chicken cacciatore ingredients
The vegetables that make this dish work. Photo by Viola Buitoni.

Good morning, Mission. You caught me in the midst of a month-long guest chef instructor gig here. I know, right??

I love coming to Italy, for so many reasons.

First, family. My adolescent son actually talks to me when we are here, I adore my nieces and nephews, and my four siblings will always be my cardinal points no matter how often they come unhinged.

The tan, which magically appears whenever I am here between May and October, and I’ve been showing off on Instagram.

Also, right now my country of origin is in no less of a sociopolitical mess than my adopted one, and while I do not exactly love that, it is dishearteningly comforting in a misery-loves-company way.

Above all, though, is the deeply natural, unfussy way we gather around food. Food here is a 24/7 affair: we breathe it, live it, and love it all the time. We define moments and memories by it. Italians forge and foster bonds around the table, they make decisions, fall in love, do business.

It happens all day, every day, and it starts with the morning coffee break. Salento’s summer coffee drink of choice is caffè leccese — from the name of the main city, Lecce. It is an iced marriage of almonds (abundant here) and espresso to which I have become addicted.

Caffè leccese
Iced espresso in almond milk

Italian almond milk is quite different than what is found in many a Californian refrigerator. It is all the essence that can be extracted from an almond, mixed with simple syrup in a proportion that varies from maker to maker but generally veers towards the sweet.

I have mimicked it successfully in two ways, one quicker and one a little more laborious but closer to the original.

The first: buy an Italian almond syrup, the kind that is used on shaved ice. Mix it in equal proportion to unsweetened fresh almond milk.

Or, if you have the time, buy half a pound of high quality, soft almond paste (NOT marzipan), the kind that is used in pastry. Blend it with just below a quart of warm water. Reduce it over medium heat until it is syrupy. Cool it and you should have a shelf stable quart of latte di mandorle.

Brew some fresh espresso. I use my stovetop moka, but if you have a fancy machine, by all means, use it. You will need one shot per drinker.

Fill a medium size glass it with three to four ice cubes and half an inch of your almond concoction. Pour a shot of espresso over it and stir. If you have a fancy espresso machine you can blow some steam into the drink for some foaminess, but it’ll be delicious even without the steaming step.

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A native Italian, US-based professional with 30 years of multifaceted experience in the field of Italian food, Viola transitioned to teaching 10 years ago, with the goal of getting home cooks to gather daily around the stove and table. She believes that from our kitchens, we can make the world a better place. By cooking good food at the intersection of Italian table culture and local agriculture, she teaches people to enjoy and value good food, and understand its critical role to the overall well being of our communities. For more details on registering for Viola’s classes and other food-related activities go to her website.
For more details on registering for Viola’s classes and other food-related activities click here.

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