Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Corzetti with Pine Nut Sauce

One of the true joys of traveling is discovering people who are maintaining culinary traditions that might otherwise be lost. One of these is undoubtedly Pietro Picetti, who seems to have almost single-handedly breathed new life into the centuries-old tradition of making pasta using a corzetti stamp, sometimes spelled crozetti, corzeti, crosetti, or cruxettu. 


 However you spell it, corzetti are delicious, and were traditionally served with a meat sauce, Mr. Picetti said, but now are more likely to be served with a basil pesto or a pine nut sauce.

A banker for 35 years, Mr. Picetti has been hand-carving these beautiful pasta tools for the last 20 years, resurrecting a lost art and a form of pasta that was almost relegated to history.

Three hundred years ago, he said, every family had its own stamp, and noble families had theirs imprinted with the family coat of arms. 

The pasta shape is older than that however, since documents in the archives in Genoa attest to the presence of corzetti at a banquet held for the king of Morocco in 1362. But through the centuries, the custom was lost, even in Mr. Picetti's home town of Varese Ligure, where the local people had nearly forgotten what corzetti were,  he said.

Mr. Picetti owns several corzetti stamps that hail back to past generations of his family, including his great grandfather's. He even owns one dating back to 1700.

The wood used is either pear, chestnut or beech and the designs are as varied as Mr. Picetti's imagination. Some are traditional, but others spring from his mind and hands as he's working the wood. 

His customers come from around the globe, including Kazakhstan, Australia, and Korea - at least 50 countries around the world. 

Some are special requests, such as restaurants who have a personal emblem, or companies that want their logo imprinted on the stamp. He's had requests for logo designs of international companies like Alfa Romeo and Trussardi. 

I asked Mr. Picetti to make one using my blog name, and this is what arrived in the mail three weeks after I visited his workshop:

Mr. Picetti doesn't own business cards. Instead, he said, his business card is his corzetti stamp, with his signature printed on the underside of the cutting edge. By the way, never wash the stamp with water, he advised, but just wipe clean with a dishtowel.

I've already put my newly purchased stamp to work a couple of times since I got back from Italy less than 10 days ago.  After you cut out the circles with the sharper edge, take one of the pasta disks and place it between the imprinting sections, then press hard. The dough needs to be soft, but covered with a light dusting of flour so it won't stick to the wood.

Another day, I took the stamp to my dad's, (and I gave him one of his own too) and we set to work making the recipe included with the stamp. It's an unusual recipe, to me at least, because when I make pasta, I use only flour and eggs, or only flour and water, but never flour, water and eggs, as Mr. Picetti's recipe calls for. But I followed the recipe and the dough came out perfectly. (However his lack of measurement in the recipe that includes "a glass of water" left me wondering exactly how big that glass would be.)

The recipe made a lot, and I forgot to count the total amount, but I'm sure it was at least 100 corzetti. We were serving six people at my dad's house and had plenty. 

In the photo below, you can see the imprint of "Ciao Chow Linda" and the fancy design on the other side of my corzetti stamp.

We made two kinds of sauces for our pasta last week -- one platter with basil pesto, and the other with pine nuts, parmigiana and butter, just like I ate in Varese Ligure. I think it's become my new favorite pasta dressing.

Click on the video below and listen to Mr. Picetti speak about corzetti.

For more about corzetti, visit Adri Barr Crocetti's terrific food blog. She's written extensively about them and is a great source on all things corzetti. Click here to view one of her posts on corzetti.

And if you can't get to Mr. Picetti's workshop, you can order a corzetti stamp from Artisanal Pasta Tools in California. Click here for their website.

And finally, a big thank you to Pamela Sheldon Johns, for sharing lunch with me in Liguria, and for leading me to Pietro Picetti. Click here for more information on her B&B in Tuscany and here for her culinary tours in Italy.

Printable recipe here

Corzetti Dough (Mr. Picetti's recipe - he says it's enough for four people, but that would have to be four very hungry people because it makes at least 100 corzetti)

600 grams flour (about 4 cups)

3 eggs

1 glass of salted water (about 8 oz., but don't dump it all in at once)

Mix the flour eggs and half of the water in a food processor. Turn on the processor and slowly add enough water until you get a soft dough. Remove it from the processor and knead it on the counter until it feels smooth. Cover and let rest for at least 20 minutes. (Alternately, mix by hand by putting the flour into a bowl or on a kitchen counter. Create a "well" and crack the eggs into the center, beating them with a fork and blending them into the flour, adding the water, a bit at a time. Continue kneading for several minutes until the dough is smooth, then let it rest for about 20 minutes).

Run the dough through a pasta machine (or roll by hand) until the dough is thin, but not so thin that it falls apart when pressed on the stamp. Cut out circles using the sharpest edge of the stamp, then place the circle of dough on the stamp and press down.

Cook the corzetti in boiling salted water for about six or seven minutes, and top with sauce and parmigiano cheese.

Pine Nut Sauce  (adapted from Mr. Picetti's recipe - enough for four people)

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/2 clove garlic (optional)

a couple of sprigs of fresh marjoram or fresh oregano

4 T. butter

a few tablespoons of milk, if necessary

parmesan cheese

Place the pine nuts, garlic and marjoram into a small chopper or food processor. Blend until crushed. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the pine nut mixture. If necessary, thin it out with some milk.

Toss with the pasta, and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Antico Ristorante Fossati

For more than 40 years, I've been traveling to Italy but had never visited Monza, a hidden jewel just a short distance from Milan. That is, until a few weeks ago, when my friend Silvia Cassamagnaghi invited us to dinner nearby.

Silvia grew up in Monza, but recently moved to Milan, where she teaches at a university there. I met her many years ago when she was researching her book "Operation War Brides," which features a photo of my parents on the cover and their love story during World War II.

     In the past, we had always met briefly in Milan, or in the countryside near Piacenza where my relatives live, but this time we met in Monza, a city that's unfortunately not on most tourists' agenda. But it should be, including this restaurant in the countryside.

Silvia took us to "Antico Ristorante Fossati," a place that features traditional dishes of Lombardy, in a building with a great historical pedigree.

Located in a nearby hamlet of Canonica, the restaurant was once the country home where Ludovico "Il Moro" came to hunt. Ludovico, a member of the noble Sforza family, was duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499 and is probably best known as a patron to the arts. He's the one who commissioned Leonardo DaVinci's fresco "The Last Supper," painted in Santa Maria della Grazia, next to his father's burial place.

With its vaulted brick ceilings, thick stone walls and walk-in fireplaces, Antico Ristorante Fossati evoked the feeling that we had traveled back in time hundreds of years. It's been used as a way station for centuries, and has offered refreshment to other notable Italian personalities like Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The restaurant is in a large farmhouse, made up of many different rooms and an internal garden. One of the lofts, that most likely stored hay or other animal fodder in the past, now houses a collection of gleaming copper pots. I wanted to climb up and take home a few.

A peek into the modern kitchen tells you the pots are more than just for show.

Many of the dishes are delivered and served table side from these pots with their time-worn patina, dents and dings.

They're also heaped above huge antique cabinets situated throughout the rooms.

We started with a typical antipasto selection from the region -- sliced meats (affettati) including salami, prosciutto and culatello (made from the pig's hind quarters and even more flavorful than prosciutto); pickled vegetables; "Russian" potato salad that you find all over Italy; polenta and local cheeses.

But the most memorable dish at the table was the plate in the upper left hand section of the photo called "nervetti." 

They're a favorite comfort food of Silvia's, evoking memories of her grandfather and childhood, and they're a local specialty she insisted we try. I was a bit skeptical since the name sounds a lot like the English word "nerves." In fact, that's just what they were - nerves from a pig's face. They were every bit as gelatinous and chewy as they seem. But when in Monza.....

My favorite dish was the specialty of the house. Risotto Monzese, which is just the same as risotto Milanese, but it includes a bit of a local sausage called luganega, or luganica. That's a plate of osso buco behind the risotto, another delicious offering that also pairs well with the risotto.

The city of Monza itself has several sites worthy of a visit, including its main duomo, dating back to the seventh century, when the Lombard Queen Teodelinda is believed to have commissioned it.

The town hall was built in the 13th century, and was used for civic purposes. Art exhibits are sometimes held here, and the many cafes nearby are great gathering spots for a drink. 

You'll find most people doing their daily marketing on foot or on bike. This bicycle was equipped with baskets that seemed capable of toting home a week's worth of groceries.

No trip to Monza would be complete without a visit to its royal palace -- just one of the places that the royal Savoy family called home until 1900 after King Umberto I was assassinated near the entrance to the palace. He was married to Queen Margherita (for whom pizza Margherita was named) 

We were fortunate to be there on the final day of a viewing of a newly discovered painting by Leonardo DaVinci. It was purchased at a Christie's auction of $20,000 in 1998 and later authenticated to be a real DaVinci worth $200 million. It's thought to be a portrait of Bianca, the daughter of Leonardo's patron, Ludovico Il Moro, and has been dubbed "La Bella Principessa." It's now in private hands and who knows when it will be shown in public again.

If you do stay overnight, consider booking a room at a hotel called "Hotel De La Ville," reasonably priced and located right across the street from the royal palace. Our room was in a separate small villa, with lovely furnishings and an elegant entrance straight out of a decorator's magazine. 

I found a guidebook inside our room that also included a recipe for Monza's risotto specialty, included below.  It's written with metric measurements, but for American measurements, click here for my recipe for risotto alla Milanese.

Monzese Risotto

From the book "Monza and Brianza with Brambilla's Family"


(serves 4 people)b

350 grams Arborio rice

150 grams luganega sausage

1 sachet saffron

1 small onion

beef broth


half a glass of white wine

Grana Padano cheese



Brown the finely chopped onion and sausage, without the casing, in butter in a deep pan. Add the rice and allow to roast for a few minutes. Sprinkle the rice with white wine and let it evaporate. At this point, pour the broth to cover the rice and cook it over medium/high heat. Halfway through cooking, add the saffron, dissolved in a spoonful of broth and mix well.  Continue cooking, making sure that the broth is always hot enough to not break the boil. At the end, add a knob of butter and grated Grana Padano cheese and mix thoroughly. Let it stand one minute and serve hot.

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Villa Monastero


     Villa Monastero is a beautiful villa surrounded by magnificent gardens, located in Varenna, on the banks of Lake Como, Italy. It's also the place where Kathryn Abajian and I held our writing retreat last month, and where we're scheduled to repeat it next year.

     Come along with me for a visit to learn about the villa and its origins. Maybe you'll decide you'd like to spend a week here with us too, improving your writing skills, and partaking of the region's foods, wines and nearby sights.


     The villa was founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1208, but its mission foundered in 1667, when the nuns left for Lecco, a city to the south. After three years, the villa was sold to the Mornico family, whose weath came from the iron mining industry in the area. The family converted the monastery to a noble residence, renaming it Villa Leliana. It was held by the Mornico family for nearly three centuries, when it was sold at the end of the 1800s to the German sheep owner Walter Kaas. 


     But in the lead up to World War II, Kaas was declared an enemy of the state and was sent back to Germany, while Italy took over the villa. The villa was then used by the elite mountaineering unit of the Italy military called the Alpini, until it was sold in 1955 to biologist Marco de Marchi, who converted the villa into a scientific conference center.


     Marchi had no heirs however, and left the villa to the Italian government with the proviso that it be used for conferences of a scientific or artistic nature. This year, we received approval to hold our writing retreat, "Italy in Other Words" at Villa Monastero, after conducting it in Abruzzo for the last several years.


     We hold daily sessions in a sun-filled conference room overlooking the lake, surrounded by beautiful artwork created by local artists. 


      The villa also has a larger conference room that served as a chapel when the nuns occupied the villa, and is the place where Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi taught his last lesson.


     You can see evidence of a religious fresco is a small niche there, dating to the 13th century.


        Other rooms in the villa highlight both the Germanic artistic taste of Walter Kaas, as well as highly decorative furnishings bought by de Marchi.


      The villa's extensive gardens, containing thousands of species of plants, are open to the public, but at night, we writers have the beauty of the grounds and the silence of the lake to ourselves.


        Most bedrooms have modern furnishings, some with views of the lake, and a few have balconies facing the lake. Sign up early to get priority for one of these.


     Writing instruction is in the morning, and you can set up your laptop by the lake in the afternoons to soak in some inspiration from the peaceful and lush surroundings.


     If you need a break from writing, the town of Varenna has a lot to offer, with inviting shops and cafes.


     Come with us if you like, on an afternoon visit to Vezio, and step back to the 11th century and a castle that was once home to Teodolinda, queen of the Lombards.


       From the castle, you get a magnificent view of the lake and the rooftops of Varenna below.


     We also eat well on our retreats, and taste local wines and cheeses, like this taleggio.


    Dinners are all special, and we try different restaurants each night.


     If you'd like to go further afield one afternoon, we'll take you on the ferry to Bellagio, where the streets are as quaint as the shops are prolific.


     You can even try your hand at watercolor, whether you've got experience or not. We can arrange a lesson for you.


     It may seem early, but it's not to soon to start thinking about reserving a spot for next year's retreat at Villa Monastero.  We plan to hold it from September 18-24, 2016. Check out our website at for more details.