An Italian adventure
By JOHN CARAFOLI 
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Because my interest is food, travel is a culinary adventure for me. I've been to Italy several times and the biggest lesson I've learned is that I can only make a very general plan of what I want to do and eat, because once I get there I see and taste everything in a new and exciting way. Rather than trying to fulfill my expectations, I find the best thing to do is to be adventurous enough to go where my instincts and heart take me.

 

After a seven-hour plane ride, my partner, John, and I arrived at our hotel in Bologna at 1 o'clock (7 o'clock in the morning, Cape Cod time.) We checked in, had lunch and took a casual walk, reacquainting ourselves again with the beautiful city. The next day was Saturday and we were off to the small town of Tarvanelle Val di Pesa in Tuscany, where the villa we had rented was waiting for us.

 

As we drove out of Bologna, I realized I had mislaid the directions to the villa, which was called Santa Lucia-Crema. I wasn't too worried — it was a small town; I had the name, a picture and a description of the house. What more would I need?

Well, it seems I needed a lot more.

 

Time to slow down

We arrived late morning in Tarvanelle Val di Pesa and managed to find the church, which was called Santa Lucia, but we couldn't find anyone who knew of Santa Lucia-Crema. After many frustrating hours we decided that the only thing to do was to get a hotel. John declared, ''This is NOT going to ruin our trip,'' and pulled out the 2005 Gambero Rosso, ViaggiarBene. It is the restaurant and hotel guide to Slow Food. Slow Food is a movement that began in Italy. Chefs are going back to food preparation using local, organic ingredients. It's starting to become popular here in the U.S. as well.

We found a restaurant called Osteria di Passignano, located in a former monastery high on a hill not far from where we were staying. The monastery is owned by the Antinori family, who also own all of the surrounding vineyards. The wines are aged in cellars under the monastery, so we accompanied our wonderful meal with wine by the glass and sampled several of the wonderful Chiantis and special wines of the area.

We spent two nights at the hotel, until Katia, the owner of Albergo Vittoria and Ristorante Borgo Antico where we where staying, did a thorough investigation and found Santa Lucia-Crema. She is now a new friend! Over the weekend we had driven by it at least six times. When we finally got to Santa Lucia-Crema, it was time to start enjoying our vacation. We unpacked and organized the kitchen. I laid my knives out on the kitchen counter and then went on a shopping adventure in our temporary hometown.

 

Finding food

With my broken Italian, a few wrong words, and hand gestures I found fresh pasta, porcini mushrooms fresh homemade sausage, broccoli rabe, breads from the bakery, wonderful olive oil, a Crème di Tartuffo (cream of truffles), and wine from the local producers. I bought everything, brought it to our new home, and set it on the counter, wondering how my cooking was going to taste with all these fresh local Italian ingredients.

As I started to cook, the aromas filled the house. When we sat down to eat, I was surprised and amazed at the extraordinary flavors, which seemed to leap off the plates. At home I sometimes have a similar experience during the summer months when I get produce from my own garden and local farm stands. Italians have it year-round.

Each day was another adventure into the Italian lifestyle. Cappuccino on our patio with a cornetto, visits to the smaller surrounding towns, an outdoor lunch in the piazza in Siena. We spent a day visiting San Gimigano, a very beautiful ancient village filled with tourists, even in mid-winter. We took a trip to Florence for lunch with our new friends Jan and Roberto Martini. Jan is an American and was a producer on ''Saturday Night Live'' during its heyday. She's lived in Italy for 25 years with Roberto, her Italian husband. Talking to them gave me another perspective of what it would be like to live in Italy.

 

Heading home

Before we knew it we were on our way back to Bologna for a few days before catching the plane back home. But first, of course, a few more good meals, including one at Trattoria Anna Maria. It was a lively place at lunch or dinner. Lace curtains decorated the windows and autographed photos of famous opera singers covered the walls. What could be a better combination then food and music? The menu consisted of typical northern Italian dishes: roast rabbit, guinea fowl, tripe with beans, or tortellini with ragu.

One special of the day caught my eye, sausage with cardoons. Cardoons are a late-winter early-spring specialty and usually found in our grocery stores around this time. They are a cross between an artichoke and celery and look like a giant bunch of wide celery. I saw them everywhere but did not have the opportunity to cook with them. Following is a recipe that I developed when I arrived home. And what would visiting Bologna be without a good Ragu alla Bolognese? This was served in the lasagna John had. I have included my version below.

Think about eating

Looking back on the adventures and dining experiences I had in Italy I realize how different our eating habits are here in the U.S. In Italy, you know where the food comes from. Whether it is a single artichoke bought in the local outdoor market or meat purchased from the macelleria everything is fresh, local, and, for the most part, organic. In the U.S. most of our meat products are mass-produced and much of what we purchase in the grocery stores is processed. It makes me question what the chefs are doing with food in this county, not only with Italian American food but food in general.

Many American chefs are adventurous but have an overabundance of culinary ambition. I personally do not like overly complicated food: By that, I mean dishes that try too hard and have too many ingredients. I have always said, give me a good roasted free-range chicken, but do it well.

We have to alter our thinking about the food we eat. Aligning ourselves with the Slow Food movement here in this county is a good start. This awareness and education could start with responsible restaurant chefs, the cooks in the home and then, hopefully, it will change the tastes of the American public. Let's take a lesson from our Italian neighbors and be adventurous by taking a positive approach. Let's do slow food, not fast food.

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Most good produce markets can get you cardoons this time of year. The one I got was grown in California. They also make a wonderful vegetable side dish tossed with butter, salt and pepper.

Sausage with Cardoons

2 cups cut up cardoons

1 pound Italian sausage, cut into 1/2- to 2-inch pieces

1 medium onion, chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

To prepare cardoons, rinse head well and discard any discolored outer stalks. Trim base, tips and outermost stalks, removing strings from stalks as you would celery.

Cut crosswise into 1- to 2-inch lengths. Soak in salted water (1 tablespoon salt to 2 quarts water) several hours or overnight in refrigerator. Drain and simmer in water until tender — about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a 10-inch iron skillet. Add the sausage and sauté until brown. Add the onions and sauté until they start to brown, then add the white wine, cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Mix the tomato paste with the chicken stock and add to the sausage-onion mixture. Add the cardoons, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Serve with good Italian bread for dunking and a Chianti Classico. Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a first course.

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When you are making this ragu, it is important to building the sauce by adding each ingredient and cooking it so the flavors meld and blend together.

Ragu alla Bolognese Style

4 ounces fresh pork or fatback, finely diced

2 medium-sized onions, finely diced (about 1 cup)

1 medium-sized carrot, finely diced

1 celery stalk with leaves, finely chopped

12 ounces lean ground beef (chuck is good)

12 ounces ground pork or sweet Italian sausage mixture, preferably without fennel and spices

Large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 can (28 to 35 ounces) whole tomatoes, preferably imported Italian San Marzano

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh oregano

4 tablespoons coarsely chopped Italian parsley

1 or 2 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup half-and-half or light cream

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the chopped fatback in a large (6- to 8-quart) heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the chopped bits are golden brown and all the fat has rendered out.

Remove and discard the pork bits, leaving the clear melted fat. Add the chopped onions, carrot, and celery. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent.

Add 1/4 cup of the white wine and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high; add the ground beef and pork and sauté, stirring continuously, until the meat is lightly browned.

Drain off and discard any excess fat.

Add the nutmeg, garlic, and remaining wine. Mix the tomato paste with the chicken stock and stir into the meat mixture. Add the basil, oregano, parsley, thyme, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and quickly reduce the heat to very low. Simmer, partly covered, for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

In a small saucepan, warm the half-and-half to a little more than lukewarm and set it where it will stay warm without boiling. When the meat mixture has cooked for about 1 hour, stir in about 1 to 2 tablespoons of the warmed half-and-half: again partly cover the pan and let summer as before.

Continue stirring in the half-and-half in the same way, about 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, roughly 20-minutes intervals until it is used up.

Remove the thyme and bay leaf; taste the sauce for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Makes about 2 quarts.

(Published: May 4, 2005)