Thursday, August 14, 2008


Buon giorno tutti!

Well, I’m done! I graduated on April 4th, and what a week it was! It was great to reconnect with my classmates and my chef and language instructors in NY.

I really missed everyone – especially the Chefs! I thought it would be fun for you to see a couple of pictures from that evening.

I am also excited to share something that happened out of sending my Travelogues! The International Culinary Center (home of The Italian Culinary Academy and The French Culinary Institute) have created a blog site, that resides in the ICA website, with my Travelogues! (How cool is that??)

This week Larry and I started the process of incorporating my company – Bella Cucina Maria.

Next week I have my formal cooking debut at the New York Junior League – which I am so thrilled about! So much to think about, and do! (I wouldn’t have it any other way!)

Thank again for being a part of my cooking adventure…

ciao ciao from Chef Maria!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Epilogue - Arrivaderchi

Arrivaderci Italia!

So here I am, waiting for Larry to bring the car around to the hotel. We are just about to take off for the airport. Larry and I ended up on different flights. My frequent flyer miles are taking me through London, and he, lucky devil, is on a direct flight home! I thought this would be a perfect moment to send my final European message to you!

I am dedicating my Travelogue-Epilogue to Larry. How did I ever get so lucky? Larry came in to my life eight years ago, as I was just about to give up on finding “Mr. Right.” Most of you know the story, Victoria Freedman (our mutual friend) tried unsuccessfully for 3 months to fix us up – and then finally we both agreed. From that first date we have been inseparable.

Larry is my rock. From my happiest moments - walking down the aisle, receiving Junior League accolades or creating a perfect meal – to depths of my darkest moments thinking about our sweet Nicholas – he is there. He is always there, with a supportive word, a soft touch, or a big hug. We are so perfectly matched. (Thank you Victoria!) He is the “lid” to my “pot.” We rarely argue – when we do, it’s generally just a disagreement on how to raise Elinor – typical for parents, I think!

I told my mother a few weeks ago that this Italian adventure was the hardest thing I have ever done. Ever the pragmatist she replied, "Everyone feels that way when they are in the middle of doing something new." She reminded me that I said the same thing a few years ago while I was in the throws of Graduate school work. On this count, I probably would have to disagree. Being away from Larry’s physical presence has been very challenging for me. Oh, we figured out a way to talk almost twice a day, and send hundreds of emails and text messages … but it just wasn’t the same.

I remember one day so clearly last April, we were on the train going home and I was crying about something – unfortunately a typical occurrence at that time. Larry looked at me with such concern and said, "I'm so worried about you, I miss my happy wife." I knew at that moment I needed to do something, and quickly! When I first entertained the "go-to-Italy-and-be-a-chef" idea I think Larry thought I had completely lost my mind. (I won’t even tell you what my Mother said!) But he knew that the one thing that did make me happy (except for him, of course) was to be in a kitchen and cooking!

So the long and short of it is this – I could not have done this without him. For that, I am so very grateful he is my husband, my life-partner, my best friend… the love of my life!

Grazie mille mia amore, è qui alla nostra prossima avventura!
Sono il vostro sempre,

(A thousand thanks my love, here is to our next adventure!
Yours always, Maria)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Last Week in Italy

Buon giorno amici!

So here I am, my last full week in Italy. I spent the beginning of the week trying to organize my things and begin to pack. When Larry arrived on Thursday I think he expected me to be a little further along… oh well!

I did a few “last time” ritual things this week. I did my last walk back-and-forth to the café on Tuesday. They were just so nice to me day after day, sitting in the corner with my laptop!

Another ritual I had was to go to dinner every Tuesday night at a little trattoria, about a 10-minute walk from the hotel. I would take a book with me and read while I was having dinner. I got through a few good ones while I was here: Playing for Parma (John Grisham), Standing in the Rainbow (Fannie Flagg), My Life in France (Julia Child) and How I Learned to Cook, Culinary Educations of the World’s Greatest Chefs (Kimberly Witherspoon) and Near a Thousand Tables (Felipe Fernando-Armesto). They too were so great, letting me sit for hours slowing consuming my dinner, engrossed in my reading!

At the urging of the boys, I had Larry bring fun American food. For dinner I made hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut and French fries. It was completely perfect, well – it could only have been better sitting at Yankee or Shea Stadium with a huge beer! The boys were all fascinated with spicy mustard and relish! For dessert I taught them how to make s’mores. Marshmallows are non-existent in Italy – so they were all completely mesmerized. It was very funny! On Friday morning I make Bisquick pancakes with Aunt Jemimia syrup. As they were watching me one of them remarked – ahh… crepes! (How much more “American” could I get?!)

On Friday night Mark, Linda, Terry and Scott arrived from Sorrento. They zipped over to Reale with Larry for a fabulous dinner. They all had a great time. It was so much fun to be cooking for them! After dinner I came out (sans uniform) and joined them at the table.

On Saturday, we all said arrivederci to Abruzzo and headed west to Roma. It’s fun being back here with Larry. Yesterday we spent hours in the Museo Nationale Romano. It was so much fun wandering around looking at the ancient Roman artifacts! We’re both crazy about ancient Roman and Greek life… no surprise I guess!! Just as we were about to leave we bumped in to Scott and Terry who had been there at the same time – but wandering around on different floors! We hopped over to the Piazza della Rotunda and had shared a lovely bottle of vino with antipasti, in the shadow of the Pantheon. After zipping back to the hotel for a quick change, we headed back out for dinner. Larry found a great recommendation in his Rick Steve’s Guide and dinned near the Piazza della Rebubblica at Ristorante Target.

Today we head back to the Coliseum and Palatine Hill. We didn’t get a chance to walk through them in January. Then tonight we’re all off to La Caletta, the lovely Sardinian ristorante we went to in January for my birthday.

Tomorrow we head for the airport and my new adventure in America. This has been an amazing journey for me, and I am so glad I was able to share it with you. I am very excited about starting my new chapter. In the coming weeks Larry and I will be creating my new company “Bella Cucina Maria.” My goal is to have a catering business, specializing in private dinner parties and other special events. I am also going to try my hand at creating a line of food products. (Stay tuned for more information on that!) In mid-April I will be the guest Chef for a dinner at the New York Junior League. As soon we finalize the details, I will send you all the information.
So for now I am just going to say “ciao ciao, a dopo”!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

From Roccaraso to Sulmona

Buon giorno tutti!
What a fun week I have to report! On Tuesday I took a little trip to Sulmona. It’s a quick 30-minute bus ride from Roccaraso. Sulmona is a beautiful ancient city, the birthplace of Ovid. In the early 1700’s an earthquake nearly razed the city, but luckily several important buildings survived. Sulmona is best known for producing Confetti – an absolutely scrumptious confection, which comes in a variety of flavored fillings, including a confection made simply of a covered almond. The Pelino Company ( has been producing Confetti since the mid-1700’s. You find it all over Abruzzo, and in many pasticcerria establishments throughout Italy. Cristiana arranged for me to have a private tour of the factory and museum. After seeing the factory I wandered around Sulmona for a few hours taking in the pretty little town.

It finally snowed … and I really mean “snowed” here. It started on Wednesday morning and continued at a slowed, but deliberate pace, until Friday. It was absolutely beautiful! On Thursday morning I got up early and took a walk into the town and took a bunch of pictures. There had to be at least 6 inches that morning; and by the evening, at least another 2. Roccaraso isn’t quite as picturesque as Rivisondoli, or Pescocostanza. The town was destroyed during WW2, and built back up in the 50’s. It doesn’t have the “quaintness” or ancient look of Rivisondoli or Pescocostanza. Nevertheless, as you see in the pictures, it was quite beautiful that morning!

In most restaurants the staff eats together. Generally one person is in charge of making the food – but the boys take turns now and then. Cristiana asked me if I wanted to do a dinner one night, and I suggested Greek food. So on Thursday I was in charge of the family meal. I decided on Moussaka (eggplant casserole), Tiropita (crispy fillo dough with a feta cheese filling), a Greek salad and Baklava for dessert. As it turned out, we didn’t have any customers that night. Strangely I think the snow kept people away. (Strange, because it’s a ski town!) Anyway, it turned out to be a really fun night. They all seemed to be enthralled with me cooking… coming over… watching… asking questions. They helped me with everything - it was very cute! I don’t think I have ever seen my food consumed so quickly. The Moussaka disappeared in no less than five minutes… it was absolutely hysterical! After dinner I pulled out my laptop and started showing them all sorts of pictures. Wedding, honeymoon, vacations, Junior League events… you name it. The funny part - they are all completely enamored with Elinor (remember, they are all 20!), asking me all sorts of questions about her. I had some fun pictures of the three of us from the Junior League Winterball last year, and she looked gorgeous all dressed up. They were all oohing and awing…

The rest of the week rolled along. On Saturday Italy celebrated a day called Festa della Donna… Lady’s Day. It’s traditional to give women a sprig of a flower called a Mimosa. ( Cristiana brought me a tiny bouquet which was so sweet. Also on Saturday – which was a crazy day because of the holiday – Cristiana snapped a picture of me at the risotto station. I thought you would get a kick out seeing me in action! I’ve also officially “graduated” to making the risotto right through to plating. Niko lets me cook it, but will generally plate it himself. This weekend I got to do the entire dish, and got a “bellisama” in the process. (Very exciting!) Remember the new amuse-bouche artichoke soufflé I showed you a few weeks ago? It’s evolved just a little bit more. The artichoke soufflé still sits in burrata cream and is topped with a candied artichoke; but now there is also a bit of finely chopped caper and olive oil. (It really is quite tasty!) Well, this week I was put in charge of that; prepping and service!

So now I start preparing… I have so much stuff to pack. I‘m a little embarrassed to say that Larry is bringing me another empty suitcase with him this week. I’m not really sure how I accumulated more things, but somehow I have! So tomorrow I will at least get started! On Friday our friends Mark, Linda, Scott and Terry will be arriving in Rivisondoli. I’m so excited that they have worked a side trip in to their respective vacations to see me! On Friday night they, and Larry, will be dining at Reale. I’ve been working on the order of their tasting menu with Cristiana… it should be loads of fun! Then Saturday we all head to Rome for a few days.

I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to be sad to leave here. Everyone has really treated me like part of the family – even at the hotel. It’s been a very special experience for me. The boys have now taken to saying, “I louv you Mahry” (I love you Maria), which is quite sweet. Knowing myself – I’m sure I will be sad… although as I write this, I’m only thinking about Larry arriving on Thursday afternoon, and being home in eight days.

Arrivederci fino alla prossimo settimana!


Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Quiet Week

Buon giorno amici,

Happy March! The weather has been quite mild, all things considered. Except for one day this week it’s been in the 40’s and 50’s here. Unfortunately, not the best news for a ski town… this week it was very quiet at the restaurant. We had 2 or 3 days without lunch customers. The boys seem to thrive on the excitement and focus – not having that actually had them at each other’s throats by the end of the week. It’s fascinating to see them interact with each other. Not only do they work together all day, but during the week, they live with each other. One big happy dorm life. At first I was a little annoyed to be living in another town, having to be picked up each morning and brought back at night. (The drive is 5-7 minutes and to walk it's about 40 minutes.) Larry has reminded me on occasion, when I’ve vented about them, how lucky I actually am that I live in another place!

So, let’s talk about last week. On Monday and Tuesday (my days off) I walked to a neighboring town called Pescocostanza. It’s about a 30 minute walk beyond Rivisondoli. There is a pedestrian walkway around the hills to get there. If the terrain was just flat – the hour plus walk would not be so bad. It’s just the up and down on the hills. Both days turned out to be beautiful and sunny – but incredibly windy! I was feeling very empowered, and did the walk back and forth both days. (Someone remind me how old I am?) Anyway, Pescocostanza is an ancient village overlooking the Quarto Grande (on the hills of Monte Calvario). The town is lovely with graceful piazzas, palazzi and fountains. The town is known as an arts and crafts center with many artisan shops (lace, carving, ironworks).

If you remember, last week I mentioned how tired I was feeling. Well, it was actually a bad cold coming on. Yep… you got it… I was down for the count on Wednesday! So I called Cristiana and said I was going to stay “home.” Wednesday was a very quiet day, so I didn’t feel terribly guilty about not going to work. The rest of the week dragged on. It wasn’t until Saturday and yesterday that we got really busy.

At some point this week they (the boys) all realized that my time to leave was getting closer. So they decided to torture me relentlessly. Sometimes it’s fun… but most of the time it’s completely irritating. I finally had Cristiana say something, which did the trick. Peace reigned once again in the kitchen. (Like I said, when they are left to their own devices, the insufferable 20-year old comes out!)

I’m taking a break from the food pictures this week, to show you a little of the countryside. Most of these were taken on my walk last week between Rivisondoli and Pescocostanza. The countryside in Abruzzo is just amazing. It reminds me a little of the Utah and Montana. Here are just miles and miles of open land, and huge mountain ranges. (So perfect for this “Big Sky”gal!) It really is quite breathtaking and peaceful. Dotted along the walkways there are tiny benches to sit and ponder life. Both days I packed a prosciutto and cheese panino and took it all in! If you look carefully in the Piazza picture you will see a water fountain. The next photo is me standing on it!

I’m happy to say that as of today Lorenzo will be arriving in 10 days, I’ll be done working in 11, and on a plane home in 15. Wahoo!
Enjoy the pictures and chat with you soon!
Ciao ciao!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Chef Niko Romito

Buon giorno tutti!

This seemed to be a very very long week. I’m not really sure why. The new guy (Davide) started, so we had two extra hands; and we did not have as many customers as the week before – so who knows? At some point in the middle of the week I started feeling a little icky. By last night I had almost lost my voice, today it’s gone! I think I was close to “hitting the wall,” as my friend Carin might say. The 60 hour weeks are catching up to me. I did manage to sleep last night for 10 hours – which is unusual for me!

Well, enough of that! Let’s talk … I decided that this week I wanted to tell you a little bit more about Niko Romito. His story is quite fascinating. He is in his early 30's and compared to many other Chefs, he hasn't really being doing this for a long time. He studied Economics in college, and during the weekends and summers he helped his father out at the family Pasticceria (pastry shop) in Rivisondoli. In 1999 his father became quite ill and passed away sadly. It was right after that that Niko decided to change his career path and become a Chef. In 2000 he studied at Etoile in Venice and revamped the pastry shop into a restaurant. In the beginning it was very difficult. His vision of Abruzzo cuisine was dramatically different that what was typically served. People would literally come in, see the menu, and walk out. It was hard, but with the support of his family, especially his sister Cristiana who came to help him, things started to turn around.

In 2005 he was invited to join Jeunes Restaraunteurs d'Europe. This is a special group of talented young Chefs in over 10 different European countries. You must be between 25 and 45 years old to be an active member of the organization. Also in 2005 he received the Il Gastronanta d'Oro award. That award is given to 10 Chefs each year, chosen by the prominent food critic Davide Paolini. In 2006 he was named Il Giovane dell'Anno (Young Chef of the Year) in Italy; and was named Emerging young Chef by Gambero Rosso. Then in 2007 he was awarded his first Michelin Star.

It is generally unprecedented for a Chef in Italy to rise that quickly - but he is quite talented. Admittedly he claims to be a “self-taught” chef for the most part, with an easy going and welcoming personality. I feel very lucky to be working in his kitchen. He is experimental and creative, and always seeks the input of the people around him. He also takes a critical look at the menu and looks for ways to change and enhance the offering. For example, remember the “Cipolla” dish I showed you when I first came to Reale? It was the onion that came as an amuse-bouche. Well, he decided to do something different and over the course of this week he created something new. It’s a small artichoke soufflé in burrata cream, topped with a slice of candied artichoke. On Wednesday it started as #1 and by Saturday night is was #3. It was fun to see him play with it until it worked!

Well, Larry will be here in just 2 and half weeks to bring me home … I think I’m going to miss everyone here a little bit – even the pazzo (crazy) kitchen boys – who drive me crazy – constantly. This week they learned to say “come on Maria,” and said it incessantly. It was funny for about 1 day – but by Sunday was over it! 20 year olds – what can I do?? I will miss Cristiana the most. She has been so wonderful and so much fun. She helps me with my Italiano and I help her with Inglese. I’ve been trying to talk her in to coming to NYC for a visit when the restaurant closes for the month of May.

I’m missing you all too – and really can’t wait to be home to my little family and many friends!
Ciao ciao!!


Friday, July 4, 2008

Sous Vide Eggs

Buon giorno amici!

This week turned out to be a very long week. As you know, last week was Valentine’s Day – or in Italiano “San Valentino” day. We were packed that night and then the rest of the nights after. What does “packed” actually mean? Well, it’s anywhere from 26 to 29 people (the maximum the restaurant holds). While that doesn’t really sound like a lot of people, one thing you should know is that many small higher-end restaurants in Italy generally have one seating. The meal can last up to two and half hours, from start to finish. Most customers that come to Reale order Niko’s tasting menu. From amuse-bouche to dolce there are nine plates. The other interesting thing about dining in Italy is that many do it late. We sometimes have customers showing up at 9:30 or 10:00. Generally most between 8:00 and 9:00, though. So jugging that many plates over that long a time can be a bit hairy at times. Once it starts, though, it can be fun. Niko is always there helping, which is great for me to watch.

This week, I made many more risottos during service. He still looks over my shoulder (which is fine by me!) but mostly lets me at it. Other than that, I just help garnish the plates here and there, and clean up. My mornings are spent either doing prep work, or cleaning pots. While cleaning up gives me time to “zone-out” and think about home, it can be frustrating. I haven’t gotten to make any stocks or make pastas. So yesterday I got up the nerve to say something to Cristiana. Cristiana is Niko’s sister. She has been with him since the beginning. She pretty much runs the business aspect of the restaurant, is the acting maître’d, and sommelier. She speaks English very well, and I think likes the idea that there is another woman to just commiserate with, when her brother and the boys get out of line.

Getting back to yesterday, we were chatting in the morning about school, my final and graduating in April. I was telling her that I hoped to be able to replicate the Latte Risotto for my teachers in NY, and at that moment Niko arrived. She was repeating it to him in Italian, and then he said that next week he wanted to spend some time with me doing pasta. I figured I might as well seize the moment … I said that I was really happy to hear that because I was hoping to be doing some other things before I leave. I said, while I really don’t mind that much, I do spent most of my time in front of the sink between 9:30 and 11:30, and don’t see a lot of what the boys are doing. They told me that next week another student from ALMA was arriving to do his stage and (in my words) I will no longer be low-man-on-the-totem-pole. This is such great news! I only have about three and half weeks left – so I really want to learn a few more things before I go!!

So, let’s see… I was thinking about what pictures I could send you this week. You’ve already seen the risottos and the desserts. Last night I got to plate an “Uova” antipasti. Uova is simply egg, in Italian. Niko has three versions of it on the menu. The one I plated last night was Uova e Patate (left). The thing that makes this dish so incredibly unique is how the eggs are cooked. They're prepared using a process called a “sous vide.” ( By cooking the egg this way, for an hour and half, the yolk and white have exactly the same consistency. The flavor is amazingly creamy and smooth. So here are the plates: one is served simply with a few oven-dried tomatoes (we do our own version), whipped parmesan cheese and a wafer thin bread crisp (right). The one I plated is sitting on a thin layer of potato puree (the potatoes are cooked down with a bit of cream, pureed and passed through a fine chinois) and finished with tiny crispy bread cubes and a touch of olive oil. The last also sits on the potato puree, but only the yolk is served on a small bed of sautéed chicory, topped with a fine layer of pecorino cheese and lightly fried onion strands (below). Yummy, yummy and yummy!

So my count down continues … Larry is arriving (if the travel agent can make it work!) in 24 days, and I’ll be on a plane home in 29. It was hard being away this week, but Larry managed to make it fun from afar. I got roses on Valentine’s Day and in the mail the next day I got a present and a video clip message on a zip drive. I had a moment of drama in the kitchen on Friday when I thought I lost my wedding band. I went in to a weird tailspin (so unlike me!) and called him crying hysterically at 5:00 am his time, after digging through the garbage. When I got back to my room that night all of a sudden I remembered I had taken it off the day before to mix something with my hands, and there it was in my pants in the laundry bag. I was too paranoid to have any jewelry here in the hotel room so basically all I have is my plain band, earrings and watch. (Which of course makes it even crazier that I couldn’t keep track of the band! - I told you it was a long week!)

Anyway … all’s well that ends well … he talked me off the ledge, as he always does … and reminded me that this will all be worth it when I get home.

So until next week … arrividerchi!!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Risotto Girl!

Buon giorno tutti!
What a fun week I have to report! On one of my days off last week I went to a seaside town called Pescara. It took about an hour and half by bus. The ride to the town was just beautiful. Abruzzo is a beautiful region. The landscape is mountainous and the terrain rugged. When it gets cold I can tell you the wind is unforgiving. All through Abruzzo there are tiny little towns dotted in to the landscape, just like Roccaroso and Rivisondoli. I snapped a picture of a town – not sure which – from the bus to Pescara. They all look pretty much the same – very picturesque. Pescara was really really quiet. You can tell it’s a resort seaside town. Almost all of the restaurants and shops along the ocean were boarded up. It was pretty chilly. I sat for a while, bundled up, and took in the ocean. I also realized that in the past eight years for being with Larry it was the first time I was on a beach, looking out at a large body of water, without him. One of the (many) things we share is the love of being at the beach. So it was kind of strange and a little melancholy.

My work week pretty much started like the rest. Wednesday we do a fair amount of prepping for the coming days. I worked on the crespelle dessert and crème brulee. On Thursday night I found myself in front of the risotto station next to Chef Niko. I happened to be busying myself with something else and he asked me to watch the pot. Now, if you remember one of my previous Travelogues from ALMA I mentioned that Italians have a weird attachment to the making, and eating, of risotto. I can’t think of anything in America to compare it to except how we feel about a really good slice of pizza, or yummy juicy hamburger right off the grill. Risotto is one of those dishes that can be the nemesis of any cook. One minute too soon and you have too-al dente-rice, and one minute too late and you have a glob of inedible stickiness. It needs to be cooked just to the point of being done, but with still enough liquid that it can slide ever so slightly on the plate. You can imagine my terror of being placed in front of his pot! L So I finished it, and brought it over to him to be plated. He turned and looked at me and said “vai,” which means “you go.” Stunned, I looked at him and pointed to myself and said (in English) “who, me?” It was a very funny moment, and everyone laughed. I had my trusty camera in my pocket and snapped a picture as it was on the way out of the kitchen! Allora, (then/so) it seems now that I have become his risotto gal!! I also think he finds it amusing that I have fun doing it. Risotto takes anywhere from 14-17 minutes to complete, and you have to keep an eye on it. Missing a liquid addition will give you a mess of rice stuck to the bottom, and having to start all over again. (Not good if you are working within a timeframe.)

The risotto on the menu is just amazing. It’s made with latte (milk) and a little stock to thin it out. When it’s plated he adds a little chopped anchovy, and tops it with a candied tomato (we do at the restaurant), herbs and thin crisply fried artichokes. Incredible! I also helped him work on a new risotto this week that he is adding to the menu. The liquid is actually artichoke stock, and at the end he adds in a little anchovy, and tops it with finely ground natural licorice. The combination might sound odd, but the dish is also amazing.

I decided to lay low on my days off this week. I’m working on a profile for my new business venture. I’d like to get started on trade marking the name and developing a logo. I’ve also been asked by the New York Junior League to be a Guest Chef at an upcoming dinner – which I am so honored to do! So I’m going to be busy busy busy … I’ll be home the week of March 16th and graduating on April 4th. I can’t wait to jump in and get started!! For now I have 36 days left – but who’s counting??

Arrivederci fino alla prossima settimana!
(Goodbye until next week!)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Walk To The Cafe With Me!

Buon giorno tutti!!
Well, I’m settling in to my new routine nicely. This week was actually a wee bit shorter. On Wednesday Chef Niko went to ALMA to teach as a Guest Chef. It worked out just fine for me – I needed to catch up on my sleep!! My (old) body seems to be taking its sweet time getting used to the hours! J

So, a few of you have been asking me about the 40 minute journey I take on my days off, walking between the towns. I decided to snap a few pictures for you to get an idea. When I leave the hotel I walk about 5 minutes to what seems to be the edge of the village, and I am “Looking at Rivisondoli.“ From one side of the field to the other is exactly 25 minutes. Then I start my ascent! I decided to count the steps from the bottom to the top – 330. (I kid you not!) Well … don’t be entirely impressed - I’m not sprinting! My first stop is step 125. I have a drink of water and loosen my scarf! At step 222 it levels a bit, I stop for another breath, water and take a look back (“Looking at Roccaraso”) at where I came from. If you focus on the top center of that picture you will see the path I crossed in the field. I press on! OK – so now I’m just about dying at this point! At step 274 there is a little church with a bench in front of it. I have to sit down and unzip my down jacket! When I turn and look to my right I see the last 56 steps, and the very top of the building where the Gran Caffé is. I’m inspired for a cappuccino and a cozy seat, so off I go. In the Caffé picture you are seeing the view from my seat. (lap top in the bottom right corner.) It’s very cute and I am officially a regular!

I also thought it would be fun to show you a few snaps of my teeny room.

View 1 is taken from the doorway looking in. Directly to my right behind the wall is the bathroom. In View 2 is from the opposite corner. Thank god I’m a small person!

This week I completely executed all the components for the dish called “Crespelle.” It’s one of the appetizers on the menu. The base a clementine sauce with vanilla bean seeds. The “crespelle” is actually a thin crepe, about 3” in diameter with a lemon curd filling. It’s folded like a half moon. The crespelles are covered with sugar and torched quickly to make a crispy melted sugar crust, then warmed in the oven. The crespelles are placed on the sauce and serve. Very yummy!

I’ve been floating around the kitchen all week doing random bits of cooking, but mostly prep work. Prep work to some can be boring – but for me it’s always been a time where I can “zone out” and let my mind wander. Removing hundreds of tiny clams from their shells, peeling chick peas … my mind wanders to home, Larry, Elinor, Mr. Cocoa. (I sometimes look down to my right and half expect to see him looking up at me for a nibble!) I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to reorganize the kitchen, the den, the basement … yeah – ok … I’ll stop! Aside from that, I must report that at times it is a little frustrating for me. I’m working with three boys more than half my age. They execute the Chef’s menu pretty flawlessly. (Niko is a perfectionist – so I’m finding that nothing is actually perfect that they do) Never-the-less, I am impressed with their skills. For me that frustration is being in a kitchen and not actually cooking intensely when we have customers. I’m not sure if they don’t completely trust me, or if they think I might actually know what I’m doing, and might do it better … whatever it is, it has driven me crazy from time to time.

With age comes patience – right? I have just six weeks to go, and I’m done. As Larry would say, “they have no idea what they are dealing with!” J

Arrivederci fino alla settimana prossima!
(Goodbye until next week!)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Week 11 - My New Routine

Buon giorno amici!
What a fantastic week I have to report! At the beginning of the week I figured out a few of the basics: where to get food, do laundry and find the post office. The Grand Café is now my internet central. It’s basically the only place between Roccarasso (the town I live in) and Rivisondoli (the town I work in) that has a wireless web point. I have become a regular, of sorts. I find my table, order the “usual” (cappuccino) and set up the lap top.

So my new routine kind of goes like this: I work Wednesday through Sunday. I get picked up by a couple of the boys from the kitchen at 9:20 and start working at 9:30. We do most of the prepping for the day between 9:30 and 12:30. Lunch service goes from about 1:00 to 3:30. Then I get a break from 3:30 to 5:30. I head over to the Café, about a 5 min walk from the restaurant. I’m back at 5:30 to get ready for the dinner service, which starts at 8:00. I catch a ride back from one of the boys and I’m in my room by 11:30, or so. It sounds like a long day, but the break in between helps a lot!

I love the restaurant. There are 3 guys in the kitchen with me. They speak about a dozen words of English between them – but it’s totally fine. They range in age from 19 to 22 and are really fantastic. It’s fun to watch them cook with the Chef. The Chef, Niko Romito is very interesting. He is in his early thirties. He started cooking in 1999 after his father passed away. His approach to Abruzzo products are very different that what you find in the average restaurant of this region. When he first began he had a really difficult time, but never wavered from his vision. Today his is one of the top rated young chefs in Italy. He’s received several prestigious awards and is noted in the famous Michelin Guide. Last week a food critic from Cucina e Vino (their version of Food and Wine) came and interviewed him and photographed several dishes. She loved everything he made for her!

So back to this week – by the end of the week I was put in charge of two dishes. (I have them attached.) Cippola, a dish that comes after the Amuse-bouche plate, and just before the Antipasti. It’s an onion that is first roasted on sea salt for about an hour. Then the center is removed and pureed with pecorino cheese, extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. The puree is put back in the shell and covered with a shaving of pecorino and baked until the top is golden brown. The second picture is called Pasticcherina (little pastries). From top to bottom: shortbread cookie with berry preserve, chocolate covered semi-freddo, bomboli (donut) with chocolate center, licorice crème brulee and chocolate covered lemon granita. The picture is a bit misleading, they are all actually tiny bits. To give you the perspective: the crème brulee cup is about 2” in diameter, about the size of a small shot glass. By the end of the week I actually made all of the components of those two dishes. It was so cool! The funniest part is when the Pasticcherina is called. It’s a dish that comes after dessert when the coffee is served. The waiters come in the kitchen and say (imagine with an Italian accent!) “Maria, due (2) Pasticceria, per favore.” The first time they called it out it was such a rush!

Larry and I were talking about my travelogues when he was here a few weeks ago. I was thinking that they might be a little boring for you now that school was over, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you about the fun history info I was learning. He said not to worry, that the next phase would be just as interesting, talking about my experiences in the kitchen. (I hope he’s right!) As time goes on, and my Italian kitchen lingo gets better, I hope to make a few other dishes. The menu is not huge, but it is very interesting. When a customer dines at Reale, the time it takes from start to finish is about two and a half hours. Consisting of 7 courses (Amuse-bouche, Cipolla, Antipasti, Primi, Secondo, Dolce and Pasticcherina). Quite a dining experience!!

Arrivederci fino alla settimana prossima!
(Goodbye until next week!)

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sightseeing Before I Begin Working My Stage

Buon giorno tutti,
OK – let’s pick up where I left off last week … last Sunday night I was shown my future living accommodations. Not at all what I thought it would be. My housing is now in a hotel (, long gone is my appartamento. They showed me a small hotel room that would basically fit two twin beds, a desk and closet; snugly, for two. However they also had a bunk bed in the room, with the plan to make it a room for four. Maybe if I was 21 and just out of college it would have worked – but if I am going to be sleeping close enough to reach out and touch someone, it’s only going to be Larry! Well, everything in life has a price – am I sounding a bit jaded? (Probably!) So let’s just say we came to an “understanding.” I could have a single room, if I paid extra. We rationalized the resolution as being what happened during my first nine weeks in Colorno. The difference: more money in Abruzzo and living in a hotel – not an apartment. Oh well .. So on the eve of my birthday we moved my things to my very tiny room, and packed our bags for Roma!

So off we went on Wednesday morning. The train ride is about 3 hours from Roccaraso to Roma. Larry remarked at how nice it was to not have to drive. (Poor thing – every time he comes to Italy I have him shuttling me here and there! Mostly across wide expanses of land!) We landed in a lovely hotel called Hotel Forte on a sleepy street near the Piazza di Spagna (base of the Spanish Steps). It was perfect. They even put us in room 116 – appropriate for the day! We dropped our bags and zipped over to the Borghese Gallery for a couple of hours. Larry’s favorite was Correggio’s painting Danaë, (he’s so naughty!) and mine was a Bernini sculpture Apollo and Daphne. (I’ll let you do the research!) We left there and headed back to the restaurant to change for dinner. Dinner was loads of fun! We ate with Larry’s cousin Nicole from Abruzzo. She is a very cute college student living in Rome. After dinner we made arrangements to go and visit the village of Larry’s maternal great grandparents – and visit the relatives – on Saturday. The village, Sella di Corno, is about a two hour drive from Roccaraso.

On Thursday we spent most of the day touring around the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. We had to zip back to the hotel so Larry could be on a conference call. (I napped!) A last minute email from my JL friend Mary Cooper changed our minds for dinner. It was great! We went to a tiny Sardinian restaurant called La Caletta, near the Porta Pia. When we told the waiter she sent us he promptly took our menu away and said they would do the ordering! We had a fabulous tasting of Sardinian delicacies, and a little celebratory apple strudel, complete with a candle, for my b-day.

We had to leave on Friday at 4:30 to head back to Roccaraso, so we headed down to the old Roman city early. When we stepped out of the subway station we were overwhelmed by the Colosseum. It was a beautiful day and the sun was streaming through the space. (It just knocked my socks off!) Because we were short on time, we opted to not go in, and just head over to the Roman Forum and walk through the ruins. The weather was totally perfect and we had a blast trying to imagine life in Cesear’s time. Larry is a big fan of the HBO series Rome and was trying to figure out where things were. (It was kind of funny!) Time was ticking so we grabbed a quick bite to eat, ran over to the Pantheon, and then the Trevi Fountain, before getting our bags at the hotel. (I know I drive my husband crazy sometimes “power-sightseeing” … haha)

On Saturday we headed up to visit the relatives. These are cousins from his mother’s side. We saw the home of his great grandparents, Massimo and Maddalena Iuppi (changed to Chiuppi when they came to America in 1912). It was very cool. The house was originally built in the mid-1800’s and when he and Maddalena lived there it was small bar and mercantile of sorts. Above the front door there is a faint marking that says “Vino.” Various family members live in the house from time to time, but it’s essentially empty right now. We spent most of the day there eating and reminiscing, and then drove back in the late evening.

Larry took off for the airport yesterday and is now home safe and sound. I was pretty much a watershed all day, the reality of being alone set in quickly. None of my fellow students are nearby. The closest is in Bari, and that’s a pretty big hike down the coast. It’s really weird because we have all been together since August. In the States it wouldn’t be so bad – it’s the added strangeness of being in a foreign country. So this is it … just nine weeks and I’m done. (Larry keeps telling me to focus on that …)

Wednesday is my first day of work, so I’m headed for a new routine. Someone will be picking me up at 9:00 in the morning and I’m frankly not sure when I will be getting home. The restaurant is open from Wednesday to Sunday, so I have Monday and Tuesdays off. (This is a huge weekend ski area.) We scoped out a little café down the street from the restaurant that has internet access. My access in the hotel is a big fat zero – unfortunately. We’re trying to figure something out but of you have an idea, please send Larry an email and let him know. (His blackberry seemed to work just fine – so maybe something to connect to my computer that works like a satellite receiver?) Today I walked from Roccaraso to Rivisondoli to the café (where I’m sitting right now.) It took me about 45 min to get here. The weather is beautiful and so is the location. I think all will be well … 9 weeks – right?

Arrivederchi e avrete buona una settimana!
(Good bye and have a good week!)


Friday, May 30, 2008

My Last Week of Classes at ALMA

Buon Giorno tutti!
Well … I’m back in Italia and my last week of school is complete. What a fun week it was! We studied Sardegna (Sardinia) and Sicilia (Sicily). The guest chefs were great! I’m attaching a couple of snaps of some food I made this week.

Sardgena is a fascinating island. A little history: Amazingly the inhabitants date back thousands of years. Around 1000 BC Phoenicians set up several ports of trade. Around 500 BC Carthinigans made an appearance and took over the island. Around 200 BC the Roman Republic stepped in and took control. From 450-550 AD the Byzantine’s made their appearance. The Arabs and Berbers showed up around 800 and by 900 the island became divided into four provinces called “giudicati,” which helped local defense. Hmm ... let’s see, Spain then conquered the island around 1400, and by 1700 it became vassal of the Savoy family in Piedmonte. In the early 1800’s it became unified with Italy. So – what does that all mean for food? Well – a lot of wonderful cultural influences to their cuisine! Almonds, candied fruits, lamb, tuna and a wonderful dried pasta called fregola (one of my favorites!). The wines were wonderful too – especially the whites – and I don’t really like white wine all that much. Very yummy!!

Sicilia was even better. Sicilia has an abundant quantity of artichokes, eggplant and beautiful tomatoes. They also have the largest farming of tuna in the Mediterranean. It’s the largest island in the Mediterranean, colonized by the Greeks in 750 BC. The colonization of Sicilia followed a similar path as Sardegna as well as introducing the foods of the cuisine. When Larry comes back with Elinor in March to bring me home we’re going to take a small side trip to Sicilia to visit the Reina relatives. (I can’t wait!!)

Larry and I took off from Colorno yesterday (Sunday) and arrived in Rivisondoli last night. We stopped by the restaurant and met the Chef briefly. We were taken to my living accommodations, which were sadly not appropriate. They proposed to have me staying in a small hotel room with three other girls, two miles away. So this morning I was on the phone with ALMA working out a resolution. It’s possible they will have to move me to another region. It’s a bit disappointing because I was so looking forward to working in Abruzzo. But we will see how things pan out in the next 24 hours. All I can say is that I am SO grateful Larry is here with me this week.
Keep an eye out next week for my next installment!
I miss you all … xo, Maria

Friday, May 23, 2008

Week 8 Finds Me Back in New York on Holiday

Buon giorno!

This last Travelogue of 2007 is coming straight to you from my cozy house in Port Chester! I’m excited to tell you that I’m home for the holidays. Senore Cocoa is sitting here with me trying to catch the curser on my lap top. (It’s one of the funny things he does while he watches the monitor as I type!) Larry is making me a yummy Marie Calendar pot pie. (Mainly because the cupboard is totally bare!)

This was a very weird week for me. On Sunday night when I got home from a short trek to Parma I had a full fledged cold. Chills, fever, congestion – you name it! I very rarely get sick, but when I do, it’s awful. I woke up Monday determined to get through school this week. The regions we studied have strong Greek influences, and I just didn’t want to miss a minute of it!

Monday we had a great guest chef from Pulia. If you are looking at the Italian”boot” it’s the region that stretches to the “heel.” The chef was a woman and her dishes were just beautiful. I’m including a picture of one of her antipasti. It’s a small ball of burrata rolled in kataifi, and quickly browned in the oven. (Kataifi – a Greek product- is actually filo dough that is shredded.) The cheese is kind of mozzarella, except when you cut in to it the center is creamy and soft. She served it with a black olive tapenade and sundried tomatoes. Bellisimo!! I managed to get through the day until about 4:00 and then I was done. I just had to go home and get in to bed.

On Tuesday the class cooked, but not me – I was down for the count the entire day. I could barely move. You can just imagine how incredibly unhappy I was!!

Wednesday I was feeling a bit better and got myself in to see the guest chef from Calabria. (Calabria is the region that is the “toe” of the boot.) His cuisine was hot, hot, hot … hot peppers of all kinds, very good for clearing my stuffy nose! Late in the afternoon Gualtiero Marchesi, the founder of the school, stopped by and took a picture with us.

Yesterday we traveled by bus to one of Marchesi’s restaurants outside of Milan. For me it ended up being a tiny bit disappointing. We arrived and went on a brief tour of restaurant and kitchen. We were offered a glass of champagne, and were encouraged to ask him questions. After about 30 minutes, in a very warm room, most of us were ready to go. We were all hungry, and realized we were not going to be eating anytime soon. As I said, it was a bit disappointing, only because I’m studying at his school – and didn’t get to taste a thing from his restaurant. You should know that Italians revere him. He has, to his credit, elevated Italian cuisine to a beautiful, high level; but in the process (I think) made it attainable to only a few. His philosophy is certainly not for all, and he states that in his book. I was reminded of one of the final comments my chefs in NY told us- “it’s not going to be the same in Italy, you may not always agree with everything, but you can learn something from everyone.” Good advice for almost anything in life!

I’m so glad to be home and hopefully able to connect with you all either in person or by phone. It’s been a crazy, intense eight weeks. At times it’s seemed to have gone miserably slow – but now I’m feeling like it was fast. When I get back in January I will have my last week of classes at ALMA, studying Sicily and Sardenia. Then off to my stage. Unfortunately the chef in Molise was not able to sort out accommodations for me, and the restaurant in Lucca had the same problem.

I am excited to share where I will be going. It’s a restaurant in the Abruzzo region called Ristorante Reale. ( I’m so excited about going there. Abruzzo is the region where Larry’s maternal grandparents are from. I feel in some way this is a connection with my personal journey. You all know that I have always loved to cook. My inspiration to learn to cook Italian was simply from him. When we first started dating he talked a lot about his two grandmother’s, and things they made him as a kid. I was simply inspired to cook those things for him. For me, that is what it’s all about – cooking for people as a way to touch them in some way.

Finding and participating in this culinary journey has not been easy. The past two years have been emotionally difficult for both of us. Losing our precious creation, searching for another that is not to be … I’ve been trying to find some kind of balance, with the support of a wonderful man. Can you imagine anyone else letting me go on this crazy journey? My culinary path is becoming clearer to me as the days pass.

So I’m signing off – just for now. I’ll be back “travelogue-ing” in a few weeks. Enjoy the holidays, your families – and most of all … enjoy your food … savor it all!!

Buona Feste!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Striking Truckers = Impromptu Dried Pasta Class!

Buon giorno tutti!

The holidays are fast approaching. It’s a little strange being here in Italy. I would be decorating the house, our Christmas tree, making my annual gingerbread house … it is festive here - large Christmas trees in the various piazza’s, lots of lights … not quite NYC though. I’m missing you all … especially Larry, Elinor and Senore Cocoa. I’m really looking forward to Friday – winging my way home in just 5 days! Yippee!!

So let’s get right to it! This week we studied the regions of Lazio and Campania. If you happen to be checking a map you will see that we’re shifting south. Lazio claims the city of Roma in its region, and Campania has Napoli. They have very different cuisines than the northern regions – but instantly identifiable by everyone.

Our first guest chef was from Rome. Everyone loved him. He instantly reminded me of one of my teachers in NY – Chef Bobby – no one saw the resemblance but me … maybe I’m just missing the NY kitchen? Anyway, his cuisine was great and we had a lot of fun with him. Here is the link to his restaurant:

Our second guest chef represented Campania. His restaurant – no his castle – is located on Lake Orta in Piemonte. You have to check out this web site:, the location is so amazing. What’s even more interesting is that he is only 32 years old. He created old style dishes from Naples, with a modern twist. We were all pretty sated at the end of each day!

One funny thing that happens here is that people tend to go on weird strikes. This week the truckers were striking – but not on picket lines – they had a driving “slow-down.” On the highways for most of the week trucks were traveling at a very slow pace. This of course affected all kinds of deliveries – including food for us! (Can you even imagine that happening in the States?) So we had a little change of plan on our cooking days. One morning in particular we ended up having a great last minute class on dried pastas. Imagine what you see in the grocery store multiplied by a hundred. All shapes and sizes – all used differently and served with different sauces. It was a lot of fun to learn which sauce works better with which shape, and to taste the differences in pasta flavors – yes, each shape has its on unique taste when cooked – believe it or not! One of my classmates couldn’t resist and took a shot of me holding a huge package of pasta.

So the rest of the time we cooked of course – had great wine and history classes too. On Saturday I trekked down to Bologna again for some last minute shopping. It’s such a fun lively city – and looked spruced up for the holidays. I ventured around the gastronomic section of town for a few hours and snapped some pictures of the food for you. The candied fruit was just so beautiful!

So this week will end up being a short week. We’ll be studying Pulia, Calabria and Basilica, in just three days. On Thursday we’ll be taking our last field trip to meet Gualtiero Marchesi (one of the founders of ALMA) and to a winery in Franciacorta. I’ll be heading to the airport on Friday morning and on the ground in Newark at 1:30 pm!

I’m excited to see everyone, and to be back at home in our cozy house. So until next week … arrivaderchi!
Molto amore,

PS: No word yet on where my stage will be. I’m hoping to get the news this week before I leave!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Week 6 - No Field Trips, But Guest Chefs

Buon giorno tutti!
We covered a lot of regions this week: Abruzzo, Molise, Umbria and Marche. We didn’t have a field trip, which was a tiny bit disappointing. (They are always fun and very informative!) So basically this week we had two guest chefs, two days of classroom cooking, and a day in the kitchen of the school’s restaurant.

I’m most excited to tell you about the guest chef from Campobasso the capital of the Molise region. Her name is Mariassunta Palazzo and she owns a restaurant called “Miseria e Nobilta.” (The name is taken from a 1954 film.) She was amazing. Let me first admit that I was quite star struck from the minute I met her. I completely identified with her, and tuned in to her presence. She was soft spoken and focused. She’s a self-taught chef, who learned to cook after school while her mother was still at work. Her restaurant is a family affair – in the kitchen her mother and sister-in-law cook with her, and her brother is the sommelier. (All pictured in the photo with me between her, and her mother.) Right after her demo I asked my teacher to see if it would be possible to work with her on my stage (apprenticeship). She seemed very excited by the possibility, only one hitch: she doesn’t have a room for me to stay – but she said she would try to sort something out. This has really turned out to be an interesting twist for me. I had originally requested the city of Lucca. When Larry and I visited Lucca a few weeks ago I simply fell in love with it - the beautiful walled city near Florence and Pisa. Anyway, on Wednesday I stopped by the school’s admin office and found out that they had a discussion with the chef; and that she was going to try to work on finding me a place to live, with friends or family. The best part – if that doesn’t work out, there is a restaurant in Lucca they can place me in. So now it’s in the hand of the Fates … two vastly different experiences for me. I should know sometime this week!

So back to the rest of the last week: The second guest chef was from Umbria. His cooking was dramatically different from hers. His food was very beautiful – almost like paintings…I’m not quite sure how I feel about seeing food as ultra-high-art. Don’t get me wrong – I labor over my plates, striving for the right composition. Sometimes it’s almost as though the plate can be too beautiful to actually dig in to – does that make sense? Well – that’s probably for another discussion over a glass of wine …

The rest of the week we spent cooking. On Wednesday I was in the school’s restaurant kitchen, back in Garde Manger. This week I helped create new salads – one a beef carpaccio and the other a scallop salad. In the classroom kitchen we made several dishes from the Abruzzo, Molise and Umbria regions. I’m including a few for you to see. The most interesting was my frog legs dish. (Mainly because it was frog legs over risotto!) Cleaning and cooking those tiny legs were quite interesting – and a first for me!

All-in-all, it was a fairly quiet week. As I write to you on Sunday night, it’s 12 days until my departure for New York - but who’s counting? (wink) I did notice that Larry was a little behind on his Christmas decorating duties while we were Skype-talking this morning … hopefully he and Elinor will be making their way to the attic soon!

Have a great week and chat with you next Sunday!
Molto amore, Maria