Cooking for class: 3-course Lombardian meal

Food Class Final4For the final project for my Italian food and wine class, we were asked to cook a three course meal associated with a particular region of Italy. My friends Justin, Christian and I were assigned the region of Lombardia and were given a menu to whip up. We prepared a risotto with saffron to start, ossobuco for the main course and a sbrisolona cake for desert. Once the meal was completed, we collaborated with another group from our class to have a giant Italian feast in my living room.
Food Class Final2I was in charge of making the sbrisolona cake. Sbrisolona is a typical desert originating from Mantua, in the south of Lombardia. It was typically made with flour, lard and nuts in the form of a dry, crunchy cake with no filling. The traditional recipe dates back to the 17th century and was often a sweet made by peasants.

I decided to make a spin-off of the traditional recipe. Lombardia is actually the richest and most populous region of Italy, so I decided to create a decadent version of the peasant pie. I found a bunch of different recipes that included various fruits and nuts, so I decided to make a chocolate strawberry sbrisolona cake.

All of the recipes I could find measured the ingredients by weight, so I had to do a lot of conversions, a lot of guessing, and constantly hoping for the best. But my version of the recipe ended up turning out well! When in doubt, add a little more sugar and lots of chocolate and you’re guaranteed to make something pretty good.


  • 1 ½ lb all-purpose flour (about 4 ½ cups)
  • 1 ¼ lb butter (about 2 cups)
  • 1 lb granulated sugar (about 3½ cups — I used brown sugar)
  • 4 oz egg yolks (5 egg yolks)
  • ½ oz baking powder (1 tbsp)
  • 1 ¾ oz almonds (about 1/2 a cup)
  • (1 pack of strawberries)
  • (1 pack of chocolate chips)

    Mix together the flour, butter, sugar, egg and baking powder in either a large mixing bowl or on a clean flat surface. You can start by mixing with a spoon, but eventually you will need to blend it all together with your hands until it turns into a uniform dough. Add in the some of the chocolate chips (to your preference) and crushed up almonds. I put the almonds in a zip-bloc bag and smashed them to pieces with the bottom of a wine bottle.

Strawberry-chocolate-cakePut the majority of the dough in a buttered baking pan. Add fresh, sliced strawberries (or any fruit you want) and then add the rest of the dough on top to cover them up. Bake in a preheated oven for about 30 minutes checking on it continuously.

Once the cake has baked and cooled down for a little bit, add some more fresh strawberries. On your stove top melt down the rest of the chocolate chips with some butter in a sauce pan. Finish off the cake by drizzling the melted chocolate across the top.
Food Class Final1The main dish was ossobuco. It is a savory meat dish originating from Milan. The dish features a specialty cut steak of veal shanks that has a cross-section of bone with bone marrow. As a recent vegetarian, this seemed intense but it was actually delicious and incredibly flavorful.

Food Class Final3The steaks were lightly pan seared with butter and a little bit of flour. The meat was then slow-roasted over a small flame on the stove-top with vegetables, broth and white wine for several hours. It was paired with a Milanese risotto. The rice was cooked completely with meat broth instead of water. It is cooked with white wine and onions and the most important ingredient, the spice saffron.

Our meal was actually a success. There were moments during preparation where I had little faith. It seemed that something would be lost in translation as we scoured through the grocery story, with our recipes written in Italian in hand.

We pushed away the furniture in our living room, lined up all of our desks like a royal dining table(if the palace was fully furnished by IKEA of course) and set out the feast. The other group from our class brought over hand-made gnocchi in a marinara sauce and eggplant parmesan. We ate all of the delicious food and drank all of the cheap wine, and reveled in good conversation and our grand accomplishments.

Paint Party @ Arte Bottega Testaccio

PaintingWorkshop14Constantly being around so much art in Rome had me missing creating art of my own. I bring my camera with me nearly everywhere I go, so that fulfills some of my needs to express myself artistically, but it had been a long time since I got my hands dirty with some paint.

Yesterday, some friends and I went to Arte Bottega, an art studio, collective and gallery in Testaccio run by some incredible Italians. Giorgio Ferretti — a sweet old man who speaks barely a lick of English — manages the studio as a family affair, working closely with his nephew, Massimiliano, and a handful of other relatives and friends. The studio teamed up with the UC Center Rome program a few years back so students could have an immersive Italian experience and participate in some hands-on art. PaintingWorkshop21

We knew to not show up to any event hosted by Italians empty handed, so we grabbed a couple bottles of wine and headed to the studio. We received a warm welcome, introduced ourselves, and handed over the vino. The men returned the favor with stories, pie and even more wine.

It was fun to chat with all of the Italians and practice the language. They were all such characters. Even if I didn’t fully understand their stories I couldn’t help but smile from their gestures, inflections and jolly bellowing laughter.

They treated us as family from the moment we entered. They acted like we had been friends for years. They got us situated in front of some easels with art supplies and told us all about their workshop. In my best attempt at translating, the history of the studio is as follows: The Bottega’s (Italian for workshop) story begins in 1920 when Giorgio’s father moved to Rome from Abruzzo, where he eventually opened up a cobbler shop in Testaccio. His father married a talented and creative woman and the 2 of them began to make custom footwear. The duo had 9 children (Giorgio included), all with artistic tendencies. Almost a century later the bottega was revitalized by Giorgio and some relatives, with the intention of coming together with friends and family to promote creativity and art in all forms.

PaintingWorkshop19 PaintingWorkshop20The studio wants to engage people in order to exchange ideas and create. The workshop is used for people to come together to paint, draw, sculpt; write poetry and stories; perform theatrical acts or dancing and the space is frequently converted to a gallery. The perimeter of the studio had paintings and photos hung up from a recent exhibition. I was especially impressed by the paintings done by Italian artist, Alessia Meddi, shown above. The realism is impressive and the monochromatic color palette is captivating.

PaintingWorkshop15But today, we were here to paint. Giorgio and Massimiliano set us up with tables, easels and canvases and asked us what we wanted to paint. They asked our experience levels, what inspires us and gave us some books with paintings as references if we wanted them.
PaintingWorkshop17 PaintingWorkshop16 PaintingWorkshop13PaintingWorkshop10PaintingWorkshop8 PaintingWorkshop22It was an amazing time, painting, creating, laughing and exchanging stories. Our new Italian friends were so passionate — buzzing with energy — fulling engaged and ready to take in everything we had to share. They gave us tips and pointers and encouraged us as we went.
PaintingWorkshop25Giorgio stopped us a few hours in. He told us our masterpieces had to be put on hold in order to feast. He said we must come back and visit him next week and finish our paintings. We cleaned up our messes, put away the supplies and Giorgio set down a red table cloth. He left the main studio and entered back with a platter of cured meats, then a cheese plate, then some fresh bread, then he lined up bottle after bottle of wine. This was the proper way to host guests — the Italian way.

We spent the next hour or so talking and indulging. Georgio asked us if we wanted to drink red wine or white wine, and told us they should never be mixed during the same sitting. In the nicest way possible, he explained how much better the vino bianco he brought out was from the Pinot grigio we brought him. He said his white wine was fresh, organic and wasn’t pasteurized. I tried to tell him I only chose that Pinot grigio because of the label. But as a polite, gesture he only drank the Pinot. It was a gift, so of course he would drink it — the Italian way.

The whole experience was absolutely wonderful. I was not expecting to have so much fun and learn so much. It truly felt like an authentic Italian experience. Art — the Italian way.

Art everywhere you look

Sculpture Wall3 After spring break, I returned back to Rome with a fresh perspective. Before my travels, I had settled into a routine. I would walk the same path to school every day, get coffee at my favorite cafe, a sandwich from my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and it seemed I was less inclined to actively seek and wander like I used to.

When I was traveling through Ireland, Spain and France — for only about 4 days per city — I had a passionate urge to see and experience everything that I could in the short amount of time that I had. For a brief moment I seemed to have lost that drive in Rome. I could spend an entire lifetime exploring Rome and still not see it all. And I guess it took a few weeks away to remind me just how amazing this city is.

Sculpture Wall1The other day I decided to wander down some narrow streets, as I had done so many times before. Rather than looking at directions on how to get back to my apartment, I decided to aim in the direction and see where the wind would take me. I climbed up a thin road towards Pamphili park and stumbled upon some interesting art. It was a whole long brick wall that was full of sculptures. It was a collage of sorts, with hand-sculpted busts, pieces of ceramics and engravings. I am not sure of what lies behind the wall, but I appreciate what I had found. I tried to imagine who created each piece and looked for meaning in the combinations.

Rome feels like home now and I love it more and more every day. The streets emanate color and there is art everywhere you look. The important thing is, you just need to remember to look.Sculpture Wall2Sculpture Wall6 Sculpture Wall11 Sculpture Wall7 Sculpture Wall9 Sculpture Wall8 Sculpture Wall12

Vatican Views

Vatican 3Today, I was exposed to the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica once again on a tour with my Baroque Art class. One of the best parts about my UCEAP Rome program is its focus on on-site learning and lecturing; which is especially embodied with this Art History class. Rather than looking at slides and power-points in a classroom we go out and see the art, architecture and sculptures right before our eyes. Having a personal experience with the works — being exposed to the beauty in the flesh — is the best way to learn Art History. I find it hard to sense the true essence of a piece without seeing the details in person.

Rome is the center for Baroque Art so everywhere you look you can find examples. I feel so much more connected to the city and knowledgeable on its history after taking this class. I have a stronger understanding of the layout of the land since we go around to different churches and galleries for every lecture, and a deeper respect and appreciation for all of the public works I pass by every day.

My professor, Paolo Alei, is brilliant. I’m convinced he might be one of the most knowledgeable experts on Roman Baroque and Renaissance art in the world. He knows the material like the back of his hands and his lectures are pieces of art in themselves. He will take us into a gallery and talk about only 4 pieces of art for 3 hours, have every student captivated the entire time, and use the works in a specific order to take you on a conceptual journey that ends with a grand crescendo finale. This class has been a blessing because of everything I’ve learned and how actively I am able to use the knowledge every single day. I’ll pass by the facade of a building, notice 3 marble bees placed on a column, and know that it was commissioned by the papal Barbarini family as a form of political propaganda and that it’s a symbol of their coat of arms which alludes to the bees swarming at the founding of Rome after the Fall of Troy in Virgil’s The Aeneid.
Vatican 22In the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays we meet at a cathedral or piazza or gallery and spend the next 3 hours looking at art or buildings or sculptures while ferociously write down all of the gold our professor has to say. But this week was different. You are not allowed to (well, not supposed to) speak in St. Peter’s Basilica so for the first time we met in class on Tuesday so he could lecture us in preparation for our visit to the Vatican on Thursday. This was actually pretty awesome for a change, because it led to a much more relaxed experience. Since we had learned all of the information beforehand, we were able to just see and explore independently.
Vatican 8 Vatican 20Our professor took us up to the cupola which was very exciting. It is the 360 degree viewpoint around the top of the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica. I have been wanting to reach this vantage point for months now and it was one of the most breath-taking views I’ve ever seen. I am almost glad I waited to go to the cupola till this late in the semester, because it was so nice to know what a lot of the buildings and parks were that I saw. I had a moment of retrospective nostalgia as I thought about all of the memories associated to each of the places I could pick out.

Vatican 11Vatican 10 (use)After being blown away by the vista point, we went back down the hundreds of stairs incapsulated in narrow, slanted, disorienting stairwells back down to the main part of the basilica. I have been here before, but every time I am blown away. It is unbelievably massive and gorgeous. We then were sent free to explore the grounds on our own.

We are studying the architecture of the basilica as well as the piazza, the marble tile work, the wall and ceiling decoration and the sculptures. The architecture was a collaborative feat by the legendary Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Bernini. The height at the central part of the dome is almost 500 feet and its stature makes it hard to imagine the basilica was made by man, and even crazier in the 16th and early 17th century for that matter.

Vatican 13 Vatican 26Since Bernini is the Baroque master of sculpture, we payed particular attention to his embellishments to the basilica, the incredible bronze baldacchino, the throne of St. Peter and the massive statues in the pilasters of the dome that surround the main alter. I learned that Bernini began by designing the baldacchino, the massive canopy structure in the center of the basilica. It is almost 100 feet tall (believed to be one of the largest bronze statues in the world) and most of the bronze was stripped from the Pantheon. The alter and baldacchino are supposed to be directly above St. Peter’s grave in the necropolis below the basilica and create a very particular vertical access that moves from St. Peter’s remains, to the alter where the eucharist occurs and then continues on to the dove underneath the baldacchino, to the cross atop the canopy and then ultimately to the fresco of god who is painted at the top of the dome (representing god, the son and the holy spirit).

Vatican 25 Vatican 24I spent the next couple of hours taking in all of the art that surrounded me and recalled all of the information I obtained from the lecture before. I sauntered around the basilica, constantly in awe, until  I was eventually kicked out when the basilica closed. I was one of the last out of the glorious building and left feeling very satisfied. I always gain so much more appreciation for works once I learn about them.

Vatican 19

Carbonara a casa

CookingCarbonara 1Carbonara has always been one of my favorite Italian dishes, and ever since living in Rome, it has become one of the staples of my diet. During my first month in Italy, I learned how to make homemade Carbonara during a cooking class and now I whip this dish up almost every week. It is delicious and surprisingly easy to make.

CookingCarbonara 3Rigatoni alla Carbonara (4 person serving)

  • 1 pound of dry rigatoni
  • 1 table-spoon of olive oil
  • 1/3 pound of guanciale (Italian cured jowl bacon) -substitute pancetta or American bacon if needed
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup of pecorino romano cheese (or more if you love cheese like me)
  • fresh ground pepper
  • hot crushed red pepper (not traditional in Italy)

Cook time: about 20 minutes

Begin by boiling a large pot of water. It’s good to start with this because cooking the pasta takes the longest time. While you wait for the water to reach a boil and for the pasta to cook, you can finish all the other prep-work. Once the water is boiling, add a few pinches of salt and dump in the pasta. I like to use mezze maniche rigate (a shorter, stout rigatoni pasta) but you can use any pasta depending on personal preference. Timing is essential for making the carbonara cook properly, but eventually you will boil until the pasta is al dente after 8-10 minutes.


Cut up the guanciale into small cubes. If you are buying the jowl-bacon fresh, make sure to cut off the rough skin. Sometimes I like to buy vacuum-sealed packs of the bacon already cubed from the butcher at the local farmers market for convenience. Heat up a skillet and add a splash of olive oil (a little under a table-spoon) — the bacon will produce enough oils on its own — but the olive oil increases the amount of unhealthy fat that is released from the meat. Cook the guanciale over medium heat until it is crispy and the fat is translucent and rendered. When finished, the guanciale should look something like this U+2192.svg

While the meat is cooking, prepare the sauce. Timing is extremely important because the pasta needs to be ready and hot when it mixes with the sauce. The heat from the pasta cooks the sauce and if it timing is not correct it could not fully cook the raw eggs. CookingCarbonara 4

Separate 3 of the yolks and place just the yolks in a mixing bowl large enough to fit all of the pasta. Add 1 additional full egg (so 3 egg yolks + 1 full egg in total) and add in the cup of pecorino romano cheese and mix together until the sauce is smooth and consistent. Sprinkle in some fresh ground black pepper and some hot crushed red pepper.

Once the egg and cheese mixture is ready, drain the boiling water and quickly add the hot al dente pasta to the sauce. Save half a cup of the pasta water just in case you want to add a little more liquid to the sauce. Rapidly stir the steaming pasta evenly to cook the sauce. As the sauce thickens, add in the guanciale. Grade some fresh cheese on top, add any more of the spices if needed and then serve!CookingCarbonara 5