Brescia, Lombardy’s hidden gem

 

My lodgings are in the unsavory part of the city, across from the train station, on the wrong side of the tracks.  This isn’t the famous and distinguished grit of LA or NY. The hotel itself is clean, modern, and utilitarian.  My bathroom is equipped with one smallish towel, one bathmat and a bidet towel.  Nothing to wash my face with, but my caboose will be squeaky clean.  Outside my window is the local kabob grill and bar, its patio populated with old, hairy, pot-bellied men smoking and drunkenly singing Italian love ballads at 3:00 p.m. at the top of their lungs.  Welcome to Brescia.    At first glance, it’s disappointing.

On my initial venture outside, I skirt past the pot-bellies, homeless and graffiti (I later discover a better route) for a hopeful investigation of the central Old Town. One should not judge a city by its train station.   Brescia’s old town doesn’t disappoint.  I find a center filled  with narrow, cobbled lanes, many for pedestrians only, winding around picturesque piazzas, two Duomos (one dating from the 11th century), Roman ruins and even its own hilltop castle.  Brescia is charming.  Better yet, with its moat of unappealing urban sprawl  and neighbors like Lake Como, Milan, and Venice, Brescia has been forgotten in most guidebooks, ensuring there’s nary an American accent to be heard.

Brescia Duomo - Manuelina Culinary

I’m enjoying my Aperol Spritz aperitivo and nibbles on the Piazza Paolo VI after my stroll, listening to the Italian chatter punctuated by the clock tower clanging the quarter-hour. The sun paints long shadows over the pink café umbrellas and focuses its golden eye on the Duomo.    I recall my gelato school classmate proclaiming that he shunned café locations in central piazza locations, adamant that these attractive, central old town destinations are mere tourist traps for the ill-informed.  I’m now convinced he’s an idiot.  There is nowhere else I want or need to be at this moment.  Brescians know how to live “la dolce far niente” and this city is lovely.

Brescia, Italy

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Panna Cotta with Caramel

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta with Caramel

When I think of my 2013 trip to Bologna, a specific lunch comes to mind (or should I say “lunches” since I made the pilgrimage twice):  Pasta Fresca Naldi – a tiny mecca some distance from Piazza Maggiore, near the city walls, serving only pasta – and only for lunch.   I made the trek on the recommendation of my B&B proprietress. Hearing that they supply fresh pasta to local restaurants and serve lunch to locals as a small side business, it sounded like my kind of place.  When I stepped inside the tiny graffiti- marked building, it was packed with a line of customers and only  a few random stools along the wall.  Three generations of women (nona, mother, and daughter) cooked in the kitchen.  It was clear that this was no tourist joint – one menu card at the counter, written in Italian, and a friendly woman who didn’t speak English to take my order.  My Italian wasn’t any better than her English but with some good-natured pointing, nodding and gesticulations, I managed to place an order for two pasta dishes.  “Due??!” she confirmed.  “Si, Due!”  I replied; this girl can eat.  With some gestures of her own, she directed me to wait across the street at the picnic benches.   She didn’t take any money. As I sat down on the bench, an Italian sitting next to me asked me how an American like me ever found this local place.

Perhaps the location had something to do with it, eating fresh pasta on the street in the Bologna sun with the locals.  Whatever the cause, this simple pasta lunch was mind-blowing.  After devouring both dishes and convinced I couldn’t eat another bite, I stepped back inside to pay.  A small hand-written sign near the registered offering panna cotta with caramel for 1 euro quickly convinced me I needed dessert  (doesn’t everyone order a rich and creamy dessert right after they’ve completely stuffed their face?). One panna cotta to go, please!  This was a different dessert altogether from any panna cotta I’ve had – rich and cream, sporting a bottom layer of caramel like a hybrid of crème caramel and panna cotta.  It too, was heavenly.  I walked home along the sunlit street with my taste buds humming.

Tortelloni in Bologna

Pasta Fresca Naldi Tortelloni

Note:  Word has gotten out about this little gem since my trip.  When I Googled it in 2013, there were zero results. One could find it by word of mouth only.   Now, Pasta Fresca Naldi is listed on Trip Advisor and Yelp, they have a Facebook page,  menus are available in English and their hours extend past lunch.  A secret treasure never stays secret very long, does it?

Thinking back to my meals at Pasta Fresca Naldi and looking forward to my upcoming Italy adventure, here’s my attempt to duplicate that heavenly panna cotta.

Panna Cotta with Caramel
Makes 12

Panna Cotta
1 Tablespoon Gelatin
3 ¼ cups Heavy whipping cream
1 cup sugar
1 pinch salt
¾ cup Buttermilk
¾ t. vanilla
Caramel (optional)
¼ cup Sugar
4 T. Water (divided)

Lightly spray 12 ramekins with unflavored oil.  If using dessert glasses, no oil is needed.

Caramel (optional)

In a small pan, combine ¼ c. sugar and 2 T. water.  Cook over medium heat until the sugar caramelizes and turns the color of dark copper (watch closely so it doesn’t burn).  Take caramel off the heat and add 2 T. water. Be carefully as the caramel will spatter when water is added.  Stir together until combined.  Pour a thin layer of the caramel in the bottom of the ramekins and set aside.

Panna Cotta

Pour gelatin in a small bowl with  4 T. of water. Stir and set aside for 5-10 minutes.

Combine whipping cream, sugar, and salt in a saucepan and whisk over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and small bubbles appear, but before the cream comes to a full boil.  Remove from heat, whisk in the softened gelatin until dissolved. Add buttermilk and vanilla, whisk again and let cool 3-5 minutes. Remove any bubbles from top of custard.

Pour the custard into the prepared ramekins.  Cover with plastic wrap (it doesn’t have to touch the surface like pudding) and refrigerate at least 4 hours.

You can serve the panna cotta in the dessert glasses with fruit or various toppings.  To unmold ramekins, fill a small baking dish with  boiling water. Slip a sharp knife around the inside of the ramekin loosening the custard, place the ramekin in the water for about 10 seconds and invert it onto serving dish.  If needed, scrape any leftover caramel from the ramekin onto the custard.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta with Fresh Nectarines

Making Pasta in Italy

Pasta with Lemon Sauce

Fettuccine with Nigella Lawson’s Lemon Sauce

I’m Italy bound for culinary school once more.  This time, it’s pasta in the North.  Distressingly, I find myself lacking any anticipation for my adventure.  School is paid for and my flights are booked, but I’m facing difficulties arranging the second week of my visit.  Jeanette Winterson’s  “The Passion” has me unexpectedly longing for Venice again.  “Everyone should see it – once,” was my decree for 30 years.  Now, I’m aching to return – but not amid summer’s high season.  I see narrow streets clogged with overweight Americans, sunburnt pink, wearing fanny packs and grumbling about the lack of ice.  I’ll wait for the misty February Venice, shrouding the enigmatic and the strange.

No other Northern city has captured my heart.  Milan – yuck.  Trending on my list are Parma and Bergamo, both lacking in popular allure.  There still remain Italian destinations I wish to visit – the cinque terre, for example, but not this trip, not alone.

Pack Light

This Summer, I lost my luggage somewhere between Calabria and Bologna on the worlds most unfriendly airline – Alitalia.  Really, I “voluntarily surrendered” it.  The luggage was more than 30 minutes late coming off the plain and  I had a choice between grabbing my luggage from the previous flight or making my connection. I chose the latter.  Where most women would be horrified by the prospect of having no luggage for an entire week, I decided to ‘go with the flow’ and not let the missing luggage ruin a trip I have been planning for months.  I found the local H&M, bought a few 10 Euro dresses, a t-shirt for sleeping and a few pairs of undies.  That was my uniform for the week.  I didn’t feel deprived.  I’m comfortable doing without.  Last week, I was traveling in the States and managed to pack one of those H&M dresses– along with 14 other outfits and 6 pairs of shoes. Why?  I didn’t wear most of it.  I prefer my Italian simplicity.

The Rebuttal

The view from the hotel

The view from the hotel

It astonishes me that two people can experience relatively the same thing and walk away with absolutely disparate opinions.

I’ve held off writing this post to allow the blush of Italy to wear off from me a bit so I didn’t completely lash out.  In February, I was irritated when a reader named Luka sent me her post describing her time at ICI as analogous to culinary hell.  Deposits had been paid – I couldn’t back out now and go to Carpigiani’s sunny Gelato University where each Facebook post shows crowds of happy students making heavenly gelato.  I thought, “Well, I’ll just suck it up, learn what I can and get through it.” I was going to Gelato School in Italy – and this was how I was approaching it – thanks to that post (bad me for being so easily influenced).

Maybe she set the bar so low for me that I couldn’t help but be pleased. And I was pleased – with the hotel, with the food, with Chef and the class.  It was so much more than I imagined.

The Location
Luka called the town “deserted”.  It’s a resort town during low season. I didn’t go there to party and pick up on swarthy Italian men so I didn’t mind the lack of nightlife.  Days were spent in the kitchen until 4 pm – sometimes until 6 when we were having pasta lessons. Sure, I would have liked a nearby restaurant or bar that I could pop into for a pre-dinner aperitivo, but a quick 10-minute walk down the hillside found me on a beautiful, quiet beach where I could sun, swim and have some “me” time.

The hotel was described in her post as “mostly uninhabitable”.  It is a typical quirky Italian 3-star hotel (as it was described on the ICI website).  The hotel is a bit “Faulty Towers-esque” – the staff is a bit bumbling and it was iffy if breakfast was going to be available.  When I checked in, however, I found myself in a 2-bedroom apartment with a dining room, living room, kitchen, bathroom and balcony looking over the Ionian Sea. My room was clean, the water was hot and the views from the balcony were amazing.

The Food
Luka called the food “fit for a dive bar- primarily pasta with broccoli, a sauce make by cooking the hell out of the cheapest thing that was a the market until it fell apart and tossing that with noodles”.  She complained that the wine was cheap and limited.  During my first night, I was afraid this part may be true – I arrived a day early and was served the banquet food that was prepared for the wedding going on in the dining room – I’ve eaten worse, but it definitely was not good.   But starting the next day, once Chef John and Chef Andreas were cooking, we were fed handmade charcuterie, freshly made cheeses, sweet marmelata, marinated vegetables, crepes, handmade pasta, pork, veal, fresh fish, beef, and eggs with bright orange yolks.  One pasta dish was loaded with big flakes of freshly shaved black truffles – my mouth is craving it right now. Wine was good and plentiful.  Breakfast was meager (supplied by the hotel) – I would drink a foamy cappuccino and smother a sad croissant with Nutella, which satisfied me until Chef would announce it was “time for a snack” – usually around 10ish, followed by lunch and dinner. We ate well. Food was fresh, varied and plentiful.

The Class
I found chef to be fun and engaging and willing to pace the class to our needs.  Luka called him condescending and verbally abusive.  She said he threw things, had tantrums and that he was unpredictable with a possible personality disorder.  He’s an Italian from the Bronx – of course he’s not Mr. Rogers (what chef is?) – but I saw none of this behavior during class.  Admittedly, the daily curriculum can be loose, which can be good (Chef John and Chef Andreas stayed late for an impromptu pasta making lesson at my request) but can also mean topics are forgotten or we ran short on time on others. It’s impossible to learn everything about gelato in one week so I don’t feel like we were short-changed.

From my time at Culinary School, I’m used to doing things myself – from preparing the midday meal to peeling apples to cleaning the kitchen – Gelato school was more focused on demonstration than participation.  I was gently chided more than once for cleaning up after myself and was reminded that  I didn’t “have to” help prepare lunch (for me, it’s not “have to,” it’s “want to”).  I would call the class “low sweat and low mess” – closer to a cooking vacation than the rigors of professional Culinary School.

Despite it not being as fast, furious and hands-on as I was expecting, I found school to be highly enjoyable – and I’d return to ICI in a heartbeat. Now, I just need to decide between charcuterie and cheese-making.

a sampling of the “dive bar” food:

Baked Ricotta

Baked Ricotta

Caramel Crepe with Fleur de Sel

Caramel Crepe with Fleur de Sel

Pears

Stuffed Poached Pears