Italy

lunch-view-300x224.jpgThere are few more beautiful places in the world than the Amalfi Coast. Ancient villages vie with lemon groves for the prime real estate on the cliffs – with views that take you over the rooftops, through the fresh laundry flapping in the breeze, out to the blue sea. Truly gorgeous.

But when you try to walk in those quaint little streets, all you can see over the heads of the tour groups are stores selling t-shirts and limoncello. That’s the trade-off – at least in the big-name towns like Amalfi, Ravello, Positano, and Sorrento – there’s truly beautiful scenery but you’re going to have to share the view with a lot of other people. A lot of other people.

We stayed in Amalfi in a lovely, funky hotel up above the town – The Villa Lara. We ate in town and very well. My favorite was a place called Marocco where I had spaghetti with shrimp and lemon. I’d never tried that combination before and Amalfi is the place for it. The local lemons are famous – and unbelievably large – like the size of your head – and they carry a lot of taste. That’s it, I think: just toss the pasta in oil and lemon (probably juice and a little grated peel) and toss in the shrimp. It was totally satisfying with a glass or two of the local white wine.

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2 ponte vecchio.jpgThe first time I ate at Coco Lezzone in Florence, it was at the invitation of film producer Dino De Laurentiis, who knows a thing or two about Italian cooking:

(1) He created the gourmet Italian DDL Foodshow Emporiums in New York and Beverly Hills about 20 years ahead of their time,

(2) His lovely granddaughter Giada, with many of her family’s recipes and great charm and skill, has become a best-selling cookbook author and very popular Food Network chef, and,

(3) He is Italian and always has been.  

We were in Florence because that’s where Hannibal was being filmed, and Dino asked my wife Elizabeth and me and some others working on the film to join him at Coco Lezzone for dinner.

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pettino.jpgI ate a perfect dish the other day and I was lucky enough to be with friends who were able to document the whole experience.

Trista and Cappy have visited us before in Umbria and they are on the A-list, as far as we’re concerned. They’re the easiest, breeziest houseguests in the business. One day, we were noodling in the fridge, trying to concoct a lunch out of various leftovers – very high-level leftovers, I may say – when Jill came up with an idea.

“Have we ever taken you guys to Pettino?” So much for leftovers. Pettino is a tiny village about ten miles (and two thousand feet of altitude) from our house. We jumped in the car and slowly made our way up the twisty hill. At around 800 meters above sea level, we started to see the striped poles on the side of the road that are used in the winter to measure the snowfall. We still had 300 meters more to climb. Pettino boasts a population of 74 inhabitants and many more sheep. The only commercial building that I know of is the small inn that houses the Trattoria Pettino. This was our lunch destination.

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Image“You know, I once saw an American TV show where someone was eating a fried Oreo.” This was the phrase that poured out my host in Torino’s mouth as we discussed the difference of food in each culture. I couldn’t help but laugh. Instantly, an image of Oreos, fries, chocolate, and dough being deep-fried at a county fair entered my mind. ‘In America, we can fry anything…even cheesesteaks,’ I thought.

“America, home of the fried,” I said out loud to my host.

As someone who was always on the bigger side, growing up, I made a vow two and a half years ago to give up deep fried foods. My only exception to the rule was tortilla chips. However, for two and a half years, fries and funnel cake never graced a single plate placed in front of me.

But my fast of fried food recently came to an end in Milan, Italy as I stepped into Luini, a famous shop in the heart of the city. The shop, recommended to me by the few people I knew to have spent extended amounts of time in Milan, is home to the very special panzerotti—fried pizza dough filled with deliciousness.

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ImageWhen I first heard the phrase “ZaZa,” I thought it might have referred to some strange dance move created decades ago, possibly performed by the Tracy Turnblad character, played by Ricki Lake, in the original Hairspray (John Waters, 1988). I imagined Lake’s character flailing her arms in the air, shaking her bum from left to right, tapping her feet to the drum, and exclaiming, “ZaZa!” on a certain beat. Thankfully, I had thought wrong: Instead of the ZaZa referring to a dizzying dance stunt, it was the most tremendously tasty Trattoria in Tuscany—a restaurant in Florence, whose food is so good, it may make you want to flail your arms up in the air and yell ZaZa!

In the far back of a square, just beyond the San Lorenzo, in the Piazza del Mercato Centrale, a neon “ZaZa” sign hangs above the big Trattoria. Immediately, I was attracted, not only to the bright sign, but also the outdoor seating that the Florentine workers at ZaZa refuse to put to rest for the winter, despite the chilly weather. As my roommate and I approached the hostess stand, I thought to myself ‘Tonight, I will be eating dinner in style. Tonight, I will be eating true Italian cuisine,’ something I had not done yet since returning to Italy for the first time in two years.

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