Benvenuto in Italia! Welcome to Italy! In my introduction to our Irish globetrot, I had talked about how some aspects of Irish culture, particularly St. Patrick’s Day, have seeped into American culture. I think Italy is similar, especially with regards to Italian or Italian-inspired cuisine in the United States–at this point, most Americans probably don’t even view Italian food as exotic anymore. Of course, details get lost in assimilation, so part of our goal for this weekend was to trace things back to their Italian roots. (I’d say our other goals were less lofty: to eat delicious food and have fun.)
As we’ve done in recent globetrots, we found a concert recording to watch: a Tiny Desk performance by Sardinian native Paolo Angeli. To call Angeli a guitarist would be oversimplifying things, as he’s modified his Sardinian guitar so that he’s a one-man band. He gives a rundown of his instrument around the 12-minute mark of the performance:
Breakfast on Saturday morning was remarkably simple. In fact, neither of us lifted a finger in the kitchen. Instead, we headed to a cafe about a 20-minute walk away, Caffe Aroma. It’s quite common for Italians to have a light breakfast of cappuccino and cornetto (a pastry similar to a croissant) at a coffee shop. When we arrived at Caffe Aroma, we discovered that they hadn’t received their daily delivery of croissants yet, so we settled for two cappuccinos and some of their raisin biscotti, hoping that the croissants would make an appearance soon. The barista added a complimentary extra cookie to our plates, even though we had just requested two.
The croissants didn’t arrive by the time we slurped up the last of our cappuccino foam, so we decided to see if any of the other coffee shops along the street had their croissants yet. We had only walked a few doors down before we ducked in to check Starbucks, since I remembered that I had one of their gift cards in my wallet. Breakfast parte seconda courtesy of Starbucks was a chocolate croissant for me and a plain croissant for Derek. (Later, Derek discovered a New York Times article about Starbucks opening their first location in Italy, in Milan. There’s no mention of what pastries the Milanese location serves.)
Satisfied for the time being, we went grocery shopping, which involved a few extra stops this weekend–Derek went to an Italian market for semolina flour, and I went to buy some breakfast pastries for Sunday at a little farm shop. Back at home, I began preparing two dishes from the southern region of Puglia (the heel of Italy’s “boot”): a salad called aqua e sale which uses torn-up pieces of stale bread (similar to the bread salad panzanella, which is Tuscan in origin), and a pasta dish, pappardelle with chickpeas. Both recipes were from a feature in The Guardian. (The pasta recipe calls for tagliatelle, but I used pappardelle, because it was what I’d found one of our usual grocery stores.)
Here’s the salad:
And the pappardelle, with some fried noodle pieces for garnish:
I hadn’t meant to pick dairy-free recipes, but ended up being glad I did, since I didn’t feel bloated the way I probably would if we had a dairy-heavy meal. I blame my lactose intolerance on my Asian genes.
After lunch, we watched the Italian episode of Geography Now for an overview of the country.
We also watched a crash course on the Roman Empire, since modern Italy was once the heart of the Roman Empire. To bring us to present-day Italy, we then watched two videos from Wolters World about visiting two of the bigger tourist destinations: Milan and Venice. Normally, I appreciate Wolters World videos for their honesty about things people won’t like about visiting certain destinations, and still want to visit the places, but I actually feel less inclined to visit Milan and Venice now, because of the hordes of tourists.
Derek was also busy in the afternoon baking a cake that he wouldn’t divulge much information about–more on that later.
For dinner, we went to Ristorante Lombardo on Buffalo’s Hertel Avenue. Hertel is home to Buffalo’s Little Italy neighborhood, though as this 2015 Buffalo News article points out, the number of Italian businesses has dwindled over the years and other businesses, many of them Middle Eastern, have moved in. (In fact, we’ve been to Hertel Avenue for globetrotting purposes before–our Iraqi meal was at the Shish Kebab Express featured in the BN article’s opening photo.) There are plans to open an Italian heritage center on Hertel, but no set date has been announced for the center’s opening.
But, back to Lombardo. Derek had told the restaurant beforehand that we were celebrating my birthday (since it’s in a few days, I thought this dinner could count as my birthday dinner as well), and not only did the hostess wish me a happy birthday, but there was also a birthday card at our table, signed by the staff. We both started off with some salad, a caprese di burrata salad for me (most caprese salads use sliced fresh mozzarella, but Lombardo’s uses burrata cheese, which has a shell like fresh mozzarella, but is much creamier in the middle), and prosciutto-wrapped figs with arugula and Gorgonzola for Derek.
For our entrees, I had eggplant al forno, which was sliced eggplant baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella, plus several slices of white pizza. Derek had a roasted half chicken on a bed of farro with mushrooms and asparagus.
We were both unable to finish our entrees, so we had the leftovers wrapped up, along with a slice of white chocolate mousse cake. Yes, we also had the still-mysterious cake waiting for us back at home, but since this dinner was also an early birthday dinner for me, we–or rather I–decided it was okay to be indulgent.
I was still too full when we arrived back at the apartment to eat the cake we had brought from the restaurant, or Derek’s cake, so we just saved dessert for the next day.
The next morning, we had breakfast at home, eating the pastries I’d bought the day before and drinking some hot instant coffee with milk. Please excuse the missing croissant half in the below photo, as I had thought that Derek was done taking pictures of breakfast when I cut into the croissant. Compared to the previous day, this morning’s pastries were bigger and nicer in quality–another plain croissant and chocolate croissant, plus a morning bun (a bun made with croissant dough, and some cinnamon-sugar and orange zest filling).
In between making our lunches for the week ahead and Derek preparing fresh pasta for the day’s lunch, we watched Rick Steves tour Milan and Lake Como and then a tour of Rome (with Roman food, of course) by Mark Wiens. Here’s a picture of Derek’s pasta, which are cavatelli, “little hollows”:
We were both getting hungry and still had a while before lunch would be ready, so we decided to snack on the white chocolate cake we had brought home the previous evening. The restaurant would have done a better job plating the slice, but the cake did travel home pretty well.
Our appetites satisfied for the time being, we watched a documentary after lunch, about the Renaissance meal. While the documentary wasn’t strictly about Renaissance Italy, we did learn that Italians popularized the use of plates and forks and published Renaissance-era cookbooks. The documentary also briefly touches on the popularity of pasta, which seemed apropos especially after the cavatelli we had for lunch.
We went out to buy some gelato, to accompany the cake Derek had made the previous afternoon. The cake, it turns out, was an early birthday treat, an Italian flourless chocolate cake. We each had a slice of the cake and a scoop of gelato before settling down to watch Umberto D, a 1952 film about a poor elderly man in Rome, trying to make ends meet.
Dinner was a simpler affair than the previous evening–leftover bread salad from the previous day’s lunch, plus leftovers from dinner: pizza for me and chicken and farro for Derek.
Our final item for the weekend was a video taking us on a tour of the Italian-American markets along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, New York City. Even though I was born and raised in New York, I’ve never been to Arthur Avenue, though the video certainly makes a visit seem very appealing. According to 23andMe, Derek is 0.5 percent Italian, so maybe a visit is in order to connect to his Italian roots?
We approached this weekend knowing that we would eat well, and we weren’t disappointed. But as Derek pointed out, what we also encountered but hadn’t expected, were many instances of generous and hospitable people, like the Caffe Aroma barista giving us an extra biscotti free of charge, the Ristorante Lombardo staff leaving me a birthday card at our table, and the many Italians we encountered in the videos we watched. Food can be a great starting point to learn about a culture, but the most meaningful globetrots are about the people. Grazie, Italia! Ciao!