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!!