Simona Carini

How Italians Celebrate Spring Holidays

Every year, on January 6, my father reminded us: “Pasqua Epifania tutte le feste porta via” (Epiphany carries away all the holidays). In Italy, the holidays don’t end on New Year’s Day (Capodanno): we celebrate Epiphany, or, to be precise, la Befana, the old lady wrapped in a shawl who rides a broomstick and fills children’s socks with candies or pieces of coal. Schools reopen on January 7, and Christmas tree decorations and nativity scene figurines are put away until next year.

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via Natalie Rae 

The saying my father recited had a second part, which varies based on geographic location. In his native village (north of Rome) it was something like: “poi revè Sant’Antognetto e ne reporta ‘n saccoccetto” (then comes Saint Anthony and brings a pocketful). The feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot, patron saint of domestic animals, is celebrated on January 17.

I never traveled with my father to his village for the feast, but I remember he always brought back some of the local traditional ciambella all’anice, a ring-shaped, lightly sweetened yeasted bread flavored with anise seeds that was first boiled then baked. My father loved to end his meal with a piece of the ciambella dipped in wine.

The pocketful of holidays mentioned in the saying refer to Carnival, a festive period that ends on Martedì grasso (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. The exception to this is the archdiocese of Milan, which follows a different calendar where Lent starts the following Sunday, so people in Milan and surrounding areas hold the big end-of-Carnival party on Saturday.

Frappe (also called chiacchiere, cenci, bugie, crostoli and other names, depending on the region), strufoli, castagnole, tortelli di Carnevale are just a sample of the traditional sweets made during Carnival. They are all rather rich, fried and doused in honey or sprinkled with powdered vanilla sugar (zucchero vanigliato). Carnival is traditionally a time of indulgence before the somber 40 days of Lent. It is also the time when children and adults dress up in costumes, which can be lavish, as in the famous Carnevale di Venezia.

When my father was a teenager, he and his friends had to make the best of Carnival parties, because dancing was not allowed during Lent. Events held in the local school were easy to attend. A party in another village meant figuring out how to get there and back without public transportation or a car. Often, they walked for miles late at night to get back home.

One feast I looked forward to as a child occurred during Carnival but was not related to it. On January 29 my hometown of Perugia smells sweet due to pastry shops and people baking the traditional torcolo di san Costanzo, a ring-shaped yeasted cake studded with raisins, candied citron and pine nuts, and lightly flavored with anise seeds. Perugia has three patron saints, including Saint Constantius (probably the first bishop of the city). The torcolo di San Costanzo is so popular that some pastry shops bake it year-round. That did not diminish the pleasure of getting our fill of torcolo on its special day.

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via Wikipedia

The 40 days of Lent are an important period in the Catholic Church. By the time I came to experience it, fasting was no longer required and other precepts were relaxed. My family observed meatless Friday (abstinence) pretty regularly during the year, hence doing it during Lent was not much of a change. In Italy we call this “fare vigilia” (abstinence on the eve of a holy day).

My mother did not have specific Lenten dishes in her repertoire, but prepared variations of our usual Friday meals: spaghetti col tonno, which were a must on Christmas Eve, frittata wish seasonal vegetables, like artichokes, or hard-boiled eggs plus canned tuna and mackerel. Every now and then, she prepared baccalà (salt cod) with tomato sauce, prunes and raisins.

There are cookies called quaresimali in an otherwise rather bare landscape, since sweets by definition are to be eschewed during Lent. One exception is zeppole di San Giuseppe, pastries filled with custard that are made on March 19, the day the Catholic Church celebrates Saint Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Italy celebrates Father’s Day.

I remember Lent more as a passage, from the bright lights of Christmas and the other winter Holidays to the arrival of spring and the celebration of Easter. But that is a story for next month. In the meantime, enjoy days getting longer!

6a00d835508b1869e201a511871f44970c-150wiWith a specialty in handmade pasta, Simona provides detailed, accessible tutorials teaching readers to cook like an Italian right from home on Live Like an Italian as well as on her own blog, briciole.


Ten Days of Chocolate

Imagine walking around a city’s downtown and being surrounded by chocolate. For ten days every October such a dream becomes true in Perugia, Italy, thanks to Eurochocolate, a festival that is all about chocolate.

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This year’s edition of Eurochocolate started on Friday, October 16 and will run until Sunday, October 25.

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Eurochocolate 2025 has mustache as theme, so visitors can admire an enormous chocolate mustache sculpture, explore an exhibit dedicated to all things mustache, buy mustache-shaped chocolates or mustache-themed gadgets. Entrance to Eurochocolate and its activities is free.

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The festival takes place in the beautiful downtown of Perugia, including Piazza IV Novembre, dominated by the iconic Fontana Maggiore, Corso Vannucci, the city’s main thoroughfare, and the Rocca Paolina.

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The latter is my favorite part to visit: besides panels describing the phases of chocolate production, from bean to bar, there is a space devoted to showcasing cacao-producing countries, one for the chocolate boutique and, to get some respite from chocolate, one dedicated to Umbrian products, like the famous lenticchia di Castelluccio, various cheeses and cured meats.

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The festival’s program is always packed with activities, from chocolate sculpting to chocolate tasting. To get a good sense of the variety of chocolate and chocolates available takes some stamina, considering the large number of companies offering their products in the many stands.

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Stores in an around downtown go with the flow of chocolate and offer (Euro)chocolate-inspired products.

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Perugia is a beautiful city, worth visiting every time of the year for its rich history, precious art and old-world elegance. Eurochocolate is one more reason—a sweet one— to do so.

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With a specialty in handmade pasta, Simona provides detailed, accessible tutorials teaching readers to cook like an Italian right from home on Live Like an Italian as well as on her own blog, briciole.


One Drink and Four Foods I Look Forward to Consuming in Italy

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Looking up at the Etruscan Arch in Perugia 

What does this Italian expatriate look forward to eating and drinking when she goes back to her country of origin? I grew up in Perugia and that is the city I usually visit first.

As soon as possible after my arrival, I go to a coffee shop and ask for un cappuccino. Two words, and I get what I had been wishing for during the long hours on the plane: an espresso mellowed by milk, topped with a layer of creamy foam, served in its own cup placed on a matching saucer, with a small spoon resting on the saucer.

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In the days that follow, I use my cappuccino break as my daily writing time. One of the places where I like to sit down with my notebook is You Grifo in downtown Perugia, where cappuccino is served with a side of fresh whipped cream (panna montata).

Next stop is the grocery store, il supermercato, where I go to the charcuterie and cheese counter to get prosciutto crudo, mozzarella di bufala and ricotta. Where the various types of prosciutto are displayed, I can usually find prosciutto di San Daniele (PDO), prosciutto di Parma (PDO) and prosciutto di Norcia (PGI), the latter produced in Umbria, the region of which Perugia is the capital.

Besides prosciutto e melone (with cantaloupe), a classic summer dish in Italy, when melons are plentiful and flavorful, the pairing with fresh fichi (figs) is also quite nice. My favorite way of eating prosciutto is with torta al testo, a traditional flatbread from Perugia. My husband prefers to drape slices of prosciutto on crispbread.

A bite of fresh mozzarella is like a dive into a cool pool on a hot day: deeply refreshing. When the mozzarella is made with buffalo milk, the experience is even more pleasant. A plate of sliced milky, fresh mozzarella and salty, aged prosciutto offers a perfect balance of opposites.

The word ricotta comes from the Latin recoctus, meaning cooked again. The name describes the process whereby ricotta has been traditionally made in Italy for centuries, by cooking again the whey (siero di latte) left over from making certain types of cheese.

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Ricotta can be purchased packaged in the refrigerated dairy section, but I prefer to get some of that sold in bulk. I choose ricotta di mucca (cow) or ricotta di pecora (sheep), depending on what I am planning to do with it, for example, dressing pasta. My favorite way of consuming ricotta is slightly sweetened, spoonful by spoonful. I regularly make cheese at home in California, and make ricotta with the resulting whey. It is quite good, yet not as delicious as the one I buy in Italy.

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I then go to the biscotti aisle. Biscotto is a word of Latin origin that means twice-baked: the dough is baked, cut into slices and baked again. From describing a cooking procedure, the word biscotto came to indicate a baked product, crunchy and fairly dry in texture. Nowadays, biscotti are not usually twice-baked (some of them are, like biscotti di Prato). In Italy, biscotti dipped in caffelatte are a breakfast staple (they have their own entry in the Italian food pyramid http://www.piramidealimentare.it/) and in grocery stores you can find a wide array of biscotti: frollini, novellini, petit, oswego (or osvego), etc.

When I moved to California, I did not find in the local stores any of the biscotti I was used to eating. On the other hand, I found plenty of ‘biscotti,’ that is, variations on the theme of a twice-baked product that up until then I had called cantucci. While I am able to find some of my favorite biscotti in the U.S., in particular my childhood favorites made by Gentilini, I like to eat a variety of them when I am in Italy.

But “What about pizza?,” some of you may say, “What about gelato?” Space limitations prevent me from listing all the foods I am looking forward to eating during my visit. Let me know in the comments what your shortlist is. In the meantime, as a preview, I will tell you that I am also planning to taste some chocolate: I will write about this in my next post. Stay tuned!

6a00d835508b1869e201a511871f44970c-150wiWith a specialty in handmade pasta, Simona provides detailed, accessible tutorials teaching readers to cook like an Italian right from home on Live Like an Italian as well as on her own blog, briciole.


Here’s a Genius Way to Reinvent Leftover Pasta

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Leftovers are a fact of life, but what are we to do with leftover pasta?

Every Sunday morning, my mother would make a four-egg batch of pasta dough and usually cut it into tagliatelle. She also prepared a pot of tomato and meat sauce. At lunchtime, she cooked all the tagliatelle, knowing that half would be left over. The day after, she prepared them ripassate in padella, meaning she heated some olive oil in a skillet and tossed the cold pasta in it, sautéeing it until it was nice and hot. What I liked about the result was that some strands became crisp and the sauce acquired a deeper flavor.

For my first vacation away from my parents, when I was 16 years old, I spent 10 days or so in the Calabrian city of Rossano. One day, my host prepared spaghetti, and I noticed that she set some of it aside, then dressed the rest and brought it to the table. The day after, she made a frittata with the spaghetti she had set aside. It was a revelation.

I kept that memory with me until I started making my own version of  frittata di pasta, usually with pasta left over from a meal, hence dressed. The nice thing about it is that the frittata is a bit different every time, depending on the kind of pasta and how it was dressed. For the rendition shown here, I used some tagliatelle verdi with ricotta, made according to the recipe in my previous post. A portion was eaten right away and the following day I used the rest to make the frittata.

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Consider the below as more of an invitation to be creative with what you have available than a recipe.  Adjust the number of eggs and pan size to the amount of pasta at hand and choose a cheese that you think pairs better with the pasta (whose original dressing may include some cheese, something to take into account in the planning).  A wedge of the frittata served with a simple heirloom tomato salad makes a lovely summer lunch.

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Frittata di Pasta

Serve with Mazzoni Vermentino-Chardonnay

Ingredients: 

Leftover pasta

Extra-virgin olive oil

6 eggs, possibly from pastured poultry

3 tablespoons water

1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 ounce piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated; for other kinds of pasta, 1 ounce wedge of caciotta, or similar cheese of choice (e.g., Monterey Jack or Colby, plain), thinly sliced

Preparation:

Oil a 10-inch oven-proof skillet and warm up. Add the leftover pasta. Warm up the pasta and lightly sauté it for a couple of minutes, stirring every now and then.

In the meantime, break the eggs in a bowl and whisk them lightly until just blended. Add the salt and whisk briefly. Add the water and whisk lightly to incorporate. Add the grated cheese to the eggs and whisk lightly to incorporate. If you use the sliced cheese, hold on to it until later.

Turn on the broiler. If your oven allows it, choose the “low” setting, otherwise, move a rack to the lowest position.

Pour the eggs slowly into the skillet. With a fork, gently arrange the pasta so it is evenly distributed. Cook over low heat. After the edge is set, run a spatula under it and shake the frittata gently to ensure the bottom does not stick to the pan. Evenly distribute the sliced cheese on the surface.

When the eggs are set, place the skillet in the oven, leaving the door ajar, for 3 minutes. Take the skillet out of the oven (don’t forget that the handle is hot) and let rest of a couple of minutes, then slide the frittata onto a serving plate. Cut into wedges and serve.

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6a00d835508b1869e201a511871f44970c-150wiWith a specialty in handmade pasta, Simona provides detailed, accessible tutorials teaching readers to cook like an Italian right from home on Live Like an Italian as well as on her own blog, briciole.


How to: Make Tagliatelle Verdi (Green Pasta)

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Tagliatelle verdi owe their bright color to the inclusion of spinach in the dough. The green pasta plays the role of fieno (hay) in the classic combination paglia e fieno (straw and hay), with the role of straw played by tagliatelle all’uovo.

I like tagliatelle verdi, yet cooking the spinach before making the pasta sometimes is not practical. Some years ago, I tried Deborah Madison’s recipe in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone: her spinach variation for egg pasta involves the puréeing of fresh spinach and eggs, which eliminates the spinach cooking step. It worked perfectly: I easily combined the resulting paste with the flour to obtain pasta dough of a beautiful green color.

While my attempts at growing spinach in my small vegetable garden have produced disappointing results, kale sprouts everywhere easily and grows year round in the climate where I live, which constantly motivates me to find ways to consume it. Most of my kale is of the variety Red Russian, and the rest is cavolo nero (a.k.a., Tuscan kale). If you are considering growing some of your food, try kale. My gardening skills are quite limited, yet kale thrives, generously providing me with large quantities of tasty and nourishing dark green leaves.

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I particularly like the tender leaves of baby kale, and it was easy to think of using them instead of spinach to make tagliatelle verdi. Appreciation of baby kale has increased in recent years, so until you can harvest your own, you should be able to purchase it.

As usual when I write recipes for homemade pasta, I recommend you start small. Then, when you become familiar with the process, you can multiply the amount of ingredients to satisfy a larger number of guests. (Of course, if you are already comfortable with the pasta-making process, you can skip the initial baby steps.)

Note on flour: to make egg pasta, I like to use King Arthur Flour’s Perfect Pasta Blend, which includes semolina flour, durum flour and all-purpose flour. (I don’t have any business relationship with the company: this is in truth what I use.) Alternatively, you can use a blend of 50% semolina flour and 50% all-purpose flour or your preferred flour blend.

Tagliatelle Verdi

1 cup lightly packed baby kale leaves, tougher part of the stem removed, 15 g / 1/2 ounce

1 large egg, preferably from pastured poultry

3 1/2 ounces  / 100 g King Arthur Flour’s Perfect Pasta Blend OR a blend of 50% semolina flour and 50% all-purpose flour OR your preferred blend of flours for pasta — plus more as needed to obtain the dough

A pinch of fine sea salt

4 ounces / 113 g fresh [homemade] ricotta

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Wash the baby kale leaves and pat dry. With your hands, break them into pieces and place in a beaker or similar container (mine came with the hand blender). Add the egg and process with the hand blender until the kale is very finely shredded.

Weigh the flour in a bowl. Pour the blended egg and kale into the bowl. (Make sure you scrape the beaker well.) Stir with a small fork. Add the salt and stir some more until you have a cohesive dough. Empty the bowl onto a kneading board (again scraping the container well) and start kneading the dough with your hands.

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Add a bit more flour blend as needed to obtain a dough that is not sticky, but should not feel hard when kneaded. I usually add 5-10 g. Knead for 8-10 minutes, folding the dough on itself towards you and pushing it away from you with the heels of your hands in a fluid motion that should feel relaxed and meditative. Cover well and let rest for about an hour.

Roll the dough by hand or with a pasta machine. You may find it easier to cut the dough into 2 equal pieces, flatten both with a rolling pin and then roll each piece with a pasta machine until you are down to the last but one notch. Sprinkle the dough with all-purpose flour as needed to prevent sticking.

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Let the rolled dough rest for a short while. Sprinkle the dough with a bit of all-purpose flour, then cut each piece into tagliatelle (long strips that are 1/4-inch / 6 mm wide) with the machine attachment or by hand. In the latter case, fold a 3-inch strip of pasta lengthwise away from you. Continue to fold the strip until the entire pasta sheet is folded into a flattened roll. With a sharp knife, cut across the flattened roll. Unfold the cut tagliatelle immediately.

Lay out the tagliatelle in such a way that they don’t stick to each other until you are ready to cook them. You can dress the tagliatelle as you prefer. For the batch in the photo, I chose fresh homemade ricotta. Burro e parmigiano is always an option, or a light tomato sauce (especially now that tomatoes are in season).

Bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil, add some coarse salt, stir and then toss the tagliatelle in it. Bring water back to boiling and keep it there. The time needed to cook the tagliatelle is not long, so don’t wander away.

Since the pasta takes only a short time to cook, prepare the ricotta as the water comes to a boil. Put the ricotta in a bowl and mash it with a fork to make a cream. If it is on the dry side, add to it a teaspoon or so of the pasta cooking water.

When the pasta is ready, remove from the heat, pour a glass of cold water in the pot, stir and then drain the pasta, leaving a bit of water clinging to it. Toss pasta and ricotta. Depending on the ricotta and on personal preference, a bit of salt may be added during the tossing. Plate and serve immediately.

The recipe makes a bit more than two portions (served as Italian first course).

6a00d835508b1869e201a511871f44970c-150wiWith a specialty in handmade pasta, Simona provides detailed, accessible tutorials teaching readers to cook like an Italian right from home on Live Like an Italian as well as on her own blog, briciole.


Cool Off Like an Italian: Gelo di Melone

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Boxes full of whole watermelons and halved watermelons placed on crushed ice in grocery stores invite us to touch, smell, weigh with our hands, employ whatever method of assessment we rely upon to choose the specimen to carry home, slice and savor. I grew up calling this summer favorite cocomero. Later on I learned that in some parts of Italy it is called anguria and in others melone d’acqua (literally, watermelon).

Watermelons are popular in countries around the world and I believe no justification for this is required. As a child I eagerly waited for summer, when, among other delectable fruits, cocomero was in season. Road-side stands selling whole watermelons and/or chilled slices of the fruit are a summer feature throughout Italy. My father liked to engage in pre-purchase watermelon appraisal, a complex activity that comprised specific hand movements, knocking on the fruit — as if someone inside it could answer: “Yes, I am ripe and sweet” — and also the cutting of a wedge, called tassello, for the definitive quality assurance evaluation: a bite into the glistening red flesh of the fruit. That allowed my father’s palate to decide whether the watermelon was crisp and sweet to satisfaction and therefore worthy of his purchase. (more…)


A Dessert Recipe for Summer: Crostata di Fragole

Simona's Crostata di Fragole

Simona’s Crostata di Fragole

Crostata is a popular dessert throughout Italy: you can see various types in the window of bakeries and pastry shops and it is easily made at home. I have yet to meet an Italian who doesn’t have a soft spot for crostata of one kind or another.

The base (shell) of crostata is made of pasta frolla, a dough of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. Pasta frolla is versatile: besides providing the base to make crostata, by itself it makes very nice cookies (called frollini).

There are many recipes for pasta frolla and various ideas about how to make it. In my repertoire, I have two versions of pasta frolla that I have been using for some time, inspired by those in the seminal cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene by Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911), first published in 1891 and still in print. In Italy, we refer to the book as l’Artusi. (It is available in English translation as Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.) (more…)