Got Granita? Savoring A Summertime Sweet In Italy

granita con caffe
Chris, Flickr

It will officially be summer in just a few days, and who doesn’t associate long, hot days with ice cream? Or, depending upon your preferences, lactose-digesting capabilities, and what part of the world you’re in, gelato, sorbet, paletas, kulfi, faloodeh, bur bur cha cha or other sweet, frozen treats served around the world.

Gelato is obviously past its tipping point in the U.S, but the granita still isn’t a well-known part of the general populace’s culinary lexicon. In Italy, however, this grainy frozen dessert is a summertime staple. Granite (plural of granita) refers to a dessert that’s scraped at intervals as it freezes, in order to form larger crystals than a typical sorbetto. A true granita should have a coarse texture because it’s made by hand, rather than processed in a machine, which results in a slush.

Coffee or espresso with a bit of sugar is the most commonly used flavoring for granite. Known as granita di café or caffe freddo, this refreshing treat is best served con panna; with unsweetened whipped cream. The first time I ever had one was in Florence, on a freakishly hot October day. Like millions before me, I left crowded the Galleria dell’ Accademia after viewing Michelangelo’s David, thirsty, sweaty, and grumpy.

Several blocks down via Ricasoli, I happened upon a little shop called Gelato Carabé . I was drawn by the wafts of sugary, perfumed air, but it was the menu and hand-crafted appearance of the gelati (mass-produced stuff is often sold out of plastic tubs, but it also tends to look manufactured, and just a little too perfect) that sold me on the place.

eating gelato
minka6, Flickr

The customer in front of me turned away from the counter clutching a cup filled with a rough-looking iced concoction, topped with a soft mound of whipped cream. Its color suggested it contained caffeine. I asked, in crappy Italian, what it was. And then I ordered my first-ever granita di café con panna. Instant addiction. The melding of flavors and textures – bitter espresso, a hint of sugar, grainy ice, silky cream – was the ideal salve for my museum-and-crowd-addled soul.

I returned to the gelateria every day for the remainder of my trip. After I returned home, I learned that owners Antonio and Loredana Lisciandro are from Patti, on Sicily’s northern coast. Antonio’s grandfather was a gelatio, or gelato master, and Antonio became a leading authority on gelato, as well. FYI, gelato has less air incorporated into it than American ice cream, which results in a more dense, flavorful product. Depending upon the region in which it’s made, it may contain eggs, or use cream instead of milk.

The Lisciandro’s import seasonal ingredients from Sicily, including pistachios, hazelnuts and almonds, and the intensely flavored native lemons, which have a thick, bumpy skin. They produce rich, creamy gelati, cremolati (cremolata is similar to sherbet, but made with fresh fruit pulp instead of filtered juice; both are made with milk or cream, whereas sorbetto is dairy-free), and the aforementioned ethereal granite.

Today, Gelato Carabé has two locations in Florence. I’ve since had granita di café con panna all over Italy (I highly recommend enjoying it overlooking the Sant’ Angelo harbor on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples). Barring that, I suggest using this recipe. Get a copy of Laura Fraser’s delicious “An Italian Affair” (which is how I learned about Ischia in the first place). Spoon granita into a pint glass (let’s not kid ourselves with a foofy parfait-style). Find a relaxing place in the shade, and then savor summer, Italian-style.

A video tour of 1950’s London’s swingin’ coffee bars

Contrary to popular belief, tea is not the only popular beverage served in London. In fact, ever since the first Italian espresso machine crash landed in England in 1952, London has had a swinging coffee culture. Now thanks to the vintage documentary reel above, you can take your own tour back in time to the beginnings of London’s fledgling coffee shop scene.

Hit play and enter a time when coffee was the king of cool, inside a smoky, bohemian coffee bar, packed to the rafters with young Londoners gleefully puffing on cigarettes as a lively soundtrack of jazz wafts above them. It’s as much a tour of the city’s coffee bars as it is an intriguing artifact of a London that has moved on to trendier pursuits and hangouts. This morning, go grab yourself another cup off the pot and settle in for an intriguing cross-section of life in 1950’s London.

Ten great food co-ops in the western U.S.

food co-opsIf the concept of food cooperatives conjures up images of burning bras and withered, wormy produce, hear me out. The times they have a’changed, and today’s co-ops (about 500 nationwide) can be the hometown equivalent of a certain high-end, multi-billion-dollar, national green grocery chain. As with farmers markets, all are not created equal, but when you hit upon a good one, it’s easy to see why they’re such community hubs.

One of the defining principles of many co-ops is their commitment to purchase produce, meat (if they’re not vegetarian stores), and dairy as direct as possible, often from local farmers. By shopping there, you’re promoting food security and supporting the community. Most co-ops are also open to non-members.

Great product aside, I love checking out co-ops because they give me a sense of place. I learn about what foods are indigenous to or cultivated in the region, and usually, who grows them (I have a particular weakness for hand-lettered signs informing me I’m purchasing “Farmer Bob’s Pixie tangerines,” or blackberry honey from an enterprising 10-year-old’s backyard hives).

No matter how well-intentioned, not everything in even the best co-op is regional, as it depends upon what grows in that area, and the time of year. But the best co-ops have a high proportion of local products, and I award bonus for a truly appetizing deli (no tempeh loaf, please), bakery, and an espresso bar. When I’m on the road, dropping under five bucks for a delicious breakfast (steel-cut oatmeal, polenta, or ethereal scones, perhaps) and a well-made latte with locally-roasted beans always makes me happy. With a good co-op, that’s often possible.

Below, some of my favorite food co-ops in the western U.S.:

1. Ashland Food Co-op, Oregon
Located just over the California border in the Rogue River Valley, Ashland is famous for its Shakespeare Festival. It also deserves props for the co-op, with its selection of carefully curated local produce, deli, espresso bar, and delicious baked goods. Hippie haters may cringe at the earnestness of the patrons, but grab a seat on the patio, and enjoy the show. The surrounding Railroad District neighborhood boasts galleries, artist studios, shops, and restaurants.

[Photo credit: Kootenay Co-op, Flickr user donkeycart]

food co-ops2. Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco
This beloved collective draws customers seeking out some of the most impeccable produce, dairy, and specialty foods in the nation–all grown or made nearby. Look for goat cheese from Harley Farms, seasonal Gravenstein apples from Sebastopol, and honey from the bulk tank.

3. Boise Co-op, Idaho
I stumbled upon this co-op while exploring Boise, and fell in love. Idaho doesn’t usually conjure images of pristine produce aside from potatoes, but this bustling store is packed with beautiful local product, a deli, and an impressive housewares department. Located in a pleasant quasi-residential neighborhood walking distance from the downtown core.

4. Ocean Beach People’s Organic Foods Market, San Diego
It’s all about produce at this large, contemporary collective, especially citrus. But be sure to pick up a sandwich or some picnic items from the deli/bakery; the beach is just a few blocks away. Confession: I got a job here as a recent college grad, and it’s a tribute to my former boss, Trent (then and still the produce manager) that I found a career in food and sustainable agriculture. I was living in my car and going through a severe quarter-life crisis at the time, and by the end of my first day working with him, it was as though a light (energy-saving, of course) had switched on in my serotonin-starved brain. Thanks, Trent!
food co-ops
5. PCC Natural Markets, Fremont (Seattle)
Call it hometown advantage, but I live down the street from this store–part of a greater Seattle co-op chain–and shop here several times a week. It’s my favorite of the stores–some of which could use a makeover. Located in the pretty Fremont neighborhood on Lake Union’s northern shore, it’s modern, inviting, and stuffed with local product. Don’t miss Grace Harbor Farms yogurt, made from butterfat-rich Guernsey milk: the thick layer of cream on top is irresistible.

6. La Montanita Co-op Food Market, Santa Fe
It’s hard to beat Santa Fe’s famous farmers market, but should you miss it or require some additional souvenirs (posole and Chimayo chilies, anyone?), swing by this New Mexico co-op chain. Mark your calendars for September, when select stores roasts massive batches of organic Hatch chilies.
food co-ops
7. Davis Food Co-op, Davis, California
Home to one of the nation’s top ag schools, Davis is located within Yolo County, one of California’s largest farming regions. You’ll find exquisite vegetables from small farming champs like Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm of nearby Capay Valley, as well as local olive oil, honey, nuts, orchard fruits, and cheese. Cooking classes for kids and teens, too.

8. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, California
Take the same wonderful products found in Davis, and add an ambitious learning center and cooking school program for kids and adults. Learn how to raise backyard chickens, take a two-day farming intensive, or gain some urban cycling skills.

9. People’s Food Co-op, Portland, Oregon
Portland is rightfully one of the nation’s epicenters of mindful eating. With both excellent restaurants and farmers markets, a co-op may not make it onto your travel itinerary, but if you’re in the Clinton neighborhood on the Southeast side, stop by. The reason Portland gets it right? Oregon is a leader in sustainable agriculture and livestock production, artisan cheesemaking, craft brewing, and winemaking. The store also holds a year-round farmers market every Wednesday, 2-7pm.
food co-op
10. Central Co-op, Seattle
Located in Seattle’s hipster thicket of Capitol Hill, this popular spot is just the place for an espresso before hitting the aisles. A seriously bomber selection of PacNW craft beer and wine, and a tiny but well-stocked cheese case featuring offerings from the likes of Washington’s excellent Black Sheep Creamery = one hell of a happy hour.

For a national directory of food co-ops, click here.

[Photo credits: peppers, Laurel Miller; bread, Flickr user farlane; apples, Flickr user Shaw Girl; espresso, Flickr user Nick J Webb]

Now that’s a double espresso

Here at Gadling Labs we have an ongoing Open Office speadsheet cataloging the greatest, most delicious ounces of espresso sampled around the planet, and we believe that we may have a new leader in the “double” category.

The place: Cafe Tortoni, halfway between the house of congress and Casa Rosada on Av. de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here, ordering a grande cafe will get you something just short of a pint of espresso, one thick, steaming caudron of hot, delicious coffee bliss.

Needless to say, this sort of grandeur is to be expected in the capital of Argentina, the same place where espresso regularly comes with seltzer water and one if not two or three sweets on the side (ask for ice cream if they’ve got it) to top off your palette. Indulging in the finer bits of gastronoimic fare in this city is part of the cultural experience, so eat often, eat well and pretend that you’re a king while the dollar still has some relative strength.

Undiscovered New York: Top 5 breakfasts

To truly experience New York during your next visit, you need to start your day with a good breakfast. No meal better epitomizes the different attitudes and moods of the city’s residents then this first (and sometimes last) meal of the day. Whether we’re talking about the quintessential lazy weekend brunch, a bacon egg & cheese from a deli or a strong cup of joe from the street cart, New Yorkers’ breakfast choices are about as diverse as the city itself.

You’re probably already familiar with the old standbys – New York bagels are legendary the world over. And New York’s iconic paper coffee cup never seems to go out of style. But for everything you think you already know about what New York likes to eat for breakfast, there’s plenty of surprises. Breakfast here includes everything from your standard omelette to Chinese Dim Sum to Dominican Mangu and Italian breakfast panini.

With all these choices, where exactly does a breakfast-lover get started? Breakfast is, after all, the most important meal of the day, and who can stomach such an essential daily ritual becoming something bland or boring? This week Undiscovered New York is here to get your New York morning off on the right foot. We’ve compiled a list of our top five breakfasts from across the city. Step away from that yogurt and see what we picked…
Breakfast Five – Barney Greengrass
It would be downright sacrilegious to leave the classic lox and bagel off a New York breakfast list, and Barney Greengrass is arguably one of the best places to get it. Located well off the beaten path on New York’s Upper West Side, this delightfully old-school institution has been slinging some of the city’s best cream cheese, bagels, smoked salmon and whitefish since way back in 1908. Enjoy your bagel with some schmear and the Sunday New York Times in the restaurant’s old-school wood-panelled interior.

Breakfast Four – Joe Art of Coffee
New York could not function without caffeine. The self-proclaimed “city that never sleeps” seems to be mainlining a constant IV drip of the brown stuff. The problem is most of it sucks. The scalded, bitter excuse for caffeine you’ll find at most delis simply won’t do. Instead head to Joe the Art of Coffee, one of the city’s growing range of quality coffeeshops. In addition to a zealous dedication to a quality cup, Joe also offers in-store classes to help take your appreciation and coffee brewing skills to the next level.

Breakfast Three – Chinese Dim Sum
Consider this while you’re crunching that morning bowl of Special K – breakfast around the world is as different as the people that eat it. And in many countries, the typical yogurt, fruit and cereal is not on the menu. New York’s large population of Chinese residents happen to enjoy Dim Sum for their weekend breakfast, a leisurely meal that consists of many small plates chosen from constantly moving food carts. Though there’s no one typical dish served at Dim Sum, the meal usually includes staples like dumplings, spare ribs and sweets filled with bean paste. Try Chinatown spots like Jin Fong, the Golden Unicorn or Flushing’s Ocean Jewel.

Breakfast Two – Alpha Donuts
Way out in the Sunnyside section of Queens, they take their breakfast seriously. That is to say, they don’t mess around with fancy-pants breakfast food like brioche french toast or omelettes filled with goat cheese. What they are serious about is donuts – the ultimate sugary breakfast favorite. That’s why Alpha Donuts leads the pack. In a city filled with fancy breakfasts, Alpha Donuts stands out for its simplicity and commitment to this classic American staple, which they’ve been making since World War II.

Breakfast One – Shopsins
There’s no easy way to explain what to order at Shopsins, a hilariously quirky breakfast establishment located in Manhattan’s Essex Street Market. The correct answer is probably “What do you want to eat?” Not only does Shopsins serve all the classic breakfast favorites like skillets, sausage and cereal – they’ve also got plenty of one-of-a-kind morning meals prepared by the surly owner Kenny Shopsin. How about some “Slutty Cakes” made with pumpkin, pistachio and peanut butter? You also can’t go wrong with the “Jihadboy Sandwich” topped with beef, pomegranate, olives, sheep feta and tahini.