Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

TWL: Getting to know Prosecco DOC in Treviso

a-psan marco
Wine is one of the easiest and best ways to bring the taste of travel back home, so this post initiates what we’re calling The Wine List — travels in wine country with a focus on the wines themselves. And we launch TWL with a journey through the beautiful towns and delicious wines of the Prosecco DOC region of the Veneto and adjacent Friuli–all within driving distance of Venice.

a-Zonin prosecco Prosecco is one of those wines that’s almost too good for its own good. The light sparkling wine made from the Glera grape is the signature sipping wine of Venice, and it is synonymous with laughter and indolent afternoons at an outdoor cafe (see above, on Piazza San Marco). The wine is made in a tightly limited area of the Veneto and parts of nearby Friuli, and there’s a lot of good Prosecco DOC to go around. Although many of the members of the Prosecco DOC Consortium are small operations, some (like Zonin) are big enough to slake the insatiable thirst of Trader Joe’s customers. Even these mass-produced Proseccos are very good.

a-Treviso sculture little Venice My Prosecco fact-finding trip began at the Prosecco DOC headquarters in Treviso, a beautiful little city north of the Venice airport. Treviso is sometimes called the “little Venice” because four rivers flow through it and some of them were channeled to power mills. Despite being heavily bombarded by the Allies in World War II, traces of its old mill wheels and mill architecture remain. Dante immortalized the town in a line in the Paradiso dutifully reproduced on the 1865 bridge over the convergence of the Sile and Bottiniga rivers. The charming city makes a good base for exploring Prosecco country. My lodging, the Carlton Hotel (Largo Porta Altinia 15, + 39-0422-411-611, www.hotelcarlton.it) was modestly priced and conveniently located near the outskirts of the city. The center of the city was a five-minute stroll away, yet it was easy to get onto the circumferential highway to drive to the countryside. Future posts will visit specific producers, the wine-making school and vinoteca of Prosecco, and hit on on some of the scenic highlights of the region.

a-making tiramisu at Al FogherOne evening in Treviso, I dined at Al Foghèr Ristorante (Viale della Repubblica 10, +39-0422-432-950, www.hotelalfogher.it), which figures in the origin story of the now-ubiquitous dessert, tiramisù. The grandmother of the current owners, who had a more modest restaurant in the 1950s when the queen of Greece visited Treviso, concocted what she called an Imperial Cup. This link to gastronomic fame (or infamy) serves as a lure to the restaurant, which serves excellent Trevisano food. I caught just the tail end of the local radicchio season and enjoyed a couple of light dishes (including an excellent squid ink pasta with fresh vegetables) with a bottle of Bosco del Merlo Prosecco DOC (about $12 in the U.S.).

Periodically, the restaurant gives demonstrations of making tiramisù and I took furious notes. Here’s my translation into American measure based on a rapid-fire presentation in Italian. It goes very well with an extra-dry Prosecco DOC (which is sweeter than a brut).

TIRAMISÙ AL FOGHÈR

Serves 8

Ingredients

2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brandy
4 large egg yolks
12 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 cup espresso
package of ladyfingers or champagne biscuits
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, grated

Directions

Whisk together sugar, brandy, and egg yolks in heatproof bowl. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water and whisk until well dissolved and mixture reaches 170F (77C) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and beat in the mascarpone. Reserve mixture.

Dip a ladyfinger briefly in espresso, turning to coat, and place in clear glass serving bowl. Repeat until entire bowl is lined with espresso-saturated ladyfingers. Pour half of mascarpone mixture over them. Then make another layer of espresso-saturated ladyfingers, and top with remaining mascarpone. Grate chocolate over the top and refrigerate overnight.

14

09 2014

Truffles on demand (more or less)

I confess to being a truffle snob—and an ignorant truffle snob at that. Following some pretty spectacular truffle eating and hunting experiences in and around Alba in November 2004 (see Truffle Pursuit under the ”Sample Articles” tab), I was convinced that nothing measured up to the white truffle (Tuber magnatum pico) and that nowhere in the world could compete with the white truffles of Piemonte.

Slowly but surely, I am learning better.

The people of Acqualagna, a small village of 4,000 in the hills of Le Marche, changed my mind when I paid a visit at the end of March. Located near the Furlo river gorge, the area has been known as a great truffle hunting ground for centuries. The white truffle—still the greatest, I am convinced—grows naturally in the woods, and it can be dug roughly from October into December. But what sets Acqualagna apart are its ”truffle grounds” (tartufaia) for cultivating three other noble truffles: the little white truffle or tartufo bianchetto (Tuber albidum pico) harvested January through April, the summer black truffle (Tuber aestivum vitt.) harvested May through December, and the true black or Perigord truffle (Tuber melansporum vitt.) harvested December through mid-March.

The locals still have to hunt the white truffle in the wild, but they cultivate the others. The root systems of certain trees, especially oaks and, to a lesser extent, chestnuts, are natural hosts for truffles. The trees and the fungus seem to have a symbiotic relationship. So farmers inoculate the roots of seedlings with truffle spores, plant the trees, and wait for three years or more. As the trees mature, they develop truffle clusters on their roots. It still requires a dog to tell the farmer where to dig, but the yield is great enough to support a major truffle products industry in Acqualagna.

Not every piece harvested is a winner, the red-headed truffle grower Giorgio Remedia (pictured here) explained. The best are cleaned and sold whole, while the smaller or more misshapen truffles end up being used to make truffle products. Remedia uses broken truffles to inoculate more trees or adds them to the food of puppies that he is training to become truffle hounds. (Hence, the term ”lucky dog.”) ”If they associate the smell with food, they go crazy trying to find more truffles.” In fact, he has to keep his truffle dogs penned lest they raid his oak orchards. ”I have enough trouble with the wild pigs,” he says.

Truffles are a passing glory—once they are removed from the ground they begin to lose their aroma, flavor, and texture. Ideally they should be used within a day or two of digging. But much of the dauntingly sexy aroma and flavor of truffles can be captured in products like truffle oil, truffle mashed potatoes, and salsas of mushrooms mixed with shaved truffles. The Marini family runs Acqualagna Tartufi (Via Colombo 2/A, Acqualagna, tel 0721-797-031, www.acqualagnatartufi.it), the dominant maker of truffle products in the village. Their truffle oils are rivaled only by Sacchi Tartufi of nearby Fano (Via Avogardo 19B, Fano, tel 0721-830-733, www.sacchitartufi.com). Sacchi also sells a mushroom/truffle risotto mix that cleverly combines dried mushrooms with its signature sachets of white truffle oil.

Fortunately for visitors, a truffle information center on Piazza E. Mattei, the main square of Acqualagna, sells the products of both companies all year. The piazza becomes an open-air truffle market three times a year during Acqualagna’s truffle fairs: the Regional Black Truffle Fair on the next to last Sunday of February, the Regional Summer Truffle Fair on August 14-15, and the National White Truffle Fair over the last week of October and first week of November. For more information about the town and its fairs, see the Acqualagna web site.

So how do we use the truffle oil? Let me count the ways…. First of all, a few drops go a long way toward making any number of soft, mildly flavored dishes taste sublime. That includes, of course, macaroni and cheese as well as mashed potatoes. A few drops sprinkled on French fries transforms them. Ditto a couple of drops on top of a hamburger. We use white truffle oil in the winter on tagliatelle with wild mushrooms, or with our favorite mushroom risotto (which also includes orange rind and fresh sage). The simplest way to (literally) spread the truffle flavor around is to whip a few drops of truffle oil with sweet creamery butter, then chill.

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03

07 2011

All menus lead to Rome

Ultimately, we did visit the amazing museums at Vatican City—and here’s our sneaked photo of the Sistine Chapel ceiling to prove it. (Yeah, like we were the only ones….) But we have to admit that we were originally waylaid by Rome’s greatest gourmet food shop. And who could blame us? Gastronomy is Italy’s other art. Or maybe its other religion.

When we’d finished eating lunch at Franchi (see previous post), we decided that it was a good time to stop in at Castroni (Via Cola di Rienzo 196, Tel: 06-68-74-383, www.castronicoladirienzo.it, open Mon-Sat 8am-8pm), reasoning that since we were already stuffed, we would be immune to the lures of the merchandise. It was only next door, and we’d still have plenty of time to get back to the Vatican.


The legend over the door reads Castroni Droghe Coloniali, but like some pop stars, the place is famous enough to go by a single moniker. And Castroni is indeed a name to conjure with. Since 1932 the flagship store in the Prati district east of the Vatican has proved that all gastronomic roads lead to Rome. On seeing the walls lined 15 feet high with gourmet goodies, David pleaded, “Do we have to go to the Sistine Chapel today?” Pat gave in, and we postponed the museum trip by a day.

Many ex-pats swear by Castroni for the tastes of home—the full line of Twinings teas, for example, or a broad range of Fauchon products from Paris, or good smoked Spanish paprika. But all the flavors of Italy also find their way to this wonderful shop. This year is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, and while north and south, right and left seem no closer to real unity than they have been since the days of Vittorio Emanuele II himself, Castroni brings all the regions together for a gastronomic love fest.

There’s a modest bar with some casual food, so it’s possible to pop in for lunch and then to spend an afternoon just shopping. (Or drooling.) Bins hold virtually every variety of dried bean or chickpea grown anywhere on the peninsula. The store’s own brand of dry pastas include bags with mixed Roman monuments (maybe the ultimate gastronomic souvenir), and Castroni’s own coffee (whole bean or ground) makes an authentic-tasting Roman espresso—dark and syrupy with some high, almost lemony notes that suggest a lot of East African coffees in the blend. If you find the flavor addictive, the shop also sells a coffee concentrate passed off as an energy drink.

Had we demonstrated the foresight to bring an empty suitcase from home, we would have stocked up on all kinds of goodies that U.S. Customs would let us bring in, including the dazzling array of pestos from Abruzzo made of ripe Leccino olives, of asparagus, or of radicchio. Just add hot pasta and you have a stupendous meal. We also would have loaded up on duck liver and orange pâtés and the jars of small green peppers stuffed with duck liver mousse, not to mention hot-pepper-inspired salsas from Sicily and white truffle and porcini salsas from Umbria.

But since we were traveling light, we limited ourselves to squeeze tubes of tomato paste, mushroom cream, black olive puree, and mixed vegetables. (A squirt of the mixed vegetables paste into chicken broth makes it taste like minestrone.) We find them amazingly versatile in the kitchen, allowing us to add a dollop to eggs, salad dressing, soup, or a sauce to shade the flavor one way or another. (They also make great gifts for friends who cook.) In fact, the only thing we expected to find at Castroni but didn’t were the truffle products of Acqualagna in Le Marche, where the local motto is ”truffles all year long.” More on that next time….

24

06 2011

Bites worth standing for

It’s easy to get a good, quick lunch in Rome. Usually we opt for a couple of slices of pizza in whatever pizzeria is closest when we’re hungry. But for even more variety, we sometimes head to a tavola calda—an amazing array of hot and cold dishes ordered at a counter, served up quickly and almost always eaten standing up. One of the best in Rome is found at Franchi (Via Cola di Rienzo 200, tel. 06-68-74-651, www.franchi.it.), which is also one of the city’s most extravagant alimentari (local food stores).

Outside of meal time, this is the spot in the Prati neighborhood to buy sliced cold cuts, cheese, and cooked dishes to take home for dinner. But at lunchtime, the shop is swarmed with office workers (including those from the nearby Prati courthouse) who order from the daily selection of dishes on the tavola calda. The chefs are known for their arancini: breaded and fried balls of risotto drooling with mozzarella inside. But they also make other good things, such as a cold rice salad studded with shrimp and layered with slices of cured salmon, deep-fried cod fillets, oven-roasted vegetables drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, creamy pools of polenta and melted cheese, manicotti….

The scene is a bit chaotic. You place your order, return to the cashier to pay, grab a tray and wait for your food, then hope you can score a tall table or bit of counter space to balance your food while you eat standing up. (Be careful who you elbow aside—the courthouse guards are packing.) Our last visit was a reward for shuffling in the long and pointless lines to visit St. Peter’s. We needed the break before plunging into the crowds at the Vatican museums. The rice balls did not disappoint, the slice of lasagna was as good as any we’ve eaten in a white linen dining room, and the slab of polenta was rich and cheesy.

19

06 2011

Stuffed tomatoes from Roman pizzerias

Like many Roman visitors (and many Romans, for that matter), we took advantage of the city’s many pizzerias for quick meals or snacks. Once our Zone 6 garden swings into production around mid-July, we hope to revisit the subject of Roman pizza for the myriad of vegetable versions.

But it was in the pizzerias that we stumbled onto another quintessentially Roman dish: stuffed tomatoes on a bed of roasted potatoes. Tomatoes stuffed with rice are a standard dish in a lot of parts of Italy, but Rome was the first place where we had seen them served with a big batch of potatoes. The simplicity of the single combined dish appealed to us, as it clearly does to many Romans getting an inexpensive casual meal. It took only a little experimentation at home to come up with a viable recipe for this starchier, heartier version of stuffed tomatoes.

ROMAN ROASTED STUFFED TOMATOES AND POTATOES

When served with potatoes, the tomatoes are relatively unseasoned. But if you want to serve the stuffed tomatoes alone as a first course, leave out the eggs and add three finely chopped anchovy fillets and a 1/2 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to the mixture before stuffing.

Ingredients

3 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in 3/4-inch dice
1/4 cup olive oil
6 large tomatoes, ideally with stems intact
1 teaspoon sea salt, divided
1 cup water
2/3 cup Arborio rice
1/4 lb. ground veal or pork
large bunch flat parsley, finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten

Directions

Combine potatoes and olive oil and spread evenly in roasting pan. Roast in 350F oven for 25 minutes.

Cut 2-inch diameter cap from tops of tomatoes. Scoop out pulp, seeds, and jelly and place in strainer, add 1/2 teaspoon salt, and let drain to separate juices. Reserve juices and reserve cap.

Add remaining salt to water, add rice and boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and drain.

In frying pan, crumble ground meat and cook over medium heat until browned. Add reserved tomato juices and fistful of parsley. Stirring regularly, continue cooking until liquid is mostly reduced.

Mix meat mixture with rice, remaining parsley, and eggs. Stuff mixture into tomatoes and set caps on top. Place tomatoes on top of potatoes in roasting pan, raise oven to 425F and continue roasting for 30 minutes.

27

05 2011

And then there was amatriciana

While Tsatsu Nicholas Awuku was teaching us to make bucatini cacio e pepe (see below), Alessandro Sillani, the chef of Ristorante-Caffe di Rienzo (Piazza del Pantheon 8/9, 06-686-9097, www.ristorantedirienzo.it), demonstrated the equally popular and almost as simple sauce for bucatini all’amatriciana. Tradition holds that this sugo (sauce) originated in Amatrice, a town in the mountains of Lazio on the border with Abruzzo. Many families from the region settled in Rome, adding this dish to the capital’s own cuisine.

Sillani heated olive oil in a large frying pan, sautéed sliced onion until it was soft, and then added a thick pinch of hot pepper flakes and a handful of diced guanciale — cured pork cheek that is similar to pancetta but typically leaner. He kept cooking until the onion was golden and the guanciale well cooked. At this stage, Sillani tossed a serving of bucatini into the fryer converted to pressure cooker, then returned to making the sauce.

The rest of the sauce went swiftly: He ladled in pureed tomatoes and kept stirring the sauce over high heat until the bucatini was cooked (about 9 minutes), then added the drained pasta to the sauce.

It could not have been simpler or more delicious — and it’s just as easy to make at home.

BUCATINI ALL’AMATRICIANA


We have adjusted this recipe to serve four as a pasta course or two as a main course.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
3 oz. guanciale (or pancetta), cut in 1/4” dice
1 lb. bucatini
3 cups pureed (”ground”) tomatoes
freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

Saute onion in olive oil in large frying pan. When onion is soft, add pepper flakes and guanciale and saute over high heat until onions are golden and guanciale begins to brown.

Add pasta to boiling water.

Add tomatoes to frying pan and continue heating over high flame.

When pasta is cooked firm (about 9 minutes), drain and add to sauce in frying pan. Toss to coat.

Twist mixture tightly with a large fork and transfer to serving plates. Serve with Pecorino Romano cheese.

11

05 2011

Learning Roman pastas (#1)

Much as we love Trastevere and its restaurants, one of our other favorite eating establishments is right on one of Rome’s most tourist-thronged plazas—just the type of location that we usually avoid at meal time. But when we stopped for coffee one morning at Ristorante-Caffè di Rienzo (Piazza del Pantheon 8/9, 06-686-9097, www.ristorantedirienzo.it), we struck up a conversation with Marianna Di Rienzo, whose father opened the restaurant in 1952. She even invited us to come back at dinner time so that the chef could show us how to prepare some classic Roman pasta dishes.

Chef Alessandro Sillani has been with Di Rienzo for 15 years. When we returned around 6 p.m., he and his assistant Tsatsu Nicholas Awuku were not even breaking a sweat sending out dishes to early diners. They decided to demonstrate two of the simplest, but to our minds, most delicious of Roman preparations, cacio e pepe (or cheese and pepper), and amatriciana (tomato and lardons of cured pork cheek). They made both with the thick tubular pasta with a tiny hole in the middle called bucatini. In fact, the restaurant uses Barilla dried pasta, widely available in the U.S. The specific size that seems to be used all over Rome is Bucatini No. 9. Like many restaurants that serve a lot of pasta, Di Rienzo had converted deep-fry vats to boil salted water. The chefs could simply toss the portions of dried pasta into the fryer baskets, lifting and draining in a single motion when the pasta was al dente.

Awuku handled the cacio e pepe. He melted a gob of butter in a skillet, then mixed grated Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper together in a stainless steel bowl. He poured in the melted butter, mixed well and checked the consistency. When it seemed a little dry, he added a drizzle of olive oil. Once the pasta was al dente (Romans prefer their pasta very firm), he added the hot pasta to the cheese mixture and tossed to coat. He twisted the unruly and springy pasta very tightly to form a nest, transferred it to a plate and then sprinkled on more cheese.

We ate our pastas at an outdoor table, looking at the classic facade of the Pantheon and listening to jazz being played by street musicians. It could not have been more charming, or, for that matter, romantic. And the pasta was delicious. We supplemented our meal with white wine and the superb breads and gelati that Di Rienzo makes in-house. It was humbling lesson that sometimes you can even get a terrific meal on the square with a tourist attraction.

BUCATINI CACIO E PEPE
We have adjusted this recipe to serve four as a pasta course or two as a main course.

Ingredients

1 lb. bucatini
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
olive oil as needed
extra Pecorino Romano to taste

Directions

1. Cook pasta about 10 minutes in salted water.

2. While pasta is cooking, combine black pepper and grated cheese. Melt butter and add to cheese mixture, stirring well to combine. Add olive oil as needed to create a thick cheese sauce.

3. When pasta is cooked firm, drain and add to bowl of cheese sauce. Toss to coat.

4. Place on plate with large fork, twisting mixture tightly. Add extra cheese to taste.

30

04 2011

We love Roma in the springtime…

The point of this blog is to discover food that we enjoy when we are traveling and to learn enough about it that we can recreate the flavors at home. But we have learned that some dishes are so special at a particular time and a particular place that we have to enjoy them on the spot and not worry about bringing them home. The best place to spot these seasonal specialties is often the fresh food market. Since we were in Rome in early April, all the vegetable stalls at Trastevere’s daily morning market in Piazza San Cosimato were overflowing with beautiful globe artichokes. It meant that the season was perfect to try carciofi alla giudia, the traditional fried whole artichokes made famous in Rome’s Jewish ghetto.

There are a lot of terrific eateries in the Trastevere neighborhood, and, as it turned out, artists recommended the two that we liked best. The glass artists at Studio Forme (via di Santa Cecilia 30B, www.vetriforme.com) told us that we could get a ”real Roman meal” at Trattoria da Teo (Piazza Ponziani 7A, 06-581-8355). We stopped by late one morning to investigate. The staff was busily prepping dishes for both lunch and dinner but happily invited us into the kitchen to see. Not only did they have nothing to hide, they were proud of the quality of their ingredients. One young man out front was patiently stuffing zucchini flowers (fiori di zucca) with cheese and anchovies. Later they would be dipped in batter and deep-fried. Others in the back were cutting tuna steaks and trimming beautiful artichokes.

We were skeptical that we would need a reservation at this out-of-the-way trattoria, but we went ahead and made one. When we returned at our appointed hour, the street was filled with eager would-be diners. Anyone who lacked a reservation was turned away as every table in the small dining room and smaller patio filled immediately. Once we were seated a few waiters hastily took everyone’s orders – the menus were superfluous. Everyone largely ordered whatever was special that night. Antipasti began flowing out of the kitchen, soon followed by pasta plates, with our white-shirted waiter holding them over his head as he wiggled his hips through the crowds. The wine list, by the way, was studded with little gems. We stuck with a superb, well-rounded verdicchio from Le Marche. And we could resist neither the stuffed zucchini flowers nor carciofi alla giuda.

The other excellent recommendation came from Sara Fradiani (www.filogiro.com), a jewelry artist we met at a pop-up store. She excitedly claimed that the best spaghetti carbonara in Rome is served at Antica Osteria Ponte Sisto (Via di Ponte Sisto 8, 06-588-3411), just at the end of the Sisto bridge over the Tiber. Utterly charming and old-fashioned, Ponte Sisto proved as good as she had suggested, with classically robust Roman pastas and a good wine list of reasonably priced bottles. Because it has outdoor seating just steps from the river, it attracts as many tourists as locals, but neither the menu nor the prices seem slated to capitalize on that.

And about those artichokes: Carciofi alla giudia include a large portion of the artichoke stem, which has an especially earthy flavor that is a nice contrast to the sweetness of the choke itself and the crispy potato-chip-like crunch of the fried leaves. They are a tasty treat, but the flavors would go murky if the artichokes were not perfectly fresh and deep-fried at a high temperature. So we will leave the preparation to the trattorie and osterie of Roma in the springtime.

24

04 2011

Friuli has the right wine for asparagus


Asparagus is notoriously difficult to pair with wine because sulfur-bearing compounds in the stalks produce a chemical bouquet that clashes mightily with the tannins in red wine or in whites aged in oak. Eat asparagus and drink your average pinot noir or barrel-aged chardonnay and the wine will literally taste like garbage.

The French solve the problem by pairing asparagus with Loire Valley whites or white Sancerre-wines based on Sauvignon Blanc that never see a whiff of oak. But just as Friuli grows some of the best asparagus in Europe (see If it’s asparagus it must be Friuli), the northeast corner of Italy also produces the best wine to pair with it. Since 2008 it’s been on the market as Friulano, though in Friuli some people still call it Tocai Friulano. (The Hungarians got all huffy about “tocai,” so the Italians had to change the name.)

Recent genetic research reveals that Friulano is first cousin to Sauvignon Blanc and is the grape known in France as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse. In France, it makes a thin wine with a “green” taste. In Friuli, where it’s considered a native grape, it makes a noble, forthright, steely white wine that is the perfect match to asparagus. (The acids also cut nicely through unctuous sauces like hollandaise).

Although Friulano is considered one of the best white wines in all of Italy, it is little known in North America. But I’m beginning to find some examples in better liquor stores near my home in Cambridge. The most intense and steely Friulano comes from the Colli Orientali region on the far eastern edge of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. My favorite is produced by Giorgio Colutta and sold under the Colutta label as Friulano Annata (about $16). Joe Bastianich (son of chef Lidia) also makes a very good version for around $1 more. Both are widely distributed.

15

05 2010

If it’s asparagus it must be Friuli

Guidebooks to Italy have a maddening tendency to completely ignore one of my favorite areas for gastronomic tourism: the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the northeast corner of the country. Sharing a northern border with Austria and an eastern border with Slovenia, Friuli has both a dialect and a cuisine with strong Germanic influences. The local version of Italian is full of the hard Rs and the chewy “sch” sounds of central Europe, and the menus are laden with pork and a bevy of mitteleuropan dumplings masquerading as gnocchi. Many of the dishes draw their depth of flavor from cream, butter, or smoked fish.

Piazza Libertà, Udine

But most food in Friuli is based on whatever is freshest from the fields. Right now that happens to be asparagus. Friuli is famed for growing Italy’s finest asparagus, and during the last half of April through May, every restaurant from the elegant dining rooms in Udine and Trieste to the most casual countryside osterias goes mad for spargs, as asparagus is called in the local dialect.

Many preparations require no recipe. Wherever I go in Friuli this time of year, I find small bundles of lightly steamed asparagus wrapped in the local San Daniele prosciutto and browned in butter. Or just as likely, large plates of steamed white and green asparagus topped with shaved Montasio, the local aged cow’s milk cheese. (The Friulanos grow a lot of white asparagus, too, hilling it up with dirt in the traditional manner rather than growing under black plastic.)

I use the city of Udine as a base for traveling in Friuli, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite restaurant for contemporary cuisine, Trattoria Agli Amici (via Liguria 250, +39 0432-565-411). But when it comes to asparagus cookery, no one matches Trattoria Al Grop in the neighboring village of Tavagnacco (via Matteotti 1, +39 0432-660-240), now run by Simona and Silvia del Fabbro, the fifth generation of the family to operate their temple of asparagus in the shadow of the belltower of Sant’Antonio Abate. In season, they offer a nine-course asparagus menu.

Here’s an adaptation of their dreamy, creamy asparagus soup as made by their mother Angela. She cooks her own cannellini (white kidney beans) from scratch, but canned beans work just as well.

Asparagus and orzo soup

Serves 6 as soup course

Ingredients

2 lb. fresh asparagus
1 16-ounce can of cannellini (white kidney) beans
1 quart beef stock, divided
1/3 cup orzo (rice-sized pasta)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light cream
salt and pepper, to taste
olive oil for drizzling

Directions

1. Wash asparagus and snap off about 1 inch from tough ends and discard. Peel asparagus stalks from base to about 1 inch below the flower tips. Break stalks in half.

2 . Break top halves of stalks into short lengths, each about the size of the asparagus tip. Set aside.

3. Chop bottom halves of stalks into short lengths. Add to 4-quart saucepan with the beans and 1 cup of broth. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and puree in food processor or pass though coarse blade of a food mill.

4. Return puree to saucepan and stir in remaining broth. Add asparagus tops, orzo, butter and cream. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer about 15 minutes.

5. Serve with a fine thread of olive oil on top.

09

05 2010