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

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Carciofi e pecorino risotto

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Carciofi risotto prep

Living in Italy over the winter months is a wonderful eye opener for people who like to cook seasonally. I love being in a country where seasonal produce is abundant, in-your-face and cheap. Don’t get me wrong Australia has all the same foods, however, you also have a regular stock of summer, spring and autumn produce that can at times be cheaper than the in season fruit and veg and that can be really annoying. 

The vegetable I am thinking of when living in Italy in the winter months is carciofi (artichokes). They are everywhere you look bundled up in bunches of 4-5 for 2 euro a bunch…I cannot remember buying them that cheap in Sydney in winter or am I wrong Sydneysiders? Have I forgotten?

I love eating artichokes and this month I have loved experimenting with them in the kitchen (when they are this cheap you don’t mind making the odd mistake, it’s when they’re 2 euro each that you start to treat them like gold!). I had a couple of carciofi left over from a previous meal and they had been in the fridge for longer than I thought was a good idea. Fortunately, they were super fresh when I bought them so the extra few days in my fridge (instead of on the back of a truck being transported from one end of the country to another) didn’t seem to matter. 

I was in the mood for a risotto and I’d had a craving for anchovies too, however, when I suggested to the boys we have an artichoke, anchovy and pecorino risotto for dinner I got more than a few curled lips and ‘Oh come on mum, that doesn’t sound good at all!’. To be fair, if I told Alex I was making a chicken risotto with beans and candied bacon he would of asked for all the toppings without the rice because he hates the texture! I don’t get it. Anyway I wanted to try it out, Nic was excited so I pulled a couple pieces of lasagne from the freezer that I’d made the week before and decided I’d reheat a meal for them and cook a delicious one for us. Everyone was happy.

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Once the carciofi are stripped down to the tender leaves and the stem is lightly peeled leave them in cold water with half a lemon squeezed into the water to stop the carciofi turning a dirty brown colour. After the onion is chopped finely and the garlic thinly sliced, saute the onion with butter (not very Tuscan but very yummy and risotto isn’t Tuscan anyway) on a low heat until transparent.

Whack the temp up to medium and then add chopped carciofi, garlic, a good pinch of salt and two roughly chopped white anchovies for added richness (of course not necessary if you hate anchovies!). The smells are wonderfully sweet and savoury you could just eat it as is.

After the carciofi has been coated in the buttery onion, garlic and anchovy flavours add risotto rice and stir to heat up the rice while the vegetable stock is simmering on the stove top (approx 2 min).

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Adding of the rice

It is important to warm the rice before you add the stock because once the addition of liquid happens the rice activates immediately and the cooking process begins- warm rice, hot stock equals a perfect start to cooking a great risotto. Now there are a million different opinions on how to cook risotto and I am not here to tell you this is the only way to do it. I am not one to stand over the risotto pan and stir and stir until my arm is about to fall off. The approach I take is more for the cook who has to do more than three things at once: add a generous amount of stock to the rice, stir to stop the rice sticking on the bottom of the pan, make sure it is on a steady boil (though not going crazy) and then walk away to do something else. Stir occasionally in the beginning yet keep an eye on it so it doesn’t run low on stock. Taste the rice grain for ‘bite’ and then top up the liquid as needed. Once your happy with the bite of the rice (meaning it is cooked to your liking), stir a few times then take it off the heat and add very generous amounts of grated cheese, in this case I used a local pecorino (An aged pecorino has a much sharper taste which pairs beautifully with the fresh flavour of carciofi, parmesan is also lovely, however, it has more of a creamy flavour).

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Risotto almost finished, just folding in the cheese

A lot of tasting gets done at this point; fold in the cheese, add some fresh thyme, check the seasoning, maybe add a little more cheese (can never have to much) and then serve.

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Carciofi e pecorino risotto with white anchovies

I loved the flavours in this dish and the texture of fresh carciofi is a million times better than anything you get in a can, so if you see a bunch of carciofi at your fruit and veggie shop this winter and you have never bought it before, take the plunge. Buy it and make a delicious, heart-warming risotto, it’s really not as hard as you think.

Note: I hate that the photos are not bright and full of colour, however, I photograph at the time I need the dish and evening light really isn’t the best for food photography, I apologise.