Eating Molise, part 1

During our visit to Molise we had a series of food adventures that underlined for us just how terrific the food of the region is. But we also confronted the sometimes alarming hospitality of the Molisani and the sheer athletic challenge of the amount of eating we had let ourselves in for.

When we first arrived in the region we did nothing more ambitious than visit a couple of restaurants. But faced with an Italian menu of antipasti (Italian charcuterie, pickled vegetables, little fried or baked cheesy, meaty morsels, bread), then primi (pastas, often house-made), then secondi (meat dishes, ranging from simple grills to elaborate braises), then contorni (grilled eggplant, cooked string beans, green salad, or other vegetable sides), then dolci (also often house-made), plus wine (usually local), we made the rookie mistake of doing the full five-course catastrophe.

After a few days of this our stomachs were well prepared for our visit to Le Terrazze Miranda and Maurizio Petti, an artisanal gelato-maker and restaurateur in the little Molisan town of Casalciprano. At 10 a.m. five members of our extended family plus our friend Michael helped Maurizio measure out the ingredients, starting with unpasteurized milk from local cows, for three flavors of gelato. That's me on the left, taking a turn at whisking everything together, while Michael admires my energy, if not my technique.

Each batch was carefully measured (by us, with much anxiety), then put into Maurizio's $50,000 Italian gelato machine, which quickly took the temperature up high enough to pasteurize the mixture, then just as quickly chilled it down below freezing, then moved it into a lower freezing compartment where it was stirred as it froze.

Steven, who worked for years as a chef, so impressed Maurizio that he offered him a job.

Here is Steven flipping the gelato into the container as it comes out of the freezer part of la macchina, as Maurizio explains exactly how it's done. Those voluptuous peaks of ice cream that you see in gelato shops don't happen automatically.

That morning we helped make a headily aromatic mandorla (almond), spiked with amaretto liqueur and crumbled amaretti cookies; a rich nociola (hazelnut); and the "Pope's torrone," celebrating Pope Francis's visit to Molise three years ago, which was gelato flavored with burnt-sugar caramel and pine nuts. At the end we all got just a little taste. We were promised more once the flavors had rested and matured for a few hours.

The reward for our hard work was an aperitivo of prosecco on the terrace, where we all admired the sensational view.

Then came a sumptuous lunch upstairs in Maurizio's sumptuous restaurant, the Terrazze Miranda. There were all kinds of antipasti--fried eggplant rolled around prosciutto and cheese, little nuggets of fried greens, fresh-tomato bruschetta, little tarts of some kind of ham.

These were followed by two wonderful pastas, cavatelli in tomato sauce and tagliarini with a kind of zucchini pesto, one of the best primis we've had on this trip.

Knowing that the gelato still lay ahead, we begged off on any secondi. We were already dangerously full.

In hopes of creating some space for the gelato, we took a guided tour around Maurizio's restaurant, once a noble family's villa and now a quite fantastic restaurant and inn, with rooms decorated to a faretheewell. I think they do a big honeymoon business. It would be a sensational place for a wedding.

Next came a tour of Casalcipriano, which seems to be ahead of other towns in the area in planning for tourism. There are murals all around the old center part of town, depicting the hard life of the locals a century or more ago, and a very engaging little museum with waxwork figures illustrating more of the same. Apparently there was a lot of anxiety about witches, and lots of untimely death. The loss of so many friends and family when they emigrated to America and elsewhere was another hardship to those who remained--an aspect of the immigrant story that we don't usually give much thought to.

Then it was time for gelato, served up in Maurizio's gelateria down on the terrace. It was sensational.

If we had just gone home and had clear soup for dinner, we would have been fine. But that night was also the second night of a festa in the town we were staying in, Montagano, and we ended up having that big feast with our extraordinarily hospitable friends there.

Afterwards we told ourselves that we were never going to spend a whole day eating so much ever again.

We didn't yet know what the next day would bring.