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.