Sunday, October 14, 2007

Be back soon...

Do not fret if you visit and there are no new posts. When I return from my travels and holidays, I will post new entries. In the interim, have a wonderful and safe holiday season!

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Joy that is Mille Folie

As far as wedding cakes tend to go, most are rather bland repeats of the previous wedding you attended. The majority of couples pick “safe” cakes—vanilla, chocolate, carrot—with flavors most guests will eat. Sometimes, to spice things up, they’ll throw in a raspberry, strawberry, or cream filling, but again, nearly everyone likes those flavors combined with the traditional choices of cake. This observation is in no way a criticism of the couples who choose these cakes for their special day, rather it is meant to show the limited possibilities presented to them by bakeries.

Barring a lactose-allergic fiancé, a very tasty, yet not at all trendy choice for a wedding cake would be a mille folie (pronounced mee-lay foe-lee-ay). “Mille folie” essentially means a thousand sheets in Italian. This dessert is a very light Italian cake made with layers of thin, flaky dough (not unlike cooked filo dough), alternating between layers of thick, creamy custard. The custard soaks into the dough, softening the flaky layers. Topping all this is a light, whipped frosting that neither attempts to upstage the cake nor shirk away from its responsibility as the “icing” on top. It’s rich without being heavy and dense without being overwhelming. Mille folie absolutely melts in your mouth.

Mille folie is the cake of choice in my family (on those rare occasions when we decide to purchase dessert rather than make our own). What dessert should we serve at Easter lunch? Someone needs to pick up the mille folie. What kind of cake should one of the cousins order for their wedding? Mille folie, of course! An aunt is visiting from Italy? Let’s order the mille folie for the first dinner she’s here—she’ll love it! Our family goes nuts for this delicious treat. And it’s also beginning to look like the wedding cake of choice for this generation in our family, so don’t be surprised if you attend more than one Monari wedding and find, hopefully to your delight, that you are served the same type of cake.

Where can I find this most amazing Italian cake that La Famiglia thinks so highly of?!?

I’m so glad you asked! There is this delightfully quaint Italian pastry shop called Dianda’s. They have two locations—one in San Francisco and one in San Mateo. If you can, take a trip to visit either one. The treats you will find are well worth the price of gas and the miles on your car. The San Mateo shop—conveniently located near my office—is nestled between a fresh fish market and an Italian delicatessen. The smell of barbecue greets you before being replaced by the sweet aroma of confectioner’s sugar upon entering the bakery. Cases filled with delicious treats welcome as you enter, as do the tiny ladies working behind them.

Take a moment to slowly examine all the possibilities found behind the glass. Showing off their dazzling white frosting adorned with spring-colored flowers, cakes wake patiently in their cool storage space before being claimed by an eager customer. In the next case, there are personal-sized samples of the cakes in the refrigerator. This is where you will find your own gone-in-two-minutes mille folie. Also available, and equally wonderful, is tiramisu cake, rumcake, cannoli, and a wide assortment of more traditional dense cakes made with all the lightness of the Italian bakers’ ancestors. Each of the large slices are about five inches long and maybe two inches wide, with three inches of height. It’s probably healthier (and better for your hips) to split one of these with a friend, but it can easily be consumed by a single eater—trust me on this one! On the shelf behind this counter would be my sister’s weakness—almond torta. A dense cake-like dessert, this is in a class all of its own. It’s sweet almond taste is accented by a thin layer of raspberry filling along the bottom. It’s like eating a slice of Italy—absolutely delicious and absolutely addicting!

The next display proudly offers all kinds of tempting cookies. Amaretti—round cookies with pine nuts nestled on top; alunetti—squared-off, finger-length, flaky cookies decorated with powdered sugar; biscotti—traditional long cookies with almonds, accented with a slight orange flavor; chocolate cookies; big cookies, small cookies; all yummy cookies. And then finally, you get to the candies. These flavor-filled, chocolate-coated bites of sugar rival anything found at See’s Candy.

Order whatever tickles your fancy and enjoy it with a cappuccino or espresso at one of their charming café tables, or take some home to share. And just maybe, people will begin to catch onto the wonder that is Dianda’s cakes, helping wedding guests truly enjoy the cake served at the reception.

Dianda's in San Mateo
117 De Anza Blvd.
San Mateo, 94402

Dianda's in San Francisco

2883 Mission St.

San Francisco, 94110


Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Risotto is the ultimate Italian comfort food. It's the perfect dish after a long, hard day (as long as you're willing to take the time to make it!). With its creamy texture and rich flavor, the risotto (pronounced ree-zoe-toe) truly melts in your mouth. Some people complain that risotto doesn't taste like anything, and on its own, it's somewhat true. But add some wine (white or red will do), extra Parmesan cheese, and any assortment of meat or vegetables to your recipe, and the rice immediately takes on that ingredient's essence, creating a new and robust taste your mouth will not soon forget.

Unlike Asian rice that tends to be slightly dry, Italian rice is rich and extremely creamy. Typically risotto is made with Arborio rice which is an Italian medium-grain rice which remains "al dente" (somewhat firm) and becomes creamy when cooked. Risotto dishes originated in northern Italy, which would explain why it's such a large part of my family's cuisine. The great thing about risotto, aside from its taste, is that you can do so many different things with it. You can add wine (red or white, like stated above), seafood, sausage, chicken, prosciutto, asparagus, carrots, peas, zucchini, tomatoes, mushrooms, the options are only limited by your palate and your imagination.

Risotto (basic recipe)

Serving Size: 4
Time: 5 minutes preparation; 40 minutes cooking

1 quart chicken/vegetable broth
1 Tablespoon olive oil
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 1/4 cups of rice (arborio or vialone nano)
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
freshly ground pepper (to taste)

Bring broth to simmering point. Put the oil, 4 Tablespoons of the butter, and the chopped onion into a heavy-bottomed pot and saute gently until onion is soft and translucent. Add the rice and cook for one minute, stirring constantly so the rice is coated with the oil and butter. Pour 1/2 cup of the broth over the rice and cook, stirring regularly until the liquid is nearly all absorbed.
Continue adding broth to the rice (1/2 cup at a time) until gone.
When the rice is tender, but al dente, take the pot off the heat and mix in the remaining butter and the Parmesan cheese. Add a little pepper to taste. Serve and enjoy!

To include wine, I usually add white wine before pouring in the first 1/2 cup of broth.
If your vegetables are raw, add them after the rice has been cooking for about 10 minutes.
If you are using roasted peppers or sundried tomatoes (both of which are amazing with risotto), add those prior to adding the last bit of butter and the Parmesan.
If including seafood or meat, make sure it's been cooked prior to adding it before the Parmesan.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Eternal Quest for Great Gelato, Part 2

Have you ever had a hankering for one of those discontinued sticky treats from your youth? Just down the street from the aforementioned Dolce Spazio sits the ultimate candy store, Powell’s Sweet Shoppe, who specializes in those tantalizing favorites. A soundtrack of old movie songs plays in the background while children young and old scurry from one delicious treat to the next, remembering their favorite candies from a time gone by and discovering new delights along the way. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory takes its place on the back wall, repeatedly playing through the classic children’s story. Usually it’s the parents that stop to watch the movie, rather than their children, who are far more taken with the surprises that they find with each new candy toy from their parents’ generation and older. Even the oldest customer is transformed into “a kid in a candy shop” upon entering. Because of the stunning amount of candy covering the store like a blanket, many customers often overlook the bevy of gelato flavors near the register, which is my primary reason for visiting.

On my most recent visit to Powell’s, I discovered that they serve Ciao Bella Gelato, a brand that originated in New York’s Little Italy from a Torino recipe and oddly enough, is sold pint-sized at Costco. More than Dolce Spazio, Powell’s features flavors found in any gelateria in Italy, including spumoni, tiramisu, pistachio, coppa mista, cappuccino, dark chocolate, and a variety of sorbetto. I’ve tried several flavors, but so far, the only two that immediately transport me to an Italian piazza is their dark chocolate and tiramisu gelato. From the perfect creamy, smooth texture to the dark, intense flavor, every bite teases me into believing that I’m in Rome and not on the streets of Los Gatos. It melts in your mouth (and I don’t just mean literally because it’s gelato); the flavors are richer and more intense than ice cream, bringing greater pleasure to your taste buds than even a pint of Häagen Dazs’s famous dulce de leche. Powell’s also offers three different serving sizes, and encourages all guests to mix flavors.

Verdict: The dark chocolate and the tiramisu are, I believe, even better than Dolce Spazio, mainly due to the fact that they have a creamier texture (which is closer to true Italian gelato). Just don’t try mixing Powell’s candy with their gelato; it will ruin the gelato experience.

Powell’s Sweet Shoppe

35 N. Santa Cruz Ave.

Los Gatos


Monday, August 27, 2007

The Eternal Quest for Great Gelato, Part 1

No quest for the closest thing to Italian gelato would be complete without starting where I typically go for gelato, Dolce Spazio (pronounced dōl-che spŏtz-ee-ō) in Los Gatos. Long considered the hotspot for Bay Area gelato, Dolce Spazio has won numerous awards for their version of the classic Italian treat. A quaint little shop on the main strip of downtown, Dolce Spazio caters to the elite of Los Gatos. Saturday mornings blur into a rush of joggers, bikers, families with strollers, and visitors who line up for their treat of choice—coffee, Italian soda, tea, giant cookies, muffins, smoothies, and for those brave early-morning souls, gelato and sorbetto.

With a variety of flavors that run from the seemingly health conscious—strawberries & cream, pistachio—to the deliciously scandalous—oreogasmic—to the mouthwatering divine—chocolate liqueur, snickelicious, cappuccino chip—to the traditional classic—vanilla bean, menta chip—Dolce offers temptation to everyone. Sizes take their cue from the Italian numerical system of scoops, including uno (for one scoop), due (for two), and tre (for three). You may be tempted to choose the tre, but tre is not for the faint of heart, or for the tiny bellied. Dolce’s gelato is rich and dense—heavy even, causing even an uno to be overwhelming if consumed after any semblance of a meal. The gelato is creamy (although, depending on the flavor you order—those with chocolate chips or cookie crumbles—it can sometimes be slightly granular). Every serving of gelato comes with a perfect pie-slice-shaped wafer cookie that crumbles under the weight of the gelato. Enjoy your gelato out behind the shop in their hide-away courtyard at one of the dainty café tables.

Verdict: Dolce Spazio’s gelato tastes fantastic (seriously, it’s one of my favorite place to splurge on dessert), but it’s more the love-child from the marriage of ice cream and gelato than authentic Italian gelato.

Dolce Spazio

221 North Santa Cruz Ave.

Los Gatos


Monday, August 20, 2007

Gelato vs. Ice Cream

In a recent issue of Bon Appetit, I was shocked at the claim of one writer that after much researching and taste testing on her part, she discovered there is no difference between ice cream and gelato. No difference?! I don’t think so! There is a major difference between ice cream and gelato (pronounced gel-a-toe).

Americans tend to be copycats. We like to take other cultures’ fashions, traditions, and cuisines and make them our own. The same is true with gelato. Many manufacturers will make their version of Italian gelato and slap a label on the box claiming its authenticity. However, there is no way that it can be true gelato, because while they may be using the same process, they are not using the exact same ingredients—such as the milk from Italian cows. California cheese companies are constantly bragging about their cows, but in order to make authentic Italian gelato, Italian cows eating Italian hillside grass and drinking Italian river water, I am convinced, must be used.

What exactly is the difference between gelato and ice cream? I’m glad you asked!

Gelato typically has 35 percent less air than ice cream, creating a denser and creamier texture. By adding air to their product, American ice cream producers get nearly double their quantity, but at the cost of quality. Gelato is made with whole cow’s milk, containing only 4 to 8 percent butterfat (significantly lower than American ice creams’ 18 to 26 percent). Since gelato ingredients are not homogenized together and it uses less butterfat, it melts quicker than ice cream. Also different than American ice cream, gelato uses a forced air freezer, holding the temperature a constant 0-6°F (a good 10-15°F warmer than American ice cream), which keeps it at a semi-frozen consistency as opposed to being too frozen.

Other fun facts:

Gelato made with water instead of dairy products is called sorbetto (pronounced sore-bet-toe). Sorbetto is usually found in fruit flavors, as they mix best with water. Gelato is believed to have originated in northern Italy, while the fruit-flavored sorbetto claims its origins in southern Italy.

Aside from the above evidence spouting the production differences between American ice cream and Italian gelato, and in spite of the fact that only true gelato comes from Italy, it is possible to tell the difference between ice cream and gelato made in America. For example, if you were to visit Baskin Robbins and order a scoop of their chocolate ice cream, then visit Powell’s in Los Gatos and order a scoop of their dark chocolate gelato, you would immediately be able to see, taste, and smell the difference. And that’s just between American ice cream and American gelato! Come with me as I look for the best American Gelato in the Bay Area!

Monday, August 13, 2007


Second only to basil, zucchini is my favorite green vegetable (although, recently I learned that it’s really considered to be more of a fruit than a vegetable—but I still think of it as a veggie, so that’s what I’m going to call it for the sake of this post). Zucchini, like the tomato, is one of the most frequently grown home-garden vegetables, but this is a fairly recent development in home-gardening.

Thought to have originated near Milan, Italy in the late 1800s, the zucchini was a product of experimental mutation between squash-melon-like varieties. Since that time, it’s been dubbed the quintessential Italian summer vegetable (some could argue that the tomato might come out on top of that throwdown, should it happen). The zucchini didn't make it's Unites States' debut until the 1920s, when it is believed Italian immigrants brought the seeds with them.

Americans were already familiar with squash (don’t we hear stories about the Pilgrims and Indians eating turkey and squash on that first Thanksgiving?), so zucchini wouldn’t have been vastly foreign to them. Zucchini is a sort of squash, not too unlike cucumbers, although zucchini are typically cooked rather than eaten raw. One hint when buying or picking your own zucchini: it’s better to get the small ones, since the larger ones tend to be less flavorful (and can have a slightly bitter undertone). Often considered to be more of a complimentary addition, zucchini are delicious with just about any item in the Italian diet—tomatoes, prosciutto, pasta, Parmesan cheese, even cooked with just a little butter or olive oil.

For the longest time, the only way I would eat zucchini is if my mother had slightly cooked them (so they were barely tender, but still held onto a little bit of their crunch) in butter or oil and then grated a good helping of Parmesan cheese on top. The combination of the saltiness of the cheese paired with the hint of sweetness from the zucchini is divine! I am happy that my taste buds have since matured and are now able to appreciate some finer zucchini offerings, such as Saltimbocca Zucchini (pronounced salt-eem-boe-ka zoo-kee-nee), which essentially means “jump in your mouth zucchini” (please refer below for the recipe).

Another zucchini delicacy is not the zucchini itself but rather its flower. My Nonna loves eating the flowers. I remember watching her pick the flowers from the zucchini plants in their garden when the flowers were perfectly yellow, with a hint of green ribs along the underside edges (brown or wilting flowers simply won’t do). I thought it strange that she would eat the flower, but I’ve since come to realize that she had the right idea! The flowers are extremely delicate, which is why they must be picked and eaten almost immediately. You might be able to find the flower in the supermarket, but be warned, it is very expensive due to the difficulty in storing and transporting the flower. The best way to eat the flower is to fry it. Once fried, you can stuff it with anything you like (ricotta and Parmesan cheese are always good), however, it will taste just as good without stuffing as it will with.

Saltimbocca Zucchini (a slight deviation from the Michael Chiarello version)

Serving size: 4-6
Time: 15 minutes preparation; 8 minutes cooking

2 lbs. zucchini (try to get each 1 ½ inches in diameter)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 thin slices prosciutto
20 leaves of fresh sage

1/3 lb. fontina cheese, thinly sliced
3 eggs, lightly beaten with a fork
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup pure olive oil
2 Tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

Cut each zucchini lengthwise into thin slices (about 1/4-inch thick). You will need 16 slices total. Lay them out in pairs and lightly season with salt and pepper.

Arrange prosciutto slices on half the zucchini slices, ensuring no prosciutto hangs over the edges of the zucchini. Place 2 sage leaves on top of the prosciutto. Set the fontina slices on top, again making sure no cheese hangs over the side. Then, lay the remaining zucchini slices on top of each stack. Using paper towels, press down firmly on each stack to extract moisture and firm the zucchini.

Pour the lightly beaten eggs into a deep dish. Season the flour with salt and pepper on another plate. Pick up each zucchini stack by both ends and hold it securely, dipping it first in the egg and then dredging it in the flour until evenly coated.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot. Cook the zucchini, turning once, until golden brown (about 2 minutes on each side). Once cooked, place on a plate and keep warm until ready to serve. Add more oil to skillet if needed.

Add the remaining sage leaves to the hot pan and cook briefly until crisp. Arrange several crisped leaves on top of each saltimbocca. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese on top. Serve and enjoy!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Italian Flag

Food can be a reflection of so many different things—emotions, personalities, geographical locations, and…a country’s flag? Yes, it’s true. For example, the Italian flag is quite symbolic of the food found within its borders. While I am happy to concede that this is not true of every national flag (otherwise, England’s flag should be brown with a fish), it is certainly true of the Italian flag. Perhaps this is a coincidence, or maybe it's truly symbolic of Italians' love affair with particular foods.

Think about all the different foods Italy is known for. Now, how many of those dishes incorporate the colors of the Italian flag?

There are four major sauces enjoyed around Italy—pest, alfredo, ragu, and marinara (notice the green, white, and red?). All of these I’ve mentioned before, but these are the sauce staples of the country. Sure, you can find other sauces, but several use those same colors—think of a pepper sauce with red and orange peppers or a sage and butter sauce. Even a mushroom sauce takes on an off-white color when paired with pasta.

Ravioli and other stuffed pastas can be filled with many different filling combinations. It becomes a matter of taste preference or creativity. And while there are endless filling possibilities, it’s very common to stuff ravioli with a spinach and ricotta mixture and then add a ragu or marinara sauce on top. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t love this. Also, when we make stuffed shells or stuffed cannelloni, we fill them with a spinach and ricotta mixture before adding the ragu sauce on top.

I’ve mentioned caprese before as one of my favorite things to eat, especially on a summer day. This combination of basil, fresh mozzarella, and tomato is extremely easy to make and very tasty. And it even shows the Italian flag in the correct colored order: green, white, and red.

Who doesn’t love the Margherita pizza found in Italy? With its thin crust, slight layer of pizza sauce, just enough mozzarella cheese to cover the sauce, and a sprinkling of julienned basil, it’s the perfect afternoon meal. And because they don’t overdo any part of the perfect combination that is the Margherita pizza, you can eat the equivalent to an American large pizza without having to be rolled home! And again, it is the Italian flag with the basil, then the mozzarella, then the sauce.

The region that my family is from tends to make a spinach pasta lasagna. This means that spinach is added to the pasta dough before it is rolled out into the paper-thin sheets that get assembled into a mouth-watering dish of lasagna. So, each layer of the lasagna gets the spinach pasta, a combination of the ragu sauce and the béchamel sauce (a rich white sauce), and a little bit of mozzarella and parmigiano. I actually believe that the spinach lasagna tastes better than the regular lasagna, but I doubt this has anything to do with the color of the Italian flag.

Gelato is another thing Italy is known for, and no one can seem to get enough of it, as evidenced by the mass-produced copycats found in any supermarket (but let’s admit, the gelato you get here in the U.S. in no way compares to the real thing). Until recently, I didn’t think gelato really would work in this example; although I suppose I could argue that with the vanilla gelato, the pistachio gelato and the raspberry or strawberry gelato, you get the Italian flag. Just a couple weeks ago, I was reading the restaurant edition of Bon Appetit Magazine when I saw an article about a chef who created the Italian flag combination in gelato with a basil gelato, a tomato gelato, and ricotta. To be perfectly honest, I’m a little wary of basil and tomato gelato, since gelato is supposed to be sweet, almost like eating candy, and while I love basil and tomato, I don’t feel the same about them that I do about chocolate gelato. But I should probably give it a try before completely writing it off. I will let you know how it goes.

Isn’t it interesting that so many Italian dishes resemble the Italian flag (and I've only mentioned a few here!)? Can you think of any that I didn't include?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Cooking Podcasts, the Wave of the Future

Since starting this blog, I've gotten so many food ideas from my family that even if I had no inspiration of my own, I would be able to keep writing for several months. I love it because they often inspire me to look outside of the box. An example of this came from my cousin David, who introduced me to living recipe podcasts on iTunes. I had seen advertisements for cooking shows such as Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef (I'm still waiting for them to get Iron Chef and Everday Italian), but I hadn't noticed the podcasts before. And as much I love food, the hyped-up, drama-loaded reality shows in a stylized kitchen just doesn't cut it for me.

The interesting food-related topics that you can find on iTunes are mostly from From learning the proper way to dice vegetables to cracking a lobster, covers the basic skills required in the kitchen. They very conveniently have all their podcasts in streaming video, so you could follow along in the comfort of your own kitchen. While these are extremely helpful for any novice to the kitchen, anyone who can somewhat confidently navigate their way around the kitchen, may find these to be too simplistic. I did, however, enjoy their podcasts on napkin folding, since my memory doesn’t always retain the varying fancy ways a table can be dressed up by napkins. This would also be a good resource if you need a quick reminder on carmelizing sugar or making a hollandaise sauce. A new podcast is added every week, and each streaming video runs between a minute and two minutes, providing an easy approach to the "how-to" of cooking.

Whole Foods Market also features informational product podcasts. I downloaded one about tomatoes and basil (what else?!). The produce connoisseur discussed the benefits of buying local produce, as well as the freshness of the produce. He also gave tips on how to pick the tastiest tomatoes from your supermarket. The "In the Kitchen" segment provided listeners with an easy recipe using the produce discussed earlier.

The Food Network only provides streaming podcasts of the behind the scenes of Iron Chef America with Alton Brown (which is actually pretty interesting) and Ham on the Street (which, to be perfectly honest, I've never seen). These are more show-based that recipe driven, but could be interesting nonetheless.

There are several other cooking podcasts provided by chefs and various networks, but the ones mentioned above were the podcasts that looked like the most interesting and beneficial to home chefs. If you find any that I may have overlooked, let me know, and I'll check it out!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ristorante Italiana – Pasta Moon

First impressions can be difficult to overcome. If a person rubs you the wrong way upon first meeting, the likelihood of you wanting to continue any sort of relationship with them is much rarer than if you had a fantastic introduction. The same is true for places—restaurants in particular. We assume the outside reflects what’s inside; and in the case of restaurants, this would be the cuisine. There has been more than one occasion where I have written off a restaurant simply because of their décor or modernity (or lack of). But I have also dined at stunningly beautiful restaurants, only to have the food be mediocre. Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay falls into an entirely new category for me.

Located on Main Street in downtown Half Moon Bay, Pasta Moon is protected by a bridge on one side and little shops on the other. In other words, it blends into its surroundings, making it appear like any other shop along the main strip. Once it’s discovered, guests walk through its doors, surprised to find that instead of entering the foyer of the restaurant, they’ve stumbled into an entryway filled with adorable café-style tables and chairs and leading to several different shops. A little bar sits quietly to the side, serving liquid treats to those waiting for a table in the restaurant or who simply are looking for a respite from their shopping and wandering through downtown. Just past the bar, a door is perched open, inviting guests to explore the wonders of a small-town bookstore with soulful jazz wailing softly overhead. Opposite the bookstore, the sounds and smells of a restaurant warming up for the next meal slip between the bars of an iron gate.

The same aunt who introduced me to Vittoria’s in Los Gatos and I met for dinner at Pasta Moon one evening after work. I was delighted by the charming and cozy atmosphere presented by the town and shops. Since the restaurant was not yet open when we arrived, I ambled down the hall, past the restaurant. On my right, there was a bread room, with a floured work surface, ovens, and racks indicating the restaurant’s tiny bread factory where their bread is made fresh each day. The heat from the room and the smell of warm bread wrapped around me like a blanket and added to the cozy feeling I had from the moment I walked through the first set of doors. I peaked into the next door on my left, where two men scurried back and forth between counters, washing, chopping, arranging. Just past the kitchen door was a door leading to an intimate banquet room with a balcony overlooking a quaint country garden and meandering river.

The moment we had been waiting for arrived, as a waitress pushed open the iron gate allowing us to enter the comely setting. Wood beams proudly held their place above us, creating a rustic and down-home feel. The walls continued this feeling with their warm earthy-toned color. We were seated at a table underneath an open window that had a view similar to the banquet room balcony—a grassy picnic area and quiet stream. Even the windows conjured up images of an older time with their large wooden frames and small square panes.

We decided to attempt the full range of restaurant offerings starting with an appetizer. My Nonna is a huge fan of fried zucchini blossoms, although I myself had never ventured to try them due to the fact that I would be eating a flower; and flowers, as we all know, are for admiring with our eyes not our palates. The Zucchini Blossoms came stuffed with ricotta cheese, Reggiano Parmigiano, and fresh herbs, all things foreign to my Nonna’s method of preparing them. Fried little delights, zucchini blossoms are the perfect comfort-food alternative to Southern fried chicken. Despite being battered and fried, they are extremely light, aided by the cloud-like lightness of the ricotta cheese. I could have made a meal just out of the appetizer.

For the main course, my aunt ordered the Risotto of Dayboat Sea Scallops, which is locally grown morel mushrooms and peas in risotto accented atop by fresh scallops. The white wine added to the risotto while cooking brazenly commands attention over the natural richness of the rice without overpowering the entire dish. The mushrooms and peas add a slightly earthy hint to the Italian rice and wine combination, while the scallops provide a fresh, light balance to the whole plate. I ordered the Tagliatelle, a heady combination of smoked prosciutto and asparagus in a garlic-lemon sauce with jumbo white prawns. The lemon, like the white wine in the risotto, is very present and fresh without being overpowering. The garlic-coated shrimp is the perfect balance to the saltiness of the prosciutto and the mellowness of the asparagus.

My aunt had been eyeing the very large Meyer Lemon Parfait her past several visits, but had not yet ventured trying it. Since we’d already had a good run with the appetizer and entrees, we decided to give the lemon parfait a go as well. We asked the waiter if we could possibly have the dessert served in two glasses, which would make eating it much easier for the two of us. Instead of saying let me find out, he promptly bowed his head, stating, “I will do that,” and turned on his heals to bring it immediately to us. He reminded me of the waiters in Paris, where their job is their career and art form, rather than a holding zone until they get their big break—this provides infinitely better service. But back to the lemon dessert. Toasted on top, it looked like a fluffy cloud of crème brule. Dipping into the lovely, toasted, marshmallowy Italian meringue, the tartness of the lemon sorbet cut through the sweetness of the meringue bringing a surprisingly light and refreshing taste to the palate. Just below the icy layer of sorbet, passion fruit caramel sauce enveloped a dense dollop of lemon curd. The lemon curd combined with the caramel sauce was slightly sweeter than the sorbet, creating a sweet and tart sandwich of lemon flavors and consistencies. It was altogether delicious and refreshing after the heaviness of the previous course.

Pasta Moon surpassed any expectations I may have had; although, since it was again my aunt’s recommendation, I really should not have anticipated it being anything but exquisite. The space and the food were warm and inviting—a perfect example of the inside and outside being reflections of the other.

Pasta Moon

315 Main St.

Half Moon Bay


Monday, July 9, 2007

Berry Picking

My family is all about tradition, and one of our favorite early summertime traditions is berry picking at Gizdich Ranch. We make the forty-five-minute drive to Watsonville to pick our fill of olallieberries, eat our fill of strawberry shortcake and buy our fill of fresh-pressed apple juice. We’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember.

When I was little, we’d usually be one of the first groups of pickers to arrive. “Remember, this is how you pick them,” my mom would remind my brother and I, as she gently twisted the berry allowing it to fall into her hand. She did this for several years, until, I suppose, it was evident that we remembered from the previous year. We were reminded that we must only pick the dark purple berries, not the light ones that looked like large raspberries.

Olallies (pronounced oh-la-lee) are sweetly tangy, a cross between blackberries and loganberries (loganberries are a cross between blackberries and raspberries). They originated in Oregon during the 1930s, but are primarily grown in California now, due to our climate. Olallies have a very short season, mid-June to mid-July, which is why if you don’t go in June, you’re likely to miss them altogether.

My brother and I were given our own little buckets to fill with berries before depositing them into the larger containers that we would take home. We raced to see who could fill their bucket the fastest. I adamantly believed that my brother cheated, the proof found in the large flat with nearly ripe or not even ripe berries that I was sure my brother picked to try to fill his bucket quicker. Silly little competitive person that I was, I never took into account that maybe those lighter berries wound up in the flat because he wore a patch over his eye and therefore, he couldn’t always see very well; or maybe, I was the culprit, having been so consumed with “winning” that I didn’t take as much care in picking the ripe berries as I should have.

Aside from our ridiculous competition to pick the most berries, my brother and I loved to sneak berries into our mouths rather than putting them in the bucket like we were told. We were permitted to have one or two, but that was it. For several years, I remember asking if I could eat a berry or several, but after a while, I thought I got smart, and ate them without asking. That’s when my parents started joking that they should weigh my brother and I before we came in and as we were leaving, so the difference in weight could be paid (pickers pay for what they’ve picked at the hut near the open rows).

In the hot sun, the berries would soften, their vibrant tartness exploding in our mouths with each taste, leaving a faint purple ring around the edge of our lips. Slightly cooked in the sun, the berries’ juice easily ran onto our fingers as we picked them, staining them a lovely shade of olallie purple. If we didn’t wash them immediately, we would carry the proof of our picking with us for the rest of the week.

The rows would fill with other families and groups picking olallies for various reasons. Two ladies share canning and jamming tips, chattering away about different techniques they’ve tried and what works best. Another woman in a different row chirps up about olallie pies she’s made and offers her own advice on making olallie jam. “Jimmy, don’t eat that,” a father passively tells his son, who we can hear running up and down the row. Another group displays their uninhibitedness with their singing of an odd combination of car songs and church hymns. Several others exchange the most recent gossip about common acquaintances.

When we finished picking our fill (I seem to recall hearing something about 40 lbs. of berries one year, but maybe that was just my youthful imagination), we drive over to the ranch. Passing more berry fields, a welcome sign greets us to the farm. Turning down a little one-lane road, we drive by an antique shop offering treasures for the house and yard. Across the postage-sized parking lot sits the barn which instead of housing farm animals and hay, keeps all the mouth-watering treats prepared by the workers of the farm—jam, juice, pie, tarts, strawberry shortcake.

The strawberry shortcake is really our primary reason for visiting the farm after berry picking. On every trip, my mom wishes aloud that she could get their strawberry shortcake recipe. It’s the perfect combination of fresh-picked strawberries, shortcake, and whipped cream. The shortcake is sweet and flaky, the ideal accompaniment to the fresh sweetness of the strawberries. It’s not at all like the Bisquick version most people make or even the homemade version we make. It’s infinitely better than other forms of shortcake due to the extremely fresh ingredients used. A lot of people order pie or other delicious fruity treats, but if you make it out to Gizdich, don’t miss out on the shortcake—trust me!

The other treat we indulge in is their fresh-pressed apple juice. Thicker than any store bought version, Gizdich’s apple juice is all fruit juice, sweet and pure. It's heavenly when drunk slightly frozen. The juice flows down with little ice caps, offering the perfect warm-weather refreshment. They would make great popsicles, if we could ever get enough home to freeze! It's so good that it doesn't always make it home to be enjoyed or shared later.

Gizdich Ranch is home to lots of family memories, from berry picking in the hot sun to grumbling about being forced to share strawberry shortcake with a sibling. They also have apple picking in the fall for those more inclined to fruit growing on trees rather than from bushes. One of these days, I hope to have the apple picking experience at Gizdich. Or maybe that will wait until I have kids to take.

Gizdich Ranch

55 Peckham Rd.

Watsonville, CA


Monday, July 2, 2007

Gnocchi a Casa

Brave enough to try your hand making gnocchi at home? Here is some direction to get you started. Let me know how it turns out!

Gnocchi di Patate

Serving size: 8
Time: 1 hour preparation; 2 minutes cooking

5 lbs. russet potatoes
3 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 egg
Flour for dusting board and dough

*Note: If you want to modify the servings this recipe renders, keep this in mind: for every pound and a half of potatoes, use 1 cup of flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Wash your potatoes and pierce them with a fork. Microwave them until properly baked (If preferred, the potatoes can be boiled until tender with their skins and no holes, as you don't want the potato to take on water). Let cool for several minutes before peeling the skins off the potatoes.
Once peeled, put them through a potato ricer into a mixing bowl (If you don't have a potato ricer, use the large holes of a grater). Add flour to potatoes and mix on slow speed (If you don't have a mixer, this can also be done by hand). Once potatoes and flour are blended, add salt and mix again before adding the egg. If the dough is still too dry, add another egg. You want the dough to be firm, yet slightly give when touched. It should stick together without being too sticky.

Dust your board with flour. Taking a handful of dough, hand roll it into a long 1/2-inch thick rope. Cut 1/2-inch long pieces off the rope. Take one of the 1/2-inch pieces and place it against the tines of the back of a fork. Gently roll the piece of dough away from you and to the tip of the fork. It should have ridges on the outside where it rolled along the fork and a little pocket where your thumb was. This shape helps the gnocchi cook properly. Place finished gnocchi onto a lightly floured cookie sheet or wax paper. Repeat this rolling and shaping until all your dough is formed into gnocchi.
When ready to cook, bring water to boil in a large pot. Drop gnocchi into the water. Remove the cooked gnocchi using a skimmer or spoon after they float to the surface (approximately 2 minutes). Serve with your favorite sauce and enjoy!

Good Sauces to accompany Gnocchi:

Marinara & Alfredo Sauce

We usually make these two sauces separately and mix them together as we're eating the gnocchi. It's a delicious combination as the marinara provides a robust flavor, while the cream sauce adds a delicate touch, helping prevent the gnocchi from being overpowered by the marinara.
Marinara Sauce
Time: 5 minutes preparation: 45 minutes to 1 hour cooking

3 cans tomato sauce
1/4 cup butter
1 medium onion, cut in half

Empty tomato sauce into large pot. Bring to a simmer and add butter and two halves of the onion. Simmer until ready to serve.

Alfredo Sauce
Time: 5 minutes

1/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cup whipping cream
pinch of pepper
pinch of nutmeg
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Melt together butter and whipping cream in saucepan over low heat. Mix in pepper and nutmeg, stirring until well incorporated. Add Parmesan cheese until completely combined.

Salvia e Burro (Sage & Butter)

This is one of those sauces that I make differently each time depending on my mood and how much pasta I'm cooking!

Time: 2 minutes preparation; 5 minutes cooking time

1/2 cup butter
several sprigs fresh sage (or 1/2 Tablespoon dried, crushed sage)

While the pasta is cooking, melt butter in large skillet over low heat until it starts to foam. Add sage leaves and toss for 1 minute while butter soaks up the sage flavor. Once your pasta has been drained, add it to the large skillet and toss over medium-high heat. With pasta now fully coated, serve and enjoy!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ristorante Italiana - Vittoria Ristorante Italiano

Driving down any major road in the valley, you can find a wide range of food options, from Mexican to Iranian, Indian to Italian, Cajun to French, Thai to Pho. Because we live in a vast melting pot of cultures and cuisines, you would think it shouldn't be too difficult to be transported to the country of your choice for your evening meal. However, it's not easy to find a really good Italian restaurant, unless, of course, you're actually in Italy, but how often do any of us get across the Atlantic for a good meal? I realize I have unusually discriminating taste when it comes to Italian cuisine, which is probably why the majority of my friends suggest anything but Italian when we go out for dinner. In my defense, I am quite happy to laud any restaurant that can pull off an authentic, or at least decent, Italian meal.

My aunt recently raved about the gnocchi (pronounced nyo-kee) served at Vittoria Ristorante Italiano, located in charming downtown Los Gatos. Despite the fact that my aunt, who grew up on some of the best Italian food outside of Italy, has very good taste, I was doubtful. Do you know how hard it is to get good gnocchi? It’s challenging enough making them perfectly light at home, let alone finding them edible out. And it really shouldn’t be so difficult—it’s essentially just potato and flour. Most of my limited gnocchi-served-at-restaurants experience goes something like this: when you take a bite, instead of the pasta melting in your mouth, it’s too chewy or worse, too tough! Later, as you leave the restaurant, you can still feel the gnocchi, as they sit in your stomach like little rocks, and you vow to never eat gnocchi anywhere but home again!

Although this had been my typical encounter with gnocchi, when I found myself at Vittoria for an aunt-niece catch-up dinner, I couldn’t resist ordering the little potato dumplings. Rather than arriving on an over-sized plate with two more servings than I could ever fathom putting away on my own, the gnocchi came in a delicious little bowl—the size that I’ve been known to put a “serving” of ice cream in after a long day. My fork gingerly picked up a little pasta, as I braced myself for tough or mushy…Oh, was I pleasantly surprised! The gnocchi melted in my mouth—actually melted! It was light, but still ever so slightly al dente. The traditional ragu sauce tasted a lot like my Nonna’s pasta sauce. So much so, that for a brief moment, I thought someone must have stolen her recipe, or maybe she was secretly selling them the jars of sauce we thought she made for us. But then I tasted the sauce’s little extra kick and realized that my Nonna is not, in fact, Vittoria’s sauce supplier. With little thought to anything other than my happy taste buds, I devoured the remaining contents of the bowl.

Not a fan of gnocchi? Here are some other dishes on their menu that are just as delightful:

Insalata Autunnale- A fresh salad with arugula, spelt (which is a natural grain with a slight nutty flavor), poached pears and Asiago cheese. It’s not your average restaurant salad, but it’s very fresh with an edgy taste.

Margherita Pizza- Who doesn’t love thin-crust pizza with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes?

Piadina Romagnola- A classic twist on the panini, this flat bread holds prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and arugula.

A few other tidbits:
The restaurant front is completely unassuming, and it would be easy to pass by its door on more than one occasion without even realizing it’s there.
The actual space in Vittoria is long and narrow, and it can get kind of noisy, since the space is small and the ceiling high.
Most of the servers have thick Italian accents and are extremely courteous and attentive (I personally like knowing that when my water glass nears empty, it will be refilled before I suddenly find myself desiring a drink with nothing but ice cubes to quench me).
If you go on a Friday or Saturday night, you're going to want to make reservations.
This is a good date-night restaurant. You can’t beat the location (walk through downtown after dessert) or the food (seriously, one of the best Italian restaurants I’ve been to in the area).

Vittoria Ristorante Italiano

27 N. Santa Cruz Ave.

Los Gatos, CA


Saturday, June 23, 2007


Tomatoes are supposedly the most common home-garden vegetable grown in the U.S. My family was no exception to growing our own tomatoes. My Nonno would boast about how big his tomatoes would grow—often the size of a softball or a mini soccer ball—showing us kids his most recent conquest from his tomato vines. It wasn’t long before my uncle also threw his hat in the ring, planting tomatoes and encouraging them to grow larger than his father-in-law's. No matter what my family tried, ours never reached such diameters, but they sure tasted just as good as any tomato twice its size. * Note: If you’ve never had a homegrown tomato, go out and buy some organic tomato plants and plant them during the middle to late spring season so you can catch its fresh produce during the summer. Seriously, one of the best and simplest things you could do.

I understand many people don’t like raw tomatoes (I used to be one of them). Maybe it’s the texture—the tough, semi-rubbery and starchy skin combined with the squishy, seedy inside. Or maybe it’s the tastelessness of mass-produced hothouse tomatoes. Or perhaps it’s a fear of eating anything that can be termed “healthy.” Whatever the reason for a dislike of the uncooked tomato, I doubt there are many who can resist the perfect union of ragu sauce and a steaming plate of macaroni.

A plate of homemade pasta with ragu is reminiscent of Sunday lunch at Nonna’s house, sitting around the table with cousins. It’s family and home cooked into a plate of homemade ravioli, with a sprinkle of Parmesan adorning the top. It’s comforting and utterly delicious! This should go without saying that the ragu is not out of a bottle purchased at your local supermarket with a Prego sticker plastered across the front. This is traditional homemade Italian pasta sauce, with maybe a few slight adjustments made throughout the years to cut out some of the large quantities of butter previously used. Cutting out a stick of butter or not, it’s still fresh and homemade and would beat Prego any day of the week in a ragu sauce throw-down. It takes hours simmering on the stovetop, melding all the flavors together. But it’s one of the most delicious things to come out of Italy, and out of my Nonna’s kitchen—just ask anyone in our family.

Personally, I’m more ragu than marinara when it comes to accompanying pasta. However, I realize that not everyone likes meat or simply has a preference for “plain” tomato sauce, which is an excellent reason to master the art of the marinara sauce, which usually consists primarily of onion and bay leaves for flavoring and crushed tomatoes.

Good tomato varieties:

Heirloom (an open-pollinated, non-hybrid tomato, which means that they are not genetically modified)

Beefsteak (good for sandwiches)

Brandywine (good flavor)

Roma (good for making sauces and canning, although San Marzano tomatoes are supposed to be the BEST for making sauces)

Tomato Resources:

Tomatoes paired with Mozzarella

Companion planting with Tomatoes

Good Ole ‘Merican T‘Maters

Heirloom Tomatoes

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bouquets of Basil

Most little girls begin planning their wedding from the moment they are able to comprehend the final scene of Cinderella. My sister, for example, was one such girl. By the time she was two years old, she had picked out her “off-the-shoulders” dress, most importantly the guy, and had even gone so far as to ask my mother if it was too soon to send out invitations, after, of course, she had already invited our first grade teacher.

I, on the other hand, hardly gave weddings a second thought. I was far too busy trying to live up to my tomboy image. When I was forced to think about matrimony, I told my mother 1) I wanted to go barefoot (I avoided shoes at all costs during the summer), and 2) I wanted to carry a bouquet of basil. Even at an elementary-school age, I had a mature appreciation and love for basil.

For years, my mother would begin growing basil in small pots in our windowsills before transplanting them outside in the vegetable garden. I loved the fragrant smell of the basil that engulfed the kitchen. Even with other smells competing for attention, like baking bread or stuffed shells, the basil was the first smell I would notice upon entering the kitchen. If we didn't have basil growing in the kitchen, there would often be a glass or vase with basil hastily set inside with a low level of water to keep it fresh until my mother used it for dinner or to freeze for later use.

My love for basil continued into college as I took my mother's lessons with me. I loved going to the farmers' market or even the nearby organic produce store to pick out the perfect bouquet of basil. The fresh basil walked with me through the various rows, seeing what else could be purchased as a treat. So as not to let any of the basil go to waste, I would divide the bunch, putting one-quarter aside for immediate use and the rest to be frozen. The aroma of the basil being cut up and mixed with a little olive oil would lure my roommates from their studious seclusion, as they recognized that smell usually meant a steaming plate of homemade pasta was soon to follow. Some would laugh, thinking I was crazy, as they watched me put the basil-olive oil mixture into an ice cube tray, cover it, and put it in the freezer for the next time I craved a plate of spaghetti al pesto. But all of them were ready with forks, by the time the pasta was al dente, the Parmesan cheese was grated, and the sauce was ready to be poured on top of the spaghetti.

I know a lot of people like to add pine nuts on top or even chopped into the pesto sauce, but really, can't the basil hold its own in the sauce with only the accompaniment of a little freshly grated Parmigiano (if you even choose that!)? Also, adding a little bit of freshly chopped basil to minestrone provides just enough kick to the soup that you'll go back for seconds!

Adding basil is one of my favorite things to do to an Italian dish. Below, you will find two of my standby recipes. And one day, maybe I will be one of the few, if not the only woman to use basil for her wedding bouquet.


Serving size: 4
Time: 10 minute preparation

4 fresh, organically grown tomatoes (these taste so much better than tomatoes grown in a hothouse)
2 balls fresh mozzarella
several fresh basil leaves
2 Tablespoons olive oil
pinch of salt and pepper

Cut the tomatoes into slices about a quarter of an inch thick and arrange on a plate. Slice the fresh mozzarella and place on top of the tomato slices. Separate basil leaves from stem and place one basil leaf atop the mozzarella. Flavor with a pinch of salt and pepper, before drizzling olive oil on top of the caprese. Serve and enjoy!

Pesto Sauce

Serving Size: 4-6
Time: 10-15 minutes cooking time

1/4 cup butter
1 Tablespoon flour
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
pinch of pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1 cube basil

Melt butter over low heat, stir in flour. Add cream, stirring constantly. When incorporated, add salt, pepper, and garlic salt, then basil. Pour over pasta immediately. Serve and enjoy!