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Wednesday, December 15, 2010


RAGUSA—We arrive a bit early for the cheese and mill around in the mist - wandering through the garden courtyard of a church we never find before settling on the step in front of DiPasquale. We’re not alone; a pair of men wait next to us and two women wait in an old, minuscule baby blue fiat that’s nudged up against the curb.

We’re all waiting for the cheese.

Once in, the cheesemonger recognizes my face and I just say that I’ve been in before and would like to introduce my friends to some good Sicilian cheese. In Sicily, Dipasquale is where you go for the good stuff. The sourcing is impeccable and the cheese, wine and meat they procure has made them deservedly famous.

Show interest or let your eye rest too long and the cheesemonger cuts a slab for each of you to taste. One slab per person. The clever could easily make a meal out of a visit.

He guides us toward beautiful Ragusanos of different ages - these being the large, rectangular cheeses aged by hanging them on thick ropes, tumas (tomme), pecorino and a lovely, saffron-laced Piacentinu Ennese.

Above it all, there’s Lardo di Colonnata - melt in your mouth fatback typically aged in marble with herbs in the Colonnata mines.

In a larger European city, we’d pay twice as much for this kind of quality, but the real value is the contribution to the evening ahead.

Here, I wink to my great friends in the Ispica Social Club, whisper buonanotte, and disappear.

Dipasquale - MAP
Corso Italia, 387
+39 0932 227485

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner and on Facebook.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010


I’m late for my plane.

I’ve been simultaneously packing to leave for summer in the USA, packing up to move apartments and file my taxes for the last few days and, shutting the door behind me, realize I probably won’t be able take the metro and make it on time.

I also can’t find a taxi and have to stop in to pick up my sister’s request of fresh, salty butter. That’s all she ever wants me to bring from France and I can’t blame her. It’s sublime.

But I’m late.

En route for the taxi stand where there are always taxis but never any drivers, I run past Belleville’s Fromagerie Beaufils.

It’s early and Beaufils is one of the only shops on rue de Belleville that’s open, Monsieur Beaufils (?) still arranging cheeses.

“Hi, I’d like some butter for my sister,” I say, leaning my suitcase up against the display case.

He smiles, pulls down some fresh butter from the Ile de Ré and asks where I’m heading.

I explain the Oregon/Seattle/New Hampshire itinerary, noting the family connections along the way. Ready to leap out the door if a taxi rolls by.

“Does your family like cheese?” he asks.

“Bien sur!” I reply, wondering how the hell the guy knows I have “god bless cheese” written on my business card.

He turns around, picks up a two-pound hunk of Comté laced with those good-news crystals of amino acids, holds it up for me to see and says, “for your family.”

I’ve never met the man before and, as far as he knows, I’m never to be seen again, and he sticks what I’d guess to be a 20-euro ($26) hunk of cheese in my hands, charging me three bucks for the butter and waiving the fee to put everything in a vac-pac bag.

We eat it on a vineyard in Oregon. They like the cheese.

Fromagerie Beaufils - MAP
118 rue de Belleville
75020 Paris
+33 (0)1 46 36 61 71

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lisbon’s Locavores

After a few blissful days in Lisbon, a local friend who lives in NYC and is back visiting her hometown takes her brother and me out to the Moinho de Baixo (a.k.a. “Meco”) beach about 40 minutes outside of town. It’s a perfect break from the city: beaches and dunes, breaking turquoise waves and not a tourist in sight. It’s amazing to think that it’s this easy to get out of town.

Once the sun goes down, we head to the Bar do Peixe, have a seat and dig in. Dinner starts with Azeitao cheese, the main course is half of a grilled robalo (tasty snook) caught by the owner’s fisherman husband and we drink a white from the Setubal Peninsula – everything comes from less than 40 minutes away.

“The fish comes from there,” says the owner, eyeing the horizon. Cut in half lengthwise, grilled and drizzled with olive oil, it’s a lesson in simplicity.

“When I come home,” says my friend, “this is what I want.”

Bar do Peixe
Rua Praia do Moinho de Baixo
Near the town of Alfarim, Portugal

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Friday, October 03, 2008

‘Eating out’

Le Palais – Belle Ile, FRANCE - Maybe it’s all the clean air, but I’m getting into this ‘lunch on the seawall’ idea. Perhaps it’s because everyone in Le Palais, Belle-Ile’s biggest town, shrugs when I ask for a good place to eat (there are a few), but I’m learning that while the towns are picturesque, people don’t leave “Le Continent” for the island’s social scene or a destination restaurant. It’s more about taking a long walk or watching the waves crash.

I realize this while leaning against one of the two mini-lighthouses (the red one) that mark the entrance to Le Palais’ tiny port. I’ve brought a baguette, a half-dozen plates (flat oysters) from Quiberon, a tomato from a little farm one side of the island and a pepper-coated dome of fresh goat cheese from a cheese maker the other.

Here, this may be the version of ‘eating out’ I like the most.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hello, old friends

One of the nicest pleasures about being back in the Motherland is seeing everyone and everything again, picking up almost exactly a year to the day after I was here last. There are things to catch up on, there’s a slight seasonal shift, but an overall feeling of being home.

Francesco’s aunt Pinuccia, knowing I’m a sucker for good cheese, left a big hunk of a crumbly truffle-infused artisanal formaggio she’d picked up on a trip to northern Italy in my fridge. Usually, truffle-infused anything sets off little warning signals in my mind that read: “overpriced bunk”. Not here.

We had a bite of the cheese and the truffles did what truffles are supposed to do: reach through your tongue and mouth like smoke, gradually settling into your senses like no other food can.

The next day, I ran into the farmer who sells still-warm ricotta out of the back of his truck. Two euros ($3) for raw milk bliss.

More recently, after starting the day with gelato from the nearby supermarket bar, Francesco and I stopped by Caffé Sicilia in Noto to see what Corrado Assenza – arguably Italy’s best pastry chef – has been up to.

I had a cup of ricotta and pistachio gelato, the latter being the star, with a cake-like texture and beguiling simplicity. Francesco shared exactly one bite of his ‘orange salad’ gelato, based on a typical Sicilian dish that uses oranges, olive oil ultra-fresh onions. Barely sweet, the gelato went from an orange flavor to a vegetable one. It’s one of those experiences that short-circuits your brain and leaves you with a smile on your face.

Finally, I made a quick lunch the other day – a pasta with a sauce that’s so simple it feels like cheating: chopped up tomatoes, large amounts of good olive oil, salt and a bit of crushed garlic that all bubbles away while the pasta water is coming to a boil. In a moment of inspiration, I shaved bits of Pinuccia’s cheese over the pasta, the truffle’s potency and the sweetness of the cheese magnified by the warmth of the pasta.

Simple, complex, happy.

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

An offer I couldn’t refuse

“Quoting “The Godfather” always works,” said Francesco within a few hours of my arrival in Sicily.

I’d been back in The Motherland for less than 24 hours when Francesco’s uncle Guido unintentionally convinced me to re-open my blog for the two weeks I’m here.

It was an offer I could not refuse.

I arrived at Guido and his wife Pinuccia’s Sunday barbecue laden with the groceries for my apartment. Pinuccia (pronounced “pin-noo-cha”), noted my nasty looking store-bought garlic, and handed me a small paper bag with a handful of heady-smelling aglio. “Here. Try these,” she said discreetly. “They’re from my garden. They’re more flavorful.”

Meanwhile, home-cured olives made the rounds. Served from a one-liter honey jar, they are slightly crunchy with a pleasant, lasting bitterness.

While thin steaks and sausages cooked on the grill in the fireplace, Francesco’s mother sautéed chicken cutlets covered in a mixture of egg, parsley, nutmeg, oregano and “a little red wine.” She handed me a bite on a fork – simple and perfect.

Walking over, a smirking Francesco said, “Just like KFC, right?”


At the table, it’s a loud, pretense-free Sicilian family free for all. There seem to be more conversations than people, with everyone munching, talking and reaching across the table for a little more. Presiding over all, Guido grabs the tail end of the salad and eats it straight from the bowl.

Sated, he takes me for a tour of his garden that has furnished everything from Pinuccia’s garlic to the mulberries and loquats that ended our meal. He shows off his lettuce and peppers before pulling some lemons from a tree and sticking them in a bag for me. It’s five times more than I could possibly eat in two weeks.

Then he walks up to the mulberry tree. It is bursting with the ripe fruit, known here as gelsi, and there are already hundreds that have given up the ghost and dropped to the ground.

“Here, I’ll give you some,” he says, scooting toward the house to grab a recipient. I imagine a 20-minute picking process and more fruit than I know what to do with, but my protests fall on deaf ears. He emerges moments later, grinning, umbrella in hand.

I laugh out loud. It’s perfect. Guido walks under the tree, inverts the open umbrella, pokes the handle up into the branches and gives it a vigorous shake.

Thup, thup, thup. Thupthupthupthupthup.

The berries rain into the umbrella’s bowl and he has a couple pounds’ worth within twenty seconds. He tips the whole thing sideways and empties the contents into a bag which he hands to me.

How could I refuse?

I’m home.


A non-food p.s.

This afternoon, I went to an effete yet gregarious little barber here in Ispica for a haircut and a shave with a straight-edged razor. When he’s finished trimming, he sprays herbal-smelling cologne over my face and neck, leaving me feeling spiffy and masculine. He then pulls out the local version of a styptic pencil.

“It’s like salt,” he cautions. “It will sting a little,”

He doesn’t just dab it on my tiny cuts, he wipes the broad side of the pencil across my entire chin.

I scream like a baby.

“That’s like the pain a virgin feels,” says the little man.

Clearly I’ve misunderstood.

I ask again and this time he explains by thrusting his hips into the air and using some other rather unmistakable gestures.

Welcome home, indeed.

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ricotta a la Truck

The concept of “dining a la truck” in Sicily was introduced to me over a loudspeaker. I was still in bed.

Amplified, garbled voices came through the window. I’d only been on the island for about 10 hours and was sure it was local politicians trying to convince the local populace to vote for them. Mercifully, they disappeared and I went back to sleep.

Later, I took a break from work and scanned the rotary from the office window. Below, a woman gave money to a man next to a small white car then walked away, gently cradling a wheel of ricotta.

I ran.

Giuseppe Cappello is a third-generation cheesemaker and seller on wheels.

He opened the back of his tiny white car, then scooped a wheel of ricotta out of a large, white tub containing several other wheels floating in whey.

“When people buy it, the cheese is between half an hour and an hour old,” said Cappello, who sells to an estimated 120 clients and one restaurant from his car. He and his wife Enza also sell to wholesale clients from their farm on the edge of town.

“We’re proud to say that our ricotta is sold hot,” he added, seemingly unaware that he’s got most pizza chains’ claims to fame beat coming and going.

The cheese was still warm.

I paid and ran again, this time toward my kitchen with neighbors shouting quick suggestions on what to do with my prize; one woman ate hers with salad and the quick-e-mart guy said he folded it into his kid’s pasta.

The ricotta had a custard-y texture similar to the white of a soft-boiled egg; a snow-white miracle in a tiny, plastic colander. I cut some bread, added some still-warm ricotta, poured some local olive oil and a sprinkle of salt over it, took a bite and, well, groaned with pleasure.

Tomorrow, I head out in a three-wheeled Vespa truck with the baker…

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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