Monday, December 30, 2013


Tomorrow is New Year's Eve, which inevitably reminds me of the big dinners my family used to have on that occasion when I was a little girl. Those were the 80s, and a staple appetizer on our table, as on many others in Italy, was crostini with butter and smoked salmon. This is an incredibly delicious combination that might sound completely outdated and a little trashy today, an embarrassing remnant of the world's blind reverence for French gourmet food. But I don't care if butter and smoked salmon are now regarded with the same contempt as carpaccio with arugula and shaved Parmigiano, cordon bleu, puff-pastry appetizers, and cream on pasta or chicken. I will defend these crostini because I could eat a million of them at any time, without apologies.

Is there any such thing as a smoked-salmon eating contest? I think I could win at one.

So, today I share with you my take on these infamous crostini. I believe this recipe will actually be my only (yet great!) contribution to mankind. Reader, behold, The Smoked Salmon Butter! Yes, the idea is to mix together butter, shredded smoked salmon, and dill. It is not entirely new, I admit, and you will find similar recipes online. However, my recipe asks for some whole-grain mustard, which, pardon the modesty, makes all the difference.

This smoked salmon butter is so delicious I have a hard time not eating all of it by myself in one sitting. The first time I served it was during a butter-themed party, and I was happy to present it as a huge brick of luscious fattiness surrounded by slices of pumpernickel bread (and if you want the brick, just double the ingredients in the recipe below). This year, my husband felt it was only appropriate to use fish molds to shape the butter. Both versions are scary enough to help you figure out who your friends really are.


2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
4 oz smoked salmon, shredded by hand
2 tsps dill
1 tbsp whole-grain Dijon mustard
salt and pepper if desired
crostini (sliced toasted bread)
  • Mix all ingredients in a bowl. (You can use the paddle attachment in your electric mixer.)
  • Line a mold with plastic wrap and, using a spatula, place the butter inside.
  • Refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
  • Take out of the mold and serve on crostini. 

Need more recipes for New Year's Eve? Please make Braised Lentils: Italians believe lentils will bring money in the new year, and Italy is the richest country in the world, right?

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Q: Dead Chef, do you like children?
A: Of course I do! Well, I like mine, mostly. And a few others. But really, mostly mine, and even them only a few hours a day, and between the ages of 18 months and 2 years. And even that depends greatly on how much I slept and on my glucose level. But, my god, I love children!

Q: What is the ideal number of children to have?
A: If you have a boy, you should definitely have another, but only within 3 years from the first. You really need a substitute for those impromptu and unwanted wrestling sessions initiated by your first born. I just had my second, and I figure I'll be bruise-free in about 16 months.

Q: What is your advice for new parents?
A: The first years with a child can provide you with an excellent opportunity for smugness. Take it and enjoy it to the fullest. You should make sure you exude total self-satisfaction whenever you meet someone who is not at that moment in the company of a child. Your message is: "My life is incredibly hard and yet rewarding in ways you can never hope to understand." You should act this way mostly because this is your last chance in life to be smug. As soon as your children will be able to articulate properly their disappointment with every single aspect of your appearance, personality, and life choices, your smugness will be replaced by the terrifying and definite acknowledgement that your life has been totally futile and misspent.

After 2 years, this father is actually standing straight here.
Q: What is the best way to get back in shape after pregnancy?
A: You can only get back into shape if your child is in daycare or school. In any case, I highly recommend a physical therapist rather than conventional exercise. The truth is, you started an intensive exercise regime already in the early stages of parenting, and let me tell you: Parenting is the worst possible workout for the human body. You lift, jump, rock, sway, and bend over in positions where your spine and neck are unnaturally wrenched into monstrous coils of pain. Your muscles are called to perform abruptly and always work in complete disharmony. Your tendons have become tight and hard as celery stalks. You need medical intervention, now. Pilates can wait.

Q: What movies do you recommend to a pregnant woman?
A: Excellent question! Pregnancy is a beautiful, mysterious, and unsettling time where perceptions and feelings are heightened. I'd take fully advantage of the hormonal intensity to watch only the best and weirdest movies around and make your already weird dreams even weirder. Rosemary's Baby and Upstream Color to deal specifically with pregnancy fears, and then Akira Kurosawa's Ran, most movies with Jeanne Moreau, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and finally all of David Lynch if you're a brave one (I must admit I wasn't). I'd avoid all rom-coms and holiday movies: Those are movies to be watch ironically while on a plane trip; you don't want to be caught shedding precious hormonal tears for that crap.

Q: Do you think being a mother is the hardest job in the world?
A: No, I don't think so, but don't tell my husband. That's the line I used to stop doing house work.

Q: What have you learned from being a mother for almost three years?
A: I learned that it really takes a village. Specifically, a village located in a country where grandparents ask nothing more than to spend quality alone-time with their grandchildren.

Q: What's the best thing about having a child?
A: All that food they leave on the plate.

Q: What's the worst thing?
A: The food is often partially chewed.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Nonna Rosalia, my paternal grandmother, was a great cook as most Italian grandmothers are. She was not, however, a traditional grandmother chained to the kitchen from dawn to dawn*. In fact, with her degree in Math obtained in Palermo in the Forties and her teaching job, she considered herself (and rightfully so) a modern, emancipated Italian woman. This also meant she liked to escape the dogmas of traditional Sicilian cooking and experiment with more modern recipes, mostly successfully. (Especially if I disregard her green-apple mousse that still counts as one of the most vile things I've ever ingested.) 

In the early 2000s, Nonna Rosalia acquired the recipe for Bombe, which are fried, savory doughnuts made with gnocchi dough and yeast and filled with mozzarella, prosciutto cotto (Italian ham), and mushroom. I was lucky enough to be there during the first preparation: Prepping the bombe's filling, waiting nervously as they rose under a kitchen towel, and tapping my foot and biting my lip with excited expectation as they finally rolled and puffed up in boiling oil. 

The bombe were a complete triumph: They were soft, not greasy, a perfect explosion of Italian comfort-food flavors. They forever hooked me, my sister, and our cousins from the very first bite. And thereafter we felt like bombe had been there for us all of our lives, fueling our physical and emotional growth, lovingly tying us to our family roots, reconnecting us to the best of our childhood, even though we were tasting them for the first time in our early twenties. Bombe became an instant family tradition, one that we begged Nonna Rosalia to bring back for birthdays and holidays, and one that now makes us immediately think of her now that she's no longer with us. 

Two months ago my second child was born, and my sister came to visit and help. She and I decided then to celebrate with a massive batch of bombe. They came out great, and it felt great to make them again. Here's the recipe.


1 packet active dry yeast
1 lb Russet potatoes
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt

3 eggs
1/2 lb ham, shredded
1/2 lb mozzarella, cubed
1/2 cup cooked mushroom
enough oil for deep frying
  • Activate the yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water.
  • Boil the potatoes in salted water for 30 min, or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Let them cool to a reasonable temperature and peel them.
  • Press the potatoes through a ricer into a large bowl. If you don't own a potato ricer, I hear you can use a grater and then fluff the grated potatoes with a fork.
  • Add the flour, salt, yeast, and eggs until the dough is manageable and soft and comes together, but is still a little sticky. If you've ever made gnocchi, that's what it should feel like.
  • Roll the dough into a 3-inches wide log, then cut 1-inch wide discs and arrange them on a floured surface.
  • Place a disc in the palm of your hand and place a little ham and mozzarella, or mushroom and mozzarella (about a tablespoon) in the center. Pinch the edges together to close the filling inside.
  • Continue stuffing the bombe, arranging them an inch from each other.
  • Cover the bombe with a floured kitchen towel, and let them rest for an hour or until they have doubled in size.
  • Fry the bombe in at least 3 or 4 inches of oil and serve them warm.

*Pardon the stereotype. I base it only on my other relatives from Sicily, whose reason to exist seems to produce unlimited quantities of culinary triumphs.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I can't believe it took me almost 9 years to set foot inside an H Mart, the Korean supermarket with locations in Fairfax, Gaithersburg, and my beloved Wheaton. H Mart is a wonderland of Asian foods and beyond that transforms the idea of perimeter shopping from boringly healthy discipline to an amazing adventure in meal planning: The first side offers all kinds of noodles, dumplings, and miso; the second side has the best array of fish, mystery fish, meats, and offals; the third side explodes with beautiful herbs, roots, and greens; and the fourth side is where you pay, but not too much.

I have been going to H Mart for a few months now, and I have discovered many sauces, spices, and vegetables that now have become staples in my house. But the food I now have to buy every single time I shop there is their lovely whole fresh mackerel. It is dirt cheap at about $2.50 per fish and grants a most delicious dinner that will make all of my family members perfectly happy. 

Your Meyers-Brigg Type determines whether you are drawn to or disgusted by this photo.

We usually buy three whole mackerels for a whole dinner. (The staff at H Mart will gut the fish for you if you're not up for gutting.) It might seem like a lot, but our toddler eats a whole one on his own without batting an eye, so we had to adapt. Since I have lately become an apostle of dry salting for meats and fish (do yourself a favor, get your hands on Molly Stevens's All About Roasting), I pat the mackerels dry and then salt them heavily inside and out. I let them stand on the counter for about 2030 minutes so that the salt has the time to extract and then seal in all of the flavors, and then I broil the fishes on a roasting pan for about 10 minutes, turning them once. I know they're ready when their skin blackens and puffs up to resemble a Neapolitan pizza crust. It's a kind of esoteric sign for me, I guess.

The result is a tender, fat, incredibly flavorful mackerel that will light up your dinner and that may also bring all neighborhood cats caroling outside your door. It's almost Christmas, so be nice to them.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Postcard from the Dolomites: Will Hike for Food

Oh, Italy, its lovely charm, its indomitable chaos, its adorable immaturity! Just give in to the proverbial Italian sense of fun and forget all about responsibility and decorum, just like her cheerful inhabitants!

WAIT!!! There is one place in Italy where this charming anarchy does not exist, where rules shan't be broken or even slightly bended, where the beauty of the landscape is painstakingly preserved by an army of blond, incorruptible Italians who actually long to be Austrian. Welcome, my American friends, to the uncompromising beauty of Alto-Adige/Südtirol.

Alto-Adige is the northernmost region of Italy, bordering with Austria. Its inhabitants speak German and Italian (often with a German accent), which are the two official languages of the region, and all the towns have a German and Italian name. In my childhood, I spend several summers in the lovely San Candido/Innichen.

Of those summers, I remember fondly the breathtaking mountain views, the kittens living outside our rental apartment, and the formidable local gastronomy strongly grounded on butter, cheese, wild game, and mushrooms. Every morning, my sister and I would stuff our innocent and perfectly-functioning stomachs with krapfen with cream, and on our frequent excursions to mountain "refuges" we would banquet with plates of melted cheese, roasted venison with pears and currant jam, porcini risottos, Wiener Schnitzel with fries, canederli with speck, black bread and butter, butter, butter. As we hiked through the enchanting woods (all dressed up in our mushroom-picking uniforms of woolen socks, corduroy breeches, and flower shirt), we would pick deliciously ripe blackcurrants, raspberries, and tiny wild strawberries.

I loved Alto Adige then and I still love it today. But I went back a few years ago and I have to say I have felt like a complete foreigner despite being just 3 hours away from my hometown. Alto-Adige inhabitants have rules that my friends and I would clumsily break all the time: We would order from the menu inefficiently (the rule is to order all the primi first and then the secondi unless you want to cross the waiter), we left our lamp on in our hotel room when we left for dinner (the hotel manager scolded us mercilessly), and then we stupidly tried to have breakfast past 9:30am, lunch past 1pm, and dinner past 8:30pm, about two hours later than usual for each meal (all restaurant staff despised us).

And yet, with each and every one of our cultural faux-pas, Alto Adige would offer us delicacies that we could not resist. Each portion of their excellent food corresponds to four portions in the rest of Italy. In a restaurant in Sesto we gorged almost to death on speck and deer prosciutto, herb ravioli drowned in fresh butter and sprinkled with fried speck bits, pork shanks and two ladlefuls each of the most fragrant wild mushroom you can ever have. It was the first time in my Italian life that I asked for a doggy bag, and I didn't feel ashamed.

So here's a quick reference list of foods you should not miss when you visit the area. Only remember to be punctual, orderly, and never loud.



To each his own doughnut.
These are the doughnuts of the Dolomites. Truth be told, Krapfen are German and Austrian, but I had them every day on my Alto-Adige vacation, and I need to celebrate them here. They're huge, fried, sweet, soft, and filled with custard or jam. And they are miraculously not too greasy (I mean, they'll make their wrapping a little see-through, but that has to happen).


The smoked, cured meat of the gods, lined with a strip of luxurious fat but otherwise rather lean and wonderfully tender. The spices used are salt, juniper, and laurel. Speck is hard to find in DC—and when you find it tends to be rather old and leathery and improperly sliced—but you can get some good quality cuts in Philadelphia.


This is the Italian version of the Knödel served in Germany, Austria, and Central Europe. These are bread dumplings the size of a small fist containing bits of speck, cheese, and parsley and served either in broth or alone, but drizzled with melted butter and topped with cheese. There's also a spinach variation that I remember loving dearly.


The sausage is a size 12.
This is a champion plate that represent the entire food pyramid with a glory that not even the Ancient Egyptians dared to attempt. This is a perfectly flavorful, fresh, and yet trashily fat dish that Americans would LOVE. Mushrooms include porcini, which in the US are very difficult to find fresh and that taste better in Italy anyway (sorry, but it's true).


I could not find the right photo, but this should do.
Didn't you read the fourth paragraph? ROASTED VENISON WITH PEARS AND CURRANT JAM. I had this at the age of ten and, if I close my eyes, I can still taste this sublime combination in my mouth and shed a single tear of joy. A wonderfully unusual dish that combines strong flavors without being overwhelming. You'll probably eat this in a cabin, with the perfume of charred polenta caressing your nostrils.


Gelaterie, or ice-cream parlors, are wonderful, especially the ones that allow you to sit down for beautifully presented ice-cream cups. In the mountains, gelato is a perfect pleasure thanks to the high-quality milk and eggs of the region. This preparation consists in two scoops of vanilla gelato topped at the last minute with fresh, warm raspberries, and an optional dollop of fresh whipped cream (no cans). Incredibly easy to replicate at home, if I might suggest.

Friday, November 22, 2013


I'm sure most of you DC people are familiar with Dolci Gelati and their delicious pints of Italian gelato sold at retailers like Whole Paycheck and Yes! Organic Robbery. When I heard they were opening a café in Takoma Park, MD, I was more than thrilled to get a fresh scoop for myself and initiate my son to the joy of gelato before he tasted ice-cream. It's a parenting theory I'm developing called culinary imprinting.

Almond croissant, I worship Thee!
When I first entered the Cafe, I was happy to see an array of croissants on display together with the gelati. Since croissants are one of my favorite things in life, I immediately ordered a scoop of hazelnut gelato and an almond croissant. What can I say? I loved the first one, but I was completely blown away by the second. The croissant was super-buttery, perfectly flaky, but also had a surprising crunch that reminded me of the Neapolitan sfogliatella, the pastry of the Gods. The almond filling was also a surprise: It wasn't the usual almond paste (not that I have anything against it), but it was an luscious, almond-flavored soft custard. 

Just like that, I realizing I was biting into the unexpected and wonderfully humbling evolution of the old croissant into the Nietzschean Übercroissant. (What about the cronut? Well, as the name clearly indicates, it's a step backwards: It's the Cro-Magnon of croissants.)

Nothing plain about this plain croissant.

I immediately asked the teenage cashier where those beautiful croissant came from, and she laconically replied they were made daily for Dolci Gelati by "this guy." I didn't press her further. What I learned from subsequent visits and questioning, is that the croissants are available only on weekends, and that they come in different flavors: plain, almond, chocolate, and piña colada. I tried them all, and they're all great, especially the chocolate ones, whose filling is as soft and pillowy as in the almond croissant.

On Dolci Gelati's website, I then learned that the chef, Gianluigi Dellaccio, trained at the century-old Neapolitan pastryshop Scaturchio, which not only serves one of the best espresso in the world, but PERFECT sfogliatelle as well, which made me wonder if this experience gave the croissants at Dolci Gelati their unique crunch. And by the way, I was lucky enough to have breakfast at Scaturchio every day on a short trip to Naples a few years ago, and I can say every day away from that counter has been, literally, hell on earth. (OK, maybe not literally.)

So, these days my weekend outings in Takoma Park include a gelato, a croissant, and a macchiato. Because the coffee at Dolci Gelati is pretty great, too, in case you were wondering.

Yes, I have three pics. Macchiato and two mini croissants.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Sorry for the long absence from the blog, but as some of you might know, 6 weeks ago my family welcomed a new baby boy, who I will refer to from now on as MicroBee (his older brother is MiniBee, and the father Mr. Bee).

MicroBee is doing great, and he's the kind of newborn who belongs to that mythical species that eats and sleeps all day long. And in the few minutes he's awake, he looks as suspicious as someone whose malfunctioning time-travel machine just landed onto yet another random point in time and space. Hilarious. 

But even though I'm not spending my days topless and in tears like last time, and you will even see me wearing makeup on most days (and yes, I reapply every day), the time to sit down at a computer with both of my hands free to type has been severely curtailed. No worries though, I managed to produce a few drafts filled with food and typos that will be cleaned up and published soon.

For the moment, I'll leave you with a couple of brief reflections on newborns.


  • They can't smile yet.
  • They can't speak yet.
  • They either ignore you or stare at you, frowning. 
  • They have a large forehead (baldness).

Mr. Know-It-All.


Two weeks into your parenting experience, make roasted chicken. The act of rinsing it or rubbing it with spices, combined with your sleeplessness fog, will give you a unique, horrifying experience. Trust me: It's the closest I've come to vegetarianism. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

GUEST POST: The Café Files No.1

By Alec Bourgeois

A perfect espresso has many things in common with a perfect roux, not the least of which is the dark nutty brown color that defines success in each. My father, a New Orleans native, has a gentle way of telling you that your roux sucks. When you ask his opinion of your raw undercooked roux he reassuringly tells you that you've created a "nice blond roux" -- which makes it sound like it's a "thing". It's not a thing. A blond roux means it's raw and undercooked. The same goes for espresso, if your espresso is anything other than the deep brown hue of a hazelnut you probably shouldn't serve it.

THIS is an espresso.
THIS is a roux.

Friday, October 18, 2013


It's 2013, as you may or may not know, and if you can believe it, there are still people raging against the improper use of the adjective "awesome". This is not a recent complaint, of course, and as far as I know, the modern use of the word has been actively denounced and despised for at least a decade. In fact, the debate has been so heated that even my dog now knows that "awesome" should be used only to describe something sublime, wonderful and overwhelming, like a raging storm at sea, or a volcanic explosion. Today, instead, just brushing the aforementioned dog a couple of times a month will grant me an "awesome!" from my husband. Isn't that sublime indeed?

Dear readers, today I just want us all to raise a white flag of surrender. "Awesome!" is here to stay, possibly for a long time. Not forever, but at least as long as other irritating exclamations of approval. The reason behind my call for peace is simple. "Awesome" is not the first or the last word whose meaning has been crushed into meaninglessness. Most people who abhor awesome still use the word "cool" for phenomena that have nothing to do with temperature, and even those who think themselves superior to "cool" have used the word "adorable" to praise a baby other than the baby Jesus.

So, let's all be reasonable and stop complaining. If you don't want to use it, don't (I try not to describe anything as a "train wreck", for example). There are worthier causes to defend, and the natural constant changes of spoken language are really an enemy too big for us to defeat. And then, at least "groovy" is gone, right?

Friday, October 4, 2013


I know that look.
If you're reading this, it means I've just given birth to my second baby and that I'm therefore too busy/shocked/enraptured/panicked to write new content for the blog. Yes, this post is a rehash of an old one written for the Italian Dead Chef, edited just for you to let you know what I have learned about pregnancy now that I have done it twice.

The greatest revelation I had when I became a mother for the first time was that the horror in Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" does not lie in its hallucinatory and distorted representation of maternity, but in its extreme and unabashed realism. It should have been awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary. Dear future mothers, let's see how.

Rosemary's Paranoia 

Nausea, fiery and unstoppable heartburn, round ligament pain, insomnia... These are all horrendous symptoms that lead to a total sense of paranoia and hypocondria that you have to keep secret in order to conform to the stereotype of the blessed Earth Mother. The entire destiny of human civilization depends on this.

The Old Meddling Neighbors 

Immediately after you announce your pregnancy, parents and in-laws invade your life with completely unscientific and possibly life-threatening advice that is instead presented as completely valid. Castor oil? A full moon? A night of love to initiate labor?? Are you all out of your minds???

The Birth 

Surrounded by strangers who continually hail to your strength and courage with praise and sporting chants (I'm referring to the doctors, nurses, and midwives in the labor room), you can't help but wonder what their actual investment in the soon-to-be-born baby is. When you finally lay your eyes on your little screaming newborn disgustingly covered in various uterine debris, you realize you just gave birth to the Devil, but you love him/her nonetheless.

The First Days at Home 

After your first 48 hours at home with baby, you will wonder whether you will ever leave your bedroom or wear any clothing from your waist up. Your bedroom becomes a dark cave in which it is always night... the same night.

Your Partner 

As soon as you're home from the hospital, your partner receives a new career-defining project that requires late nights at work. Your family needs the money, but the truth is that your partner's soul is now ownership of Satan. Sorry.

The Cult 

In your case, the Cult is made up of friends who became parents before you. Before the birth, they reveal none of their secrets, only offering trite BS such as awesome post-partum exercises for your abs. But when you call them in tears asking them why breastfeeding is such an unbelievably painful torture, they will nonchalantly reveal to you that they went through the same thing and that for months after the birth of their baby they suffered from PTSD.

The General Atmosphere 

If you stop reading pregnancy and baby books even for a second, you realize your life feels like a Roman Polanski movie.

I'm sorry if this post is going to scare some future mothers-to-be. Please remember, pregnant readers, that this is ultimately only my personal experience.


Oh, whom am I kidding? You'll soon join the cult: The birth is only the initiation ritual. See you soon, my dears.

Read it in Italian: ROSEMARY'S BABY: E' tutto vero! 

Sunday, September 29, 2013


As promised, here is a very easy and extremely rewarding recipe for chickpea bread for total bread-making newbies (like me). First of all, let me explain why I decided to make bread at home when I can easily buy it anywhere I want. I have a confession to make: We have recently become a sugar-free family. I say it with quite a bit of shame, because I really didn't want to join in this generation's most annoying quirk of eliminating one food group from its diet. Oh well.

It all started a few months ago when my husband and I decided to join 3 other million viewers and watch "Sugar: The Bitter Truth", the lecture in which UCSF endocrinologist Robert Lustig very convincingly explains why sugar, in the form of fructose, is pure evil. I soon went through my already HFCS-free pantry, and eliminated (= threw away or swallowed whole) all products containing sugar.* Of course, we realized we needed to find a type of bread without sugar. For sliced bread, we are now spending ridiculous amounts of money on Ezekiel sprouted bread, so I decided to research an easy bread recipe to bake a sugar-free loaf at home.

I started researching Italian blogs because, as far as I know, sugar isn't yet an ingredient in our everyday bread. I found this very simple recipe from ButtaLaPasta that not only does not require a bread machine, but it also allows you to use store-bought yeast rather than homemade starter yeast.** I know expert bakers will scoff at this, but I'm just learning. Just like I would not pick Lady D.'s wedding dress as my first sewing project, I will not choose a French baguette as my first bread-making experiment.

Anyway, here is the recipe. I kept the ingredients and rising times from the Italian blog, but then used the Dutch-oven baking method popularized by Mark Bittman and brilliantly explained by Patrick Lynch on his website (here). I hope you like it.


4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
8oz cooked chickpeas (a small can will do)
1 packet active dry yeast
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
lukewarm water

  • Activate the yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water for 15 minutes.
  • Mash the chickpeas with a fork.
  • Mix the dry ingredients and then add the wet ingredients, kneading and adding lukewarm water until the dough comes into a ball and it is a little sticky and not too hard. If you're using a stand mixer, this should take a couple of minutes.
  • Place dough into a large bowl, cover with a towel, and let it rise for 3 hours away from drafts.
  • Knead the dough again for a couple of minutes (the dough will deflate), cut a cross on top of it, and place it on oiled parchment paper and then inside a large bowl. Let the dough rise for 1 hour.
  • Forty minutes before the end of the final rise, turn on the oven to 425F and place a large Dutch oven, with cover, inside.
  • At the end of the 40 minutes, carefully place the dough inside the Dutch oven with the parchment paper. Bake for 15 minutes with the pot cover on, and then for 20-30 minutes without, until the crust is nicely browned.
  • Take bread out of the pan and let cool on a rack for about 30 minutes.

I made this bread a few times now, and I've been very happy with it. It is very quick to make, although you have to plan around rising and baking times. The result is a very soft, moist bread, and the Dutch-oven method gives it a crispy crust that I've never obtained by cooking bread in a regular oven. The chickpeas contribute a slight sweetness and add a good amount of fiber for what would otherwise be just white bread. One loaf lasts us two days, because really we are never happy with only one slice.

Let me know if you try it and if you have some suggestions. As I said before, I know nothing about bread making, so kneading times and techniques have all been improvised. 

*With the exception of a chocolate salami purchased in Venice during my latest vacation. Yes, chocolate salami. It's a chocolate dessert that looks like a salami, and it's every Italian child's favorite thing in life. See one here.
**In Italy especially, there's a very powerful cult of bakers who create and feed their baking yeast at home. They call it Mother Yeast, and that's all I have to say.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Drive Your Italian Hosts Crazy #2: Demanding Privacy

As promised, here's another look at the unspoken rules that govern Italian life. In this post, I'll discuss privacy, or personal space, which is really the fundamental, inalienable right that makes every American proud to be American. You Americans treasure your privacy, you defend it, you make time for it no matter what. We Italians, well, we don't even have a word for privacy, we instead ended up saying "privacy" in English, just like you (the Italian riservatezza is used for legal privacy or reserve). So here is the second rule:

Rule #2: Italians Stay Together All The Time

When Italians go on vacation or otherwise decide to spend time together, they almost never ask for breaks to enjoy a little solitude. It doesn't matter if they are going to the beach for the afternoon or spending a week in a tiny mountain cabin crammed with 30 other people. They are going to be all together all the time and plan every meal and activity so that everybody is always included. Even on a relaxing beach vacation where there's nothing else to do other than lying down in the sand and getting up to take the occasional swim, Italians just lounge and chat and eat together for the entire length of their stay.

An Italian forced to enjoy solitude in the United States. A risky experiment.
On my first American summer vacation, my husband (back then, my American boyfriend) and I were joined by another couple. One morning, the couple announced they were going surfing, and immediately jumped in their car and came back later in the evening after dinner (theirs, not ours). That night, and for the rest of the vacation, everybody was relaxed and grateful to have had a day to spend according to their own desires. Conversely, in Italy this would have caused heartbreak, then rage, then an epic fight, and then the end of the friendship, followed by eternal sh*t-talking about each other.

Do Italians love being together all the time? I'm not sure, actually. As you can imagine, such proximity has the potential of driving everybody crazy, and that happens often. I suspect the real reason we stick together is that we think it would be rude to behave any differently. It would imply we are ungrateful guests, uncaring hosts, or selfish soon-to-become-ex-friends. It doesn't matter if we then end up hating each other's guts for the rest of our lives. Etiquette has to be maintained at all costs.

So, what should you, American tourist, do when you visit your family or friends in Italy? Of course, you could simply go ahead and be yourself: a happy, well-adjusted American who can enjoy solitude and make independent plans. But really, if you want to keep your hosts happy (host that cook very well, remember?), I would advise you suck it up and let them take possession of all your time, individual needs, and thinking abilities. You're on vacation, after all.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Many years ago, I was perusing yard sales for hidden gems of design when I found a whole collection of Betty Crocker vintage recipe cards in a plastic yellow box. The cards were from 1971, which was not the happiest era for international food photography. If you're lucky to own a few vintage cookbooks from the 70s, you are certainly familiar with their disturbing, high-saturation portraits of truculent stews, purple cabbage "surprises" stuffed with Russian salad, carousels of boiled egg on pewter trays, and glowingly awful seafood aspics.

Candyboots published a treasure of appalling Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974 that you just have to see to believe. Here are my modest picks from the Betty Crocker recipe collection. The images are not as outlandish as the Weight Watchers ones, but I have to show you anyway and add my commentary as Italian spectator. My plan is to publish a small series in which I'll be sarcastic, of course, but also intrigued (Italians have their skeletons in the closet, too). This series will be a compassionate farewell to the bad culinary habits that America has been trying to shed in the past decades. It will also be a heartfelt "nevermore!" to recipes that are mostly made of boxed ingredients such as canned Vienna sausages, liver loaves, and other can o'meats.

The first recipe card is titled Fun with Franks, and really what other sentiment other than fun could ever accompany a course like this? The recipe asks you to cut the franks lengthwise and stuff them with either apple and cheese, peanut butter, clementine wedges, melon balls, pickled onions, or boxed stuffing. Then you wrap them in bacon and grill them for 15 minutes. Franks with peanut butter, pickled onions, and bacon. If Betty C. can digest this, then I am sure we can, too, right?

Read this in Italian: Sbellicata di BBiustel Ripieni.

Monday, September 9, 2013


In the past ten years, DC has experienced a really heartwarming explosion of great pizzerias. I followed this transformation with great joy. I don't go to Italian restaurants often because I think I can either cook Italian staples myself or wait to gorge on real Italian delicacies on my next trip back home. Great pizza, however, cannot be easily replicated in our kitchen and, most importantly, cannot be humanely eaten only once a year (that's what sets us apart from animals, by the way). Here are my picks for best pizza in DC. You'll notice a predilection for Neapolitan-style pizza, but it couldn't be any other way. I went to Naples on a pizza pilgrimage and let me assure you: You'll never going to eat anything as wonderful in your entire life.


#1 Menomale, Brookland (DC)

This Neapolitan pizzeria opened last year, a week before I moved away from that neighborhood (terrible, terrible timing). Founded by a Neapolitan pizzaiolo, this place serves one of the most authentic pizzas I've had out of Naples. The crust is perfectly chewy, salty, and nicely charred, also thanks to a state-of-the-art wood-fired oven that takes about a quarter of the restaurant's space. Some of the toppings puzzle me (chicken? turkey?), but you can't go wrong with their Calzone Verde or their Prosciutto Cotto pizza. They also make pizza-dough sandwiches. They're called "Panuozzo", I tried them all, and they are amazing.

Prosciutto Cotto pizza at Menomale. There are more pics of my 2-year-old eating
a Neapolitan-style pizza than is considered normal.

#2 Pacci's, Silver Spring (MD)

When I first tried their pizza some 3 years ago, I remained speechless for a second, my eyes popping out of their sockets with pure joy. This was for me the first Neapolitan pizza outside DC. The crust was absolutely perfect, and all of their toppings worked wonderfully together. Their "Focaccia di Napoli", a pizza crust topped with prosciutto di Parma, arugula, olive oil, and shaved Parmigiano is perfect. Truth be told, though, I have not been back in a year. The last three times I dined there, I could not see the Neapolitan chef that was there at the beginning, and there was something less exciting about the pizza that I could not identify. It was always very good, but just not as perfect. That's why it takes second place.

#3 Redrocks, Columbia Heights (DC)

I love this place in the summer: It has the perfect Italian pizzeria vibe. Their crust is another success, and the pizza options are very good (I won't go for the pineapple pizza, although you will find it in Italy, too, but that's me). Their roasted olives appetizer is one of my favorite things to eat in this town. Simple, not expensive, delicious, and just fun to eat.

#4 Comet Ping Pong, Chevy Chase (DC)

Tom Sietsema from the Washington Post declared this the best pizza in town a few years ago. I had not tried it then and was skeptical: I had seen the pizzas on a few outings to Comet Ping Pong, and it did not look right. Then I finally dined there, and I have to say I was very impressed. This is not Neapolitan pizza, but it would not disappoint a Neapolitan. The toppings' combinations are unusual, but work amazingly well, and the crust is flavorful and nicely cooked. Sorry, Comet and Tom. You were right. (What's up with their website, though?)

#5 Roscoe's, Takoma Park (MD)

Another Neapolitan-style pizzeria that does a fantastic job with the pizza dough. It's wonderfully soft and chewy, and salted just right. The menu options are a little too foreign for me, so I stick with a Margherita topped with one other ingredient. The Cafone pizza, though, with sausage, rapini, and smoked mozzarella is also a winner. They also make kids' pizzas which are the perfect size for a toddler (and with a couple of crust pieces left for Mamma, thank you very much).


#1 The Italian Store, Arlington (VA)

I'm sure you're not surprised. Who does not know about the fantastic pizza slices at The Italian Store? The dough is chewy and flavorful, the sauce tastes fresh, and there's just the right amount (a ton, but not two) of cheese to make it trashily stellar. Their white pizza with garlic, fontina, and mozzarella is amazing, too, but I would not go beyond one slice. If you're making pizza at home their dough is just the best around. Please stop buying it at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. This is the real thing.

Home-made pizza with dough from The Italian Store. That's love.

#2 Vace, Cleveland Park (DC)

This is different from any other pizza I've ever had. I suspect this is more like a Sicilian pizza, since the dough is more bready, almost like a focaccia. Any Italian I took to this place LOVES it. The crust is thick, crispy, and flavorful, and the tomato sauce is abundant and delicious (usually you get only the first). Their white pizza with spinach is also one of my favorites. I like to order pizza with ricotta salata, which is not an ingredient you find often on take-out pizza. Vace does also a great job with cured meats, which are fresh, trimmed of unnecessary fat, and sliced thinly as they should be. Not many delis and supermarkets around here can do that, believe me.

#3 La Villa Pizzeria, Upper 14st Street (DC)

I have to admit, I have not ordered many pizzas for delivery since I moved here. I was scarred by the liquid "butter" oozing from my first and last Pizza Hut Supreme, the cardboard-dough of my first and last Domino's pizza (ironically, it was their revamped recipe), and the childishly and insultingly sweet dough and sauce of my first and last Papa John's pizza. When I ordered a pizza from La Villa, though, I was instantly hooked. It is heavy, it is over-cheesed, but oh-my-god after the first bite I could not get it out of my mind for DAYS. Perhaps it's my pregnancy megalo-appetite talking, but I can eat their pizza anytime. And in all fairness, their list of toppings is pretty great, with caramelized onions and roasted eggplants among the choices.

And now for the inevitable question... What about 2Amys? Well, I am really sorry to say this, but it just does not do it for me. I know it's supposed to be authentic Neapolitan pizza, with D.O.C. certification to boot, but this pizza does not taste Neapolitan to me. It's good, but never great, and often the toppings do not quite come together as they should. I went back many times, but I'm always underwhelmed. I will say though that I definitely applaud 2Amys for bringing Neapolitan pizza to DC and back into my expat life. I could not have lived without it, and now you can't, too.

And now, dear reader. What should I add to the list?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Ever since I moved to the United States, I am regularly confronted with the strangest assumptions about my Italian lifestyle. Everything from my male friends wearing wife-beaters and pinching women's butts on public transportation, to my mother being a widow in a black shawl (my parents are divorced and alive, thank you very much), to the omnipresence of tomatoes in my diet, to the impossibly dramatic discussions I have with my fellow citizens on a daily basis. These stereotypes might be somewhat offensive, and they seem to describe a twisted vision of 1940s Italy spiced with a pinch of operetta, but I have to admit they do contain some truth. I think the American equivalent would be the ranch-owning Texas cowboy doling out dollar bills left and right. There must be someone like that in the state of Texas, but it hardly describes Americans in general. 

Well, this week I made Spaghetti & Meatballs. "Of corse you did!," some of you might say, "That's what Italians eat, right?" Actually, no. Spaghetti & Meatballs is an Italian-American classic mostly unknown to Italians. In fact, I belong to the minuscule minority of Italians who actually ate this pasta in their youth, thanks to my Sicilian grandmother who made it for me ONCE. I think I remember my grandmother telling me that pasta with meatballs originated in Sicily, but I'm not sure. Most websites I checked believe the recipe is completely Italian-American.

Spaghetti with meatballs, bucatini with meatballs
Trust me: This pasta should never be photographed in sepia tone.

Did I like it? Yes, of course. I love pasta al ragù as much as any other Italian, so Spaghetti & Meatballs represents a perfectly acceptable combination to me. Still, as I was cooking, I could not help but wonder whether I was committing a form of self-stereotyping. I've seen Italians play up their accent and dramatize their gestures to be accepted or, more cynically, to sell Italian goods. I have also been guilty of the occasional act of self-stereotyping, and just last week I got a chuckle out of some American moms when I told them I don't jog because I'm Italian and I like to take things leisurely. It was a cheap laugh, and I still feel horrible about it.

In the end, I'm not sure what this Spaghetti & Meatballs stirred in my Italian conscience. Maybe I was self-stereotyping in the give-them-what-they-want spirit. Or maybe I was just recognizing something strangely familiar in this rich, tomatoey triumph. After all, this pasta and I are both Italian, separated by an ocean and possibly a couple of centuries. And, like long lost relatives, we may not have much to say to each other, but we will always share a table, and be pretty content about it. That's the way we've both been raised, you know?

Dead Chef's Bucatini & Meatballs

So here is my recipe. It's a hack of the Italian-American classic that brings together my favorite pasta format—the lovely, thick bucatini—and my family's very Southern meatballs, usually served on their own as a second course. I kept the recipe simple, but you can definitely work on a more complex tomato sauce with a soffritto and a splash of white wine, especially if you are not using San Marzano tomatoes. 

1 lb ground beef, or a mix of ground beef, veal, and pork 
4–5 slices of fresh mortadella, tore by hand into small bits* (optional)
1/4 cup chopped black cured olives (or Sicilian olives, if you can find them)
A few sprigs of chives, chopped
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 whole egg
dry breadcrumbs (unflavored)
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 can of San Marzano tomatoes, chopped in the food processor
1 lb bucatini

  • Mix the first 6 ingredients in a big bowl and shape into small meatballs. My grandmother's would be about 1'' in diameter, but do what you prefer. Roll the meatballs in the breadcrumbs.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and add the meatballs. Cook them on all sides until brown, then add the tomatoes. Gently simmer, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through.
  • While the meatballs are cooking, cook the bucatini in a large pot (see Dead Chef's technique here.) 
  • When the bucatini are ready, remove the meatballs from the sauce and place them in a large dish. Sauté the bucatini in the tomato sauce and the necessary pasta water. When the pasta is perfectly al dente and infused with tomato sauce, top with the meatballs, a little bit of olive oil and grated parmesan, and serve.

*Do not ever replace with Bologna. Not only Mortadella and Bologna are not the same thing, but Bologna is not even food.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

American Foods Italians Don't Get (At Least Right Away)

Italy is a food-centric nation whose inhabitants are either too smug to eat anything foreign or extremely happy to try anything new because, hey, what else is there in life other than food? I fall into the second category, thankfully, and I'm always happy and curious to try foreign specialties and unusual food preparations. In my 9 years in the United States, I've noticed there are some American foods that Italians really struggle with. Some foods can never be loved, others grow on us over time until we embrace them fully.

Peanut Butter

First Reaction: "Help! I think I'm choking!"
When Italians try peanut butter for the first time they are really surprised by how intense the flavor is. I think Italians are confused by the word "butter". I, for example, was picturing peanut butter as a creamy dairy product with a touch of peanut flavor. My first taste was like a punch in the gut to all my taste buds (anatomically confusing, I know). What is even more jolting to Italians, however, is the texture. Italians really don't have anything as sticky as peanut butter, and often their first taste leaves them choking in confusion.
Over Time:  I love peanut butter and I now I eat it happily pretty much every day (it is now even part of my pregnancy cravings, as you can see here), and I know other Italians who really warmed up to it and other nut butters.

Root Beer 

First Reaction: "%#*♘@☆&*!!!"
When I moved to the US at the age of 28, I had never experienced heartburn. Within 2 months of daily American coffee sipped at intervals throughout the day, I finally experienced "that warm feeling" tearing my esophagus apart. "Welcome to America!" said a friend, and the rest is history. I use this introduction to explain what root beer tastes like to me: like heartburn in a bottle. Speaking with other Italians and watching them while they took their first sip just confirmed my opinion. Root beer is the weirdest drink on the planet: It tastes like a medicine, it hurts, and we can't believe American children love it.
Over Time: One sip is enough. I can't see my fellow Italians going near root beer ever again after the first attempt.


First Reaction: "Why are there soap shavings in my burrito?"
Cilantro is not strictly American, I know, but it's sprinkled in so many dishes consumed by Americans every day. To an Italian palate (and to a Spanish and British, too, as far as I know), cilantro tastes like soap, and we all know how great soap tastes. During my first American months, I remember just cursing the universe every time I found cilantro in fantastic-looking South-American dishes, and I even cried a few times when I mistakenly bought cilantro instead of parsley.
Over Time: I personally have changed my mind completely about cilantro, and the same has happened to other Italians I know. I can't believe there was a time I didn't like this wonderful herb, and today I insist all my Italian guests give it a chance. I totally get its fresh flavor that brightens up every meal. Cilantro, you make me happy. Sorry for ever doubting you.

Soft, Chewy Cookies

First Reaction: "Why was this cookie left out all night on the beach?" 
It's a fact that Italians are not dessert-maniacs like Americans are, but still, in Italian cuisine "chewy" is never a selling point: It's a flaw. What Italians do treasure in cookies is friability, or the ability to break apart without too much effort. We want crunch and buttery crumbs, not pliability.
Over Time: Some Italians might warm up to chewy cookies, but I doubt it. In my opinion, the much-maligned cupcakes, as stupid as they've become, are always preferable to this misshapen, sugary mess. Sorry.


First Reaction: "Wow. The economy must be REALLY bad here."
Italians' first spoonful of this gooey concoction stirs feelings of deep sadness and pity. Wasn't America the land of riches? Why is everybody eating this gruel? It's really a surprise that the country that celebrates breakfast with bacon, pancakes, and omelettes can also enjoy this unappealing bowl of grey, boiled oats. We understand it's healthy, but wouldn't a piece of fruit give you more joy?
Over Time: Here's another food about which Italians can change their minds completely. As far as I'm concerned, once I learned to prepare oatmeal with milk rather than with water alone, and spice it or mix it with fruit, I understood its unadorned, almost Dickensian appeal. I eat oatmeal at least twice a week, and it feels and tastes great to me. It makes me feel like my toddler and I should go on strike at the cotton mill we both work at, and one day we just might!

Marshmallows on Sweet-Potato Casseroles
First Reaction: "Did you bake this casserole with the plastic top still on?"
Italians know very little about marshmallows, and what they know mostly comes from Ghostbusters. The only marshmallows available in Italy are the white and pink variety, usually coated in a dusting of sugar. We might have seen marshmallow roasted in a Peanuts comic strip, but that's about it. Seeing them burnt and melted on top of a casserole and then biting into their gooey mega-sweetness is just too overwhelming for our senses. Too sweet, too sticky, too absurd.
Over Time: This is another food to which an Italian can give one chance only. I did.

Fried Oysters... On A Sandwich???

First Reaction: "Who's Going to Pay for This?"
In Italy, oysters are delicacy for the few, to be consumed strictly raw and with as little flavor-alteration as possible. Oysters are a kiss from Poseidon given to the rich and the beautiful. Seeing them fried and slapped on a sandwich just blows our minds. What's next: Taco Bell's Caviar and Saffron Volcano Maximelt?
Over Time: The first morsel may puzzle us, but by the second we're hooked. This wonderful decadent and unexpected treat is something Italians can't wait to report back at home to impress their friends.

And now let me answer the question that is burning in your mind, dear American reader. Should you serve these foods to your Italian guests when they are visiting? OF COURSE YOU SHOULD. It does not matter if you're dealing with the mega-nationalist or the happy-traveler guest variety: Italians ask nothing more than to compare their food to yours. If they like what they eat, they'll feel wonderfully cosmopolitan and sophisticated. If they don't, they'll just love to tear your food habits to shreds once they go back home to their peeps. No matter their reaction, they'll be happy as (fried) clams.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Problem with Having Children in Our 30s

You thought you signed on for weekly posts on Italian food and culture? Well, then let me disappoint you with this: Dead Chef does more than cook! I am the mother of a bi-cultural bundle of destruction (with another on the way) and the wife of an American who is good at everything except speaking Italian. From time to time my posts will wander into my life with these gentlemen and may or may not circle back to what we ate for lunch. *waits as readers click on more interesting bookmark and leaves the page*

Okay, so for those of you who stayed, let's move on. Here are my reflections on having children in my 30s, and why I came to the conclusion that becoming a mother in my early 20s would have been a much better choice. I mostly base my observations on my experience and that of my sister. I had my first child at the age of 34 and I'm expecting my second now at 36. My sister had her first child at 23 and her second only 14 months later. I suspect that most of the points I make will be completely obvious to you (although obvious always makes for great filler on the web, as demonstrated by this), so I'm throwing in a bonus theory that might or might not shock you.

So, what are the problems with having children in our 30s?

1. We Just Don't Have the Physique Anymore
My sister held her first child all the time for the entire first year, and not because she was following attachment parenting, but because SHE LIKED IT. When my son was born, I could wear the sling for just about 20 minutes at a time before shooting pains in my back would force me crying to my knees. We all know this: We are just not that strong and resilient as we were in our 20s. Not only we can't hold our howling toddlers for the time it takes to bring them outside the store, but we are terrified when they ask us to spin them or throw them in the air (even though we know that will be their happiest childhood memory).

2. We Read Too Many Parenting Books 
My sister relied on one book to raise her two wonderful kids. Since I became pregnant for the first time three years ago, I purchased/borrowed the following: 2 pregnancy books, 1 book for birth partners, 1 book for working mothers, 1 book on sleep training, 3 pediatrics guides, 5 parenting books for babies and toddlers, 1 parenting books for boys, 2 books on Waldorf education, 2 books on natural postpartum support, 1 book on potty training, 2 books on having a second child. (Oh, of course I had a book about how to get pregnant, too.) At 30 we love to be informed and discuss the philosophies behind everything. Of course, we also soon discover that none of those books ever describe our unique situations, but we keep on reading because it makes us feel smart and prepared. Plus, reading boosts our self-confidence while allowing us to sit, which bring us back to point #1.

3. We Are Used to Living in Luxury 
If you have a child in your 20s, you might wonder how great life would be if you hadn't had children. At 30, you know it. Right before we got pregnant, many of us were living the dream: we dined out often, traveled the world, practiced gear-laden sports, celebrated at spas, and owned pets that than ate better than most of the world's population. It's pretty obvious that when a child comes, most of the money, time, and energy spent on enjoying luxury are greatly reduced, and that's a shock.

4. We Worry Too Much
Today, all playground slides look like this to me.
The older we get, the more we worry about our children getting hurt. I suspect the reason is that aging impairs our instinctual understanding of body movement. As we become more awkward and unbalanced with every passing year, we forget how it feels to be perfectly strong, flexible, and nimble as children are. My sister would cheer her children when they would go down the slide head first. I cover my eyes and pray to the first deity that comes to mind.

5. Our Standards Are Too High
If we're lucky, by the time we hit 30 we have gotten rid of mean friends, abusive bosses, and super-slob half-boyfriends or half-girlfriends. At 30, we start saying things like, "I would never let anyone treat me like that!" and we mean it. This is an accomplishment to celebrate, but there's a downside to it. As we become more assertive, we lose some of our ability to accept life as it comes. And so when our baby does not nap, or eats erratically, or cries for hours, or in any way fails to meet our ideal family standards, we break down and frantically start looking for solutions that most likely do not exist. If we were in your 20s and used to never really having it our way, we'd be much more relaxed and accept these problems as part of life.

So, what does all of this tell us? It's time for...



This theory may prove a little controversial, if only for the fact that it has absolutely no scientific basis. Still, here it is. We have always been told that the sudden urge to become parents in our late 30s is the result of our biological clock telling us, "Now or never". Well, I don't think that's the message. I think what our biological clock is telling us is, "It's time to become grandparents!" As sad as it sounds, at 36 I could easily have an 18-year-old daughter happily pregnant with her first child. She would be a wonderfully energetic, accepting parent with no knowledge of how great life can be, and I would be the slightly less energetic, incredibly knowledgeable, well-traveled, yet prudent grandma who helps her raise her children after 8 hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep. What a wonderful village that would be, wouldn't it?