The Spice Necklace Blog

Ann's Blog

Toronto, Canada:
October 8, 2012:
La dolce vita:
Eating up Italy

We’re just back from a “big-birthday” (mine) trip to northern Italy, and I’m thinking about pasta, artichokes, octopus…and my dad. Though Mom taught me the pleasure of cooking, Dad taught me the pleasure of eating. He loved good food, and would try almost anything (except pork) without passing judgment before tasting it – whatever the main ingredient or however dubious the appearance of the dish. I remember a childhood Christmas when we were visiting my Aunt Gerry: Her neighbor Grace, an excellent cook of traditional Italian dishes, sent a plate of octopus across the street for Dad. This was so not the sort of food my mother cooked.

The octopus was delivered by one of Grace’s daughters, who was about my age (10 or 11). Setting it on the table, she demonstrated how she could pick up the plate with a fork: She pressed down on the tentacles of Dad’s snack, so the suckers attached firmly to the plate, then stuck in the fork and lifted. I was entranced…and revolted. Dad dug in and pronounced it delicious. He was a foodie decades before the word entered the dictionary.

In addition to being an ardent food lover, Dad was a lifelong NY Giants fan. Here, wearing a Giants jersey, he sits in front of his house in a seat from the old Meadowlands stadium. (The seats were a 90th-birthday gift from his nieces and nephews.)
Dad couldn’t get me to try octopus that year, but at some point he did (only by example, not by urging), and I too fell in love with it. Ditto the stuffed artichokes (an alien veg in our household in the early 60s) and the baccalà with olives that our own neighbour, Ann Zarriella (another excellent cook of traditional Italian dishes), always sent next door for Dad. Both octopus (“seacat” in the Caribbean) and baccalà (“saltfish”) eventually became part of my own repertoire, and are favorite dishes on Receta. Dad passed away this summer – the main reason for my silence in this blog for several months – which is why I’ve been thinking about how much he was responsible for my own foodie passion. Which got an unforgettable workout as we ate our way through Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and part of the Veneto in September.
Dad and I, on his 90th birthday. He passed away
this summer at the age of 92.
In old Mantova, for instance, following the route described in my new favourite food book, Fred Plotkin’s Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, we walked along the Via delle Pescherie (Street of the Fishermen) and poked our noses into the one remaining fish market. In addition to all manner of beautifully displayed raw seafood, there was a long case of prepared dishes – including a gorgeous carpaccio di polipo, octopus carpaccio.
Carpaccio di Polipo from Mantova tasted as good as it looked
We bought a few slices to try, but before we left the shop, Steve insisted I find out how to prepare polipo this way. Fortunately, one of the young men behind the counter spoke more English than I spoke Italian (I know only scattered words, and – surprise – most of them relate to food). They boil the octopus, he explained, then pack it into a tall yogurt-style plastic container with olive oil, herbs, and spices. Weight it down and chill, to give it time to marinate and take on the fat salami-like shape. Remove from the container and slice thinly. If Steve has his way, I’m going to be making “carpaccio of seacat” as soon as we cross paths with an octopus in the Caribbean this winter.
Window-shopping in Padova
And then there was the eye-opening fresh pasta. The long thick strands of dense, chewy bigoli (the word literally means “worms,” which nicely describes their appearance), topped with rich duck sauce. The agnolotti al plin, light little stuffed pasta pillows, pinched closed (plin means “pinch”) and sauced only with butter and a few leaves of fresh sage. Oh, my. I’ll let these photos tell the tale of other pasta dishes. Dad would have loved them all.
Agnolotti with shaved black truffle had us swooning at La Torre in Cherasco
Making fettucine under the watchful eyes of two local chefs in the kitchen of the rental villa south of Verona we were sharing with 11 friends
The result – before it was cooked (just a couple minutes in the pot)
and topped with duck sauce
Back to top

Sign up to be notified by email when I post a new blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code

HTML tags are not allowed.