As I write this, we are in the small Italian town of Acqui Terme. Never heard of it? We neither. Not until we heard that our Santa Cruz Symphony maestro, Danny Stewart, would be leading an orchestra here at a music festival. Well, heck, we said. Why not take advantage of the program?
So after finding it on a map (it’s between Milan and Genoa) we pointed our car north and took off on Highway 1. Our last stop had been in Parma to visit my old exchange student, Deborah Lanzi, who stayed with me. almost 40 years ago. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, but it’s still fun to see it.
She and her friend Stefano went to dinner with us at a sprawling restaurant in the countryside. I was surprised that anyone could find it, but the place is always crowded. We enjoyed an appetizer of fried polenta sticks, with a crispy crust and creamy interior. I thought they were big fries, but no. They were six levels better.
I don’t have a deep fryer, but I’ll have to experiment to see if they can be baked. If it works, I’ll let you know.
By the way, parmesan is really much better when you get it from the source. The flavor is more concentrated and the texture is a bit drier. And of course, the ubiquitous prosciutto – also known as Parma ham – will have you hooked. I was surprised to find stores specializing even in prosciutto, with dozens of cured hams hanging from the ceiling.
But I digress…
As I was starting to say, we drove north from Parma towards Milan, then headed west on country roads to Acqui Terme. We expected a one-horse town without much interest. But damn it, what a pleasant surprise! It has been a seaside resort since Roman times, famous in these regions for its hot mineral springs.
In fact, there is a continuously flowing spring that springs from a fountain in the middle of a square. Gary and Danny challenged each other to put their hands in hot water, which they both did. Gary quickly pulled his hand away and said, “That’s hot enough to make coffee!”
Nightlife is also abundant. On Saturday evening, the streets were filled with people strolling aimlessly, children on their scooters, parents pushing prams, young girls dressed in their best boyish outfits, old men sitting by the city’s fountains , jazz bands echoing in the plazas, stilt-walkers in costume and sidewalk tables packed with diners.
“For such a small town,” Gary remarked, “this place blows!” And if Danny Stewart hadn’t played here, we would have missed it all.
Northern Italian meal
Here in the northern part of Italy, the menus are decidedly different from those in the southern regions. We shared several meals with Danny and his wife In Sun Jang, violinist of the San Francisco Symphony. (Yes, it was surreal to meet them on the other side of the world!)
Rather than tomato-based pastas, most were in sauce with cream, butter and cheeses. Chopped hazelnuts in cheese sauces were common with gnocchi. Beef – roast or carpaccio – was also quite plentiful, unlike in the south, where you’ll find wild boar and rabbit instead.
“It seems to have more of a French influence,” noted Gary, as he tried tiny ravioli stuffed with roast beef and topped with a reduced beef broth. And that’s true. The cuisine of the North has more of a continental approach, while the South incorporates influences from North Africa and the Middle East.
But in any case, seafood is found in all regions of Italy. This is because it is a peninsular country that juts out into the Mediterranean. No part of Italy is more than about two hours from the coast. Thus, you will find many cod, crayfish, shrimp, clams, mussels, squid, cuttlefish, octopus and other gifts from the sea.
Then there’s the ice cream
In Italy, ice cream parlors are like Starbucks. There are one or two on every street corner. People here love their ice cream. You’ll see children digging into their balls, or gray-haired couples walking down the street licking cones, or others balancing three or four flavors in a cup.
Some of my favorite flavors include chocolate fondant, amaretto, tiramisu, fresh mint, cantaloupe, salted caramel, hazelnut, custard, wild berries, Nutella, and a good base of vanilla. When I ordered a lemon meringue, the cashier twisted her index finger in her cheek, indicating that I had made a delicious choice.
Our Air BnB apartment in Florence was at the foot of the Santa Trinita bridge, with an ice cream shop right in front. There was always a long line to get in. You don’t see that kind of devotion when it comes to ice cream in the United States.
Although you’d expect everyone to be carrying several extra pounds, they seem to pull it off. Or by bike. It is not uncommon to see even grandmothers riding bicycles. We could learn a lot from them. Eat well and exercise.
Joan Moore from Aptos told me I should try Jewish artichokes when I’m in Rome. Well, I took his advice, and I’m glad I did. In fact, I followed his advice several times.
They were totally delicious! You get this big whole artichoke heart, with the stem, which is fried and served hot. It comes out very tender and rich in olive oil. Depending on the restaurants, you can find two for five euros, or just one for up to six euros. (Right now, the dollar and the euro are about the same value.)
The more expensive ones were no better than the cheaper ones I had at a family trattoria. In fact, the atmosphere was much nicer at the family place. At one point, a table of celebrants sang “Buon Compleanno” (Happy Birthday) to a woman in their group. Immediately after, another table stepped in to sing it in Spanish.
But this young Korean stole the show by singing a version in his own language and in perfect key. He knocked down the house.