September 24, 2008 - The Awaiting Table in Lecce, Italy

On the day of our schedule tour of Lecce, purtroppo fa brutto oggi (loosely translated as unfortunately the weather stinks today). With temperatures in the 40s or 50s and drizzle or rain all morning, we tentatively struck out with Timothy our tour guide to view everything from ancient Roman ruins to baroque buildings - but not before downing an espresso from the bar!
Even Nina, one of the stray dogs in town who is overfed an certainly loved by all, was wet - but the bones donated from the butcher helped her get over it quickly. We ended our tour early due to the downpour and made our way into Rustica near the bar for a pizza lunch - margherita, quattro formaggi, e mozzarella di bufala con cippolini hit the spot, along with a glass of hosue white wine. Maybe it was the wine, maybe the rain, or maybe just too many days of running hard, but I slept a dead sleep for two hours in the afternoon before dragging myself up to shop a bit. We met Silvestro at Nocco to learn about the changing wine trade in Lecce. The large vat above is typical of old school wine shops selling cheap jug wine in large glass containers brought in by the locals. What's not typical is the specialty section in the back of Nocco featuring all sorts of special bottles, including some trendy boutique winemakers of the Salentine peninsula. After the wine shop we continued on to the market to buy the ingredients for homemade sausage and the other dishes for dinner.
After mixing together the ingredients, the group took turns cranking the sausage mixture into the casings, and off-color jokes ruled, causing even Giuseppe to blush. (He vented under his breath that he always hates the night of making sausages!)
Our first course was a tomato and cucumber salad made with frise di orzo, a very hard barley flour biscuit that is soaked in water, squeezed dry and crumbled. It has the aroma and taste of Grape Nuts cereal when wet and heated, and I plan to try the recipe with them to see if it's close.
Silvestro gave us one of his rare smiles for photos as he held up the remains of the bread from the week, which we enjoyed with a simple arugula salad...
...followed by the homemade sausages and roasted peppers, which were killer good.
We drank LOTS of Primitivo out of the carafes placed on the table which accompanied our boisterous conversation until 1:30 in the morning. Thank goodness Silvestro lets us sleep in each day!

September 23, 2008 - The Awaiting Table in Lecce, Italy

We awoke to a gloriously sunny day in Lecce on Tuesday and met up as usual at the bar for caffe. I had stayed up until 5am finishing a book and I was exhausted when the alarm went off at 9am.By this point in the trip, I couldn't imagine starting my day without that morning jolt, or the friendly banter (in Italian, of course) with Antonio, but even after an espresso followed by a Coca Cola Light, I was still dragging.
We made our way to the market, and today's lesson focused on the butcher, who looks remarkably like Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck. We saw whole rabbits, chickens, small lambs, and an entire truck shipment of horse from which I'll spare you the photos.
Groceries in hand, we made our way back to the school to prepare the day's pasta - latria for dinner and orecchiette, the famous pasta shape of the Salentine region, for lunch.
First to the pantry shelf for the semolina and barley flour, and then a difficult 30 minutes of trying to make the orecchiette, lamb's ear shaped pasta. You start with a rope of the dough, cut off small nuggets, and drag a knife across them to flatten them out and give them texture. The last step is to invert them like a little shower cap on your thumb. Sounds easy...it's not!
After the pasta was ready and drying, we got on to making the rest of our lunch. Florine and Silvestro worked side by side cleaning greens...
...while I eyed the rest of the pantry. I wasn't the only one who returned home determined to get rid of the odd sized bags and boxes and to store food in sealed glass jars.
Now if I can only find a source for my own house wine too!
Back at the work table, Stephanie and I scarified our manicures (our fingers remained stained the entire trip) to pit these tiny black olives for the roast chicken that would be topped with olives, herbs, and lemon.
There might not be a better first course in the world than classic Italian cheeses and meats. While I generally know what we had (mozzarella, prosciutto, etc.) the real standout was the burata, a creamy cheese made by scooping up all of the extra pieces of fresh mozzarella cheese curd and combining them with heavy cream, and wrapping the whole thing in more mozzarella.
By the time the pasta dish (orecchiette with cabbage and pancetta sauce) was served, we were already getting full, but managed to make room for the chicken.
Needless, to say, after partying big the night before, and my lack of sleep, our lunch time conversation was not nearly as spirited. I headed back to the B&B for a 1 hour nap, then forced myself to get up and talk a 1 hour walk around with Janet in the city park behind Basilica Santa Croce. It actually felt great to get some exercise after so much food and wine. We shopped a bit on the way home, then made our way back to school for our dinner lesson.
Francesco, shown between Janet and Dixie above, joined us for the evening, and we started out with an olive oil tasting. After ten years of traveling the world for school, work (lawyer), and volunteerism (he raised $10K selling his photos of Africa to build an orphanage in Africa), he returned to his native Lecce to join in the business of producing extra virgin olive oil. His sister runs the farming and production an Francesco runs the commercial (i.e. sales) end of things.
Francesco is passionate about growing olives native to the region, like his 5-drop award winning Ogliarola 2007. He recently had the good fortune of making contact with Giorgio Deluca (of Dean and Deluca) and hopes to export his oil to the US.
Some new facts we learned about EVOO: the bottles carry a two year expiration not necessarily because they will turn rancid in that time, but because the acidity can rise above the required .8%; EVOO flavors lesson with age, so buy in small quantities and use lavishly; EVOO can be made from a single varietal olive or blended, just like wine; color is irrelevant in assessing quality - instead look for sweet (tip of the tongue), bitter (back of the tongue), or spicy (catches in your throat) indicators.
We used the latria pasta made earlier in the day to make a chickpea soup, hearty peasant food where part of the pasta is deep-fried to fool the eater into thinking they are eating meat. The rest of the pasta is cooked in the thick stock and the dish is finished with loads of fresh parsley and olive oil.We went on to make one of the best meatloaves I've ever had. I don't know if it was the combination of meats and seasonings that went into the loaf itself, or the surprise of spicy sopressata salami and cheese in the center, but it was killer served with oven roasted potatoes.
We finished the meal off with an Italian confection called cupeta, or almond brittle. For me, all the food and Primitivo wine with dinner did me in and I was unable to eat even a bite.
One of the greatest aspects of The Awaiting Table is the constant influx of local visitors to the dinner table. Tonight's table included our group, Silvestro, Carolyn, Giuseppe, Francesco and two young women from Lecce who are friends of the staff. This type of meal allows you to experience Italy like a local, to learn the real culture of a region, and, for me, to practice speaking Italian without fear of screwing up!

September 22, 2008 - The Awaiting Table in Lecce, Italy

We began our first day in Lecce with an espresso macchiato (or cappuccino for some) at Bar Martinica right across from our B&B. Silvestro had cautioned us against eating breakfast since the Italians tend to only have a quick coffee or pastry in the morning, preferring instead to eat a larger (and longer) lunch and dinner. After coffee we wandered down the main street to check out the wares at La Bottega del Corso - primarily for Silvestro to enlighten us about factory made pasta and to compare and contrast that with what we would be making in class during the week.
After a short visit to the shop, we continued to the main market in town to begin shopping for ingredients for the day. Although Silvestro had taught us how to order in kilos and in Italian, it would be a few more days before everyone in the group was comfortable enough to shout the orders out.
Lucca had prepared an enormous loaf of rustic bread for us that would last most of the week. Isn't he adorable?! We noticed immediately that if you didn't get to the market early, the fresh bread would be gone.
One more stop outside at the produce stand for greens and we would be on our way, anxious to start cooking after two days touring in Rome and a full day of travel to Lecce.
We began making pasta as soon as we arrived at the school. Silvestro explained that three things affect the taste and cost of pasta: the age of the grain, the time to dry, and how it's extruded. We combined three parts semolina flour and one part farina d'orzo (barley flour - something unique to the pasta of this region) and only water, no eggs. We learned that it's easier to add more flour if the pasta is too sticky than to add more water if it's too dry, and began kneading our dough until it was smooth.
For our first pasta type we made cappolleti messicani, or Mexican hats. Dough is rolled the thickness of a stick of gum, cut into circles with a glass, the each circle is cut in half, shaped into a cone, then inserted into a wine bottle to press into the hat shape.
I formed some immediate observations about class during the first day. The kitchen in a renovated barn was lovely, using functional items like cutting boards, colanders, and towels for decoration. And I could tell by what we would be making that simplicity rules in cooking in this region of Italy.
I obviously cook a lot, so for me the learnings would be in the subtle details: using arugula as a cooked green, Verdeca versus Verdicchio wine, hand made pasta techniques, the saltiness of the mussels from the Ionian Sea, and how a hotter oven yields bread with a harder crust and chewy crumb. Silvestro was in his element - in charge, educating the group - and Giuseppe was adorable. For lunch we prepared mussels; pasta with fresh tomatoes, arugula and hard ricotta; a local fish similar to red snapper baked in parchment paper with herbs and lemon; and melon soaked in Marsala wine.
The group loosened up as lunch went on, perhaps because the wine started flowing, and we could tell we were in for a great week.
Our accommodations for the week were in the lovely Pallazo Rollo B&B - that's my apartment on the left below, the door tucked in among the incredible ivy.
Before dinner (and after a nap for most) we headed to a local shop for an olive oil lesson and tasting, where we learned that extra virgin olive oil is always the first press, and must be less than .8% acidity and defect free. Virgin, which we almost never see in the US, is greater than .8% acidity, but is still from the first press. The oil you see labeled "olive oil" is usually heat or chemically extracted after the first press and should be avoided at all costs! To achieve a high quality oil, the growers must focus on the pruning and spacing of the trees and harvest by hand when the fruit is slightly unripe. Classic aromas in high quality extra virgin olive oil are grass, artichokes, and green tomatoes.
Back at the school we prepared to make a simple vegetarian dinner, paired with the house Primitivo wine that Silvestro introduced us to. (That's Carolyn in motion in the background.) We sauteed eggplant in a dry pan until the water evaporated then seasoned them with extra virgin olive oil and mint, roasted small peppers, sliced raw fennel, boiled chicory and rape, and caramelized green onions.
All of the veggies were served with a fava bean puree and we finished the meal off with semifreddo uva, green grapes that were partially frozen then dusted with vanilla sugar - simplice e delizioso!
Throughout the meal we ate molto glasses of the house Primitivo which had been aged in cement tanks, leaving it with a fresh fruity taste, not overly tannic or heavy. Back to the B&B very late, very satiated, and very tired.

September 21, 2008 - Rome to Lecce

We woke to a glorious, sunny Sunday morning in Rome and 3 of us decided to take advantage of it. After my now routine espresso macchiato e yogurt, we crossed the river into Trastevere intending to walk up through Gianicolo Park, a well kept secret, but one of the best locations for viewing the city from above.
On the way, we were pleasantly surprised to find a Lazio Food Festival just near the Ponte Sisto. If we had had the time and the ability to carry things, we would have loaded up on all sorts of local cheese, honey, meats, flowers and vegetables. But since we had a train to catch and limited storage space, we had to settle for a free cookbook of Lazio specialties, a perfect souvenir for me.
With little trouble, we made it to the Termini train station in time to catch the 1:38 train to Lecce, and we settled in for the six hour ride. Packing light paid off as the train was loaded with people and luggage, and the less you had to stow the easier the experience was.
We had brought caprese-style sandwiches aboard and that paired with Florine's bag of M&Ms made for a tasty lunch. We arrived in Lecce at about 7:40 and were met by Antonio the van driver and Silvestro for the two minute ride to Palazzo Rollo, a charming B&B in the middle of the old town of Lecce.
After dumping our belongings and gathering our wits, we followed Silvestro on a short walk through the town, passing at only a few of the major sights along the way, anxious to get to The Awaiting Table for dinner.
We were welcomed in with some bubbly while we discussed the week's agenda, then settled in for a dinner in the old stable that's now the kitchen. Because of the gorgeous candlelight, I was unable to photo much from dinner, but here's the rundown of what we ate, accompanied by the most famous wine of the region, Primitivo:
Antipasti of cheese, olives, roasted peppers, bread, and zucchini
Three pasta dishes (to give us an idea of what we'd be cooking that week)
Rabbit with garlic roasted potatoes
Chocolate biscotti with dessert wine
Tired and sated, we returned to our rooms at about 1:00 in the morning, and dropped into a deep sleep.

September 20, 2008 - Rome, Italy

I slept a sound seven hours, thanks to earplugs and an Ambien, and woke at 6:30 ready to go. Clearly this was too early for the group, so I wandered through the quiet, empty city - a rare feeling in Rome - to the Campo De' Fiori where they were just setting up for the daily market and unloading fish at the fish purveyor's stand.
I made my way a few blocks over to Piazza Navona and saw another rare sight - the sun coming up on a piazza still empty of tourists as the artists just began unloading the work hoping for more sales than the rainy day before. I continued my walk up Via Coronari (an area pedonale, which is always welcome in busy Rome) to where it crosses the Tiber River to the Castle Saint Angelo.
I grabbed a yogurt and an espresso (already addicted after only 24 hours in Italy!) and met up with the group for our tour with Inger. We spent 3 hours wandering through the market, shops overloaded with prosciutto and other Italian delicacies, and the Jewish Ghetto before ending our tour with a visit to the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.
After our tour we walked up Via Coronari again, stopping at Lo Stregone for pizza lunch. In Denver, I'm not much of a pizza fan, but I can't get enough of it in Italy. The combination of a thin, crispy crust and fresh ingredients for toppings is irresistible. You can't beat it for lunch, especially paired with a glass of the vino bianco.
After lunch, we continued walking across the river past the castle towards Vatican City, and surprised ourselves with our stamina by walking all the way up to the cupola of Basilica San Pietro. We felt justified in stopping at Giolitti on the way back for some of that world-famous gelato - pistachio in my case.
After a short nap and a shower to revive, we headed out in two taxis to Flavia's house near the Villa Borghese for a Home Food Italy dinner that I had arranged for the group. Home Food was organized out of a desire to preserve and showcase the local food traditions of the regions of Italy. Cesarine open their homes to guests and I wanted my group to experience Rome like a local.
Flavia and her husband Antonio were gracious hosts and we enjoyed a fabulous meal prepared by Flavia for us. The first course was a Roman-style crostini topped with a little fiordilatte cheese and an anchovy sauce.
Flavia's grandmother, Maria Rosario, was from Naples, and Flavia bases her interpretation of the timballo in bianco on her grandmother's recipe. There is wine in the crust and the filling is a simple pasta with cheese - simple yet delicious.
For the entree, Flavia presented us with polpettine di tacchino e ricotta ovina (little meatballs of turkey and fresh sheep's milk ricotta, accompanied by eggplant sauteed with ham, garlic, olive oil, parsley and tomato.
The baba cake was soaked in rum and served with fresh strawberries...
...and was followed by dessert #2, chocolate mousse in little cups, a Hebraic recipe from her mother Stefanella.
We bid farewell to Flavia and Antonio and made our way by taxi through the throng of young Romans out partying near our hotel and the Campo de' Fiori. Everyone headed off to bed as we were to set out for cooking school in Puglia the next day.