December 16, 2014

Antipasto, Primo, Secondo; How to Order Food in Italy

How many times have you sat down to eat in Italy and just sat there, staring at the menu perplexed as to how and what to order? Let's begin by explaining the various items listed on a menu in Italy.

First of all, an antipasto is an appetizer. The list of antipasti might include a savory mousse, a salad or a small version of what might otherwise qualify as a second course. Antipasti are more elaborate than stuzzichini which are fairly simple snacks: pizza, small fried or baked snacks.

primo is a first course; the list of primi includes soups, pastas, rices and other similar items. You might find the word Minestre instead of Primi. Minestre can be dry, such as a pasta dish but is most often used to refer to liquid first courses; such as soup (zuppa), smooth soups (vellutata or passata), chunky vegetable soups with pasta (minestrone or ribollita), tortellini in brodo, passatelli in brodo or zuppa imperiale. Baked pasta is also considered a minestra.

A secondo is a second course often composed of a protein, be it cheese, seafood, meat (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, etc) or eggs. For your information, this dish does not necessarily arrive with vegetables or a side dish.

Contorni or side dishes. Side dishes usually are vegetables prepared in a variety of ways including grigliate (grilled), al forno (oven roasted), lessate (boiled). In Italy, don't expect pasta to be a side dish  (ever!)

Dolci are desserts and these are often divided into torte which are cakes; dolci al cucchiao are soft desserts to be eaten with a spoon (think mascarpone cream, tiramisù or panna cotta), gelati are ice creams and semifreddi that while are reminiscent of a gelato, are more complex with often an accompanying sauce.

Coffee is usually served after dessert. While some places will bring you whatever you want whenever you want it, not all will. So don't be surprised if the coffee arrives after the dessert, even though you asked for it with the dessert. You might appreciate knowing that that cappuccinos are considered a breakfast drink so if you order one after 11am, it is akin to ordering chocolate milk.

After coffee, you might order a digestif or amaro, literally a bitter which aids digestion or a fine whisky or grappa which you will find under Distillati. If you don't see these on the menu, ask. In some places, the trattoria will bring a few bottles of their home made liquors for you to try including licorice, basil and the more famous limoncello. Please know that these are offered by the house and as common courtesy you are expected not to have more than a shot glass or two, at most!

Good to know: Now that you know what's what on the menu, let's tackle some details.

How much to order? Several of my students have recounted how they felt pressured by waiters to order an antipasto (appetizer), a primo (a first course), a secondo (a second course) and a dolce (dessert). No one, should feel pressured to order all that food, although a restaurant might be understandably perplexed if all you wish to eat is an antipasto and you are by yourself.

For your information, Italians rarely order a dish from each course. It is customary to order 2 dishes, for example:
  • antipasto with either a primo or secondo
  • primo and secondo
  • primo OR secondo and dessert
  • primo OR secondo and a side dish
Also, while not everyone does it, some couples will split a dish or two. I know a couple who will split every course, thus ordering 1 antipasto, 1 first course, 1 second course and 1 dessert. I usually split dessert or a first course with my husband.

There is only one don't that I can think of. Don't expect to get your ordered food in any order other than the category that they belong to, ie., antipasti come first, then first courses, then the second courses and side dishes, then dessert, then coffee and then any after dinner drinks. For example, a side dish with your pasta is a no-no. A first course dish served with your second course dish is another unusual thing.

While a casual place may not care in which order you eat your food and thus may agree to serve the food in the order you requested, don't be surprised if it doesn't come to fruition. The chronological order of the food is so ingrained in Italian culture that while the waiter has agreed to it, the kitchen will send out the dishes in the Italian, preordained order. 

Don't be surprised if you see your menu divided into Mare and Terra. That means that all seafood (Mare) have their section of primi and secondi while the vegetables and meat (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, etc) are considered earth (Terra) and have their separate section of primi and secondi.

Frozen foodstuffs: Eating places are required to declare if they are using frozen products. You will see this in small print at the bottom of the menu.

Coperto: this item lists what the eating places charges for the bread, oil and vinegar and other items they may serve that you haven't ordered. The use of tablecloths as well as cloth napkins might be included so naturally expect the fancier the place, the higher the coperto. The price of the coperto needs to be declared on the menu.

Tipping: Tipping is not necessary and is never added to your bill. All workers receive a regular salary so there is no need to tip in order to round out a salary. However, if you feel that you've been treated particularly well you could tip 10%. Tipping too much shows that you are a tourist! Especially never tip in a bar, caffe', tavola calda or Osteria. There's the second no-no.

I hope I've helped you understand some of the intricacies of the Italian menu. Buon Appetito!

September 22, 2014

2014 Cooking Tour

Maribel will be travelling to Massachusetts to teach Bolognese cooking as well as Cooking with Kale (Tuscan style). While the majority of the events scheduled are private events organized by friends, there is one event open to the public.

I will be teaching a cookery class on traditional Bolognese specialties at Shubie's MarketPlace in Marblehead, Massachusetts

The menu selected is a typical informal meal with Bolognese friends; while generous in terms of number of dishes, the recipes are simple to make.

Our menu at Shubies is as follows:
~ with Italian Charcuterie, Seasonal Fruit with Prosciutto/Speck and Mortadella Mousse.
~ Pasta with Ragu Bolognese
~ Seasonal vegetable dish
~ A "Caprese", a Flourless, Moist Chocolate Cake
~ Italian Semifreddo with fruit garnish

Shubie's Signature wines will be sampled with the food.

In order to reserve your seat, you need to contact Shubies' directly at 781-631-0149.
Space is limited. Reserve Today!

While I am in the USA, our team will still be available to teach in Bologna so if you are in Italy, go ahead and write me an email (see upper right hand corner) to schedule a cooking lesson in Bologna.
Peach semifreddo

Flourless Chocolate Cake (gluten free) 

September 20, 2014

Is It A Sauce Or A Ragu'?

Tagliatelle al Ragù (Bolognese)
Ever wonder what the difference is between a Ragu' and Sauce? You might think that they are one and the same since they all go with pasta. But there are differences which I will try to explain.

"Sugo" or sauce is a general term that indicates a fluid sauce. It can be a simple tomato sauce like a marinara or can include whole plum tomatoes and some other ingredients, cut small.

A ragu' is a thick, chunky sauce usually made by cooking several kinds of meat in a sauce, usually tomato. That said, a ragu' can also made with seafood, vegetables or a combination of these. 

The most famous ragu's in Italy are the Bolognese and the Napoletan but almost every region (and sometimes cities) have their own ragu'. In fact, its not necessary to specify which ragu' you are preparing or talking about unless you are talking about a ragu' from a different town!

A Bolognese ragu' is made with ground meat cooked with vegetables and a small amount of concentrated tomato, added for color. The Bolognese ragu' is served with tagliatelle pasta. The Napoletan ragu' has lots of onions and a big chuck of beef that cooks in the tomatoes for many hours. You are supposed to serve the beef flavored sauce with spaghetti or linguine pasta and serve the meat as a second course. Still the "sauce" is considered a ragu'. The Pugliese ragu' includes several types of meats including ribs, porkchops and beef. The "sauce" is served with orecchiette pasta while the meats are served as a second course. And again, the "sauce" is considered a ragu'. 

Its interesting to note that East coast American-Italians call their meat sauce "gravy" instead of sauce. Its clear that the old timers who emigrated to the US wanted to differentiate the fluid, tomato sauce from the meat sauce; just like the relatives back home distinguish "sugo" from "ragu".

Buon appetito!

2020 Update: For an in-depth look at Bologna's iconic ragu' be sure to read May 1st, post about Bolognese ragu. 

June 27, 2014

Summer in Bologna

The weather's been unexpectedly mild. Mostly cool at night but warm and sometimes muggy during the day. But hey, who is complaining with all the wonderful things to do at night.

Just grab a nice gelato (from one of my favorite places) and head on to one of these events one evening.

There is the Slow Food market that takes place every Wednesday evening in Piazzetta Pasolini (Cinema Lumière), in via Azzo Gardino street in the Giardino Klemlen. You can buy your fruit, vegetables, organic bread and baked goods, cheeses, eggs... but you can also buy handcrafted beer, wine, enjoy cooked seafood and listen to music. Its a great way to spend some time with friends and enjoy the warm weather. For more info click here, please remember its on Wednesday evening (not on Monday).

Then there's the free evening movie in the main square: Piazza Maggiore shown in the original language with subtitles. For the complete schedule, check the Bologna Welcome site here.

There are numerous, mostly free, concerts that take place in town, for every age group and pocket. Check the Bologna Be' site.

June 25, 2014

The Best Gelato in Bologna

Taste of
Cremeria Santo Stefano
No matter what the temperature outside, Italian gelato is always popular way to entertain our palate! Some of my favorite shops (all with lactose-free, vegan and gluten-free options) follow, in no particular order. All I can say is that they ALL deserve a visit. :)

Cremerie Santo Stefano, Via Santo Stefano 14

Galleria 49 (ex-Stefino's), for its fabulous almond Sicilian granita and its Cream with a hint of lemon zest ice cream.

Stefino Bio, Stefino separated from his partners (above) and has opened shop in via San Vitale. A good number of his gelatos, sorbetti an granita are dairy-free and even vegan. All ingredients are organic.

Cremeria Scirocco in Via Barelli 1/C, Bologna, BO 40138.
fabulous and unusual flavors, all rigorously made with high quality and natural ingredients.

Gelatauro on via San Vitale
Any of their chocolate flavors (chocolate with hot pepper, chocolate laced with orange) or creamy nutty flavours are fabulous. They use several Slow Food Presidium ingredients in their gelatos.

Sorbetteria Castiglione, in Via Castiglione 44 for its fabulous dark chocolate and cassata Siciliana flavors. When in season, don't miss the walnut flavor: noce (attention: not nocciole - hazelnuts).

The Sorbetteria has expanded and now has 2 outposts on Via Murri 81 and in Via Saragozza 83 (on the way up or back from San Luca, which is another good reason to visit San Luca!)

Although fattier and/or sweeter than my tastebuds are used to, many of my friends swear by these Gelaterie:

Cremeria Funivia, Piazza Cavour 1

Gelateria Islanda, Via Saragozza 65

Grom on via d'Azeglio. While they do use several Slow Food Presidium ingredients in their gelatos, these are hand made in the shop; they receive the ingredients and mixes from their headquarters in Piedmont.

PS don't abide by any of the lists you see out there, do your own research and decide for yourself :)!

Another article on Gelato in Bologna:

March 27, 2014

Edible Books Festival in Bologna

The International Edible Books Festival 2014 will take place in Bologna, Italy on April 1st. Every participant will present an edible "book", or something that represents a literary work in some way and includes words. In other words, a book to eat!

Several local chefs will present their edible books/works of art. Taste of Italy will present a cooked Bolognese lasagna (fresh pasta, Bolognese ragù, Parmigiano cheese and home made Bechamel sauce). The text on the lasagna reads: Spaghetti Bolognese does not exist. The idea came about to destroy the myth that Bolognese ragu' is served with spaghetti. Never! With spaghetti, the ragu' stays in the bottom of the dish. In Bologna we serve our namesake sauce with fresh noodles, tagliatelle, which holds the ragù so you actually get to eat the pasta with the sauce.

The highest bidder will take a one of a kind, edible piece of art home, just in time for dinner! All proceeds will go to help the Ruffilli Library in Bologna, Italy.

More details as to how this event came to be and why its held on April 1st can be found at

To participate in the event, Just follow the following link: Hope to see you there!

January 31, 2014

The Girl With the Pearl Earring in Bologna: A Report

Reported on February 9th.
What an impressive exhibition! This small exhibition has 36 fabulous paintings from Holland's Golden Age. There are examples from Dutch masters such as Rembrandt (4), Frans Hals, Ter Borch, Claesz, Van Goyen, Van Honthorst, Hobbema, Coorte, Van Ruisdael and Steen.

Exhibited are Vermeer's first first painting: Diana and her nymphs as well as Rembrandt's last work. Then there is Fabritius' beautiful Goldfinch. The master' s paintings demonstrate their mastery in painting light, fabric, skin, tiny details (see Steen's Girl with Oysters) and mastery in depicting gold ornate jewelry (see Hal's Portrait of Aletta Hanemans). All quite impressive.

Turns out that Vermeer's enigmatic The Girl with the Pearl Earring, painted in 1665, is not considered a portrait but was meant as a painting of an oriental girl. In fact, the painting's original title was the Girl With the Turban. 

File:Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) - The Girl With The Pearl Earring (1665).jpg
The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer (1665) 
I liked that most of the paintings were organized by theme in different rooms:  Portraits, Everyday life of ordinary people, still lives, the girl with pearl earring. The rooms were not numbered so you enter a main room with portraits, at the end go left to see the "everyday life" and later walk through the main room with portraits to see the still lives and from there you go to see "the girl." Listening to the audio guide was helpful and helped me avoid straining my eyes in the dark rooms.

Take your time going through because once you leave the last room with the Girl with the Pearl Earring you can't turn around. This is not written down anywhere and I witnessed a couple furiously fighting with the woman guarding the exit. The word exit "uscita" was posted outside the last room, not just inside the last room. So one would see it when it was too late. Plus the last room is incredibly dark, so be prepared or turn on your audio guide and skip reading.

Before you enter the exhibition, you must drop off your coat, purse and any other large items at the FREE deposit area. Then you can pick up audio guides. The shop is in the same area and I must say didn't have much of interest. I usually like to purchase the catalog but was disappointed with the printed quality of several favorite paintings in the book. I ended up purchasing postcards.

Another no-no is that none of the text by the paintings or about the period o the walls are in any language other than Italian. Big mistake! Not sure if the audio guides are available in English, please inquire. Considering that this is the only stop in Europe, the curator should have expected visitors from different parts of Europe (who don't speak Italian). That said, the paintings speak for themselves.
After touring the world for a year, this and 36 other paintings from Holland's Golden Age will be on exhibit in Bologna, the exhibit's only European stop from February 8th through May 25th, 2014 in Bologna's beautiful museum Palazzo Fava, via Manzoni 2.  The museum has organized another exhibition, Around Vermeer, with 25 contemporary Italian artists exhibiting works inspired by Vermeer. The Italian artists include Guccione, Sarnari, Raciti and Forgioli. This 2nd exhibit is on the floor above the main exhibition. No extra payment is necessary to view the second exhibit.
Tickets can be purchased here or directly at Palazzo Fava.
Linea d’Ombra
 tel. +39 0422 3095
fax +39 0422 309777

January 28, 2014

Jan 29 -31st : The Days of the Blackbird

Photo by Andreas Trepte,

I giorni della merla, "the days of the blackbird" refers to January 29th, 30th and 31st, and are supposed to be the coldest days of the year.

It is curious how this old Italian saying is still widely used in the local media and among Italian citizens, especially when we are close to the end of January. Will the giorni della merla be as cold as they are famously known for? This is what everyone seems wonder about, while they wait for the weatherman to make his predictions for this period. When the weatherman announces dropping temperatures and this year, snow, people seem to remember the legend that the nonni told them as children.

There are a couple of legends which explain why these 3 days are referred to as "the days of the blackbird"1.  
The first legend says that blackbirds (called merli in plural which makes no reference to their color) were once white. January consisted of 28 days while February had 31 days. Apparently one of these birds started chirping happily on January 28th, happy that cold January was finally over. January was so angry at the bird's behavior that it asked to borrow 3 days from February in which it unleashed snow, wind, freezing temperatures and rain. The bird hid in a chimney and when it came out it was black from the smoke. Blackbirds have been born black ever since.

A simpler version of this legends states that a female white bird, a merla, and her chicks hid in the chimney during the coldest days of January to stay warm and when they came out they were black from the smoke.

According to the legend, if the "days of the merla" are cold, the spring will be nice; if the 3 days are mild then spring will be late.

Note: Wikipedia, Giorni della Merla