One thing that we have missed in our time of staying home, aside from being able to carry out our hiking tours with you, are the always welcome visits from the zie (pronounced tz-ee-ay), or aunties.  They are Mario’s sisters but we have called them “the aunties” since Lorenzo, the youngest nephew, was a doted upon child.

Photo by Jim Gregory

There are many reasons we admire and adore them, but one of the first things that comes to mind is their artistry in the kitchen, and their tireless energy in concocting delicious, traditional dishes—recipes learned from their own mother and aunts. They think nothing of rolling out some homemade egg pasta or whipping up a sweet dessert, much to our delight!  Some of you that have come to eat at our home in the countryside outside of Florence have met them and been able to taste firsthand the genuine dishes they prepare.

Anna is nine years older than Alba, but being the only sisters in a household of boys (Mario is the youngest of seven siblings) they have always been close friends. Alba is a ballroom dancer, Anna a bit shyer, but both are known for waking at dawn and taking long walks to hunt for mushrooms, or blackberries. And they are card sharks, always ready for a game…. Each has their specialties in the kitchen: Anna in preparing pasta and seafood and sauces, Alba for cakes and meat and eggplant parmesan, but they share and taste and offer advice and nudge each other and put together feasts, fit for royalty, with true pleasure.

They love it when groups come to the house and join in the cooking– chopping and slicing, rolling, grating, and tasting.

Alba has been studying English for at least 15 years and although she tries, still mixes up “sister, daughter, husband, child”, making for interesting conversation!  She says:

It is so much fun to cook for your hikers from America —they are so friendly and open and make so many compliments! No one ever tells me how good my food tastes at home!

If memories of Italian meals inspire you, we thought it would be helpful to include a couple of their recipes here.

Feel free to contact us with any questions, or any requests for things you would like recipes for, either from our picnics or from dinners we have shared!

SPAGHETTI ALLA CARRETTIERA (cart driver’s spaghetti)

For 4 people: (for 2 people use a smaller can and half ingredients)

  • 1 large can of tomatoes “pelati”, or peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice. This does not work with fresh tomatoes, or tomato sauce. Either pelati or canned crushed tomatoes.
  • 5  or 6 cloves of garlic
  • cayenne pepper, “peperoncino” flakes, ground or whole
  • 1/2 a bouillon cube
  • Olive oil
  • a nice bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley, de-stemmed
  • Spaghetti

In a large frying pan (you will be tossing the pasta here so make sure it is big enough) put 5 tablespoons of olive oil. Add 2 whole cloves of garlic, and heat on a low heat till it just starts to sizzle and smell good (not fry! Not brown or burn!) At this point add the cayenne pepper—this depends on how spicy you like it, and how hot your peppers are.  I like to use flakes, and would start with a half a teaspoon). When the cayenne is just sizzling with the garlic, add the whole can of tomatoes, juice and all. You will want to mash them, either with a fork or a potato masher. I use my hands- (before it gets hot.) I squish the tomatoes, removing any cores or skin. Let the tomato bubble with the oil, garlic and cayenne. At this point take the bouillon cube, put it in the empty can the tomatoes were in, add a about 1/8th of a cup of boiling water from your pot, which dissolves the cube and rinses the remaining tomato from the can. Add to sauce. It will bubble happily for 5 or 10 minutes. Taste, and add more salt or more cayenne, as desired.  Meanwhile, take the remaining 3 cloves of garlic and chop them finely together with the bunch of parsley (not a few sprigs, but  a bunch– you want a lot of green which cuts the garlic and spice and makes the taste fresh.)  I use a little electric chopper; the sisters use a chopping knife or mezzaluna. When the water boils, add the spaghetti. Cook until they are very al dente, about 2 minutes away from being done.  Drain them well, and add them to the sauce. Let them cook the last 2 minutes in the sauce.  Do not let the pasta get mushy. Add the parsley/garlic mix and stir another minute. Drizzle another couple of spoons of olive oil over the top just before you serve. It is one of our favorites, simple but so good.  Technically you do not put grated cheese on this pasta (Italians say: “no cheese on carrettiera or on fish sauce pasta”) but Mario says you can do whatever you like.

CROSTATA DI MORE (blackberry jam tart)

  • 1 ½  cups flour + 1 tsp. baking powder  + ½ tsp. salt            (can also use 1 cup flour and ½ c. ground almonds)
  • ¾  stick softened butter
  • 1 egg
  • grated lemon or orange peel, optional
  • 1 c. sugar 
  • Jam,  about 1 to 1 ½ cups  (We often make it with blackberry jam, but have used plum, fig, orange, apple, pear and cherry with equally delectable results!)

Mix the dough together, kneading very lightly, just till it comes together in a ball. Cover with saran wrap and let “rest” for half an hour. Saving ¼ of the dough for the lattice on top, press the rest, with floured fingers, into a round pie pan. Fill with jam. Using a floured board, roll out snakes and place in a pattern on top of jam: either in a criss-cross pattern, or diagonal squiggles, or radiating like a sun.

Bake at 350 till done—about 30 minutes.  (We usually use a large glass pie plate, and increase the amount accordingly)