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Orso Restaurant Regional Dinner: Tuscany

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What a delight it is to visit the different regions of Italy with Orso at their series of regional dinners. Last night we were transported to Tuscany and although it was just the second of these events (click here to see their first in Piemonte), the restaurant was completely full of happy travellers.

My good friend Annie, who so often accompanies me on my blogging outings, was otherwise engaged at the Chelsea Flower Show but luckily for me her husband Jerry didn’t want to miss out on an evening of Tuscan food so joined me. I remember my first visit to Tuscany many years ago being a very wet affair – how else would it be so green? – and it seemed London had decided to fit that particular Tuscan mood. I dashed into the restaurant escaping yet another of the heavy downpours that had punctured the day between blasts of sudden sunshine. Once inside all thoughts of bad weather were soon forgotten. Soft lighting; warm creamy colours reminiscent of Italy. A lovely welcome. Bliss.

The British are known to have a love affair with Tuscany. It’s the area of Italy that has attracted so many of us as visitors and some have even bought homes there. Strangely for this Italophile, it’s a region I’ve visited less often over recent years and one I’d like to know better. I’ve been to Florence at least three times, stayed near beautiful Lucca and cycled round the top of its old city walls, but have yet to make it to Siena. The area is of course rich in cultural history being the cradle of the Renaissance. Perhaps its most famous son is Leonardo da Vinci, named after the Tuscan hill town of Vinci he was born in. Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini and thus the source of some of our most wonderful operas. Gastronomically, Tuscany acts as a crossover point between the rich cooking of northern Italy with its use of butter to the lighter style of the south where olive oil is used more. Tuscan olive oil is famous, of course, and in Tuscany you will also find bread used a lot with meals rather than pasta, such as in their wonderful Ribollita soup – a gorgeous vegetable soup spooned over Tuscan bread. There’s a heartiness to Tuscan cooking and meats such as wild boar are popular. Even pasta comes in hearty shapes: large pappardelle – wide noodles – which is often served with game ragù. Beans are used a lot and beef popular, such as the famous steak dish Bistecca alla Fiorentina. One of my favourite beef dishes, Tagliata di Manzo is another Tuscan speciality. Antonio Carluccio, in his book Antonio Carluccio’s Italia says that Tuscan beef and chickens are the best in Italy. With wild boar found in the Tuscan hills it’s not surprising that the region is also a source of fantastic mushrooms and truffles. Wines are famous with one of Italy’s most famous wines, Chianti, coming from the region but there are many other wonderful wines on offer such as Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Vin Santo del Chianti.

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Clearly Jerry and I were going to be in for a gastronomic treat. While we looked at the menu – a choice from two dishes for three of the four courses – the first arrived: Stuzzichini. These little appetisers came with toppings of a gorgeous rich liver pate and the other with plenty of chopped fresh tomato and slices of garlic. We’d been offered either Prosecco or a Negronino to begin and both of us chose Prosecco.

It was really hard to choose what to have next. There was ravioli with pecorino, potato, courgette, mint and stracchino, which sounded very good but we both opted for Pappardelle al Ragù di Cinghiale – wide noodles with a wild boar ragù.

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Of the two wines to accompany this course we chose the red: Rosso di Montepulciano. What a fabulous dish. A gorgeous rich sauce wrapped around fresh pasta. The wine was good too. Next up we chose different main courses. Jerry opted for Pollo alla Cacciatora con Polenta Fritta – hunter style chicken with polenta frites.

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‘Cacciatora’ is a classic dish with a rich sauce of tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms. Jerry said it was very good. Meanwhile, I’d chosen a fish dish: Baccalà alla Livornese su Crostino di Pane Al Aglio – Salt cod, black olives, fresh tomato and fresh herbs.

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I’m a great fan of baccalà so couldn’t resist this and, of course, serving it on bread is such a popular Tuscan thing to do. It was excellent with a wonderful flavour and I really liked the bread touch rather than serving it with potatoes as the toasted bread had soaked up some of the flavours. We both kept to red wine and the next one was Brunello di Montalcino. This was excellent and while the first wine had been good, we both particularly enjoyed this second.

Dessert was an easy choice – simply because we decided to choose both and share.

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The Bigne all’Orantanese – chocolate beignets – were little choux puffs with chocolate icing and different fillings. We only discovered they were different having cut one in half and started eating. They were tasty but, as Jerry pointed out, a little dry and would have gone well served with coffee. The pecorino cheese with grape focaccia and truffle honey was a magnificent dish though. The sweet bread with the cheese and honey worked brilliantly. Again, two wines were on offer but we both chose Vin Santo, which was delicious.

On hand throughout was Scott Malyon from Ellis of Richmond, wine merchants, to give advice and information. He came to chat to us and even though we were at the end of our meal, learning the background to his choice of wines and how he had matched them to the dishes was fascinating. It really enhanced what had already proved a great evening. Espresso served with a cantucci biscuit ended the meal.

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I love this way of learning more about Italian food: the focus on one particular region and the specialities found there. Orso also offers fantastic food; Italian cooking at its best. There’s a great atmosphere and it’s simply good fun to spend an evening in this way. I can’t wait for the next ‘regional dinner’ when they ‘visit’ Venice – which, as you know, is one of my favourite places!

The meal cost £39.50 for the 4 courses plus wine with each course and coffee at the end. To find out more about these events visit: www.orsorestaurant.co.uk.

Grilled Goats’ Cheese Salad

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The weather breathed a gentle, warm sigh of summer over London today. I woke to the sound of birdsong. I’ve noticed it so much more over the past few weeks. But the dawn chorus is too early for me as we head close to the longest day so I went back to sleep. When it was finally time to get up I peeped through the edge of the blinds at my bedroom windows into the garden below to see what kind of day it was. A pale blue sky, clear and cloud free greeted me. The day was starting well. The slightly chilly air slowly warmed through the day until I could go dressed in summer gear and contemplate supper in the garden.

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I had a lovely crottin – goats’ cheese – that I bought in the Duck Pond Market in Richmond last Sunday at a stall full of French cheeses and charcuterie. Crottin de Chavignol is produced in the Loire Valley and is one of the France’s most famous goats’ cheeses. Dating from the 16th century, it’s a matured goats’ cheese – aged for at least 4 weeks – rather than some of the very new, pale, mild and soft goats’ cheeses you’ll find that may be only a few days’ old. This ageing gives it a stronger, nuttier flavour; its texture is firmer. It is one of my favourite cheeses, either to eat as it is (and my favourite way to eat a good cheese is absolutely on its own; no accompaniment usually, although maybe a little good bread; never the Englishman’s fancy of biscuits!) or to grill it as I did tonight on some French bread. I wanted to keep it simple. I don’t like fussy salads with loads of things thrown in. I was remembering as I thought it through of a wonderful cheese salad I ate in France a couple of years ago while following the Route de Cidre in Normandy.

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It was so typically French: fresh, simple and only the best ingredients. That’s how I wanted my salad for this evening. I had one of my favourite breads, a Campagne loaf – country bread – from Paul, a French bakery. That would be perfect.

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For salad leaves I bought organic Little Gem, watercress and rocket (all from Waitrose, I’m afraid; no farmers’ market midweek). I try to buy organic whenever possible, as much for the better flavour as health. Although that’s important too. The watercress was bunched in the traditional manner and had the most wonderful strong peppery, mineral flavour. The Little Gem added a sweetness and nice crispy texture.

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I played in my mind with what else to add. I decided on some radishes, sliced as thinly as I could manage. Although I remember eating radishes a lot as a child, I always think of there being something very French about them where they’ll serve them on their own as a simple starter, with sea salt for you to dip the bright crimson heads into.

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Staying with the Normandy memories, I decided to add apple too – such a classic Norman ingredient.

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Which of course meant using apple cider vinegar in the dressing as well (use wine vinegar if you don’t have cider, but definitely not balsamic). To the dressing – of olive oil, cider vinegar, salt and pepper – I added some Dijon mustard for a little extra French kick. I whisked it all together until emulsified with a fork then poured it over the salad leaves and radishes, which I’d put in a bowl.

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Dress the salad in a different bowl to the plate you want to serve the salad on. Mix it gently with your hands and then carefully pile it on to a serving plate. Lay the sliced apple to the side.

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Now prepare the cheese. Toast a slice of the bread on one side. Cut in half and then slice the crottin in half crosswise. Lay a half of the cheese on each half of the toast, untoasted side, and drizzle over just a little olive oil before putting under a hot grill.

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Grill until brown and bubbling a little on the top.

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Then lay the cheese-toasts on top of the salad. And violà! An almost instant but pretty fantastic supper!

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When you cut inside the cheese you’ll find it’s soft and creamy.

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It was a gorgeous salad; wonderful in its simplicity and a real taste of France. If you want to carry the à la Normandie theme through you’d drink some cider with it, but I settled for a glass of red wine from a bottle I already had opened.

Of the many things I like about summer, having the long days are one of the best. I love on warm evenings like tonight to take a post-prandial walk around nearby Twickenham Green.

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The sight of cricketers in their whites playing a game on the Green is always a delight. It really felt like summer: sun, warmth, a gorgeous French-style salad and cricket. Well yes, that’s the English bit; I don’t think the French play cricket. Or to any noticeable level. Don’t ever ask me about cricket, though. I’ve barely a clue about the rules but it brings back memories of childhood, playing it in the garden, watching my Dad play in local matches, listening to glorious BBC Radio commentary with some of the greatest sports commentators of all time, like John Arlott and Brian Johnston. Just the sound of their voices on the radio was summer when I was younger. Ah summer! But of course, being England it comes in fits and starts. Today was summer. Tomorrow we have rain forecast all day!

A Sunday Morning Walk in Kew Gardens: May 2015

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The post almost didn’t happen today. I turned up as my usual 9.30 on Sunday mornings wanting to get into the Gardens before the coach loads of visitors arrived and found the gates closed. A few other people were there, checking opening times on their phones, looking at the posters near the entrance. Everyone was confused. There was no one in sight beyond the gates; no sign anyone was about to open the Gardens. Then someone saw through the gates a board: from 22 April the Gardens wouldn’t open until 10.00am on Sundays. There were a lot of unhappy people. Perhaps this is a way of saving money but to introduce a later opening time just as we head into summer and long days didn’t seem like good planning. It was tempting to go home but in the end I just went back to my car and filled in half an hour reading the paper. When I walked back to the gates the small crowd had grown into a huge one and there were many more confused and disgruntled people around. What’s happening? Why aren’t they open? The gates opened on the dot of 10.00. The crowds surged forward. In at last! As a Friend you can beat the queues for tickets and go through a special aisle at the side. Soon the delay was forgotten and I delighted to find Kew had transformed over the last month into a land of colour and perfume.

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It’s amazing how quickly things change though. I’d last been on 18 April with my daughter and took the photo of the tulips above – a stunning array of colour. That had all gone by today, dead heads cut off and only a few tulips, hanging barely on, remained (as in the top, opening photo). Also gone was the gorgeous avenue of prunus – cherry trees – in full blossom that I saw 3 weeks ago.

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Today there were only green leaves on the trees. But other colour had arrived, often accompanied by strong perfume, such as this wonderful wisteria.

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Just walking about, there was colour to be seen everywhere.

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Beautiful peonies. I didn’t immediately recognise this large flower – a Claire de Lune variety – as a peony:

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A woman stopped by me and remarked that they looked a bit like a fried egg! I loved these pretty irises:

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There were loud azaleas:

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Bright rhododendrons:

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Shy bluebells hiding in the wooded areas under trees:

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In the vegetable garden, apple trees were coming into blossom:

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It was a lovely morning to be in Kew Gardens. Despite a forecast of grey cloud the sun was managing to put in a good impression of early summer. As I made my way back to Victoria Gate it was getting very busy indeed. A large and dense crowd was advancing towards me as I neared the gate. It was definitely time for this local to go.

Lunch at Locanda Cipriani, Torcello

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It was great meeting Bonifacio Brass, owner of Locanda Cipriani, last Thursday and interviewing him for the blog. I’d eaten a light lunch there two years previously when I visited beautiful Torcello for the first time and when I was talking to William Goodacre of Tastes of Italy last December about Torcello and the Locanda, he offered to arrange a meeting with its owner, Bonifacio Brass, grandson of Giuseppe Cipriani. Do look at my last post if you haven’t read it already for details of that meeting and a background to the lovely Locanda – click here. At the end of the meeting, Bonifacio kindly offered me lunch, to which the obvious answer was, Yes please! Even without the interview, it’s certain I would have returned to the Locanda on this last trip as I’d loved it so much the time before. It’s also wonderful to escape the crowds of Venice for a day and ahead across the Lagoon in a vaporetto to this peaceful island where it is so easy to relax and find a quiet time.

The Locanda is also a place of tranquillity. There’s a wonderful homeliness to it combined with a sure touch of professionalism. You step inside and you could almost be entering someone’s home.

The entrance to Locanda Cipriani

The entrance to Locanda Cipriani

The dining area in the garden is a more sophisticated affair. It’s a stunning location for a Venetian meal. The weather was slightly chilly last Thursday and rain threatened so I opted to eat in the covered terrace rather than right outside, but I still had the experience of being in the garden, which was great.

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My waiter was of Venetian heritage but grew up in Australia. He immediately made me feel welcome and was wonderfully informative about what I might eat and drink and also how dishes were prepared. This kind of excellence is all one hopes for in a restaurant of this quality. I never felt smothered by too much attention but he was always on hand if I wanted him.

I was on holiday. I was in Venice. More particularly I was on beautiful Torcello and in a Cipriani restaurant. What could be better than beginning with a Bellini? A wonderful cocktail of fresh peach juice and Prosecco invented by Giuseppe Cipriani at Harry’s Bar.

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Quite amazingly for someone who has been to Venice so many times and who drinks Prosecco each evening when there (Prosecco is a local Veneto drink), this was my first ever Bellini. Why had I waited so long! It was delicious. It came with a basket of fresh bread and breadsticks. As I slowly sipped my drink and enjoyed my surroundings, the restaurant started to fill up. Some guests opted to sit in the terrace like me, while others braved the grey skies outside in the garden. Later, slight rain fell and waiters quickly put up large umbrellas and everyone seemed happy to stay where they were.

I looked at the menu but had already pretty much decided to have the Risotto Torcello, which William had told me about: a vegetable risotto made with seasonal ingredients and a Cipriani classic. It seemed ideal for lunchtime. My waiter gently suggested that as it takes a bit of time to prepare a risotto (because it’s definitely not something you prepare in advance), I might like a starter. Oh how lovely to be encouraged to be even more indulgent! And what a choice. I decided to have some white polenta (polenta is another Venetian speciality and is often served with meat or fish) with Lagoon shrimps and shredded leek.

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What a fabulous choice that turned out to be! Polenta is a tricky thing and can be quite unpleasant if badly prepared. This, of course, was perfect – a creamy consistency and perfectly judged seasoning. The flavour of the tender little shrimps was intense and sweet. I’ve rarely tasted shrimps so good. And the crunchy little topping of shredded fried leek added flavour and texture. It was a glorious dish.

My waiter had explained the risotto to me; that it had some ingredients which were always included like mushrooms and aubergine, but others changed with the seasons. As it was springtime it would now include the new asparagus that had just come into season, baby artichokes and fresh peas. Each vegetable is cooked separately and added to the rice at different stages.

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The waiter spooned it onto a plate from a dish and a glorious aroma wafted across to me. Before I’d tasted it, I knew it was going to be good. I’m a great fan of risottos. I cook them a lot and that only makes me more fussy about them; a fussiness that means I rarely order them out and only in restaurants I trust. Well, of course, I didn’t really have to worry in Locanda Cipriani but still, to be as impressed as I was was quite something. This was superb; without doubt one of the best risottos I’ve ever eaten. Such glorious flavours, each vegetable cooked perfectly, each flavour distinct but marrying into a delightful whole. The consistency had that glorious creaminess one looks for in a good risotto; the rice cooked al dente so that it retained a bite but was definitely cooked through.

There’s a dichotomy in eating alone: on the one hand it is so lovely to share a good experience with someone; but on the other hand there’s a certain pleasure in being able to totally give yourself to eating something wonderful with no distraction. Haven’t we all had times when we’ve been so busy talking over a meal that what passes into our mouths is barely noticed? I can tell you I took my time over my meal – the wonderful starter, the sublime risotto. I enjoyed every mouthful – and the sharing comes now with you!

Further temptation came with the dessert menu. I am so easily tempted in such excellent surroundings! I decided on the Locanda’s take on Tiramisu – which turned out to be very indulgent indeed!

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It was gorgeous: rich with a great balance of flavours. It was also quite large. When coffee came with lovely little homemade biscuits there was no way I could indulge further.

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It was a fabulous meal. When in Venice this is an experience not to be missed! I was lucky to be treated to this meal but the prices are very reasonable and I know I shall go back.

A visit to beautiful Torcello with all its charm and tranquillity; a lunch in the gardens of the wonderful Locanda Cipriani – now that really is a perfect day.

Interview with Bonifacio Brass, Owner of Locanda Cipriani, Torcello

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I’ve been visiting Venice for over 30 years, most frequently in the last ten. Yet it took me until two years ago, in April 2013, to make my way across the Lagoon to Torcello. I’d been to Murano and Burano but not the tiny Torcello island. When I read about its peace and tranquillity and its Byzantine treasure – the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, which was founded in AD 639 and contains beautiful mosaics – I decided I should go there. I’m so glad I did for I loved it immediately. It truly is an oasis of calm, yet has a wildness that explains how it caught Ernest Hemingway’s heart years ago when it became a favourite hunting ground of his. On that first trip, I was talking to Sandro, one of the owners of Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo, before I set off for the day. When I told him I was going to Torcello, knowing how much I like good food, he suggested going to Locanda Cipriani for lunch. I was rather taken aback by the name. Surely that would be very expensive. No, not very, he said. And so it turned out that I did eat at the Locanda that day. As I’d already booked a restaurant for the evening, I only wanted a light lunch, but it was a most glorious light lunch in their gardens and I fell a little in love with the place. A few months later, my daughter and her partner went to Venice and I said they must go to Torcello. They went to the Locanda and had a full lunch there, which they thought was fantastic, so I knew that one day I would have to return and eat more than just a snack.

When I met William Goodacre, owner of Tastes of Italy, last December we had a wonderful long chat about Venice, which he knows well, and Torcello in particular and the Locanda. When I told him I’d already booked my next trip to Venice for April 2015 he offered to contact the Locanda’s owner, Bonifacio Brass, who he knows, and arrange for me to meet him. Near the time of my departure, he introduced me to Bonifacio via email and we set a date for our meeting. Thus on the third morning of my visit, I ate an early breakfast and set off to Fondamente Nuove to catch a No.12 vaporetto to Torcello.

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The weather wasn’t as lovely as my previous trip. There was some rain in the air and it was grey and a little chilly, but it was still glorious to be out on the Lagoon. I was lucky that the vaporetto would stop at Torcello. Sometimes, as on my first trip, you have to go to Burano first and then catch a smaller boat across to Torcello.

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The arrival itself is one of peace and calm, unlike the busy vaporetto stops on Venice. Only a few of us disembarked and walked along the canal towards the few buildings that remain on the island.

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Torcello was once a thriving community and played an important role in the birth of Venice’s greatness, which was at its height in the 15th century – see a previous post for more details – but now only a few dozen people live there. There’s only one way to walk when you arrive and this will take you to the Locanda and the cathedral and a handful of other buildings.

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The first time I visited Torcello it didn’t immediately register that this was the Locanda of Cipriani fame. It’s a modest building from the front that dates from the 13th century. Once a shop selling wine and oil, it attracted Giuseppe Cipriani’s attention in 1934 and he bought it and turned it into a locanda – inn – with just a few guest rooms and restaurant. Cipriani fell in love with Torcello’s beauty and the island’s special charm but it was when Ernest Hemingway stayed at the Locanda for a month while writing his novel Across the River and Through the Trees, devoting whole pages to the island, that fame really came. Since then it has become a destination for many famous people, offering a unique and private place to relax away from the crowds of Venice itself. Many members of the UK royal family have been there, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Earlier, in 1961, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip went there and it remains the only restaurant that the Queen has visited privately. Stars like Maria Callas, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts came; artists like Marc Chagall; politicians such as Winston Churchill and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The list is endless. I was impressed enough to lay aside the jeans I’d been wearing to roam around Venice and don a dress for the day. As I was to discover, the jeans would have be fine: the Locanda’s external appearance of modest charm carries to the inside. To enter it is like going into an old farmhouse, although the welcome and service is of a vastly superior nature and you soon know you are in a place of excellence.

The entrance to Locanda Cipriani

The entrance to Locanda Cipriani

After giving my name to a waiter I was first welcomed by Bonifacio’s wife, Sabrina, who is Austrian and runs the Locanda with him. Coffee was brought and soon Bonifacio arrived and we sat down in this entrance, which is like a comfortable living room. I was told that the simple furniture dates from his grandfather’s day in the 1940s.

Bonifacio and Sabrina Brass

Bonifacio and Sabrina Brass

Bonifacio is Giuseppe Cipriani’s grandson; his mother Carla was Giuseppe’s daughter. His father is the famous film director, Tinto Brass, and Bonifacio grew up in Rome where many of Italy’s great filmmakers have been based. Carla Cipriani took over the running of the Locanda in the early 1980s following Giuseppe’s death. By this time he’d sold his two hotels but kept his favourite Locanda. I asked Bonifacio if he’d always intended to follow the family’s path and take over the Locanda. He told me that he began working life as an assistant photographer in a studio, following a path closer to his father’s. He also spent 4 years studying languages and living in London and Paris. But in 1981 he took up his mother’s urging to give the Locanda a go and see whether its running might be a life for him. And the rest, as they say, is history. Bonifacio is still there and took the running of the Locanda over from his mother after her death in 2006.

Bonifacio said that once he has started on something ‘he wants to do the best’. Thus he determined to understand the running of the Locanda by experience and spent 3½ years working in kitchens to learn to cook. He doesn’t cook in the Locanda kitchen now but has earned the respect of those who work for him by a true understanding of their job. He spoke with some pride of the team at the Locanda and how many of them had been there for a long time.

The restaurant is open every day except Tuesdays and all year round. It used to close during the winter but it was Bonifcacio who decided to keep it open during the winter months and that has been a success. There is a large and elegant dining room where people sit in colder months.

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If dining inside is a good experience then it can only be bettered by being there on a warm and sunny day and eating outside in the garden.

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And if, as it was for me on Thursday, the weather hasn’t quite decided if it’s summer or not and rain threatens, you can shelter in the covered terrace but still enjoy the experience of the garden.

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Bonifacio’s aim is to provide simple food prepared well. I was pleased to hear him say that he didn’t like food messed around with too much as that’s how I like my food too. Dishes respect the seasons and the menu changes according to what’s available, but some classic dishes are always on the menu, like John Dory alla Carlina – named after his mother – and Risotto alla Torcellana, a risotto with seasonal vegetables that William recommended to me and I chose when it came to lunchtime.

As well as managing the Locanda, Bonifacio runs a consultancy advising other restaurants and restaurant groups. For him, running the Locanda well is about the whole experience. He wants to make people happy; he creates an atmosphere of openness, simplicity and one that is relaxed yet with impeccable service. He feels at home in the Locanda, he told me, and likes that each day new people come, old regulars return, and it’s a comfortable place to be. I had to ask him about the famous. How does he deal with those people? Their privacy is of utmost importance. He would not tolerate anyone approaching a famous guest for an autograph; photographers are definitely not allowed inside. In the nicest way, I have to say he is a man I wouldn’t want to cross but of course this is why the famous come because it’s a safe and relaxed environment for them; perhaps the closest they can ever come to ‘real’ life.

If to lunch or dine at the Locanda is a great experience, then I just have to put staying there on my list of things to dream of. The Locanda has just 5 rooms – 3 singles and 2 junior suites. As part of enhancing the calm and tranquil atmosphere of Torcello, the rooms are simply furnished in keeping with the style Giuseppe Cipriani originally chose and Bonifacio said that it was a positive decision to not include TVs but provide a small library of books in each room. You will find modern comforts like air conditioning though and he has necessarily had to provide WiFi as that is what everyone expects now. Each room is unique and named after an ancient Roman city and decorated with classical Venetian mosaics.

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Bonifacio kindly gave me much of his time. When we finished talking he had to go off for an early lunch with Sabrina and was then lecturing in the afternoon. He invited me to have lunch as his guest, which of course was a wonderful offer I wasn’t going to refuse. As it was still quite early, it was agreed that I’d go off for half an hour or so to walk and then come back. The lunch was amazing; one of the best I’ve ever had and so it deserves its very own blog post that will follow soon.

Meanwhile, do remember Locanda Cipriani if you visit Venice. Even if you don’t stay there, it will prove a real highlight to visit beautiful Torcello one day and have a fabulous lunch at this lovely locanda.

To find out more about Locanda Cipriani visit: www.locandacipriani.com

To find out more about Tastes of Italy who organise wonderful food and wine holidays visit: www.tastesofitaly.co.uk

Chocolate Semifreddo with Raspberries & Amaretti

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A family lunch for my brother and his family to meet Baby Gale had to be postponed for a month. The original Greek lunch plan turned into an Italian lunch plan. I’m still in Italian mode after the days in Venice this past week; there was a semifreddo already prepared and waiting in my freezer; prosecco chilling in the fridge. The planned moussaka turned into lasagna and I decided to put together an antipasti mainly of bought things from the wonderful Corto Italian Deli in Twickenham. With a baby in the family, everything has to stay simple; mainly everything has to stay flexible. A lasagna is very forgiving. I knew if the meal was delayed it would happily sit awhile in a low oven and it’s anyway best not piping hot but allowed to cool a little.

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First thing this morning I went to the deli. It almost took me back to Venice: a perfect Italian-style cappuccino with a croissant filled with jam.

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As I sat there an Italian man came in and drank an espresso at the counter as his meats were cut for him to take away and a conversation in Italian ensued. Then, my breakfast finished, I made my choices. Romina recommended the stracciatella – the filling that goes into a burrata. Stracciatella means ‘torn apart’ and thin strands of buffalo mozzarella are mixed into cream.

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Romina suggested I should sprinkle just a little salt and pepper over it and some olive oil. I also bought some Tuscan prosciutto, mortadella and salami with fennel. There were some good looking ciabatta loaves and I bought some taralli too. In Italy bread baskets always came with fresh bread and bread sticks or biscuits. Back at home I griddled some courgettes and tomatoes and opened a jar of chargrilled artichokes from Carluccio’s.

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When it came to eating, the meats were simply fantastic. I don’t know anywhere better to buy cold meats and now the family is becoming so spoilt by the quality at Corto Deli we won’t want to buy meat anywhere else. And the stracciatella was wonderful; quite special and a real treat.

The lasagna I’d started preparing the day before, making the ragu last night. Making a lasagna from scratch takes a while; having the ragu all done made putting it together easier today. It cooked quite slowly in the oven for a long time and by the time we came to eat it, it was beautifully browned; a nice crust from the Parmigiano on top. I’d added an extra layer of spinach through the middle – just fresh, uncooked baby spinach leaves laid across one of the layers. It’s a Jamie Oliver idea; not ‘authentic’ maybe but nice. We served just a simple green salad with it.

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The semifreddo came out of the freezer to soften a bit while we ate the main course. I’d used the same recipe as I put on the blog recently – click here – and made that first and chilled in fridge.

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However, to jazz it up a bit I decided to put in a raspberry layer and add a topping of crushed amaretti biscuits. For the raspberry layer I just gently cooked 300g raspberries with a little sugar (this will depend on the sweetness of your raspberries) and a squeeze of lemon juice, as if making a compôte.

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I didn’t cook it down a lot though and at the end mashed a little but left some recognisable raspberry pieces. I chilled this too. When everything was ready I crushed 12 amaretti biscuits with a rolling pin in a freezer bag.

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I lined a 2-litre loaf tin with cling film and spread a layer of the crushed biscuits over the bottom. I put in the freezer for about 20 minutes. It was all a bit of an experiment – would the layer remain once I’d poured in some of the chocolate mixture. I did that very carefully – just half of the chocolate. Then I froze it, checking after about an hour that it was set. Then I carefully poured over a layer of the raspberry (the entire compôte) and left this to set for another hour.

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Finally I poured in the rest of the chocolate mix and put it back in the freezer.

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I waited until it was frozen before covering the top in a couple of layers of cling film for protection in the freezer. Then it was happy to wait a week while I went to Venice! I was slightly worried when tipping it out of the tin to serve this lunchtime that the amaretti layer would have completely disappeared, but it was still there; slightly sunken but a definite layer. I crushed a few more amaretti and scattered them over the top.

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Another slight worry was that while I knew the chocolate would be easy to slice through, would the raspberry layer? Or would it be hard and icy? But it was all fine; it was all wonderful!

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Although we’d all eaten a large antipasti … a good slice of lasagna, drunk Prosecco and Chianti … everyone wanted seconds of the semifreddo! I was really pleased with the chocolate semifreddo I made a few weeks ago, but the addition of the raspberry and amaretti layers made a big difference. The flavours all work together well and the finished dish felt more special than a simple chocolate version. It’s so good when experimenting works well. But it was even better to be seven family round a table enjoying each others’ company and a good meal.

Venice 2015: The Rialto Area of Venice

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I love the Rialto area of Venice and while at first thought it conjures up visions of many tourists crowding across the famous bridge; traffic jams on the Grand Canal as water taxis, vaporettos, speed boats and gondolas all compete for space; and stalls full of tacky souvenirs at inflated prices, you need only walk a short distance away from the bridge towards Santa Croce to find a little peace and a sense of being somewhere that’s a little closer to the real Venice. Of course, what is the ‘real Venice’? The city welcomes over 22 million tourists a year and in busy months, the tourists outnumber the locals by 20:1. You cannot completely escape the sense that you are in a kind of film set: there is undeniably something ‘unreal’ about Venice and nearly everything is set up for tourists. But I did notice on my travels there this week that things were cheaper in the San Polo/Santa Croce area. There are a lot of leather goods for sale, of course, and I saw a small handbag for €25 near St Mark’s Square while an identical one in Santa Croce was only €15. And of course in the famous Rialto market, while there are plenty of tourists snapping away taking photos of food they’ve no intention of buying, there are plenty of locals filling their bags with the vegetables, meat and fish to take home or to restaurants to cook. You’ll see gondoliers taking a break and standing in local bars drinking espressos or something stronger. And locals cluster in campi to talk to friends while children play around them, often holding, even early in the day, a glass of wine or their favourite Aperol drink, its bright orange colour a beacon in the crowds.

I thought it would be fun to tell you about my favourite places in the Rialto area. I have to confess that the photo at the top is from 2 years ago. The weather on that trip was much better than this past week, but also the Rialto bridge is covered in scaffolding and surrounded by cranes at the moment as major renovations works go on, so it’s not quite as pretty as usual! However, the following photos are from mainly my trip this week, and this is all about why I love Venice and keep going back to the same place:

HOTEL

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I can’t imagine staying anywhere other than the beautiful Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo – or not while owners Walter and Sandro remain there. It is without doubt my very favourite hotel. It’s small, friendly and beautiful. See a previous post for more details: click here. Situated in Santa Croce, it’s wonderfully quiet and peaceful but only a stone’s throw from the Rialto. When the weather is good, it’s lovely to sit in their courtyard for breakfast, but even from the indoor breakfast room the view is still wonderful:

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RIALTO MARKET

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The fruits and vegetables always look so amazing. Look at those wonderful bundles of asparagus, small little purple artichokes – tender enough to be cooked whole. Labels often tell you where the produce comes from and you can see what’s local – and little comes from very far away. Of course there’s the famous fish market too.

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It’s all so tempting and I often think that some time it would be great to stay somewhere where I could do some cooking too. But then I’d miss the experience of being out and about in Venice and sitting with a drink and food on the edge of the Grand Canal.

BARS

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Campo Erberia, just off the Rialto market, is a wonderful area for bars where you can sit by the edge of the Grand Canal with a great view and enjoy a drink, cicchetti (Italian ‘tapas’) or a meal. I often go there for a snack cicchetti lunch, an early evening glass of prosecco and it’s a great place to be late at night to end the day. Here are my three favourite bars – all selling cicchetti:

Bancogiro

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This is where I go when I arrive in Venice and have dropped my bags at the hotel and head straight off for a light lunch. It was closed my first day this year (Monday) but open after that and I enjoyed my last meal of the trip there on Thursday evening with this fantastic view.

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They do great cicchetti, meals and wine by the glass.

Al Merca

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Al Merca in Campo Bella Vienna is definitely one of the places to be. It’s always crowded. It’s a tiny place – just a counter really that opens on to a campo just off the Rialto market. Here you really feel you’re with the locals as old friends meet up for a drink, young and old. There’s nowhere to sit – just a small bench outside that seats about four people; a barrel made into a table nearby. But really you just stand and enjoy the atmosphere and some of the best wine and cicchetti you’ll find in Venice. It’s cheap too. A glass of wine ranging from just about €2 to €3.50. The cicchetti are mainly little rolls full of wonderful things like San Daniele prosciutto, baccalà mantecato, speck with gorgonzola, mortadella. They are making fresh ones as fast as they sell them. You won’t find fresher. I had a light lunch there on Wednesday before going off to meet Isabella and visit Castello Carboncine. To a couple of little rolls I added a melanzane polpette – a little aubergine ‘meatball’.

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It was all amazing! Note the glass for my prosecco. Glasses of prosecco never come in flutes in Venice; they come in wine glasses. And the Veneto is where genuine prosecco comes from, so they should know!

All’Arco

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I’d read about All’Arco on previous trips but it was always so busy I never managed to get in. But when I passed by this trip, one early lunchtime, and saw it fairly empty (which didn’t last long!), I just had to go in and try some of their famous cicchetti.

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It’s a great little place, gorgeous cicchetti, a wonderful buzz to the atmosphere. Here again, like Al Merca, you’ll probably have to stand to eat your food (although there are a few tables outside) but it’s definitely worth doing so.

TRAGHETTI

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If you really want the experience of feeling like a local, then cross the Grand Canal in a traghetto. While making a short crossing or trip down the canal in a vaporetto will cost you €7, you can get a crossing and a gondola experience for just €1 in a traghetto. And it’s much more fun! The one in the photo above goes from the Rialto market across to Cannaregio. If you’re heading to that side of the canal, it’s the quickest way to cross. The locals stand but they won’t mind if you prefer to sit down. It can be a slightly hairy experience as large vaporetti, heavy with tourists, or speeding small boats (although they’re not supposed to speed) whizz by and the canal water churns up and throws you about a bit but it’s something you simply have to try.

QUIET CAMPOS

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St Mark’s is the only piazza in Venice but there are lots of campos (or more correctly, campi).  Some are busy and noisy, but some wonderfully quiet and peaceful. My favourite is Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, which I get to quickly from the back of the hotel and heading away from Rialto towards Piazzale Roma. I like it because this is one of the most ‘local’ campos, full of locals shopping, talking, children playing football. Sit at one of the bars with a prosecco or just on one of the benches and watch the Venetian world go by. You’ll feel a million miles away from St Mark’s – even though you’re only a walk away. This is a gorgeous photo of the campo at night from my last trip; a real haven of peace:

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Well, it’s been fun to share my favourite things to do in the Rialto area of Venice, where I like to stay, eat and drink. Do you have any favourite places to share?

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