Sunday, December 19, 2010

Torino in Tavola – At Perbacco

A couple of weeks ago I noted on Perbacco’s calendar of upcoming events that they would be featuring a special menu of dishes from the city of Torino for two weeks in early December.

I was hoping that the dinners would continue until my birthday on the 21st, but learned that they would only be served until Saturday, the 18th. As a result, this past Saturday, Nancy, Alex, Cassie and Patrick took me to Perbacco for an early birthday dinner.

Umberto Gibin and his staff at Perbacco are always most hospitable, and we were very pleased to find when we arrived that we were seated at the chef’s table next to the kitchen, one of our favorite spots in the restaurant.

The “Torino in Tavola” menu was very interesting and presented a range of dishes covering all of those that I associated with Torino, and then some.

With the exception of Nancy, all of us ordered from the Torino menu and together (with just a little help from Umberto) managed to try everything on the menu. I did not get pictures of everything we had, but here are at least some of the dishes we enjoyed in the order in which they appear on the menu

~ Bagna Caoda

~ Finanziera

~ Insalata Russa

~ Insalata di Carne Cruda

~ Pasta Reale al Cacimperio

~ Bollito di Pollo Tartufato

~ Guancie di Vitello Brasato

~ Filetti di Trota Piemontese

~ Arrosto e Brasato di Oca con Marroni

~ Gianduja 5.0

~ Coppa di Torino

I would say my favorite dishes were the Finanziera and the goose.

For our wines we started off with a bottle of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene “Cartizze” from
Ruggeri, then moved to a Kerner “Praepositus” from Abbazia di Novacella. However, the wine I was most excited about trying was one we had brought with us - a 2004 ”Maria di Brun” Barbaresco from Ca’ Rome’. Ca’ Rome’ is located in the Langhe, only about 60 miles from Torino, and was one of the wineries we visited on our recent trip to Italy where we had the chance to meet both the owner, Romana Marengo, and his daughter, Paola. Maria di Brun, who is pictured on the label, was Romana’s mother. There is quite a family resemblance.

The Maria di Brun did not disappoint, and paired perfectly with our main courses.

We had a great time as we always do at Perbacco, and look forward to our next visit.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Italian Christmas Season and Saint Lucy’s Day

At our Sicilian biscotti workshop last weekend, we had some discussion of the Christmas season in Italy. The season commenced this past Wednesday, December 8, with the Festa della Immacolata, a celebration of Mary and the immaculate conception. It will continue through Christmas and into the new year, finishing on the twelfth day of Christmas with the Festa dell'Epifania, the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany commemorates the day when the three wise men arrived at the manger bearing gifts. Italy's tradition associated with that day includes a witch known as La Befana who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5 and leaves presents for children – at least those who have been good.

Another holiday season event falls tomorrow, December 13, with the celebration, at least in certain parts of Italy, of the Giorno di Santa Lucia or Saint Lucy’s Day. (I prefer Lucia, since Lucy is a name I have trouble hearing without thinking of Peanuts.) Lucia was from Siracusa (Syracuse) on the southeast coast of Sicilia, and is the patron saint of the city. She was martyred in the 4th century after having the poor judgment of refusing to marry a vindictive pagan, and distributing her dowry to the poor.

Tomorrow, the day commemorating Santa Lucia’s martyrdom, there will be a procession in Siracusa in the late afternoon and evening with seventy bearers carrying an elaborate silver statue of the saint through the streets of the city.

The procession will start at the Duomo on the island of Ortygia in Siracusa’s harbor, and will proceed to the Church of Santa Lucia on the mainland, which is built on the site where Santa Lucia was martyred. Here is a video of the procession, and below two pictures from “Immaginario barocco,” the book which accompanied the exhibition of the work of the Sicilian photographer, Giuseppe Leone, that appeared at the Museo ItaloAmericano in San Francisco in 2008.

According to somewhat grisly legends associated with Santa Lucia, she either tore out her own eyes when her pagan suitor admired them, or they were gouged out by her captors prior to her execution. In any case, she is typically portrayed, as can be seen in the pictures at the beginning of this post, carrying two eyes on a plate, and she has become the patron saint for those who are blind or who suffer from eye disorders. This is reflected in the votive offerings that are left for the saint, as well as in various breads and cookies prepared in connection with her day.

However, perhaps the dish most closely associated with Santa Lucia is one which is prepared on her day in Palermo and has nothing to do with eyesight. According to legend, the people of Palermo were suffering from a famine when, on December 13, a mysterious ship appeared in the port loaded with wheat. The people were so hungry that rather than take the time to grind the wheat into flour, they simply cooked and ate it as it was. Ever since, to commemorate the saint’s intervention, on Santa Lucia’s day the people of Palermo have refrained from eating any dishes such as bread or pasta prepared with ground wheat, and have instead eaten boiled wheat berries, a dish called la cuccìa. Originally the boiled wheat was just eaten plain or with a bit of salt and olive oil added. More recently, in the best Palermitano tradition, the dish has evolved to more of a dessert prepared with ingredients such as ricotta cheese, candied fruit, honey and chocolate.

Another "Santa Lucia" that many American’s associate with Italy would be the song written in the 1800’s, and performed here by Enrico Caruso and here by Mario Lanza. I never knew to what the song refers, but have now learned that it relates to a boatman seeking customers in the Santa Lucia waterfront district (Borgo Santa Lucia) in Naples, as can be seen from the following lyrics from the first two verses.

Happy St. Lucy's Day!

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Sausalito Lighted Boat Parade

Nancy and I spent a very nice evening last night with some old friends in Gabrielson Park on the edge of Richardson Bay watching the annual Sausalito Lighted Boat Parade. This is the first one I can remember with a fireworks display as a finale. It had been foggy all day but fortunately the skies cleared just as dusk was falling and it was a beautiful evening. Here is a video of the fireworks.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sicilian Sweets for the Holidays

Since I started studying Italian, most of my formal “education” has been at the Istituto Italiano Scuola in San Francisco (now in its very attractive new quarters at Montgomery and Gold Streets). Recently, Diana Marano, one of the teachers from the school who is originally from Palermo and who loves cooking, has been arranging workshops to give students a chance to practice their Italian while learning something about Italian cuisine (is that a perfect class or what!!). Sadly I had missed the first two workshops that Diana had organized, so when I saw the announcement for a workshop to be held last Sunday focusing on holiday cookies, I immediately signed up.

I even stopped by Victoria Bakery in North Beach last week for some in depth pre-workshop biscotti reconnaissance.

The workshop was held at Diana’s apartment in North Beach which she and her husband, Salvo, generously opened up to the class for the afternoon. In addition to Diana and Salvo, Diletta Torlasco, the Scuola's Executive Director, joined us to provide additional support.

It appears that Sicilians really enjoy expressing themselves in the dolci area, perhaps in part because of the multitude of culinary traditions represented on the island as a result of the variety of groups from around the Mediterranean who controlled the island at one time or another. In particular the Arabs seem to have introduced some key ingredients and left a strong impression.

There may not be as many Sicilian biscotti and other dolci as there are stars in the sky, but the numbers must be pretty close, especially when you add in the special treats prepared in connection with the island's many religious festivals, including Christmas. Even the same type of biscotti seems to have innumerable variations from town to town (and perhaps from grandmother to grandmother within each town).

Upon our arrival at Diana’s place she gave us handouts with recipes based on guidance she had received from her grandmother in Palermo (in both Italian and English – plus a glossary of related culinary terms!) for the three biscotti we were going to be making that afternoon – namely:

~ Biscotti di Mandorle

We also found laid out on the serving board some beautiful examples of two of the biscotti we would prepare – the Biscotti di Mandorle and the Pasticciotti pictured below.

Diana had also baked a beautiful Buccellato – a pastry ring (ciambella) which is the “fullscale version” of the Buccellatini that we would be making.

The Biscotti di Mandorle (almond cookies) were the easiest of the three biscotti to make – a happy situation since it proved to be my favorite. It is basically ground almonds mixed with egg whites, sugar and flavorings. The only real chore was peeling the almonds before they were ground, a task made much easier by a trick Diana showed us to boil the nuts briefly to loosen the skins.

The Pasticciotti were basic cookies with an orange marmalade and chocolate filling. They seemed like they should be relatively simple, but turned out to be a bit more of a struggle to make.

The Buccellatini were also basic cookies with a long narrow shape and a very tasty filling of dried figs, nuts, raisins, marmalade, chocolate, Marsala and spices. They had the same filling as the Buccellato pictured above (Buccellatini being the diminutive form of Buccellato), although the Buccellato obviously takes considerably more work. Here is a
very good video (in Italian, but easily understandable) showing Giuseppe Deiana, a pastry chef in Palermo, making a Buccellato, including the crimping work (pizzicatura) needed to create the pattern (ricamo) in the dough.

After all the baking was done, we retired to the dining room where Diana and Diletta served the treats which we enjoyed with tea and coffee, as well as some
Hauner “Malvasia di Lipari Passito” from the Aeolian Islands off the northeast coast of Sicily:

Here is a shot of my plate showing the various sweets (and yes, I ate them all!).

It was a fun workshop, especially since we were speaking almost nothing but Italian for the entire time. Here is a shot of our very patient maestre, Diana (on the left) and Diletta.

I am looking forward to the next workshop in the new year. Diana said we may be making arancini, the very tasty Siclian fried riceballs stuffed with meat sauce! One of my favorite dishes.

Thanks again to Diana, Diletta and Salvo and, of course, Diana's nonna. Buon Natale to all!

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Liguria in SF - Dinner at Farina Focaccia

During our recent trip to Italy, two of the best things we had to eat were towards the very end of the trip while we were in Liguria, namely (a) Mandilli al Pesto at Le Cantine Squarciafico in Genova, and (b) Focaccia di Recco at Pizzeria del Ponte in Recco (described further at items #19 and #21 at this post). Not long after our return to San Francisco, I was recounting those meals to a friend who told me that both dishes could be found at Farina Focaccia on 18th Street in the Mission, a restaurant featuring Ligurian food of which I had heard, but to which I had never been.

I decided that the Thanksgiving holidays would be a good opportunity to try out Farina so last Saturday, still a bit full from our Thanksgiving meal a couple of days earlier, Andrew, Connie, Alex, Cassie, Nancy and I descended upon them.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cheese Soup from the Valle d'Aosta

During our recent trip to Italy, one of the most amazing things we had to eat was Zuppa Valdostana (aka Seupa a la Valpellinentze) – a traditional soup from the Valle d’Aosta region of Italy made from bread, Savoy cabbage, Fontina cheese (a specialty of the Valle d’Aosta) and beef broth. We had the soup at the restaurant adjoining the Salumeficio Bertolin, just outside the town of Arnad in the heart of the Valle d’Aosta.

The primary reason for our stop at Bertolin was to sample their salumi, in particular the famous Lard d’Anard, and we were successful with that quest (as one can see from the below “modest” single serving presented to each of us).

However, as a second course we were given a bowl of the most wonderful soup – actually “soup” may be a bit misleading since there was no broth in the bowl to speak of – it was more of a rich, cheesy, cabbagy loaf with a very nice crust (as can be seen from the photo at the top of this post).

After we got home from our trip, I did a bit of research online and found a number of recipes for variations of the soup. This past weekend I tried the simplest of them based on the following recipe (from Italian Recipes Made Easy) and the result was very good!

Ingredients (4 servings):

~ ½ ltr good beef broth [.5 liters = 2.11 US cups]
~ 1/2 head Savoy cabbage
~ Wholemeal bread or rye bread
~ 400gr Fontina cheese [400 grams = .88 pounds or 14.1 ounces]
~ Butter as needed


Boil cabbage using a big pot. In a medium oven-pan arrange alternate layers of cabbage, bread slices, and diced Fontina cheese. Last layer must be diced Fontina cheese.

Wet all with warm broth and bake in very hot oven. Cook for 30 minutes till crust is crunchy or more if you desire a more firm soup.

Take pot out of oven; serve soup with melted butter poured over the crust.


I followed the above recipe quite closely. I have to admit that I did not prepare the beef broth from scratch – I just used some Swanson’s.

The head of Savoy cabbage that we got was a bit small so I ended up using the entire head, trimming off the central stems. The soup could have used more cabbage and greener leaves for more visual contrast. After cutting the cabbage up I boiled it in water for about 5 minutes. I would do that again, although perhaps next time boil it in the beef broth.

In the Valle d’Aosta they would probably use their traditional dense “pane nero” (black bread) made from rye flour for this dish. I used a 1-pound loaf of Acme Bakery’s Pain au Levain, a relatively dense and slightly sour bread, cut into slices about ¼ inch thick.

For the cheese we picked up half a pound of authentic Val d’Aosta Fontina from Cheese Plus in San Francisco. It took quite a bit of will power not to eat it all up while I was slicing it.

We ended up with two layers of each ingredient in the pot – bread on the bottom, then cabbage, then cheese on top.

I preheated the oven to 325-degrees and baked the soup for about 40 minutes. It did not form a crust so I probably could have left it in a bit longer, or else used a higher temperature. Here are before and after cooking pictures of the soup pot, as well as a picture of one of the servings.

The soup turned out very well, although as noted it would have been better with a both bit more cabbage and a crusty top. Other recipes for the dish I have seen add guanciale or pancetta, and also nutmeg and/or cinnamon. However, I think I prefer the version we had. Also, if you prefer your soup wet, some of the photos of the dish I have seen show it with a good deal of broth – for example the following from a Corriere della Sera recipe:

I look forward to trying it again soon!

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