Eating Italy – Potato Pillows, Pork, & Panna Cotta

We’ve reviewed our recipes and ingredient lists, we’ve combed through amazon to purchase all the necessary equipment and we are finally ready to try and recreate our amazing traditional Italian meals. My in-laws were coming in for the weekend, so what better time to try out our new Italian recipes! We chose to serve them sundried tomato crostini, gnocchi in tomato sauce, herb-rubbed pork tenderloin, and panna cotta for dessert.

The first thing that struck me about Italian food, is how much of it they eat! First, in Italy lunch (pranzo) is the largest meal, and it’s generally 3 -4 courses with wine. You might start with a crostini of some sort, then comes the pasta course (without meat but with plenty of unsalted Tuscan bread), then the meat and vegetable course, followed by dessert. This is lunch – every day. The sisters assured us that pasta, as a first course is essential and that Italian families eat pasta at least once, if not twice a day. Here in the states when we think of Italian food, we generally think of a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs, or maybe fettuccine alfredo, or chicken parm, perhaps served with a crisp Caesar salad – hate to break it to you, be these things are NOT Italian food- you absolutely will not find them on an authentic menu in Italy. They are adaptations of traditional Italian food, but they have been “Americanized” to reduce the number of courses, and to promote convenience, for example in Italy you can order Spaghetti Pomodoro as a first, and you can order meat balls, as a second course- but in America, we combine them into one dish. The sisters constantly have to re-define the correct idea of traditional Italian food to their students. So now that you know the correct courses and process, let’s get into the good stuff, the food!

Starter: Sundried tomato & olive crostini:

While perusing the Mercato Centro in Florence I purchased a small bag of wonderfully fragrant sundried tomatoes after the stall owner had offered us a tasting of a spread she’d made from them. It was really quite simple but so delicious, a few large pieces of sundried tomatoes blended with olive oil. When we made it at home, I had the Mr. roughly chop the sundried tomatoes and some Kalamata olives before combining with a generous amount of olive oil using the immersion blender. We blended about ¾ the mixture and then mixed in the chopped pieces to give texture to the spread. I really liked the acidity and brine of the tomatoes and olives but some people might prefer a pinch of sugar to lessen the bite.  We toasted some bread in the oven, rubbed a clove of garlic on each side of the toasted bread and then smeared the spread on top.  Fun fact- sun dried tomatoes are incredibly good for you- Full of protein, vitamin C, and several over vitamins and minerals too.IMG_0614

5 large sundried tomato sections

Handful of olives

½ cup of olive oil

Directions: Chop olives and sundried tomatoes, with food processor or immersion blender combine with olive oil to form a paste.

First Course: Gnocchi in Tomato Sauce

Gnocchi is a very interesting dish – it’s used as pasta, but really it more of a dumpling- made using mashed potatoes and flour.  This combination creates a light and fluffy, melt in your mouth, bundle of goodness.

Start by boiling about 2lbs of Yukon potatoes with the skins on (this is important to keep the starches intact), until they are soft, drain from water and let cool before peeling the skins off. Mash the potatoes, to a smooth consistency without lumps. The best way to mash your potatoes is with a ricer – this is the easiest way to get the lump-free consistency with the least amount of effort. You DO NOT want to use a hand mixed / blender to mash your potatoes, it will affect how starches react and will create more of a gummy texture. If you don’t have a ricer, a hand masher will work to, but work in small batches to ensure the mixture is smooth throughout. We did not have a ricer and we did not make sure the potatoes were mashed completely and therefore ended up with a lot of lumpy pieces in our dough – not ideal! Kindly, my mother-in-love offered to buy a ricer for future use !

After your potatoes are mashed and cooled to the touch, combine with flour, baking powder, pinch of salt and 1 egg. Stir to combine first, or dig right in with your hands to start working into a dough. It will be very sticky, so keep some extra flour on hand to help your better handle the dough. Once it’s well combined and worked through, form into a ball and start pinching off small sections.

On a well-floured surface, roll out a log about finger-width wide and cut into a small pieces, roll the pieces along a gnocchi paddle (small wooden board with grooves) or using a fork to create ridges. Place on a well-floured tray or cooking sheet. This is a time consuming project. The Mr. and I did this assembly-line style, with me rolling the dough and creating the pieces, and him using the gnocchi paddle to create the ridges, and sprinkling with flour, and this stage it still probably took an hour.

It made a lot of gnocchi though, so we separated a portion out to freeze for future use.

We served the gnocchi with a simple tomato sauce made from crushed tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, herbs and touch cream but you can use store bought sauce too.IMG_0585IMG_0589IMG_0611IMG_0610




2lbs Yukon potatoes

250 grams all purpose flour (1.5cups) + extra for coating

16 grams baking powder (1 tbsp)

1 egg

boil potatoes with skins on, drain and let cool, mash with a ricer. In a large bowl combined mashed potatoes with flour, baking powder and egg. Work into a dough. Working in small batches, create logs and cut off little sections, roll across a gnocchi paddle or fork to create ridges, and rest on well-floured tray/ cookie sheet. When ready to eat, boil gnocchi in salted water until they float. Mix with sauce of your choice, topped with fresh pecorino cheese – serve hot!


1 large can (22oz) of crushed tomatoes

½ cup finely chopped celery, carrots, onion

Fresh basil and oregano, pinch of sugar, salt & pepper to taste

Milk/ cream (optional)

Direction: finely chop veggies and sauté in olive oil until soft, reduce heat add crushed tomatoes and heat through, add sugar, herbs, salt & pepper to taste, add cream if you desire a creamer/ less acidic sauce.

Main Course: Herb-rubbed Pork Tenderloin

Meantime I had the pork in the crockpot. In Italy we roasted the pork in the over, but I so love my crock-pot and am much more experience cooking pork in it to tender perfection, than I am roasting in the over – plus its already nearly 90 degrees in Charlotte so why add anymore heat to the kitchen by using the oven?

I coated my crock pot with olive oil, and placed about half of my finely chopped herbs in with the oil, and then I took my 2lb tenderloin and rubbed it all around in the oil and herbs to coat, I sprinkled the remaining herbs, some salt and fresh black pepper and continue to rub them into the meat. I then added a little Worcestershire sauce and chicken broth for extra flavor. In Italy, we used white wine to moisten the meat as it cooked.

Fresh herbs tend to lose potency in the crock-pot vs in the oven, creating a more subtle flavor profile, so you might consider making a rub of dried spices instead of fresh if you want a really powerful herb flavor when using the crock pot. I set the crock pot on low for about 3 -4 hours until it reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees.



2lb plain pork tenderloin

2 handfuls of herbs finely chopped (rosemary, sage, parsley)

1/3 – ½ cup of chicken broth

A few shakes of Worcestershire

Salt & Pepper to taste

Olive Oil to coat

Direction: massage/ rub/ coat the pork in the oil and herbs – cook on low for 3-4 hours in the crock pot, or roast a 350 for 2 hours in the oven.

This would serve about 6 people

Dessert: Nutella & Vanilla Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta is supposed to be a super simple- practically fool- proof dessert, and when we made it in Italy – it really was, at home it was slightly different story.

In theory all you have to do it is mix together heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla ( we used real vanilla bean pods, but extract would be ok too) and heat over low heat until it just starts to simmer, then pour into another bowl with gelatin ( we used sheets in Italy, but the powdered kind should work just as well) and mix well. Once it’s combined pour into the container or cups of your choice, we used little espresso cups for individual servings, or I have seen them in wine glasses, ice cream bowls, etc, then pop in the fridge to set ( much like pudding or jello).

We followed the direction to a T – the only difference being we had to use powdered gelatin instead of the sheets. The recipe called for 30grams of gelatin, which in the states equates to about 4 packets of powder. We made a vanilla version and a Nutella version; excitedly we filled our little bowls with the creamy and sweet smelling liquid and popped them into the fridge to cool.  An hour or so later we checked on our little mounts of fluff – only to be thoroughly disappointed!

I had read somewhere that the consistency of panna cotta should resemble the jiggle of an ample woman’s bosom, but ours was more like the chest of a body builder – lovely to look at but hard as a rock! The flavor was great, but the texture was all wrong! Fortunately we had started this process a few days in advance of our company arriving, so we had time to try again. After combing through recipes and articles about Panna Cotta I concluded that we had used way too much gelatin. The next time around we only used 1 packet of powdered gelatin, about 7 -10 grams to 3 cups of liquid, and this time the result was perfectly wiggly-jiggly. So with the right recipe, it really is a simple dessert!IMG_0581IMG_0618IMG_0617


1.5 cup half & half

1.5 cup whole milk

½ tbsp. vanilla extract

1/3 cup powdered sugar

1 packet powdered gelatin (7 -10 grams)

For Nutella,  add ¼ – ½ cup of Nutella depending on your preference of flavor

In a sauce pan add milk and sprinkle gelatin on top, let sit for a few minutes before adding sugar, vanilla, half & half;  turn on low heat,  stirring to dissolve. Be care not to bring to boil, as it starts to smoke and heat through, ensure sugar and gelatin are fully dissolved by dipping your fingers in the mixture and rubbing together to ensure no grit is present. Remove from heat and let cool slightly before filling cups and placing in fridge for an hour or so to set.

Follow the same direction for Nutella version, except reduce the vanilla by half and add your Nutella spread into the liquid, stirring and melting until completely combined.

We made the vanilla base first, let it set, and then added the nutella layer on top. Each flavor is great on its own too, and there are endless options for creativity with panna cotta.

We started cooking about 8:30 that morning and by 1:00 we were all ready to dig in! I was pleasantly surprised everything turned out as I had hoped- the flavors and textures were just as I remembered them being in Tuscany. It was a lot of effort – and I was quite nervous to cook relatively un-tried recipes for my mother- in- love (as she is a terrific cook herself!) but it was worth it- and like most things in life – its not necessarily about the destination, but about the journey along the way.

Buon Appetito, Yall! 

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Eating Italy

We’ve been back state-side for a few weeks now and already our time in Italy feels to be slow slipping away. Of course it’s not really, because as those of you who travel know, once you have been somewhere, spent time with its people, immersed yourself in the food, or the language, the art, the architecture, the sounds and smells of the streets, they become a part of you, they change you, they give you new perspectives and new appreciations, but even so it’s easy to get sucked back into the day-to-day routine. For me, few things link me to a place more than food, that’s why we made cooking a priority this trip. Through endless google searches I stumbled upon Toscana Mia Cooking School, a truly unique experience in the heart of Tuscany. It’s run by two hysterical and hospitable sisters out of their ancient Tuscan farm house among the hills of Gaiole, Italy. For 3 days we lived with the 2 sisters (Paola & Simonetta), Paola’s husband, 2 teenage daughters, and a number of country cats. We ate breakfast with them, learned the art of rustic Italian cooking in the morning and savored our handiwork for Lunch, we visited a winery, and explored the gorgeous surroundings, we’d sit down to dinner with family in the evenings and on several occasions I forgot that we were paying to experience this, because it felt as if we were just hanging out with dear friends and sharing a meal like we had been doing for ages. I can’t recommend this experience enough- and the food – the food was incredible too! Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting the recipes we were taught and our attempts to recreate at them at home in Charlotte. But as a teaser, below are the daily menus we prepared:

Spinach & Ricotta stuffed Ravioli in a Sage Butter Sauce

Bocconcini alla Arrabbiata (Chicken in an “angry” sauce) with fresh artichokes

Vanilla Panna Cotta

Pesto Crostini

Gnocchi in a tomato sauce

Herb-roasted pork loin with Tuscan sausage

Stracciatella gelato

Bruschetta Crostini

Pici in a cherry tomato and garlic sauce

Turkey scaloppini with balsamic vinegar and fresh fennel

Molten Chocolate Cake

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Guest Post: Italy Day 7

This post is part of a guest series written by my Husband that chronicles our recent trip to Italy


I have increasingly required more force by Scarlett to get out of bed resulting in a grumpy Scarlett this morning getting me up and at em in time to meet the bus for Cinque Terre . We got ready and hoofed it to the train station to meet up with our tour. They were easy to spot and were on our bus in no time. Our tour guides were Freddy(a no longer jaded Philly mortgage banker but still bitter and self deprecating similar to Jason Bateman) and Fabian(22, Crazy/Funny Hungarian Italian who studied computer engineering at Rutgers). The two of them were a great team. We ended up on Freddy’s team which was good because he had an incredible knowledge of the plant life of Cinque Terre while we were hiking.

The ride over was filled with fun facts about the Italian countryside mixed I with interesting historical Italian stories. The ride up was about 2.5 hours and absolutely wonderful. We got to Cinque Terre mid morning ready for our day. We started off with a small hike down to the second town Manorolo. It was everything that we had hoped and thought it would be. The sea was what really took us by surprise the most. It was hard to determine the horizon where sea met sky. I feel like we could populate the entire Pinterest search for Cinque Terre with the beautiful pictures we took. An interesting fact that we learned was that there are as many kilometers of miles of walls at Cinque Terre as there are in the Great Wall of China. We got into town in Manorolo and were given a brief moment to look around before it was off to town number two. It gets a little more interesting with town number three not being at see level. As we get off the train station we were greeted with 300+ stairs to climb. Scarlett was pretty funny because everytime she got tired it was suddenly picture time CameraMobile phoneWater waveFace with cold sweat. We got a lot of pictures Face with stuck-out tongue and winking eye. The third town was great because it meant lunch which was locale fare and pasta. And by local fare I mean lemon cured sardines, fried sardines, octopus and scuttlefish in olive oil, and a crab fritter. Luckily for Scarlett there was pasta. However, the seafood was delicious. After lunch we hiked for 4. Km which was described to us as up, then up, then up, then up, then flat, then some down. The hike was amazing and we definitely took a lot of pictures. Speaking to Freddie’s botanical knowledge I had some wild asparagus on the way which was delicious. After the hike we were in the 4th town which was back to see level and the sight of our gelato stop(cinnamon/caramel for me strachatella/tiramisu for Scarlett). We ate our gelato on the pier as waves crashed around us. It was pure heaven. After some time it was time for the fifth and final town so we boarded the next train into the mountains for our next to last stop. We stopped for refreshments at a nice shop and rested before hopping onto the boat(water taxi) to take us to the first town which was our final destination. We have some stunning pictures from the boat. The last town was wonderful. We both got some souvenirs and I got a serving of freshly fried fish and calamari to hold me over till dinner. Scarlett would only try the pieces that she could definitely tell were not sardines. It was delicious. After some shopping our time was up and we headed back to the train to take us to our bus. We got back into Firenze(That’s Florence for all of you who don’t know the language like us localsFace with stuck-out tongue and winking eye) about nine. On the way we got advice from Freddy as to the best pizza so we walked there and got pizza margarita and pepperoni pizza(not order that way because you would get pepper pizza). We brought it back to the apartment and tore into it. It was great.

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Guest post: Italy Day 6

This post is part of a guest series written by my Husband that chronicles our recent trip to Italy

Sadness Face with tears of joyLoudly crying faceBroken hartRailway car is leaving the cooking school. I did get all the normal accoutrements at breakfast but it was sad to be having them for the last time. Today I snuck in a nap post breakfast pre cooking. The couple that was supposed to cook with us ended up having luggage problems and weren’t able to make it. This was nice because we got the family all to ourselves on the last day.


It started out normal just cooking a nice turkey breast and some hand made pasta. But once it was all done and we were eating it literally almost brought a tear to my eye it was so good. Today we got to taste different balsamic vinegars which was a treat. They had a 14 year aged balsamic that was completely surprising to taste and absolutely delicious.  She explained that some people will pay upwards of 200$ for a good age. The older it gets the thicker it gets.


We ended up going into a shop in Florence tonight and buying some aged balsamic from two girls that could give any car salesman a run for their money. We ended up sampling just about anything you can think of from Tuscany and barely making it out with money still left in our pockets. The time we spent with the family today was really memorable and we have just about booked next year. Coming back to the train station we ended up getting on the wrong train going to Rome. Apparently a group of Chinese people did the same thing and we all got off at the next stop. After getting back on the right direction their was always an underlying current of paranoia about being actually on the right train. Getting back we hopped in a cab and got back to our place quickly so we could head out agin on the town.

Being in the country was fun but being back in the city was great. We walked around for several hours before stopping in for our 6th strait day of gelato. Yes this did also happen to be our third serving today. Dinner tonight was also a VRBO suggestion but a little more Americanized. I did however get to knock something off of my bucket list. I had beef tartar with tomatoes basil and olives and no I am not writing this installment from the toilet. We had a wonderful meal but have called an early night due to having to get up at the crack of dawn for our cinque terre walking tour. We can’t wait to try out our recipes for you when we get back

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Guest Post : Italy Day 5

This gallery contains 11 photos.

This post is part of a guest series written by my Husbad that chronicles our recent trip to Italy 2 Batmans & 3 Stephens Still getting used to being up early on vacation but it’s getting easier. This morning was … Continue reading

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Guest Post: Italy Day 4

This gallery contains 7 photos.

This post is part of a guest series written by my Husband that chronicles our recent trip to Italy 8:30 is not my ideal time to wake up on vacation but if it means a homemade Italian breakfast with real … Continue reading

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Guest Post: Italy Day 3

This gallery contains 10 photos.

This post is part of a guest post series, written by my husband that chronicles our recent trip to Italy : Our tour started at 9:00am sharp so we were up and at em early. No leisurely cappuccinos served by … Continue reading

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Guest Post: Italy Day 2

This gallery contains 14 photos.

This is part of a guest post series, written by my husband that chronicles our recent trip to Italy It was definitely easier to get up this morning as Scarlett said I snored like a lumberjack last night. We got … Continue reading

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Guest Post: Italy Day 1

This is part of a guest post series, written by my husband that chronicles our recent trip to Italy

So in the over-preparedness of the day we ended up making it to the airport almost three hours before our flight! However, flying business class to Italy we were able to get out of the madness of the main terminals and into the land of free drinks, snacks, and relaxation of the admirals club. Upon boarding we were offered a bevy of snack, drink, and newspaper options. I ended up reading what a bad job BofAs CEO is doing. But soon enough we were in the air. Apparently business class suits Scarlett. Soon enough it was time to hunker down so Scarlett put in Cinderella and I watched Interstellar. Apparently space travel and mind bending physics is not the right choice for sleep. Our beds were super comfy but we were both a little jazzed up. Finally we drifted off only to wake up too soon. But a nice meal of fresh fruit and granola and yogurt eased my fog. Unfortunately, I actually didn’t really wake up until we were in our apartment in Florence- 4 hours later, but luckily Scarlett was incredibly on the ball getting us from the airport to Rome’s train station to Florence with no problems. All star navigator travel badge was earned in the process.

on our way to the airport

on our way to the airport

Pitti Palace, Florence

Pitti Palace, Florence

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

It was a beautiful day so we unpacked and set out in the city. We walked along the Ponte Vecchio and explored the Royal Apartments of the Pitti Palace in the early afternoon before just wandering in and out of shops rewarding ourselves with three scoops each of gelato. We then walked around some more before deciding on dinner. We definitely went off the beaten path due to the recommendation of our VRBO owner and ate at a wonderful trattoria that offered no English on their menu. Fortunately the owner was very gracious in helping us to a nice dinner of tripe and squid…JK. Scarlett had a wonderful salad and I had amazing prosciutto for starters followed by homemade asparagus and ricotta stuffed ravioli for Scarlett and delicious fresh pesto tagliatelle for me. We ended the meal with a delicious lemon dessert. After dinner we decided that 20k steps(thanks to my BofA pedometer) was enough so we called it a night. So I am writing this to you listening to our owners’ extensive selection of Italian opera to get the mood started for day two. Soon we will be off to San Lorenzo market to haggle with gypsies so we can get the best price on junk to bring back to the states as presents…..I mean get priceless heartfelt souvenirs to remember our trip by.

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Tales from our trip to Italy

Florence, Arno

Florence, Arno

My husband and I recently spent sometime in Italy and we had a wonderful adventure.The Mr. kept a daily commentary of our trip and I thought it would be fun to share his perspective- so enjoy!

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