Italian Summer in a Glass

“The days were long and the nights were long and the life was good.”
—Gertrude Stein, Fiesole, Italy, Summer 1908

A few weeks ago, drinking and dining with my friends/neighbors/mortal enemies (envy is a terrible thing) Chris and Glennis before they left for a week in Venice, Italy, we got talking about Campari.

Chris was pontificating that Europe had an appreciation for bitter foods and spirits that you don’t see as much in America. That set me to forming theories and pontificating in turn about how bitter as an entire taste realm was absent altogether from American cuisine — we like our sweet (OH, how we like our sweet!) and our salty, we’ll dabble in sour. But bitter is completely unrepresented — replaced, perhaps, by fried. And more salt. More

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Rome’s Best Soup

I was about 11 when it happened.

Spending the summer in Europe with my family, I was gazing out the window of a restaurant high above Florence in the Etruscan town of Fiesole (where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas used to spend their summers entertaining Picasso and other friends, of which Stein wrote, “The days were long and the nights were long and the life was good.”). The waiter brought a soup that was one of many illuminating moments on that trip which would change my life. It was called stracciatella, “little rags” in Italian. It was a specialty of Roma, we were told. I’d never tasted soup like it.

Keep in mind this was the late 1970s, a time when “Italian” in the U.S. — even in sophisticated Southern California — meant Papa Tony’s, greasy meatballs in tomato sauce, pizza and overblown Jersey-style minestrone. Here was a soup that was the antithesis of everything I’d known to be Italian.

It was also miraculously simple. A clear, resonant golden broth in which floated those little rags — shreds of egg and spinach flavored with parmesan, nutmeg and pepper. A soup that would come to illustrate perfectly my core cooking belief in highlighting simple, fresh flavors that sing like a symphony together. Beautiful to see, and memorable to taste. Make this soup — I can make no promises but it may change your life too. Especially if done properly.

As I often say on this blog in regard to the simplest recipes, success depends entirely on the quality of your ingredients. This is a soup, for example, that benefits highly from a good homemade stock. Fresh farmer’s market spinach, the best parmesan reggiano you can find, and really good eggs don’t hurt either. And there may be no experience in the kitchen as immediately gratifying as grating a pod of nutmeg directly into your food.

Stracciatella

1 quart homemade chicken stock
3 eggs
1 cup finely chopped spinach
1 tbsp semolina flour (optional)
1/4 cup parmesan reggiano
a few grates fresh nutmeg

If you don’t have chicken stock, get yourself a whole chicken. Throw it in a pot with an onion, a bay leaf, a carrot and about a gallon of water. Bring to a boil, skim off froth, turn down to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. Add salt to taste (you’ll need a good bit of salt here). Remove the chicken (use the meat for sandwiches or tacos). You can continue reducing the broth over medium heat for another hour if you want a stronger broth. (I would recommend doing this.) Strain through a fine sieve into another pot. Let cool. At this point, take out your quart for your soup and freeze any remaining stock in freezer back for future use. (I always keep three or four bags of chicken stock in the freezer.)

Heat your stock over medium to a simmer. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the spinach and the semolina and stir together. Add the parmesan, grate a little nutmeg over the top (or throw in a pinch of pre-grated nutmeg), combine thoroughly. Turn off the stock, slowly pour in the egg/spinach mixture, and cover. Let sit for five minutes. Then, gently break up to “rags” in your soup with the back side of a ladle. Serve.