Friday, July 19, 2013

A GUSTATORY TOUR OF ITALY - REVISITED... honor of Lasagna Awareness Month I am reposting this essay from two years ago.

Funivia from Rapallo to Montallegtro
July is Lasagna Awareness Month? Are they serious? Why should we be ‘aware’ of lasagna? Isn’t everyone? Just who came up with this? The cheese industry? The pasta industry? The tomato industry? No, not the Italians. They’d celebrate all food and wine, not just one tasty dish. Who would own up to wanting to celebrate this in July: this is a dish for the cooler weather. I never had lasagna in Italy, but all this food talk reminds me of what I did have.

I have to admit that I’m partial to Italian food. You will appreciate, of course, that the best pizza I ever had was in Italy: a wonderful Margherita pizza we enjoyed at lunch in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Or was it at that restaurant in Rapallo? So many pizzas, so little time.

The best way to experience any country is to go with a native. We had this luck in Liguria. Liliana, a colleague of our former daughter-in-law, took us on a gustatory tour. In Chiavari we enjoyed farinata, a pizza made with chick-pea flour. Further west on the French Riviera this is called socca. In Santa Margherita we had, among other delights, a salad of fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and fresh anchovies. I’ve come to love certain ‘iffy’ foods like escargot and mussels, when I was embarrassed to admit I’d never tried them before. Not wanting to say that I didn’t like anchovies, I took a bite - heaven! Those fresh fellows were absolutely delicious!

In Portofino Liliana knew everyone. She got our boat a berth right at the harbor master’s dock, and then took us for a tour and a decadent dessert of ice cream covered with berries and other fruit. In Vernazza, in the Cinque Terra, we had Ligurian pasta, trofi al pesto, and an unlabeled bottle of local white wine that was just fabulous.

Pansotti alla Noce
My most memorable meal was in Rapallo. Le Santuario de Nostra Signora di Montallegro (say that three times fast!) is a beautiful church, a place of pilgrimage, reached via funivia, a cable car that takes you up a small mountain. On the way from the car terminus to the church we smelled a wonderful aroma coming from a hotel along the way. Liliana stopped in and ordered our lunch, to be made to order for us, for our later return. That lunch is probably the best one I ever had. The dish was Pansotti alla Noce, and my travel diary says “to die for!” On handkerchief-like squares of pasta they spread a mixture of chopped herbs, including borage, and vegetables. The pasta is folded up around the filling so it stays together in cooking, and there are many layers to each piece. They are served covered in a sauce of walnuts and cream. The aroma of that sauce is what had enticed us on our way. The funivia stops service until two in the afternoon, so we had a long, leisurely lunch. Some wine, some cappuccino, some dessert. I could have rolled down that mountain on my own.

So, back to lasagna. Go on line and check out lasagna and its history. There are northern versions, mainly using béchamel or white sauces, and southern versions using tomato based sauces. Basically, it is sheets of pasta layered with sauce, cheese, perhaps meat, and other ingredients, and all baked in a dish - a lasanum. Google ‘lasagna’ and you come up with hundreds of versions. You really can’t go wrong. Lasagna is on most folks lists of favorite comfort foods - mine too!

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