Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.
Unfortunately, I did not take the above photo myself - I borrowed it from the web site of a company called Erickson Cycle Tours. As much as I love Italian food, art and architecture, I've never actually been to Italy. This week, however, I've done a little cultural tour of the region...without leaving Baltimore.
Sunday I hosted several friends for an Italian-themed culture club. (We started out as a book club, but soon discovered that without intimidating English teachers breathing down our necks, most of us lacked the drive necessary to actually finish books for group discussion. In an effort to preserve a shred of intellectual value, we became a "culture club." Each monthly meeting focuses on the food and culture of a different region. We eat well, look at a lot of pictures and tell vacation stories. And talk about Britney and K-Fed. Highbrow meets lowbrow and all that.)
This month, we looked at pictures from two members: Mandy and Karen. Both have been to Venice, Florence, Rome and Tuscany and both have photo collections that put my picture albums to shame (most notably, both have printed out their photos and actually put them in books.) The photos were gorgeous...and we stuffed ourselves.
Bellinis have become something of a culture club tradition, so it was nice to finally focus on the area famous for the drink. My bellini recipe isn't perfectly authentic - I use regular peaches instead of white (it is winter, after all) - but it's simple and delicious. I throw four peaches (pitted, but with skins) into the Cuisinart along with three tablespoons of lemon juice, one tablespoon of water and about three tablespoons of sugar and pulse until the peaches are liquid. Then I painstakingly strain the mixture until it's very smooth.
Then the hard work is done. Place three teaspoons of puree in a champagne glass and top with Prosecco. Perfetto.
In addition to the drinks, we just had way too much food. I'd bought out the prepared food section of Ceriello, plus we had pasta from Jen and a fantastic focaccia from Alicia. And Karen brought my new favorite dessert - chip and dip-style cannoli from Vaccaro's (by far the best Italian desserts - maybe best of any desserts - in Baltimore). She bought the cannoli shells already broken up and ready to dip in the filling. Truly, even better than the original.
But Sunday was just a warm-up. Tuesday I had dinner at Chiaparelli's, one of Little Italy's most venerable establishments. My family has, for years, waffled between Chiaparelli's and Sabatino's as our number one Italian restaurant and for the past few years, Sabatino's has dominated, so it had been a while since I'd been to Chiaparelli's. And that's too bad.
The occasion on Tuesday (other than Mardi Gras, I guess) was dinner with my mom, a few of my friends and their moms. We met at seven and had wine on the table by 7:05 - the service is very family-oriented (every waitress seems like the daughter or sister-in-law or some other relative of the owner) and prompt. The restaurant is big and the rooms are large and a little loud, but not overwhelmingly so. It's a great place for a group.
As an aside, our friends Alison and Sean had their rehearsal dinner at Chiaparelli's a few years ago and it was fantastic. Great food, good service, and everyone always had a full drink in hand. The room comfortably fit 50 people and was perfectly private.
Back to dinner. The waitress brought us bread and salads before we'd even ordered, thankfully, as I was starving. The bread is only OK (it used to be better, probably 15 years ago, and my parents still talk about the old bread). But the salads are beyond compare. They're nothing fancy - just a little romaine, thinly sliced red onion, a sprinkling of grape tomatoes, a pepperoncini, and dressing. The dressing makes it - it's a super thick parmesan vinaigrette that's both light and outrageously cheesy at the same time. The salads alone are worth the hassle of parking in Little Italy.
We all could've stopped eating after our salads, but we still had a lot to go. My mom and I both had our usual - Momma's Ravioli. It's a simple dish of large, homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach and covered in marinara sauce. But it doesn't need anything else - it's that good.
Everyone else got something along the same lines - manicotti, lasagna, gnocchi. Everyone was very pleased. And everyone took home a doggy bag.
Chiaparelli's isn't fancy. Most of us were wearing jeans. The wait staff is friendly but casual. The food is basic Italian, but made with great ingredients and amazing care. It's not a place to go for anything fancy or experimental. But for a delicious and entertaining dinner with your friends and all your mothers...it's ideal.