Wednesday, July 22, 2015


What are the essential tools that would make your kitchen truly Italian? After months and months of pondering, I'm ready to present you with my final list. It is based mostly on my personal experience as an expat, especially from the first year in Mr Bee's house, where I would search every drawer and cabinet for these little gems before calling my family in tears. Here they are, in all their indispensable glory.


Moka pot

In Italian, la caffettiera. This beautiful, beautiful object appears in many formats in every single Italian household. The moka pot is the best and quickest way to have a strong coffee (just a little less concentrated than regular espresso) any time of the day, and especially in the morning. Just fill the bottom half with water, insert the portafilter, add espresso-grind coffee, and screw on the top half. Place on the stove, and you'll have your coffee in minutes. And, unlike an espresso machine, a moka pot is completely portable and requires minimal maintenance—just rinse in hot water after each use. In my opinion and that of many others, Bialetti makes the best.


Gas cooker support for moka pot
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In Italian, la crocetta. This is a godsend if you're using a smaller moka pot on a gas cooker. It's a support to keep the moka pot in place on larger gas burners. It usually starts out much shinier than the one in the picture, which is by now well oxidated.


Cheese server for Parmigiano

In Italian, la grattugia. If you need to grate Parmigiano or Pecorino for your pasta—and it's completely acceptable to do it right at the table before you eat—you need this. The small holes and the rounded surface allows you to grate the cheese in fine and soft ribbons, so that it starts melting immediately on your dish in all its salty and creamy goodness. The large-holed cheese grater that you use to shred cheese is not popular in Italy, where I believe it's only used for vegetables. I use this small grater from Ikea, but in Italy people use a larger one.


In Italian, la formaggiera. When you're not grating cheese straight on your plate, you can use a cheese server, great for formal dinners but definitely used everyday on the traditional Italian table. It needs to be filled with fresh Parmigiano, and people pass it along and sprinkle one or two teaspoons of cheese on their pasta. When I was younger, my grandparents would ask me to grate a small mountain of cheese on a plate and then pour it in the server in time for lunch. This one is from Alessi.


In Italian, il raccoglibriciole. In my opinion, nothing else encapsulates Italy more than this plastic brush designed to clean up your tablecloth from breadcrumbs after a meal. The popularity of this object means two things: that Italians like to eat at a table covered with proper tablecloth, and that they are going to have bread with whatever they're eating. After over ten years in the United States, I wonder whether Italians are keeping up with their social eating and bread dependency. I really hope so.


Pasta or pastry cutter

In Italian, la macchina per la pasta. I'm positive that Italians today do not make homemade pasta as often as their grandparents. However, this is a beautiful object that everybody who loves cooking should have. There are few things more satisfying than cranking your pasta machine on a floured table (and now that I have fresh pasta on my mind, I can't really think of any). Mine is a gorgeous red Imperia. Ask for one for you birthday.


In Italian, la rotella. If you own a pasta machine, then you cannot forgo the pasta cutter. It's perfect to cut ravioli, and of course you can also use it as pastry cutter for all your pies and quiches. Mine belonged to my maternal grandmother, and it's light, sturdy, and precise. I also love the sweet rattling sound it makes as it cuts through the dough. So satisfying.


potato ricer

In Italian, mezzaluna ("half moon"). I was genuinely surprised that this was not a staple of American kitchens, too. It's perfect to chop herbs and nuts. Just rock it side to side, occasionally sweeping everything back to center for another round of chopping. You can object that a knife would be quicker, but that's true only if you have good knife skills (I don't). Plus, you'd be really missing out on all the fun, and I can't condone that.


In Italian, lo schiacciapatate. This is basically a gigantic garlic press for vegetables, and especially potatoes, that gives you the creamiest, fluffiest ribbons of potato you can ever dream of. Use a ricer to make puré, the (slightly) lighter and more elegant version of mashed potatoes, but also potato gnocchi, and my favorite fancy ice-cream creation: spaghetti ice cream.


soup plate, use in Italy for the first course

In Italian, lo spremiagrumi. In winter, mothers all over Italy spend the best part of their day squeezing juicy Sicilian oranges for their little ones, because you know, vitamin C. And let me tell you, you really get to respect your mother when you see her exerting tremendous force on a tiny squeezer to obtain even the last drop of orange for your morning breakfast. Small and easy to clean, it's an Italian must-have.


In Italian, i piatti fondi. Don't be fooled by their English name, the piatto fondo is not only for soups. Rather, it is the plate where the first course, or primo, is served. On a classic Italian table, you eat your pasta, soup, or rice dish on the soup plate, and then your second course on a dinner plate. I was dumbfounded when I came to the United States and discovered you only use dinner plates for pasta. The soup plate is the perfect vessel so that your primo feels neither too crudely exposed nor too infantilized. (Makes sense, right?) Luckily, my MIL gifted me a set of 6 soup plates so I can feel a little better when I get a little homesick and make myself a megaportion of ravioli.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I need to voice one regret I have about my expat life, and that is that I moved from the horribly humid and mosquito-infested Venice summer right to the horribly humid and mosquito-infested DC summer. It was really a masterstroke for someone who, when exposed to summer heat, turns into a wheezing fuchsia toad covered in welts. And yet here I am, surviving in DC in July (barely but surely) thanks to my highly refined immobility skills and Arctic A/C. What also helps? Caffè shakerato, or Italian ice coffee.

I don't need to convince anybody of the worthiness of ice drinks, and ice coffee in particular. And yet, many times I've felt like regular ice coffee doesn't really cut it, mostly because the melting ice tends to water down the coffee flavor and its ability to wake me up from my heat-induced stupor. The only answer is the Italian variation of ice coffee that is caffè shakerato. This is basically a long shot of espresso, sugared to taste, and shaken in a cocktail shaker so that it produces a thick and lovely foam on top. In Italy caffè shakerato is served everywhere, usually in a Martini glass, and it can really be a glorious break for your summer afternoon.

That's my husband's hand. I don't know why I get so paranoid about you thinking it's mine.

However, if your coffee bar doesn't serve caffè shakerato and if you don't care about formalities, you can make one at home very easily and drink it whenever you prefer. What I do is add a little bit of sugar to my coffee and shake it in a canning jar with three ice cubes. It's ready in 15 seconds with minimal amount of physical effort (which is really all I can afford in 99% humidity), and cools me down and wakes me up in no time. I almost (almost) feel like a functional human being when I drink one. Give it a shot.
CAVEAT! To make caffè shakerato, you can only use espresso or coffee made with a moka pot. If you don't have an espresso machine, I really suggest you get hold of a moka. It's fairly inexpensive, it's quick and easy to use, and it's one of the most beautiful objects you can own. Until I write a post about it, learn how to use it here.


Makes 2 coffees

Equipment needed: espresso machine or moka pot, one-pint canning jar

2-3 shots of espresso, or the coffee brewed in a 2-Serving moka pot
sugar to taste
5 ice cubes 

  • Brew the coffee, with a little bit more water than usual.
  • Add sugar to taste and stir well until dissolved.
  • Place the ice into the canning jar, and pour in the coffee.
  • Close the jar tightly, and shake vigorously for no more than 15 seconds. 
  • Pour the coffee into two glasses, holding any leftover ice in the jar with a spoon, letting the coffee foam pour over your coffee in all its luscious creaminess.

Friday, July 10, 2015


Last year, my sister visited from Italy, and I took her to a beloved neighborhood coffee place. We placed our order for two espressos, and then I stood back to analyze the various stages of shock she was bound to experience. The reason? The espresso making took FOREVER. My sister stared in increasing disbelief as the barista took all the time in the world to go through the 7 Steps of modern American artisanal espresso-making:
  1. Pour ground coffee into the handle in atomic increments.
  2. Press the coffee down with complete concentration in carefully-applied 30-lb thrusts.
  3. Polish the border of the handle until it shines, completely speckless.
  4. Let the coffee drip into the cup with monastic patience.
  5. Examine the espresso closely for possible flaws that would nullify the process.
  6. Send a silent prayer to the coffee gods to ensure future blessing.
  7. Place the finished espressos on the counter for the costumer to finally enjoy. (Avoid eye contact.)
You know what it's like: It took at least 10 minutes from start to finish. My sister looked at me, her brown, life-filled Italian eyes wide open, and said, "We need to open our espresso bar. We'll be millionaires!"

See, espresso in Italy (we call it coffee) is actually a very quick experience. Even in the nicest torrefazioni (cafes where coffee is roasted and served), it might take a minute at most for a perfect espresso to appear in front of you after your order. It's not only that Italians barista are quick, it's that they have to be. We Italians are physically and culturally addicted to coffee and to its almost instantaneous kick, so much that we don't even care about sitting down at a coffee bar. We need our espresso, and we need it NOW. That's why at home we use the little stovetop moka, because it produces a concentrated coffee in a matter of minutes.

Anyway, my sister thought Americans would love to have their coffee just as fast. She thought, arent' they addicted, too? Well, as much as her fantasy of opening an espresso bar appealed to me, I knew it would never work in America. Nobody cares about a fast espresso here. Instead, a carefully-poured espresso is popular because it reminds American of the artistry and tradition of coffee. An express espresso would not have the same charm.

So I started thinking, and I realized there is a major difference between American and Italian approach to food and coffee that I summarized in this handy infographic:

Italians will happily wait 20 to 30 minutes for the appetizers to show up and would never dream of having lunch in the car, but need their espresso right away, preferably standing up, and five minutes later they're already on their way. In Italy, a barista is as swift and invisible as a ghostly apparition, seen only with the corner of your eye.

Who is right, then? Well, Italians, of course. We're always right on food. But I will concede that slow coffee has its charms. I very much appreciate the dedication that American baristas are giving to our home staple, and I am definitely thankful to them for taking espresso seriously enough to transform it from a bitter soup to a creamy deliciousness that is often just as good as the original. And as soon as you get addicted as Italians are, I know you'll learn to make it quick. See you on the other side.