Thursday, December 21, 2006

Buon Natale

Buon Natale da Ascoli Piceno!

Wishing you a joyful Christmas and a New Year filled with blessings! Thanks for joining in on our adventures and traveling along with us through the blogs.

We're spending Christmas with our dear friends in Roma. Immediately after, we will be traveling to Spoleto to join up with visiting New Mexicans, Maria and Bob, for wine-imbibing and catching-up. For New Year's, my uncle, Roger, and his wife Kathy are flying in for a quick trip. We'll be awash with love and festivities!

Auguri tutti!

(The photo was taken by Bryan in Piazza Arringo. The Migliori shop decorations are cute, but with the cathedral and fountain reflected in the window, I thought this was such a great shot we made it one of Christmas cards this year.)

Buon Natale e buon anno!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bring on the carbs!

Here in Italy, the pasta capital of the world, I am in heaven. An avowed maccheroni-muncher, I cannot fathom how anyone can survive on the Atkin’s diet. No carbs? No risotto? No spaghetti? No thank you! I once read that the average Italian eats sixty pounds of pasta each year. Obviously with such consumption, the Italian nation has perfected the stuff.

There are entire aisles at the grocery store, one devoted to packaged pasta and another one for the fresh, refrigerated noodles. The dried stuff with which we’re so familiar is called pasta asciutta (dried pasta) and is extremely convenient, not to mention inexpensive. For about 65 cents we can buy a pound of good quality penne rigate or linguini and keep it in the pantry, ready to go. Whole grains such as farro, barley, and mixed grains are readily available, too. The shapes are limited only by the space available in the particular store.

But I have come to develop a passion for fresh pasta. It’s readily available in pre-wrapped packages, but I prefer to go to the local shop. Yep, a shop that only makes and sells fresh noodles, and such a storefront is called “pasta all’uovo” or egg pasta. The one I’ve chosen to frequent is only about a four minute walk from our apartment. Each day the owner puts out a sign describing the fresh-made offerings. There are no-pre-cooking necessary lasagna sheets, manicotti leaves, spaghettini or fettuccini strands, as well as tiny squares called quadrucci all shining golden behind the glass. Then there are the real tempters…the filled pastas. Tortellini, agnolotti, and - my favorite at this particular pasta all’uovo - plump ravioli. The ricotta is so fresh it tastes like just-milked cream. Bryan loves those, but also approves heartily of the gnocchi which are the traditional, served-on-Thursday pasta, the little potato-based nobs tender and creamy. A couple of good handfuls of gnocchi, enough to serve two, costs about two euros. A small stack of manicotti sheets knocked me back a whopping 60 cents.

Owned by a couple of ladies who are passionate about pasta and ready to serve, they always know exactly how much I need of a particular type based on how many people will be dining. I mean, exactly. Nothing goes to waste and we’re “just-right” full at the end. I’m happy to have found this little store. I tell you, if Dr. Atkins had encountered this store and tasted this type of pasta, I think even he wouldn’t have given up carbs.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Twinkle Lights

For about a week we have watched as various workmen have been precariously perched upon ladders as they string lights overhead, draped across the streets and attached to the stone buildings on either side. Some are script-written greetings such as “Auguri” and “Buone Feste”. Others are simple dangling strands, still others have bulbs laid out to design gift packages and stars. Shop windows seemed to magically change overnight to boast twinkling lights, festoons of ribbons, and bright, glittery trees. The city appeared to be making preparations for the Christmas season, all’Italiana.

Yesterday we awoke to the bells of Duomo pealing like mad, seemingly louder and longer than normal so Bryan was dispatched to investigate what was amuck. He found curiously empty streets and piazzas, odd for a Friday morning, and discovered that it was a holiday of which we had previously not been aware, which was unfortunate because all the stores were closed and had I known about it being a holiday I could have prepared by shopping for the apparently grocery-less day. It was an oddly sedate morning for our normally lively town, as everyone was (presumably) in church for a mass to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Who knew?

We went out to lunch – the restaurants being mercifully open since I had few provisions in the house - and strolled the practically-empty streets under a clear, blue sky enjoying an unseasonably warm day. After riposo we ventured out again to be met by the city ablaze with lights – the shop windows, the piazzas, the street decorations all lustrous with luminosity. According to our local source for such information, Gianluca our neighborhood barista, this particular feast day is the official kick-off for the holiday season. From now until Epiphany all the stores will be open later and on days they would normally close; people will be gathering more and making merry; the lights will be beaming forth brightly. He also informed us that the local shopkeepers pay for the festive illuminations and this invariably leads to annual arguments over who didn’t pay enough last year, who should pay more because their shop has more street frontage and who is a just scrooge-y or stingy.

Evergreen boughs are now bedecking doors and balconies. There is an artisan mercato set up, and a skating rink is being prepared in Piazza Arringo right smack in front of the Duomo. In short, our lovely medieval city is beautifully festive and it has really put us into the holiday mood, as well. We’ve put some packages into the mail for family and may go into the mountains to cut some evergreen boughs for ourselves tomorrow. We even received our first couple of Christmas cards from home. I started a bit of baking (what I can accomplish in my teensy kitchen). I’ve even made my list for Santa, asking him for my permesso di soggiorno. As we stroll beneath the canopy of twinkle lights we feel warm inside. We’re ready for Christmas in Italia!
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

(Fellow blogger Shelley in Rome has also written about the lights in her neighborhood of Trastevere.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Smallest in Italy

On our first visit to Ascoli Piceno this summer, when we came to be tortured in language school and endured searing temperatures, we took a trip up into the hills to cool down, to have a change of pace, and to see the countryside hereabouts. We happened into the hamlet of Castignano where we saw a sign for the narrowest street in Italy. How cute, we thought, and wandered off to find the little alleyway, snapping some photos grateful that we were slender enough to fit into the tiny space.

So imagine our surprise when we visited Ripatransone and saw a sign there pointing us to the vicolo piu stretto d’Italia. We followed the signs, examined the alley, agreed it was pretty dang narrow and took some more photos, wondering which street really was slimmer. Maybe we’d bring a tape measure, we laughed.

But Italy, the land of superlatives and diminutives, surprised us again when we happened upon yet another sign in yet another town with the same claim. This time it was Civitella del Tronto, which is only about a half-hour from Ascoli but is actually in Abruzzo. Civitella’s is pretty small in the entries but widens a bit through the actual street so we crossed it off as actually being The One that is The Narrowest. No matter, they are making the same claim and we have to wonder…just how many narrowest streets are there?

A quick search on the internet yielded a few more…Citta della Pieve and Castelnuovo Val di Cecina (new clue where that is) are also laying claim to the narrowest alley in the country. I assume they are all trying to turn their teeny streets into tourist bucks. Who knows which one is actually the winner? My money is on Ripatransone but without toting the tape measure I can’t say for certain.

I think I can safely claim the distinction, however, of possessing la cucina piu piccola d’Italia, the smallest kitchen in Italy. It is wider than an alley but no deeper than a broom closet. The limited space has definitely affected my cooking skills. I curse it each and every time I try to prepare more than a basic pasta dish. I am thinking of putting out a sign to see if it draws tourists. (How much would you pay to see the little cooking marvel?) Maybe we could hold a new version of the Iron Chef competition here. They wouldn’t be limited by ingredients but by the space. “The Challenge: Who can cook a full meal in this stall?” Mario Batali, wanna give it a try?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Follow Along

Several weeks back I made a mention of our trip to the southern part of the country to meet up with some cousins. I promised to tell more about this wonderful journey, and fully indended to put the details on the blog. It was such an amazing, really an indescribable day, but I chronicled the trip in my most recent article for my monthly column on Slow Travel. If you have not done so already, hop on over to give it a read!