Speckless Italians

I don’t think, I have ever encountered a population more obsessed with cleanliness than the Italians. Supermarket shelves and the cupboard below kitchen sinks in private homes boom with soap, soda, washing powder, cleaning agents and detergent for all intends and purposes. Magic concoctions that eat chalk, degrease cooking tiles, shine wooden, laminated or glass surfaces, remove damp spots or polish floors indoors and outdoors. As far as cleaning is concerned, Italians believe in efficiency, and to be efficient household products should be dedicated to one job only. Using universal mixtures that promise to clean everything indiscriminately is substandard and socially unacceptable.

Take a deep breath when you pass through a narrow street of old houses and inhale scent of artificial pine, lemon, lavender and eucalyptus characterizing the various detergents. And watch out for all the house-proud ladies who scrub the pavement outside their front door on a daily basis, before they empty their soapy water bucket in your shoes. Modern Italians like to keep the path clean.

With these experiences in mind, I was greatly surprised to read Charles Dickens description of the women of Genova in 1844.

According to Dickens’ ‘Pictures from Italy’, Italian women were “… very good-tempered, obliging, and industrious. Industry has not made them clean, for their habitations are extremely filthy, and their usual occupation on a fine Sunday morning, is to sit at their doors, hunting in each other’s heads. But their dwellings are so close and confined that if those parts of the city had been beaten down by Massena in the time of the terrible Blockade, it would have at least occasioned one public benefit among many misfortunes.”

It seems Italian cleanliness is not genetically or culturally defined after all, but a result of ordinary European progress, prosperity and increased focus on personal hygiene.

Photo of Vitello Tonnato - Veal in Tuna Sauce

Vitello Tonnato Recipe – Veal in Tuna Sauce

Veal in tuna sauce is an absolute classic in Italian cooking that never fails to please. Here’s the easiest and most fantastic vitello tonnato recipe.

Ligurian Easter pie

Torta pasqualina
Ligurian Easter pie adds a touch of bright spring colours to the traditional pasquetta picnics.  The recipe is included in several Italian cookbooks and with my usual craving for unnecessary hard work in the kitchen, I follow the most elaborate version, where the dough is prepared from scratch and rolled into numerous thin sheets placed on top of each other to provide the right, multilayered crispness.

I did, however, stop short after 4-5 sheets of dough, as the 33 layers prescribed by traditional recipes to mark the Christ’s 33 years of age, seemed excessive. Still, you can use ready-made puff pastry, or even better multiple layers of thin filo pastry to make the pie less heavy. Any which way, the torta pasqualina, which is best when served warm, will feed at least 8 people.

For the pastry
500 g flour
2 tbsp olive oil
250 ml water

For the filling
500 g chopped frozen spinach or 1 kilo fresh spinach
500 g ricotta
8 eggs
1 dl milk
2 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
2 tbsp fresh bread crumbs
Olive oil
Marjoram, salt, pepper

Make a heap of flour and a little salt on the table. Stir in olive oil and water and knead thoroughly till you have an elastic, smooth dough. Cut the dough in 8 pieces, and let it rest under a wet tea-towel, while you prepare the filling.

Clean the fresh spinach and give it a quick boil before chopping. If you are using frozen spinach, it should be thawed in a casserole. Make sure to drain all excess water from the spinach.

Mix spinach with generous amounts of marjoram, salt and pepper.

Soak the bread crumbs in milk.

Mix ricotta with 2 beaten eggs and the parmesan cheese and fold in the spinach.

Roll each of the 8 dough balls into very thin round sheets.

Grease a high pie dish with olive oil, and line it with a sheet of dough. Brush the first sheet of dough with olive oil, before adding the next pastry layer. Repeat 4 times.

Pour in half the filling and make 6 hollows in the filling with a spoon.

Break the eggs carefully and place one egg in each hollow. Top up with extra salt, pepper, parmesan and the remaining spinach/ricotta mixture.

Close the pie with 4 sheets of oil brushed dough, and roll the sides to seal.
Prick the surface with a pin (without puncturing the egg yolks) and brush with olive oil.

Bake the pie in a pre-heated oven (180°C/350°F) for about 1 hour, until golden brown.

Other specialties like Ligurian Easter pie

Yeast cake from Vicenza

Pastiera cake recipe from Naples

Easy focaccia recipe with herbs

Ligurian Easter pie

Ligurian stockfish recipe

This Ligurian stockfish recipe is a stew made from dried or salted fish, tomatoes and potatoes.

It is last call for dried or salted cod bought in Southern Italy in the fall. Shop owners always find it hilarious to see Scandinavians stock up on a Scandinavian specialty in Italy, and they do not quite believe us when we say that dried fish costs three times as much, when bought 2 500 closer to its native waters. One of life’s small paradoxes.

As we don’t want to change a tenderloin steaks for preserved cod, we prefer to buy Norwegian fish to last the winter in Italy. It keeps fine in the refrigerator for a couple of months, and the craving for this kind of food passes with the winter.

This year I used the last baccala in a Ligurian recipe, according to which the fish should be boiled directly in the suace. Normally, I give it a boil and throw away the water, before mixing the fish with the other ingredients, but this had to be tried, and the result was unsurprisingly …. salty. Next year I think I will stick to my old habits and boil the cod a little on its own first.

500 g baccala, stockfish or other kind of dried salted cod
1 red onion
2 cloves garlic
1 celery stick
1 carrot
1 ltr vegetable stock
2 cans of tomatoes
5 potatoes
Olive oil, pepper, (salt)
Pine nuts, parsley or fresh basil

Leave the fish under water for 24 hours to remove the salt. Change the water 2-3 times along the way.
Put the fish in boiling water for 5 minutes
Drain fish, remove skin and bones and cut it into fair sized cubes
Clean, peel and chop onion, garlic, celery and carrot finely and fry it in olive oil.
Add the cod and let it steam for a few minutes
Pour in stock and tomatoes, but remember it is not a soup.
Peel the potatoes, cut them in pieces, and add them to the pan, so they can help to thicken the sauce.
After 1-1½ hour the dish is ready to serve with good Italian bread and a sprinkling of pinoli, parsley and/or basil.

Great altenatives to this Ligurian stockfish recipe

Salmon Ceviche

Italian fishballs

Marinated anchovies

Sole with spinach and white sauce

Pollack with tomato sauce

stockfish recipe


Fresh ravioli with ricotta filling

Ravioli con ricotta
The secret behind fresh ravioli with ricotta filling and other good homemade pasta is hard work. You really have to knead the dough thoroughly for a long time in order to obtain a passable texture. That’s why pasta machines are a tremendous help.

Another secret is the absence of eggs – at least to begin with for the inexperienced pasta maker. Most pasta recipes operate with one egg for each serving, which would be enough put an entire family down with acute cholesterol chock. Especially, if you are Italian and eat pasta every day. In my experience, eggs tend to make the pasta heavy and soggy, while I prefer a lighter, fluffy version. The south Italian housewives I have consulted also ban the use of eggs, except perhaps for filled pasta, but they are not that orthodox in their pasta with or without eggs habits. Still, none of them would ever dream of adding salt to the dough. Pasta should be salted though the boiling water. Basta.

As long as you follow these three rules, the result will be truly awesome.

For the pasta:
250 g pasta flour
200 ml tap water

For the filling
150 g fresh ricotta
4 tbsp grated parmesan
1 tsp grated nutmeg

For the sauce
50 g shelled walnuts
1 garlic clove
50 ml olive oil
2 tbsp crunchy fried pancetta or prosciutto crudo in tiny cubes

Make a volcano of flour on a clean table. Pour a little more than half the water in the middle of the mount and use a fork to stir in flour. Add more water gradually, till you have a tough dough. Use the heal of your hands when the fork is no longer useful and knead the dough together. Keep kneading for at least 10 minutes or use a pasta machine.

Run the dough through the pasta machine once. If the edges are frayed, add more water, and if the dough seems sticky, add more flour. Roll the pasta through the machine at least ten times at max width (to make up for ten minutes kneading).

Keep rolling the dough to a thin sheet, while you decrease the width gradually, one step at a time. Cut the pasta out in squares or circles.

Leave the pasta on wire rack covered by a clean tea towel.

Mix ricotta with grated parmesan and nutmeg for the filling.

Put the mixture in a plastic bag, cut off one corner, and place a top of filling on every other pasta square/circle. Cover with another pasta square/circle, and make sure to press the edges together. If the dough has the right texture, the pasta will close tight around the filling, but you can seal too dry pasta shapes with a drop of water.

For sauce pound walnuts and garlic in a mortar. Fry the mixture lightly in olive oil.
Fill a large pan with water and bring it to the boil. Add 1-2 tbsp salt. Boil the ravioli 3-4 minutes until they are al dente. Drain and place in a warm service dish with sauce and a topping of fried pancetta.

Other homemade pasta recipes to supplement fresh ravioli with ricotta filling:

Gorgonzola pasta

Homemade ravioli recipe with radicchio filling

Tasty pecorino stuffed ravioli from Sardinia – Culingionis


Fresh ravioli with ricotta filling