Recovering from a one-week binge on butter, cream, croissants and crepes; the soccer family, accompanied by this lucky food writer, waddled the way from Bordeaux to carb paradise. Hopping a puddle jumper to Lyon, then bullet train to The Eternal City, we settled into a quaint Airbnb near the Spanish steps. The kids quickly scoped out a gourmet cafe offering artisan pastries — from Nutella stuffed sfogliatelle to bombolonis (doughnuts). And that’s just the beginning.
Geographically shaped like a sexy stiletto boot, Italy is divided into 20 regions. From the scenic Northern Alps to the sun-baked island of Sicily at the boot’s toe, the country contains a remarkable, culinary diversity that reflects coastal influences, bordering countries, assorted climates and soils; along with ancient customs and traditions.
The northernmost Lombardy region is a center of fashion, and alas, artery-clogging foods partially from Swiss/Austrian influences trickling across the border. Lombardis indulge in butter, lard, assorted meats and stinky cheeses like Provolone and Gorgonzola from these parts, while risotto and polenta give pasta the shaft.
Bucolic hills of Emilia-Romagna provide perfect conditions for curing meats, raising dairy cows, and growing Trebbiano grapes — creating prosciutto dry-cured ham, Parmesan-Reggiano cheese and balsamic vinegar — a trio of masterpieces emblematic of this area.
The Tuscan region boasts the country’s most divine olive oils and sheep’s milk cheeses like Pecorino Romano. Here, bread is revered, considered sinful to waste, so such regional faves like panzanella salad evolved when farmers salvaged stale bread by sopping in emerald-green olive oil and vinegar, and tossing with vine-ripened tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.
The region of Lazio, home of Rome, specializes in fresh pasta dishes like spaghetti alla carbonara — blending warm egg yolks, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and black peppercorns; and gnocchi alla Matriciana (potato pockets in tomato sauce).
The mild clime of Campania coupled with fertile soils are perfect for growing eggplant, peppers, San Marzano tomatoes and figs, while the hilly Napoli countryside is ideal for raising water buffalo and producing the national treasure — Mozzarella di Bufala — a pearly white, springy cheese with intense flavor. The area also lays solid claim to the creation of pizza.
From Sicily hales blood oranges, lemons, olives and almonds, while denizens take credit for creating the meatball, which pairs well with the region’s robust red sauces.
Back to Rome, we dined at both upscale ristorantes with elegant plated dishes on white damask-draped tables, as well as more casual trattorias, sharing regional dishes family-style — like caprese salad, fettuccine tossed in an earthy porcini mushroom sauce, or garlicky sun-dried tomato bruschetta. But the gustatory highlight was breakfasting at the Vatican — enjoying fluffy frittatas, Italian pastries (especially almond biscotti) and frothy cappuccinos — before touring the hallowed and magnificent halls of the Basilica.
Onto the seaside village of San Marco di Castellabate, we recharged our batteries after three days of playing tourist. We took a bullet train to Salerno, then made a short drive to the charming resort hamlet. Off-the-beaten-track from the crowded, jet-setting Amalfi coast, the hills were studded with grand olive trees, while the harbor was flanked by golden beaches.
Then, the food — mama mia! A diehard pescavore, I indulged in a bowl of linguini ai frutti de mare incorporating the local fisherman’s daily catch of prawns on steroids, octopus, and red bream (like sea bass with nutty nuances), accompanied by an authentic panzanella topped with fresh-caught sardines.
The next day, we climbed a steep hill through crumbling cobblestone streets to the old Duomo near a cluster of restaurants and pizzerias. There we shared a melt-in-your-mouth four-seasons pizza — topped with local buffalo mozzarella and basil for spring, black olives for summer, mushrooms for fall, prosciutto for winter.
I always managed to save room for my guilty pleasure at the corner gelateria — my goal was to sample every flavor from amarena cherry to chocolate fig.
Recipe: Baked Eggplant with Buffalo Mozzarella
• Ingredients: 2 medium-sized eggplants; avocado or grapeseed oil for frying; 8 ounces buffalo mozzarella cheese, sliced; 28 ounces chopped tomatoes; 2 tablespoons olive oil; 2 tablespoons chopped basil; 1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley; 2 minced garlic cloves; 1 teaspoon honey
• Method: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. For the sauce, sauté garlic in olive oil. Add tomatoes, honey, herbs and spices. Simmer 10 minutes. In a heavy skillet on medium heat, add 1/4-inch deep of oil. Leaving skin on eggplant, make elongated slices 1/4-inch thick. Fry until tender and golden, turning once. Drain on paper towel. Layer eggplant slices in ovenproof dish, topping each layer with sauce then cheese. Bake 20 minutes or until golden and bubbling.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and see more recipes at freerangeclub.com