My husband Kyle and I recently returned from a three week trip to Italy to visit his aunt and uncle. Their home is in the heart of Tuscany in a small town called Marcialla. After beautiful sunrises greeted us each new day through shuttered windows, we would have breakfast in the Mediterranean morning air and walk the ancient streets to visit the sights and sounds that the beautiful country has to offer.As breathtaking as the countryside, cathedrals, and castles are, Italy’s cuisine best captured our hearts. Whether we were cooking at home or dining out, we were stunned every time by Italian food’s flavors and authenticity. Kyle’s aunt, who was born and raised in Minnesota, moved to Italy 30 years ago with her Italian husband. In her new home in the Tuscan countryside, she was mentored by the elderly neighbor ladies in the art of authentic Italian cooking. Their secret? Quality ingredients, prepared simply and carefully.
Spinach and ricotta ravioletti in garlic butter sauce, Tuscan olives, and creamy mushroom risotto were all at the top of my list of favorites by the time we boarded the plane home. With the flavors still dancing on my tongue as I slept off my jet lag, I got to wondering how I could replicate these incredible foods in our beloved home state. After a little research, my answer was clear: Morelli’s Italian market. Tucked away on the bottom edge of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul, Morelli’s is family-owned since 1915. At first glance, it looks like a typical grocery store. I realized it is much more as soon as I walked through its doors and saw the trove of Italian treasures lining its walls. Even the energy of the store is authentic: packed in tight quarters, everything moves quickly, everyone deftly evading collision.
Reminiscent of those of the tiny grocers we frequented on the other side of the pond, Morelli’s deli was exactly what I was looking for. It’s packed with more cured meats than I could name, a variety of fresh cuts, and all the olives I’d so fallen in love with back in Tuscany. Past the deli, a row of freezers and refrigerators was stocked with handmade pizzas, ready-to-bake pasta dishes, gelato, and tiramisu. I have always loved tiramisu, but it has become an obsession ever since I tried its genuine concoction of mascarpone cheese, espresso, and cognac. For fewer than five dollars I took home two big pieces of that marvel!
Just beyond the cold section are corner shelves devoted to jarred olives, pasta sauces, cans of San Marzano Italian plum tomatoes, and Carnaroli rice for my mushroom risotto. Morelli’s also carries Cara Nonna, an Italian pasta made according to the traditional method of using copper tubing to individually shape and texture each noodle. Mezzetta brand pasta sauces made with truffle-infused olive oil and a few other simple ingredients reminded me of those old Italian ladies’ secret to great food.
And the wine! Finding the same bottles on the shelf in St. Paul as I did in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa was heartwarming. They didn’t cost as much as I’d expected either. This is good, because I learned in Italy that you should only cook with wine that you would drink as well.
Kyle and I must return to Italy one day to climb a few more castle towers and bask in the romantic sunsets there. Until that day, knowing that we can stock our own pantry with authentic Italian foods and share meals steeped in history and culture is the greatest souvenir I could have ever hoped for. Italian food is the essence of love. I hope you can visit one day too, but if not take heart that there are markets like Morelli’s around to give you that awesome glimpse of Italy.
By Whitney Grindberg