Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Frontier Food

I was sitting in the booth with my sister laughing, as we always do when we’re together. Then we saw the local character walk by…Don is his name, and he is very lean with very leathery skin. And you get to see a lot of his skin because he wears only a loin cloth and tennis shoes. We barely gave him a glance because we were accustomed to seeing him around. What else we were talking about, I’m not sure. I was busy savoring my breakfast burrito. We were at the Frontier Restaurant, a kitschy -some might say tacky- place that is an Albuquerque institution. It occupies nearly an entire city block and spreads out over four dining rooms. You line up and wait for the blinking light to indicate an open window at the order counter. They have amazing breakfast burritos. My favorite. Bar none. Pillowy-soft flour tortillas cradling scrambled eggs, the best hash browns in the state, cheese, and green chile providing just the right amount of 'hot'. But what really makes them mind-bogglingly yummy is ordering them smothered in green chile stew. Such spicy goodness is rarely to be had. With the saucy green chile dripping on my chin I devoured my burrito, commenting on how long it had been since I’d had something this piccante and how sooo very good it tasted to me. I laughed as I told her that what Italians call spicy and what I call spicy are two vastly different things. The taste lingered in my mouth.

And then I woke up.

This constitutes the first real food craving I’ve had since I landed in Italy nearly nine months ago. Not too shabby. I previously wrote about expats who have regular shipments of the foodstuffs they just can’t do without. I’m not feeling that kind of yearning at all. Instead, what my subconscious remembered was one very specific dish. I literally tasted it in my mouth when I awoke from the dream.

But I won’t be wasting my time trying to recreate the craved taste, for though it sounds so simple it actually cannot be replicated anywhere else on the planet. So I will instead simply tell you, dear reader, that should you find yourself in Albuquerque, the Frontier should be on your Must Eat list. Why, you ask?

1. The food. Just don’t come here expecting healthy fare. Au contraire. This is what we refer to as “good slime-ball”. (If you’re vegetarian, your options will mostly consist of hash browns, garden salad and a veggie burrito.) Besides the dream-worthy breakfast burrito, I recommend the Frontier Burrito (the description of beef and beans doesn’t really do it justice); the Huevos Rancheros (order it “Christmas style” to get a taste of both the green and red chile); the green chile cheeseburger (trust me); and the soft tacos (one each- chicken, beef and veggie). Thus concludes my knowledge of the menu. I never ventured away from my favorites. And don’t forget the sweet roll. It’s famous. It’s doused in melted butter. It’s good.

2. People watching. Because it is situated across from the large campus of the University of New Mexico (everyone's a Lobo, woofwoofwoof) and the food is cheap, it attracts a huge variety of clientele and provides for good gandering. Everybody who’s anybody and every nobody comes here – in short, the whole spectrum of humanity mixes it up together in the sprawling joint. I spent a good deal of time here as a student. The large booths allow space to spread out the books and I found I could study better here than in the library. And I could nurse a cup of rich coffee (in more recent years brewed from Red Rocks Roasters); good stuff. It may be down-home, but they have really good coffee.

3. John Wayne. Not that I’m a fan, much to Bryan’s dismay (though I did like him in that one episode of Lucy). The film icon has a presence in every room so take a tour to find all the portraits of The Duke. My personal favorite is the likeness done entirely from nails. Very innovative.

4. Open 24 hours. For when you just gotta have it.

Now you’re in know. And don’t forget your commemorative tee shirt.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Spread the Word!

I fear the news got buried in the blog after I'd posted about the little tremor we had here in Marche. For those of you who missed it, Bryan, ever entreprenurial, has started a business to assist foreign home buyers in Italy. Check out his website, Italy Property Preview. Spread the word far and wide! Read his new blog on the site about places and relevant home issues in Abruzzo and Marche.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Crapshoot

It’s a fact of life that here in Italy food is all-important. It is discussed on the streets and in the markets. Travelers return home raving about the sights, but remembering with rapturous joy the meals they consumed here. So it’s no surprise that we join in the spirit and thoroughly make the most of every opportunity to try local dishes and cook with the fresh, locally-grown produce. It was instilled in me early on, anyway; meals were to be savored, something Bryan had to become accustomed to when we first married. For him, it was sustenance, and the quicker it was consumed the better.

In Italy, a meal is long even by my standards, and we have spent two to three hours (or more) a tavola on many occasions, partaking of the different courses, the wines, and the company. It can be a leisurely, pleasant affair.

But we’ve come to discover that sometimes dining can also be a crapshoot. Not that the food is bad, mind you. It’s just that we don’t always know what to expect. This is especially true in smaller seafood restaurants. Our first experience with this phenomenon- which we now refer to as The Seafood Lottery- occurred in Anzio. We had visiting family members and, eager to try the fresh fish procured from the Mediterranean, we headed to a little place tucked away in the corner of a tiny piazza with a sign proclaiming, “Casareccia”-home cooking. Promising.

But when we settled into our table and had ordered the wine, plates started flowing out; trouble was we had not yet ordered. “Uh, scusa ma non abbiamo ancora ordinato,” I said, or something close to that. Uh, we’ve not yet ordered. “Si si,” was the response. Apparently by virtue of sitting down we’d signed the agreement to partake of the whole enchilada, as it were. Seven antipasto, all fish-based arrived unbidden. When we were asked about primi, (the pasta course) the waitress gave us a choice of two, but then recommended we take two portions of each so we can all try them both. Okay. We’re in the thick of things now, why not? Out came two enormous platters heaped with pasta, with generous helpings of fish-based sauces atop. They were both tasty, but filling. We were getting nervous…we had spied a gigantic tray of fish being presented at a neighboring table and realized that the secondi would be too much for us. I called the waitress over and sheepishly tried to explain we were too full, “non possiamo mangiare il secondo piatto” (no way can we eat that big main course). She was a bit miffed, but understanding our foreign-ness, let us off lightly.

But because everything just appeared as if by magic at our table – no menu had arrived bearing prices – the Seafood Lottery became a Price Lotto, too. Fortunately, the feast was rather reasonable, but after this initial introduction we were a bit timid to enter another seafood restaurant for some time.

Recently we were reintroduced to the fish affair in nearby Grottammare, but with the aid of sage friends who know the system as well as the restaurant owner. It was basically a repeat – the large variety of antipasti flowing forth from the cucina until Enzo told him, “abbastanza”. There was only one antipasto type that I wasn’t fond of; the rest were very flavorful. Lesson learned, though: one must tell the chef when to stop. Then the primi – this time a lovely fish ravioli that Bryan dominated, and a spaghetti with a light, buttery sauce infused with tender, flaky fish (I don’t know fish types well in Italiano, yet, I’m afraid.) We really didn’t want a secondo (yet again) but Enzo insisted we had to try the frittura, so a platter of mixed fry – shrimp, calamari, and small, whole fishies lightly floured and fried up nice and tasty. All of this was washed down with a local vino Falerio. And all of it came to about $20 per person, so not a bad deal. But again, a crapshoot. We had no idea what we’d be eating or paying, and were left to the mercy or whims of the chef. Which, we are learning, isn’t a bad thing. The food is almost always delectable and thus far we’ve not been taken for a ride on the prices.

The restaurants we frequent in Ascoli have no written menus, either, but instead an oral menu is recited, and usually it changes daily or weekly. But lack of a formal menu also means lack of advance notice of the prices. Again, a crapshoot when it comes time to pay the bill, but we’ve found them to be fair -even what we’d consider too low- so it all works out for the best…for our tastebuds as well as our wallets.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Spaghetti City

We have become addicted to Spaghetti all’Amatriciana, a tomatoey sauce famous around Italy, but particularly popular in the central mountain regions. It derives from an older recipe, la Gricia, made by shepherds, sans the tomatoes. The key to the overall taste is a cut of pork guanciale (a type of bacon) and a healthy dose of pecorino cheese, made from sheep’s milk.

As it happens, when Giorgio and Francesca were recently visiting, they asked if we’d ever visited the town of Amatrice. When we answered in the negative, they sheepishly admitted they hadn’t either, but would like to, as it is only an hour distant from Ascoli and they have a Roman friend who lives there part time. She happens to be there now, they told us. Naturally, we set off for Amatrice to arrive in plenty of time for lunch.

As we approached the town the mountains loomed larger and the landscape grew more intensely rugged. A small lake, very low from the current drought cycle, sits just off the ancient via Salaria and we skirted it to drive along the lovely valley. At a crossroads, the sign pointing the way proclaimed: Amatrice - la citta degli Spaghetti. Amatrice – Spaghetti City. Giorgio was visibly moved and consulted his watch to begin the countdown until we could enter a restaurant to partake of the famed food.

We arrived to a compact, picturesque stone and stucco town set cutely among the surrounding mountains. The setting alone is worth the trip to Amatrice, its heavenly position seemed this day to sit just below the clouds. A major influx of summer visitors are attracted to the nearby National Park, Monti della Laga. Winter visitors find skiing and snow-showing, though Maria, Francesca’s friend, admitted not many tourists visit this time of year, especially with a lack of normal snowfall. The nearby downhill ski run has little excitement to offer, and her Bed and Breakfast out in the countryside is vacant.

Strolling the streets gave the aura of relaxed energy – skis were perched atop car roofs, people ambled but were dressed in outdoor activity gear, and the bars proffered drinks to warm the body – warm punch, hot chocolate, and lots of coffee (much of it served corretto with grappa). The wind was downright frigid and, encouraged by Giorgio who was partaking of a highly alcoholic punch at 11:00 a.m., Bryan consented to taste the corretto. His verdict? “It ruins good espresso.” Now we know.

As we exited the bar to continue our examination of the centro, I saw a patient dog lying on the sidewalk lazily awaiting its owner…and it struck me as to why it seemed so quaint. The atmosphere –barring the medieval origins-is very much like Taos, New Mexico…a frontier town situated among the mountains with an easy-going air, with inhabitants who are passionate for the outdoors. The clothing even resembled what one normally sees around Taos, laced-up hiking boots and sporty wear de riguer but with a touch of sophistication. We also noted more SUVs parked about than one normally sees in a medieval town.

The cold started to wear on us, particularly Francesca who feels anything below 50 “e molto freddo”. The biting wind had her in fits and every three steps she grumbled, “brrr, fa freddo.” Giorgio seized the moment and said well, since it’s so dang cold we may as well eat, and so we were directed toward the coveted dish as Maria showed us a place just outside town that she guaranteed would provide us with the absolutely best spaghetti all’Amatriciana one could ever hope to partake of. The line indicated the truth of her statement, as the place was packed parka to parka. Ski-boots clumped heavily on the floors as we struggled to stay out of the way of the wait staff who bustled about with heaping plates. Long tables lined the wall and the middle of the room and people were just directed to sit together, communal style. Giorgio looked faint as we waited; in anticipation of the feast he’d not eaten any breakfast. Besides that, his potent punch left him a bit tipsy. Finally we were settled into a table and the short menu recited: Spaghetti – and do you want that with classic tomato ‘Matriciana or the Gricia? I took the classic, Bryan opted to try the more ancient but less renowned dish. Secondi? Lamb or lamb, or… would you like to try the lamb? Bryan took the lamb. I chose just a salad, as I’d eyed up the size of the plates while I was waiting and knew I’d be stuffed.

But, Giorgio desperately asked, aren’t there some antipasti? Ma certo, and the waitress started bringing a few plates of nibbles to tie us all over. The first was a pungent-smelling locally-beloved dish I’d rather not see appear on my table as I’ve encountered it a few times in Ascoli and find it revolting. Coratella, made from lamb heart and liver. Blech. The sauce in this particular dish actually made it somewhat more appealing, and because they brought a huge helping, Giorgio insisted we “just had to try it”. I took a very small spoonful. As I knew would happen, I liked the sauce and hated the pieces. I don’t like liver in any form, and I can assure you that heart is not on my list of favorite things for dining. I am a firm believer that there are some parts of the animal that just shouldn’t be eaten. Innards fall in that category. The bruschetta con funghi was more up my alley.

And then, dum da da da….the Main Event arrived. The famed Spaghetti with a capital S, mounded up onto a platter-sized plate, with nice, coarsely-grated pecorino cheese dotting the top. It was – as promised – scrumptious. The pork guanciale gives a slightly smoky yet slightly sweet flavor to the sauce and a dash of peperoncini gives it just a hint of spiciness. It was definitely the best plate of spaghetti I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve tasted many renditions of Amatriciana sauce around these parts. Bryan’s Gricia was quite tasty, too; it seemed rather light, though I know the presence of pork fat precludes that from actuality.

No photos were procured of the plates. I admit I’m a bit camera-shy in crowded places. Besides, we’d not had the “ah, you’re foreigners” stares we often encounter in small towns, finding instead that we were rather accepted as compatriots…meaning Romans. Judging from the license plates outside, the majority of patrons were from the Eternal City and, being as we were, with Giorgio and Francesca, whose heavy accents belie their hometown, we slipped in under the radar. Besides, we have already established that Bryan looks Roman. Under the circumstances, I didn’t want to have the camera flash blaringly announce, “Hey y’all, we’re tourons!” and so I left it in the car.

Stuffed, we piled back into the car to drive home but stopped to get some photos of the gorgeous countryside. We’ll return to Amatrice when it warms up a bit, to explore the trails and enjoy the comfortably laid-back feel. Even aside from the classic fare, there’s something very attractive about Spaghetti City.

Here's a history of the spaghetti, in Italian.

Are you hungry now?  Want to make the 'matriciana at home?  Hop over to La Cucina for a recipe.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Earthquake! Right here in Marche!

I am sick with the flu. I felt icky all night, and was in and out of bed, alternating between trying to get comfortable, trying to stretch the achy muscles by walking around, and having to go to the bathroom after all the herbal tea I'd consumed. I got about about 2:15 a.m. for another bathroom run; I'd been back in bed about five minutes when I felt the bed moving. At first I thought it was Bryan's snoring, but then I realized the building was swaying slightly. We have a sliding pocket door to the bedroom, which I'd left partly open; it started lightly clink-clinking against its track. All told, it lasted four seconds, but I knew it was a little tremor. I'd felt a similar sensation when I was in California after the Northridge Earthquakes; Bryan was there working and I'd flown in for a weekend to see him. The aftershocks had continued and it was my first experience with the ground-shaking phenomenon. So last night at 2:30 a.m. there was no mistaking the sensation.

It occurred to late for the news to be carried in the local papers this morning, but on the street everyone is talking about it, and I'm sure it will be the major headline tomorrow. Oddly, the patron saint of our city, Sant'Emidio is said to protect against earthquakes. I guess he was sleeping throught it like Bryan.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Grand Opening Event!

Today is Bryan’s Grand Opening! He launched his new website and venture, Italy Property Preview, a service providing unbiased detailed inspection reports of homes for prospective English-speaking buyers. If you’ve ever tried an online search for property in Italy, you’ve probably had the same questions we’ve had when looking at those blurbs…what’s the catch, is there something seriously wrong with the place?

Enter Bryan. He’s well-trained for this kind of business…he spent sixteen years inspecting homes as a Claims Analyst for Safeco Insurance. He’s seen it all – hail damage, water leaks, fires, trees falling on roofs, mold problems and more. He worked for a month in California following the massive Northridge Earthquake, and more than a year assisting several families after the devastating Cerro Grande fires in Los Alamos, who lost absolutely everything they owned.

Bryan walks into a house and notices things no one else sees. When he visited Giorgio and Francesca’s apartment in Rome he stated, “ah you’ve had an electrical fire”. He saw the tell-tale though minute mark of black around a ceiling light fixture. He notices hail damage on roofs, stability problems with foundations, and poorly-repaired big-deal damage. In short, he’s got an eye for detail. This kind of work is perfect for him.

He won’t be working as a real estate agent, but as an advocate for the buyers, helping them narrow the field of options before they come on their house-hunting trips, or giving a good look-over of a property they are seriously considering purchasing. He will be the guy who will tell them the truth.

So if you are in the market or know someone who is, send them over to Bryan’s new site, Italy Property Preview.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Happy Day

First off, I must post a personal message here to my mom...Happy Birthday Mama Jo! Hope you have a fun day filled with love and Nutella.

Which brings me to the public service announcement:
Oh what joy! Nutella Day is here! Nutella for breakfast, Nutella for lunch, Nutella all day long! :)

In honor of this momentous event and my mom's birthday, I've made her a Nutella Birthday Cake (but withhold the information about how many candles would be crammed on top of the cake ;) Normally I'd actually bake a cake, being a gal who knows her way around the kitchen. But unfortunately my kitchen here is extremely small and rather ill-equipped for actual baking. But not to fear, the results are none the lesser.

A Nutella Birthday Cake

a jar of Nutella
a pound cake (I found a nice marble cake)
a pint of heavy cream
some nuts (hazelnuts are the obvious choice but to make it a little more special for Mom I used toasted pine nuts)

Whip the cream until it is nice and thick. Beat in about 1/3 cup Nutella, combining well.

Slice the pound cake crosswise into three layers. Starting with the bottom layer, spread with Nutella then with 1/4 of the Nutella whipped cream; add the middle layer in the same way and the top layer, spread only with the whipped cream, spreading the rest around the sides. Drizzle Nutella over top and sprinkle on the nuts.

Now let's all join together in a world-wide serenade of Happy Birthday for my mom while we lick the Nutella off our lips.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, February 04, 2007

2 Klutzes in a Lavatoio

I’m not exactly known for my gracefulness. It runs in the family. In fact, I can’t think of a single person in my family who is known for grace. My sister’s nickname as a child was Carp, a play on her name, Cara, to signify her clumsiness. My mother, just a few short weeks ago, fell headlong in the middle of Main Street with a semi-truck barreling at her. She sustained a nice bruising and a cut on her face where her glasses broke and jabbed her. I was told (through the grapevine, not by Mom) that as she fell she was heard to cry, “Oh sh*&, not again!” Which goes to show that this was not the first time such an action had occurred to poor Mom.

My dear grandma has, over the long years of her life, fallen too many times to count, fortunately -and amazingly- without ever hurting herself. She is so famous for this that the staff at the assisted living facility where she resides call her Iron Woman. We affectionately call her the Amazing Bouncing Grandma.

My uncle fell while pulling at a vine and broke his leg in four places. What can I say? With such a gene-pool it’s not a surprise that my nickname is Klutz. I stumble over my feet, trip over cobbles and have, at times, been known to walk into walls. And yes, I do these things while I am perfectly sober, thank you for asking.

But yesterday really took the cake.

Giorgio and Francesca are visiting from Rome. They have had an ongoing argument over when was the last time they had been in Ascoli. More than twenty years is the closest concensus they will reach, with Giorgio giving up and Francesca wanting to pin down an exact date they last saw our fair city. This was the recurring topic as we strolled about part of the centro storico pointing out our favorite landmarks.

We crossed the Roman bridge to an ancient part of town known as Borgo Solesta, where one finds a very nice prospect over the centro and can see several of the storied (and multi-storied) towers rising over Ascoli. There is also a very old lavatoio, or washbasin, that is rather cool to look at. We’ve given up trying to find out its date of origin, as when we inquire of such things the locals either look at us like, why would you want to know that? or like, I don’t know the answer so don’t ask me. "E molto antica" is the best answer we can usually muster on such occasions. It’s very old, yes we know that, but how old?
So we take our guests over to gaze at the old basin where once-upon-a-time women had the back-breaking task of beating their clothes clean while stooped over the great tubs and gossiping. Francesca thought this was very interesting and descended the few steps to the floor of the washroom and promptly slipped on the slime and fell rather hard. “Hai fatto male?” I asked her. Did you hurt yourself. When she didn’t answer immediately, I foolishly set my foot down on the floor to try to offer her a hand to get back up. I thought I’d stepped on regular stone, being careful to avoid the green slime stuff that inevitably forms where there is mineral-rich water. But there was something slimy there, too, I discovered and I felt my legs fly up and out like in a cartoon as I haplessly went airborne and headed for a rock-hard fall. I came down on my left hand and thigh, making myself quite dirty with muck in the process.

I told you I am not graceful didn’t I? So there we were, two klutzy women on the ground while our fearless, strong men stood a ways off watching the proceedings. I must say they are probably the wiser of the bunch.

All the way home Francesca and I surveyed our filthy clothes and kept exclaiming, “mamma mia!”; “che sporca”; and “che un disastro!” Good lord, what a mess. I’m such a walking disaster, is the gist of that.

Naturally, Francesca who is nearly twenty years my senior has no pain or bruising to report. I on the other hand hurt my hiney along with my pride, and have a shiner the size of Nebraska on my leg. My hand stings like the dickens. At least I was attempting a good deed when this occurred. But that doesn’t help to change my nickname any. I’m still a klutz.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider