Have you ever had a dream of traveling to a far off destination that seemed totally out of reach, but then actually had it happen?
That’s exactly what happened to me a few years ago after watching a movie called “The Trip to Italy.” The film stars British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who play fictionalized versions of themselves, on a trip to Italy for Steve’s job as a food writer and restaurant critic.
They drive down the Italian coastline from Barolo in the North to the island of Capri in the South, dining at one award-winning restaurant after the other. The film captures the serene beauty of the Italian countryside, the dramatic rugged coastline and the fascinating historical city centers of Pisa, Tuscany and Rome, but most importantly it captures the making of Italian cuisine in professional kitchens across Italy.
My mouth watered as I watched them feast on wild boar ragu with handmade tagliatelle pasta in Barolo, creamy risotto with shaved truffles in Tuscany, and velvety rich chocolate gelato in Rome.
The pinnacle of the trip came when they visited Il Riccio, a gorgeous restaurant on the island of Capri, which had a room in the back called, “The Room of Temptation.” This room was filled with beautiful desserts and sweets of all kinds from wall to wall, plus a table in the middle covered with trays of cream puffs, eclairs, macarons, tartlets, cannoli and the “Torta Caprese,” the delectable chocolate almond Capri cake. I watched in wide-eyed amazement as they sat down to enjoy their plate full of desserts. I dreamt of being able to visit this wondrous food destination.
At the time, I was working on creating recipes inspired by my favorite Mediterranean cuisines. I picked up a French cooking magazine called “Elle à Table” I found at Oui Presse, a coffee shop in Portland that sells magazines from all over the world.
I was captivated by the photos of food in the magazine and couldn’t wait to make some of those dishes myself. I put to gather a menu with recipes from the magazine and decided to make them and take photos of the beautiful dishes. Earlier that day I happened to be at the library when I saw a copy of “The Trip to Italy” movie sitting on the shelf.
I spontaneously decided to rent it thinking that it would be fun to watch it again, only this time while eating some delicious and beautiful food! I was doing most of my cooking at the time at my mom’s house, using her superior kitchen (and oven) and the table on the backyard patio to photograph my creations in natural light. I spent all day preparing a delicious meal full of colorful dishes. I couldn’t wait to share the experience of watching the movie with my mom. After raising four kids and taking care of a disabled husband, my mom never got to travel anywhere, so it was very important to me to share this experience with her. Even though I couldn’t take her on a trip to Italy (much less take one myself), we could still enjoy the experience of watching the movie together while eating the delicious food.
The menu (which I share at the bottom of this post) consisted of crostatas with flaky pastry and sweet and savory fillings; a delicious Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, purple basil, juicy peaches, tart berries and a sweet and savory vinaigrette with toasted sesame seeds and balsamic vinegar; a potato salad with roasted beets, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and creme fraiche; a roasted vegetable quiche with feta cheese and parmesan and a side dish of roasted beets with greek yogurt, a sprinkling of bright red Sumac, and pickled rose petals. It was a beautiful meal and a memorable evening eating, drinking and laughing together as we watched the movie and ate the delicious meal. My mom told me afterwards that she felt like she had gone on a trip to Italy through the food and the film. It was a great lesson in focusing on using my abilities to accomplish something great which I could share with others.
Then, a few months later, something unexpected happened. A close friend of mine was presented with an opportunity to go on a company trip to Italy — all expenses paid, and could bring a guest. I was asked to be that guest! In May 2016, a year after first seeing the movie “The Trip to Italy” my dream of going there came true! Wow! I couldn’t believe it!
I began my trip in Rome, working my way down the coast to the southern tip of the Heel of the Boot in the Puglia region, making a stop on the island of Capri to visit the Room of Temptation. I wore a special dress just for the occasion, a beautiful pearl white and cerulean blue dress that I bought at a shop on the island, (you can see a picture of me wearing this dress at Il Riccio on my home page). After a fantastic meal of some of the most expertly prepared seafood I’d ever had, our friendly waiter motioned for us to get up and follow him to the back of the restaurant, a big smile on his face. I knew exactly what was coming. My eyes lit up and my heart began to race as I walked into the Room of Temptation.
It was bigger than I had imagined, filled with even more desserts than anything I had ever seen! I couldn’t take my eyes off it! As I took in sights and smells around me, I suddenly felt overcome with emotion. I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in this room. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Oh, where to start! I filled my plate with cannoli filled with fresh ricotta and studded with bright green pistachios, chocolate tarts loaded with fresh berries, a dreamy-looking pear and mascarpone cake, and of course the famous Torta Caprese, which I topped with fresh cherry sauce and a dollop of whipped cream. I was beaming as I walked back to the table, plate in hand. The desserts were absolute heaven on a plate. At one point, it nearly turned into the diner scene from “When Harry Met Sally”. I could see that the waiters were really enjoying watching me eat these desserts. As it turned out, our waiter was the very same one who waited on Steve and Rob in the movie! He invited me to have my photo taken with him, complimenting me on my lovely dress.
I felt like a movie star.
The whole experience was better than I could’ve imagined. I wondered how anything could ever top this experience!
After I got back from Italy, I began recreating all of the dishes I had eaten through out Italy in my home kitchen, including the lovely Torta Caprese from the Room of Temptation. Even though the experience of traveling to Italy was now over, I realized that these experiences would be with me forever. I couldn’t wait to share them with everyone! The trip to Italy became an ongoing source of inspiration for me, all of which started with a two hour movie. It’s amazing what a good story can do to inspire you. It is my hope that my stories and recipes will inspire you to cook for your family and friends, and that you’ll start planning your own trip to Italy or any other place you’ve been dreaming of visiting. The Room of Temptation is waiting for you!
Here are the recipes from my French/Italian/Mediterranean-inspired Menu:
Caprese Salad with Cherry Tomatoes, Fresh Mozzarella, Raspberries, Peaches & Purple Basil
Serves 4 people
- 1 pint of cherry tomatoes, slice in half
- 8 ounce container of fresh mozzarella
- 1 peach, cut into slices
- 1 pint of berries (I used half raspberries and half blackberries, but any kind of berry will do)
- 1 bunch of basil (I used purple basil I grew in my garden)
- 2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
- 1 tsp black sesame seeds
- 1 tsp white sesame seeds
- Purple micro greens (optional; you can substitute arugula)
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
- 1 tsp honey
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- Freshly cracked pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Toast the pumpkin seeds on a sheet tray for 5 minutes until lightly browned. Heat a small skillet over medium high heat and briefly toast the sesame seeds until they are lightly browned, about 1-2 minutes. In a small bowl, mix together the honey, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle the olive oil in the bowl, whisking as you go to incorporate the oil into the vinegar and honey. Arrange the cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, peaches and berries on a plate. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, then top with the pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, basil and micro greens.
*Adapted from Elle à Table magazine
Roasted Vegetable Quiche with Feta & Parmesan Cheese
Serves 6-8 people
- Pie Crust:
- 3/4 cup (106 gm) all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup (64 gm) spelt flour
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 4 oz. (8 tbsp/1 stick) cold, unsalted butter cut into 1/2” cubes
- 2 tbsp cold buttermilk
- 2 tbsp ice water
- 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 small eggplant, cut into 1/4” thick slices
- 1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2 “ slices
- 1/2 yellow bell pepper, cut into 1/2” slices
- 1 small zucchini cut into 1/4” thick slices
- 2 tbsp olive oil, or more if needed
- 1 bunch chopped fresh basil (or 1 tsp dried basil or Italian herbs), plus more for serving
- 1/3 cup (4 oz.) crumbled feta cheese (or goat cheese)
- 1/2 cup (6 oz.) grated parmesan cheese (or mozzarella cheese)
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Freshly cracked pepper
In a medium sized bowl, mix together the all purpose flour, spelt flour, sugar and salt. Add the cold cubes of butter and begin to work the butter into the flour, trying to keep everything as cold as possible. Run your hands under cold water if things start to heat up. Stop when you’ve reached pea sized pieces of butter and the flour starts to take on a sandy texture. Mix together the buttermilk, water and vinegar in a small bowl and slowly add the liquid to the flour/butter mixture two tablespoons at a time, mixing with your hand or a rubber spatula until the dough begins to stick together. It’s ok if the dough doesn’t completely stick together. It will rest overnight which will help the dough adhere together without becoming touch. Pour the dough out onto a work surface and form into 8 small rounds. Carefully pat each round flat, like a pancake, then stack them one on top of each other like a stack of small, flat pancakes. This will help create flakey dough. Form the dough into a 6 inch flat round, wrap in plastic wrap and put into the refrigerator for at least two hours to allow the gluten to relax (so the dough won’t shrink when baked), but preferably overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. On a sheet tray lined with foil spread out the sliced vegetables and drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes, until the vegetables are nicely browned, turning occasionally with a spatula. Remove from the oven and cool completely.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Spray a 9” round glass pie dish with baking spray. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and allow the dough to sit for 20 minutes to become pliable. Roll the dough into a 12 inch round, then carefully transfer it to the pie dish without stretching it. Fold the edges inward and crimp to make a neat border. Prick the crust with a fork and chill in the freezer for 10 minutes. Cover the crust with foil, fill with pie weights or dried beans/rice and place in the oven for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and pie weights and return to the oven for another 10 minutes until the crust is nicely browned. Cool the crust completely while you are preparing the filling.
In a medium sized bowl mix together the eggs and cream. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cheese, half of the basil, then pour into the cooled, pre-baked tart shell, alternating with the roasted vegetables. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes to one hour, checking after 30 minutes to cover the crust if it starts to get too brown. Bake until the middle of the quiche is completely set. Top with the remaining fresh basil.
Recipe adapted from https://bojongourmet.com/2012/09/roasted-eggplant-tomato-tart/
Crostata with Roasted Red & Yellow Bell Peppers, Smoked Mozzarella & Sesame Seeds
Serves 6-8 people
- 1 prepared pie crust (follow the above recipe for the roasted vegetable quiche)
- 1/2 each red and yellow bell peppers cut into 1/2 inch slices
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- 8 oz smoked mozzarella, grated or cut into small pieces
- 1/2 tsp black sesame seeds
- 1/2 tsp white sesame seeds
- 1 egg
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Spread the bell peppers on a baking tray lined with foil and coat with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 15-20 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and cool completely.
Roll the dough out on a work surface into a 12” circle (or oval). Carefully transfer using the rolling pin to a baking tray lined with parchment paper or foil. Fill the middle of the tart with the cheese, bell peppers and cherry tomatoes, leaving a 1” border. Fold the edge of the dough inward to create a border. Mix the egg with 1 tsp water in a small bowl. Brush the edge of the crust with the egg wash and sprinkle with the sesame seeds, salt and pepper. Bake in the oven at 400 F for 45 to 55 minutes, until the crust is nicely browned on the edge cooked through on the bottom.
*Adapted from Elle à Table magazine.
Roasted Potato & Beet Salad with Candied Pecans & Pumpkin Seeds
Serves 6-8 people
- 1 lb. small red potatoes, cut into 1/2” thick pieces
- 1 lb. red beets, peeled and cut into 1/2” thick pieces
- 1 package Micro Greens (you can substitute watercress, arugula or spinach)
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
- 1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for roasting the potatoes and beets
- 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp dijon mustard
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a small baking dish with foil and place the peeled, cut beets into the pan.
Drizzle with olive oil, cover tightly with foil and roast until tender, 30-35 minutes.
Remove from the oven and cool completely.
Bring a large pot filled with water to a boil.
Partially boil the potatoes until just tender, about 5 minutes.
Drain them, then add the potatoes to a baking tray lined with foil and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Place the walnuts and pumpkin seeds on a baking tray and roast for 6 minutes until golden brown. Mix together the white wine vinegar, honey, mustard, sea salt and freshly ground pepper in a small bowl until combined. Slowly drizzle the olive oil into the bowl while whisking to create an emulsified vinaigrette. Arrange the potatoes and beets on a platter. Top with the micro greens, drizzle with the dressing, then top with walnuts, pumpkin seeds and creme fraiche.
Roasted Beets with Pickled Rose Petals, Greek Yogurt & Sumac
Serves 4 people
- 1 lb. beets, peeled and quartered (I used half red beets and half golden beets)
- 1/2 cup greek yogurt
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp honey
- 1 tsp sumac (available at middle eastern markets or on Amazon)
- 1-2 unsprayed roses (or you can use dried rose petals available in middle eastern markets or on Amazon)
- 2 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 bunch of dill
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a small baking dish with foil and place the peeled, cut beets into the pan. Drizzle with olive oil, cover tightly with foil and roast until tender and slightly browned, 30-35 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Heat the vinegar in the microwave for 30 seconds. Pour over the rose petals in a small bowl, then add the lemon juice and set aside. Mix together the salt, honey and yogurt in a small bowl. Spread into the bottom of a shallow bowl or platter. Top with the roasted beets, pickled rose petals (or dried rose petals) and sprinkle with sumac and dill.
Roasted Beets with Heirloom Tomatoes and Feta Cheese
Serves 4-6 people
- 1 lb. beets, peeled
- 1 lb. heirloom tomatoes
- 1-2 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 4 oz. feta cheese (or goat cheese)
- Sea Salt
- Freshly Cracked Pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a small baking dish with foil and place the peeled beets into the pan. Drizzle with olive oil, cover tightly with foil and roast until tender and slightly browned, 30-35 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Slice into 1/4” thick rounds. Slice the tomatoes and arrange on a platter with the beets. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and top with the salt, pepper, crumbled feta & chopped parsley.
Red Plum and Lavender Crostata
Serves 6-8 people
- 1 recipe pie dough (follow the above recipe for roasted vegetable quiche pie dough)
- 1 lb. red plums (about 4 plums) fresh or frozen, cut into 1/2” slices
- 4 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp dried culinary lavender (available at Whole Foods or on Amazon)
- 1 egg
Prepare one recipe of pie dough. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Roll the dough out on a work surface into a 12” circle. Carefully transfer using the rolling pin to a baking tray lined with parchment paper or foil. Sprinkle the 1 tbsp flour and 1 tbsp sugar on the crust. Spread the sliced plums out on the crust, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar and dried lavender, leaving a 1” border. Fold the edge of the dough inward to create a border. Mix the egg with 1 tsp water in a small bowl. Brush the edge of the crust with the egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake in the oven at 400 F for 45 to 55 minutes, until the crust is nicely browned on the edge.
*Pie dough adapted from Bojon gourmet