Umbria is the only landlocked region on the peninsula of Italy.  It’s safe to say that Umbrians are not famous for their fish.

As an American, I’m used to eating fish or any other food that traveled many miles.  I’ve had Dungeness crab in Chicago, sushi in Idaho, and Rhoda Island oysters (in Seattle).  A few extra miles don’t bother me, so I was curious to try the fish offerings in Perugia.  Every day, we passed a beautiful fish market on the way to the fruit stand.  Clearly, they were Umbrian and didn’t seem to have a problem with the seafood.   So this spring, after nine months, I finally stopped by.


La Perla Nera is a family business.  Signora Patrizia, Signor Franco and their son Michael are open four days a week.  I loved them immediately.  They were funny, confident and always generous.  They prepared my order with great care, always gutting, skinning, filleting and slicing it to perfection before tossing in a handful of parsley.  And they never let me leave without a detailed recipe.  I decided right away that I would try every fish dish they could teach me.  I started with spaghetti and clams.  Then I made fried calamari, salmon rolls, fish coquettes, swordfish sandwiches, fried filets, marinated squid with olives, fish with cognac, and fish soup.  I kept a list of the greats and politely forgot the not-so-greats.  The more I tried, the more recipes Signora Patrizia gave me.



a sword fish and zucchini sandwich

a swordfish and zucchini sandwich

I’m getting close to unpacking the last of our belongings.  The other day I found the stack of La Perla Nera recipes, and so tonight, with very, very, very fond memories of this awesome family and their fish market, I am going to make my favorite dish: fish balls (I promise, they taste way better than they sound.)

To make fish balls, you need an assortment of fish.  I can’t find the Italian fish that La Perla Nera sells, so I’m using ling cod, Alaskan rock fish, and Petrale sole.  Combined, the fish should total a pound.  To prepare, lightly sauté them in oil and garlic.  Gently break apart with a fork as they cook.  Then add about 4 or 5 gulf prawns that have been whirled in a food processor.   Add salt to taste.  Remove the cooked fish and prawns from heat and allow it to cool.  Then add a tablespoon or two of chopped parsley, an egg and bread crumbs until the mixture just starts to hold together.  Mix with your hands and then form into rounds the size of golf balls.  Fry the balls in oil and then add to a pot of marinara sauce.  Cook for a few minutes.   Serve as is or toss with spaghetti.


Good Chicken


We try not to miss a single invitation to have dinner at an Italian’s home.  Despite the effort it takes to eat an ungodly amount of food, in the end, it’s worth it.  In the end, an invitation means we get to participate in one of Italy’s greatest rituals: surrounding a table with great people then completely covering it with platters of regional food cooked with family recipes.  By now we’ve learned the etiquette:  Ignore the hostess when she says “bring nothing” because “something” is expected whether it is a dessert, a bottle of wine, flowers (or all three.)  We also know to expect a late night.   Finally, there is no helping the hostess clean up.  I’ve never seen an Italian guest even make an offer.  And any attempt from us has been quickly refused.  The rest goes without saying:  eat a lot (always clean your plate) and accept seconds (say, “Bis, per favore!) if you want to compliment the cook.

Dinner at Giovanni and Maria Pia's.  This is just the appetizer course along with the pasta that Maria Pia made by hand that afternoon.

Dinner at Giovanni and Maria Pia’s. 

All of the courses were typical Pugia dishes since Maria Pia grew up in southern Italy.

All of the courses were typical Puglia dishes since Maria Pia grew up in southern Italy.

When we eat at Milena and Sergio P.'s, Milena's parents to the cooking.

When we eat at Milena and Sergio P.’s, Milena’s parents do the cooking. 

When we eat with Paola's family, we are served traditional Umbrian specialties like pasta with wild boar.

When we eat with Paola’s family, we are served traditional Umbrian specialties.

Dinner with Fabiola and Sergio.  Fabiola cooked Napolitano specialties.  And the kids were poured a glass of prosecco!

In-between courses at Fabiola and Sergio D.’s:  Fabiola cooked eggplant parmesan and pizza from her home town of Naples.  Sergio poured the kids a glass of wine.

Last week we had dinner with several friends at Chiara and Enrico's house.  Chiara made homemade tagliatelle that afternoon.

Last week we had dinner with several friends at Chiara and Emilio’s house. We could tell they had been cooking all day. Here’s the  homemade tagliatelle that Chiara rolled and cut that afternoon.

The meat course was a roasted chicken that was out of this world.  I also learned how to cut up a cooked chicken "Italian style".  Here is Emilio's brother-in-law with a chicken scissors.

The meat course was a roasted chicken that was out of this world. Chiara shared the recipe (see below).  I also learned how to cut up the cooked chicken “Italian style”. Here is Emilio’s brother-in-law with the “chicken scissors”.

We also had an onion pie, torta al testo, roasted potatoes, tomato sauce with sausage, zuppa inglese, strawberries with cream, and after dinner drinks.

We also had an onion pie, torta al testo, roasted potatoes, tomato sauce with sausage, salad, zuppa inglese and strawberries with cream,

Tonight we are having a guest for lunch.  My friend Stacia is taking a little R&R from her sailing job in Sardinia.  We want to show her some of the things we’ve learned to make.  I will try to replicate Chiara’s chicken.  She told me that the best way to add favor and keep the chicken moist is by making little incisions in the meet and stuffing it with lardo.  By the way, lardo is not lard (but it’s close).  It is not rendered or hydrogenated like the familiar lard from Grandma’s kitchen.  There are two kinds found in Italy.  The first is a Tuscan specialty: cured and seasoned fat from the back of a pig.  It’s common over here.  In fact, we’ve ordered it in a restaurant where it comes in thin slivers on top of bruschetta.  DE-licious.  The second kind of lardo  is what we use to stuff this chicken.  It is ground and seasoned pork fat.  It tastes like like the white part of bacon.  In fact, that might make a good substitute if you can’t find it in an Italian specialty store.

Umbrian Roasted Chicken.

Begin by combining chopped rosemary, salt, 1 clove of minced garlic and 2 tablespoons lardo

Generously sprinkle a chicken all over with a tablespoon of salt, a generous amount of pepper and two cloves of finely chopped garlic.

Next, make six slits into the bird.  Try to cut where the legs and wings join the body as well as into the breast (see below).

Stuff the lardo mixture into the incisions.

Lay several rosemary branches alongside the chicken and tie with string.

Set into a pan and drizzle with a little olive oil and then pour a half bottle of white wine over the chicken.

Cook in a 425 degree oven (220 degree celsius) for two hours.  Flip the chicken every 45 minutes then spoon the liquid from the pan on top.  If you need more liquid, add more wine or water.

When it’s done, cool for a while.  Chiara cooked the chicken before we arrived and we ate it at room temperature.  She showed me how to cut it up with a scissors which was so much easier than using a knife.

To cut like Chiara, use a scissors strong enough to cut through bones.  Her’s look like garden pruners.  Begin by pulling the legs and wings away from the body and severing between the joints.  Then, cut through the breast bone until the chicken is in two halves.  From here, it’s very easy to cut away from the bone and serve it in pretty, small pieces.

the holes are stuffed with lardo

The holes are stuffed with lardo and the chicken is ready to cook.


Four hours later . . . Our guest arrived.  We served prosciutto and melon, pasta carbonara, fava beans with artichokes and a platter of chicken.  Matt and Stacia are sipping limoncello as I write these final words.

Pasta ‘Ncasciata

Last week with my parents

My dad and mom during a day trip to Spoleto

The best vacations need some continuation, something to take away;

something to unpack when the missing of those good days is heavy;

something to connect the rhythm and pace of the trip with the patterns and predictability of home;

something more than a souvenir.

The best vacations need to come home.

Last weekend, my parents left Perugia.  The day before their flight, my dad made a request.  He wanted to learn how to cook pasta ‘ncasciata.  This was his favorite meal in Italy, and he wanted it to be his “take-away.”

Pasta ‘ncasciata is a Sicilian specialty given to me by my friend Giulia.  Her family is from the south where eggplants are reportedly the most delicious eggplants in the country.  The name “’ncasciata” is a Sicilian word that may translate to either “cheese” or “pan.”  (There is some disagreement among Sicilians.)  Guilia says that both translations make sense since the pasta is cooked with cheese and baked in a pan.

So on the evening of my parents’ last day, we shopped, chopped, fried, simmered and layered until we had made a beautiful pan of pasta.

Begin with the following ingredients.

To make four big servings, begin with the following ingredients:

1 tablespoon of butter for greasing the pan

250 grams (8 ½ ounces) of pasta (macaroni or short penne)

3 tablespoons olive oil plus 2/3  cup

1 clove of garlic, chopped

1/3 diced onion

150 grams (5 ½ ounces) of sausage (remove casing)

150 grams (5 ½  ounces) ground veal

125 grams (4 ½ ounces) of peas, fresh or frozen

½ cup of red wine

500 grams (18 ounces) of purred tomato

125 grams (4 ½ ounces) of fresh ricotta

2 hard boiled eggs, sliced

50 grams (2 ounces) of diced or grated provolone

10 basil leaves

1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese

salt and pepper to taste


1.  Grease an oven-proof pan with the butter

2.  Slice the eggplant lengthwise and sprinkle with salt.  Then let it sit in a colander for 20 minutes so it can release its bitter juices.

cutting the eggplant

3.  Sauté the garlic and onion in three tablespoons of olive oil until onions are translucent.

4.  Add the sausage and ground veal and cook. Then add peas. Then wine.  Cook until the wine reduces (about five minutes). Then add the tomato puree.  Simmer slowly for 15-20 minutes.

While I fry the eggplant,

5.  In the meantime, rinse the slices of eggplant and pat dry with a paper towel.  Then fry them in 2/3 cup of olive oil on medium high heat until  golden brown.  Set aside on a plate lined with paper towels.

6.  Cook the pasta for half the time it calls for.  (It will continue cooking later in the oven.)  Drain the pasta.  Add it to the tomato sauce.  Add ricotta and mix well.  Tear the basil into pieces and stir in.

7.  Layer:  Begin with a third of the pasta and tomato sauce.  Cover with half the eggplants.  Add half the provolone and one of the sliced hard-boiled eggs.  Then add a layer of everything one more time saving a third layer of pasta for the top.  Sprinkle with a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese.

layer the pasta

8.  Cook in a 350 degree oven for 1/2 hour or until hot, bubbly and slightly brown on top.  Cool for 10 minutes before serving.


. . . I just got an email from my dad.  The trip home was long.  They are tired.  The transition isn’t easy.  However, the first dinner they made after unpacking their bags was pasta ‘ncasciata.

Perugia’s Pantry

Federico and Antonio at Bavicchi Antica Spezieria e drogheria

Federico and Antonio at “Bavicchi Antica Spezieria e Drogheria”

In five days, my parents will be here.  They are staying for three weeks in the apartment next door.  For months I’ve been looking forward to their visit.  Like all our friends who have come to Perugia, they want to see more than the Etruscan Arch or San Lorenzo Cathedral.  They want to see how local life is lived. They want to see where modern Perugians do their grocery shopping, take their evening walk and get a great espresso.  So we’ll visit Cristiano’s pasta store, Rinaldo’s butcher shop and Marcello’s vegetable stand.  We’ll walk down Corso Vannucci and Corso Cavour.  And of course we’ll stop by Bar Alessi or Café Oscar along the way.

But there’s another place I can’t wait for them to see. It’s Bavicchi, the spice/bean/chocolate/and so much more store.  It started over a hundred years ago as a shop selling cleaning supplies and dried legumes. Bavicchi has maintained its roots while offering some of the most delicious standard and specialty ingredients in the historic center of Perugia.


Owner Antonio Galli runs the small shop with his employee Federico Roselli.  The space is a mere 320 square feet, but it’s bursting with variety.  The walls are covered floor to ceiling in exquisite, colorful, aromatic, and even exotic goods.  Besides beans (over 80 kinds)  and spices (nearly 100), Antonio notes that many of his customers come in looking for nuts, dried fruit, and other ingredients for Italian desserts.  Wines, honey, and chocolate are some of the other big sellers.  Antonio also pointed out some of his more unusual offerings including maple syrup, tahini, powdered mustard, soy sauce, curry, and one jar of cranberry sauce (for the occasional American . . . in November).

vinegars, wines, and preserves.

vinegars, wines, honeys and preserves.

This is the house brand bitter. Like other amaro in Italy, this drink is served chilled and sipped after dinner. It's dark, strong and herby; and the ingredients are top secret.

This is the house brand bitter. It’s dark, strong and herby; and the ingredients are top secret. 

Bavicchi also has chocolates. The most popular brand  is Perugina chocolates which are made in Perugia’s oldest chocolate factory. Perugina began production 90 years ago and established the city as Italy’s chocolate capital.  Since then, the company has been bought by Nestle.  Vanucci is another brand on Bavicchi’s shelves.  This is a high quality artisan chocolatier that tries to create what Perugina once made.  They even have their own version of the famous Perugina Baci, only better.  Then there is Augusta Perusia Chocolate.  This is the smallest of the local companies.  Beyond these three, Bavicchi sells lots of other Italian and European brands.  With Easter just around the corner, a lot of the space in the store is used to display chocolate eggs.

Federico offered me a banana chocolate that turned out to be surprisingly good.  While hazelnut chocolate is everyone’s favorite, banana chocolate is popular too.

Federico offered me a banana chocolate that turned out to be surprisingly good. While hazelnut chocolate is everyone’s favorite in Perugia, banana chocolate is popular too.

Sometimes I come in not knowing what to buy and needing a suggestion.  When that happens, Antonio gets his red box of recipes off the shelf and hands me an idea.  Today he gave me a copy of crostini con fagiolina del Trasimeno, an appetizer of toasted bread topped with beans grown near Lake Trasimeno, just 20 minutes away.  We made it for lunch today and will make it again when my parents get here.

While the beans are probably impossible to find back in America, one could make a similar spread with a creative substitute.  Note that these beans from Lake Trasimeno do not need to soak before cooking while many other beans do.

Crostini with Bean Spread

250 grams of beans

1 carrot

2 stocks of celery

1 small onion

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons of tomato puree

hot pepper flakes

salt and pepper

fresh bread

Cook the dried beans in salted water with the carrot, celery and half the onion for 40 minutes.  While they cook, sauté the other half of the onion in the olive oil until it is soft and translucent.  Add the tomato puree, salt, pepper flakes and pepper to taste and continue cooking for 5 minutes.  When the beans have cooked, add them to the onion/tomato sauce mixture.   Add a cup of water and cook for another 20 minutes.  Spoon the beans on top of toasted bread and drizzle with olive oil and more salt. Serve as an appetizer.

Or as we did, eat it as the main course.


Tagliatelle with Luca’s Mamma

ribbons of hand cut egg pasta

I haven’t taken an Italian class in over a month, but my teacher Luca and I still occasionally get together. It’s usually centered around food, culture or history, but mostly food.  Recently, Matt and I met him for dinner at Ristorante Nana.  This wasn’t your typical rustic Umbrian trattoria.  This was fancy-pants Italian:  raw fish layered and stacked with colorful, curly, green garnishes, black squid-ink pasta, vegetable foam, and a whole page devoted to creative dishes. For dessert we ordered “coffee and a cigarette” which was coffee gelato and tobacco-infused creme brûlée.

Several days later, Luca invited us to his parents’ home for dinner. He picked us up early so we could see how his mom makes fresh pasta.  His family lives outside Perugia in a charming, old farm house.  We entered through the kitchen which occupies the space where the previous owners (many years ago) housed livestock.  Now there is a fireplace on one wall, a wood-fired stove and oven against the other, a television in the corner, and most importantly, a work table used for rolling and cutting fresh pasta dough.  We met Luca’s parents, Mirella and Giulio, who gave us Italian kisses on the cheeks and then offered the boys chocolates.  It was all so warm and cozy, and I happily spent the next four hours dressed in an apron “helping” Mamma Mirella make dinner.

We started with tagliatelle.  This is a type of pasta that Mirella has been making by hand since she got married.  There are only two ingredients, eggs and flour.  We began by measuring.  For each egg, she uses 100 grams of flour.  She piled the flour on the table and made a well in the center.   Then she cracked open the orangest eggs I’ve ever seen.  “How in the world?!” I asked.  She said that the chickens eat really well over here.  Next, she beat them in a bowl then poured them into the flour.  Slowly with her fingers, she gently mixed it all together.

step one

Luca, Guilio and Ray watch the demonstration.

Once the flour and eggs were combined, the kneading began.  With the palms of her hands pushing the dough into itself over and over, the mixture became perfectly smooth and evenly yellow.  Once in a while, Mirella would add just a tiny bit of water if it felt dry.

The kneading took longer than I expected.  We took turns and after 15 minutes, it was ready to roll.

The next step was to roll the dough into a thin sheet.  Again, this took some patience.  With a long rolling pin, we eventually succeeded in spreading it all the way to the corners of the cutting block.


When our arms were exhausted, and the pasta was stretched so thin that it draped over the table, Mirella let it sit and dry out a little.  In half an hour it was ready to cut.  The sheet of pasta was folded over and over until it was about 3 inches wide. Each layer had a little flour sprinkled on top so it wouldn’t stick.  Then she sliced it all into thin strips less than a centimeter wide.  After all the tagliatelle was cut, Mirella shook the long strands out to separate them from each other.  Then she set the pasta aside until it was time to add it to the boiling water.


Next we walked outside to the cantina where Luca’s parents store their canned foods and home-cured meats.  Giulio brought a prosciutto inside the house so he could prepare a platter of charcuterie for an appetizer.

Touring the cantina

Giulio offered us slivers of proscuitto while he worked.

Several other guests arrived as Mirella and Giulio finished making dinner.  Earlier they had prepared a mixed grill including sausages, marinated pork ribs and pork livers wrapped in stomach lining.  We skewered them on iron stakes and set them in the fireplace where Giulio kept an eye on them while they cooked.  Finally, after Mirella boiled the pasta and tossed it with a tomato meat sauce, we sat down at the table for a feast.

The first course.

We sat around the table until after 10 pm eating plates of food and drinking wine from the neighbor’s grapes.  It was unreal.  The whole day was an Italian fantasy.  I was so happy to wake up the next morning with a bag full of provisions from Mirella and Giulio sitting on my kitchen table.  We already used one jar of sauce and a pound of tagliatelle.  I’ll save the second batch for a special dinner since I don’t know if I will be making pasta by myself away from the magic of Mirella’s kitchen.

Learning to Host

DSC_0116If I were home, I would not write a post on what I ate for dinner.  But somehow here, it seems interesting.  There’s subtle magic in our Italian kitchen.  Cooking isn’t a chore.  It doesn’t tire me out.  The ingredients are more compelling and everything tastes better.  I know it’s not me.  I’m not a chef or even close to one.  I’m not especially intuitive in the kitchen.  I don’t even know why certain ingredients go together.  However, we eat really well here.  I think one explanation for the elevated quality is due to the contagious passion of the Italians.  They believe in their food.  They talk about it like a sports fan talks about the playoffs.  This week I listened to a grocer describe the nuances of a tiny green legume that grows 15 miles outside the city.  He went on and on.  By the end of his speech, I was heading home with several bags of beans and a single-minded enthusiasm to cook them all.   I had never succeeded in properly cooking a dried bean at home.  Never.  (The long soaking, the slow simmering and the seasoning were too tricky.) Yet here, beans come out just right.

The beans feel good.  I'd like to have a little legume sandbox when we get home.

The beans feel good. I’d like to have a little legume sandbox when we get home.

My favorite is the local borlotti.  When Antonio the bean seller sold me a bag, he looked to the sky and gesticulated as if to say, “There are no words for this!”  But then he finally added, “This bean is so exceptional; it isn’t even a bean.  It’s . . . meat.”

Later, we tried it in soup. It gave us the confidence needed to make it for company, and that’s saying a lot, because it is so intimidating to cook for Italians.  They each have conflicting opinions about what ingredients should go in what dish.  They fiercely believe in their own family recipes.    And culturally, the whole set-up is different.

To begin with, guests arrive no earlier than 8:00 at which point the host has finished preparing the meal.  Appetizers are served while seated at the dinner table.  Wine is drunk during dinner, but the drinking isn’t as heavy.  The speed at which one eats is greater.  The servings are bigger.  But the biggest difference is the quantity of courses.

I tried to follow these guidelines when Cristiano, the Pasta Man, came to our house last night.


He arrived at 8:00.  Of course, the bean soup wasn’t the only thing we served.  It was one of 10 plates of food we ate throughout the night including Umbrian cheeses, Umbrian meats, grilled eggplant, pasta and bean soup, a lemon caper chicken, three sides of vegetables and a tray of oranges with olive oil.  The prettiest course was the cake we bought from across the street for dessert.  The inside was chocolate.  The berries were covered in a sugar glaze.


Eating only took a couple hours.  Then we poured grappa, vin santo and herbal digestivi while sitting around talking.  The Italian election is coming up; politics was one of the topics, as was Star Wars, Clint Eastwood, the new marajuana laws in Washington State and the Mafia in Perugia.  By midnight Cristiano left and we started cleaning up.  We had a huge mess.  The leftovers barely fit in the fridge.  We will be eating soup for a couple days, but that’s okay, because, like I said, I’m really into it right now.  In case anyone wants to try it, I’ll leave the recipe below.  God, I hope it turns out tasting good even outside of Italy.

Here's what you'll need.  Plus several cups of short pasta

Here’s what you’ll need. Plus about 1/2 lb. of short pasta

Pasta e Fagioli serves 6

2 cups dried cranberry beans

4 oz guanciale

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 onion (plus and optional 1/2 onion for the beans)

2 medium carrots

2 medium stalks of celery

4 oz. smoked, diced pancetta

8 cups or more of vegetable, chicken or meat broth

salt and pepper

Begin the day before by covering the beans in water and soaking them for at least 24 hours.  Two hours before you start the soup, begin simmering the beans in a pot of water.  You can add a little flavor by adding half an onion or some garlic to the pot.  Cook for a couple hours or until the beans taste done.

When you are ready to cook the soup, cut the guanciale into small pieces.  Fry it in a pan over low heat with a tablespoon of olive oil for 5-10 minutes.  Before it browns, add the finally chopped onion, celery and carrots.  Cook together until the vegetables are very soft.  Then add a cup of broth and cook until the liquid has evaporated.  Meanwhile, in a second pot over low heat, cook the pancetta in a tablespoon of olive oil.  After about 10 minutes, but before the pancetta crisps, add the cooked, drained beans.  Mix them together and then add the broth.  Let the beans absorb the broth for a bit then add the guanciale/vegetable mixture and cook together for 5 minutes.  In a separate pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta for half the recommended time.  Then drain and add the pasta to the beans and cook until the pasta is al dente.  Add salt and pepper if you need.

First Course, two recipes

Lenticchie di Norcia

Italians divide a meal into courses.   First there is an antipasto, or appetizer, which may  include bruschetta, grilled vegetables, cheeses and meats. Then there is a primo (a first course of pasta, risotto, polenta, soup or legumes) then a secondo (a main course of meat or fish) followed by salad or vegetable, and then fruit, dessert and coffee

When we cook here, we just take one of these courses and turn it into our entire meal.  Our favorite is il primo, and it’s always pasta.   But after months of noodles, we’ve decided to branch out and try something else.

During the past several weeks, we’ve learned a couple alternative primo courses.  One features lentils, the other chickpeas.  These are the easiest dinners to cook as well as some of the best.  In order to make these, you need vegetable stock.  I’ll start with that.

Any variety of vegetables can be added, but we like using 2 potatoes, 2 zucchinis, 2 tomatoes, 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks, 2 onions, a small bunch of parsley and two teaspoons of course salt.  Back home I just throw it all together in a pot of water, but Italians wouldn’t hear of it.  They carefully wash and peal everything. Only then do they put it in a pot, cover it with water and set it on the stove to simmer.

After at least two hours, turn off the heat and let the stock cool for a bit.  Then strain.  At this point, choose a couple pieces of vegetables and puree them with a cup of broth.  Add it back to the pot and stir.  This will thicken it up a little and add extra flavor.  Use this broth for the following two recipes:

Lentils with sausage

Umbria serves their  famous lenticchia, a small brown lentil that grows nearby.  Our friends from the bean store in Perugia explained how to make this traditional recipe for four people:

1 ½ cups of lentils

8 or more cups of vegetable broth

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ a medium onion, chopped

4 Italian sausages

3 tablespoons tomato sauce

Parmesan cheese

1.  Put the lentils in a small pot and cover with three cups of water.  Bring to a boil and then simmer for ½ an hour.  Add more broth if needed.

2.  In a separate pan, sauté the onion until it is soft and translucent.  Remove the sausages from their casing and crumble into the pan.  Cook until done.

3.  Add the lentils with their liquid to the onion and sausage.  Add the tomato sauce.  Continue cooking for at least another ½ hour, adding the remainder of the broth one cup at a time.  Dinner is ready once the lentils are soft and cooked through.  It is best served in bowls, as it resembles a thick soup.  Add Parmesan cheese if you’d like.

Everything is on the stove:  sausages in the pan, lentils in the pot and broth simmering away

Bowls of lentils

Chickpeas and squares

Monia from Il Parma told us about this recipe.  We’ve made it at least five times, and we’re having it again tonight.  You can use dried chickpeas if you want, but I’m just terrible at cooking dried beans, so I resort to a can or a jar, which is what Monia uses anyway.

All the ingredients

2 jars or cans of drained chick peas (garbanzo beans)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves of chopped garlic

1 sprig of rosemary

6-8 cups of vegetable broth

3/4 cup of very small dried pasta squares or 1 1/2 cup fresh pasta squares


1.  Sauté the chopped garlic and the rosemary in the olive oil over medium heat for about a minute.

2.  Puree one jar of drained chick peas with a little broth.  Add it to the garlic and rosemary.  Add the other drained jar of whole chickpeas.  Add the vegetable broth and and cook for half an hour.  You can remove the rosemary after 10 minutes so it doesn’t fall apart.

3.  Add more broth if needed then add the pasta squares and cook until they’re done.

4.  Add salt if needed and serve.

Olive oil is nice on this dish too.

Olive oil is nice to add on top.

A Great Butcher

Rinaldo Gerbi, owner

We eat so much meat here.  When I count my blessings, one of the first things on my list is: thank God I’m not a vegetarian.

Down the stairs and across the street from our apartment stands Perugia’s oldest butcher shop, Macelleria Rinaldo Gerbi.  The name changes with the owner, but the establishment has remained the same.  It is passed down through generations unless there is no heir, in which case, proprietorship gets handed to a long-time employee. Signor Rinaldo has worked here since he was 13 years old.  And now, his son Francesco works along beside him.

Rinaldo and Francesco Gerbi

We visit the butcher several times a week.  It’s our first choice for an easy dinner.  Rinaldo sells tons of ready-to-cook meals including chicken skewers, stuffed pork loin, meatballs, and roasted chicken.  In addition, he sells his own olive oil and makes his own prosciutto, one of the shop’s specialties.   The prosciutto hangs on the walls in the back of the store.  When a customer orders some, Francesco slices it by hand.  It’s some of the best prosciutto in the city.

When we ask, Signor Rinaldo is willing to teach us how to cook wonderful meals with his freshly butchered animals.  Last week, Matt and I blocked out an entire morning to learn how to cook a three-hour meat sauce to serve with another of Cristiano’s pastas.   There is a certain ragu that Perugians swear by.  It’s called “sugo alla contadina” or “pasta sauce of the country folk” (meaning that nothing is wasted).  Rinaldo claims, as everyone does, to have the best recipe.  As we wrote down his directions, he selected more than 15 different pieces of meat including ground pork, veal, ribs, stomach, kidney, neck and feet  (just to name a few).  When we got home, we laid them out for examination.

I volunteered to be the photographer, which left Matt with the responsibilities of ragu chef.

To make this celebrated dish, heat several tablespoons of olive oil on a large pot.  When it’s hot, add one finely chopped small onion, three chopped carrots and two ribs of chopped celery.  Add salt.  Cook and stir until all the vegetables are soft, but not brown.  This can take awhile, even up to 20 minutes.  When it’s done, it will look like this:

Then add about a half a cup of white wine and a splash of white wine vinegar.  Continue cooking until the wine reduces.  Next, add a half teaspoon of sugar, a generous amount of coarse salt and stir.  Then it’s time for the meat.  Add the following:  1/2 pound of ground pork, 1/2 pound of ground beef, several pork ribs, a sausage, 3-4 medium pieces of meat of your choice (pork, beef, or chicken), several organs from a chicken including liver, kidney and stomach.  Add chicken feet and neck.  Add the tail of an animal (I don’t know which one; these instructions are spoken to me quickly and in Italian).  If there is anything else you recognize in the photo that I didn’t mention, go ahead and throw it in.  Make sure you cut the organs into teeny tiny pieces.  You don’t want to get a mouthful, you just want the organs to smooth out and flavor the sauce.

After you add all the meat to the pot, cover it with a jar of really good tomato puree.  Then add a can of diced tomatoes.  Fresh diced tomatoes are good, too.  Heat it over the stove until it starts to bubble, then turn down the heat and slowly simmer the sauce for two hours.  Keep the pot slightly covered.  Stir often.  Add water if the sauce gets too thick or needs more liquid.

When you are ready to serve, remove the pieces of meat and set them on a serving platter.  This will be your second course.  (You can discard the chicken feet and anything else you don’t want.)  Then take the sauce and toss it with fresh tagliatelle.  Serve with lots of Parmesan cheese.

The kids liked this pasta a lot.  They ate it happily for two days.  Matt and I had different opinions.  One of us thought it was the best sauce we’ve had in Perugia.  The other just couldn’t get the chicken feet and organ images out of his head.

Finding the Sauce (fresh pasta, part 2)

“caserecce” with sautéed zucchini and tomatoes

Italians are more careful than I am about pairing pastas with sauces.  I usually don’t pay too much attention to what noodle goes with what sauce; however, out of respect for the attention Cristiano puts into his shapes, I ask for recommendations each time I visit.  Last week I tried six different fresh pastas.  While each one would have been delicious with just melted butter, the variations he offered me were wonderful.  I will try to explain each one, but the recipes can be difficult to duplicate; Christiano used words like “a little” or “some” or “however much you want.”  He never provided measurements.   Furthermore, Italian ingredients can vary from what we are use to back home.  Things like cream and gorgonzola taste different here.

The first day I visited Cristiano’s store, I bought umbrecelli.  This is a thick pasta made with “white dough” meaning there are no eggs added.  The name for umbrecceli is different in every Italian city.  And while it’s always thick, it can be long like spaghetti or short like penne.  In Cortona, it’s called “pici.”  In Spoletto it’s “stringozzi.”  In Terni it’s “cerioli.”  In Genoa it’s called “truffie.”  My favorite word is from the region of Veneto where they call it “strozzapreti” which means “priest choker.”  This name comes from the old days when priests were associated with their big appetites and tendency to partake in the good life.  While scarfing down second helpings of this thick noodle, they were known to occasionally choke on it.

about four servings of umbrecelli

I dressed the umbrecceli with amatraciana sauce, a simple crowd pleaser.  There are as many ways to make amatraciana as there are names for umbrecelli; however, Cristiano says to begin by sautéing half of a small onion in olive oil.  After it becomes pale and soft, add seven ounces of thick pancetta cut into small pieces. Cook for five minutes then add a big splash of white wine.  When the sauce reduces, add two cups of tomato puree and gently simmer for 45 minutes adding water if it gets too  thick.  Serve with pecorino cheese.

The next day I bought agnolotti.  This is an egg pasta stuffed with meat.  It’s a popular pasta in the region of Emilia Romana.  We tried it when we visited Bologna.  Cristiano doesn’t make it much because he says Perugians prefer the smaller shape of cappelletti with a meat filling.  (Each city is so loyal to their traditions.)  With agnolotti, Cristiano explained how to make a super easy salsa rosa:  Simply bring to a simmer about two cups of heavy cream then add a quarter cup of tomato puree.  Stir.  Season with salt.  Serve with Parmesan cheese.

agnolotti with salsa rosa

The next day was my favorite.  Cristiano made “caserecce,” a short egg pasta, and told me how to make a zucchini and tomato sauce.  (See photo at the top of this post.)  Begin by sautéing half a small onion in plenty of olive oil.  Add a generous sprinkle of dried chives.  Slice up three zucchinis in rounds and add them to the oil.  Add salt.  Turn the zucchinis over when they brown.  After both sides are cooked, add two small chopped tomatoes.  Toss with the pasta and serve with Parmesan cheese.

caserecce up close

The fourth pasta I made was gigli all’arrabbiata.  Gigli are short, twirly, whimsical noodles.  “Gigli” means “lilies” in Italian. “Arrabbiata” means “angry” (because this tomato sauce is spicy).  Begin by sautéing a small chopped onion and several cloves of chopped garlic.  Add salt.  Add plenty of hot pepper flakes.  When the onions begin to look translucent, add three cups of tomato puree.  Gently simmer for 25 minutes.  This is a versatile sauce and can be served on umbrecceli too.

Matt’s plate of gigli all’arrabbiata.

Next, we tried ravioli.  Every day Cristiano makes ricotta and spinach ravioli.  But on special days, he makes beet ravioli.  We arrived on a special day.   As he wrapped up my tray of pasta, Cristiano explained what to put on top:  Place a big wedge of gorgonzola cheese in a double boiler over hot water.  Let it slowly melt while occasionally stirring.  When it’s hot, drizzle it over the ravioli and sprinkle toasted walnuts on top.

Finally, we tried cappelletti (little hats).  Traditionally Perugians eat this for Christmas in broth, but it’s good any time of year.  I wanted to try making a broth, so Cristiano told me to go to the butcher and get several pieces of veal, beef, and chicken, all on the bone, then put the meat in a pot with an onion, several carrots and some celery and cover with water.  Add plenty of coarse salt and bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for two hours.  Remove the meat and strain the broth.  Let it cool in the fridge and then skim off the fat that rises and solidifies.  Reheat and cook the cappelletti in the broth for 8 minutes.  Serve with Parmesan cheese.  The meat from the stock can be served as a second coarse with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.

Bowls of cappelletti in broth.

One last thing I wanted to share about pasta making is a short list of rules that all Italians swear by.  I can’t tell you how many time I hear the following:

1.  Before cooking the noodles, add plenty of salt to the boiling water.  Americans are use to adding a sprinkle, but here they add a small handful.  It should be as salty as the ocean, they say.  (And never add oil to the water, it prevents the noodles from absorbing flavor.)

2.  Cook the noodles al dente.   I thought I knew what this meant, but Italians cook their noodles even less than I expected.   Overcooked pasta tastes like baby food, the Italians say.  They would rather serve underdone than overdone pasta.  (This is the rule I worried about the most when I had Italian company over for dinner.)

3.  Before draining the noodles, add a ladle or two of the hot pasta water to the sauce.  They say the starchy water is good for creating a silky sauce, and it somehow makes the sauce stick to the noodles better.

4.  Before serving, add drained noodles to the sauce in the saucepan and combine, instead of serving a ladle of sauce on top of the noodles.  The Italians even cook the noodles with the sauce for a minute or two.  (Just make sure you’ve added the pasta to the sauce before it’s done so you don’t overcook them.)

Pasta alla Norcina

Yesterday started off pretty rocky.  The boys miss friends.  I mean that in the general sense.  They miss having kids to play with.  There just aren’t many around.  The other day at lunch, Tom saw a family sit down to eat.  There were four boys.  “Kids!” he pointed, as if they were an extinct species in Europe.  Then yesterday, Ray was trying to learn some Italian phrases.  The two he practiced were, “Do you want to be my friend?” and “Do you want to play with me?”  So we jumped at the invitation to have dinner at my friend Sara’s house last night.  She has an 8-month-old!   Sara lives in Seattle.  I use to meet her weekly for Italian lessons.  But this month she is in Perugia visiting her parents.

We arrived at 7:30.  Sara offered the boys Coke Zero and poured prosecco for us.  Tom asked to use the bathroom and got him self locked inside for a little while.  Sara’s dad found the master key to the house and was finally able to let him out.  A short lesson on unlocking the door ensued.  Another round of Coke Zero was served, then Sara suggested we call her cousins to meet the boys.  This was great news, and everyone jumped to life when 3-year-old Francesco and 10-year-old Mattia arrived.  Ray and Tom started practicing their italian with them.  I heard Ray use one of his newly learned phrases.  Then they started playing catch.  It was an absolute heartbreak when, less than five minutes later, their mamma called them home for dinner.  However, we still had Sara’s baby, so we sat around and tried to teach him “Little Bunny Foo Foo.”

Soon, dinner was served.  Sara made a couple traditional Umbrian dishes.  This usually means lots of meat and lots of salt.  We started off with Pasta alla Norcina. Tom took a bite and said it was wonderful.  He had two servings before realizing this was just the first course.  Sara explained how it was made:

1.  In a pan, place three cloves of finely chopped garlic with a generous pour of olive oil and some salt.  Add 4 oz or so of chopped crimini mushrooms.  Saute until the mushrooms are soft.  Taste the mushrooms and make sure they have enough salt.

2.  Remove 3 sausages from their casings and break them up into pieces while adding them to the pan.   Cook until done.

3.  Add a cup of heavy cream.  Heat until warm.  Add 2/3  pound penne pasta.  Stir the sauce and pasta together and serve with parmesan cheese.

The second course was lombo alle erbe e pancetta.  Equally delicious.  It was some of the juiciest and flavorful pork tenderloin I’ve had.  Sara explained how it was prepared:

1.  In a food processor, blend five cloves of garlic, the leaves from several stems of fresh rosemary and sage, some salt and pepper.  Rub it all over a pork tenderloin.

2.  On a baking sheet, spread out 4 ounces of pancetta and then place the pork tenderloin on top.  Roll up the tenderloin in the pancetta.

3.  Bake in a 350 degrees oven for about an hour.  Cool slightly, slice and serve.

When we were on our second serving of pork tenderloin, La Signora brought down another platter of meat.  As she placed a piece on my plate, Sara whispered in my ear, “I don’t like this meat; it’s raw pork.”  Then Sara politely declined a serving.  I’m kind of a when-in-Rome type of person, so I cut a piece off and tasted.  It was great.  I told Sara and she took a closer look.  “OH, that’s not what I thought it was.  That’s raw veal.”

The next course was salad.  Sara tossed a green salad with lettuce from her father-in-law’s garden.   We each had a serving then were offered fresh tomatoes and chopped red onions.  As we were finishing, two of Sara’s friends came over for dessert.

Someone suggested that we sit outside in the fresh air while we eat dessert.  So Il Dottore made coffee for everyone.  I politely declined saying that if I drank coffee this late, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.  Il Dottore laughed and said that was a myth.  “Coffee doesn’t keep anyone up!”  La Signora dished up ice cream, and we sat under the stars.

Pasta with Sardines

Chef Piero and his assistant Ernesto making sauce

Piero and Ernesto stir the sauce . . .

We spent five days in Taormina with the Halls.  During the hot afternoons, we sat for hours under the sun with a deck of cards.  We never dealt a hand until a punishment had been decided for the two losers (nothing too painful, just enough to keep the games competitive).  Some examples: fetch drinks for the winners, call a taxi when needed, wear a speedo for the day, get train supplies, plan dinner, make reservations, wear something embarrassing to the restaurant, etc.  But the best bet was paid after Matt and Lynn lost a close game of spades and were in charge of the evening’s entertainment.

On the way to dinner, they announced how a cooking demonstration had been arranged just up the street with the chef at Trattoria Rosticepi.  It was there that we had eaten a plate of pasta with sardines that was out of this world.  I couldn’t believe it.  Matt described how Lynn talked her way past some daunting resistance from the chef’s family when they initially asked to learn the recipe.  However, when we arrived, the staff (all family) were so incredibly gracious to us.  There was barely enough room in the small, hot kitchen for the adults, so the kids hung out at our table.  The hostess gave us each a chef hat and introduced us to Piero, our teacher for the evening.

Without wasting a moment, Piero pulled out a piece of fish from the fridge and first taught us how to make swordfish carpaccio.  With expressive hand gestures and unwavering confidence in his voice, he described for us, in no uncertain terms, the precise way of making a perfect appetizer:

Using a mandolin, thinly slice 5 pieces of swordfish and arrange them on a plate.  (Piero freezes his fish in order to slice it easily.)

Generously salt the fish and then squeeze plenty of fresh lemon all over.

Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve immediately.

The swordfish was so delicious it warrants buying a mandolin, if only for this purpose.

Next we gathered around the stove for a lesson on cooking pasta with sardines  (There is a photo of this dish on the previous blog post):

In a saucepan, add some extra virgin olive oil, a big spoonful of diced red onions, a handful of chopped wild fennel tops, a big pour of white wine, a pinch of flour, some salt, and a sprinkle of saffron.  Slowly cook for an hour.  This makes a pretty green sauce that can be made ahead and used when you are ready to make dinner.

In another saucepan, heat some extra virgin olive oil, salt, a scoop of pine nuts, some raisins, about 7 fresh sardines or fresh anchovies (not jarred or canned) and plenty of the green sauce.  Bring to a simmer.

Cook dried pasta in boiling water with a sprinkle of flour and a cup of the green sauce.  Before the pasta is finished cooking, drain the water and add it to the green sauce to finish.  Add more sardines or anchovies with the pasta.  Serve al dente with plenty of finely crumbled fresh breadcrumbs.

Throughout the process, Piero sampled the flavor and doneness of the ingredients.  He offered us tastes along the way, adamant that we learn each step just right.  What an honor.  We left with a ton of respect for the man as well as an appreciation for the passionate Sicilian attention to food.

Perugian Cooking School + Recipes

Ray chops herbs, garlic and capers under the guidance of Chef Christine

Matt rolls the dough for la torta al testo, the specialty of Perugia. 

Christine teaches all-day cooking classes in her kitchen just a couple blocks away from our apartment.  We found her on-line before leaving the United States and signed up.  Today we spent seven hours learning some of her favorite Umbrian specialties.  At 10:00, Ray and I joined her for grocery shopping so we could see all the cool little stores she visits.  We met a black truffle forager, an herb and nut vendor, a pasta maker, a cheese seller, a greengrocer, and according to Christine, the best butcher in all of Perugia.  After 2 ½ hours of grocery shopping, we met Tom and Matt back at her house and began preparations for our six course feast and olive oil tasting.

Here are some of the recipes for the dishes we made:

Grilled Shrimp with herbs and lemon

serves 8

½ cup brined capers, rinsed

½ cup fresh herbs such as oregano, rosemary, mint and marjoram

2 garlic cloves minced

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

ground pepper

2 ½ pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined


  1. To make the sauce:  Finely chop the capers with the herbs and garlic.  Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in ½ cup of the olive oil along with the lemon zest and lemon juice.  Season with salt and pepper.   The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated.
  2. To make the shrimp:  Light a grill.  In a large bowl, toss the shrimp with 2 tablespoons olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Thread the shrimp onto skewers and grill over high heat, turning once, until the shrimp are lightly charred and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side.  Remove the shrimp from the skewers and transfer them to a platter.
  3. Spoon the sauce on top and serve with bread.

Black Truffle Sauce with Tagliatelle

2 fresh or bottled black truffles

¼ cup unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 large clove of garlic, minced

salt and pepper

Tagliatelle or other pasta

  1. Mince one of the truffles and place in a mortal and pestle.  Pound to a fine paste.  Add the garlic and a little salt and pound again to integrate the ingredients.  And a few grindings of black pepper, mix in the softened butter and set aside.
  2. Cut the remaining truffle into paper-thin rounds using a truffle slicer or sharp mandoline.  In a small saucepan, warm the olive oil over low heat, add the truffle slices and set aside to steep for about 10 minutes.
  3. Cook 2 large or 4 small servings of pasta until al dente.  Remove the pasta from the water and place in a wide sauté pan.  Add the truffle butter mixture to the pan and toss lightly to heat.
  4. Serve at once, drizzling each portion with some of the reserved truffle slices.

Tom pulverizes black truffles and garlic. He said this was the best pasta he’s had in Italy.

Pork Scaloppine in Caper Sauce

serves 4

1 pound (8 slices) pork from a tenderloin, sliced about ½ inch thick.

1/3 cup flour

¼- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil

2/3 cup dry white wine

Juice of 1 large lemon

2 tablespoons finely minced capers

2 tablespoons finely minced parsley

salt and pepper

  1. Lightly pound the meat slices until they are about 1/8-inch thick.  Dry well with paper towels and place in a plastic bag with the flour.  Shake the bag to coat the slices evenly.  Shake off the excess flour and set the meat aside.
  2. Lightly coat a sauté pan with olive oil, and when it begins to shimmer, brown the meat slices in batches.  Work quickly and do not overcook them or they will toughen.  Transfer to a heatproof dish and keep warm in the oven.
  3. Pour the wine and lemon juice into the pan and cook, scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon.
  4. Stir in the capers and parsley and cook a minute more just to thicken the sauce a bit.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Pour the sauce over the pork and serve immediately.

This recipe also works well with veal or chicken.

Mixed Greens with Herbs, Figs, and Walnuts

½ cup lightly toasted walnuts

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper

4 oz. dried black mission figs or Calmyrna figs thinly sliced (2/3 cup)

8 cups mixed greens

½ cup flat leaf parsley

2 tablespoons torn mint leaves

2 tablespoons shredded basil

2 tablespoons snipped chives

1 oz fresh pecorino, shaved

  1. Preheat the oven to 350.  Spread the walnuts in a pie plate and toast until golden, about 10 min; let cool then chop coarsely.
  2. In a large bowl, put the figs, greens, herbs, pecorino and walnuts and toss gently.
  3. Sprinkle with enough extra virgin olive oil to lightly coat all of the ingredients and toss.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Toss again.  Repeat with the vinegar; taste and adjust seasoning.
  4. Serve right away

Wine Poached Chocolate Pears with Marscapone Cream Sauce

6 ripe but firm Bartlett, Bosc or Anjou pears

1/3 cup sugar

12 inch piece cinnamon stick

½ lemon

4 cups white or red wine

1 cup high quality dark chocolate (60-70 %)

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Fresh mint for garnish

Whipped Marscapone

  1. Peel and core the pears leaving them whole with the stems intact.  Cut a small slice from the bottom of each pear so they stand upright.
  2. Place the pears in a saucepan just large enough to accommodate them snuggly.  Add the wine and enough water to cover the pears.  Squeeze the half lemon to top of the pears and cut off a slice of peel, adding it to the pot.  Add the cinnamon stick.
  3. Cover tightly and let simmer slowly for about 25 minutes.  Test with a toothpick after 20 minutes.  When the pears are well cooked, but still firm, remove with a slotted spoon to a dish and allow to cool to room temperature.
  4. Put the sauce back on the stove and briskly cook down to make a syrup.
  5. Meanwhile, place the chocolate and heavy cream in a small saucepan over (but not in) simmering water.  Stir until the chocolate and cream are well combined, shiny and smooth.
  6. Hold the pears by the stem over the chocolate then dip a fork in the chocolate and drizzle it over the tops of the pears.  Place the pears in serving dishes and let rest a few minutes before garnishing with mint leaves.
  7. Whip the Marscapone cream.  Add it and some of the syrup on top and around the pears.  Serve.

Christine offers cooking classes until September and then again in May.  I will be taking more.