Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

May 24, 2017

Sampling Umbrian Wines and Olive Oil at the Source

A few years ago I spent a day visiting Sagrantino wine producers with Alessandra Mallotti of Discovering Umbria. That taste of a unique varietal in its glorious country setting brought me back to sample some of the region’s organic wines and olive oil.

It hadn’t occurred to me that last year’s earthquakes in Umbria (also Abruzzi and Lazio) would be an obstacle to this experience–and they weren’t. So we were surprised to hear from Alessandra that tourism has taken a blow as travellers avoid what they think might be devastated or dangerous places.

I can vouch for the fact that the zone we were in, roughly between Assisi and Todi, was untouched, and we hear that areas such as Norcia have largely recovered.

Simona Bonci, Alessandra Mallotti, Kent Lydecker

Some of the Ronci azienda’s olive trees are ancient, gnarled moraiolo trees with appropriately silver leaves that might be as old as 400 years. They’re tall, requiring ladders for harvesting and well spaced, pointing to an era when the goal was to produce oil just for the family and the padrone, with the spaces between filled with other crops and animals. Others are leccini and frantoio varieties, sitting closer to the ground.

The cluster of olives Simona Ronci pointed to was the size of her fingernail. But she was already thinking about the moment in mid-October when they would be plump and juicy, filling the air with their perfume during the pressing. “The days are still warm then but the nights are cool, and the olives respond by producing more antioxidants,” says Simona. “This is the ideal moment.”

The sooner the olives are pressed after the harvest, minimizing oxidation, the better the quality of the oil. In a race against time, the family’s modern presses work around the clock, pressing olives from other producers during the day and their own olives at night. Two or three hours of sleep might be the norm during this period.

Federico Bibi

The flavor of the oil hints at the tree(s) of its origin. A blend of moraiolo, leccino and frantoio carries a slight astringency that clears the palate, a hint of green tomato and artichoke, a peppery finish. More delicate, the frantoio on its own. The moraiolo monovarietal is full-bodied, with an artichoke note and piquant finish, and that was the one we shipped home.

Around the time the olives are harvested, the vineyards are a raging colorfest of dark red grapes. During our visit to the Terre Margaritelli cantina, in the Torgiano Sangiovese area near Assisi, the emerging leaves were a bright spring green.

The family started in the lumber business, producing wood products such as railroad ties and now parquet flooring. One generation started making wine on the side and, when the family decided to get serious, they found it a very different world from lumber.

Federico Bibi, hired from outside, is now the wine maker. The operation is organic (“bio”), like the Ronci olive operation, and rigorous inspections take place at least two or three times a year.

Other varietals are grown here but during the tasting we gravitated to 100% Grecchetto and Sangiovese wines.  Grecchetto tastes of apple to a friend and reminds me somehow of a limestone cliff. Regardless of your personal associations, it is a delicious white aged three months in white oak from a French forest owned by the azienda.

What’s special about an Umbrian sangiovese? “This is a southernmost terrain for sangiovese,” says Federico. “It’s a ‘generous’ grape that leaves a lot to the skills of the winemaker. Our goal is freshness, a balanced style and drinkability.”

Freccia degli Scacchi, the azienda’s 100% Sangiovese, is aged two years in white oak from a French forest owned by the family, and and then another year once bottled.

We bought Terre Margaritelli wines to enjoy later, but on our last night in Todi, we chose a Sagrantino to savor with Umbrian salumi and cheeses at La Vineria di San Fortunata. I’m already looking forward to tasting more of what this region has to offer, whether at the source and back home in the States.






Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Italian ingredients, travel, Umbria, Uncategorized, Wine and Beverages » No Comments - Leave a comment...

March 8, 2017

Perfect Eggplant Parmesan

Nobody needs more than one recipe for eggplant parmesan, any more than you need multiple methods for perfect scrambled eggs or a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

Problem was my eggplant parmesan recipe, acquired years ago from an Italian-American cook, wasn’t perfect. The eggplant slices were brushed with oil and broiled. It contained ricotta as well as mozzarella and parmesan.  Sounds okay but the result was always a bit disappointing. Eventually I drifted away from it.

Then I tasted eggplant parm–otherwise known as melazane alla parmigiana–as executed by Maria Silvestri, co-owner of Casa del Pane in St. Pete Beach. Under a bronzed crust, a meltingly delicious marriage of fried eggplant, cheeses and tomato sauce.

At Casa del Pane, you can savor a mozzarella & grilled veggie sandwich made with Pugliese bread still warm from their ovens.  Or sip a cappuccino at the bar while chatting in Italian with a regular. Or stock up on artisanal pasta, regional wines and choice canned tomatoes.

But you can’t eat Anna’s eggplant parmesan at Casa del Pane. “It’s a family dish we enjoy at home, made the way I learned in Puglia,” she says.

Anna agreed to share the recipe for publication in Food + Art: Cooking around Tampa Bay with the Museum of Fine Arts (buy a copy if you haven’t already). To make sure I had it right, I asked lots of questions. Are the eggplants peeled? “I do but it’s the cook’s decision.” How thick are the slices? She held thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart. What kind of canned tomatoes? “A good imported brand such as La Valle.” What else makes her version special?  ”No breadcrumbs! I think they make the dish too heavy.”

The eggplant is fried, after being dipped in flour and beaten egg, and I’ve never had a guest who didn’t ask for a second helping. I think there’s a connection. That never happened with my broiled eggplant parm.

I could give you the argument that, when food is fried properly, most of the oil stays in the pan. That happens to be true, but the real reason I make this classic dish Maria’s way: It tastes perfect.

Maria’s Eggplant Parmesan

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (28-ounce) can good-quality plum tomatoes in puree
4 small eggplants (about 2½ pounds)
¾ cup all-purpose flour, or as needed
4 or 5 eggs
Vegetable oil
1 pound mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated, divided
4 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano, grated, divided
1 cup basil leaves, divided

1. Make sauce: Saute onion with olive oil until golden in a medium saucepan. Add tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook at a brisk simmer, breaking up tomatoes with a wooden spoon, until onion is cooked and tomatoes soften, about 10 minutes. Cool to warm. Using a blender or food processor, process to a chunky sauce.

2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Peel eggplant or not, depending on preference. Cut in ½-inch slices. Place flour in a shallow bowl and, in a second bowl, beat eggs with 1 teaspoon salt. Coat slices with flour on both sides, dusting off excess.  Dip in egg, allowing excess to drop off.

3. Fill large deep skillet with at least ½ inch vegetable oil. Heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Fry eggplant until golden brown on both sides. Drain on a platter lined with paper towels and blot with more paper towels.

4. Ladle sauce over bottom of a 13x9x2-inch baking pan (see Note). Arrange a layer of eggplant on top. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano and basil. Repeat layers, finishing with sauce and cheeses.

5. Bake uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes until bubbling and browned on top. Cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.

Note: In a smaller pan, you may need to repeat the sequence of layers three times rather than twice.


Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Eggs and Cheese, Fruits and Vegetables, Italian food, Tampa Bay, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

January 24, 2017

Ribollita, Tuscany’s Divine Bread Soup

I learned to make ribollita many years ago from Livio, the gardener of an elegant villa in Florence. At the time it housed a center for advanced Renaissance studies and while my husband attended seminars, I was likely to be in the garden, talking to Livio.

The recipe was actually his sister’s and probably his mother’s before that. I doubt that Livio had ever made this thick bread soup himself, but he had precise ideas on how it should taste.

After he tasted my first batch, I noticed a troubled look on his face. After some pressing, he gave his verdict: a nice enough soup but not the genuine article. How had I cooked the onions, he asked. As it turned out, I had not browned them sufficiently, the essential first step for this full-flavored soup. I tried again, and this time Livio gave his blessing to my ribollita.

The name means “reboiled” but, as this story shows, it’s not a matter of just heating up any vegetable soup. The flavors need to be deeply satisfying. Carefully browned onions are one thing. If you can find it, Tuscan kale–otherwise known as lacinato or, in Tuscany itself, as cavolo nero,”black cabbage”–adds depth.

I think good beans make a difference too. White cannellini are the norm but the bag of Rancho Gordo cranberry beans from my stocking (not last year but two years ago) were staring reproachfully at me from the pantry. They may be unorthodox but they were fabulous.

Stale salt-free Tuscan bread is the classic choice for ribollita, and for good reason. It absorbs moisture and feathers into crumbs without turning gluey. Nothing else works as well but, unless you are making this soup in Tuscany, you’ll likely have to settle for any sturdy loaf that pushes back a little when pressed.

You could eat ribollita just after it’s made, but that’s so wrong. Hold off  for a day to let the flavors mingle and the genius of this winter soup to emerge. The last step, once soup and bread are in the bowl together: Drizzle with good Italian olive oil from the latest harvest.



Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Soups and Stews, Tuscany, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

October 8, 2016

Tagliata con Rucola (AKA Italian Steak and Arugula Salad)

Rosy slices of grilled steak on a bed of dressed arugula, with Parmigiano Reggiano shavings and a few ripe tomato wedges. in 2016 that dish sounds pleasing but hardly surprising. In the summer of 1985,  though, during a sultry July in Tuscany, it seemed fresh and new. Suddenly this steak and arugula salad was everywhere.

I remember encountering tagliata con rucola for the first time in a hillside restaurant with a terrace, overlooking the steaming city of Florence, where we had gone to escape the heat. Looking around, I could see other customers digging into an appetizing toss of greens strewn artfully with strips of beef and cheese curls. I couldn’t wait to taste it.

Bistecca alla fiorentina has always been, of course, a standard offering of Tuscan restaurants. Usually an enormous slab of beef (traditionally, from the Chianina cow), cooked al sangue (very rare). And often accompanied by a salad that might include tomatoes. Slicing a steak, whether boneless or bone in, turns it into a tagliata di manzo and, somehow, placing the strips ON the salad with a few embellishments creates a perfect unity of flavors.

I don’t know which clever chef first assembled tagliata con rucola, which became a standard in home kitchens as well as restaurants.  Checking Italian sites such as, I scrolled through tagliata musings by cooks debating whether to rub olive oil on the steak before grilling, or suggesting black Hawaiian sea,  or rhapsodizing over the merits of a pizzico (bit) of butter or drizzle of traditional Balsamic vinegar after grilling the steak.

Returning from an early fall visit to friends in North Carolina, I tucked green Cherokee tomatoes into every corner of my suitcase. When they ripened, I set aside two from this precious bounty, bought a prime steak (go to Locale, St. Pete people) and some arugula from the farmer’s market. With hardly any effort, we had a feast.

When tomatoes are out of season, no need to wait until next year for tagliata con rucola. Substitute roasted potato wedges. Or chunks of roasted or pickled beets. Or braised sweet-sour cipolline onions.

Italian Steak and Arugula Salad

(makes 2 servings)

1 pound boneless well-marbled beef steak such as New York strip steak or ribeye
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces arugula
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 or 2 ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges
Chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese, or 2 to 3 ounces crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

1. Rub both sides of the steak with a little olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Let stand until room temperature.

2. Prepare a hot fire on a gas or charcoal grill. Grill the steak, turning once, until seared and cooked to rare or medium rare (about 8 minutes, depending on thickness). Transfer with tongs to a cutting board and let stand for a few minutes until the juices are reabsorbed.

3. Toss the arugula in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, more or less, the lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange greens on 2 dinner plates.

4. Slice steak across the grain at a diagonal and place in the center of the greens. Using a vegetable peeler, cut shavings from the Parmigiano wedge, letting them fall directly onto the salad. Place tomato wedges around the edges of the plates.


Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Italian ingredients, Italian lifestyle, Meat, restaurants, salads, Tuscany, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

September 2, 2016

Pickled Vegetables, Especially Giardiniera

Pickling isn’t just for cucumbers anymore. It’s a huge trend, whether taking the form of traditional mixes like Italian giardiniera or the wildly creative combinations of someone like Ilene Sofranko, owner of Urban Canning Company here in St. Pete.

Their exuberantly flavored offerings include chili and fennel Brussels sprouts, sraracha peppered okra and ginger-spiced beets. Sign up for one of Ilene’s classes–the upcoming session on making chow chow from summer’s end vegetables, for instance–and she’ll spill her hardwon pickling secrets.

I’ve made pickles myself–most often giardiniera (“from the garden”), Italy’s most famous pickled-vegetable combo. The brine is sweetened with a little sugar, giving it the sweet-sour flavor profile much loved in Italy. I start with cauliflower, carrots and onions, then add whatever is seasonal or appealing–perhaps peppers, green beans, fennel, zucchini. It’s important to take care in cutting the vegetables–the pieces need to be about the same size and look pretty.

A new cookbook called Preserving Italy, by Domenica Marchetti, is an excellent source on the Italian art of pickling. I earmarked a recipe for wine-spiked julienne carrots to remember when I run across heirloom carrots and instead made her pickled beets and spring onions. Apple cider, though not a traditional Italian ingredient, gives fruity verve to this pickled combo, with spicy notes added by juniper berries, peppercorns, cloves and bay leaves.

Domenica and Ilene can tell you how to do the water-bath canning that keeps jars shelf stable for up to a year, but I don’t bother with that. However satisfying it would be to survey shelves of jewel-like pickled vegetables, I don’t have the space–or, frankly, the inclination. Instead, I prepare a small batch, transfer the vegetables and their brine to jars and refrigerate for a few days to infuse the flavorings. Then we eat them at will, always returning the jars to the fridge, in the course of about a month.

How to eat giardiniera and other pickled veggies? Drain well and eat on the side with burgers, fish, roast chicken or just about anything, really. Add to an Italian rice salad. Chopped a bit finer, they turn into a condiment with a special affinity for sandwiches. In our Chicago days, I remember giardiniera on Italian beef sandwiches. The mix can also be subbed for olive salad in a muffuletta and would be delicious on a hot dog.

Or have a party (I recommend a barbecue) and clear out your pickled vegetables in one fell swoop. When you feel like making more, see what’s in season and go for it.


Makes about 2 quarts

10 ounces cipolline or pearl onions
1 small head cauliflower
3 medium carrots
3 celery stalks or 1 small head fennel
4 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cups wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups distilled vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 bay leaves
2 small fresh or dried hot peppers
1 teaspoon black or mixed peppercorns

1. Bring a medium saucepan of cold water to a boil. Add the onions and cook for about 15 seconds. Drain, cool under running water and slip off the skins; clip the tips with shears as needed but do not cut off the stem ends (the onions would fall apart). Separate the cauliflower florets from the stalks and cut both in small (1- to 1 1/2-inch) pieces. Angle cut the carrots and celery in similar-sized pieces. Halve the onions if large and cut the garlic lengthwise in half. You should have about 2 pounds of vegetables altogether.

2. Combine the vinegars and olive oil with 1 1/2 cups cold water in a large saucepane. Add sugar, salt, bay leaves, hot peppers and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Add the cauliflower, carrots, celery, onions and garlic. When the liquid returns to a boil, adjust the heat to a brisk simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Cover and cool.

3. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables into two quart jars or four pint jars. Make sure the vegetables are well covered with the brine. Refrigerate for a few days to blend flavors. Use within a month, discarding the bay leaves and peppercorns.


Share this post with:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email

Fruits and Vegetables, Italian food, Italian ingredients, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...