All posts by Tony

Is there really no truffle in truffle oil?

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In most cases, yes.

Truffle oil has gotten quite a bad rap as of late. More than once I’ve seen contestants on popular cooking competition shows immediately sent home for using it. Anthony Bourdain has even said, “Let it be stated here, unto forever and eternity, truffle oil is not food.”

So, why all the hate? It’s not just because almost all truffle oil is artificially flavored. Other than an olive or grapeseed oil base, there is nothing natural in it. All of the flavor and aroma comes from chemicals created in a lab. 2,4-Dinitrophenol does not sound delicious.

This being said, there is real truffle oil out there; it is a bit hard to find though. High-end specialty stores such as Eataly and Dean & DeLuca are sure to carry it…right alongside the fake stuff. The labeling on the fakes can also be very misleading. So, how can you be sure you’re buying the real stuff? Keep one thing in mind, black truffles start at about 50 dollars an ounce with white truffles being quite a bit more. If you’re only paying a few bucks an ounce for truffle oil, it is not the real thing.

What is gianduja?


It’s the heavenly combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.

Gianduja, pronounced zhahn-doo-ya, originates from Torino, the capital city of the Piemonte region of Italy. While gianduja can be found in solid form, it is more commonly seen as a spread; the most popular worldwide being Nutella.

Nutella is produced by the Ferrero company, also in Piemonte. In its earliest form, Nutella was created in the 1940s by Pietro Ferrero, a pastry maker. Due to World War II rationing, cocoa was in short supply, so there was very little chocolate. To stretch the chocolate supply, Pietro added hazelnuts, which are plentiful in Piemonte. This year, the Nutella that we all know and love is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

What kind of pot is best for making sauce (gravy)?

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I love the enameled, cast iron Dutch oven from Le Creuset.

The proper pot is important when making a tomato-based sauce, especially one that cooks for a number of hours like a ragù Bolognese or a traditional Sunday gravy. High-acid foods require high quality cookware, and tomatoes are high on the acid scale. A low quality pot may not last with continuous high-acid cooking, and elements from an inferior pot may even contaminate the food that’s in it.

A pot with a thick bottom is a must when making a sauce with a long cooking time. The two best choices here are stainless and enameled cast iron. Both are great at retaining heat, even over uneven heating sources. Stainless is the choice for most restaurants because they are not only lighter than cast iron, but quite a bit cheaper. For home use, I recommend a high quality enamel-coated, cast iron dutch oven like Le Creuset.

I’ve got to hand it to the French on this one; the quality of Le Creuset is unsurpassed. There are a number of other companies that make enamel-coated, cast iron cookware, but quality varies between them. Staub is another high quality brand, but beware the cheap knockoffs. When it comes to cast iron cookware, you do get what you pay for. My first pot was one from the celebrity cookware line of a certain domestic goddess (you know, the one who did a little time some years back), and after my first few times making sauce, not only did the inside of the pot begin to discolor, but the enamel began chipping off. Luckily, none of those chips ended up in my sauce. Le Creuset has a lifetime guarantee on their cast iron products and is resistant to chips and discoloring. Not to mention, clean up is a breeze.

I know, I know. Le Creuset is pricy, and spending upwards of 300 dollars on a pot is a little hard to justify, but it is possible to find a great LC pot for much cheaper. If you are lucky enough to live near a Le Creuset outlet store, you can find great deals on most of their products, especially on discontinued colors and styles. Occasionally, there are sales running where you can save up to 40%. Home Goods is another great place to find discounted Le Creuset. It goes quickly, so you have to be a bit assertive and check the stores early and often. Because they are guaranteed for life, eBay and garage sales are worry-free options, as well. Once you’ve made the investment, you will never (ever) need another pot.

Is it true that Parmigiano Reggiano is lactose-free?


Surprisingly, yes.

The production of Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of Italian cheeses, is one of long tradition and strict regulation. The cheese must be aged a minimum of 12 months before being inspected and deemed worthy of the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) stamp. One thing that must be true of all Parmigiano Reggiano is that it is made from 100% raw cows milk. So how does a pure cows milk cheese become lactose free? Through a maturation process dating back several centuries.

During the early stages of maturation, bacteria turns the lactose into lactic acid. By the end of the minimum 12 months of aging, the amount of lactose in the cheese barely registers above 0. Despite its name, lactic acid is actually safe for those with a lactose intolerance.

There are a number of other hard, aged cheeses that are also lactose free, including Parmigiano Reggiano’s close cousin, Grana Padano. Just be aware. A cheese simply named “Parmesan” may not be aged enough to be lactose free. When purchasing a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano, always buy one with a bit of the rind with the “Parmigiano Reggiano” stamp, otherwise it may not be the real thing.

Is the new Eataly in Chicago worth all the hype? (Part 1)


Overall, yes.

What hype, you ask? Well, you must not live in Chicago. For weeks, we, here in the Windy City, have been inundated with all things Eataly. The second U.S. location of the famed Italian food megaplex just opened here on Monday, and no one has been more excited about it than me.

For those not familiar, Eataly is a high-end Italian food mall with a variety of restaurants, groceries, and retail items. Each location has a number of service counters featuring meat, salumi, cheese, seafood, bread, and more. The whole concept was dreamed up by entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti in 2000, and the first location opened in Torino, Italy in 2007. Currently there are 10 locations all over Italy, 13 in Japan, and one in Dubai, Turkey, New York, and now, Chicago. Mario Batali, Lidia and Joe Bastianich are also partners.

The Chicago location is nearly 65,000 square feet over two huge floors of all things related to Italian cuisine. That’s a lot to see, so I arrived shortly after they opened on their third day of business, and it was already bustling. I was immediately impressed by the layout. The coffee bar, pastry counter, and gelateria are all located near the entrance so those just passing by can stop in for something quick without hassle. Also in this area is the Nutella bar…yes, Nutella bar, featuring Nutella gelato, Nutella crepes, etc. The produce section is near the entrance as well, and while it was beautifully displayed, it was also way overpriced. While I didn’t expect Eataly to become my new go-to grocery store, I was surprised at the markup. No biggie, though, I wasn’t there for produce…I was most excited about the salumi, the cheese, and the fresh pasta. So, up to the second floor to find what I came for.


As the escalator reaches the second floor, the view of everything around you is unbelievable. On this level are eight restaurants, a variety of specialty counters, and many aisles of imported Italian items. While I spent most of the morning going aisle by aisle to see as much as I could, I would have liked to have spent all day there to really see everything. There is that much there. While I expected to see a lot of imported pasta, and tomatoes, and such, I was happy to see a lot of the basic, but hard to find items such as 00 flour, semolina, and imported spices. There were many items that I had never seen before, especially in the cookie and cracker aisles.

The smells around you are definitely a great part of the experience. This is especially true at the salumi and cheese counter. This was the first counter I visited and again, I was hit with some sticker-shock. 26 bucks for a pound of pancetta? I don’t think so. I can get it for half of that at my Italian grocery store. The one thing I really hoped to see here was some culatello. You know culatello, the thing I went on and on about here. There was culatello there…from Washington state…for 69 bucks a pound. No, thanks. One thing I will say about this counter and all the others I visited is that the service was great. Everyone I dealt with was very friendly and helpful.

The fresh pasta counter ended up being one of my favorites. While there wasn’t a huge variety of pasta available (no tortellini or tortelloni?), what they did have looked great. I love that the pasta is made right there in front of you. I asked what kind of flour was used and was pleased to hear that other than the agnolotti, all of the pasta was made with 100% semolina. I ended up buying a couple different kinds of the pasta and both were fantastic. I also thought the prices here were pretty reasonable.


The bread counter was great. Most of the bread is of the rustic, crusty variety. There are many flavors to choose from: raisin, fig, prosciutto and provolone, just to name a few. I loved that I was able to sample them all. There are a few varieties of focaccia to choose from as well. This was another counter with an amazing aroma.

There is also a meat counter, a fishmonger, and a vegetable butcher. The wine department is large. I plan to spend much more time there on my next visit. The olive oil department is fantastic, as well.

I did have lunch while I was there. I ate at Rossopomodoro, the pizza restaurant, which features authentic Napolitano-style pizza. This is the fork and knife kind of pizza with the bubbly crust and moist, soft middle. It was every bit as good as some of the pizza I’ve had in Italy. I started with an antipasti of fresh bufalo mozzarella that was really great, too. It tasted as if it was just made. All of this was perfect with the glass of rosé I had from the Bastianich wine collection. For the quality of the food, the prices were certainly reasonable.

Overall, I was very impressed with Eataly. It was definitely an experience, and I look forward to returning. I do have a few small gripes, such as the pastry counter not having any canolli or many traditional Italian cookies, but the surprises outnumber my gripes. I’ve called this post Part 1, because there is still more of Eataly that I have yet to experience. I have only tried one of the eight eating venues, and I’m sure there are nooks and crannies that I must have missed. I can’t wait to go back…and that’s saying something.

Is it okay to do all of my cooking with a high quality extra virgin olive oil?

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No…it’s not.

Every Italian kitchen should have at least two types of extra virgin olive oil on hand: a very flavorful, high quality oil and a lighter, good quality oil. Why not just go with the flavorful, high quality oil? Well, the higher quality, less refined extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point (the temperature at which it begins to smoke), so when used in higher heat cooking, the oil will burn and become rancid. For this reason, your high quality oil should really only be used on salads, for bread, or drizzled on cooked meats, pasta, and soup.

The smoke point of a lighter, more processed extra virgin olive oil can be more than twice that of the higher quality, unadulterated oils, so most of your cooking can be done with this oil. Sautéeing and roasting are great with this lighter oil.

The only time when a lighter olive oil is not the right choice for cooking is when deep-frying or using extreme high heats. A light sunflower oil is a great alternative. It has the highest smoke point, and will maintain your food’s flavor at high temperatures.

Isn’t Prosecco just Italian Champagne?

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Other than both being sparkling wine, no.

Champagne is undoubtedly the king of sparkling wine. Three things must be true for a sparkling wine to be called Champagne. First, it must be produced in the Champagne region of France…no ifs, ands, or buts. It must also be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier grapes. Finally, Champagne can only be fermented using the Champenoise method which is a two step fermentation process: first in barrels, then in bottles. Anything else, even in France, is just sparkling wine.

None of these things are true about Prosecco. First of all, Prosecco is named for both the grape (now known as Glera) and area in the Veneto region of Italy where it is produced. To be a true Prosecco, at least 85% of this grape must be used. Fermentation is done using the Charmat method which is also a two step fermentation, but both take place in stainless steel vats.

Prosecco is meant to be drunk when it is young and fresh, so the production process is usually faster than that of Champagne. That is why most Prosecco is modestly priced while finer Champagnes can be quite expensive.

Cin cin!

Are you ready for my ragù Bolognese recipe?

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Yes. Yes, you are.

This is probably the recipe that I am most proud of. I spent a little time in Bologna this year where I learned some things that make this a truly authentic ragù Bolognese.

Making a Bolognese is different from making other sauces in that there is usually not a lot of liquid in the pot while cooking. Liquid is added in small amounts, then reduced, then repeated. If too much liquid is added at one time, then you are just boiling the meat and destroying its flavors.

Pork is the meat of choice in Bologna. While there, I spoke with some people that use only pork in their ragù. I like the flavor of beef, so I use a 50/50 ratio of pork to beef. Pancetta is common in many recipes I’ve seen and adds some nice flavor, but not necessary if cooking on a budget.

Really, a cup of milk, you ask? Yes. I was just as surprised as you are. The milk quickly reduces out, but it adds a richness and velvety texture to your ragù. Be sure that the milk is added just before the tomato paste.

I had only ever used a hearty red wine when making this recipe before my friend, Alessandro, turned me on to using a dry white wine. It really tastes great when using pancetta. I find myself alternating between the two…and yes, use the whole bottle (minus a hearty swig for yourself, of course).

Finally, do yourself a favor and serve the ragù with fresh pasta rather than dry. Giovanni Rana is a brand that makes a great tagliatelle, the traditional pasta for Bolognese. After boiling and draining the pasta, return the pasta and some of the ragù to the pot. Let them cook together on low heat for a couple of minutes.

and of course, top with plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano.

3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 ½ lb. ground beef
1 ½ lb. ground pork
¼ lb. pancetta, ground or finely diced (optional)
1 cup whole milk
2 cups tomato paste
1 bottle of dry white or hearty red wine
3 bay leaves
Kosher or sea salt
Black pepper

Puree the chopped onion, carrots, celery, and garlic in a food processor. In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add pureed vegetables and season generously with salt. Stirring frequently, cook vegetables until they are brown and almost all of the water has evaporated (about 20 minutes).

If using pancetta, add to vegetables and cook until brown (about 4 minutes). Add beef and pork, and season with salt. Cook until brown (about 15 to 20 minutes). Either drain mixture of fat or remove as much as you can with a spoon or ladle.

Add milk and stir until evaporated. Add tomato paste and let brown for about 3 minutes. Add wine and reduce to about half (about 5 minutes). Add water to pot until it levels just above the meat (about 2 cups). Add bay leaves. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer.

Stir occasionally while seasoning with salt and pepper. As the sauce thickens, add more water (2 cups at a time). Repeat this a couple of times. Simmer for about 4 hours. Remove bay leaves before serving.

Makes about 8 servings.

When boiling pasta, is it better to add salt or oil to the water?

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Salt. Period.

The reasons for adding salt or oil to a pot of boiling pasta are actually different. It is believed that adding oil to the water will prevent the pasta from sticking or cooking together. While this may be true, cooking pasta in water and oil will result in oily pasta that won’t cling to your sauce, making it rather tasteless. To prevent pasta from sticking, just stir continuously for the first couple minutes of cooking. This is the time when the pasta’s starches are released causing it to stick.

Adding salt, on the other hand, enhances the flavor of the pasta. Add the salt either before or after the water begins to boil. Many Italians believe that pasta water should be salty like the sea, so be generous with the salt. Don’t worry about over salting; the pasta will only absorb so much and the rest gets thrown out with the water. Your sauce thanks you.

Is it true that Italians only drink hot tea when they are sick?

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For the most part, yes.

Italy is definitely a coffee driven country. Enjoying a caffe at the bar is part of a daily routine much like afternoon tea in England. So what about tea in Italy? Not so much. For Italians, hot tea is normally drunk at home when feeling under the weather. That being said, it is not hard to find hot tea at a coffee bar. It is there for the tourists. Iced tea, on the other hand, is popular in Italy and is usually lemon or peach flavored.