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

Friday, May 2, 2008

Emilia-Romagna = Proscuitto and Parmigiano

Buon giorno tutti!
Well, here I am exactly at the midpoint of my culinary training. I’m at the halfway point of my ALMA training (not counting the 2 weeks I’ll be home for Christmas) then 9 weeks on my stage. I can’t believe it!

OK ... so lets chat about this week. Monday was a continuation of my great weekend with Larry. On Monday we spent the day in Cinque Terra, in the region of Liguria. The Cinque Terra – or Five Terraces – are beautiful little towns perched up on the mountains overlooking the ocean, on the western coast of Italy. If you follow the coastline around you will end up on the French Rivieria. Despite the time of year, we found it still quite beautiful- albeit a tiny bit chilly. We alternately walked and traveled by train through the five towns. It was a perfect day – cool, breezy and sunny. It’s totally off season right now, so we really enjoyed a peaceful non-touristy day.

Back to reality on Tuesday. We were studying Emilia-Romagna last week, so we made several regional dishes. On Wednesday we continued the regional cooking – except it was in the kitchen of the school’s restaurant. Everyday they serve about 100 people for lunch. I was stationed with the Garde Manger and with a fellow classmate was responsible for 2 first course dishes: a smoked salmon salad and parmesan souffle. We had a great time and got kudos on both dishes. The only low point of the day was that Larry went back to New York. L

Thursday and Friday we had several fabulous field trips. The general theme for the visits were understanding the micro-climate of the Emilia-Romagna region, and how it affects/enhances the production of their specific foods. The E-R region sits (more or less) between the Po River and the mountains of Tuscany. It has a rich production of fruit, vegetable and grains – but none more famous than the finest proscuitto and parmigiano cheese, consumed around the world. Production is intensely tied to tradition handed down for centuries, the raw materials and the climate. Just like the wine producers, they are incrediably passionate about their process and their products. Another interesting note is that many of the farmers, all over Italy for that matter, belong to co-ops. It’s actually a great way for the small farmer to be able to bring his product to the market and not be gobbled up by industry.

That said, our first stop (very early) Thursday morning was a parmigiano reggiano cheese producer. ( The process for making real parmigiano was amazing. He processes fresh milk from four dairy farms daily. The milk from the evening milking is delivered and rests overnight. In the early morning the butter fat is skimmed off the top, and then process begins. The process takes about 2 hours to get the milk to the big curd you see in the photo. Then it’s placed in the mold. The cheese can age anywhere from 12 to 36 months.

Next stop was the restaurant and farm of our guest chef this week. I missed his demo on Monday, so it was great to be able to meet him later in the week. ( In addition to having his restaurant, he produces culatello using a method handed down to him through three family generations. We had the opportunity to try no less than a dozen different types of cured meats at lunch. Each was amazing. Last stop – just in case we didn’t get enough cured meat – we went to a large prosciutto factory and sampled more meat in Langhirano.

Friday we did a lot of driving, but it was worth it. I think I saw, by far, the most fascinating cheese process ever. We went to the town of Roncofreddo and met a man who simply ages pecorino cheese. He gets blocks of about 30 day old pecorino cheese and basically buries it in a “fossa”, using an ancient aging method. I’m sending you 3 pics of this – the fiasco shaped fossa which is lined with a straw, and his own combination of aromatic herbs, a diagram of what it looks like inside and the cloth sacks which hold the cheese. He buries and seals the cheese in July, and then takes them out at the beginning of November. I won’t lie to you – it was pretty smelly in the room – but the cheese was amazing.

Last stop on Friday evening was to an oil mill in Brisighella. We saw the first cold press of olives. Lot’s of machinery … but very interesting to see the process from start to finish.

On Saturday I took a quick trip to Bologna by myself. I’ve been wanting to explore that city a bit. I only spent the afternoon – so I’m planning on returning, It was a fun lively city with a lot happening.

Thanks for your emails. Please forgive me if I don’t write back right away. My internet access is sketchy here and my time during the week very limited. I am glad you’re enjoying my travelogue, and having fun reading it. It helps me feel a little closer to you all. I’m feeling a little homesick now that Larry has come and gone; and I missed a couple of big Junior League events too which made me a little sad. I was IM/chatting with my friend Cindy this week, bemoaning that fact that I was missing my family, friends and life in NY. She reminded me that it was natural, especially since Larry just left, and that all would be fine when I came back in March and started working again. (She always knows just the right thing to say!!)

Well … until next week … arrivaderchi!
xo, Maria