Italian Cooking & Language Blog

Fare La Scarpetta means to wipe your plate clean with a piece of bread.

What else could you ask for?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Holidays!


Buone Feste!

See you again on January 4! I look forward to sharing many tales of great eating and hearing yours, too!

Ann Arbor German Restaurant: Metzger's

I’d been eyeing the German restaurant Metzger’s for a while. It is on Zeeb Road, close to Baxter’s, a liquor store with a great selection and reasonable prices.

We’d heard good things about the restaurant from locals and even from one of the ferry workers on Mackinac Island. I checked that they had potato pancakes (a hard dish to find in Ann Arbor, even at Zingerman’s during Chanukah!) and we had dinner with a friend.

There are ornate wooden clocks on the wall along with rows of larger beer steins. The interior is warm and inviting. Unlike a lot of the restaurants that seem to mimic chain-restaurant interiors, this felt sincere and authentic.

My husband and our friend had the sauerbraten (slow roasted beef marinated in wine, vinegar, and spices served with a sour cream gravy) with potato pancakes on the side. I tried the Rheinischer Sampler: wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten served with spatzle and red cabbage. Both dishes are pictured above. Neither dish, when it was served, was particularly pleasing to the eye. They weren’t steaming with heat and the colors were dull. Maybe we should have tried one of the sausage dishes?

I was taken by the beer I had, a dark Warsteiner. I don’t usually drink beer, but this one had a soft spice under the bubbles. It wasn’t as dark as I was expecting, but the flavor was still quite full.

Most people tend to focus on the restaurants closer to the University of Michigan. I enjoy exploring the outskirts a bit and eating where the long-term locals eat. This one, though, didn’t excite me enough to return in the future. At least we had a coupon!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lentils & Soup

When I wrote a family history poem that included the lentils my Italian-American 101 year old great aunt used to eat growing up, she was horrified. She asked, “Why would you tell them that we were so poor we had to eat lentils?”

Lentils were a poor person’s food: a cheap, nutritious way to feed a large family. In a soup, the cook could extend the meal even further.

Lentils no longer have that reputation. You see them in soups, salads and as side dishes in everyday and fancy restaurants. My favorite lentil dish in a restaurant is the crushed red lentil soup at Palm Palace in Ann Arbor.

It is true that lentils are inexpensive. If you buy them in an ethnic grocery store (like Jerusalem Garden in Ann Arbor), they’ll cost even less than at your local supermarket. They come dried in a little bag near the other beans. You can buy them in fancier packages in Whole Foods or other upscale supermarkets, but why spend the extra money?

Feeling under the weather, I recently made a quick lentil soup for myself. I soaked half a bag (about half a pound) of green lentils for about an hour. Then, I diced a carrot and a whole yellow onion. I lightly sautéed them together in extra virgin olive oil. Once they were lightly cooked, I added the lentils (drained and rinsed) to the stovetop mixture. To make soup, I added a box of chicken stock. (You could easily replace the store-bought chicken stock with your own stock or water with spices of your choice.) After lightly boiling the mixture for about twenty minutes, I had a thick, filling soup. I ate it hot, topped with some grated cheese, extra virgin olive oil and crushed red pepper.

Needless to say, there was enough for another two lunches. After a good nap and some hot tea along with the soup, I was cured.

What is your favorite quick soup recipe?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The All Chocolate Dinner Menu

Yesterday I mentioned that that I recently prepared, with the help of friends, an all-chocolate dinner.

Here is the menu:

Chicken mole with rice & black beans

Cupcakes & Brownies

Ginger hot chocolate

The chocolate martinis were a hit. The recipe called for chocolate nibs, which my friend found at Whole Foods. The deep chocolate flavor from the crème de cacao and the chocolate nibs were nicely offset by the sugar along the rims of the martini glasses.

The nicest compliment I received on the dinner was that it wasn’t too heavy, nor was it overwhelmingly chocolate-y. Cocoa was traditionally used as a spice in savory food. Sugar wasn’t added until the 1600’s. I tried to integrate both uses into the menu.

What is your favorite savory chocolate dish?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Zingerman’s Chocolate Cherry Bread

I’m not a joiner. When everyone raves about a restaurant, I usually find something wrong with it. My mother used to say I was “contrary.”
Everyone loves Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. Even my father, in NJ, was excited to hear that we’d be moving to Ann Arbor because of Zingerman’s. It turns out he had been ordering online from them for years. That’s right – someone who lives right outside of New York City orders from this Midwestern company.

I was skeptical.

When I had an all-chocolate dinner party this spring, a friend brought Zingerman’s chocolate bread and their chocolate cherry bread.

“Two kinds of chocolate bread?,” I thought. “That’s ridiculous.” I was convinced it would be too heavy or a weird concoction of things that shouldn’t go together just so they could charge more.

With a chunk of smooth chocolate in my mouth, it was impossible to find fault with the enterprise that is Zingerman’s. Sure, they are crazy expensive (especially for Ann Arbor) and have complicated ordering rules in their deli, but they do produce and import some amazing food.

This bread, when toasted so the chocolate becomes slightly gooey like a brownie, is a luxurious breakfast toast. Be sure to add a little whole-milk butter.

It isn’t available everyday (see what I mean about the rules?), but you can call ahead, ask when it will be available and reserve a loaf or two. If you place your order by phone, everything will be ready for you to run into their busy deli and avoid the very long lines.

I bought a loaf to share with my parents on Thanksgiving morning. We couldn’t cook too much that day, right?

See, Ma, I’m perking up as I age. I just needed chocolate for breakfast.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Particular Plates: An Amazing Meal in Venice

My husband and I always say that we ate the best meal of our lives in Venice, summer 2008.

Having had over-priced and mediocre meals in Venice in the past, I was armed with online research, recommendations from friends and notes from guidebooks. Our plan was to get off the train from Florence, rush to check into our hotel and then go immediately to lunch. We had priorities, right? Unfortunately, when we arrived at the famed, well-researched restaurant, they said they were closing.

We were too late.

Speaking in Italian, I tried to chat with the waiter. I explained that we had our heart set on eating there. If we couldn’t, where would he recommend? Leaning against the door frame, he was quiet and stared out the door. My friendliness wasn’t taking. I was disappointed and wanted to have the perfect Italian vacation. I tried being a little flirtatious. Finally, with a few more questions about where he would eat, he casually suggested a place with “particular plates.”

His directions included going up and down some bridges and then turning on a side street for a restaurant called “la cantina.” With all of his quick hand gestures and the vague restaurant name, I was skeptical.

We followed his directions, laughing as we went up and down the many short bridges over the canals, and discovered a tiny restaurant just as he described. With brick ceilings, a long wooden bar, we were immediately taken by the casual comfort of the restaurant. We were certain we were in the right place when he showed up a bit later at the bar asking for a coffee.

Seated at a perfectly square wooden table, we were asked to choose: vegetables, fish, poultry or meat. We decided to share one vegetable and one fish plate, followed by cookies. The waitress helped us choose a complementary wine and then a sweet verduzzo wine for dessert.

We ate slowly and savored every bite. The vegetables were perfectly cooked. I remember the grilled zucchini were slightly smoky, but still retained their crispness. The seafood was the highpoint. I am a fairly casual seafood eater, but this was outstanding and set the bar for future dishes. Salty, seasoned with lemon juice and rosemary, each piece offered something new.

The final cost didn’t suggest that we were sharing two plates, but rather that we ordered four. Regardless of the high cost, we left knowing that we had treated ourselves to a perfect afternoon of eating.

Of course, we weren’t the first Americans to “discover” this restaurant. Here is a review from Travel & Leisure.

Restaurant information:

la cantina

Venezia, Strada Nuova

Cannaregio, 3689


Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Heart Zeppole

Little fried balls of dough, they can be found at every fair, Italian-American festival and boardwalk “down the shore” in New Jersey. The dough might be a little sweet, but not terribly different from pizza dough. They are made to order and then put in a paper bag that absorbs the grease (and stains your shirt, if you are unlucky.) You can add powdered sugar or do what my mom and I do: add salt. Hold the bag tightly closed with your fist then shake it hard so that each ball is perfectly covered in sugar or salt. Be sure to eat them while they are hot.

I cannot find zeppole in Michigan or nearby. While Ann Arbor offers everything a girl needs to live, eat, and cook, the zeppole are missing. I’ve searched street fairs (like the enormous Art Fair), the State Fair close to Detroit and even the Italian Festival in nearby Toronto. No zeppole. You can find zeppole-like items: fried elephant ears or funnel cakes. Not the same. They are always too sweet for me.

In Atlantic City this fall for a Tiziano Ferro concert, my mom and I found zeppole. Forging dinner, we got a big plate of freshly made ones. I think I ate enough to get me through this second year in Michigan. Next summer, though, I’ll be due for more.

I’ve never had much success frying at home. My husband, voting for good health and a long life, doesn’t think we should have a fryer at home. I’m a little nervous using an old fashioned pot of hot oil without a temperature gauge. So, we’ve decided that some things are better eaten out. If only we can find them.
Zeppole are a very southern Italian dish (much like pizza and many of the Italian dishes that made it early on to the USA.) According to Wikipedia, they are essentially the donut to the St. Joseph’s pastry, which I would argue against.

My maternal grandmother’s family hails from Sala Consilina (SA), a place I’ve visited a number of times (and admittedly, never seen a zeppola.) In a cookbook I picked up there, La Riscoperta degli Antichi Sapori: Ricette traditionale del Vallo di Diano, zeppole are made with white flour, olive oil, rosemary, mandarin peel and salt. That sounds right.

If you wanted to try to make zeppole at home, here is a sweet-looking recipe from Bon Appétit.
If you know where we can find them close to Ann Arbor, please, please, please let us know.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Welcome to my new cooking blog! I will discuss dishes I’ve cooked & eaten, restaurants I’ve tried, cookbooks I’ve read and more. I currently live in Ann Arbor, but I travel to Washington, DC and northern New Jersey often.

As you read my blog, you’ll notice I’m quite biased towards Italian food. I am Italian-American and I spent four years in Florence, Italy. While I was there, I took an amazing cooking class at the famous Trattoria Zibibbo. For over a month, every Saturday we cooked a traditional Tuscan dish in a professional kitchen and then sat down to professionally eat it. It was like an Italian holiday every weekend.

I’ve started doing cooking exchanges with friends with different culinary backgrounds. We’ve taught each other how to cook some Thai, Japanese and Russian dishes so far. What better way to learn something new, get together with friends and share a great meal?
I’m not a professional chef and I like to experiment. I’m volunteering as a writer and taster for a cookbook fundraiser Hepatitis C. For more information, you can read the call for submissions here. The picture of focaccia above is one of the recipes I tested and enjoyed eating. Nothing better than fresh bread on a cold winter night.

Do you have a great recipe or restaurant you think I should try? I look forward to hearing from you.