Italian for Beginners

Six years ago, my sister and I went backpacking through Italy for a whirlwind ten days. Most of the stories of our trip would be familiar to anyone who has been to Rome, Florence and Venice in August: heat, crowds, long lines, great food, beautiful art. We did learn some valuable lessons, about travel, Italy and life, that, in the spirit of generosity, I will now share with you:

1) Don’t ever, ever leave anything of value in a car in an Italian city. Not even if the car is locked. Not ever if your friend’s cousin’s flaky friend who’s a tour guide at the Catacombs told you could because you were only popping to see the church for, like, 5 minutes. Don’t do it. Ever.

2) Don’t stay in hostels. Actually, this advice may not be universal. Let me revise: Don’t stay in hostels if you don’t appreciate being kicked out of your room at 10 am or even just need a day off from being a tourist. If you have to stay in a hostel, for heaven’s sake, stay in one with a kitchen. There is nothing more heartbreaking than going to fabulous Italian markets and not having anywhere to cook anything, not even to boil water for pasta.

3) Do allow your elder sister to bully you into carting 2 liters of water around a day. It’s hot and dry in Italy and you don’t want to have to pay 5 lire every time you get thirsty. If your back hurts from carrying around said bottles of water, don’t complain to your sister. Thirst makes her even more irritable.

4) Do not panic if you get trapped in a hot, stinking, airless toilet. The door will open if you unlock it.

5) Do have your sister who’s meeting you in Germany bring along a giant sized box of Lactaid. You will need it for all the gelato you will have once you get to Italy.

6) Do use the Banana Test. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson we learned, courtesy of the Let’s Go: Italy Travel Guide, 2000 edition. To quickly assess the quality of a gelateria, look at the banana flavored gelato. If it’s a warm, bright yellow color, walk away; it’s packed with artificial colors and flavors and probably has no banana in it. If the banana gelato is an unappealing grayish brown color, you have stumbled upon a reputable establishment. I have since employed the banana test in gelaterias and ice cream shops all around the world, and it never fails. Thanks to the Banana Test, my sister and I ate the most wonderful gelato every single day in Italy.

Most of the gelato has melted (pun intended) into the haze of our grand Italian vacay, but the memory of two particular scoops of sorbetto have stayed with me ever since. It was a day too hot to sightsee, too hot to even walk. Shut out of our hostel and thus the possibility of a siesta (see #2), we dragged ourselves from gelateria to gelateria examining Banana Gelatos. When we finally found one that passed the test, we were too hot, sticky and thirsty (my sister had finally rebelled against all the water carrying) for dairy-based confections to hold any appeal. Instead we turned to the sorbetto, my sister chose mango, I, coconut, and we traded cones every few licks. And therein was the revelation. While mango and coconut sorbets are each delicious on their own, together, they are like the best of couples, each magnifying the best of the other. The mango becomes more fruity and sensual; the coconut becomes creamier and nuttier against the acidity of the mango. Best of all, having two flavors that are so different avoids what I call the monotony problem with sorbet. Either flavor may be delicious and intense, but after a few licks, they start to taste the same. The mango and coconut, however, complement each other so well, that each flavor tastes even better when you return to it.

So when I borrow an ice cream maker last week, I knew that I would take the extra time to make two flavors of sorbet. I may be stuck in the US for a while, but my taste buds can go straight to Italy with two scoops of sorbet.

Mango Sorbet and Coconut Sorbet

I haven’t included the recipe for the mango sorbet because I basically lifted it off of this post with no innovation or adaptation of my own. I omitted the lime zest from the mango sorbet in the recipe because I wanted to keep the mango flavor as pure as possible.

Coconut Sorbet
This might possibly be the easiest recipe in the entire world.

1 c. water
¾ c. sugar
2 c. coconut milk*

1. Combine water and sugar and heat until sugar has dissolved.
2. Add coconut milk, strain and chill.
3. Freeze in ice cream maker.

*There is some confusion about coconut milk. I picked up a can at the grocery store the other day for a Thai curry and discovered, to my horror, that it was actually coconut water (the water inside the coconut), thickened with some sort of emulsifier and a whole lot of sugar. Use unsweetened coconut milk, it should just have coconut and water. Check the label; I wish I had.

* I actually found coconut cream, which is the first pressing of the coconut. It’s rather richer than coconut milk. I used 1 ½ c. coconut cream and ½ c. coconut milk. But whatever you do, it will be fine.

Sources: Chocolate and Zucchini, Making Food. Eating Food.



Filed under Italian

3 responses to “Italian for Beginners

  1. Subi

    The two sorbets and the German Apple Cakes are wonderful ideas for the NCFP picnic I am organizing. They seem easy enough, however, I have to find a Sorbertiere (sp) quickly! I was wondering, if I can resurrect my old ice cream maker and use it instead?

    I am glad you made the distinction between coconut water and cream (milk). A number of my friends look at me as if I am crazy when I recommend coconut water for various “bladder” ailments.

  2. Hi Mom!
    A sorbetiere is the same thing as an ice cream maker. If you don’t have either (or can’t be bothered digging out the ice cream maker) you can just freeze the mixture, then stir them up every half an hour or so until frozen. The only problem is that the sorbet might not be as smooth. Let me know how it goes!

  3. all of my kids love to dwelll on ice cream shops, they really love to munch lots of ice cream ,`-

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