I Ate the State – Special Edition: Summertime in Italy (featuring guest writer Erica Kees)

Greetings!

As I’m sure many of you are doing, I’ve been embarking upon a bit of armchair traveling these past few months. In addition to the many hours of travel and foodie shows I’ve been binge-watching, I’ve been doing a bit of traveling in my mind. Memories from past travels, amazing meals with family and friends, foodie adventures and misadventures – you name it, I’ve been dreaming of it. With these wonderful memories have come thoughts of places I’ve yet to visit and even ideas for future projects. It was that very inspiration which brings me to this special edition of I Ate the State.

I’ve been very lucky in my life to meet a handful of extraordinary people with whom I’ve been sharing adventures for many, many years. They are not only my dearest friends, but have become my family. They are people I love, respect and admire; people who have helped mold me into the person I am today. To imagine my life without this group of friends paints a sad and lackluster picture.

An important member of this cherished cast of characters is my dear friend, Erica Kees. One of the most interesting, talented and fearless people I’ve ever met, Erica is the true definition of a global citizen. Though we met growing up in the Tri-Cities, she has led a fascinating global life both before and after our desert adventures. Born in California, she spent her first few years in the Berkeley area. When her dad, Martin, graduated from Berkeley, the family moved to Nigeria where he taught Optometry and assisted in clinics in Benin City.  After two years, they returned to the states and found their way to Washington State for a spell. Since then, Erica has added many more locations to her travel and homestead passports over the years. The United States, the Cayman Islands, Guatemala, France and Italy are some of the places she’s called home and her travel roster is larger still. To say she has countless, enthralling adventures to share is indeed an understatement.

Erica and Martin
Erica and her brilliant dad, Martin. Talking to Martin about music and his amazing fractal art was always a joy.

Erica and I met while studying classical voice with Annabelle Wall in the Tri-Cities. We went to various vocal competitions, studied with the Maestro of the Mid-Columbia Symphony and spent hours talking about music and art. We also spent countless hours discussing the places we were excited to visit and the adventures we were dreaming of experiencing. (As there weren’t many artistic opportunities in the Tri-Cities at the time, this was an absolute necessity.) Additionally, her brilliant parents, Martin and Rena, were hugely influential to me in the areas of music, travel, creative thinking and much more. I owe my love of opera, Frank Zappa, Philip Glass and many other artists directly to Erica and her parents. I have the fondest memories of the Kees family, including randomly stopping by their home where I ended up talking with Erica’s dad, Martin, on the front porch about music for at least an hour. (Erica left her dad’s original Yamaha DX7 with me when she moved to the Cayman Islands and I still have it set up!)

During our college years, Erica and I studied together at both Columbia Basin College and Cornish College of the Arts and even lived in the same apartment building on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Unfortunately, our time together in Seattle was relatively short-lived as Erica made the decision to join her parents who had recently moved to the Cayman Islands. After enjoying life in the Caymans and fitting in various adventures and studies around the globe, she returned stateside to study Computer Science at the University of Chicago and Loyola University. While attending, she met her future husband, Enrico, who was a visiting Research Associate, based out of Milan, Italy. After finishing her degree, she continued to live and work in Chicago before leaving the States to embark upon an adventurous new chapter with Enrico in Monza, Italy.

And that is where we find Erica today; leading a beautiful life with Enrico and their two children, just outside of Milan in the lovely town of Monza. (I’m looking forward to visiting the beautiful Villa Reale and the Cathedral of Monza – circa 600 CE – on my future visit, not to mention MANY tasty restaurants.) Enrico is an Associate Professor at Politecnico di Milano and Erica is an adjunct teacher at the public high school for language learning and tourism, Mosè Bianchì. They still regularly visit the US, but spend the majority of their time in and around Italy. Food, family, travel, the Arts – All the things Erica and I dreamed of growing up are now an integral part of her daily life. I know she’ll never stop exploring or learning about the world around us and it’s one of my greatest wishes to at last get to join her on a few of her Italian adventures. After reading her article below, I’m pretty sure you’ll feel the same.

And without further ado, I present to you the lovely, Erica Kees to bring us a little slice of her Italian bliss. Take it away, Erica!

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Summer on a Plate – by Erica Kees

Firstly, I’d like to shout out to Dayna, my dear pal from our Tri-Cities days.  Grazie Mille (thanks a thousand! Yes, we do say thousand instead of a million!) for inviting me to add some Italian flavor to your highly entertaining, “I Ate the State” blog.  I can’t wait to follow Dayna’s further adventures in the Pacific Northwest and beyond (hopefully here, gosh darn it!) once we all somehow escape our own version of this Covid-19 nightmare.  In the meantime, I hope I can give you a glimpse, as an American living in northern Italy for the past 14 years, of our majestic and celebrated “summertime” menu.

Italians tend to eat lighter and brighter in the summer.  They actually refuse, completely turn up noses, to dishes they had devoured just a season ago.  At first, as an American, I could not understand the clear protocol about “stagionalità” or seasonality.  For example, polenta, stews, hot soups, fried food and other generally heavy dishes are considered strictly winter/autumn dishes.  However, chestnuts and pumpkin are only eaten in the fall.  Most Italians never enjoy a gelato in the winter!  They say that gelato is made for the summer.  In fact, my mother-in-law never had gelato in either the autumn or winter! In fact, all restaurants completely change their menus each season, well, unless they are created specifically to cater for tourists.  Why?  Well, usually tourists ask for the dishes they personally feel are typical even if it is in the wrong season.  So the restaurants do make exceptions and look on with a sense of pity, no doubt.

Let’s talk about the centerpiece of the Italian summer cuisine, the tomato. It’s certainly true that the tomato is a native fruit, born to the New World, but when you ponder the dishes of the Americas, the tomato does not leap to mind as the star ingredient.  There is no country, no group of people more united in their love and affection for the tomato, our “pomodoro”, than Italy.  Italians enjoy them in every way, not just as a way to dress up pasta or pizza – but also savory sun-dried and packed under oil, alongside beans, in soups, dotted on focaccia, or as the protagonist of the most famous of summer salads: La Insalata Caprese.  The name means “Salad of Capri,” the famous island just a 2-hour ferry ride from Naples.  (All Anglophones pronounce “Capri” incorrectly, leading to confusion.  I learnt very quickly that the accent is on the first syllable.) The Caprese represents the colors of the Italian flag; it feels like summer on a plate.  Why do you need a recipe to make it?  Well, you don’t really – surely we can remember the 3 essential ingredients:  tomatoes, basil, and the best mozzarella you can find.  Good luck there.  For sure, the summer sun and a green thumb can help. Every Italian nonna (grandma) will tell you it’s all about the quality of the ingredients that you use.  First of all, if the pomodori (tomatoes) are picked immediately from your garden, you will guarantee to have a showstopper on your plate.  If you find them at a local farm or market, your Caprese won’t win the four stars you’d get by growing them yourself but that’s clearly better than the supermarket, hands down.  Same goes for basil.  Why don’t you grow your own basilico on your balcony? (If you already do, scusami!) The leaves will be long and fragrant, just picked before dressing your Caprese.

Does anything close to real Mozzarella actually exist in America?  I’ve never found it. Well, I’m guessing there must be some incredibly savvy farmer out there raising grass-fed animals, creating some fantastic cheese in maybe California? You’ve got to find it! By all means, write me about it if you do.  Americans, for the most part, are agnostics when considering real Mozzarella! If you don’t know it actually exists, well, it isn’t a big problem until you actually try the real deal. Problem is, you will be converted once you’ve tried it. In Italy, the most prized form of Mozzarella is called “Mozzarella di latte di bufala” because only the Italian Water Buffalo’s milk, extremely rich and creamy, is used in all regions where the cheese is made.  This heavenly cheese came from the region of Campana, in the south.  Scientists are still unsure of where and when the Water Buffalo actually arrived in Italy.  We do know that the word “mozzarella” is from “mozzare”, meaning “cutting by hand,” as each piece is separated from the curd and formed into balls or “pearls of the table.”

Rodeo di Sapori Market
It says: “HER MAJESTY: The ‘FIGLIATA” This fantastic “Water Buffalo Mozzarella” filled with little bites and cream – you can only find it from us.” From “Rodeo di Sapori” market

What about additions to increase the savory flavors on your plate?  Freshly ground sea salt (but on the tomato not the cheese, please), pepper (optional), and a drizzling of an excellent Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (essential EVOO!) are key to dress or condire your Caprese.  You might feel inspired to add other flavors that complement the dish perfectly: fragrant oregano, finely chopped red onion, or even a handful of assorted olives and capers.  I’ve even broken the rules by adding a small 1/2  teaspoon of chopped chiles (just not done in Italy) but, that my friends, is an addition simply due to my Mexican roots. Others like to add balsamic vinegar, but I personally believe it pairs better with melon (for example, cantaloupe) and prosciutto crudo (raw cured ham), yet another summer delight.

Here in Monza, a northern suburb of Milan in the region of Lombardy, we have a number of open air markets that we frequent a few times a week.  They wouldn’t be considered “farmers’ markets” like in the States – they sell everything, from fruits & vegetables to fresh fish, cleaning supplies, and even underwear. I never miss the fresh ravioli maker’s stall (when I’m not searching for stylish new drawers) which has at least 30 different types on offer. Some popular fillings in the summer time are: shrimp and zucchini, fig and prosciutto ham, and ricotta cheese and lemon.  If you don’t have time to make your own ravioli (well only during a pandemic!) it’s the place to stop. Just add to salted boiling water and serve with a sage-butter sauce and top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, the real deal.

Ravioli
Ravioli: Fig with prosciutto, Ricotta Lemon, Zucchini flowers, “speck” (an alpine ham) and brie, 5 cheeses

The open air markets are hardly ever closed.  The only time we’ve ever seen them closed was during our cruel spring Coronavirus lock-down from March to May.  Even when it is raining or freezing, the hundreds of vendors are selling, like I mentioned, everything from linens to sotto olio (which is anything packed in olive oil in glass jars meant to accompany your dishes, like artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, fish, and the like).  Most Italians do not like to cook during the unbearably hot summers, so picking up an already baked focaccia, some pizzette (little pizzas only sold at the bakeries or panifici), or ciabatte (loaves of bread in the shape of slippers, hence the name) is part of the “fast-food” tradition of summer that allows us to avoid turning on our ovens most of the time.

I wouldn’t actually call them recipes, per se, but here are two lovely summer salad ideas that are simple to assemble.  I’d love to see your versions of summer on a plate!  Drop me a jpeg! Contact me on Twitter @ericaamy

Buon appetito! E buone vacanze!

Insalata Caprese
Insalata Caprese

Insalata Caprese

  • 3 fist sized tomatoes, sliced. As ripe and fresh as possible, please (obviously, add more if you are hungry).
  • 1 ball of mozzarella di bufala (or facsimile)
  • A sprinkling of basil leaves (8-10)
  • Freshly ground sea salt and pepper
  • A drizzling of your best Italian EVOO

Non-traditional additions:

  • Minced red onion
  • Capers and olives
  • Diced chiles
  • Balsamic vinegar from Modena

Serve with crusty bread and more EVOO

Melon and “Burrata” (yet another type of Mozzarella) or with prosciutto

Melon and Burrata
Melon and Burrata – Delicious!
  • 3 or more slices of ripe cantaloupe melon
  • A ripe fig or two
  • Mozzarella (in this case “burrata”)
  • A sprig of basil
  • Drizzles of EVOO and balsalmic vinegar
  • A handful of walnuts
  • Freshly ground salt and pepper
  • Some crazy Californian folks even add sliced avocado, but this is really not Italian!
  • Schiacciatine al rosmarino (a type of crunchy flatbread topped with sea salt and rosemary)
Buckwheat Pasta
Fresh buckwheat pasta with ceci and summer veg – Sapori d’Abruzzo

 

In the spirit of Dayna’s blog and our deep love and connection to music, I’ve added a YouTube playlist so your mood becomes all the more Italiano-charged! For a non-video version, you can also check it out on SPOTIFY

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And now, back to my armchair…

Molte grazie, Erica, for the beautiful glimpse into your life in Italy. I truly can’t wait to visit and enjoy everything in person. While I’m waiting, I’ll just have to live vicariously through your words, recipes and lovely pictures… And perhaps share a few resources for Seattle-area readers should they be also be inspired to travel virtually.

Erica wrote of the glory of local buffalo mozzarella and featured burrata in one of her recipes. However, until I’m able to visit the Rodeo di Sapori Market in person, I will have to make do with local offerings. Though I’m certain shopping for Italian ingredients in a lovely Italian marketplace is definitely the way to go, there are also some pretty delicious resources in the Seattle area. Should you be looking for ingredients for your next Italian-inspired meal, consider these local options:

*Be sure to check online for updated Covid-19 guidelines and opening/closing times for the businesses featured below.

  • Check out De Laurenti Food & Wine for a dreamy treasure-trove of Italian specialty foods. Located in Pike Place Market since 1946, they feature fresh deli meats, cheeses, wines and more. This place is amazing and has been charming, daring and taunting me into trying delicious foods since my first childhood visit. I’m fairly certain they are wholly responsible for my long obsession with Italian nougat… (Open Mon-Sat, 10am – 5pm and Sun, 11am – 4pm)

PRO TIP: Do not miss a trip to world-renowned Pike Place Market, overlooking the waterfront in downtown Seattle. This is the place of my foodie and Art dreams and it has been fueling my stomach and artistic endeavors throughout my entire life. Check online for hours, but produce stands are generally open 9am – 5pm and the fish market, from 9am – 3pm. This place is a GOLD MINE.

  • While they don’t have mozzarella, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Pike Place Market does make some pretty amazing cheese. Their Flagship, New woman and cheese curd varieties are fantastic – and don’t miss out on their house-made Mac & Cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and the ongoing cheese curd show! (Watch them churn the cheese curds in a huge vat in the corner window) Order online for pick-up, 10am – 5pm daily.
  • Found in several local-area farmer’s markets, King’s Mozzarella features some pretty rockin’ and much sought after fresh mozzarella varieties. Check their Facebook page to see where they’ll be next!
  • For the most delectable, house-made cured meats, head to Salumi, located in Pioneer Square. Pick up everything needed for an epic charcuterie spread or fall in love with one of their amazing house sandwiches. (I would marry their Porchetta sandwich if it were legal.) They do also make delicious mozzarella and other cheeses in house – call ahead to place a takeout or delivery order. (Wed – Sat, 11am – 2pm and 4pm – 6pm)
Tomatoes and Mozz
My take on Erica’s recipe. Pretty tasty! (But missing that real-deal Italian mozz, for sure)

In addition to meats and cheeses, you might find yourself in need of fresh baked goods, vegetables and important items such as extra-virgin olive oil. You’re in great luck as Seattle and the surrounding areas have an excellent selection of farmer’s markets and local stores to hit up. Check out these great options for future recipe needs:

Should you be more in the market for a professional chef preparing your favorite Italian dishes, Seattle has a great offering in the way of restaurants. Would I prefer to be eating my meal and sipping a glass of wine at an outdoor table in, say, Monza, where I hope to soon be visiting my pal, Erica? ABSOLUTELY! However, since that might not be until (hopefully) next summer, I’ll live vicariously through the great local spots while I wait…

  • Focusing on Northern Italian cuisine, Café Juantia in Kirkland is absolutely wonderful. James Beard Award winner, Holly Smith, has been welcoming guests to this tucked away location since 2000. It is without a doubt, one of my favorite places to dine in the Northwest. They’re currently doing At Home with Café Juanita take-away orders where you can find full dinners, antipasti, burrata dishes, fresh heirloom tomatoes and much more. Tuesday – Friday, 2:30 – 4pm for pickup. (Order 24 hours in advance)
  • Opened in 1991, the year before I officially moved to Seattle, Serafina features delicious Italian fare in a charming, neighborhood setting. The burrata salad, Agnolotti dal Plin and a selection from their great wine list makes for quite a delicious evening. And don’t forget the panna cotta! I have many fond memories of listening to local Jazz artists at Serafina while enjoying a glass of wine. I even worked on a film shoot there during my short-lived film crew days. Very good times… Take-out and dine-in for dinner, Thursday through Sunday, 5-9pm.
  • For great pizza made in a handmade, wood-fired brick oven imported from Naples, head to Cornuto on Phinney Ridge. (Part of the Via Tribunali family of restaurants) Their Bufalina D.O.C. pizza and Mezza Luna Nutella dessert (Nutella filled calzone with powdered sugar – SO good!) are two of my very favorite things. Open for take-out from 4-9pm.
  • I love the DERU Market, located in Kirkland’s North Rose Hill neighborhood. They serve fantastic sandwiches on house-made focaccia bread, featuring house-roasted turkey and country ham, seasonal veggies, artisan cheeses and more. In addition, their wood-fired pizzas, farm salads, and baked goods are amazing. (I’m addicted to their salted peanut butter cookies and insanely large slices of cake.) They also feature giant meatballs, fig & pistachio meatloaf, veggie sides and a great offering of hot beverages and wine. Open daily, 8am – 9pm for take-out and limited delivery. (Pro tip: If you’re in need of great catering, look no further – DERU Market is awesome!)
  • Wallingford’s Bizzarro Italian Café is quirky, quaint, cozy and most importantly, delicious. Their house-made pasta – the Puttanesca and Sugar Snap Pea Carbonara are both delicious – meatballs and desserts are fabulous. They’re currently offering take-out and have opened an Outdoor Wine Corral for drinks while you wait for your take-away. Open 5pm – 8pm-ish.
  • Located in downtown Seattle and the Ballard neighborhood, Serious Pie is a great place to enjoy a pizza pie. They feature the classics, but I’m particularly fond of the Prosser Farm Potato, Rosemary and Pecorino Romano For dessert, DO NOT miss the Triple Coconut Cream Pie. Get it and don’t look back… Open for take-away, 11am – 7pm. Ballard Bonus: You can also order weekend brunch from Serious Biscuit. Check out the delicious breakfast biscuits like The Zack. YUM! They also feature Bloody Mary and Mimosa kits to-go! (Sat/Sun, 9am – 12pm for brunch) 11:30a – 8pm, for Serious Pie take-away.
  • Found in the Queen Anne neighborhood, How to Cook A Wolf features rustic, Italian-inspired food in a modern, yet cozy atmosphere. Their Prawn Tagliatelle and Heirloom Cucumber Salad (with huckleberries!) are excellent. Open daily for takeout from 4pm – 8pm. I’m also looking forward to another Ethan Stowell, Italian-inspired spot, Staple & Fancy re-opening. Their pasta and seafood dishes are delicious and trying their Chef’s Menu has long been on my to-do list.
  • While not necessarily a go-to for fine dining, Vito’s on Capitol Hill has been wooing patrons with their classic, darkened-booth Italian scene since 1953. Great drinks, classic fare, nightly music and who doesn’t love some private dining action in the Cougar Room? Currently open for take-away and delivery, Wed-Sun, 5-9pm.
  • Should you be perusing Pike Place Market for all the fresh goods, check out the delicious fare at longtime Market staple, The Pink Door. Classic, with a refined flair, their menu is very enjoyable and the ambiance is always lovely. I’m particularly fond of the lasagna and meatballs. Deck seating available and lunch and dinner takeout. Wednesday – Sunday, 11:30am – 4pm (lunch) and 5pm – 9pm (dinner)

As I bring this collaborative edition of I Ate the State to an end, I hope it finds you as inspired as I am to dive into a giant bowl of pasta and pour a large glass of vino. I’m very happy you had the opportunity to meet my dear friend, Erica, and hope you enjoyed your look into the beauty of the Italian summer. She has always been my hero when it comes going out and exploring the world; to venturing out and making her dreams become reality. This newest snapshot of her adventures only solidifies my feelings and I’m so excited to see more. I also have it on great authority that Erica and her family have recently returned from traipsing about the Italian countryside, further enjoying the summer bounty. (Abruzzo and all of its bounty looks amazing!) I can’t wait to see more of her pictures and start planning my future visit.

Until next time, take good care and be safe.

Ciao!

Brodetto Vastese
The lovely Erica enjoying ‘Brodetto Vastese’ in Abruzzo (13 types of fish in a garlic tomato reduction. Upon finishing the fish, you are brought pasta alla chitarra to clean the pan)

 

~ Collective words for a collective world ~

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