An Italian Family Dinner

As mentioned in my previous post, we met our friend Simone our first week in Ascoli Piceno and ever since he has been our tour guide, companion, and family. In Italy, family is a very important construct. The culture accepts those from every generation at every function. At three in the morning celebrating the victory of their neighborhood in the Quintana, I was with people from the age 12 to 70. It is much different from the American culture where during get togethers we tend to stick to those in our age groups. In Italy, there is no divide between generations, everyone is capable of talking to those of any age.

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Simone’s parents own a small cheese shop right off of the main piazza, Piazza del Popolo, called Casa del Parmigiano. They sell everything from their homemade sauces, cured meats, pickled vegetables, and cheeses, to dried pastas and breads. When we first met Simone, we did not realize that we already had met his parents. He invited us into his home for a home-cooked Italian meal by his parents. Our first course was the famous olive all’ascolana, which homemade are a whole different monster. Lightly coated in flour and breadcrumbs and friend in olive oil, this olive all’ascolana dish was much lighter than those I’ve had in restaurants. Simone’s parents, sister, and Simone himself spent hours in the kitchen before our arrival making the entire meal. We were seated in the dining room and they did not sit to join us, but instead continued to cook and insisted that we began eating. The second course was another classic ascolani dish, pasta with tuna and olives in a red sauce. Not being much of a fish fan, I was weary of the dish, but after tasting it realized how well the flavors blend together. The final course, and the largest, was about 5 varieties of homemade pizza. There was spicy salami, caramelized onion, porcini, speck, vegetable, and sausage pizzas. His mother brought out two massive trays of pizza, and we were not shy about finishing both. Each devouring at least 6 slices, she ran into the kitchen to grab another tray. Of course this was followed with “mangia, mangia”. I essentially had to be rolled out of their house. The meal was completed with a frizzy red wine as well as a rosado wine. To end the meal, of course espresso was served.

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The overwhelming hospitality of the Zunica family made me feel so at home in a country so far away. Creating a home away from home in Ascoli Piceno has become a much easier task to conquer than I ever thought possible.

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Friends with Meat are Friends Indeed

One thing that has really made my experience in Ascoli Piceno unique is making friends with someone who was born and raised here. The ability to be shown around by a local completely changes how you see the city. I was lucky enough to have met Simone my very first week in Ascoli Piceno, and he has become a friend to all of us. Earlier this week, Simone took us to his work, at a deli, to allow us to taste different Italian meats and cheeses. 

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The very first week of this trip I was given the nickname “Meatka” (a combination of meat and Mika) for my love of cured meats. I’ve strived to have cured meat everyday and successfully have not gotten sick of it. Simone showed us an array of deli meats and cheeses including, prosciutto crudo (cured), prosciutto cotto (cooked), mortadella, salami picante (spicy salami), and two different types of pecorino cheeses. Thinly sliced each meat seemed to melt in your mouth. I had never tried mortadella before, and when it was described to me as a bologna, I must say I was not very intrigued to try it. My mantra for this trip was to keep an open mind and try every single thing that is offered to me, so I tried the white speckled meat with chunks of pistachio in it and I was pleasantly surprised. Definitely heavier in fat with a more oily texture, it was a lot more mild and less salty than I imagined it would be. The two variations of pecorino cheese included one that was purely sheep’s milk and one that was a mixture of sheep and cow’s milk. The flavor was sharp and salty and tasted as if it would be perfect grated on top of some ravioli con porcini, one of my favorite pasta dishes here. Getting a VIP tasting from the expert himself cut out the hassle of having to book a tour of a deli and the comfort of allowing us to try basically whatever we wanted to!

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Vino, Vino, Vino

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It is widely known that a dream of mine is to work on a vineyard. I aspire to one day establish a career in wine sales, and I think there is no way to better know your product than to work hands on in production. Visiting a vineyard in Italy for a wine tasting was an amazing experience. The vineyard we visited is called Le Caniette, a family owned operation run by a 4th generation winemaker. The vineyard grows 4 varieties of grape for their winemaking, two varieties for the white: Passerina and Pecorino, and two varieties for the red: Montepulciano and Sangiovese. During the tour of the vineyard, we were given a run down of his processes surrounded by oak barrels of wine. The main lesson we walked away with is that the quality of the wine lies in the quality of the grapes and the vines themselves. The soil dictates the flavor. 

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We were lucky enough to be able to taste 4 different wines: 3 whites and 1 red. The first we tasted is called Lucrezia, and is made from the Passerina variety, the second is called Veronica, and is made from the Pecorino variety. The third white we tasted was also a Pecorino variety called Io Sono Gaia, and was classified as a DOCG, the highest classification of wine in Italy. The last wine we tasted was a Rosso Piceno called Morellone, made from 70% Montepulciano grapes and 30% Sangiovese grapes. Usually being one who prefers white wine over red, I must say that my gripe with red wine has ended after tasting the wines in Italy. The complexity of the flavors and the warm spicy notes made it very hard to dislike. It was impossible to walk away without purchasing two bottles for myself, which I will greedily hoard at my apartment when I leave this paradise.

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The Many Flavors of Limoncello

The last day of our Amafli Coast trip was to the ruins of Pompeii. We had the option of a guided tour, a self-guided tour, or to stay on the outskirts of the ruins and poke around the shops, stands, and restaurants. A group of us decided we had seen enough ruins and gone on enough guided tours in our time in Italy so far, so we decided to seek other activities. We discovered Domus Pompeiana, the limoncello factory in Pompeii.

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You are immediately greeted by a free sample of limoncello, and then another, and yet another. Little did I know that limoncello doesn’t come in only it’s yellow, sweet form, but there are many types of limoncello. We had the opportunity to taste crema di limoncello, melon limoncello, the classic limoncello, and, my personal favorite, chocolate limoncello.

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Each variety had a distinct taste to it. The crema di limoncello was a bit milder, the melon limoncello entirely too sweet for my liking, and the chocolate limoncello gave the perfect balance. Limoncello originates from the Amalfi Coast region, though I’ve realized that each region I have been to in Italy has been very proud of their own limoncello recipes. From the alps down to Ascoli, I have been lucky enough to try each one. Though I must say, the limoncello on the Amalfi Coast has taken it to an art. Walking around, it is clear to see why. The lemons grown in the area are absolutely massive! 

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Away to Amalfi

Back in May when the anticipation was still high to leave for Italy, a group of us on the trip decided to book a Bus2Alps tour of the Amalfi Coast. Kind of a “last hoorah” for the those in the nutrition program, we booked it for the last weekend all 24 of us would be together. As the weeks flew by like seconds, suddenly our “vacation” had arrived. After a hectic bus ride to Rome to barely catch our bus to Sorrento, we all crashed at the hotel and awaited our 6:45am wakeup call to depart for the beautiful island of Capri. Being boated around the island of Capri for two hours, there are barely words to describe it. Pictures do no justice to the beauty that we got to experience first hand. About half way through our tour we were given the option to swim in the Blue Grotto, which of course I jumped at. We were transferred into boats with 3 other people to be brought into the cave. The experience, though short, was well worth it. The glowing waters from the natural light encased you in the strangest and most comfortable way.

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 After a tour of Capri we were bussed up to Anacapri, the area above Capri that overlooks the entire island. The most student friendly (aka cheapest) option for returning to Capri from Anacapri was to take a series of staircases down. This process took a chunk of time and leg muscle to conquer, but ultimately the views were worth the pain. After a night of decompressing we spent the day in Positano, the most breathtakingly beautiful portion of the weekend trip. The picture perfect colored houses seemed stacked upon each other on the side of the hill. Definitely not handicap friendly, the staircases winded down towards the beach. Black sand allowed for optimum tanning ability. We spent the day in Positano finally having the chance to decompress. No school work was mentioned and we allowed ourselves to fully enjoy the natural beauty we were in. First things first, we decided renting a boat for 10 would be the most effective way to spend our time in Positano. Our boat driver first took us to magnificent caves that we were allowed to jump off the boat and swim in, and then to small cliffs where we were allowed to climb and jump off of. The experience is one that will never be duplicated. The beauty of the Amalfi Coast is something that is unrivaled in my memory.

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Olive Oil in Offida

After spending a few weeks exploring the food culture of the Ascoli region on my own, it was finally time for an organized olive oil tasting. We traveled as a group of 28 total, a way I personally would not suggest traveling in Italy, up to Offida, which took around 40 minutes by bus. At Offida, we were directed towards Spazio Vino, an enoteca (wine bar) for our olive oil tasting.

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We were taught the proper technique to tasting olive oil in class earlier during the week so we were well prepared to make loud sucking-in noises and for that to be widely accepted. We were given two different types of olive oil and through our taste test, we were to determine which was of higher quality. Usually done in a blue circular glass, the first step is to warm the olive oil inside of the glass in your hand. After, you are supposed to inhale the olive oil one nostril at a time, as shown below, to take in the aromas. After taking in the aromas, take a small amount of olive oil in your mouth and suck back air intentionally through your teeth, making the olive oil spray to the back of your throat. The first olive oil (the blended one of lower quality) did not give much of a kick when spraying into the back of the throat, whereas the extra-virgin olive oil had an intense pepperiness. This pepperiness almost stings the back of the throat when inhaled properly. 

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In comparing the two, the extra-virgin olive oil had an aroma and a taste that was much more full and complex. Olive oil is the primary fat in the Mediterranean diet, and a good fat at that! Many people obsess over low-fat, no-fat fad diets, but in reality fat is a very important part of staying healthy! Especially mono and polyunsaturated fats, the type of fats found in olive oil.

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Degusteria 25 Doc & Dop

    One of my favorite parts of living in Italy is the amazing and beautiful notion of aperitivo. Aperitivo is a time between around 5:30-8:30 in my experiences (differs in different regions) where you are served small meals, in a kind of tapas fashion, when ordering a drink. Generally aperitivo will cost about 5 to 8 euro per drink (also, only in my experience). Aperitivo will usually consist of breads, cured meats, or really any snack that the restaurant feels like offering. Many Italians tend to eat aperitivo as a kind of “pre-dinner” to get the metabolism back and running before the actual dinner which is often quite late.

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This past week, I experienced hands down the BEST aperitivo I have yet to have in Italy.  This particular aperitivo was at Degusteria 25 Doc & Dop between Piazza Roma and Piazza del Popolo. Between 8 of us, we split up into 3 tables (the restaurant is very small) and ordered 2 bottles of white wine. The first course of aperitivo consisted of olivas de all’ascolana (a signature dish in Ascoli Piceno) and crema fritta (fried cream). Unfortunately, my stomach acted faster than my camera and I ate my portion before I could take a picture of it. The olivas de all’ascolana were the best that I have had yet, freshly fried and stuffed with wonderful meat. The second course consisted of 3 small dishes, a pasta salad with fresh veggies, black rice and red onions, and a cold pea soup. The third course, and my most favorite, was a plate of cured meats, salami to be more specific. Cured meat is something I always grew up with at my home before dinner (the antipasto). This selection of salami was a new monster. Some were almost soft in flavor and the saltiness was not over powering. For the final portion of aperitivo we had hot cheese fondue with small chunks of crusty bread. Every single portion of this aperitivo was wonderfully put together and each small meal complimented the next. With an end price of only 7,50 euro each, I’d say it was a steal! The beauty of aperitivo is the simple necessity of having a bite to eat to enjoy with every sip of wine. Doc & Dop is definitely a place I will be returning in my 5 short weeks left in Ascoli Piceno.

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