named after the founder of Antinori. Plates of charcuterie, gnocco fritto and stracciatella were served with their famous Tignanello wine – a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Cabernet Franc.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a little espresso, along with coconut, chocolate and butter cookies with our new friends.
After lunch we headed to Hotel Palazzo San Lorenzo in Siena. That evening we dined in the hotel at Ristorante Sopra le Mura, which used to be an old chapel – a very convenient spot after a long day of wine tasting. The pecorino flan with poached pear was balanced with savory and sweet flavors and peposo, shaved beef stew with pepper, was elegantly presented.
Today, we were off to the town of Arezzo to visit The Basilica San Francesco and take in the beauty of Piero della Francesca’s frescos. Not only does this town have magnificent art, but it is the town where Roberto Bennigni filmed part of his academy award winning film, “Life is Beautiful.”
We ventured just a few miles away in the province of Arezzo to Osteria Locanda il Canto del Maggio for lunch. The hilltop location was stunning with rustic rooftop views and a communal wooden table for dining.
We began our meal with charcuterie, fried and baked breads, and papa al pomodoro, which was slightly warm. The rustic Tuscan cuisine was something you might imagine your mom making if you lived in this town. Pici with wild hare and rabbit was earthy and mildly sweet from the roasted meat. Pork was the star of the secondi plate – pork sausage and roasted pork loin in pan juices with zolfino beans, which were tender with an elegant thin skin. Potatoes in this part of the country were naturally buttery and simply prepared – freshly picked, sliced, and roasted with olive oil.
It was definitely hard to say goodbye to this lovely place, but we all had gelato on the brain and knew we were headed for a tour and tasting in the hills of Terranuova Bracciolini at Parco Carabe, just a few miles away. The owner and chef, Antonio Lisciandro creates Sicilian style granitas and gelatos from raw ingredients with the absolute creamiest of textures – truly the best of the trip.
Dinner that evening was on our own to venture around Colle di Val d’Elsa. Many restaurants and cafes were closed, however we managed to find a decent meal, next door to the hotel at l’ Officina della Cucina Popolare. I enjoyed the deer cooked in red wine sauce, but the company was even better.
We were headed to Florence in the morning with a few stops along the way – Castello Di Volpaia, located in its own medieval village. Volpaia produces Tuscan wines focusing on Chianti and Chianti Riserva. The Vermentino was quite delightful as well, especially with the pecorino and preserved tomatoes that were served during our visit. Volpaia has lodging and cooking classes in season, so check their website for more information.
Next stop, the town of Panzano where we met up with Chef Dario Cecchini at his butcher shop and restaurants at Antica Macelleria Cecchini. This slightly eccentric chef, has made his name by respecting the animals he slaughters and using nose-to-tail in his shops and restaurants.
The minute we stepped into his place the fun began – AC/DC blaring on the speakers, while being served finocchina (fennel salami), fresh lardo on top of bread, and a splash of Chianti. Then, upstairs for a beef lovers lunch. Plates of beef tartar, seared rump carpaccio, slow roasted pork with capers (which tasted like tuna) and rib eye were served. Dario does not source his meat locally – he prefers the beef from Spain. I enjoyed the baked potato with whipped lardo – even more decadent than the beef.
On the ride to Florence, the Tuscan countryside was breathtaking, especially in the winter months when life is calm and still. We checked into Brunelleschi Hotel in the center of the duomo neighborhood, where once the church of San Michele stood.
Our final two days were spent in Florence, where we had a drizzling first night off. Way too full for another large meal, I opted for another gelato at Perche’ No! It was nice to walk around the city and take in the beauty of Cathedral de Santa Maria del Fiore. It’s magnificent gothic exterior and dome were quite impressive in the balmy sky.
In the morning, off to Cafe Gilli, the oldest coffee cafe in Florence. The perfectly steamed cappuccino and budino de riso, were divine. If you are in the market for beautifully decorated chocolates or holiday candies, this old school Italian coffeehouse had some of the nicest gifts.
Afterwards, a double market tour in Florence to see the local purveyors meats, cheeses, produce and condiments from the area. Mercato Centrale was filled with unique shops, especially Da Nerbone with boiled beef and lamb intestine (lampredotto) sandwiches. The butcher shops in this marketplace carried all kinds of animal parts from ligaments to uterus.
Our second marketplace was owned and operated by Cibreo, a small family from Florence, who runs multiple cafes and restaurants in the local area and where we were eating our final dinner. Their market was full with organic produce, bakery and grocery items, as well as a rooftop garden with fresh herbs and small fruit trees.
It was our last day in Florence, so I made my way around the city and found a nice place for lunch – Buchetta Food & Wine. The small space was very charming with wooden tables throughout. The staff, very friendly with good menu suggestions. The chicken liver crostini with burratina salad was creamy and rustic, I enjoyed savoring my last taste of local mozzarella. Duck papparadelle with cocoa – a plate full of surprise – poultry cubed and cooked into a thin ragu and sprinkled with dark cocoa powder. I worked my way through the lovely sauce, trying to save room for dinner that evening.
After lunch, a walk along the Arno to see Florence on both sides of the river. It was a beautiful crisp day after the rain and I wanted to take in every minute. One more stop for gelato at Gelateria dei Neri on the way back to the hotel and a quick shopping spree at Stefanel for a few Italian spring pieces.
Our dinner was back at Cibreo Ristorante with Chef Fabio Picchi for an elegant farewell dinner. The mini plates of shared starters were most impressive. The salted lemon yogurt, sformato and whipped almond spread on toast were most pleasing, but it’s hard to beat fresh warm ricotta, marinated tripe, sliced prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes.
The minestrone with red rice was heart-warming, especially on my last night in Italy with the group. The veal parmesan with stewed vegetables surrounded by a pastry rim had home cooked taste, but the cheesecake with bitter orange and caramel panna cotta, really caught my attention.
After dinner, we gathered back at the hotel to say our goodbyes and thank you’s to our experts for such an outstanding week. I can’t say enough how much I appreciated their time and shared knowledge of the food, wine and culture of Italy – until next time.