Caffé Desiderio

Italy take two is a blog I started writing just over a year ago, highlighting my families trials and triumphs of moving to Florence, Italy for a year. I am conflicted on many levels, as our year has come to an end. On one hand I am happy to go back to Australia and re-start my life of cooking, seeing friends, walking on sandy beaches and enjoying the Sydney lifestyle, while on the other hand I am sorry to see life as I have known it for the past year being wound up and put away as a memory of the past.

The boys and I flew back to Australia a week ago and I find myself sitting at my parents’ home in Tasmania by the heater on this cold winters day, looking out over the hills of Launceston and thinking to myself…I have so much more to say about our life in Florence, places to tell future travellers about and photos I want to share. So while I am now back in the land of Oz, I want to dedicate the next few posts to the favourite places and spaces I have grown to love about my year living in the Tuscan hills in a small village called Ponte a Mensola.

A beautiful summers evening

A beautiful summers evening

Food as many regular readers will know, is one of my favourite topics to photograph and talk about. It doesn’t have to be the latest gourmet meal I’ve eaten or a restaurant that’s in all the travel magazines, it just has to be good, honest food that tantalizes taste buds and makes you want to get in the kitchen and cook, or at the very least be cooked for.

Caffé Desiderio is situated in the small town of Settignano (take the number 10 bus all the way to the last stop) and was the place we chose to have our last family meal together. The owners, Michele and his lovely wife, are wonderful hosts, who are extremely welcoming and have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to Tuscan food and wine. Not only can they cook delicious, traditional Tuscan food, but they also source the highest quality ingredients that make even the simplest of dishes taste divine. I have eaten at Caffé Desiderio a few times throughout the year and have always looked forward to a return visit. It is here that I must mention Michele’s unique understanding of Italian wines. His wine list is big and bold; and for anyone who thinks they know about Italian wine he is the man you need to meet. Michele speaks beautiful English and can stand by your table for hours talking about how each bottle was crafted. For our last night we lashed out on a beautiful 2010 Barolo that Michele paired with our meal and with each sip it kept opening to new levels as the night went on.

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We started our meal with a selection of antipasti to wet any carnivore’s palette: cured meats, pickled vegetables, delicious marinated prunes to accompany the fennel-studded salami (so, so good!), just to name a few. It’s about now that you wish your kids didn’t have a developing palette and empty bellies, alas we did share and they loved every last bite, especially the cured meats.

Antipasti

Antipasti

Now I could talk about every dish with glee, however, I think you should just go and experience it for yourself and enjoy the wonderful selection they have on offer. The menu changes regularly and there are often wine and food nights for a set price. You can checkout Caffé Desiderio’s Facebook page for up and coming events and you might even be lucky enough to try the donkey ragu pasta Max spotted on the menu the night we dined.

I  have to admit I was a little stunned that he was so intrigued to eat donkey; however, I was also wondering what the flavour was going to be like…

Donkey pasta

Donkey pasta

It was delicious, morish and reminded me of wild boar a little. Max devoured it before I could take a second bite and then tried to eat my delicious, robustly flavoured tomato pasta! It was here that I pulled out the promise of dessert!

I’d like to tell you I have photos of the créme caramel and cassata cake, however, I was too busy polishing off a plate of eggs served with chorizo and lardon that tasted as if there was a party in my mouth. It is here I leave you with a photo of the lovely Michele himself and (hopefully) an eager desire to pop Cafe Desiderio on your list of ‘places to eat’ when you arrive in Florence, I can promise you, you won’t be disappointed…oh and FYI they make the best coffee too!

Michele

Michele

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Day trip to Pisa

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Alex adjusting the bell tower

One of the best things about living in a European country is the fact you can do ‘day trips’ without the travelling taking up 90% of your time. If you have ever been to Australia and wanted to ‘get out of town’ for the day, the travel side of things always seems to be longer and more painful than the actual ‘trip’.

I wanted to take a leisurely trip to Pisa with the boys, reasons being;

a) It really is just an hour up the road (on the train)

b) I know we have been before when Alex was younger, but he really didn’t remember it and I wanted him to see it again

c) I love this beautiful little town with its relaxed atmosphere, vibrant student buzz and of course the food…I have never had a bad meal here

Last Saturday the sun was shining without a cloud in the sky so we decided to jump on the bus and head to the train station for a relaxing stroll around Pisa. I know the city gets lots of attention and I myself love to look at the leaning bell tower, walk on the ever-so-green grass surrounding the cathedral and bell tower. But what is most wonderful about this town is the fact that tourists (I’m really talking about the hoards you see in big groups like in Florence) make a bee line to the bell tower, a bee line to a couple of other churches, then hightail it on out of there leaving Pisa’s beautiful streets free for you to wander around without being crushed to death by a pack of Germans/English/Japanese or whoever tourists.

Now I am sure there are 101 things to do and see in Pisa, however, whenever I go all I want to do is wander the streets, look in shop windows, lay on the grass and eat, so here are a few snaps I took to inspire the more relaxed visitor/tourist and also to pass on a great place for lunch!

This is the first time I have seen this beautiful building without scaffolding- a treat!

This is the first time I have seen this beautiful building without scaffolding- a treat!

I couldn’t believe it when we were crossing the river, one of the boys piped up and said ‘Don’t you think this looks like Florence?’ Ummm NO!

The Arno in Pisa

The Arno in Pisa

I also love going to Palazzo della Carovana which was built-in 1562-1564 by Giorgio Vasari. It is a great feeling to stand in this large, open piazza and take yourself back to another period in time. They just don’t make buildings like this anymore.

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It was about this time when I needed a rest from strolling and to feel the grass (I found out later that I had strep throat on this weekend, so now I know why I wasn’t feeling in top form!)

Get mum!!!

Get mum!!!

Nic has been to Pisa several times and was telling me about this one trattoria he went to that had great, flavoursome food and was run by women. We walked past it on our way to the bell tower and I loved the small square it was on, so we decided to lunch at Al Signor Mimmo, situated on via Cavalca, 44. This is an address you will want to write down before you arrive in Pisa!

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We started lunch with the caponata (a sweet/sour eggplant, caper, vegetable dish). This is one of my all time favourite ways to eat eggplant and I have to say this was one of the BEST caponatas I have eaten…even the boys got stuck in, much to Nic and my disappointment.

Caponata

Caponata

We all decided on pasta for lunch and were not disappointed. Nic had spaghetti with breadcrumbs and anchovies (it was awesome) while I couldn’t go past the medley of seafood with cavatelli. The seafood was super fresh and the pasta cooked to perfection, not to mention the flavour of the sauce it was tossed through. I was in heaven and I have to say, it takes a lot for me to say that when it comes to seafood pasta as I have had some pretty ordinary ones in my time…this was DIVINE!

Perfect pasta

Perfect pasta

While Nic and I were busy with the seafood end of things, the boys both jumped on the cinghiale bandwagon. They know we are running out of days when they will be able to order wild boar pasta so they did not hesitate when they saw it on the menu. I tried to bribe Max for a taste but he refused, thank goodness Alex loves mussels otherwise I might not have got a taste, it was VERY good!

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Alex thinking, how am I going to keep mum and dad away from my bowl?

Desserts were all home-made and looked delicious; however, we finished  our meal with an espresso and decided to meander on back to the train station with our full bellies and fond memories of this beautiful town.

Tips for Pisa:

Arrive before lunch (no stress if you take the train)

Walk on the grass around by the cathedral, costs nothing but brings you great joy

Walk off the beaten track where the streets curve round and people say buongiorno to you

Go to Al Signor Mimmo for lunch and don’t fill up on the deliciously morish salted fried bread when you first sit down because it only gets better

Successo coniglio

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When I go out for dinner here in Italy there are two ingredients I usually hunt down on the menu coniglio (rabbit) and carciofo (artichoke). These are two ingredients I don’t cook with a lot…and if I am really honest I would tell you I had never cooked coniglio, until last night. Artichokes are always classed as ‘a lot of effort’, I’ll make them on a day off or I’ll just eat them out. I am not sure why I have such an aversion toward them but I am guessing it is because I was never shown what to do with them as an apprentice. It wasn’t until I came to Italy, had a ton of time up my sleeve and kept looking at them in abundance at the store that I finally decided I’d give them a smashing red hot go…THANK GOD! So far I have boiled, roasted, made risotto, blanched and marinated them, and every time I try something new it works!

I learned one of life’s lessons with artichokes: they look scary and difficult but if you tinker around with them and have an open mind, you soon work out they are pretty easy to work with, taste amazing fresh and have loads of different cooking methods to explore.

Rabbit on the other hand was a different story and like most things I rant about there is an actual story to this as well. It goes back to when I was a little girl living in Darwin with my family and dad offering to cook dinner one night: ‘Mum used to make the best rabbit,’ he said. ‘I’m pretty sure I can remember what she did…’ Famous last words.

Now I was only very young but this memory has stuck in my mind to this day, you see that was one of the only dinners I can recall when I said I just wanted to go to bed (and skip dinner). ‘NO’ were my dad’s words and then something along the lines of: ‘I’ve worked all bloody day on this sauce, and you will eat it!!’

With that said and a look of ‘geez girls, not much longer’ from my mum, dinner was finally served to us around 10pm. It was rabbit with a beautiful sauce (I don’t remember the sauce, only mum’s instance the sauce really was good). The rabbit was inedible, tough as old boots, you couldn’t even stick your fork in it. Tarsh and I ended up going to bed without any dinner after all.

The years after this episode were haunted by the thought of no dinner (I ate everything, all the time) and eating boots. I was never going to eat rabbit again. Thankfully at some stage in my life, not sure when, I was reinstated with a new found love of rabbit. I love it! Can’t get enough of it when eating out, however, I was never game to try and cook it myself because I had years of dad saying, “I don’t know what happened? When mum made it, it melted in your mouth”

I was not about to suffer the same fate as my dad so I decided to just ignore it…and then Max found a fondness for coniglio. When we first arrived in Italy he was shopping with me at the Coop and spotted the coniglio. “Oh mum, rabbit! lets have some for dinner tonight,” he said and started to toss a packet in the trolley. “Umm, no I don’t think the oven is big enough for rabbit Max, let me go home and make sure”

Pathetic I know but there was no way I was going to fail at cooking rabbit when we both loved it so much. We have now been here a little over 7 months, eaten lots of coniglio and I have been thinking…

It wasn’t until I had a dream the other night, in which I was making a rabbit braise with white wine, lots of garlic and serving it with mash potato that I decided enough was enough, I’m going to make a rabbit dish.

OH MY GIDDY AUNT!

I cannot tell you how delicious it was AND it was not tough (silent cheer from the crowd). Dad I am sorry to bring this up after all these years but there was a story to tell as to why I never cooked rabbit and finally I can put this chapter to bed. This rabbit tasted so delicious I can now see quite a few coniglio dishes garnishing our table. I did look up quite a few recipes and thought I would go with one from Saveur magazine, however, I forgot to pick up the bacon and didn’t have the right beer in the fridge so I decided I’d follow my dream instead. There is no recipe, just a method so if your game grab a pen and paper and jot this down because it is a winner.

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Flouring the rabbit

I am not sure how it is anywhere else, however, you can buy rabbit here all ready cut up into bite size pieces (nice). Some I made a little smaller just so it would go around the four of us. Once I was happy with the size I threw a bit of plain flour, salt and pepper over the pieces and lightly coated them in flour and then browned them in a frying pan until golden (approx. 6 min). Once the pieces were all browned I added them to a baking dish with fresh, whole cherry tomatoes (about 8 of them). I wanted fresh cherry tomatoes instead of using tomato paste because I was after a light, Spring flavour instead of a heavy wintery one. Once that was done I then sauteed diced onion, celery, carrot and parsley in the frying pan with a whole bulb of garlic just cut in half and thrown in.

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Bringing the wine and stock to a boil

Once I was happy with the veggies it was time to add a good slosh of white wine (approx. 3/4 cup) and then same again of vegetable stock. Once this was brought to the boil I then added a good chunk of butter (approx. 2 tablespoons) and then poured the wine, veggie mix all over the coniglio and whole tomatoes so it was just covering.

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Covering the rabbit and cherry tomatoes with wine, stock and veggies

I then covered it with baking paper and foil, popped it in a 180 degree oven (on fan) and cooked it for 40 minutes. Once it was cooked I then removed the foil and added a tin of fagioli cannellini, mixed those in, tested the seasoning and adjusted it then re-covered it with paper and foil and left it until I needed it that evening (it rested for about 5 hours).

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Adding of the fagiolli

I took Max to basketball practice that evening and when we came home, I popped the rabbit back into a hot 180-degree oven without a lid and let it reheat for a further 30 minutes while I made a pot of creamy mash potatoes. The house smelt fantastic and had me praying for success. 

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Spring rabbit with bursts of roast cherry tomatoes

Max was the first to offer up his approval and then Nic and Alex followed suit- I could breathe! The meat was tender, juices were mouthwatering and the effort very minimal. I will make this dish again and then some. I loved how the tomatoes kept their shape and then burst their sweet flavour into your bowl when pierced with a knife. 

So there you have it, living in Italy has taught me to stop being scared of two items I have kept out of my food repertoire for the past 20 odd years. What have you been avoiding because it all looks a bit hard? Reward is in the game of chance, especially when it tastes as good as the rabbit!

 

Apple pies and a hectic social calendar

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I am happy to report it has been a very hectic, fun and fabulous week…..actually make that two weeks!

I have decided this little slice of Italy would have to be one of the most social places I have ever lived and that isn’t a bad thing. Last week we were out 5 nights out of the week’s seven.  We have had our wonderful friends over from Chicago who never cease to amaze me and have come to visit us where ever it is that we end up. We met this beautiful family when we first arrived in Chicago about 11 years ago and since then K and C have come to visit us in Virginia, Italy, Australia and Italy once more. C and Max became best of friends at the ripe age of 1 and a bit, and haven’t looked back ever since. Each time we see them, Max and C pick up where they last left off- priceless!

With our US connection in town and the wonderful people we have met while living in the village (Italian and non Italian) we had more dinner dates than you can poke a stick at. My good friend E was single parenting all last week while her hubby was doing business back in the States so Nic and I thought we would break up the week and have dinner with her and her girls. The boys love hanging out with the girls as they are like the older brothers…..seriously, they have been asking me for a sister for years so I have been telling them to enjoy little Miss P (age 3) because that is the closest they’re getting to having their own! So far they are happy with that and I think Miss P is also.

E was going to cook us a beautiful dinner and I thought I should at least bring dessert seeing as she wouldn’t let me do anything else. At first I was just going to go to the bakery and buy some mini pastries but then I thought that was a bit of a cop-out so I decided to make some mini-apple pies at the last moment.

I have to tell you this was a bit of an experiment as I bought some pastry that I wasn’t to sure what it tasted like and secondly I was wondering how I was going to put it all together in my funny little kitchen (hence the bought pastry!).

There were no amazing new ideas about the apples, I just peeled about 4, cut them into a dice and threw them into a pot with about half a cup of water, 1/4 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and a tablespoon of butter then put them on to boil.

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As they were boiling I was then looking and thinking I was a fool  because I didn’t actually have a thickening agent (corn starch) and how the hell was I going to make pies with something so wet??! Of course I looked through my cupboard knowing there was nothing there and that was when it hit me: what about polenta? It made sense, it would thicken the apple mixture and if I used the ‘quick’ polenta it would work almost as fast as corn starch (of course this was important because I still wanted chunks of apple in the pies, not just mush). I had nothing else to work with so I thought I would give it a shot.

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I started with a couple of tablespoons and that wasn’t doing much so I added a little more polenta until I just saw it starting to thicken. With a few stirs of the wooden spoon I was starting to get a little bit excited…..this could actually work! The boys were standing at the door wanting to eat what ever was cooking, however, I needed the apples to cool and to dash off to basketball so I had to wait until I got home to see what the end result was like.

At first I was worried all you would taste is the polenta but because I only used it as a thickening agent it wasn’t overwhelming at all and the lovely apple and cinnamon flavour came to the front. I was a little bit excited….again!!!

With the mixture cool and a great consistency I started making the pies. My new gelato bowls came in handy as the rims are the perfect size to cut out the pastry rounds.

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Once the tops were on I just egg washed them, sprinkled over some cane sugar and then popped them in the oven for 20 minutes, until they were golden brown.

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We gobbled them up and I was really happy with the end result, so happy in fact, I made another batch and took them to dinner with our Chicago friends and I figure if I can feed polenta and apple pies to Americans with a tick of approval then I am pretty happy with my new polenta and apple pie recipe.

Has anyone else tried this before?