Category Archives: Venice

VENICE IN SUMMER. NO TOURISTS or things you will not learn from guidebooks

Just a side street

The older lady waddles around a corner and spots the vaporetto approaching its stop. She is still quite a while away but doesn’t hurry, she just stares at the boat as she walks along. While I watch this scene from the front of the boat, I think to myself the old lady has resigned herself to taking the next one. Clearly, she knows better. The blond and bronzed youth who mans the comings and goings of the passengers slides the thick rope around the moorings, opens the gate, lets a small crowd in and then idly waits for the waddling lady, whom he knows. Actually, he knows at least one person at every stop.

You can tell who the Venetians are: they do not wear shorts or tennis shoes, they do not clutch maps or cameras, they don’t have a glazed look in their eyes and they speak in a pleasant and soft lilt. They patiently go about their business, walking over or around tourists inconveniently positioned at every turn and stay away from the streets bearing the yellow signs indicating where Piazza S. Marco or some other amenity is. It’s an easy enough secret worth learning. Venice is not that big that getting lost ever becomes a problem.

Getting lost is indeed a must. Crowds behave like sheep and the only way to avoid them is to cheat them by going just a few streets (or calli) behind where they are. I don’t need to see the Rialto bridge once again so I will just skirt around it, in the meander of intersecting streets where there is no one. It’s amazing – just nobody but a student here and there, hurrying to the Conservatory dragging a bassoon, a group of lawyers entering the courthouse, ladies with shopping bags. The other secret is that, if you are looking for a store that sells common wares other than masks, glass, prints or souvenirs, you also have to move away from S. Marco and enter Cannareggio or S. Polo where all kinds of charming or useful shops can be found.

Unless you are accompanied by a Venetian, eating out can be a daunting prospect, even for fellow Italians. Thick menus are a no-no, not to mention restaurants that post pictures of the food. But that is a no brainer. Charming trattorias can be tricky too and it’s best to check the crowd and listen to their dialect before committing to a place. Or else, given the chance, eating at home is a safe bet. After buying fruit and vegetables from a stand in Campo S. Margherita and the rest at the always reliable Billa, I watch the sun plunge behind a sea of red roofs, all shades of pink reflected on my kitchen walls; a gondolier in the canal underneath intones “Volare” in a deep baritone – a bit postcard kitschy maybe but, as I learnt, as true to the city as any of the grittier parts. In the meantime, my pasta is ready.











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A Venetian side street

My Italian friends are astonished at my fixation with Venice. Venice, Italy, that is. And I am rather astonished myself. If you live in Italy, Venice is a tourist Mecca, a beautiful, unique, unparalleled place to stay away from. It’s crowded, it’s hot in the Summer, it’s packed with bad restaurants and too many souvenirs stores and on and on. And it is all true. I wouldn’t want to compare it to Disneyland because it would be blasphemy but, to many visitors, the experience is not that dissimilar: astonishing sights, long queues and unpalatable prices.

Italy is full of quaint, even some remote spots far from the prying paws of Russian and Japanese tourists. Most Italians wonder how Venetians can stand to live in Venice. After a few months in Florence, I was ready to maim any out of towner who came my way so I understand that living in a tourist attraction does have many drawbacks. Such as having to go to the mainland if you need anything from nails to a movie.

But I was drawn to Venice not to see St. Mark’s Square once again or sit at Harry’s Bar or buy glass figurines but to experience what kind of real life is possible in a city of a beauty so intense, so perverse and so historically alive that it tears at your heart. The best time to see Venice is in the bone chilling winter, when the humidity permeates every inch of your body and the mist rises from the lagoon and the buildings look spectral and whispers their secrets even more loudly, in the absence of Babel’s cacophony.

The secret to the Serenissima, though, is to just skirt away from St. Mark’s, where the boatloads of daily tourists direct themselves en masse – it’s remarkable how easy it is to enjoy the emptiness in Campo S. Margherita and stop for an aperitif while watching housewives come home with the shopping or finding a church with a couple of Titians where you are one of five other visitors.

Italy is a treasure trove of historical landmarks, many of which we take for granted while going about our daily business. But no other place offers you an untainted slice of history as Venice – it might be sinking, aging and disappearing but it stayed true to itself by the impossibility of allowing certain segments of progress to intrude: no cars, no new buildings, no shopping centers, not many visual reminders 300 years have passed since its heyday. The only other place where I was afforded such an experience was the old quarters in Jerusalem.

Last time I was in Venice, I took a gondola ride, against my better initial judgement. It was 10:30 at night and I haggled with a gondolier who couldn’t make head or tail of the not so quite American lady who seemed well versed in the art of haggling. He gave me a steep discount because I was going to be his last ride, before crashing home with a bad cold. He wanted to regale me with platitudes about the buildings on the Grand Canal while I wished to know about the 2 year gruelling process of becoming a gondolier. Finally, when he offered to sing I had to ask him to shut up. And that is when I had the chance to listen to the city go to sleep, the water lapping against the decaying walls, lulled by the oar in the tiny and dark canals, and it wasn’t so difficult to imagine what life used to be. Strangely, it wasn’t hard to imagine how life could still be.

When I took the conscious decision of planting roots in Los Angeles, I was aware that giving up the history that surrounds you at every turn if you live in the old Continent, of not being able to walk in the footsteps that countless generations had marked for me, would have been, at times, excruciatingly hard. As much as I love the pastel tints splashed on the walls when the sun sets in Venice, California, I miss the constant reminder of centuries past.

Which is why I am leaving to go back to Venice. To get my fix I suppose.


PS – Although, yes, they do have internet in Venice, it is not widely available – definitely not at my apartment. Apart from the occasional post, I will see you on July 6.

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Thanksgiving is around the corner and I should probably muse on pumpkin pies but, in case you were not paying attention, there is a pumpkin puree shortage. What? I asked our purchasing agent when he informed me of the situation and, while I longingly caressed the last can in our pantry, I set out to figure out why.

Obviously I wasn’t paying attention as it’s been all over the news. Pumpkin puree gets made and canned nearly a year before it hits the shelves, which means that this year’s batch was made with last year’s pumpkins. Apparently, the weather wasn’t cooperating last Autumn  and one-third of the pumpkin crop was lost, leading to this year’s shortage.

Well, if you are really hellbent on serving pumpkin pie tomorrow, you can always roast your fresh pumpkin and puree it. It will take close to 90 minutes (depending on oven) for your orange friend to become mushy. But the flavor will repay you for the afternoon spent at home. Sugar pumpkin or butternut squash will work equally well – please stay clear of the pumpkin that is still lurching around your house from Halloween…

In all honesty, I am not a big fan of pumpkin desserts but I live in the States, I cook mainly for Americans so I had to adapt and muster enthusiasm for ingredients I don’t necessarily love. Which brings me to my Venetian Pumpkin Torte.

A few years ago I was determined to improve my Passover and Roshashana dinners, which had been uninspired affairs loosely based on Ashkenazi traditions. Now, no offense to any Russian readers, but Jewish Russian food sucks (at least to this Mediterranean palate) and I was more drawn to the Sephardic tradition. From Spanish and Moroccan Jewish food I expanded to look for books of Italian Jewish cuisine and bingo! I hit the jackpot.

This is an old Jewish recipe from Veneto, most likely from Treviso, that I slightly morphed to make mine and to adapt  for American palates. So, next time you find yourself with a free afternoon on your hands, roast that pumpkin and whip up this torte. And why not this Thursday?

The original recipe appears in “Cucina Ebraica” by Joyce Goldstein


4 C       Pumpkin puree (or about 2 pound or raw squash)

3/4 C   Sugar

1/2 C   Ground Almonds (not too finely ground in food processor or chopped by hand)

1/3 C   Golden Raisins

Grated zest of 2 lemons

1/2 C   All Purpose Flour

2 ts      Baking Powder

1 ts      Cinnamon

3          Eggs, separated

1/4 ts  Salt


1. Put the raisins in a small bowl with enough brandy to cover and let rest 20 minutes.

2. Pre-heat oven to 325F and butter a 9″ cake pan – line with parchment paper and spray (or butter).

3. Place the pumpkin puree in a bowl and mix it with sugar, ground almond, lemon zest and the raisins you will have drained.

4. In another bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.

5. Add the flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture and mix well. Add the egg yolks and mix until incorporated. This can be done by hand or with a mixer, using the paddle attachment.

6. In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form (easier down with a mixer). Using a rubber or silicone spatula, carefully fold the egg whites in the pumpkin batter. Use wide and gentle strokes, in order not to deflate the whites, until fully incorporated.

7. Pour into your cake pan and bake immediately (don’t let it sit or the whites will definitely deflate and the torte will turn out chewy) for about 45 minutes or until a skewer in the center comes out clean.

8. Let cool and invert the cake onto a platter. Peel off the parchment. Serve it with whipped cream (in which you can swirl some caramel sauce for added effect and sweetness)








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There is always such melancholy at the end of a vacation and I always find it extremely hard to step out of the bubble. I realize that the whole purpose of a vacation is to shed one’s skin for a little while and get lost in a parallel reality which doesn’t involve the daily grind, no matter what that might be, and that a permanent vacation is not the solution to achieving a purposeful life (ok, the point is debatable, still, work with me here). But I do hate the end of vacations – the time has come to leave La Serenissima, after a last day filled with sun, more cobbled streets, a kosher lunch in the Jewish ghetto, strawberry meringue bought at Bucintoro and a visit to Palazzo Mocenigo.

Il Bucintoro PatisserieI find smaller museums intensely rewarding – the art might not be world class but usually one has the rooms all to oneself. I decided on Palazzo Mocenigo to get an idea of what a patrician Venetian home would look like;  this particular palazzo belonging to an ancient Venetian family was in their hands up until 1943 when it was donated to the city by the last heir with most of the original furniture from the XVIII century still in it.

All the attendants  inside were extremely friendly and somewhat apologetic for how small the place was as if embarrassed for not being the custodians to some better known museum. And I did have the place all to myself, for 4 euros.  I wandered up the staircase that from the ground floor leads to the “noble floor” where the ballroom, several sitting and dining rooms, a library, a bedroom and bathroom are to be found.

All of a sudden I was inside “A Venetian Affair” by Andrea de Robilant, the non fiction love story set in the XVIII century in Venice, between a nobleman, Andrea Memmo, and a lower class half English girl, Giustiniana Wynne (see previous blog on Venice). As seeing each other was difficult, sometimes Giustiniana would send word to Andrea that she would be at Palazzo Mocenigo and would sit by a window, waiting for him to come by in his boat and romantically wave. It was easy to imagine her at any of the windows I was standing at, maybe next to a fireplace for warmth.

On my way home, I stopped at the Billa, my local supermarket, for some milk for my last breakfast here: cornetti from Bar Nico, newspaper and coffee from the big mocha I found in the apartment. At 6 o’clock the Billa is bustling with activity, people like me, on their way home, after work or after a day of sightseeing, trying to get dinner organized. In the past week I negotiated the unfamiliar varieties of cereal, milk and body lotion and imitated the old ladies buying fresh bread at the deli counter, asking for the same kind they would ask for. When I stepped out of the supermarket, the sun was on its final arc and made the island of Giudecca, with its neatly lined houses and its imposing church, glow a million shades of pink. Where else on earth would you go about such a mundane  task as buying milk and have your breath taken away in one fell swoop?

I set out to find the side of Venice that doesn’t revolve around St. Mark’s and I found it. The mystery I haven’t unlocked is whether Venice is an evolving city, the way London or Rome are, where the past draws you in but the cultural present changes, evolves and  grows to keep you interested. Gosh, I guess I will have to come back for that one…


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There is weather and then there is weather. I was woken up in the middle of the night by lightning that pierced through the shutters, followed by  powerful thunder. It was nice to be under the covers and reminisce about my childhood when thunderstorms were commonplace all through the Summer. You would get a respite from the heat and be grateful to be tucked in the house for a day or just a few hours.

I could still hear the rain pelting the roof when I woke up and the only reasons I decided to put my feet on the wooden floor  were that I had to take my mother to the train station and my stomach called for the amazing jam croissant I have been buying  every morning from the bar at the Zattere. It’s not cold so, for me, who hail from LA where rain is scarce and thunderstorms non-existent, it’s not unpleasant to walk in the pioggia for a change. But at 11, right when we were supposed to leave for the station, the rain became sheets of water dropping from a leaden and merciless sky. I am trying to be blase about it while I buy the tickets to the vaporetto and both my umbrella and my 100 euro banknote blow away (both recovered..)and while I stand on the stairs of the boat getting wetter by the minute while passengers go in and out at their stops.

On my way back, I decide I am not willing to pay the outrageous ticket price for a vaporetto back and brave the elements, walking from the station through Santa Croce, San Polo and, finally, Dorsoduro.

The rain refuses to stop – it will drizzle for a few minutes before another squall comes through with all its accoutrements and an Indian style downpour. Inside my flat, where water comes in through the bathroom window and my shoes will probably never dry up, it’s actually beautiful to watch the elements go wild – after the miles of walking I have been clocking, I don’t mind enjoying this for a day.

But I do hope I will get to wear my pink paisley wellies that I snapped up for $25 euros in a store so small I thought the centenarian lady inside would suffocate amongst the mountains of merchandise. She was so old she couldn’t even assist me and I had to dig through piles of bags to find my size – but what a reward! my wellies looks so snazzy it would be a crime not to take them for a spin. Maybe after dinner….it doesn’t feel threatening in any way to walk around in the dead of night here. Ghosts of centuries past come alive and walk alongside you, their faces covered by their masks, merrily sauntering to the Ridotto (the ancient casino) for a night of debauchery and fun.

My favourite mask is the plague doctor’s, usually white and birdlike with a long hooked beak  in place of a nose. The doctor attending to the plague patients would stuff it with rags imbibed in unguents that supposedly staved off the plague. Not effective but extremely stylish and useful to keep hugs and kisses at bay.

I realize I have been away from this country too long when I lean over to kiss someone and I stop at cheek number 1 while the other person turns cheek number 2 as well. Looking out the window - Biennale 2009Has the time come for a prodigal return??


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The week-end is over and the large crowds have gone. Even in Piazza San Marco the atmosphere is more breathable and, stepping outside the main square into any of the other sestrieres (neighbourhoods) all you see are beleaguered and placid Venetians going about their business. Even taking into consideration that tourism is the livelihood for most of them, I have been amazed at the general kindness of the average local. While pondering how wonderful it would be to live here, I know, deep down, I would come to resent the hordes that roam around guided by an umbrella waved in the air by some poor and patient tour guide.

But how wonderful would it really be to live here? A few years ago a greedy mayor gave permission to dig the canals deeper to allow enormous cruise liners to enter the lagoon, disgorging thousands of extra tourists on a daily basis – did Venice really need more business than it already generated? The damages of this irresponsible decision are at least two that I know of: more salt water is coming into the lagoon, damaging the buildings’ foundations and the more water that comes in the more the “acqua alta” phenomenon increases. Acqua alta is what happens when the lagoon water rises above the embankments – Venetians are apt to combat this by building temporary platforms above the streets to keep day to day life as normal as possible but when the water rises too high and too often, this phenomenon is obviously unnatural. Global warming cannot possibly be the only cause.

Furthermore, the fumes from the gigantic cruise liners, that park in the lagoon but keep the engines running to fuel the ships’ activities, cause a chemical reaction that damages the buildings’ exteriors so that random pieces of drywall  keep on detaching unexpectedly. I actually witnessed this when my aunt was covered in plaster while stepping out of a bookstore.

But ecological musings aside, living in Venice requires a set of skills that us mainlanders don’t have or don’t think about. Walking around with prams and heavy weights is extra hard when every small distance involves going up and down bridges. Moving requires hiring a boat and hoping that your  new place has windows or doors big enough for the furniture to get through – harder than one thinks.

Fog, humidity, mosquitoes are just as pesky as tourists – elevators are nowhere to be found and owning a car becomes redundant. But the quiet at night is eerie and peaceful, no ambulance or police sirens but also no hospitals nearby, few supermarkets or hardware stores and definitely no chain stores in the city proper. A trip to Mestre or anywhere in the mainland is required for the cheaper options.

Canal GrandeWould I like it? There is a romantic feel to imagining life here that definitely suits my personality and there are plenty of older people that could keep me company – as young people flee a city that offers a limited set of career opportunities, there are more women over 80 than girls under 18.

Still, it’s on my list of places to move to – I will never get to all of them in my lifetime but dreaming is cheap and scheming in my head even cheaper.

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Biennale Exhibition


Yes, it’s full of ugly tourists. Yes, if you traipse around San Marco you will most likely be jostled by the bodies who have no memory of where they are going  anymore – they are just moving along the calles and campos in a blind stupor. But once you step outside Sestriere San Marco, you get cloaked into an eerie quiet, disturbed only by the sloshing of the canal waters and the occasional stranded tourist looking for a tucked away Biennale exhibition.

Italians take Venice for granted, a gigantic open air museum or, more unkindly, a centuries old Disneyland, but Venice is a breathing city, although these could be its dying throes, where the past still pervades every corner and comes alive so vividly you would have to be blind not to be sensitive to its magic.

A city untouched by cars or bikes, where technology is not apparent, where I can’t even find where it is that I am supposed to put my trash.

The Venice Republic folded in 1793, opposing no resistance to the Napoleonic army, but it was already over long before then, victim of useless wars, inextricable bureaucracy and a fading maritime business. But while it lasted, the Venetians created a magic place, a blend of Renaissance and Byzantine architecture that cannot be found anywhere else.

Come in winter, when Americans and Japanese stay away, and you will be wandering alone in the company of fog and ghosts and stay where the few remaining Venetians live – my apartment was everything I could have wished for even if the three flights of steep stairs I have to climb to reach it would kill an Olympic sprinter.

The windows are open to the balmy air and all I can hear is the sound of a boat going by, the ripples of the waves against the embankment of the canal. A few minutes ago I looked outside and saw the white bearded and spindly figure of a sculptor whose funny metal animals are part of a Biennale exhibit that thoroughly delighted my friends and I this afternoon. He was going home with a friend and a small dog.Giudecca - Venice

No, the water does not smell but yes, the examples of how tourists can be taken in are ample – sit at beautiful Cafe Florian and you will be charged 31 euros for cappuccino and bread and jam plus 6 euros each for the mediocre music quartet that plays incessantly on a small stage – obscene and unnecessary.

Public transportation, in the form of vaporetti, is hellishly expensive and do not even think about eating at any of the bars of restaurants between the train station and Piazza San Marco. The food will be horrendous and the prices steep. Look for out of the way osterie and trattorie where the menu is not translated into English.

The ugly reproductions of 18th century Venetian masks are made in China and I could go on and on. But just ignore the stores and watch the sunset fade over the lagoon and imagine, not hard to do, all those who did the same 500 years ago.

PS As I have noticed that readership takes a dip over the week-end (all you people reading my blog instead of working!), I will now be posting Monday to Friday. To all of you, many more than I ever thought, thank you for reading!

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Although I can’t really say where home is anymore, for the sake of this blog let’s pretend that home is where I grew up, in Bologna, Italy. I left 25 years ago and this beautiful medieval city has evolved, grown, become more cosmopolitan without any contribution on my part. But my birth family still lives there and every year or two I plan a pilgrimage to the locales of my youth. Last Summer was one of those years.

The problem with going home and with staying in touch through the internet  is the scary amount of relatives and friends I try to cram during each visit. My sojourn becomes a whirlwind of lunches, dinners and teas – scores of long lost relatives my mother parades me to, like one of those Jane Austen young girls on the prowl for a husband. Friends from my childhood, from work, from all over Italy, runs to and fro the train station to pick up and deliver such friends who might come and visit for the day, time spent with my dad, my mother, my sister, time constantly dotted by my mom’s perennial question “What do you want to eat?”. A turkey getting ready for Thanksgiving has a more relaxing time. I usually find myself on the 13 hour plane ride back to LA filled with a mixture of sadness, relief and exhaustion.

A few years ago I came up with the idea of spending half of my allotted time away from my native town, exploring a bit of Italy I haven’t seen yet or going back to some of my favourite places for a more indepth and grown up look. This year I picked Venice. Cliche, maybe, but I was determined to find the inner Venice, the one away from the throngs of tourists, away from St Mark’s Square and the restaurants and the stores that triple charge you just because you are from out of town. I wasn’t even sure  such a place existed anymore. But if it did, I was determined to find it.

View from Rialto Bridge

I set out to rent an apartment away from the tourist bustle and settled on Dorsoduro, one of Venice’s six sestrieri (or neighbourhoods). Dorsoduro (which translates to hard back) faces the island of Giudecca and is slightly raised from the water, which made me feel stupidly protected in case of an out of season “acqua alta”. All the the houses are still all from the 1500s, overlooking the canals and I was hoping that some real Venetians, of the 66,000 that still inhabit the sinking city, actually lived there. My plentiful day trips to Venice did not yield a memory of grocery stores or barbershops or school supply stores –   just trinkets and junk and high end couture. Where was this other Venice?

To prepare for my trip, I launched myself in a fun read. “A Venetian Affair” by Andrea de Robilant, a correspondent for La Stampa newspaper, is an actual love story that took place in the 1700’s in Venice, uncovered by chance by the author’s father who discovered boxes of letters from the two lovers while cleaning the attic of his palazzo just before it was sold. Venice’s history, architecture and daily life all come alive in this lovely book – most of the buildings at the core of the story are still there and, most likely, still looking exactly the way they did when Andrea and Giustiniana, the two protagonists, were prowling them 300 years ago.

My friend G, master of irony and criticism, opined that there is no point in visiting a city that is in the throngs of death – I was actually setting out to find the Venice that is alive and battling to survive, yet still haunted by its glorious ghosts, from the time when it was the fulcrum of the mercantile world. I refuse to believe that the city will ever sink or, worse still, become a Disneyland of some sort.

What I found will be shared here in the next few weeks. Read on.

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With my recent trip to Venice, Italy, still fresh in my mind,  I find myself reminiscing on all things Venetian.

Most people know that the Bellini was the brainchild of Mr. Cipriani of Harry’s Bar fame, in Venice.  He came up with the cocktail some time between the mid-1930s and 40s by mixing Prosecco, White Peach Puree and a tiny amount of raspberries for the famous hue. What I didn’t know was that Mr. Cipriani named it Bellini after the nuances of light and color of a tunic in a particular  painting by Giovanni Bellini, the renowned painter who worked in Venice in the 1500’s. So, here you have it. I am clearly obsessed with food facts which I annoyingly take out of my hat at the most disparate moments, even running food fact contests at work much to the chagrin of my staff…But next time you have a Bellini with your brunch, you can drop this little gem on the table.

A Bellini at Harry’s Bar will nowadays set you back the equivalent of a day’s work wage  and you won’t be likely to come across any of the celebrities that populated it four or five decades ago – just a bunch of moneyed tourists, mainly Russians, or those few Americans who can still afford to travel to Italy and squander money on lavish meals. But the Bellini was a lovely stroke of genius and deserves its fame. I am not much of a drinker but I do like to incorporate booze in food whenever possible and as  I was walking along the aisle of Wholefoods a few days ago I spotted a Peach Gelato in the frozen case which made me think of peaches and champagne and pushed me to try to make a Bellini Ice Cream.

Using white peach puree, as tradition calls, my sous chef and I came up with a smooth peach ice cream with more than a hint of prosecco, perfect for an end of meal by its own or paired with a simple, fruity dessert. What better way to use the last of the peaches?…well, at least if you live in California….


1 qt (1 liter)            Heavy Cream

16 oz (1/2 liter)     Milk

1.5 C (200 g)        Sugar

2 Vanilla Beans

12 Egg Yolks

1 C White Peach Puree (about 500 ml)

Italian Prosecco or any Napa version to taste

Note: Peach puree can be bought frozen at specialty stores (Perfect Puree from Napa, CA is an excellent brand. Allternatively, peel and cut some peaches, blend them and strain them)

1. Combine cream, milk, sugar and the scraped vanilla beans + pods in a pot. Scald.

2. Take the pot off the heat and ladle some of the hot liquid into the bowl where you will have placed the egg yolks. Whisk vigorously and keep on adding liquid until the egg yolks are tempered.

2. Pour the yolk mixture back into the pot, whisk and strain. Add the peach puree and let cool.

3. Once the ice cream base has cooled down, start adding the prosecco and taste. Add until your palate is satisfied but be careful that by adding too much you risk having a hard time freezing the ice cream because of the sugar content in the wine.

4. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions and pour into ice cream containers.

5. To avoid freezer burn, place some waxed paper on the surface of the ice cream before sealing the container with a lid.

6. It keeps in the freezer for up to 2 months.

A gondola near Harry's Bar

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