December 31, 2011

Bologna in December

Bologna is full of holiday lights during December. Festivities here begin on December 8th, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It continues with Santa Lucia on the 13th. Traditionally this saint, "santa" in Italian would bring gifts to children on the night between the 12th and 13th... Christmas eve is widely celebrated and includes a no meat meal, generally includes seafood.

Of course there's Christmas day and the day after, the 26th is Santo Stefano. Then there's the 31st of December, the last day of the year which is generally celebrated with a very impressive meal that includes many dishes per course, ending naturally with champagne, spumante or the local bubbly!

Last but not least, there's the old witch, la Befana, who brings candy to good children and coal to those who've been bad on the 6th of January.  Usually some kids get candy coal, but no one really gets real coal!

Then its all back to normal, the school vacation is over, back to work and everyone else can finally get on a diet!

Happy Holidays to all and Happy New Year!

October 31, 2011

Appero, Apperò, Aperol or Aperitivo?

This morning I overheard some ladies say in English : "Let's meet for an appero next week".

An Italian would be confused because this seemingly innocent phrase has a word in it that has many meanings. My English speaking friends meant to meet for an aperitivo, a pre-dinner drink, a time to socialize with friends before each heads off home for dinner.

However, appero could be confused with apperò which means: oh,wow! or my goodness! It could also be confused with Aperol which is a brand name liquor that is generally used to make the Spritz a very typical drink at aperitivo time.

I think my friends meant to shorten the long word for Aperitivo...which in Italian is Ape. Quando ci vediamo per un Ape? - When do we meet for an Ape?

Hmm, this got me in the mood for a Spritz so below is the recipe for the Spritz. Make your own or meet me at Il Calice in Bologna!


3 parts Prosecco
2 parts Aperol
1 splash of soda or seltz
Ice, half a slice of orange.

Click here for more drinks made with Aperol, courtesy of the Aperol website. Please remember to drink responsibly!

September 10, 2011

Taste of Italy in the newsstands

Taste of Italy was mentioned in a recent article in the US' Boston Globe. The article published on July 26th, describes the cooking classes. I have to say that having just had one the day I read the article felt like deja-vu.

Making pasta by hand teacher’s Bolognese art

Her classes cook basics in the style of the region

Below the article you will find the recipe for the Bolognese ragu'...


July 2, 2011

"Pomodoro" (Tomato) literally means the "Golden Apple",

Though a staple in the Italian kitchen, you might be surprised to find out tomatoes are not, in fact, Italian. The fruit was discovered in Latin America in the fifteenth century, then made its way to Italy in the nineteenth century. Because tomatoes grow in a variety of conditions, the use throughout Italy and in the kitchens took off.

The word tomato has an interesting past just as the origin of the fruit does. Tomato, or in italian, pomodoro, can be broken down in several ways. Pomo d'oro, which in italian translates to golden apple, refers to a specific type of tomato which at the cusp of ripeness is a beautiful shade of golden yellow. Another possible origin of the word derives from the aphrodisiac qualities of the fruit in the french translation pomme d'amour, the love apple.

According to Il Pomodoro Italiano, "The Italian Tomato", there are over 320 different variations of the tomato. The beautiful golden tomatoes tend to have a sweeter taste and have a low sugar and acid content. For more information on several of the varieties check out the website in Italian:

June 25, 2011

Finding equilibrium in the kitchen

Have you ever wondered why some of the simplest recipes turn out to be the most delicious? Take, for example, prosciutto and melon. This Italian warm weather favorite is about as simple as they come. Maybe we can give some credit to the theory of Claudio Galeno. The second century Greek medic studied the composition of food and how finding the equilibrium of ingredients, however simple, can result in a successful dish.

According to Galeno, every product can be described as hot, cold, humid or dry. Ideally, a dish should combine ingredients from each of these categories. Think again about the prosciutto and melon. The combination of the moist, cool melon with the dry, warm prosciutto achieves what Galeno describes as equilibrium. The salty/sweet combo pleases tastebuds.Yes, it seems strange to think about foods in a scientific manner, how tastes mix and ingredients combine to deliver smiles and happy paletes.
Another example that comes close to equilibrium, a staple in the Italian kitchen, pasta. Think about how dried pasta and water, thrown together on the stove until the boiling water brings the pasta to the desired cooked, moist consistency reach equilibrium. The simple combination of the ingredients and elements results in an age-old dish.

According to Massimo Montanari, a leading expert in Food and Culture History and professor of Medieval History at the University of Bologna, pizza baked in a wood burning oven, 'nel forno al legno' could be seen as a dream combination of ingredients and elements to achieve the Italian favorite. The moist, freshly tossed dough with your hearts' desire of toppings thrown into the wood burning oven results with a generally crispy crust with a chewy, cheesy center.

Next time you are experimenting in the kitchen, think as Galeno did. Ponder each of the ingredients qualities and how to best find the equilibrium by pairing it with other ingredients. Let the combinations run wild.


June 12, 2011


When searching for an authentic product, it is important to know what you are looking for. Pretty bottles, fancy labels and presentation can sometimes fool. Thankfully, Europe has taken steps to ensure the authenticity and quality of nearly 200 products with two designations: the IGP and DOP. The two designations ensure the origin and exquisite quality of the products they include in slightly different ways.

The IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) or the "protected geografical information," is the slightly less strict of the two denominations which awards the IGP seal to products from specific regions of Europe. The IGP acronym guarantees a product originating from a region or a country whose quality, recipe and characteristics can be traced back to its geographical origin. At least one production and/or processing phase must take place in the designated origin of production for the product to qualify.

DOP (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta) or Protected Designation of Origin, like IGP, requires specific production and processing techniques for each product. However, unlike the IGP, for a product to qualify for the DOP, each step in the production of the products must be executed in the region of origin. The products have extremely strict specifications that must be met in each step of production which are then examined by experts to ensure quality.

Products such as Prosciutto di Parma, Prosciutto di Modena, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Aceto Balsamico di Modena are just a few of the products that carry the IGP or DOP.
How can you tell when a product is IGP or DOP? Look on the label or on the product itself. For example, on each wheel of Parmaggiano-Reggiano DOP information regarding the factory, who made the cheese, even which cow the milk came from can be found.

There is a difference between IGP Aceto Balsamico di Modena and DOP Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. The first difference is that only the DOP product can carry the word Tradizionale, which ensures the consumer knows that its been made the traditional way. Remember that the IGP denomination requires that at least one of the production phases be completed in the official geographical area indicated while the DOP requires that all the phases of production be completed in the area, which means it the products carrying the DOP denomination will be more expensive (cannot import the grapes from less expensive areas, etc. etc.) They will be more expensive but also guarantee higher quality as the consortiums of the products carrying the DOP carry out regular and very strict inspections to ensure that all members of the Consortium adhere to the rules.


What to do with pumpkin?

In Italy, there are many types of indigenous pumpkins- some are round such as Mantovana di Chioggia while others are long such as the Violina from Ferrara. I like to use the Violina (a variety of Butternut squash) with rugged skin. How many types of Butternut squashes are they you might ask? I recently counted 10 varieties of just the Butternut Squash in just one farm's website!

A well-informed fruit vendor told me that the sweetest ones are those that have a rough, rugged surface as opposed to the smooth surface of most varieties. "Pumpkin is the hard-shelled gourd of the genus curcubita. Since some squash share the same botanical classifications as pumpkins, the names are frequently used interchangeably." I believe this is the reason why Butternut squash is called "pumpkin" here in Italy. You can read more at:

The pumpkin is a very versatile vegetable - actually it is a fruit! Italians use pumpkin in many dishes including soups, pureéd, roasted, breads, cakes, puddings, and flans. I have 4 different recipes for pumpkin soup (with even more variations!).

Naturally, pumpkin is also found in pasta sauces, in gnocchi as well as in stuffed pastas!

In Ferrara, a town northeast of Bologna that is less than an hour away, they call this stuffed pasta Caplaz in dialect or Cappellacci in Italian - which loosely translates to big, old hats. The pasta is folded like a tortelloni however it is several centimeters larger - 6cm. It is traditionally cooked and served smothered in a butter and sage sauce or a tasty Bolognese ragù. The contrast between the sweet pumpkin and the savory ragù makes this a really special dish.

Recently, another way to serve these Caplaz has popped up: toss the Caplaz with unsalted butter and drizzle some 12 year-old Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena. The slight sharpness of this type of Vinegar (which has been aged for 12 years in different wooden barrels) contrasts wonderfully with the sweet pumpkin filling. Hungry anyone?

Top photo: Rugged Butternut squashes. Middle: A nearly finished plate of Caplaz. Bottom: A beautiful plate of fluffy Caplaz in a balsamic vinegar and butter sauce.

Top photo courtesy Blog&Wine.
Middle & bottom photos by Britta Blanski

by JM & MA

February 21, 2011

Tortellino vs Tortelloni

How can you tell the difference between tortellini and tortelloni? The two types of pasta, though similar in shape and name, will deliver completely different tastes. Both are made with the traditional style 'egg-pasta' composed of flour and egg, but the final products with the various fillings leave you wanting more.

Tortellini: The smaller of the two, tortellini are stuffed with a hearty meat filling and typically served in broth or cream sauce.

Tortelloni: the tortelloni is larger and has a milder tasting filling, generally a mix of cheeses or some sort of vegetarian filling. The filling usually includes Parmigiano-Reggiano, a soft cheese and either spinach, swiss chard or parsley (in Bologna). They are typically served in a butter and sage sauce or a tomato and butter sauce with plenty of grated Parmigiano sprinkled on top.

So to remember the difference between tortellini and tortelloni, think "ini" is small and "oni" is large. Another thing to remember is that the smaller of the two has a very tasty filling that would overwhelm your palate if it was large. The larger of the two has a relatively milder tasting filling which is in perfect balance with the amount of dough surrounding it.

Buon appetito!

JM and MA

January 31, 2011

Bologna's mortadella, no baloney

In 1963 Oscar Mayer, a brand of KRAFT in the United States, coined the catchy jingle to make his bologna a household name. "My bologna has a first name" and so on.. Yes, the song gets stuck in your head, but what is the sausage made of?

Mortadella, the real Italian Bologna sausage, originates right here in Bologna! Home to the Taste of Italy.

The hearty, yet surprisingly healthy sausage has been made in the area for nearly 500 years, but has very little resemblance to the packaged, thick slices in the grocery store. Mortadella makers, using the traditional Italian style - leaving nothing to waste, use fat and spices to pack the thinly sliced delicacy with flavor. Often times the additions can literally be seen in the finished product. Though fat is used in the product, mortadella is relatively low fat. Only the tastiest fats are added into the sausage for the burst of flavor.

Bologna, the city is better known as 'la grassa' or 'the fat' leaves nothing to the imagination when it comes to taste and enjoyment in the dining department. Like the Parmigiano-Reggiano and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, the sausage must pass criteria to be the official Mortadella di Bologna. The genuine product is protected by PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). This means the products are free from fillers, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.
Mortadella is a must-try when wandering the small streets of the city. Appetizers with mortadella, sometimes with other meats are generally accompanied by some type of cheese which make great pallate pleasers before the meal. Yum!

Oh, and just in case you were curious, the Oscar Mayer jingle is no longer used. The company wanted other products to be represented as well. I wonder what will happen to its Bologna sausage? One thing I am sure of, mortadella, the original Bologna sausage isn't going anywhere!

You can find more information about Mortadella at the following:

January 19, 2011

Meet me at the Towers

A stunning view of the towers against the blue Bologna sky.
Sure, everyone has heard of the leaning tower of Pisa. It bustles with tourists year-round, but who knew Bologna offered one better in the heart of town?

In the 12th century two Bolognese families decided grand towers built in their name were a sure way to would be remembered. 

It seems the towers of Garisenda and Asinelli have successfully made their mark on Bologna. As one of the city’s well-known symbols, the hard to miss duo lean and stand tall to make for
the perfect meeting spot in the center of
town. Passing shops with postcard adorned windows will
surely have the towers, maybe in their lit-up holiday glory.

Not only were the towers built to inspire postcards, but each signifies the power of the families who built them.  This is one theory of scholars as to why towers were built in the area in that time period.  The towers came in quite handy through the years in other ways as well.

The taller of the two, Asinelli, standing 97 meters, was used as a lab for scientists in the 17th century and later as a sight post in WWII. Garisenda, leaning at 48 meters, made it’s mark when Italian author Dante Aligheri mentioned it in several of his works. Keep in mind, Dante is the Shakespeare of Italy, big deal!

Tourists and Italians alike are able to pay a small fee to climb the 500 steps to the top of the Asinelli tower to get an incredible view of Bologna.

Not only is Bologna the gastronomic capital of Italy, home to the oldest university in Europe and the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, but the city’s rich history offers a non-stop lesson on the culture. Everywhere you turn there is an opportunity to see and experience the Italy in a small, less touristy city.

Looking down the side of the Asinelli tower.
A view from the top.
                   The leaning base of Garisenda tower. 

             All photos by John Nissen-Hooper

January 11, 2011

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar: Part II

Now that you have a grasp on the age old method for how the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is made, let's go back a few hundred years into its history.

Sadly, there is no official documentation when or where exactly Balsamic originated, but similar products, used in various ways throughout history have been mentioned in literature from ancient Greece and imperial Rome. However, some early documents for the still-flourishing condiment can be traced back to Modena 1598.

Centuries later, traditional balsamic became a condiment for kings. King Victor Emanuel II was lucky enough to find the 'black jewel', a cask found in Duke Francesco IV of Ferrara's palace. The king demanded that the best casks being produced in the region be moved to the royal castle in Piedmont. Thus, began the royal balsamic batteries. Who knew balsamic could be a hobby for kings?

A few years later, in 1860, author Francesco Aggazzotti took the time to write the practice to create traditional Balsamic vinegar. This became the basis for the production in Modena that remains today. Good thing someone decided it would be a good idea to pass on an actual recipe.

Today, the production of the Traditional product can be found to Province of Modena in the region Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. The province is home to more than great balsamic. The birthplace of Enzo Ferrari, several other noted automotive lines, balsamic and countless other gems make Emiglia-Romagna a must-visit in Italy.


January 2, 2011

Tradtional Balsamic Vinegar: Part One

Strict rules apply to just about everything produced in the world today. Those rules also apply to the age old process for Balsamic Vinegar. The authentic ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena' or 'ABTM' has a lengthy process that brings the product to the top of the charts in condiments.

Casks containing grape must maturing as natural enzymes
infuse the product during the acidification process.
Traditional Balsamic is made through steps of fermentation and maturation of grape must. The number of steps and methods vary slightly from one producer to another, but the basic practice remains.

The process involves boiling grape must and natural maturation in a series of wooden barrels, called casks. A minimum of five casks must be used in each battery. A battery is the official name for a group of casks in a series. Each cask is smaller than the last and made from differing types of wood. Softer, more porous woods are used in the initial stages to allow for evaporation and acidification. Over time the product is transferred to smaller, harder wood casks. The specific types of wood and the number of casks, over three, is up to the producer.

The typical balsamic vinegar on a run-of-the-mill store shelf doesn't have quite as many rules when it comes to production. In most cases basic grape vinegar and caramel are mixed to mimic the color and taste of the real thing. In the best case scenario the vinegar is aged in one cask, certainly not up to the costly traditional balsamic standards. Thankfully there are several ways to separate the authentic Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena from the other guys. The official seal of approval by The Consortium of Producers can be found on each of the glass bottles. Expert tasters and a series of tests earn each numbered bottle the official stamp of validity. The glass bottles ensure the product does not deteriorate over time and the seal guarantees the products' quality.

Shelf-ready products can take anywhere from twelve to twenty-five years to complete. When a batch meets the twenty-five year mark it graduates to 'Extra Vecchio'. This means the product has reached the height of maturation and nearing the peak of perfection. The older the product, the more time it has had to mature, therefore making it a higher quality.