Buon anno, friends! Welcome to this year’s first The Side Dish post. It’s so nice being back in this space after a much-needed break. It’s also really nice being back home in our own living space after a not-so-wonderful trip to Italy. Ten days into our vacation, Peter and I both came down with head colds that knocked us flat, and we spent the last half of our trip holed up in our rental apartment doing our best to recover before our flight back to Houston. Despite the health setback, we did have some fun and memorable times in the Veneto and Rome. We saw friends, enjoyed the Christmas decorations lining the streets and shop windows, ate delicious food, and saw a few sights. Now that I’m fully recovered, I’m ready to get back to recipe research, cooking and blogging. In addition to my re-cap of our trip to Italy, I hope you enjoy my first post of 2018 aptly named New Year, New Goals.
Our first week in Italy was spent in the north-east region of Veneto, where we stayed in my late paternal grandparent’s village, just a few miles from the elegant city of Treviso. Since we arrived several days before the feast of the Epifania, the streets, storefronts, and churches were still adorned with twinkling lights, festive decorations, and presepi (nativity scenes). We spent our week up north walking the quiet streets of Treviso, visiting with friends in my grandparent’s village, shopping for my favorite Italian ingredients (of course), and eating as much radicchio tardivo di Treviso and salumi as we possibly could (not to mention drinking some of the best Prosecco). We also enjoyed waking up to limpid views of the Dolomiti mountains that were capped with abundant snowfall, and loved the cold winter weather (a nice change from Houston’s mild and humid winter weather). On the eve of the Epiphany, we attended a traditional event of the Veneto known as Panevin (a contraction of the words pane and vino). A bonfire made of the past year’s dead grapevine branches is constructed in the central piazza of many of the Veneto’s small towns and villages. Many of the bonfires are blessed by the town’s parish priest before being lit on fire and allowed to burn (under close supervision) until it is reduced to ash. The Panevin bonfire is not only a practical method for disposing of an enormous amount of pruned grapevines, it is also symbolic of “burning” away the past year’s troubles and trials to make way for a fresh start in the new year. It is a festive celebration marked by the residents of the town coming together to visit with each other and to wish each other a buon anno and a felice Epifania. Groups of volunteers man food stations offering grilled sausage panini, vin brûlée (mulled wine), and pinza, a traditional Venetian dessert made of polenta studded with dried fruits, nuts, and spices. Attending the Panevin of my late paternal grandparent’s village was very special for both me and Peter and it’s a memory we will cherish forever.
Just one day after we arrived in Rome, Peter and I both succumbed to head colds from hell. Boo. Nevertheless, we tried to make the best of our last week in Italy and managed to get in a visit to Vatican City, explored the Prati neighborhood for the first time (I’m so in love with that area of Rome!), and took in the magnificence of the Galleria Borghese, its gardens, and Bernini’s masterpieces (he’s one of my favorite sculptors).
Between frequent visits to the farmacia, we also ducked into several churches during our daily passeggiata to admire unbelievable art and architecture. We stopped in local coffee bars for our morning caffè, marmalade-filled cornetto (croissant), and a spremuta (freshly squeezed orange juice). Since our rental apartment was just down a side street from the bustling Campo de’ Fiori, we made frequent trips to Forno, located right in the piazza, where we would buy pizza bianca sandwiches filled with mortadella (for me) and bresaola (for Peter). In our rental apartments both in the Veneto and in Rome, we snacked on fresh montasio and robiola cheeses, paper-thin prosciutto cotto, and crunchy taralli pugliesi (several bags of which came home with us). We may have been coughing and sneezing, but we didn’t lose our appetites for our favorite Italian foods!
The highlight of our stay in Rome was seeing and spending time with new friends. After connecting on Instagram a little over a year ago, I finally met Francesca of Pancakes and Biscotti, who is one the members of our Cucina Conversations group. Peter and I also met Francesca’s identical twin sister, Alexandra, and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. Although we all met in person for the first time just a few weeks ago, it was as if we had known each other for years.
After Peter and I visited Saint Peter’s Basilica one morning, we met Francesca for a delicious lunch at Trapizzino before we set out on foot to meander around the Prati neighborhood and duck into PerOni kitchen supply store where I bought a few gadgets I can’t find state-side. Towards the end of our week in Rome, we treated Francesca and Alexandra to dinner at Flavio al Velavevodetto in the Testaccio neighborhood (another favorite area of mine). We enjoyed an antipasto of prosciutto crudo and crostoni con stracciatella ed alici (toasted rustic bread with stracciatella cheese and anchovies). For dinner, we ordered traditional Roman favorites: tonnarelli cacio e pepe (tonnarelli pasta with cheese and pepper), pasta e patate (pasta and potatoes), polpette in sugo (meatballs in tomato sauce), and cicoria ripassata (sautéed chicory greens). We still have a long list of restaurants and shops we want to visit on our next trip to Rome, so Francesca and I have already created what we call “The List” which we will use on our next visit. It’s already quite long!
The day before we left, I took a taxi to the Trastevere neighborhood where I went to Latteria Studio to have lunch at with my dear friend Carla. I met Carla a little over two years ago on Instagram, where we quickly built a friendly rapport. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person for the first time when we traveled to Rome for Christmas 2016 and it was as if we had known each other for years. Carla and I have since become close, and we have a special friendship that we cherish dearly. Carla teaches cooking classes at Latteria Studio along with Alice Adams and Rachel Roddy, two lovely women whom I also had the pleasure of meeting in 2016. When I arrived at Latteria, Carla greeted me with a warm hug, and the scent of her freshly made focaccia filled the studio. We chatted while she rolled out supple sheets of fresh pasta which she turned into sublime ravioli stuffed with a butternut squash and amaretti filling. After a brief boil, the ravioli were topped with a delicate butter, cream, and mushroom sauce. For our secondo (second course) Carla prepared a traditional Sicilian side dish of sautéed broccolo romanesco with caramelized onions, pine nuts, and raisins which we enjoyed with thick slices of her focaccia. As we were chatting over lunch, Alice stopped by the studio along with Eleanora and Gina, which was a lovely surprise! I met Gina for the first time during our holiday visit in 2016, but it was my first time meeting Eleanora after following each other on Instagram for the past couple of years. We enjoyed an after-lunch caffè over lovely and funny conversation late into the afternoon. I couldn’t have asked for a better last day in Rome and I can’t wait to return to spend more time with these wonderful, talented, and generous women.
While I was in Italy, I spent time thinking about my goals for the new year. It always feels good marking the start of a new year with new intentions. There are a few intentions I purposely repeat because they are things that simply cannot be started and finished in the time span of a year. Rather, they are endeavors I want to work on continuously. Many of my yearly goals are (obviously) centered around food and cooking because I want to continue improving my skills and learn more about Italian recipes and food culture, but a few are also for my own personal growth and development. So…here goes (I promise this post is almost over)!
More The Side Dish posts
Uffa, I did a lousy job of writing these posts last year. The crazy thing is that these are some of my favorite posts to write because they are like small research projects I enjoy giving myself. Since I’m a shameless foodie and newbie Italian food history nerd, I’m constantly adding to a running list of topics I want to know more about and share with you here. I’m going to aim for one The Side Dish post per month.
Cook from my cookbooks
This is a goal I’ve had on repeat for several years and one I’ll probably never take off my resolution list because I’m always adding new cookbooks to my (overflowing) bookshelves. I adore reading and cooking from cookbooks. They have made me a better home cook and have greatly improved my knowledge in Italian cooking in particular. Unfortunately, I don’t use my cookbooks as often as I would like, so this year, I want to focus on giving them more frequent use.
Create a bread starter (and keep it alive)
Baking fresh bread is one of my favorite kitchen projects, and one I don’t do often enough. So, in addition to making bread-baking a more regular practice, I also want to try my hand at nurturing my own starter to use in the breads I bake.
Master fresh pasta
I’m so shy about admitting this but I’ll admit it anyway: I have very little experience in making fresh pasta. Please don’t take away my Italian card! I’m going to work on remedying this travesty this year. While in Rome, I got some great pointers from Carla, so I will be putting what I learned into practice and sharing it here.
Less social media, more connection (of the in-person kind)
Recently, social media has been wearing me out, particularly Facebook. The rants, the over-sharing, the TMI, the negativity. I can’t take it anymore. Harsh as it may sound, I have been making more frequent use of the “unfollow” and “unlike” features to modify what I see in my newsfeed. I’m also spending less time on Facebook altogether (with the exception of maintaining the Flavia’s Flavors Facebook page). Everyone uses Facebook the way that works best for them, and I want my experience to be positive, informative and fun. I’m also sad to see how Facebook has become a substitute for in-person relationships and connection. I love scrolling through Facebook to stay caught up on news from friends and family, but it’s never a substitute for staying connected with the people I care about. Last year, Peter and I made the decision to host more get-togethers in our home so we can spend quality time with our friends. We also made the decision to only welcome into our home the family members and friends with whom we have a loving, supportive, friendly, and encouraging relationship–a decision which came on the heels of several terrible experiences of invited guests behaving rudely in our home. These two pacts have made such a positive impact on our social life and we are staying firm to this principle going forward.
Becoming a volunteer at the Italian Cultural and Community Center last year was a huge highlight for me. I felt like I had finally found a place where I felt purposeful in order to help a wonderful organization continue offering the Houston community enriching events and activities. The ICCC has become my “home away from home” and I find joy in being an active member and volunteer. I have been asked back to teach more “Cucina Conversations” cooking classes this spring and summer (yay!), and later this year, I plan on helping at the annual Festa Italiana. I will also be joining one of the ICCC’s long-standing clubs, The Daughters of Italian Heritage, whose members share their Italian heritage with the community through fellowship and active charitable work.
Begin a writing practice
This has been a goal I’ve started and stopped too many times to count. My constant challenge is trying to silence my internal editor to allow my thoughts to flow freely onto the page regardless of how random they are. A couple of years ago, I bought Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. It’s an entertaining read and I enjoy her no-nonsense, “get-it-done” voice. She offers writing prompts and ideas that range from the simple to the creative. It’s just the book I need to push me to get into a regular writing practice.
This is a new year’s goal that has been on repeat for
several many years because I need to constantly work on it. I read every single day, but it’s mostly done online in between other activities. I rarely pick up a book or my Kindle anymore to read for an extended period of time, so this year I want to continue to improve upon one of my favorite pastimes. If you have any book recommendations, let me know in the comments.
The first Cucina Conversations post of the new year is coming up in a couple of days, so stay tuned!