Capesante alla Piastra – Broiled Scallops in the Shell

capesante-piastre-private-walking-tours-italyOn our private walking tours in Italy, we often begin our week in the Serenissima, the city of Venice. My colleague Vernon covers the unique and fascinating history of the world’s longest lived republic, which existed for a millennium between the 8th century and the 18th century. I cover the food scene, which in Venice centers around the Rialto market.

ialto-fish-market-venice-private-walking-tours-italyThe Rialto was settled by the ninth century, a small area known as the Rivoaltus, or “high bank”, around a river that eventually became known as the Grand Canal. The Rialto became an important district in 1097, when the market moved there, and in the following century a boat bridge was set up across the Grand Canal providing access to it. This was eventually replaced by the Rialto Bridge.

rialto-bridge-venice-private-walking-tours-italyview-evening-rialto-venice-private-walking-tours-italyThe market expanded into both a retail and as a wholesale market. Today you’ll find shops selling luxury goods, push carts with jewelry, leather goods, tourist knickknacks. Heading away from the bridge are produce stands, butchers, and cheese shops. Further in is the Pescheria (fish market), teeming with the fruits of the Adriatic.

capesante-venice-private-walking-tours-italyScallops are one of my favorite items to buy at the Peschiera here in the Veneto. Here in Italy, you can buy the whole scallop intact in the shell, rather than just the adductor muscle we find in the US. Whole scallops are a great treat, offering two complementary flavors and textures in one shell: the meat, the adductor muscle we call a “scallop”, which is firm and white, and the “coral”, which is soft and often brightly colored reddish-orange. Whole scallops are a snap to prepare, delicious, and visually dramatic served in its shell.

capesante-piastre-above-private-walking-tours-italyIn Venice, whole scallops are served as an antipasti,  or as tasty fish based secondi, or second course. The scallop meat finds its way into primi courses accompanied by gnocchi, or in a risotto. This recipe, a hot antipasti, is typically Venetian but popular along the entire North Adriatic coast.

I enjoyed a nice Gambellara wine with my scallops. This Veneto wine zone produces crisp whites from the Garganega varietal, the same grape used in Soave wines.

Capesante alla Piastra

For 4 people

8 scallops
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
4 lemon wedges

Remove the scallops from their shells and wash carefully with cold water, removing the brown frill and leaving the white flesh with the red coral attached. Then clean the 4 shells, dry and keep aside.

Preheat the griddle or a non-stick pan and when the surface is very hot, fry the scallops for 4-5 minutes, turning so they do not burn.

In the meantime, arrange 2 shells on each plate. Garnish the plates by adding a bed of tender salad leaves under the shells.

When the scallops are ready, place one on each shell, drizzle with olive oil, add a pinch of salt and one of pepper to taste.

Serve with lemon wedges.

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Abbazia di Novacella – Wines from Our Alto Adige Cycling Tours

abbazia-novacella-arch-hiking-tour-italyOur last stop on our upcoming Hike and Bike tour in Italy is the lovely Sudtirol town of Bressanone. Located just north of town, along the Isarco River, is the Abbazia di Novacella. The Abbazia (Abbey) was founded in 1142 by the Augustinians. In addition to addressing the spiritual and educational needs of the surrounding communities, the Abbazia also supported itself through agricultural endeavors.

Throughout its 850 year history, the Abbazia played a central role in the region. The 15th and early 16th centuries were Novacella’s heyday, revealed in the magnificent altars produced for the collegiate church during this period, as well as the impressive late Gothic hall choir which embellished the church with its characteristic steep, towering roof.

abbazia-novacella-cemetary-hiking-tour-italyLater years saw the Abbey almost destroyed. In World War I Novacella was occupied by soldiers. Apart from the small funeral bell and the fire bell, all other bells were taken away to make weapons and were only replaced in 1922. The Second World War was even more disastrous for the Abbazia. The German Armed Forces used the monastery buildings to store armaments and set up a printing works. As a result, Novacella became the target of an Allied bombing raid on 23rd March 1945 which damaged the northern side of the collegiate church, the sacristy, the tower and the Chapel of Grace. The damage was finally repaired by restoration work in 1982.

Today the Abbey still serves more than 20 parishes where their work involves both pastoral care as well as education. The Neustift school boarding house opened at the beginning of the 1970s to accommodate almost 100 boys. Tourism is also an important activity, and the Abbey offers  guided tours of the monastery complex, and is home to The Novacella Education and Conference Centre.

abbazia-novacella-courtyard-hiking-tour-italyThe monastery still maintains itself economically through the production and sales of agricultural products such as culinary herbs and fruit. But its most renowned product are the Abbazia di Novacella wines. The Abbazia now boasts an international reputation as an award-winning winery. It is home to a small wine making school, and in 2009, Italy’s Gambero Rosso named Celestino Lucin, the abbey’s enologist, Winemaker of the Year.

The Abbazia di Novacella is located in the Alto Adige Valle Isarco DOC. Also known as Sudtirol Eisacktaler, is Italy’s northernmost wine region on the southern side of the Alps. The mineral-rich soils, the elevation (1,970 ft – 2,950 ft) and the cool climate are all factors which produce intense aromas and flavors as well as fruity, mouth-watering acidity found in wines produced from the typical white Valle Isarco valley grape varieties. The most widely-grown whites in the vineyards around Varna just north of Bressanone are Sylvaner, Kerner, Gewürztraminer and Veltliner.

The Abbazia also owns vineyards in the warm central region of Alto Adige which supply the red grapes. They include the full-bodied, savory Lagrein from the Mariaheim vineyard in Bolzano and red wines from the Marklhof estate in the cool rolling hills of Cornaiano to the south of Bolzano where the grapes are harvested, crushed and the wines matured. The wines include Vernatsch, Pinot Nero and the sweet Moscato Rosa.

abbazia-novacella-cellar-bar-hiking-tour-italyVisitors can take a tour of the monastery, try products from the monastery’s own estates in the monastery cellar, including the Novacella wines, brandies, apple juice, elderflower cordial and the Novacella herbal infusions. The Abbazia also offers guided tours of the wine estate followed by a tasting of their wines. Reservations for the latter are required.

A few wines I recommend you check out:

Praepositus Kerner



The Praepositus (translation: warden/provost/prior of an abbey) line represents the very best expression of Abbazia’s vineyards. They are not single-vineyard wines, but selections of the best fruit from the best sites.

The Kerner grape is white grape variety, with a very intense aroma. Originally developed in Germany, It was bred in 1929 by August Herold by crossing the red grape Trollinger, which is known in Italy as Schiava or Vernatsch, with the white grape Riesling. The name Kerner was chosen as a tribute to a poet and physician, Justinus Kerner, who wrote songs and poetry on wine. The wines made from this varietal are wonderfully rich in flavor, with bright floral aromas and a full, fruity palate.

The 2015 Praepositus Kerner was awarded 95 points by Wine Enthusiast, and 92 points by James Suckling. Wine Enthusiast said “You’ll need to swirl the glass a few times to release the enticing scents of yellow stone fruit, Alpine herb and an intriguing smoky note. The savory vibrant palate is more expressive, delivering layers of crunchy green apple, zesty tangerine and juicy yellow peach set against crisp acidity. A flinty mineral note graces the lingering finish, lending even more depth.”





abbazia-gewurztraminer-bike-tours-italyGewurztraminer, or “spicy” Traminer, originated in Sudtirol. Traminer is one of the oldest grapes in the world, and recent studies have demonstrated that it is the ancestor of some of the oldest grape varieties in the world, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Bianco, Grigio and Noir. An intensely aromatic and elegant wine, its pink to reddish grapes are naturally sweet, and produce a white wine that is usually off-dry, with a strong scent of lychee.

A delicate floral aroma with a whiff of tropical fruits. Full-bodied and lush, but dry with a crisp acidity.

Santa Magdalener

abbazia-magdalener-bike-tours-italySanta Magdalener wines are a red wine produced from the native Schiava grapes, also known as Vernatsch. These wines are blends, containing up to 15% of other varieties of grapes, most commonly Lagrein, another native varietal, as well as Pinot Noir. Typically, as with the Abbazia di Novacella offering, these wines include at least 5% Lagrein.

A bright ruby red, with hints of floral and cherry fruit on the nose. It is crisp, lively, and full of cherry flavor, with just a bit of acidity and tannin to balance.


Praepositus Pinot Nero Riserva


One of the Abbazia’s flagship wines, this 100% Blauburgunder (Pinot Nero/Pinot Noir) hails from gravelly marine soils at elevation of 350 meters.  Fermentation takes place in stainless steel for 20 days, followed by malolactic fermentation and maturation over 18 months in French barriques.

A stylish and sophisticated Pinot Noir, rather than full-bodied and muscular. Medium ruby with a fresh, fruity nose, aromatic, supple and luscious with hints of red currants, smooth tannins and a discreet whiff of spicy oak.

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Patate di Cetica su Letto di Asparagi e Fonduta di Pecorino – Potatoes with Asparagus and Pecorino Fondue

potato-top-walking-tours-italyCome fall, we will be leading a private cycling tour in Tuscany, traveling from Arezzo to Montepulciano to Montalcino. My colleague Vernon customizes the routes, so our guests can enjoy those classic Tuscan views on their way to a great winery or our villa hotel. My role is to introduce the local wines, produce and cuisine that make each place we visit unique. Tuscany is known for its meats – the Chianina beef used for Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or the Cinta Senese pigs, but Tuscans have a real passion for vegetables.

tuscany-landscape-walking-tours-italyOne local specialty that most visitors would not notice is the red potato of Cetica. Just north of our start point in Arezzo, this ancient variety of potato has been cultivated here since the beginning of the last century. They grow at 500 meters above sea level or higher, in loose, sandy soil made nutrient-rich with organic material. These potatoes are small and round with light red skin and the flesh is white with reddish tones. They are excellent when used in gnocchi and potato tortelli, all of them Cetican specialties.

From the book Italy and the Potato: A History, 1550-2000, by David Gentilcore (yes, an entire book on the subject), I found the following anecdote about Prince Umberto of Savoy’s introduction to the local specialty during his visit in 1925: “During his visit the prince was served the local “Cetica” potatoes in different ways… When the prince seemed to have had his fill of the “Cetica” potato, a local chirped up and invited him not to stand on ceremony since there was plenty: ‘Sir prince, eat them and don’t be silly, we have enough for the pigs too’. The story is too good to be true, and probably is not, invented by the townspeople to poke fun at their rural neighbors, the Ceticatti.

pecorino-asparagus-walking-tours-italyThe following recipe, from a regional cookbook put out by the Arezzo area tourist board, may have been one of the many served to the Prince that day. It is similar to our Twice-Baked Potatoes, but the addition of an egg and a truffle cream takes it over the top. They can be prepped in advance up until you top it with the egg yolk and beaten whites, perfect to pair with a roast, or a grilled steak.

potato-egg-walking-tours-italyPatate di Cetica su Letto di Asparagi e Fonduta di Pecorino

Serves 4

For the potatoes:

2 medium size Cetica potatoes (I substituted russet)
4 ounces grated Pecorino cheese
1 tablespoon butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs, separated

12 green asparagus spears

For the fonduta:

10 ounces of Pecorino Tartufo – pecorino cheese studded with truffles, cut into small cubes
7 ounces fresh heavy cream
2 ounces butter
1/4 cup dry white wine
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 355°F. Wash the potatoes, place on a sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, clean the asparagus by removing the tough part. Blanch in boiling salted water until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and cool immediately in cold water.

When the potatoes have cooled slightly, slice lengthwise and scoop out the contents without damaging the skin.

Mash the pulp in a bowl using a fork, add the grated cheese and the butter, season with salt and pepper, stirring until the mixture is smooth, then fill the skins, making a small indentation on the top to hold an egg yolk. Bake for 5 minutes at 400°F.

Gently place one yolk on top of each potato, add salt and pepper to taste.

Whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks with a pinch of salt and use a pastry bag, or a plastic bag with a corner cut off to decorate the top of each potato with the beaten egg whites, covering the yolks. Bake until the whites are golden.

For the fondue, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the cubed Pecorino Tartufo, heavy cream, and wine. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cheese has melted completely. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat the asparagus. Arrange the asparagus on four plates, drizzle with the fondue and add a potatoes to each.

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More Secrets to a Great Bruschetta

bruschetta-tomato-private-cycling-toursA few years ago I wrote an article here on “Secrets Behind a Great Bruschetta”. We made bruschetta this week on our cooking class during our Bike the Amarone Wine Roads cycling tour, and after cooking again with my friend Lucas I have a few more insights to share!

bruschetta-lucas-private-cycling-toursFirst of all, one of the secrets to the great tomato bruschetta here in Italy is their tomatoes. As early as mid-May I find tasty fresh tomatoes at the market. We have in the US the large Beefsteak tomatoes. In Italy, the equivalent is at the market already, the “Cuore di Bue” or “Heart of Ox” tomato. They are cultivated all over Italy, under different names in the different regions – Pomodoro di Albenga in Liguria, Pera d’Abruzzo in Abruzzo (Pear of Abruzzo). These tomatoes have a characteristic pear-shape, large and irregular with a smooth thin skin. They make a great bruschetta, and other raw tomato dishes, because they have exceptionally fleshy meat, with very few seeds in the pulp – a much more solid consistency than a typical Beefsteak or Heirloom tomato I find here. They also are incredibly tasty.

cuore-cut-tomatoes-private-cycling-toursThere are many varieties of fruits and vegetables found in Italy that are not cultivated in the US – I see numerous types of radicchio here, white asparagus, artichokes I can eat raw, and these Cuore di Bue tomatoes – which surprises me especially given that tomatoes originally came to Italy from North America! In lieu of Cuore di Bue tomatoes, you can chop up the best eating tomatoes you can find, season them with salt, pepper and oregano as the following recipe instructs, then place the tomatoes in a strainer over a bowl and allow to sit for a couple of hours. The water will slowly drain out, concentrating the tomato flavor.

bruschetta-cooking-class-private-cycling-toursLucas recommends a good robust bread for bruschetta, something made with harder wheat like semolina, rather than a lighter baguette. I like to use sourdough breads back in the US. He also adds a layer of olive paste, which we all agreed made a great dish even better!



Visit my original post to read the rest of the tips: Secrets Behind a Great Bruschetta.

In Tuscany, where bruschetta is very popular, a nice white to pair would be a Vernaccia from San Gimignano. Here in the Veneto, I chose a wondeful Vespaiolo, a local white grape from the little-known Breganze wine region.

Tomato Bruschetta with Olive Paste

Makes 12 bruschetta

4 fresh tomatoes chopped and without seeds
1 tbsp good quality dried oregano
1 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
4 tbsp olive oil
12 pieces toasted sliced dense bread
Whole garlic cloves
Olive paste (you can find in Italian grocery shops, is very similar to Tapenade. If you can find, just buy your favorite olives and blend in a food processor).

In a bowl mix the chopped tomatoes, oregano, salt, pepper and olive oil.

Rub each slice of bread with the clove of garlic, a lot if you really like garlic, just a little if you don’t.

Top each bread piece with the olive paste, and then top with tomatoes. Serve immediately.

Posted in antipasti, garlic, Tomato, Travel, Tuscany, Uncategorized, Vegetarian, Wine Pairings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Pollo alla Cacciatora – Hunter’s Style Chicken

cacciatora-pollo-private-cycling-toursI spent a few days in Tuscany this week, searching out new discoveries for our private Tuscany cycling tour in September. The cuisine can be simple and rustic, other times aristocratic and refined. Where we cycle, through the interior wine zones of Chianti, Montepulciano and Brunello the dishes are typically more rustic, featuring meats and local vegetables and grains like farro, beans, mushrooms, and peppers.


View from Arezzo

Visiting the town of Arezzo, I found lovely cookbook on the cuisine of Tuscany at the tourist office, one of my favorite sources. Back in my kitchen in Vicenza, I picked a classic Italian dish familiar to most to prepare first, Pollo alla Cacciatora, or Chicken Cacciatora. Cacciatora means “hunter” in Italian, referring to the hunters who supposedly first ate this dish, a filling and tasty stew that could be prepared in the outdoors. Chicken is typically used now, but the original dish, which dates from the Renaissance, probably used wild game like rabbit. There is in fact a very similar recipe a few pages later for the rabbit version, but I do try to use recipes that readers can replicate in the US, and rabbit is hard to find!

cacciatora-pan-private-cycling-toursToday’s version of this recipe contains tomatoes, but this is also likely not original, as tomatoes were not found in Italy until they arrived from the New World. The original dish would have used ingredients that could be found in the woods or easily carried in – onions, mushrooms, herbs, and of course, wine. So adding ingredients like peppers, mushrooms, and other herbs would certainly be in keeping with the traditions behind this dish.

cacciatora-plate-private-cycling-toursPollo alla Cacciatora – Chicken Cacciatora

For 4 people

1 chicken, about 2 pounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/4” dice
2 stalks celery, chopped into 1/4” dice
1 medium onion, chopped into 1/4” dice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 15 ounce can chopped tomatoes
Fresh thyme leaves

Clean and chop the chicken into pieces – wings, thighs, drumsticks, cut each breast into 2-3 smaller pieces. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Sear the chicken on all sides until nicely browned – you’ll probably need to do this in batches. Set aside.

Add the carrots, celery and onions into the saute pan and cook until tender, about 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the white wine and cook until the wine is almost gone.

Add the tomatoes to the pan, then season with the thyme, salt and pepper. Add the chicken pieces and simmer at a low heat for about 40 minutes. Serve with a nice Chianti, like this one from Castello di Ama.


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