Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.



Italy Roundtable: Lost at the Table

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable has grown over the past month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria, we welcome new member Michelle Fabio from the wonderful Bleeding Espresso blog to explore this month’s theme: lost in translation. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.


I’m not sure how it came up. We may have been talking about childhood memories, or maybe some American movie, or maybe just our favorite foods from growing up. But for whatever reason, I started describing to my children -bicultural but 90% Italian in matters concerning the palate – that perennial favorite: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

I watched as their expressions shifted from mild interest to disbelief to outright disgust as I described the bright orange powder which, when mixed with milk, butter, and slightly overcooked elbow pasta, would transform through some sort of gastronomic alchemy into what was, in the 1970s, our hands-down favorite meal and one of the pillars of our household cuisine.

“Wait, what? It was dried, powdered chemical cheese?!? And you ate it?” my children cried in horror. And then, “So if you ate that and you’re fine, why can’t we have Coke?”

It seems odd, but I had never really thought about some of my favorite and, admittedly, slightly disgusting favorite dishes from growing up during what was probably the lowest moment for American cuisine. They had gradually faded from my memory over the distance decades and oceans, and it was only during what quickly become one of my children’s favorite topics of dinnertime conversation that I revisited these dishes.

Over the next few weeks, a myriad of nostalgic favorites were discussed, to the growing incredulity of my children. What was served at home and school in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s and 80s was as odd and gastronomically untranslatable to two Italian children growing up in the Umbrian countryside in the 21st century as molecular cuisine or whatever tube worms eat in the depths of the ocean.

What were the foods – and I use the word “food” loosely – that left them most awed and amazed?

Chili Mac. This was the logical segue after Kraft Mac & Cheese (with a slight, longing detour past Hamburger Helper), and my kids were slightly less scandalized by this, as they have had chili with more or less success. Of course, the chili that they have had is my homemade black bean chili with chipotle and fresh lime which simmers on the stove for the better part of a day. The chili my mother used was made by Hormel and simmered on the stove for exactly 30 seconds before being tossed with overdone macaroni (was there any other pasta shape in the Midwest in 1981?) and served up to much enthusiasm. Had I had the audacity to bring up canned chili, I could have also mentioned Spaghettios and Chef Boyardee Ravioli, but they can’t handle the truth.

The whole genre of orange processed cheeses. Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, Kraft Singles. America has invented many wonderful things, but I venture that our eponymous cheese is not one of them. I’ve never been a big fan of American cheese, so understood my sons’ perplexed looks while I described the disconcerting color, rubbery texture, and chemical aftertaste. Cheese is our family Esperanto, apparently. That said, one of my favorite childhood memories was going to the public library on Saturday and then afterwards stopping at the Peter Pan Diner for a grilled cheese sandwich…and you can bet your bottom dollar that it was made with Wonder Bread, American cheese, and fried up in margarine. Best lunch ever.

Jello. I have vague memories of opening up the kitchen cabinet and seeing a number of those small boxes neatly stacked in a variety of flavors. We were big jello fans at our house, and jiggly trays would be prepared and then cut into ice-cube sized squares to be popped into the mouth directly from the fridge all afternoon long. Try explaining to a 10 and 13 year old Italian kid that merenda was squares of acid-colored sweet gelatin flavored with artificial fruit flavors. Yeah, it doesn’t really translate that well. Throw in canned mandarin orange slices and marshmallows, and they were backing away from the table at just the thought. But boy did I love that when I was seven. (Also: Jello instant pudding in the similar little boxes. This did not gross the kids out as much, as there is instant budino here. Which they refuse to eat. But they’ve seen it.)

Sloppy Joes. I went into a long explanation of the singular delight that is the Sloppy Joe, and when I finished there was a long silence. Then, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s ragu served on a hamburger bun?” Yeah. Exactly. I’d never really thought of it like that, but yes. They were totally on board with the Sloppy Joe, and I have promised to make it for them some day. Because, you know, they’re two boys. And Sloppy Joes are, well, sloppy. Which is pretty much the attraction there, because otherwise it’s really nothing more than ragu sauce on a bun, you big dummy.

Corn dogs. No one is quibbling about the deliciousness that is the corn dog on a stick. Really, any food on a stick is pretty much the bomb, but the corn dog reigns supreme in pure State Fair joyousness. And yet. Try to explain the corn dog concept to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to actually taste one at an age too young to ask too many questions and you are bound to get Prince-at-the-2015-Grammys shade tossed your way. My kids are off and on about hot dogs (though hamburgers are always a win), and meh about cornbread. So the combination didn’t really sway them, though the concept of it being served on a stick gave them pause. Every once in awhile, just for laughs, they’ll randomly ask me to describe a corn dog again. And I have to admit, the more I talk about it the more I realize that it is kind of weird. But I hear that pretty much everything is battered and fried and served on a stick these days, so corn dogs have become the Atari of fair foods.

Tater tots. One bite of tater tots and they would burn their Italian passports. That is all. You think your favorite school lunch day was Sloppy Joe Day, but that’s because you forgot about Tater Tot Day. The day of the week we all lived for. I haven’t actually eaten a tater tot in probably 30 years, but I was able to perfectly describe the crunchy fried outer layer, lightly dusted in salt, which would be cracked open to reveal the steaming soft totness within. And, as a close cousin to the universally beloved french fry, (so deeply part of our cultural roots that when those rats in France had the audacity to justly question our invasion of Iraq after 9/11, we started calling them “freedom fries” because the alternative—boycotting french fries altogether—was unthinkable), my sons were easy converts.

Every so often, we open up the gastronomic Pandora’s Box and I’m able to exhume other more or less horrifying (to them)-slash-nostalgic (to me) examples (Tang.), much to our mutual enjoyment. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about highlighting the crazy differences that separate their experiences from mine, but about coming together and reveling in our shared life despite those crazy differences. Sure, food is sometimes lost in translation…but family is a something we all understand.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!


The Torta al Testo Taste Test

I snort when I laugh really hard. I do. And there are only a couple of people in this world who can regularly make me laugh so hard I get to snorting. Jennifer McIlvaine, blogger, chef, and irreverent Philly girl, is one of those people. She’s a foodie with attitude, an ironic commentator on the quirks of living shoulder to shoulder with the Umbrians, and one of the most talented chefs I know. She is also the mother of lovely Olivia and Gabriele and wife of Federico, one of the region’s experts on food and wine. I love her food-centric blog (her recent post on canning is one of my favorites) and I was so happy to have her stop by this week with a post about one of my favorite Umbrian staples.

Four takes on this most traditional of Umbrian dishes (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Will the real Torta al Testo please step foward?

Umbrians are by definition, traditionalists. So I was floored the other day when, dining at one of my favorite local spots, I tried a piece of Torta al Testo (a traditional Umbrian flatbread) NOT made in the traditional way – its was spongy, and yeasty…different!

Torta al Testo is eaten throughout Umbria and its name comes from: Torta, meaning bread or pizza and Testo, the heavy disc on which the bread is cooked. In ancient times the testo was made from clay and placed over coals in the fireplace. Modern times have brought us the contemporary version made from iron and aluminum, and placed directly on the stovetop. Of course, Umbria being Umbria, full of small, walled medieval towns, it seems that everywhere you go, the torta is known by a different name: Torta al Testo in the central-north area, Crescia in Gubbio, Ciaccia on the border with Tuscany, and Pizza sotto il Fuoco in the South. So many names for such a simple bread in such a small region!

So, as I mentioned, I was very surprised to try a new version of this classic; as it was chewy and had a yeasty flavor, it inspired me to do a little experimentation…

I used 4 “rising agents” to test the different recipes:
#1: I used a very old recipe, just flour, baking soda, salt and water.
#2: I used a classic recipe with Lievito Pizzaiolo – which is kind of like a cross between baking powder and instant yeast
#3: I used brewer’s yeast
#4: I used a natural (sourdough) bread starter that I made from grape yeast.
In the 2nd-4th recipes, I also added a little milk, olive oil, and parmigiano to the mix, known here as condita, or flavoured.

(In doing my research, I did also find recipes that contained eggs, but these are widely considered heresy – no good Umbrian would add such rich ingredients – if you are going to go down that route, why don’t you just add some butter as well? Will never happen.)

My willing guinea pigs where comprised of 1 expert from Assisi, 2 from Todi, 1 from Foligno, 2 from Cannara, 1 from Puglia and 1 American, as well as my 19 month-old daughter – a certified bread afficianado.

My hypothesis was that torta #1 would most likely be chosen at the true torta visually, but I was hoping that torta #4 would be chosen for taste. Astonishingly, EVERYONE picked the torta made with the natural bread starter (#4) as the true torta al testo based on visuals – it was highest and most leavened. This surprised me, because, the tortas that I have eaten have always been relatively flat and compact without a lot of air bubbles.
However, when it came to taste, almost everyone chose #1, the most simple, made with just baking soda (also the most dense). Those who did not choose #1, chose #4, sticking with the natural starter. Tortas #3 & #4 were considered good but standard. Naturally, all of this experimentation sparked a lively debate on what the REAL traditional recipe is, some swearing up and down that a rising agent is unnecessary – just use flour, water and salt. I conducted a sub-experiment without the rising agent and the result was a little pasty. This recipe could be used if cooked in the antique way – in the fireplace, under the ash, but must be eaten immediately.
And the winner is… well, my results remain inconclusive, but I think we all agreed that simplicity is best. So my quest to create the perfect Torta al Testo continues… The goal is to get a good rise and a rich flavor from the most basic of ingredients.

The Torta al Testo dates back to Etruscan times as a simple quick flat bread that did not need a long rising time – should we just keep it that way? Maybe some of us will break with tradition, but only within our own private medieval walls…

The Recipes

Torta #1
500g flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1 level teaspoon salt
about 350mL warm water

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until a ball of dough is formed. If the dough is sticky add a little bit more flour. Knead the dough with your hands for about 5 minutes until it becomes a smooth ball. Let the dough rest in a warm place covered with a towel for about 40 minutes. Roll dough into a disc. Place directly onto preheated testo or griddle pan (without oil!). Prick with a fork and let cook over a medium-low heat until brown on one side. Flip and continue to cook on the other side. Let rest for a few minutes off the heat. Cut into wedges and fill each with either prosciutto, cheese or greens and sausage. Buon Apetito!

Torta #2
500g flour
1 packet (15g) Lievito Pizzaiolo
220mL warm water (or one Nutella glass)
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Make a well with the flour and add the lievito and water mix well. Then add the rest of the ingredients, leaving the salt for the end and mix well. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes then, let rest for 40-60 minutes. Continue as above.

Torta #3
500g flour
25g brewer’s yeast (fresh or dry)
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Dissolve the yeast in warm water with sugar. Add to flour, add rest of ingredients and continue as above, letting the dough rest 1-1 ½ hours.

Torta #4
500g flour
100g natural bread starter
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Same as above, letting the dough rise for 6 hours.