Greens!

No-one could cook up a pot of greens like Stefano’s grandma, or Nonnetta, as she was known to us.

Rapini, sometimes called broccoli rabe, or cime di rapa in italian, were her specialty.  They were mildly bitter and perfectly seasoned from their sauté in olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper.  Served with just the right amount of liquid, she had us sopping up the juices with pieces of bread and then asking for seconds.

In Italy, it is common to boil greens and then sauté them in olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper.  Nonnetta’s secret was to add a spoonful or two of tomato sauce – just enough to add a touch of flavor and color.

Although a staple of southern United States cooking, sadly, greens are not as readily embraced here in the northern states.  Yes, they smell a bit when boiling (Hi, come in. Sorry about the smell, we’re cooking greens), but the pungent smell is quickly forgotten in favor of their deeply satisfying, peppery taste.

Rapini are our favorite green, but we can’t always find them at our local farmer’s markets so we often use mustard greens or turnip greens instead.  They are never quite as good as Nonnetta’s, but almost.

Ingredients
1 bunch of rapini, turnip greens or mustard greens
Olive oil
Garlic
Crushed red pepper
2-3 spoonfuls sauce from whole, canned tomatoes
Salt
Crusty bread

Directions
Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Wash the greens and remove the thick parts of the stems.  When the water boils, toss a handful of coarse salt into the pot, and add the greens.  Boil until tender, approximately 8-10 minutes, and drain.

Sauté 2 tablespoons olive oil, two cloves of garlic diced into small pieces, and a bit of crushed red pepper in a skillet for 2-3 minutes until the garlic is golden brown.  Add the greens and 2-3 spoonfuls of tomato sauce.  Simmer for 5 more minutes.

Serve hot or at room temperature with good bread.

Pomodorini ripieni di tonno

Friday could not have come soon enough!

With one child at camp and the other staying with grandparents this week, one would think we’d have had ample time to prepare homemade dinners.  But instead, it was a taxing and thankfully uncommon week of 12-hour work days and too little sleep.   Except for our morning espresso and an occasional piece of toast, the kitchen went unused.

Each evening we intended add a post to Due Spaghetti, but each night we ran out of time and put it off until tomorrow.  It got so bad that today when we opened up our blog, we were asked to re-enter our user-id and password.  The “remember me” box had come unchecked; our own blog had unfriended us.

Ironically, we had a post ready to go.  We’d made these adorable stuffed cherry tomatoes, pomodorini ripieni, a few weeks back when we were trying out recipes for the Washington Post’s Top Tomato Recipe Contest.  They didn’t make the shortlist of recipes we chose to submit to the contest, but they are delicious and pretty, and deserved to be featured on Due Spaghetti.

The problem was, we didn’t measure our ingredients while we were preparing the stuffed cherry tomatoes.  This isn’t surprising, as we rarely measure when we cook.  We just add what looks right, feels right, and tastes right.  This, we believe, is part of what we love about cooking; it is not so much an intellectual endeavor, but instead an activity that engages the senses and the emotions.

When Stefano’s mom explains to us how to prepare a dish, she sometimes omits key steps or ingredients and jumps directly to the finer points of execution.  In the early days, we’d make the mistake of backing up and seeking clarification on a basic part of the recipe, only to have her smile in surprise and tell us, “Of course!” revealing that what we had asked was so obvious that it does not need to be stated.

When writing on Due Spaghetti, though, we take the time to list specific amounts for ingredients so our readers are not left guessing and recipes are authentically prepared.  In order to post the cherry tomato recipe, we needed to make it again to confirm the precise quantities of tuna, mayo and capers.

We’ve debated this topic before, with Cara taking the position that our readers deserve an accurate and specific recipe, and Stefano maintaining that through Due Spaghetti we can teach our readers to cook the way his mother and grandmother did – a superior form of cooking which develops from trusting intuition and experience to determine when more salt is needed in a sauce, or when the texture and consistency of a dough is perfect.

In the end, the week passed and we never managed to recreate the pomodori ripieni.  On the positive side, we had a few excellent meals out, including a spectacular dinner at La Chaya Bistro and an engaging conversation with chef/proprietor Juan Juarez Garcia, which we will write about soon. But we need to get back to blogging and as a result we are going to post our recipe without specifying quantities for the ingredients, trusting our readers to make wise and inspired decisions about what looks right, feels right and tastes right to them.

These tuna-stuffed cherry tomatoes are a pretty appetizer or party food.  They can be arranged on an interesting plate or platter, or skewered for easy serving.

Ingredients
Cherry tomatoes
Tuna in olive oil
Mayonnaise
Capers
Flat leaf Italian parsley
Salt
Pepper

Directions
Wash cherry tomatoes and slice the tops off of them.  Carefully core the cherry tomatoes with a paring knife and scoop out the seeds and pulp with a small spoon.  Set the hollowed tomatoes upside down unto a baking tray and allow the juices to drain.

Dice the tomato pulp, and add it along with the juices and seeds into a bowl.  Drain the tuna and stir into the tomato mixture.  We used between 1 and 2 cans of tuna for each pint of cherry tomatoes.  Add mayonnaise to the creaminess level of your preference.  Rinse a handful of capers quickly under water, dice them add them to the mixture.  You can use more or fewer capers according to preference.  Chop a bunch of flat leaf parsley finely, and stir it into the mixture.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Carefully stuff the tuna mixture into the cherry tomatoes, taking care not to tear the tomato walls.  If you wish, garnish with a small dollop of mayonnaise.

Pesche al vino bianco

The peaches this summer have been spectacular!

The abundance and superior flavor of this season’s harvest means that we will be enjoying peaches in white wine, or pesche al vino bianco, as August comes to an end.

Peaches in wine is a quintessential summertime Italian dessert, a rite of summer in many households.  As often is the case, there are variations on the theme of pesche al vino. Red wine is frequently used.  Sometimes cloves or cinnamon is added.  Some people sweeten the dessert with a little sugar, as Stefano’s mother did for his brother Marco, sister Debora and him when they were children (yes, children).  Others add a dollop of whipping cream or serve the peaches and wine with a scoop of ice-cream.

We prefer to keep it simple: good peaches, and a nice, dry white wine.

White peaches are ideal for pesche al vino bianco.  The flesh of the white peach absorbs more wine than its yellow-fleshed cousin, and releases more of its delicate sweetness back into the wine.  Furthermore, the firm, smooth texture of the white peach maintains its consistency while marinating overnight in the wine.  Look for peaches that are ripe, but not overly mature.

We bathed the peaches in Falanghina, a southern Italian wine made from ancient vines in the Campania region, and one of our favorite whites.

Go ahead and make your cobblers, tarts and pies.  Pack peaches into your lunch boxes, and eat them any other way you can.  Just don’t let August come to an end without enjoying the elegant, classic Italian dessert, pesche al vino.

Ingredients
White peaches (one per person)
Dry white wine

Directions
Peel the peaches and slice them thinly into a bowl.  Add just enough wine to cover the peaches.  Let rest at room temperature for 2-3 hours.  Cover refrigerate overnight.  Serve chilled.

Penne alla Vodka

Every once in a while we spike the tomato sauce.

You should try it sometime.  What is better draped over pasta perfectly al dente  than a tangy, velvety vodka sauce?   Our friends and family tell us that no vodka sauce is as intoxicatingly delicious as ours, and we believe them.

Onions and pancetta sautéed in butter is part of the secret.  The mild sweetness of the cream juxtaposed with the heat of crushed red pepper is another.  A perfectly smooth tomato sauce is a must, but there is another ingredient yet that makes our vodka sauce special – brandy.

We have our sister-in-law, Valentina, to thank for the brilliant decision to add brandy to vodka sauce.  We’re not sure why she has always added it, but we know that it makes the difference between a good vodka sauce and a great one.

Most of us are attracted to vodka sauce because of the sophisticated, slightly risque image it solicits (pasta sauce risque??).  There is functionality behind the fashion, however.  Tomatoes have flavor compounds that are alcohol-soluble, meaning that they are released by alcohol.  While the sauce simmers, the vodka and brandy tease these intense flavors out of the tomatoes.  The alcohol cooks off (mostly) in the process, leaving just a hint of boozy undertones.

So, go ahead and add some hooch to your tomato sauce from time to time.  You’re sure to become addicted.

Ingredients
1 lb package of penne or pennette
1 28-oz. can of whole tomatoes*
3 Tbsp. butter
1/4 of a medium onion
6 oz. pancetta
1/2 cup panna da cucina (or substitute crema mexicana, crème fraiche or heavy whipping cream)
1/2 C. vodka
1/4 C. brandy
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
Salt
Parmesan


Directions
Cut the onion into large pieces that can be removed once sautéed.  Dice the pancetta into small cubes.  In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the onion and pancetta and sauté until the onions are translucid and the pancetta is crispy.

Place the food mill on top of the saucepan and pass the tomatoes and their sauce through it, producing a smooth tomato sauce.  Add the vodka, brandy, crushed red pepper and salt.  Allow to simmer for 45 minutes.  Remove from heat, and add the panna da cucina and stir well.

In the meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil.  Add a handful of salt (possibly coarse salt) to the water, and add the pasta.  Cook to al dente according to the time on the package.

Drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and pour the sauce over it.  Serve immediately topped with grated parmesan.

Rabbit with white wine and rosemary

A 19th century recipe for rabbit stew is widely (but questionably) reported to have begun with the phrase, “First, catch a hare.”

As practical that that advice may sound, we opt for farm-raised rabbit.  Rabbit can be found at specialty butcher shops, like Clancey’s Meat and Fish in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, where we purchased ours.

Although rabbit is relatively rare in North America, it is a common dish in across western Europe, as well as in South America, and in parts of the Middle East and Asia.  Rabbit meat is lean, fine grained and high in protein, making it a healthy and versatile white meat.

Cooked on the stovetop with white wine and rosemary and usually served with roasted potatoes, rabbit was a common Sunday afternoon dish at Stefano’s mom’s house in Italy.

Ingredients
1 whole rabbit
1/4 C. white wine
1 dash white wine vinegar
1/8 C. olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 large sprig rosemary
Salt and Pepper
Optional – 1 cup flour
Optional – crushed red pepper

Directions

Cut the rabbit into pieces with a large butcher knife.

If you like a creamier texture, place the flour into a shallow bowl and dust each piece of rabbit in flour on all sides.  However, you can omit the flour if you wish.  We like rabbit both ways.

Mince the garlic and sauté it in the oil in a large pan until golden brown. Add the white wine and white wine vinegar, and allow the mixture to continue to simmer on medium heat. Carefully arrange the rabbit in the skillet.

Add rosemary leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. If you like white meats with a little heat, add a little crushed red pepper. Cover, and cook over medium heat, turning on occasion, for approximately 20-25 minutes. Serve with vegetables or roasted potatoes.

Wine Pairing
We drank a 2009 Pinot Grigio from Alois Lageder with our rabbit.  It is a medium-bodied, well-balanced pinot grigio with a nice floral bouquet.  It pairs very well with white meat.  Alois Lageder is a producer from the Alto Adige region, located in the Dolomites in  northeast Italy.

Pappardelle con ricotta e fiori di zucca

We’re back to writing about zucchini blossoms.  They are just so pretty, fragrant and delicious that we couldn’t stop with just one summer dish, especially when we ran across this recipe for Pappardelle with Ricotta, Zucchini Blossoms and Basil Oil in the New York Times recently.

Usually we write about our own recipes, or those that come from our family and friends in Italy.  Every once in a while, though, a published recipe catches out attention, and we decide to try it.  The ingredient list of this recipe captivated us.  Fresh ricotta, zucchini blossoms and basil oil – what an ingenious combination!  And there isn’t a more delightful pasta to host it than loopy, ribbon-like pappardelle.

Our intuition was correct.  The pasta turned out wonderful – delicate and balanced, perfect for a late-summer dinner.   We made a few changes to the recipe, adding additional zucchini flowers and ricotta, and sautéing the zucchini for longer than called for in the original recipe, as we prefer them more tender.  We chose the sweeter and milder flavor of cow’s milk ricotta over ricotta made from sheep’s milk.  Go out of your way to find high quality fresh ricotta.

The timing of this recipe was perfect, as we have submitted it to this week’s Presto Pasta Nights, a weekly roundup of pasta dishes prepared by food bloggers around the world.  Presto Pasta Nights was created by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast, and this edition, the 226th, is hosted by Simona of Briciole, whose homemade ricotta and pasta recipes we will attempt the next time we make Pappardelle con ricotta e fiori di zucca.

Ingredients
Serves 4

For the basil oil
1 bunch of basil
1 clove garlic
Zest of a quarter lemon
1/2 C olive oil
Salt and Pepper

For the pasta
1 lb pappardelle
2 small zucchinis
1 cup fresh cow’s milk ricotta
12-18 zucchini blossoms
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Pecorino cheese

Directions

Prepare the basil oil by chopping the basil and mincing the garlic finely, and adding it to the olive oil.  Grate the lemon zest and add it to the oil.  Salt and pepper to taste, and set aside.

Place a large pot of water on high heat, and while waiting for the water to boil, prepare the zucchini and blossoms.  Slice the zucchini thinly and set aside.  Remove the stems and stamen or pistils (read here for more about zucchini flower gender) and rinse the flowers carefully under water.  Pat dry, and then cut lengthwise into strips.

When the water boils, throw a handful of coarse salt into the pot, and add the pappardelle.  Cook until al dente according to the time specified on the package.  While the pasta cooks, sauté the zucchini slices in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan, salting and peppering the zucchini to taste.

Drain the pasta when cooked, retaining 1-2 cups of the cooking water.  Return the pappardelle to the pan with the zucchini slices.  Add the zucchini flowers and the ricotta, and stir over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, adding the pasta’s cooking water as needed to render the ricotta creamy and the zucchini flowers soft.

Serve immediately with a a drizzle of basil oil and a dusting of pecorino cheese on top.


How to Drive on the Amalfi Coast, and what to see along the way

It happened again.  At a party last weekend, we found ourselves enthusiastically in conversation with friends who are planning a trip to Italy in October and who want ideas about places to visit.

The Amalfi Coast or costiera amalfitana, is one of our favorite places in Italy.  The dramatic mountain cliffs rise up against the emerald-blue sea sparkling in the sunlight below.  Pastel colored villages carved into the mountain-side shine vibrantly against the landscape, while scented lemon groves and a salty sea breeze fill the air.

image from http://sfondiperte.altervista.org/wallpapers/mete-turistiche

The drive along this spectacular coastline is simply breathtaking.  It’s not, though, for the faint of heart.  With steep rock on one side and a dramatic drop to the Mediterranean on the other, the narrow road clings to the mountain and follows the twisting shoreline, resulting in winding roads and sharp curves.  Equipped with a sense of adventure and some solid advice, you can drive the coast and experience one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

If you already know this and want to skip directly to the driving lesson, scroll to the bottom of this post.  Otherwise, read on for our recommendations on where to go and what to do on your trip.

Location
The Amalfi Coast is the 60 km (37 mile) stretch of coastline between Sorrento and Salerno, located just south of the Bay of Naples.  The most charismatic part of the coast is between the cities of Positano and Vietri sul Mare.  36 km (22 miles) separate the two cities.

Itinerary
1.  Vietri sul Mare
2.  Ravello
3.  Amalfi
4.  Positano

Directions
Arriving from Rome or any other northern Italian city, take the Autostrada A1 south toward Naples.  Just past Naples, exit onto the Autostrada A3 headed toward Salerno-Reggio Calabria.  Follow the A3 past Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano whose eruption in AD 79  buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, to the Vietri sul Mare exit.  Follow the road down to toward the city of Vietri sul Mare.  As you drive down the hill, you will have your first glance at the sea down below.  As you enter the town, you will see a municipal parking lot.  If space is available, this is your best parking option.  There is a parking ticket machine at one end of the lot.  Pay in advance and place your ticket on your dashboard.  If there is no available space in the lot, look for street parking.

Vietri sul Mare
Vietri sul Mare is famous for its hand-painted ceramics.  Ceramic-tiled storefronts line the main street of the village.

image from http://www.amalficoastceramics.it

Inside there are dishes, vases, urns, wall-tiles and countless other items hand painted in vibrant colors in the traditional style of the Amalfi Coast.  Stefano and I began a collection of dishes years and years ago, and each time we go back we acquire a few more pieces.

From Rome, it’s a 2 and a half to three-hour drive to Vietri sul Mare.  Plan to arrive in the morning and do your shopping before lunch.  Stores will close at approximately 1:00.

Lunch
Leave Vietri sul Mare and proceed west along the coastal road.  Stop for lunch at Torre Normanna for spectacular coastal views and perfectly prepared seafood in an amazing location.

Proceed along the coastal road through the villages of Maiori and Minori, stopping for a caffè or a gelato if you wish, and on towards Amalfi.  We will save Amalfi for tomorrow, however.  When you arrive at the village of Castiglione, turn right and follow Via Castiglione up the mountain to the city of Ravello.

Ravello
Ravello sits high on the mountain overlooking the Amalfi Coast below.  It is a quaint town, and has been home to many famous artists, musicians and writers, the most notable of whom include Richard Wagner, who found inspiration for his opera Parsifal,  and D.H. Lawrence., who wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, here.

image from www.tafter.it

Ravello is home to two villas with striking architecture and gorgeous gardens.  Villa Rufolo, originally a watchtower, is an oasis of serenity with it Moorish cloister that reflects the Arab cultural influence and its immaculately cured garden on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.  Wagner loved this garden, and each summer during the Ravello Festival concerts are held in this garden, with the sea as a spectacular backdrop.  Villa Cimbrone is equally beautiful, with its lush gardens, temples , statues, and fountains and its famous terrace named Belvedere of Infinity for its view out over the coast and the vast expanse of sea below.

Spend the night in Ravello.  There are many hotel choices at a variety of price points.  Some hotels are located just outside the gates of the city just off of the main road, and are quite accessible.  Others are tucked away inside the town, often down narrow cobblestone paths.  Before making a reservation, ask about parking (there essentially is none inside the city walls), and also about luggage services.  Be specific about where the nearest parking is, what parking costs, how far there is to walk, whether it is up or down hills, and if there is help with luggage.  And of course, request a room with a sea view.

We stayed Villa San Michele years ago and were very satisfied.  We have also stayed at Villa Amore.  This more cost effective hotel is located deep into the heart of Ravello.  A simple and clean place, it has a few rooms with small gardens overlooking the sea.  Ask for a room with a full sea-view, vista sul mare, and don’t accept a partial or blocked view.  Don’t be afraid to not accept a room if the view does not meet your expectations, and even to leave for a different hotel if they cannot offer you a different room.  You are on the Amalfi Coast and a full-sea view is a must.

image from http://www.italianvisits.com/tours/campania/accom-amalfi.htm

Many hotels along the Amalfi Coast offer a full- or half-pension.  A full-pension includes breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The half-pension, which we prefer, includes breakfast and either lunch or dinner.  You need to let the hotel manager know each morning which meal you plan to have there.  Our recommendation is to take advantage of the half-pension, eating lunch away from the hotel while you are exploring the coastline, and having dinner back at the hotel.  We’ve always enjoyed the hotel dinners we’ve had on the Amalfi Coast; well prepared meals that take advantage of the fresh seafood, sun-ripened tomatoes, and amazing mozzarella di bufala native to that part of the country.

In the morning, have a caffè, hop back in the car and take Via Castiglione back down to SS163, the official name for the coastal road, and proceed toward Amalfi.

Amalfi
Once a the capital of the powerful Maritime Republic of Amalfi, but later ravaged by years of natural disaster and poverty, Amalfi is now a quaint, if very touristy, town.  As you enter the town you will see several municipal parking lots near the shore, often with city traffic officers directing tourists into parking spaces.  Be prepared to pay the high parking fees – there simply is no alternative.

Head up the hill into Piazza Duomo, the town square.  Admire the cherubs and chuckle at the nymph’s water-jetting bosom at the Fontana di Sant’Andrea in the center of the square, and then turn to your right and visit Pasticceria Pansa for a Neopolitan-style pastry and a cappuccino or a cup of tea.

image from http://pasticceriapansa.it

Make a mental note to return to buy some chocolate-dipped candied citrus peel or babà al limoncello to take away with you.

Adjacent to Pasticceria Pansa is the impressive 10th century Duomo di Sant’Andrea with its Arab, Norman and Gothic influences.  Climb the 62 steps up to to the cathedral and admire its bronze doors, cast in Constantinople  in AD 1044.  Inside the Duomo frescos cover the walls of the Baroque interior.   Be sure not to miss the Cloister of Paradise on the left side of the cathedral’s portico, with its Moorish white marble arches and beautiful garden.

After exiting the Duomo, stroll up the the streets of Amalfi and into the small alleyways of the village.  Although the small shops are often over-priced, some fun items can be found.  Look for confections of limoncello, the lemon-infused liquor made popular by the Amalfi Coast, or glass jars of tuna canned in olive oil.  We promise you it will be the best tuna you’ve tasted.  Before returning to your car, stroll down to the shoreline to see the quaint fishing boats and the sometimes impressive yachts docked in the harbor.

Lunch
Have lunch in Amalfi, or find a spot further down the coast on your way towards Positano.  Two highly recommended places are Ristorante Eola, which is along the coast  in Amalfi, and Hostaria il Pino, which is further along the coastal road near the town of Praiano, just over half-way between Amalfi and Positano.

Positano
Positano is a jet-set and touristy village built dramatically and steeply into the side of the mountain in stunning pastel colors that glow in the evening sunlight.

image from http://bougainville.it

Parking in Positano can be challenging.  If you plan to spend the night in Positano, be sure to find a hotel that offers parking.  In the best case scenario, you will pull off on the side of the road in front of your hotel, go in to check in, and hand your keys over to a valet, and not worry about your car again until you are ready to leave Positano.  Luggage service is another thing to ask about.  Steep staircases unlike anything you have ever seen have been cut into the mountain to allow locals and tourists to move about through the village.  However, you don’t want to try to go up and down those with heavy suitcases!  If you are not staying overnight, you will need to pay 20-30 Euros per day to park in a garage.  It is outrageous, but simply part of the cost of experiencing the beauty of the Amalfi Coast.

In Positano, stroll up and down the charismatic labyrinth of streets.  Shopping is one of the highlights of this little town, and hand-crafted, made-to-measure strappy leather sandals are what Positano is famous for.  You can choose from a variety of styles and leathers and in about 10 minutes you will have your sandals made exclusively for you.  They will cost a pretty penny, but will also last forever.

Wander down to the beach to soak up some Mediterranean sun, or simply for a stroll.  There are two beaches: Spiaggia di Marina Grande is the busiest of the two, while Spiaggia di Formillo, a little further west, is quieter.  Don’t expect white sand; both beaches are made up of small, round pebbles.  You will want sandals to walk in, and if you plan on spending time on the beach it is worth renting chairs and an umbrella.  From the beach you can see Li Galli, the archipelago of little islands just off of the coast that are said to be where the Sirens seduced Ulysses and other ship captains in Homer’s Odyssey.  The coast is home to dozens of spots to grab a drink, an afternoon aperitif, or dinner.

If you prefer action over relaxation, consider taking a ferry to the islands of Ischia or Capri for a day trip.  You will see a lot of advertising about the Grotta dello Smeraldo, the sea cave full of stalactites and stalagmites that fills with emerald-glowing light.  Most reviews suggest that it is an excursion to pass on.

Directions out of the Amalfi Coast
When you are ready to leave Positano and end your stay on the Amalfi coast, get back onto the coastal road SS163 and follow it west.  It will eventually take you inland in the direction of Sorrento.  Follow the signs to Sorrento; the road will eventually turn into SS145.  Stop and stay in Sorrento for a night, or follow the SS145 until you see signs for E45 Napoli/Roma.  Take the E45 Napoli/Roma, which will turn into the Autostrada A1 headed toward Rome.

How to Drive on the Amalfi Coast
By now you are enamored with the costiera amalfitana, appreciative of the flexibility that a car offers, and enticed to experience the amazing coastal drive yourself.  You can; just follow the advice below.

  1. Choose a smaller-size car.  It will be easier to handle on the curves.  Too much luggage is a hassle on the coast anyway.
  2. Consider automatic vs. manual transmission.  Most Italian cars have manual transmission (cambio manuale), and if you know how to drive a straight-stick, the manual transmission is a lot of fun.  Be prepared, however, for frequent shifting between first, second and third gear as you speed up and slow down on the winding roads.  If this isn’t your thing, get a rental car with automatic transmission (cambio automatico).
  3. Keep an eye out for the scooters.  Locals, especially the youth, use motorini and Vespas to travel up and down the coast.  Their driving will seem reckless to you, especially as they pass you on the right, squeezing between your car and the mountain wall.  Keep your cool and stay in your lane.  Don’t be tempted to veer into the oncoming lane to go around them.  They’ve driven this road hundreds of times, and you haven’t.  They know when they fit and when they don’t.
  4. Don’t get too adventurous and rent a scooter yourself.  You’re not ready for that yet.  If you get really good at driving the road in a car, then you could maybe consider it.
  5. Don’t drive too fast, but don’t drive too slow, either.  It’s very frustrating to be stuck behind a tourist who is creeping along the road, holding up traffic behind him or her.  This is especially frustrating for the locals.
  6. Be mindful of cars flashing their lights at you; this is a form of communication in Italy.  If an oncoming car flashes its lights at you, this means “watch out” or “get out of my way.”  If a car behind you flashes its lights at you, this generally means “hurry up.”
  7. Slow down and hug the walls as you go around curves; you can’t see what is coming around the corner from the other direction.  At some point, you’ll be surprised when you see a larger vehicle or a tour bus in the other lane and realize that you both don’t fit.
  8. When you encounter a tour bus on a curve, the tour bus has precedence.  Slow down or stop if necessary to let it get around first.  If you encounter a tour bus on a curve and you both cannot fit, you will be expected to carefully and slowly back up to allow the bus through.  Put your car into reverse so that the cars behind you see your reverse lights and understand that they also need to back up, and slowly move backwards until the bus can get by.  It will be scary the first time, but you’ll be fine and the cars behind you will understand that they need to back up, too.
  9. If you are approaching a curve and you hear a deep horn honk, it is likely a tour bus approaching from the other side.  Hug the wall and slow down, so that hopefully the bus can get by and you can avoid #8 above.
  10. You will encounter men and women with small fruit stands in little enclaves along the side of the road.  They will be selling what appear to be gigantic lemons, but are actually citrons, which are more for attention-grabbing that anything else.  You can stop, but you need to pull off the road into the enclave so that you are not blocking traffic.
  11. When you park, allow your passenger to get out of the car first so that you can park tightly against the side of the road and the wall.
  12. Before getting out of your car, look very carefully behind you to be sure that you are not opening your car door in front of an oncoming car, or even worse, a scooter.
  13. When you close your doors, take a moment to turn your side mirrors in against the car door.  On this stretch of road, every inch counts.
  14. Finally, go easy on the white wine and limoncello if you are hopping back into your car after lunch.  This isn’t the time to play Mario Andretti.

Have you been to the Amalfi Coast?  Tell us about your experiences and recommendations.

Have you driven on the Amalfi Coast?  We welcome your comments and feedback on our advice above.

More on the Amalfi Coast:

The Amalfi Coast is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Read what National Geographic says about the Amalfi Coast Roadtrip.

View this YouTube video of driving on the Amalfi Coast.  It’s the real deal, with delightful music in the background.  Our only comment is that the filmperson was so focused on the road itself, the video does not do justice to the spectacular coastal views.

TripAdvisor has a forum on driving on the Amalfi Coast, with advice for drivers and for those who prefer to hire a transport service.

Pizzette rustiche, the perfect party food

It’s the season of parties – graduation parties, children’s parties, block parties, and, as Stefano reminds me, his upcoming birthday party.  It’s not until September, but we are already planning for it since he is turning 40 and, he says, he wants it to be memorable.

When we threw parties in Italy, we would place an order at our favorite neighborhood pasticceria.  We’d choose an array of cream filled pasticcini mignon, delicate triangle-shaped sandwiches made from white bread with the crusts removed called tramezzini, and an assortment savory rustici salati.  Included in the rustici salati were pizzette, or bite-sized little pizzas with a variety of simple toppings.  Upon arriving home, we could never resist sneaking a few of the pizzette before the party began.

While nothing compares to the pizzette from an Italian pasticceria, very good pizzette can be made, really quite simply, right at home.

Before we jump into the how-to, however, there is a confession to be had.  Not everything in this recipe is made from scratch.  These pizzette are made from puff pastry, which one could try to make, if one really wanted to.  But who really wants to?  One recipe we saw warns that it is a three-day process.  While that sounds like a fun adventure some time, it’s not particularly practical, and we opted instead for the puff pastry that Pepperidge Farm sells in convenient frozen sheets and that work just perfectly for pizzette.

As much as we love to cook and bake, and as much as we appreciate home cooking with fresh natural ingredients, we are also adults with day jobs and other responsibilities.  If you are like us, once in a while it’s okay to accept some help, this time in the form of ready-made puff pastry.

The Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten, puts it best in her book entitled Parties!:

“I can’t say enough about assembling food rather than cooking.  I keep telling myself that my friends won’t have any more fun if I spend two days making a daquoise for dessert than if I find a delicious pound cake at a bakery and serve it with store-bought lemon curd and fresh raspberries.   In fact, they’ll have more fun, because I’m relaxed and having fun, too.”

We brought pizzette to our block party tonight, and they were devoured within minutes.  We’ll make them again for Stefano’s 40th birthday party, and undoubtedly the same thing will happen.  We will use store-bought puff pastry each time, knowing that they will turn out great, and that we’ll enjoy each party to its fullest, just as Ina says.

Ingredients
1 box (2 sheets) of frozen puff pastry
1 small can or tube of tomato paste
Olive oil
Salt
Oregano
Optional: fresh mozzarella, anchovies

Allow puff pastry to thaw.  Unfold the pastry sheets onto work surface, and with a small, round cookie cutter with a 2″-3″ diameter, cut out little pizza shapes and set them onto a baking tray.  If you do not have a round cookie cutter, a small glass or a mason jar lid will work fine.

Place a small dab of tomato paste in the center of each pizzette, and with your finger or the back of a small spoon, spread the paste around the center without reaching the edges.  You only require about 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp. of paste for each pizzetta, depending on their size.  Too much paste will weigh down the pizzette and not allow the puff pastry to rise while cooking.

Using a cooking brush, spread a light layer of olive oil over each pizzetta, again using caution to not overdo with too much oil.  Next, toss a light layer of salt over the pizzette, and consider how you wish to complete the toppings.

For classic pizzette, sprinkle dried oregano on top.  Alternatively, you may add a small piece of anchovy to the top of the pizzette and then the oregano.  Or, some people prefer to omit the oregano and add a few small pieces of fresh mozzarella on top.  If you opt for the mozzarella, it’s best to use a denser, less liquid cheese, and very small pieces on top of the pizzette, again so that the puff pastry can still rise in the oven.

Bake at 400° F for approximately 8 minutes, or until the pizzette have risen and are golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes; the pizzette will fall slightly.  Use a spatula to carefully remove them from the baking tray.

Makes approximately 20-24 pizzette