Coronavirus Comfort Food – Chianti, Radicchio & Gorgonzola Risotto AKA Purple Risotto

This evening the Italian government just announced that ALL schools in Italy (the entire country!) will be closed until March 15. My son is on his second week at home from school. Thankfully, his school has organized lessons online. Many of us living here in Northern Italy were hopeful that schools would reopen next Monday and that life would return to some resemblance of normalcy. As of today, the total number of cases here is 2706, with 107 fatalities, most of which are here in Lombardy.

In need of comfort food this last week, I instinctively turn to risotto. For me risotto is the perfect comfort food. It’s warm, rich, creamy and can turn a bad day into a holiday. Risotto is king here in the north of Italy. The Po valley is one the world’s most famous rice production areas so it’s no wonder risotto is a specialty of the north.

I chose to make David Rocco’s Chianti, Radicchio & Gorgonzola Risotto. I am a lover of Gorgonzola and what can be better than my favorite cheese with my one of my favorite wines? Did you know that Gorgonzola comes from the town of Gorgonzola near Milan? I hope to make a pilgrimage to this town and ask them for honorary citizenship.

The first time I made this recipe I wasn’t quite sure if I would like it. Although I love Gorgonzola and Chianti, the thought of throwing in bitter tasting radicchio just didn’t appeal. As it turns out the mixture of flavors works really, really well, so well that my husband loves this risotto. I’m convinced that he would eat this every day if I made it.

David Rocco’s Risotto with Chianti, Radicchio and Gorgonzola

4 tbsp (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

2 shallots or 1 medium white onion, minced

1 large head of radicchio, chopped

2 cups (500 ml) Italian rice

5 cups (1.25 L) red wine, preferably Chianti

3 1/2 oz (100 g) Gorgonzola (I used Gorgonzola dolce)

1/2 cup (125 ml) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (I used Grana Padano which works just fine)

Salt and pepper to taste

If you’d like to use less wine, you can cut down the amount by substituting it with vegetable broth. I have made this recipe both ways I prefer to use 3 cups of wine and 2 of vegetable broth.

Heat your frying pan, then heat your olive oil. Add shallots and radicchio and season with salt and pepper. On a medium flame, stir and cook until soft. Add rice and stir until rice becomes translucent.

Add about 1/2 cup (125 ml) of wine, stirring so the rice doesn’t stick. When that’s absorbed, add more, then repeat. If you’re using vegetable broth, alternate between wine and broth. It will take about 15-20 minutes for rice to cook.

Take off of heat and stir in Gorgonzola and Parmigiano. Stir well so cheese is incorporated and melted into the rice and vegetables.

At this point I check to see if the risotto needs more salt. Salt is hard to judge and everyone has different preferences. If I take a bite and it lacks flavor it’s probably because it lacks salt.

Finish with a sprinkle of Parmigiano and enjoy. Buon appetito!

CHICKEN INVOLTINI STUFFED WITH MORTADELLA, GRANA PADANO & SAGE

What’s one to do when things shut down due to the Coronavirus? Try a new recipe! Last week will be remembered in Milanese history as the week the Coronavirus outbreak shut down the city and most of Northern Italy. It was a tense week as most folks stayed indoors, watching the news and trying to wrap our heads around what was happening. The week unfolded like a Sci-fi movie plot: no one in the streets, people stockpiling supplies, a rising death toll, and unscrupulous people taking advantage of others. So with more time on my hands and a desire to escape the constant barrage of bad news, I headed to the kitchen.

I enjoy exploring the world of the cucina Italiana. At times I feel like I’ll never reach its depths. There are so many tasty ingredients and delicious recipes to try. Circumstances being what there were though, I decided to be frugal and use what I had in the fridge and freezer: chicken, mortadella and Grana Padano cheese. Truth be told, list of ingredients didn’t sound too appetizing but nonetheless, I headed over to Giallo Zafferano and looked for something that might work, and work it did!

You can find the recipe in Italian here. The only modification I made was the omission of the Herbes de Provence (erbe aromaticche). I just didn’t have that ingredient on hand. Note: in the photos you’ll notice that I doubled the recipe.

INVOLTINI STUFFED WITH MORTADELLA, SAGE & GRANA PADANO

Prep time: 10 minutes, Cooking time: 15 minutes, Servings:4

4 chicken breast (thin cut or pounded)
100 g (1/2 cup) good quality Mortadella (about four slices)
2 tablespoons of Grana Padano DOP (grated)
3 sage leaves (diced)
Pepper to taste
1 pinch of Herbes de Provence (optional)
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter
flour

Good quality ingredients are always important. Can you see the pistacchio pieces in the Mortadella?

Grate cheese, dice mortadella and sage and mix in bowl to create filling. Use your hands to get ingredients to adhere a bit. At first I thought the mixture looked a little dry but once it cooks the Mortadella actually melts with the cheese and creates a smooth and tasty filling.

If you’re grocery store does not offer thin cut chicken breast, pound your chicken breasts into thin pieces, salt and pepper to taste. Dredge each piece in flour.

Spoon about a tablespoon or so of the filling onto each piece of chicken and roll up tightly and secure with toothpicks.

Heat your saute pan on a medium flame. Once your pan is heated, melt butter and add oil then add your involtini. Let your involtini sit tight until the bottoms are browned. Once the bottoms are nice and golden, brown on all sides (approx 8-10 total). Cover and let sit on a very low flame for another 4 minutes.

Here’s the finished product! Golden on the outside with a creamy filling on the inside. I added a little Italian parsley for color and served it with lemon risotto, a green salad and crisp white wine. Buon appetito!

CORONAVIRUS HITS MILAN

Sunday morning our world changed in the Milan metro area in ways that we would have never anticipated. Cases of the Coronavirus were diagnosed in towns outside of Milan and those towns were put on lock down, no one in and no one out. As I digested the news, more news arrived. The governor of Lombardy issued an ordinance for the whole region: no university classes, no school, no sporting events, no performances, no cinema, no religious meetings and no public or private meetings of any kind. Then it snowballed into museums, libraries, public offices, etc., all closed.

As you can imagine, such drastic measures by the government caused wide-spread panic. By Sunday night people had ransacked grocery stores and pharmacies, stockpiling what they deemed as necessary survival supplies. Monday morning I realized I was out of toilet paper and coffee and headed to the store where there was chaos and empty shelves.

On Monday the city of Milan, Italy’s economic power house, came to a stand still. The normally bustling streets of the city were eerily quiet. Piazza Duomo, the city’s heart, usually full of locals and tourists, was a ghost town. Major events such as Carnevale were cancelled and Design Week was postponed to June. The Coronavirus brought the city and its economy to its knees.

Panicked folks on the metro.

The number of cases and deaths continue to climb but there seems to be less panic and fear. Thankfully, today (Thursday, February 28th) the local authorities are discussing the re-opening of the Duomo and other public places. As of Monday, March 2nd, the Duomo ticket office will not be open but rather entry into the cathedral will only be allowed to those who bought their tickets online. Apparently, they will allow small groups of people to enter at a time. There is also talk of museums reopening. Schools, sporting events, cinema and music performances, religious gatherings, and all other public meetings are cancelled until March 1st.

I’m hopeful that normalcy will return soon.

DISCOVERING AOSTA

Prior to moving to Italy, I had never heard of Aosta. When reading about “must-see” places in the Bel Paese, this quaint city didn’t make the list. Last summer, as I searched for a place to escape from the brutal heat of Milan, I came across an article about Aosta, which is located in the smallest and least populated region of Italy, Valle d’Aosta. After deciding to check it out the town for myself, I made a trip. I must tell you, it is one of the most beautiful and interesting places I have visted in the country.

Aosta is nestled in the northwest corner of Italy, near the French and Swiss borders. It’s a breathtaking valley surrounded by the stunning landscape of the Alps, not far from the famed Mont Blanc. In the past, I have always associated the Alps with Switzerland and ledderhosen-clad men whose St. Bernards run through fresh snow looking for avalanche survivors. What I realized during my visit last summer was that, athough it is only a short two hours by car from Milan, Aosta is a completely different world, rich with Roman history, French/Italian alpine cuisine, and world class skiing and hiking. This winter, I returned to this hidden gem and spent a few days exploring.

Arch of Caesar Augustus, circa 25 BC.
In tact Roman gate, Porta Praetoria circa 25 BC.

The Romans set up camp in the Aosta Valley in 25 B.C. to take advantage of the strategic mountain passes, which functioned as a gateway to the north. The city of Aosta, the regional capital, was founded by Ceasar Augustus in 24 B.C. Surprisingly, there are many Roman ruins still visible today in the city center. For a history nerd like me, it was a joy to roam through the Roman theater and walk under the arches of Porta Praetoria as so many have done for over 2,000 years.

The culture and food of the region is a mix of Italian and French influence. Although Italian is the official language, French is heard frequently and Italian is spoken with a unique accent that, at least to me, sounds French.

The food is hearty mountain cuisine – polenta, soups, stews and fondue. The area’s most famous cheese, Fontina, is used in many local dishes including Fonduta Valdostana and Polenta Concia (polenta with Fontina and butter). I’ve never been a fan of polenta, but now I realize it’s because I never had good polenta! There’s plenty of delicious polenta dishes to sample in Aosta. We happened to visit during the Christmas season and were fortunate to sample the local sausages, fresh Fontina cheese, polenta and mulled wine (Vin Brule’) for very reasonable prices at the Christmas market.

Osteria dell’Oca

A great place to sample delicious local dishes is Osteria dell’Oca. Located just off the main pedestrian street, Via de Tillier Jean Baptiste, it is everything an Osteria should be; quaint, quirky, authentic and reasonably priced. The food is outstanding and portions are large. The menu is a balance of traditional Valle d’Aosta dishes and classic Italian fare. If you’re vsiting over a weekend, you should call ahead and make a reservation as this is a popular place!

Pila ski resort is walking distance from downtown Aosta.

Aosta offers much year round. If you’re visting in winter, Pila ski resort is located just up the mountain and can be reached by the funicular station, which is walking distance from the historic center of town. In summer you can ride the funicular to reach hiking trails that lead to jaw-dropping vistas.

There’s much to do and see in the Aosta. I’m looking forward to going back to discover more about this wonderful town.

6 THINGS TO DO WITH KIDS IN MILAN, ITALY

Traveling with kids can be quite a challenge at times. When traveling through Italy, adults dream of visiting museums, shopping, long walks in historic downtown areas and enjoying a glass of wine at a quaint outdoor cafe. Let’s just say that it’s best to embrace the fact that your young ones have a short attention span and their hearts and minds may not be as intrigued as yours when visiting great works of art or historic sites. Therefore, finding fun activities for your kiddos is essential to making a memorable family vacation. With a little planning you can include kid friendly activities into your itinerary. If you’re visiting Milan, Italy here’s a list of fun and inexpensive things to do with your little world traveler.

1. The cathedral (Duomo) of Milan, rooftop and archeology area.

With columns the size of sequoia tree trunks, the duomo is impressive at any age. Add a trip to the rooftop to enjoy the view and tire out your kiddo going up and down 250 steps! Visit the archeology area where there are fourth century ruins and tombs.

Impressive views from the terrace on top of the Duomo. On a clear day you can see the Alps!

2. Parco Sempione

Parco Sempione is Milan’s Central Park which is located directly behind Castello Sforzesco. Its green spaces, ponds and trees are beautifully planned across its 95 acres. Take a leisurely stroll or rent a bike to meandor through the park. Discover the ponds that are full of turtles and other wildlife. Visit the observation tower or play at Parco Giochi Castello. There’s plenty to entertain your energetic young traveler and help them get the wiggles out. You can grab a panino or gelato at a park cafe, then enjoy some free music from one of the many street performers. It’s a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

View of Arco della Pace from inside the park.

3. Natural History Museum (Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano)Closed on Mondays

Located in Milan’s second largest park (Giardini Pubblici) the natural history museum has three million pieces showcased in 23 rooms. From zoology to paleontology, there’s so much to see. The best part is that admission is free for anyone under 18! Admission is also free every Tuesday after 2 p.m and the first Sunday of every month. Once you’re done, head to the park behind the museum to explore the Giardini Pubblici.

4. Aquarium (Acquario Civico di Milano) – Closed on Mondays

Although this aquarium is very small, it’s well worth a visit. Built in 1906 it is the third oldest aquarium in Europe. The facade is decorated in an ornate Neptune theme. It has over 100 species and exhibits of aquatic life from Italian coasts, lakes and rivers. Admission is free for anyone under 18 and also free every Tuesday after 2 p.m and the first Sunday of every month.

5. Leonardo 3 Museum – The World of Leonardo Da Vinci

Working models of Da Vinci’s creations are fascinating!

If you have a science-loving kid or a future engineer, this is the place for you. This museum is by far my son’s favorite museum in the entire city. The museum has tons of interactive activities, amazing working models of some of Da Vinci’s inventions and an informative digital restoration of the last supper. It’s located at one end of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (facing Piazza La Scala). Full price is 12 euro, children 6 and under are 1 euro, kids 7-19 are 9 euro. They also offer a family ticket (10 euro for adults, 6 euro for children 7-15).

6. Castello Szforzesco – Closed on Mondays

Built in the 14th century the castle has undergone many changes over the centuries. Although the castle has seen centuries of battles and sieges, it is still in use today. Castello Sforzesco houses many museums including ancient art, musical instruments, furniture, picture gallery and much more. Currently there is a special Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit which features a digital presentation in the Sale delle Asse, a room once decorated by Da Vinci himself. Your little one may not be so interested in the picture gallery or ancient art, but walking through the castle is an experience in itself. I highly recommend the armory museum (what kid doesn’t love swords?) and walking up to the battlements.

Milan’s Hidden Gem – Biblioteca and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

Not far from the the bustling main pedestrian street, Via Dante, where tourists make their way from Castello Szforzesco to the Duomo is one of Milan’s true hidden gems, the Biblioteca and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Ambrosian Library and Picture Gallery). It’s a unique place which is part library and part art gallery. Founded in 1609 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo as a place of study and culture, it is one of the first libraries to open to the public.

The library, which is one of the most important in Europe, has over one million printed volumes and forty-thousand manuscripts including Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus which is on display in the Sala Federiciana. The library still functions as a place of research and study. As you walk through the gallery you get a view of the beautiful library and those who are diligently studying rare volumes. If you’re a scholar or student it’s possible to access (once you’ve registered with the librarian) the precious volumes the library houses.

Da Vinci’s Codex Alanticus

The Pinacoteca was founded in 1618 when Cardinal Borromeo donated his private art collection to the library. Since then the collection has grown to include works by Italian and Dutch masters.

Even if you’re not an art lover or scholar, the Ambrosiana has so much beauty and interesting collections, it’s worth your time. Here is a list of must see items:

Raphael’s Cartoon for the School of Athens

Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pavillion

Da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician

Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus and various sketches

Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit

Brueghel’s Vase of Flowers

Titian’s Aodration of the Kings

Sala Federiciana – Ancient reading room of the library.

5 Things to Know Before Visiting Milan’s Duomo

The cathedral (duomo) is without a doubt the most majestic, iconic building in Milan. No visit to Milan is complete without visiting this historic site. It’s beauty, size and history is unmatched. Located in the heart of Milan, it is the gathering place of the city. Rallies, concerts and protests take place in the Piazza Duomo in the shadow of the Duomo. The cathedral was built in the spot where a paleo-Christian churches and baptistery once stood. Mighty men and worshipers have gathered in the same place for over 1,600 years. If you’re planning a visit to Milan here are five things you should know before visiting the Duomo :

No. 1 – THE DUOMO OF MILAN IS ONE OF THE LARGEST CATHEDRALS IN THE WORLD.

The Duomo of Milan is technically the largest church in Italy (St. Peters in Rome is in Vatican City). It is the third largest church in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. It measures 515 ft (157 metres) long and 302 ft (92 m) wide. It can house up to 40, 000 people!

Gothic flying buttresses adorn the roof of the Duomo.

No. 2 – YOU CAN VISIT THE ROOF!

You can visit the rooftop of the cathedral by either climbing the access stairs or, if you’re willing to spend a few more euros, by elevator. The views from the rooftop are magnificent. Not only do you get a spectacular city view, you get a close up view of the church’s giant gothic spires and flying buttresses. If you’d like to skip the lines, there’s also the “Fast Pass” option which allows you to skip the long elevator line and take a separate elevator. You can buy your tickets at the the duomo ticket office located directly across from the church and next to the Museo del Duomo by either waiting in line or by using the self service kiosk. If you want to skip the ticket lines altogether, you purchase tickets by visiting https://www.duomomilano.it/en/buy-tickets/.

No. 3 – THE DUOMO TOOK NEARLY 600 YEARS TO COMPLETE.

Made of marble quarried from mines along Lake Maggiore which was ferried into the city using canals, the Duomo is a towering example of gothic design. Started in 1386 and completed in 1965 it’s construction history was long and complicated. Construction began in 1386 initiated by Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo. In 1500 Ludivico Sfzora finished the octogonal coppola and decorated the inside but the exterior remained undecorated for hundreds of years. Construction continued over the years and in the early 1800’s as Napoleon was about to be crowned King of Italy, he ordered the facade of the Duomo to be completed. Napoleon was crowned King of Italy in Duomo on May 26, 1805 but the cathedral still needed work. Finally, in 1965 the details were completed.

No. 4 – DON’T MISS THE ARCHEOLOGICAL AREA!

Did you know the duomo was built over a fourth century church complex which included two churches and a baptistery? You can still visit the spot where on Easter morning April 24, 387 St. Ambrose baptized an illustrious new convert, St. Augustine. The remains of the baptistery and churches are still visible and are located in the archeological area under the church. The entrance to the archeological area is by the church front entrance.

No. 5 – THERE’S A DRESS CODE.

If you’re visiting the Duomo in summertime, you want to make sure that you’re properly dressed. Throughout Italy, entering a church in shorts, mini skirt, tank tops or strapless shirts/dresses is generally frowned upon. It’s best to be respectful and take into consideration that it is a place of worship. If your’re not properly dressed, the security team will let you know and you will have two options; go back to your hotel and change, or buy a cheap wrap from the vendors in Piazza Duomo who are ever ready to make a profit off unprepared visitors to the Duomo.