I could’ve spent 8 hours—not 8 minutes—talking about Italy on my latest Travel Through Food segment for CBC Edmonton A.M. If you’ve been to Italy, you understand.
For those who love food and haven’t been to Italy, once it’s safe to travel again, get your ticket and go. Of course you’ll need to do some serious research first because there is a lot of ground to cover. My advice is to start with one region and then return every year until you’ve covered them all. Tough mission, yes, but this is Italy we’re talking about.
La Petraia, the agritourismo I mentioned, was owned at the time of my visit by Susan McKenna Grant and her husband Michael. I blogged about La Petraia years ago, and it remains to this day, one of my favourite food and travel experiences because of the location, the food, and the owners. Susan and Michael sold it a few years back and are now exploring further afield from their home base in Switzerland where Susan shares their experiences and cooking tips on Instagram over two accounts, SusanMcKennaGrant, and HumanBeingFed. Both are worth the follow.
I mentioned the Italian grocery stores that serve this area so well like D’Amore Italian Deli (12943 – 127 Street), Mercato (St. Albert), Italian Bakery (downtown and in Beverly) and of course the Italian Centre Shops with three locations in Edmonton and a fourth set to open in July in Sherwood Park.
We have longstanding Italian restaurants in this city balanced by a crop of “newcomers” like Daniel Costa’s Corso 32, Uccellino and Bar Bricco on Jasper Avenue, and Dave Manna’s Rosso Pizzeria and his latest, Bianco on Rice Howard Way. I was excited when Antonio Bilotta opened the doors to Al Centro, a beautiful coffee/pizza/cocktail cafe at 98 Street and Jasper Avenue only to have it shutter thanks to COVID along with one of my all-time favourite restaurants, Cibo, in the Oliver Brewery District, and while we have some very fine Italian eateries, losing those two really sucks.
Please support our local independent restaurants, folks.
And speaking of local, Italians take great pride in whatever they grow and make. Small scale producers and artisans the whole country over create foods of which dreams, books and movies are made. Some receive the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin, in English), a certification which indicates the best quality possible and which is given to preserve and protect regionally produced foods of impeccably high standards. San Marzano tomatoes, Asiago cheese, traditional balsamic vinegar, buffalo mozzarella are some examples. Look for that DOP label when you’re shopping for Italian products.
I mentioned Amedei chocolates, too, which I recently tasted during a virtual session with representatives of the company. The chocolates are considered some of the finest in the world. Amedei is the name of Cecilia Tessieri’s grandmother who was a candymaker. Tessieri operates a true bean-to-bar company where she purchases cacao pods directly from growers and ships the raw material to Italy to be processed and made into exquisite chocolate products at her facility in Pontedera in Tuscany. Amedei has won countless awards and lucky for us, the Italian Centre Shops just started carrying it. If you’re looking for a real treat or a gift for the chocolate lover in your life, I’d highly recommend these products.
Italian wine would go well with that chocolate, by the way. Find someone who knows their stuff though, as labels on Italian wine are a bit challenging to decipher. There are, apparently, over 350 wine varietals in Italy, so you’ve got your work cut out for you. Years ago, a prof I had for English Lit was from Vulture, a historic area with an extinct volcano in the Basilicata region of southern Italy. One night, the class discussion turned to Italian composers which in turn morphed into wine talk where Professor Traficante mentioned a grape new to me: Aglianico. I have happily discovered many times over since then that Aglianico is as delicious as it sounds (al-YAN-i-koh).
One Aglianico to look for is by a winery called Cantine Madonna della Grazie. I found out about them because I clicked on a link to a virtual wine tasting hosted by Marcia Hamm of Everything Wine and More in Sherwood Park. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?
It’s hard to pick out a favourite meal from my travels, but one really memorable one was the Bistecca alla Fiorentina I had in Florence. Traditionally, that steak is from the Chianina breed, cooked over embers to rare, served with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Very simple, and unbelievably tasty. As with so many dishes, it’s all about quality.
While we don’t have access to Chianina beef here, we do have Piedmontese cattle being raised in central Alberta and carried by Messinger Meats who stocks the product in their Red Deer store but also supplies the Italian Centre Shop. The Piedmontese breed has a genetic mutation which results in “double muscling” which means the meat has less marbling but yet is incredibly tender. It’s also protein rich and low in saturated fats, cholesterol and calories. If I was going to make a Bistecca alla Fiorentina at home, I’d use this beef (but then, I guess it would have to be called Bistecca alla Piedmontese).
And finally, if you love books and are looking for great reads about Italy or resources on Italian food, five of my favourite books on those topics are Piano Piano Pieno by Susan McKenna Grant, and Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (both cookbooks), and three wonderful memoirs, Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes, and Blood, Bones & Butter by chef Gabrielle Hamilton.
If you missed the on-air segment I did with Mark Connolly, you can listen to it here. Ciao for now, and happy travelling through food.