Glorious location--check! Alla Madonna del Piatto rests in an enormous meadow, verdant green in springtime and edged with flowers, with a panoramic view of Assisi's towers, churches and the valley floor below. Rich and varied cuisine--check! Proprietor Letizia Mattiacci selects the freshest seasonal produce to create luscious dishes fragrant from garlic, artisanal cheeses and extra virgin olive oil. Schools teach you how to cook--check! Surprisingly, it was the men in our group who were the first to roll up their sleeves and try their hand at rolling pasta and finishing the plating. Authentic, local--check! Letizia is a native Umbrian who returned with her husband Ruurd to renovate the farmhouse and create their welcoming retreat after careers as entomologists. The saga of their endeavor to wade through Italy's infamous bureaucracy is a fascinating read on her blog.
I'm on my own food and wine journey of a lifetime, starting with VinItaly in Verona at the beginning of March, through my stay in Montepulciano studying Italian and sampling Tuscan cuisine, through this stay at Alla Madonna del Piatto, through a visit with my Italian friend Luciana--an amazing cook, to going on the Touring & Tasting cruise to Greece and Turkey aboard Celebrity, with the fabulous on-board cuisine.
Our class began in the village of Santa Maria degli Angeli dominated by a Basilica of the same name. In a store of local food products, we tasted olive oils, cheeses, prosciutto, wild boar sausage, truffle pesto, sweets, and liqueur made from olive leaves. Letizia was a storehouse of information, beginning with one of the staples of Italian cooking. At the food pavilion of VinItaly, I discovered that olive oil comes in a wide range of tastes from simply buttery to piquant, depending on the varietal of the tree. Letizia had us try a grassy, mild oil and a more peppery one. However, these were made from the same variety of tree, but 25 km apart, proving that, like wine, olive oil is terroir-driven as well as varietally distinct. She cautioned us to always buy extra virgin or virgin olive oil since it is "cold-pressed". Regular olive oil is extracted from the leftovers from the first pressing, using hot water in the best case, and using strong solvents like hexane in most cases.
I didn't realize that olive oil in Italy has a printed expiration date on the label. If properly stored, you can still use it for five years but the flavor and the green color present from chlorophyll will have disappeared after 18 months. Use this oil for cooking and use your best, fresh oil for "finishing" by drizzling a bit on pasta, bruschetta, and vegetables right before serving. Check for the DOP certification on the labels of the best Italian olive oils, which ensures producers have followed strict production regulations to guarantee the quality of the oil. I thought vineyards require patience, since it takes several years after planting for vines to produce wine quality grapes. Olive trees take 30 years, so the trees Letizia and her husband are planting on their land are for their daughter to enjoy.
We sampled balsamic vinegar, aged 10 and 12 years . Commercial balsamic is made by adding caramel and possibly chemicals to regular vinegar; true balsalmic is made by fermenting grape juice (must) and aging it in a succession of barrels made from different woods such as oak, juniper, ash , and maple. If you see anything in the ingredients list other than must, it is not authentic balsamic. I bought a bottle of 30-year-old balsamic that is thick, syrupy and dense with flavor. Try top quality balsamic vinegar drizzled on grilled salmon.
Back at Alla Madonna del Piatto, Letizia showed us how to make the focaccia and the regional pasta called strangozzi in Assisi and pici in Montepulciano. She marinated the broiled asparagus in olive oil and pressed garlic, then let us roll and cut the pasta. After pressing the focaccia into the pan and adding rosemary and caramelized onion, she set on top of the stove to rise. Meanwhile, we made zabaglione and macerated fresh berries in Vin Santo for the tiramisù. The pasta was boiled for only a minute in heavily salted water. Letizia instructed us that "it should taste like the sea"--about 1 teaspoon salt per quart. The marinated asparagus was cut into bite-sized pieces and stirred in a saucepan with about 2 cups of freshly made ricotta. The pasta was quickly strained without rinsing and dumped into the saucepan along with a couple cups of grated Parmesan and three ladles of the pasta cooking water. The cheese melted into a creamy sauce--no cream added--with a enticing seasoning and aroma of garlic.
The pasta with puttanesca sauce was made in a similar way, with whole black olives, capers, Italian red chile peppers and chopped tomatoes. Letizia admonished that the noodles should always be combined with the sauce in the pan, then plated and drizzled with olive oil. "If someone serves you sauce ladled over the top of the pasta, get up right away and go out of there because that is not the way pasta is served." The warm, juicy olives were sensational in the spicy sauce.
After our cooking, we sat down to a convivial meal that started with local antipasti of green olives, homemade bread, Parmesan and prosciutto with local red and white wine, followed by both pastas, the focaccia and the delicious dessert, made with layers of Savoiardi cookies, zabaglione custard and the macerated fruit. When Letizia makes the traditional coffee tiramisù, she dips the cookies in expresso before assembling the dessert, letting it sit for a few hours for the Vin Santo to infuse into the cookies.
Alla Madonna del Piatto has five lovely guest rooms with handmade linens and radiant heat floors. The property is green, with solar water and electricity, plus a furnace to contribute to the heating of the water. Surrounded by fields on the hill above Assisi, you will find tranquility and friendliness. As Letizia says, "if my guests are not happy, then I'm not happy." Cooking classes are twice a week, on weekdays and dishes change with the seasonal local produce. If you picture yourself on their veranda, under grape arbor, sipping wine and soaking up the view, visit /incampagna.com for more information.
Try one of Letizia's recipes:
Alla Madonna del Piatto Duck Breast in a Rosemary, Balsamic and Citrus Marinade
"Duck breast is virtually boneless, but it’s intensely flavorful and surprisingly easy to make. This is my foolproof recipe based on a classic French sweet and sour marinade. I have twisted it with Italian ingredients and herbs and I must say it is rather lovely."--Letizia
Ingredients For the Marinade:
Juice of 1/2 lemon or of 1 orange
3 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon red wine
1 tablespoon raw honey
3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Ingredients for the Duck Breast:
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1-2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 pound duck breast with skin
1 tablespoon olive oil
In a bowl large enough to fit the breast snugly, mix the marinade ingredients, add the garlic cloves and whole rosemary sprigs. Place the duck breast in the marinade, skin side up, cover and marinade in the refrigerator overnight.
Remove the duck breast from the marinade, pat dry and transfer, skin side down, into a heavy pan, better if cast iron. Reserve the marinade. Cook the breast on low heat for at least 5 minutes. Be patient as the duck fat renders out slowly, melting onto the bottom of the pan. This is the most important phase of the cooking by which you get lovely crispy skin. If the skin burns too soon, the breast will taste fatty and rubbery. When the skin turns golden, remove the breast, quickly drip away the fat and wipe the pan with paper towels. Now you need to be fast: bring the heat to high, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sear the skinless side of the breast all over, until slightly brown, about 2 minutes. Pour the marinade in the pan and reduce it, this takes less than 1/2 minute.
Remove the pan from heat but leave it on the stove, cover with a lid and 1 or 2 folded kitchen towels. You want to keep the pan as warm as possible. The breast will finish to cook with the indirect heat of the pan and will keep wonderfully moist. Wait for 5- 10 minutes, then slice thinly and serve.
Pair with a Sangiovese or Sagrantino.
"I still remember the arrival of cream in my life. My mum did not use cream, she was Sicilian. By her law, a sauce is red and must be made with tomato and olive oil. A stick of butter lasted easily a couple of months in our fridge as she had no use for it…Then the 70′s and ’80s exploded with all sorts of sophistication. Tortellini with cream and ham, crepes rolled with Bechamel and champignons, tiramisu, pannacotta…Please note the quality of the ingredients and the modest amounts of condiments which are necessary to achieve balance."--Letizia
1 small onion, diced very finely
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for finishing
white wine, optional
10 ounces canned diced tomato (or fresh, in season)
3 ounces smoked wild salmon, diced
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 pound good quality spaghetti (possibly bronze drawn)
1 fresh red chili pepper, sliced (optional)
2-3 tablespoon brandy
2 tablespoon chopped flat leaf parsley
Start heating your water to cook the pasta according to package directions. Using a shallow pan – a frying pan with high sides is ideal – sauté the garlic and onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil over very low heat. If the onion starts browning, deglaze with a little white wine. Add the diced tomato, cover and simmer until a little thicker, about 5 minutes. Add the salmon and cream, bring back to simmering temperature and switch off. You don’t want to cook the flavor of the salmon away. The whole preparation should take no more than 7-8 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti according to package instructions until al dente. When the pasta is cooked, turn the heat under the saucepan to high. Drain the pasta and transfer into the saucepan. Add the chili pepper now, if using.
Stir the pasta quickly into the sauce as explained here. Add some pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Add a generous dash of brandy and stir again to incorporate. Sprinkle with parsley . Serve on warm plates with a drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil.
Pair with Sangiovese or rose´.