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!)