Parmesan, More Than A Cheese

These balls of cheese weigh more than 90 pounds.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is more than a cheese. No Italian refers to it as a cheese. They call it by its name.

Getting weighed and squeezed into shape.
Inside the metal girdle is a plastic cartouche with all the markings.

To be the real deal, it can only be produced in a few areas around Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna. You can read about the consortium that controls it here.

But, the other very similar cheese that you find around there is also good. It’s called Grano Padano and in a way, it’s better on pasta. Leave the real deal for eating on its own.

Brine bath.

Going on a parmesan factory tour is a study in alchemy. How milk (from two different milkings) can, with a few ingredients, and many turns of the wheel, be turned into something that plays a symphony on your tastebuds, is pure magic.

The professor demonstrates how to test the cheese.

We went on a tour at the Red Cow creamery in Reggio Emilia. Our guide was a wise professor. He had been making parmesan for more than 60 years, and he still got equally excited about it every day. The tour cost 5 euro per person and was conducted in Italian. At the end of the tour, the professor had us try different ages of Parmesan. Wowza.

It has lots of stamps of origin but it probably sounded wrong and so has been scarred to mark that it is not for export.

By the time we got to the factory (10ish), the parmesan was already at the “getting swung in clothe stage. We saw a lot of balls of white curds being transferred from one cloth to another and rocked back and forth by two guys. Then we saw where the girdle with the shape and writing is applied. Then the salt baths. Finally we were in the aging room.

So old that only presidents’ eat them. Next to it an “AB” one that will not be exported.

We saw parmesan so old and crystalized that only presidents get to eat them. We also saw parmesan wheels that had scoring around indicating that they were not perfect but still saleable. Then we saw those with “AA” stamped on them. These are the perfect ones that have been x-rayed. These are only ones that get exported.

Yes, we had to wear hairnets, shoe nets, and net robes to protect the parmesan.

These cheeses have 30 percent protein and no lactose.

In the old days, parmesan and other hard cheeses were the “meat” for many Italians.

Cook Italy – Food Tour in Bologna

Bologna’s streets will make it hard to move on.

Do you know someone who is so extremely picky? As in, never satisfied? Oh, maybe YOU are that friend.

If you are one of those people who has such high standards for everything and never quite finds things up to scratch, then Carmelita of Cook Italy is the guide for you.

She will talk a lot about tortellini.

We booked her for a food tour. I mentioned some of the places earlier. We met at an excellent pastry shop where I am glad that I got a good breakfast.

Carmelita then showed us the formerly great, the famous, the touristy, and the abominably disgraced. She then showed us the still great shops and vendors downtown. Along the way, we had a snack stop and the history of why Bologna, “La Grasso” is translated too literally — the nickname refers to the bounty that is Bologna.

[A note about bologna, boloney — mortadella. It is a whole separate food product in Italy. It can be eaten sliced, cubed, and in a meat pate like a smear. There are required amounts of lardons per product and, of course, there are standards. People eat it like proscuitto. Yes, just like having slices of proscuitto on a charcuterie board… that’s how they eat mortadella.]

Bologna is a bountiful foodie city with warm red brick porticoes, shopping opportunities galore, and enough foodie gems for a month of feasts. One of the best things about the tour was being taken to the “horse” emporium.

This shop is a knife shop but so much more.

Carmelita ended our tour at an enoteca who kindly stored our wine while we went to Carmelita’s newest “project” – a new gelateria called SablĂ©. Check it out!

The pastry chef who owns Sable.

Carmelita also offers cooking classes. I found her through a friend, even though I see that she is famous on TripAdvisor. For a food tour, this was the least amount of food that we ate but the pace was very nice for the more mature traveler. It was a relaxed tour. Carmelita is very communicative and will send all kinds of recommendations even after the tour. A tour with Cook Italy is a gently paced tour.

But Carmelita’s standards and critique of the gastronomy scene is fierce and pointed. Carmelita is passionate about those she disdains and even more passionate about those whom she admires. If you want that style of guide, then she is for you.

Those hams are all the same because of special selection.

Here are some of Cook Italy’s recommendations:

Best aperitivo

Gamberini via Ugo Bassi
I Conoscenti via Mazzini
Stefano Cardi same street

Best gelato

Sablè  – in a Class of its own
Cremeria Santo Stefano – via Santo Stefano
Cremeria Cavour – in Piazza Cavour

Best little cakes  

Pasticceria mignon

Regina de Quadri – via Castiglione
La Borbonica  – via Riva Reno
Stefano Cardi as before
Gamberini as before

Inside Enoteca Italiana

As my friend commented, we had the least amount of food on this food tour. But, we did stop for a quick snack, and then for the light lunch. Also, a balsamic tasting. For three hours, the tour cost 280 euro for the group.

Carmelita will also come after you after the tour to write reviews. Beware. In the nicest way, but you are forewarned.

All Hallow’s Eve

Today is Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, and tomorrow is All Saints Day, a public holiday in Italy, followed by All Souls Day on November 2. The tradition of dressing up and trick or treating is a new import. All Saints Day is part of the Catholic church in Italy. It is also not Day of the Dead which is a big celebration in Mexico.

These are a type of gourd, or pumpkin.

For those who believe more, for a brief time on All Hallow’s Even and All Saints Day, the dead return to this realm and visit with their loved ones who are still flesh and blood. It’s not scary. It’s a sort of reunion. People will visit their dead family members. Read an explanation here. Like all holidays, it’s build on much older ones. And, of course, there’s a bread for that. The second of November is All Souls Day. Read more about some of the regional foods and traditions here.

The idea of pumpkin as the icon of the Halloween season is also a commercial idea. The pumpkins are a food in Italy and have much more flesh so will be very hard to carve. But, they make excellent food. It is hard to find perfectly orange round pumpkins (but I’m sure that will become a common thing soon enough). As you can see from my photo below, I was more interested in the orange persimmons (sharon fruit so some), walnuts, celeriac (celery root), and the pomegranates.

Green pumpkins in the background.

The impact of All Saints Day in Rome is that the stores may be a bit packed and the traffic bad. How is this news?

Happy halloween!

Ten Gelato Places To Try in Rome

So here it is. My list of gelato shops to try in Rome. This is not the definitive list but I’m getting tired of trying gelato…

Gunther, Via dei Pettinari, 43: Gunther has three locations but this is where you will usually find him. He makes the best vanilla (from Madagascar) and his gelato is extremely creamy. He also lets you try lots of flavors until you find the ones that you want.

Gracchi, Via dei Gracchi, 272: old school but go early in the day when the gelato is fresh.

La Romana, various locations: big chain but still good gelato.

Neve di Latte, Via Federico Cesi, 1: two locations, and I’m fairly sure that the staff are hired for their looks.

Banana flavor should be brown as the bananas oxidize.

Come il Latte, Via Silvio Spaventa, 24/26: I have a suspicion that this place was started by an American. Great affagato.

Otaleg, Via di S. Cosimato, 14a: famous place in Trastevere. The name is gelato backwards but the gelato is straightforward.

Frigidarium, Via del Governo Vecchio, 112: located on one of the most picturesque streets in Rome.

Fassi 1880, Via Principe Eugenio, 65-67: Oldest place in Rome. One of my favorites because it’s out of the tourist frenzy.

Gelati Gelati, Via Cicerone, 20: I’m fairly sure that this gelato is made by the gruff guy working here. The pear compote was unusual and the grittiness worked.

Cremilla, Via di Porta Castello, 39: Almost like soft serve. Near the Vatican.

I will probably write another article when I go to more places but as I’ve been to over 30 so far, I’m in need of a break from gelato.

Fassi Gelateria, The Oldest Gelato Shop in Rome

Away from the center of frenzied tourism in the center of Rome, is a large old fashioned gelato shop. Fassi is located in Esquilino near the Termini train station.

It is the oldest one in Rome, started in 1880. This former “palace of frozen delights” is showing her age, but the gelato is fresh, every day.

To one wall is a museum like display of former machines used for making gelato.

Fassi 1880 has so many flavors that it’s hard to find the time to look at all of them.

Whipping cream machine from 1932.

There are tables inside and a drinking fountain for water (the best drink for ice cream).

The best part of this place is the diversity in customers, old and young, immigrants, tourists, and everything in between. It’s the most diverse place I’ve seen in Rome.

Melon flavor with whipped cream.

Like most gelato shops, they serve you two flavors even in a small cup or cone, and you can get whipped cream on top.

Eat and Shop the Bounty of Bologna

This is knife/kitchen store, horse store (see below)

Looking back on Bologna, I see why people love Bologna. It’s a real city without pretension and it’s a foodie city.

I had an intro food tour with Cook Italy’s Carmelita, carmelita@cookitaly.com. These are the shopping places she recommended. Carmelita runs food tours and cooking classes. In English. Carmelita has incredibly high standards. Hire her if you are one of those people who almost never find anything quite up to scratch.

Simoni, Via Drapperie 5/2a: the deli that still maintains the high standards of yore. They have several stores in the area.

Bruno e Franco – La Salumeria Bologna. Via Guglielmo Oberdan, 16: This is on many a food tour. (also across from a store that sells Reisenthal bags which is not part of the Bologna tour but I like their bags).

Eataly: the one in the bookstore.

Ancient Aguzzeria Horse, Via Drapperie 12. It’s a knife store that now sells all kinds of things for the kitchen. You want to go there. Trust me. The staff are incredibly nice as well.

Enoteca Italia

Eats: I got many recommendations but these were Carmelita’s that I liked.

Impero, Via dell’Indipendenza, 39: bakery with great breakfast options.

Enoteca Italia, Via Marsala 2: wine and a light lunch

Sable Gelato, Via dei Mille 3a (behind the red newsstand): This gelato maker makes super creamy artisanal gelato and he is a renaissance man whose current passion is gelato (he said, “do you know what is the most beautiful thing? freshly made gelato”).

He makes everything in Sable Gelateria

And where to stay (This I found on my own): Il Terrazzo Di San Colombano/la porta rossa, find them online for a good price. Or call them: 347 058 1371 . I found this place online and it’s a great find. It’s on a quiet side street, has a terrace, and for 25 euro per day, a parking spot in the underground garage. The cost is around 200 dollars per night but I think it depends if you pay cash or go through a booking service. The place sleeps six (two full beds in the same room and a queen in the other room). The artwork is too weird for my liking but other than that, I like it.

As for dinner or other places to eat, I wasn’t there long enough. I’ll have to go back. I didn’t like the place that was recommended to me by the apartment owner so I don’t want to recommend them (it was a place on Oberdan street). I have a list of places recommended by my Italian teacher so I’ll write about that another time. Clearly I’ll have to go back.

Streets So Clean You Could Eat Cheese Off Them

During and after the rain, this woman scrubbed her street in Locorotondo.

Possibly the most poetic moment on our Apulian adventure was when we were driving down from another adorable hill village. As we left the urban area, the road changed to black asphalt. The soapy water from the town was running down the street and my friend said, “It’s like stracciatella” — truly a sign that she was enchanted by la dolce vita.

Mini fresh mozzarella balls filled with stretchy fresh cheese.
A dairy shop in Monopoli.

Stracciatella is a word used for many things including my favorite ice cream flavor (vanilla with streaks of chocolate) but, as you can tell, it also refers to a form of fresh cheese that is in stretchy strips.

An omelet with stracciatella cheese.

One morning we had breakfast at a place in Monopoli, and the omelet had stracciatella. As good as that was, the best use of stracciatella I’ve had so far is Pierluigi’s vegetarian pasta.

A rare non touristy street in Gallipoli.

Apulia is famous for the white stone used to build its towns. Add to this the constant cleaning and it really does look clean enough to be eat off of.

Lecce is at the center of Apulia.

Or like the whole town is made of fresh white cheese.

The Perfect Apulian Coastal Town – Polignano a Mare

View to the right from the cafe.

Sapphire blue water, cute old white stone streets, a public beach, and easy access to other places (if you ever want to leave), Polignano a Mare has it all. The city is walled and the old part is pedestrianized. The only wheeled vehicles inside are pedicabs transporting customers and their luggage to the many hotels and B&Bs.

It was hard to get a photo of this door without people in front of it, but I managed to snatch one in the few seconds between tourists.

The old city has many shops but doesn’t feel excessively touristy (even though it is), and once in a while you can glimpse real people living their lives here.

The swimming area is surrounded by cafes on cliffs.
The beach is a pebble beach but that’s the only downside.

Since visiting, I have been raving about this town. It just seems too perfect. Even in 95/34 degree heat.

There is poetry dotted all about the town. This basically says, “Happiness is easy when the sea is in front of you.”

We went just for a the day but I could see staying here for an entire vacation.

The access to the beach overlook.

Outside the old city, there are also lots of streets and neighborhoods to explore, or stay in, but we only explored the old town. We parked in the piazza just outside the old walls, helped by old gentlemen sitting in the square (they helped explain the parking sign — lunch is free parking), and when we returned at the end of the day, the same gentlemen were doing their “passaggiata” (daily walk to be seen, see, and catch up with neighbors) in the square.

Try to get that table for the photos. It was a bit windy out there so we ate inside.

We ate breakfast at a cafe, Caffe Dei Serafini, with a jawdropping view. Utterly amazing. The restaurant is in a cave wall of the city on the cliff and has only one table for two/three out on their tiny balcony… but if you are lucky, you can get that table, or, at least, use it for photo ops.

View to the left from the cafe balcony. Around the corner to the left is the swimming beach.

While I thought Lecce was more intellectual, and Otranto had a smaller vibe, I think that Polignano a Mare has a good combination for an overall Apulian vacation. And it has those blue waters.

I’m told that Sicily and Sardegna have blue waters as well, but for now, these have been the most jewel like yet.

A snorkeler seen from the balcony. Photo with an iPhone. No filter.

My photos were taken with my iPhone and I did not use a filter. The water really is that color. Better than on postcards.

Humane Airport Furniture

Let’s be real. People in airports need to sleep on a flat surface. So many airports make this hard to do but Rome and Copenhagen (and maybe others) have furniture that one can lie down on. Thank you.

After all, it’s not like we want to be tired and exhausted when traveling. It just is a reality. If we can rest horizontally for a bit, we will be much better tourists.

The Return of the Tourists in Shorts

Aperitivo of Aperol Spritz (the standard) in front of the Pantheon. It almost can’t get more touristy than this.

The tourists are back. Well, primarily, the German and American tourists. The kind that wear shorts. The Romans are so happy to see them. The waiters are perky and filled with enthusiasm after 18 months of no tourism. The Italian government opened up to American tourists back in May and the start was a bit slow (although I saw some within days of the “re-opening” of Italy). But, now, it’s almost July and kapow! They are back! Not like before 2020, but much more than I’ve seen here in the last six months.

A tour group.

It’s been both enjoyable and sad to have Rome to myself without tourists. I think I prefer it with tourists. Even if I don’t really want to go downtown anymore… until winter.

Golf cart tours and tourists in shorts.

While I know that most tourists come to Rome in July and August, it’s much better in February. The weather is better and the skies are blue. Currently they are gray and overcast from humidity.

Tiramisu Tasting

***** Update July 2021 ****** — I have revised my choice for the best tiramisu as I’ve now had many more and the one at Pierluigi’s still makes me want to go back for more.

This article is dedicated to a friend of mine who suggested I do a list of best tiramisu places (plus, it was recently the golden anniversary of tiramisu). There are over 12,000 restaurants in Rome, and I’d wager that most serve tiramisu, so I can’t tell you which is the best. Of the ones I’ve had over the past few months, these are some that I would recommend.

Before I moved to Rome, I didn’t like tiramisu. I realize it’s because in my experience, usually the tiramisu was a large cold clumpy mass, possibly made with alcohol. I don’t like the taste of alcohol interfering with my sweet dessert. I prefer my tiramisu to be creamy (more on creamy at the bottom) more like a trifle or Eton Mess.

An espresso size tiramisu from 3 Caffe.

Mimi e Coco (Via del Governo Vecchio 72, on one of the most picturesque streets in the center of Rome) serves a super creamy tiramisu in a glass, more like a trifle.

Mimi and Coco made one of the best I’ve tried.

Tre Caffe (Via dei Due Macelli 107, near the Vatican) serves a tiny tiramisu that satisfies.

Fisherman Burger (Via Ravenna 34) lets you eat it as you wish, serving the three parts separately.

Eat as you wish.

Di Qua (Via delle Corrozze 85B, near the Spanish Steps) have a creamy tiramisu that I even ate although I had no more appetite.

Matricianella (Via del Leone 4) also serves a creamy tiramisu.

Two Sizes (Via del Governo Vecchio 88, across from Coco e Mimi) serves tiramisu in two sizes, to go. You can take them as gifts or home to enjoy on your own.

Clear layers from Two Sizes

Many pastry shops and gelato shops will sell tiramisu and every (almost) restaurant will serve it. However, cheesecake and brownies are beginning to make their inroads.

From La Romana Gelateria, an ice cream chain.

A interesting note about saying something is “creamy” — I told an Italian that I liked the creaminess of something and she said, “no, not cream, panna.” The word, “crema” in Italian refers to pastry cream/custard. For whipped cream, one uses “panna” in Italian. There is a lot of whipped cream in Italian food. It’s offered at almost every gelateria to top off your gelato, they have desserts that are stuffed with whipped cream, and even a breakfast bun stuffed with whipped cream. Panna is manna to me. I like it creamy.

As for the best tiramisu… it’s probably the one you are currently eating.

The Fifth of the Four Roman Pasta Sauces

Just as Roman cuisine is famous for using the “quinto quarto” (fifth quarter) of the animal, Rome famous for four pasta sauces — with one that is made from the part of the animal that no one wants to mention — the fifth quarter. Or is it the opposite?

In most restaurants, you order your pasta dish by the sauce as there are traditionally certain pastas for certain sauces. In a few, by the shape of the pasta, although most places will have already decided which pasta they are cooking that day. I find that many restaurants use the large tubular pasta as it fills the plate better. There are officially 350 shapes of pasta but many have different regional names and new shapes are being invented constantly. Italians will tell you that the pasta should fit the sauce so that the sauce sticks to the pasta. Some Romans will tell you that only certain sauces go with certain types of pasta.

A basic thing about Roman cooking. It’s simple with few ingredients and use the best quality that you can afford. Also, almost no garlic or chili. The Italians are sensitive to regional names so even describing something as “like bacon” can be controversial.

Cacio e pepe spaghetti

Cacio e Pepe (catch-ee-oh-eh-peh-pa): Basically it’s called “cheese and black pepper” and that’s what it is. Usually a long string-like pasta like spaghetti although traditionally, tonnarelli (a rougher hand cut “square” long pasta) is used. Spaghetti means “strings.” The cheese used is Roman Pecorino, the sheep’s milk version similar in hardness and age to Parmesan (which comes from Parma), and pepper. One makes the sauce by using hot water that the pasta has been cooked in. There is no cream added. It’s a very simple sauce.

Spaghetti alla carbonara (although the pasta may have been a slightly thicker kind).

Carbonara (cARR-boh-nar-ah): This is the one with the famous story about how the American GIs missed eggs and bacon and so this pasta sauce was made to cater to them. Not true but a nice story. This sauce involves pork jowl, guanciale, fried to bacon bits (they will tell you not to use bacon — but if that’s all you have…), grated pecorino, and an egg yolk. The result is a thick golden sauce.

Tonnarelli in gricia sauce (you can see how the pasta is square).

Gricia (gree-CH-ah): Is basically carbonara without the raw egg yolk. If you like bacon bits but don’t want the cloying creaminess of the carbonara, this is the one for you. It’s often used with tubular pasta like rigatoni.

Tonnarelli amatriciana.

Amatriciana (ah-mah-TREE-chee-ah-na): If you like the pork jowl bacon, you like the Pecorino, but you don’t like the egg yolk, and you wish they’d add some tomato sauce, then get the amatriciana. It’s called that because the pork comes from Amatrice, a town in northern Lazio (the region where Rome is located, south of the famous Tuscany).

And the fifth… is hard to find these days and never on the English language version of the menu (some traditional Roman restaurants will have a printed menu in English for the foreigners and a hand written on for the locals). It’s a dish called “rigatoni alla pajata” and is rigatoni with veal’s intestines (or bowel, as they will say here). It’s that particular part of the intestine from newborn calves who have only had milk. When the calf is slaughtered, the undigested milk is still in the intestine and it looks a bit like a creamy sausage.

None of these are my favorite pasta sauces. I like spaghetti alle vongole/spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) and aglio e olio (garlic and oil) with chili flakes, a dish so simple that it’s almost never on the menu in restaurants. Apparently, it’s a drunk food that people make when they come back from being out on the town. Both of these dishes are from Naples. Many of the Italian immigrants to the United States were from Naples so the American idea of Italian food is often shaped by that. This is evident in the New York style pizza which is most like a Neopolitan pizza.

Oh, I also like penne with canned/preserved tuna or salmon. It’s one of the most common things to get in a Roman cafeteria. It’s easy to make and all the ingredients are already in the pantry.