Thursday, December 31, 2009

Buon Anno!

Can you believe it's the end of 2009 already?  As you ring in the new year, I wish you a very happy 2010.  May it be a daily adventure of simple pleasures, new discoveries, and joy. 

I'm taking snippets of the lyrics of a song by Jovanotti, Buon Anno as my new year's wishes:

Ti auguro pace risate e fatica
Trovare dei fiori nei campi d'ortica
Ti auguro viaggi in paesi lontani
Lavori da compiere con le tue mani
Frutta e panini ai tuoi sogni affamati
Semafori verdi e prudenza e coraggio

(I wish you peace, laughs, and toil)
(To find flowers in thorny fields)
(I wish you travels in far-away lands)
(Work to do with your hands)
(Fruit and bread for your starved dreams)
(Green lights and prudence and courage)

I have an annual tradition of selecting a song that will be the soundtrack for my year.  For 2010 I've chosen the beautiful strains of a song by Ascoli Piceno native (and famous composer) Giovanni Allevi, Go With The Flow - an important reminder when things don't go as planned!

Buon Anno! 

What is the soundtrack for your year?

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Ode to Autogrill

We are back in Virginia after spending several days cooking, feasting, gabbing, laughing, and enjoying the merriment of the holidays with family.  We had more food than we knew what to do with on Christmas, and shared Giorgio's polenta feast tradition on Santo Stefano.  We had a great time, but we're tuckered out! 

Interminable hours on the turnpikes and interstates sap it out of you, and we got back late after lengthy traffic jams, with headaches and sore bums.  We learned a few things about modern American highway travel.  First, we discovered that rest areas are very sporadically spaced and there is never one nearby when you really need it.  A "small" coffee is now a full 16 ounces of liquid diuretic, not a good idea when you consider Point 1. We also learned to pack our own lunches, because when we did finally find a rest area there would be only junk food and fast food available.  We were really pining for Autogrill, the famous roadside aree servizio along Italy's autostradas

How great is Autogrill?  Well, I wrote a little ode...

Autogrill, how do I miss thee?  Let me count the ways:

Caffe.  Your coffee bar serves real, actual, drinkable caffe and cappuccino made by a trained barista.  Maybe the caffe corretto isn't such a good idea for drivers, but it is comforting to know that a well-made cup of tasty caffeine is readily available.  And inexpensive.

Juice.  Your fresh, squeezed-to-order spremuta (orange juice) is delightfully refreshing.

Food.  You provide edible panini, fresh-baked pizza, fruit salads, and other options for non-fatty or deep-fried food.  Some Autogrills have cafeterias with a range of regional pasta dishes and roasted meats or fish, salad bars, and...(gasp!) vegetables, even!

Gas.  You have human people working on site, with gas station attendants who will check the oil, pump the gas, or clean the windshields.  Such service!

Shopping.  Your fun array of candies, regional food products, toys, CDs, and vacuum packed salamis and cheeses makes it fun to spend ten minutes out of the car perusing the shelves on the way to the loo.  Who can resist the terracotta bowl filled with orecchiette for 4 euro, or the spunky little Smart car model?  I personally appreciate that you always have Perugina Baci for chocolate-hazelnut emergencies.

Restrooms.  You have clean bathrooms, often with spring-action toilet seats, ensuring a dry and dribble-free seat.  'Nuff said.

Showers.  Some of your area servizio have sparkling showers available to use, which are so welcome after six hours in a stifling car in July when the air conditioning decides to go on the blink and the seats are saturated with sweat. 

Availablility.  You are conveniently placed at regular intervals along the autostrada, ensuring you are there when I need you.  None of this 90 or more miles between rest areas nonsense with you.  You could sing the Friends' theme song, "I'll Be There For You".

I miss your bright swishy "A", such a welcome sight when traveling the byways in need of servizio and refreshment.  I will never take you for granted again!

Related Links:

Pour On The Polenta!

Autogrill Homepage

Sarni - The "Other" Autogrills

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Buon Natale

We are leaving today to drive to Ohio, where we will spend our first Christmas in many years, wrapped in the warm embrace and crazy traditions of our family.  Before I go I wanted to wish you, my blog family, a hearty Buon Natale.  May it be joyous and fun, however you choose to celebrate.  See you when I get back!

This image is a detail of the Beffi Triptych, a three-panel painting from the National Museum of Abruzzo, currently on display in the rotunda of the National Gallery of Art.  It had been housed in the Castello Spagnolo in L'Aquila, which suffered extensive damage during the region's devasting earthquake.  Amazingly, the painting was only scratched; it was restored and loaned to the National Gallery in thanks for American assistance following that tragic event.  It will be on display through January 6, 2010.  If you make annual charitable donations, please consider giving to the Abruzzo relief fund.  Money and assistance are still very much needed. 

Related Posts:

The Eagle is Slowly Rising

Random Christmas Thoughts

The Three Ps of Natale

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Who Ordered the White Christmas?

We've got trouble...right here in River City.  With a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for 'Precipitation'.  In the form of snow.  Lots of it.  And we're not even in northern Ohio!  There seems to be some kind of mix up.  I am *not* the one who was dreaming of white Christmas.  Not.  Me.

The back deck; another few inches have fallen since this was taken.

It started last night, a light fluttery snowfall, and continued while we slumbered.  We awoke to a world gone white, the likes of which neither of us has seen since our Ohio childhoods.  Back then we had one-piece zip-up snowsuits that bundled us in puffy warmth.  Many years in the desert and Italy have left us without boots or snow gear.  I dug around in a box to retrieve my thick wool socks.  I located my mittens.  Not that I'll need them today; I'm parked in my recliner and will not be leaving the house.  Opening the door welcomes in a tumbling of wet white stuff.

Bryan laced up his hiking boots to go outside and shovel the sidewalk, a losing battle if ever I saw one.  Powdery snow cascaded down into his boots and accumulated around his jeans.  He came into the house looking like the abominable snowman with a stocking cap crowned with a steeple of snow.  Within thirty minutes the path he shoveled was covered anew.

It is still falling unabated, steadily, heavily.  My poor car is buried.  Poor Arnold!  He's a snow virgin.  He has never been exposed to the elements, especially winter elements like this, before. 

 That buried lump is Arnold. It's covered even more now.

I have Christmas music playing and will be firing up the oven to do some baking.  After all, there is nowhere to go.  But I'm skipping over I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas.  That dream - even though it wasn't mine - has already come true.

Cardinals - in the tree and on the window

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Italian Reading List, Part IV - Cookbooks

I am wrapping up my series of Italy-related reading with cookbooks.  I admit that while I have quite a few of them, I also rely much more heavily on the scrawled and stained scraps of paper that have sketchy recipes written on them, given to me by Giorgio or other friends, or devised while dining in Italy.  I also bought a few regional cookbooks in Italian which are wonderful, even if they are a little vague.  "Add water...however much is enough" is a typical instruction.

These are the books that I rely on most heavily when researching ingredients or looking for something new to try.  Everyone has their favorites, their go-to cookbooks, and these are mine.  Some are sadly out of print, but available through online markets like Biblio or Bookfinder.

Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of Southern Italian Cooking by Nancy Harmons Jenkins
This is a lovely book covering southern Italy, an area near and dear to me.  It is adapted to American ingredients and cooking style while maintaining the region's authenticity. Jenkins debunks the notion that southern Italian cooking is all red sauce and meatballs.

In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions by Italy's Grandmothers by Carol Field (out of print)
Wonderful authentic recipes from Italian grandmothers, and interesting stories about them to make it a good read as well as a good resource.

Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi.
You already know that I’m devoted to Artusi. Buy; read; cook. Seriously.

The Talisman Cookbook by Ada Boni
Il Talismano is very popular in Italy, the basic go-to cookbook for ordinary days. It collects well known regional recipes together. Translated from Italian; currently out of print in the English version.

Giada's Kitchen: New Italian Favorites by Giada deLaurentiis
I know, not all her recipes are 100% authentic, but I find Giada very likeable anyway. This latest cookbook has some enticing new flavor combinations as well as stand-bys that never get old.

Food and Memories of Abruzzo: Italy's Pastoral Land by Anna Teresa Callen
A wonderful collection of simple and hearty recipes of Abruzzo, it highlights provincial dishes from all over the region. Interspersed are stories of the author’s childhood in Abruzzo.

The Silver Spoon (Il Cucciaio d’Argento)
Translated from Italian, this behemoth is a whopping 1264 pages featuring more than 2000 recipes. It runs the gamut of all the courses and food groups with some fusion recipes thrown into the mix.

Now there's no excuse...get cooking!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Italian Reading List - Part III

In my continuing series of reading material for Italophiles, this week I am highlighting fiction.  I have read a healthy number of novels set in or breezing through Italy; unfortunately many of them left me shaking my head at the errors, stereotypes, or poorly-conceived plots.  This is in no way an exhaustive list, just a few that I enjoyed more than others. 


A Room With a View by E.M. Forster
Classic novel that set many an English speaker scrambling to Florence to find that famous view.

Very Valentine by Adrianna Trigiani
Great novel that combines two of my passions – shoes and Italy! An Italian-American shoemaker strives to keep the family business afloat, and travels to the Old Country for supplies and inspiration.

The Commissario Brunetti mysteries. Death at La Fenice is the first in the series by Donna Leon
Loveable Venetian detective and his polished wife invite us into the various aspects of life and culture in the surreal city of Venice.

The Venetian Mask by Rosalind Laker
Sweeping historical novel transports us into the workshops of Venetian mask makers as an entré into the Most Serene Republic, in all her intrigue, deception and glory.

The Fortuny Gown by Rosalind Laker (out of print)
Another of Laker’s sumptuous historical novels, this one starts off in Lucca and takes us to Venice through the glorious gowns created by Mariano Fortuny. (His workshop is now a museum.)

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland
Vreeland paints a beautiful portrait of 17th century Italy with lavish descriptions of food and scenes to take us into the life and artwork of Artemisia Gentileschi.

The Raphael Affair (Art History Mysteries) series by Iain Pears (Raphael Affair is the first one.)
A series of quick-read novels that follow the crime investigation expertise of Rome’s Art Theft Squad and art dealer Jonathan Argyll to unravel the mysteries while showing various aspects of the art world, such as forgery, smuggling and acquisitions. I picture the somewhat bumbling Jonathan as a Hugh Grant character.

Renato's Luck: A Novel by Jeff Shapiro
Rich in character sketches of Tuscan personalities, habits and quirks, Renato’s Luck follows a disheartened guy suffering from midlife crisis who sets out to change his luck, and that of his friends, as well.

Playing For Pizza by John Grisham
A humiliated football player flees the rabid Browns fans and seeks refuge in the little-known Italian football league. Breezy but fun.

The Broker by John Grisham
A high-profile attorney and power broker gets in over his head and winds up as a political pawn. Full of the intrigue and political plays that Grisham is famous for, it reads like the screenplay it will no doubt become.

Related Posts:

Italian Reading List, Part I - Memoirs

Italian Reading List, Part II - Guides and Nonfiction

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Italian Reading List - Part II

Today I'm continuing my Italian reading list with the second part of my series of books about Italy. Last time I listed the memoirs; this time around I'm highlighting nonfiction and guidebooks.

Guidebooks are difficult to quantify as they are very subjective depending on the reader's taste as well as the destination. One guidebook publisher might offer an excellent book about Rome but fall short on another region. I've also found that most guides focus on the well-known destinations, creating a glut of overused information. They end up echoing each other, covering all the same sights and restaurants (while ignoring the wonderful places that are lesser known, for which people really need a guide!)

I've not found a single guidebook publisher that I can say I recommend across the depends on the locale. I rarely purchase guides online; I want to look it over thoroughly before buying.


La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales
A fun and informative romp through the history, culture, art and sensuality of the beautiful Italian language.

Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World by Peter D’Epiro
Character sketches and historical background on famous and not-so-famous Italians who contributed to society, culture, art and technology.

Christ Stopped At Eboli by Carlo Levi
An Italian classic written by an anti-fascist doctor and artist exiled to Basilicata for his opposition to Mussolini. His chronicle of the poverty and neglect he found helped forge change in post-war southern Italy.

Under the Southern Sun: Stories of the Real Italy and the Americans It Created by Paul Paolicelli
A wonderful, researched and well-written look at the little known history and culture of southern Italy, and how they impacted those who immigrated to America.

The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr
A vivid and colorful story of the discovery of a masterpiece by Caravaggio that was forgotten about and hidden in plain sight. Interspersed with background on Caravaggio, this book reads like a novel.

Eating & Drinking in Italy: Italian Menu Translator and Restaurant Guide by Andy Herbach
Called a ‘menu translator’ it is an indispensable guide to the different dishes around the varied regions of Italy. Small and packable with lots of information packed into it.

Eyewitness Travel Guide
They won’t get you very far off the beaten path, but as far as general guides go, these are good. They have good neighborhood maps, basic background, and a nice visual layout. They Eyewitness Guide to Rome is particularly good.

Blue Guide The Marche
The only English language guide devoted solely to this wonderful region. Much of the restaurant information is outdated, but it covers the sights and towns of Le Marche in detail.

TCI – The Touring Club Italiano books
If you read Italian, these are the best guides to grab. Good historical sketches, detailed descriptions and fairly extensive coverage. I rely heavily on the TCI guide gialle (yellow guides) and guide verdi (green guides). The yellow guides have more attractive and logical layouts, but the green guides are more indepth.

One Hundred & One Beautiful Small Towns of Italy
Lovely coffee table book that I was drawn to merely because Ascoli Piceno is featured on the cover (ciao amici!) It contains some predictable entries and some nice, lesser-known spots, as well.

In Love in Italy: A Traveler's Guide to the Most Romantic Destinations in the Country of Amore by Monica Larner
If you’re planning a honeymoon or romantic trip to the land of amore then this is the book for you! Included are destinations, hotels and restaurants, along with regional stories and recipes.

Guidebooks I Hated: Cadogan Guide - Southern Italy (insulting); Baedecker guides (ultra-dry).

Related Posts:

Italian Reading List, Part I - Memoirs

Italian Reading List, Part III - Fiction

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Italian Reading List - Part I

I've been dabbling on Facebook the last couple of months.  I was reluctant, being the techno curmudgeon that I am, but I admit that it is kind of fun to zap one-liners and zingers on friends' pages, and post little notes that wouldn't constitute a blog post.  When I wrote about a novel that I was reading that made some Italian errors, several people responded that they would like an Italy-related reading list. 

I have read a great number of them, some better than others (and some really dismal!)  I gave it a lot of thought and shuffled through my memory bank to compile a list of the memoirs, guides, cookbooks and novels that focus on the theme of Italy that I enjoyed (along with a mention of those that I didn't like, too.)

First up - Memoirs.

Memoirs and Narratives Set in Italy

Dances with Luigi: A Grandson's Search for His Italian Roots by Paul Paolicelli
Interesting, insightful and touching memoir of an Italian-American in search of his family heritage.  I could relate just a tad.

Seasons in Basilicata: A Year in a Southern Italian Hill Village by David Yeadon
Finally a book focusing on my Motherland!  Based primarily on the premise of seeing the region through Carlo Levi's book, Yeadon fades out the copious quotes of that writer and turns to his own voice to show the unique landscape and complex characters who live in the ancient town of Aliano.

Love & War in the Apennines (Travel Literature) by Eric Newby
Get past the first two somewhat dry "background" chapters and you’ll enjoy this wonderful memoir about Newby’s experiences as an escaped prisoner in Italy during WWII, and the wonderful people who risked their lives to help him avoid capture, including his future wife.

A Small Place in Italy (Travel Literature) by Eric Newby
A couple decades after WWII, Eric Newby and his wife return to buy a ramshackle little house in a village. This should be the first book you read if you’re contemplating the pretty vision of buying property in Italy.

The Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Mate
Nicely written narrative of a rather nomadic couple who settle down in Tuscany. They are very likeable, and draw us in to their new way of life.

Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera by Annie Hawes
A pair of British sisters find themselves in a traditional village where they buy a rustico in the hills of Liguria and learn about olive growing. Engaging and witty, with a nice progression as the author comes to understand, adapt to, and then embrace the culture. (Her follow-up, Ripe For The Picking, is enjoyable, as well, though a little less focused.)

A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena di Blasi
Could have been cliché and hokey, but di Blasi’s sumptuous writing and honesty made me really enjoy this book.

The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran
Funny memoir about a Hollywood writer who moves to Tuscany unwillingly when his wife buys a run-down property there. I enjoyed it even though it read too much like a Hollywood script and I questioned the truth of some of the occurrences.

A Vineyard in Tuscany: A Wine Lover's Dream by Ferenc Mate
If you’ve ever been tempted to start a vineyard, this is the book for you. Mate’s fun tone comes through as he details the making of a new vineyard from the ground up.

Italian Neighbors by Tim Parks
A witty and honest look at the quirks and incongruities of everyday life in Verona. Not your average “bought a house in Tuscany” memoir.

Too Much Tuscan Sun by Dario Castagno
Funny account of a Tuscan tour guide about some of the quirky and strange people he encountered through the years.  Irreverent with a somewhat disjointed layout, but I enjoyed it nonetheless and even laughed out loud a couple of times.

Memoirs I Found Annoying: Under The Tuscan Sun, Pasquale’s Nose, Journey to the South, Botticelli Blue Skies, and Four Seasons in Rome.

Next time around...Nonfiction.  Happy Reading!

Related Posts:

Italian Reading List, Part II - Guides and Nonfiction

Italian Reading List, Part III - Fiction

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Buona Festa del Ringraziamento!

Thanksgiving is upon us.  The day when the country comes together as one nation indivisible for unbridled eating, the one holiday that truly revolves around food and comes closest to typifying an Italian festa in the volume of food and length of meal.  Each year, friends and family inevitably, innocently ask us, “What do Italians do for Thanksgiving?”

The answer is, nothing. Thanksgiving is not a holiday there. (But no Thansgiving also means there is none of the lunacy known as Black Friday, either.)  Italians know about Thanksgiving, of course.  Our Italian friends, upon hearing the words “festa del ringraziamento,” immediately respond with, “Ah, si. Tacchino!” They’ve all seen enough film and TV images of enormous turkeys roasted to perfection and carved tableside to know our national fondness for fowl.  They are always happy to learn first-hand that it is, indeed, our official holiday food.

Then they usually shrivel their noses and say, “Mah! Wouldn’t it be better to have a nice porchetta, or something with...flavor?” They don’t generally think of turkey as being very tasty, but that, I tell them, is because they’ve never had the pleasure of a succulently roasted bird. Finding a whole turkey in Italy is about as hard as finding a decent caffé in America.

We always debated about inviting friends and throwing an American Thanksgiving shin-dig, but since it’s not a holiday for them the party would have to be held on the weekend; for us it just didn't feel right to not celebrate it on the correct calendar day. I mean, part of the fun is in knowing that the entire nation is celebrating together.

Thanksgiving may not be celebrated in Italy but don’t feel too bad; Italy is certainly not lacking in holidays. In fact, according to their national calendar they have twelve public holidays compared to our eight in America. Throw in a few local festas and a couple of saints’ days, and you can garner yourself even more days away from the office. Italians also receive an average of 33 vacation days, compared to our depressing national average of 13.

And that is before they start building bridges. It is common to fare un ponte by tacking on a day or two before or after a holiday to “bridge” it to the weekend and thus turn an ordinary one-day celebration into a three or four day affair. Many of our friends take advantage of the opportunity to pass a long weekend in a neighboring region while also crossing off a few extra days from their work calendar. Clever, actually.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving is the one holiday in America that usually comes with a built-in 'bridge'. We are going to enjoy the four-day weekend, while being careful to avoid all streets that lead to malls or shopping centers.  We will enjoy our first full-on Thanksgiving meal in three years and stuff ourselves in the company of friends and in the national, gluttonous unity of the whole country, and give thanks for the blessings, opportunities, and joys of the past year.

Related Posts:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Raise a Glass to San Martino

After what seemed like an endless week of dreary grayness and relentless rain, the sun found its way back and the weekend turned into a beautiful display of blue skies and brilliant autumn leaves.  A classic Indian Summer, or as they say in Italy, l'estate di San Martino (Saint Martin's Summer).

What does a return of sunny warmth in late autumn have to do with Saint Martin, you ask?  His feast day is November 11, when it is quite common to see this welcome weather phenomenon take place.  A folk saying goes, "l'estate di San Martino dura tre giorni e un pochino."  (St. Martin's Summer last three days, maybe more.) 

San Martino was one of the Church's first non-martyred saints to be beatified.  He was born in a Roman province in what is modern-day Hungary, a Roman citizen whose father was an army officer in the Imperial guard.  Martino himself was pressed into service and was attached to a cermonial cavalry unit assigned to guard the Emperor, before giving up his commission as an officer and its certain wealth to become a monk.  He is the patron saint of soldiers and wine makers.

The wine-maker part is why San Martino is so widely revered in Italy.  You see, the feast of San Martino is the traditional day to open the casks of newly-made wine for a first taste of the year's vintage.  The grapes were picked and pressed in August and September so they've been in the vats and undergoing the fermentation process for about two months.  Everyone likes to get some of the fruity, juicy immature wine, just because it's a temporary taste treat. 

My friend Serafino, a sommelier who has worked in the Italian wine industry for more than 50 years, says that the tasting opportunity on San Martino gives them an indication of the quality and characteristics of the year's vintage, a preview of what is to come.  That may be, but it is also a good excuse for an autumnal party.

"A San Martino tutto il mosto e` gia` vino," our landlord Guerino told us as a way of inviting us to his cantina for a festa di San Martino.  By November 11 all the grape must has already become wine, albeit "new wine".  Vino nuovo differs from vino Novello although the lines seem to have blurred in recent years as Novello (or French nouveau) has gained in popularity.  According to Serafino, vino nuovo is just that, new wine that is siphoned directly out of the vat.  Novello, on the other hand, is produced by a method known as carbonic maceration, a process initiated by Louis Pasteur, whereby carbon dioxide is pumped into a tank of grapes to ferment them.  "Vino Novello," he said, "is produced as a novelty.  It is bottled and distributed, and must be drunk young, no later than the end of the year."  It has the same grapey, juice-like flavors but is produced specifically as Novello.  It is a consumer short-run wine. 

Vino nuovo is, instead, just the normal wine that the vintner is creating but it is being "previewed" and consumed while it is "new".  Most of the wine will be left in the vats to age properly, then placed in barrels for wood aging and refining, to be bottled next year (or a few years down the line, depending on the grape varietal and end goal of the vintner).  True vino nuovo is rarely bottled; it is sold sfuso, ("loose") to customers who bring their jugs to the winery for a fill-up.  Serafino splits hairs over this issue, though many people -even in Italy- use the term novello to indicate either type of new (young) wine.

Guerino invited us annually to his San Martino parties where the menu tradizionale was grilled homemade sausages, fire-roasted chestnuts, bruschetta doused in newly-pressed olive oil, and (of course!) his homemade vino nuovo.  This type of festa is common, and all over Italy there are sagras dedicated to chestnuts and new wine.  Some regions hold more formal Cantine Aperte events, where wineries open their doors for full-blown tasting parties, holding the glasses under the spigot and toasting the patron saint of wine makers, San Martino.

Related Posts:

La Sagra e i Soci

The Fruit of Autunno (Or, all about chestnuts)

Fairs and Festas

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bumping into Gladiators

I never really gave much thought to the iconic Roman fighters known as gladiators.  Sure, we skimmed over them in my ancient history classes in college, and I read a bit of background when I visited the Colosseum for the first time.  I have seen them talking on cell phones and getting bawdy in coffee bars while on break from their jobs as costumed kitsch performers offering photo ops to tourists for a price. 

I even watched as my step-father came close to losing, "manhood" when one such sword-wielding gladiator didn't like being videotaped on the steps leading out of the Forum.  He swung gracefully and aimed precisely, giving John quite a scare.  Then he laughed uproariously and patted him on the shoulder, saying "you should have seen the look on your face, my friend!"

However, I have never seen Spartacus - Bryan assures me I'm possibly one of only about ten people on the planet who hasn't- and I never bothered with the Russel Crowe movie about them, either.  Just not my genre, I guess.

So I don't know why, but it seems every time I turn around lately I'm running into gladiators, or some reminder of them anyway. 

First I ran headlong into their footware at Nordstrom's, where apparently gladiator sandals are all the rage.  Several styles and heights, including bizarre nearly knee-high brace-like contraptions are being sold. They have been popular in Italy for a few years now, but I didn't realize they had caught on here, as well. 

Then I read online about the Gladiator School, where you can learn about Imperial Rome by acting out the gladiatorial games first-hand.  For $75 you can get into the garb and play Spartacus for a day on the ancient Appian Way.  It's garnering good reviews, so I am guessing they don't fight to the death.

A few days after that I stumbled onto the ItalyGuides site and ended up a page that gives a  brief background about Gladiators (with a few macabre facts I'd never heard before).

And as if that weren't enough, a post on the message board of Slow Travel revealed that there are now yellow-jacketed "angels" on electric propelled chariots who will be riding the Roman roads to come to the assistance of lost travelers.  Much cuter and friendlier than the fierce warriors of old.

That's a lot of gladiator gab for one week, don't you think?  Maybe it's time for me to see Spartacus after all.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Happy Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday.  While I'm not particularly *thrilled* to admit that I've turned 43, I'm not one to lie about my age, either.  I figure I've lived, experienced, and earned all of the joys, tears, laughs, meals, chores, events, mistakes, excitement, monotony, pleasures, fears, decisions, and dreams of each of those years, and I wouldn't deny any of them. 

I don't mind the laugh lines that are starting to develop (hey, they just show I'm a fun-loving gal, right?)  The only thing I tinker with is my hair, because I've been the victim of genetics to inherit premature graying from an all-too-early age.  It's kind of fun to change the semi-permanent hues or hennas for different highlights or seasons.  (Looking for a bright side to pitiless genes.)

No, I don't mind birthdays.  They usually entail a nice dinner out and a decadent dessert, the likes of which I don't usually indulge in most of the time.  I received lots of cards, emails, and Facebook greetings (I could feel the love!)

Yesterday was special because I was able to spend my birthday with one of very best friends.  We have been buds since freshman year in high school, so a history of nearly 29 years ensures an ease and good time whenever we're together.  It was a wonderful surprise to learn that she and her husband would just happen to be in town for a convention.  We bopped around Georgetown, had lunch at an outdoor cafe, and watched the time zip by all too quickly.

I received another special gift, too.  This past summer I helped a family friend arrange a trip to Ascoli Piceno for her 65th birthday.  She took her entire family - 4 kids and their spouses, 7 grandkids, and her husband - to celebrate the big event.  I booked them in a wonderful villa, set up a personal chef, arranged for tickets to La Quintana, and reserved some very special restaurants, in addition to sending them to all our favorite spots.  She returned and raved about the trip and has continuously thanked me whenever I talk to her.

She visited this past week and presented me with a thank you/birthday gift that really touched me.   She had collected and pressed leaves and flowers from plants around Ascoli Piceno, and framed them in a pretty arrangement.  What a thoughtful thing to do!  (She also toted a delectable cake along with her from South Carolina.  Have cake, will travel.)  

The frame is on my desk and I think of my beautiful city and wonderful experiences whenever I look at it.

There's no denying...a happy birthday, indeed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Eagle is Slowly Rising

I was strolling through the rotonda of the National Gallery of Art when a gloriously gilded painting caught my eye.  The beautiful triptych was obviously Italian from the Medieval period.  I went to take a closer look and discovered why the altarpiece struck me as familiar; it had been housed in the Castello Spagnolo in L'Aquila, and was brought to the US as a gesture of gratitude for American aid and for safe-keeping during the fortress's reconstruction.

It has been more than six months since the devastating and deadly earthquake shattered the peace and destroyed the homes of tens of thousands in Abruzzo.  After the much-hyped G8 summit in L'Aquila in July, the region and its struggles in the aftermath seem to have disappeared from the news. 

I have wondered often how many people are still in tents, how many Abruzzesi have left the region to find work and housing elsewhere.  Whatever happened with Berlusconi's boisterous declaration that some of the displaced could live in his several vacation homes?  Did he actually open the doors to them, or was it just more newsbyte fluff?  I have been trying to find out what progress has been made, but it is has proved a difficult task. 

Many of the aid organizations are (understandably) busy with other recent tragedies and haven't updated their websites.  The Protezione Civile site has a news section, mostly to inform the area citizens about new services or office hours.  The latest newletter proudly hailed the opening of a new sportello per il pubblico, a type of public affairs office that will "provide information and a place for citizens to ask questions about the rules and procedures for repairs and reconstruction, temporary housing, or financial assistance.  They will give information about schools and transportation, tax breaks and work projects."  Sounds great, but it goes on to say that "the clerks won't be able to solve many of the problems" but that they can take requests and call people with answers.  (Word to the wise: when a bureaucrat says they will call you back, don't count on it.)

The initial plan was to build apartments and assemble pre-fabbricated buildings so that everyone could be housed before winter, but as the first snowfall arrived on October 19, there were still almost 1,800 people living in tents.  Some have nowhere else to go; others refuse to leave, fearing that if they go to another area they will miss out on the apartments when they do become available.  Most want to remain in their birthplace, close to their families and jobs.

The National Italian American Foundation has made sizable contributions, and continues its fund-raising efforts.  Their newest initiative is help L'Aquila college students continue their studies.  To that end, they have inistituted an "Adopt a Student" program.  NIAF has been offered some tuition scholarships from several American universities, including my alma mater, the University of New Mexico, but money is needed for housing costs, transportation, books, and fees.

Caritas has the most informative updates on their projects, with a breakdown showing that they have spent 1.3 million Euro for their "first response" of tents, medical aid, food, necessities, and initial reconstructions.  They have other projects underway that total 18 million euro.  Caritas sent out 2,400 volunteers from April through August, 2009, and they continue to coordinate a continual presence of volunteer workers. 

The news about reconstruction is scarse but not dismal.  It takes time to rebuild, especially when damage was so extensive, but things are moving forward little by little.  Churches are being stabilized, artworks have been taken for restoration and repairs, debris has been cleared, and - brick by brick - a city is trying to reform itself.  L'Aquila, which means "eagle," is rebuilding its nest.  While it's not ready to fly again, it is healing its wings.

Related Past Articles:

How To Help - Where and How to Contribute

Rome Trembled - Our Experience of the Tremor

Watch a video of the wonderful song, Domani, by Artisti Uniti per l'Abruzzo

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Last Mule of Anzi

A friend told me the story of her father-in-law’s emigration from Italy. He left Lucca at age 17 for California, like so many others, in search of opportunity and riches in the New World.  His wife and her family had likewise come from Lucca, but he had long shunned the idea of returning to Italy, despite his kids’ pleadings. Finally, after much insistence that Italy had changed in the forty years of his absence, he agreed to travel there to show them his birthplace and introduce them to his long-lost family members. It was the early 1980s.

As they drove through the cultivated plains to reach Lucca they passed an old man along the country lane accompanied by his donkey, laden with wood. “That does it!” yelled the father. “Turn around and take me back to Roma! The last thing I saw when I left Lucca forty years ago was a man with a donkey; today I return and the first thing I see is a man with a donkey! Nothing has changed here. Take me home to America.”

To him, the donkey symbolized backwardness. He was sure everything was as it always had been, including the poverty he had grown up with, and he didn’t want to relive any of it. He was unconvinced that Italy had become a modern nation with an active economy during his absence.

The continuity of old traditions is something we find so appealing about Italy. Things have changed, that is certain, but many of the long-held customs and crafts are – at least for the moment – still alive.

Like my friend’s father-in-law, the first thing we saw when we visited my ancestral village for the first time was a man with a mule. Rather than see it as a symbol of poverty or backwardness like he did, we found it sweetly reassuring that, in a world where technology blitzes forward at a mind-boggling rate, some things are still left to tradition.

Through our many visits to Anzi we would see this man, striding along his clip-clopping mule, which was usually bundled with firewood. We would wave as we passed him, and exchanged buongiornos and polite chit-chat as he delivered wood to an old signora’s doorstep. In an ancient hamlet with leg-numbingly steep and narrow streets, the mule makes sense. How else are you going to get a load of heavy wood home?

All around town there are stone circles affixed to many buildings, placed there to tie up a mule. At one time, my cousin Michele told me, there were probably thirty working mules in Anzi. They would be utilized to haul tools and implements to the fields, tote grain sacks to the flour mill, and transport olives or grapes to be pressed. Now there is just one.

La panda e` ucciso il mulo,” Michele’s wife Melina stated flatly. The panda killed the mule? What?

“The Panda, the car by Fiat,” she said. It became the workhorse of rural towns like this because it was narrow enough to fit through many of the streets, had enough power to accelerate uphill to reach them, and came in a four-wheel drive version that could be taken to the fields. It was also economical, didn’t require feed, a stall, or pooper-scooper clean-up.

Completely logical. It was only then that we took notice of just how many older model Pandas were still in use in Basilicata, and now understood why. The newer Panda is much larger and less desirable in towns like this; old ones are greatly in demand.

Yet the mule guy continues unfazed. The Panda, after all, cannot climb steps.  His customers are mostly anziani, elderly folks, but he can be seen around town every day guiding the mule up the stepped, inclined alleyways with bundles of wood to fuel their stoves and fireplaces. It is an old-world tradition that will likely die when he does, but for now he and his mule carry on.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Home Food

In my last post I reported on a "home cooking" trend in the US.  As you might expect, Italy takes the concept of home cooking to a different level. 

The organization Home Food was started to preserve and showcase the special and unique regional dishes and food products of each area.  "Typical", "traditional" and "regional" are the buzzwords they live and cook by.  They even wax poetic: "Food is Man and typical foods are his roots." 

Whether you find food to be poetry or not, the simple aim of the organization is to maintain and share the foods that have been passed down to them through the generations, to keep them alive and appreciated by their own generation and the one below them.  They do this by hosting dinners and cooking the local, seasonal cuisine that their grandmothers and mothers taught them...and they invite you and me into their homes to enjoy it.

That's right - you can be a guest at one of their tables!  They encourage you to "Taste typical Italian food in an Italian home."  While the majority of the guests are traveling Italians eager to taste the specialties of another region, more and more foreign travelers are discovering the opportunity to live - or at least eat - like a Roman (or a Pugliese, or a Tuscan).  It provides a unique chance to dine with an Italian family and learn first-hand about their culinary culture.  And since nothing brings about bonding quite so fast as food, you're bound to leave with new friends in hand.

To participate you must become a member of Home Food.  An annual membership costs €35, but travelers who want to join in on the fun can sign up for a one-month temporary membership for just €3.50.  Registration can be made online. 

Once you're a member you can peruse the calendar and events to find a dinner in a location that suits you.  Never mind the often comical English translations; there is nothing silly about the menus.  You can enjoy fresh-made pici and drunken pork on a farm in Chianti; orecchiete with rapini and richly-stuffed foccacia in the heart of Puglia; or a well-rounded menu of Artusi classics in the historical center of Bologna.  There are dinners slated in several regions every month.  Each carefully planned and home-cooked menu costs between €35-40 per person. 

Home Food also organizes occasional cooking classes and interesting special events, such as the Food in Film festival, or a weekend of culinary bliss in Bologna, a package that includes hotel for two nights, two meals at different homes, a cooking class, and a foodie tour of town.

Partaking in age-old traditions, tasting fresh regional fare that has been lovingly prepared...this is what I call home-cooking!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Cooking at Home...or Home Cooking?

Down the street from our house is a little shopping center.  Along with the handful of eateries and shops is a storefront business I'd never heard of before, called Let's Dish.  The window had a menu posted and a glance inside revealed a few stainless steel kitchen prep areas.  Curious, I went inside to inquire about the place.

I was told it is a "revolutionary concept" in home cooking.  A "great idea" for enjoying some gab-time while putting together "healthy and delicious meals" for my family.  The best new way for busy families to cook, I was told by the enthusiastic assistant.  Well...interesting.  I'm all for families cooking together, eating together, communing together.  But, uh, how does it work? I asked, looking around at the steel stations but not seeing any stoves or ovens.

Apparently, you reserve a time slot, go to the store, and choose which of the monthly offerings you want to "cook".  Maybe "prepare" would be a better word here.  The October menu boasts the likes of Greek Isle Chicken, Wine Country Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes, Southwestern Pinto Burgers, and Crispy Herb Tilapia, for example.  If you want those four entrees, you grab a container and go to the assigned prep areas where ingredients are all chopped, grated, sliced, and waiting.  You follow the posted recipe to assemble the ingredients into the container, based on the number of servings you want.  Then you take it all home and freeze it, bringing it out to pop in the oven when desired.

Or, she bubbled, for really busy folks they offer a pre-done assembly, where you order your meals and they assemble them for you.  You just dash in and pick them up.  Freezers lined one wall where you also have the option to walk in and buy frozen pre-assembled ready-to-take entrees.

"This is so great!" she chirped.  "I never go to the grocery store anymore, except for milk and bread," she boasted.  Best of all, she proclaimed, echoing the company's website, "Back at home, you've got fresh and delicious, home-cooked meals whenever your family needs 'em."

The "home-cooked" part is what got me.  Is something home-cooked just because it is baked in your oven?  Is it really so hard to buy a few ingredients, chop and grate, and saute or bake them yourself?  This routine is certainly more costly than cooking at home.  The price per session is $25 per dish (serves 6), with a four dish minimum.  That's $100 to assemble four meals.  As far as I could tell, those are the main dishes you're assembling, not accompanying vegetable side dishes.

I walked out a little befuddled and shaking my head.  Obviously, the concept is lost on me.  I like to cook.  I enjoy getting into the kitchen at a certain time, chopping an onion, peeling some potatoes, or dicing tomatoes in readiness for the soup or sauce I will be making.  I find it rhythmic and relaxing (most days, at least!).  As you know, all my family gatherings always seem to involve cooking together in some form.  Food is an important factor in the fabric of my family.  So the idea of merely assembling and baking just doesn't appeal to me; it seems too much like the "dump and stir" method of cooking that has become popular of late, but more expensive.

I understand that not everyone enjoys cooking; others really don't have much time.  This might be a better alternative to traditional take-out or fast food, certainly.  But I dunno, I'm still confused by the whole concept.  Is it really home cooking?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

To Italy and Back - at Lunchtime

We have had company.  Normally, in years past in our other "destination spot" homes, this meant playing tour guide, finding scenic drives and regional restaurants, and showing our guests all the beauties of the area during their visit.  This time, however, it involved a vastly different itinerary that involved tiring trips up and down the three stories of the townhouse, hours huddled in the basement bent over boxes, sneezing from the dust while poring through things to decide what should be kept, stored, pitched or repositioned.

My uncle passed away last year, and the house has been left virtually untouched since then.  This has been a blessing, in that we didn't have to transport our own furnishings to live here, but has also meant that we have had to box up and rearrange things to make space to unpack and stow our own stuff.  Only now did we all learn the extent of his deep-seated pack rat tendencies!  It has been a somewhat tedious and quite emotional task, for me as well as my mom.  Family mementos, photos and sad reminders accumulated nearly as thick ly as the dust we battled.

After several days of this mood-dampening work, Mom and I decided to get out of our grungey sweats, put on street clothes, and wash the spider webs out of our hair to go out for lunch, and a little shoe shopping, as is our girls' day out tradition.

I found just the spot to perk up our moods; we had located an enoteca while searching for vino from the Motherland, and discovered a haven that was so much more than a mere wine shop.  Only something this Italian would induce me to brave the Beltway and bumper up in heavy traffic.  Hidden away in one of those fake "town center" malls that I so despise, we found a piece of Italian paradise set in a sprawling suburb of "sameness".  Il Vino is anything but ordinary strip-mall mediocrity.  It is like... a real Italian osteria!

Upon entering, there was a strong sense of deja vu.  Wine bottles lining the walls and a few small tables scattered about beyond the brick archways reminded us of our friends' enoteca and osteria in Rome.  When I asked about a specific vintage, pronouncing it the right way, the proprietor, Massimo, responded in Italian and kept the conversation flowing in the bella lingua, to my excited contentment.

When the chef, a Siciliano named Beny, came out of the kitchen to join in and recited the daily specials (also in Italian, of course), I was ready to kiss them both and weep with joy.  I heard beautiful melodies of musical food notes in the conversation:  mozzerella di bufala, gli gnocchi, carefully prepared tortellini from Emilia Romagna...ah, Italia, I sighed.

It was all so familiar, right down to the streaming strains of Radio Italia being piped in over the airwaves, that I was lulled into thinking I was in central Italy instead of a generic 'burb.  Glasses clinked, fragrant basil tickled my nose, pillowy gnocchi melted in my mouth, and mozzerella di bufala leaked a trail of creamy milky yumminess onto the plate to be soaked up with crusty bread.  And that gorgeous language stumbled off my tongue in conversation for the first time in three months. 

Only when we walked outside and were greeted with the garish glare of the PF Chang's and other chain stores did we remember that we hadn't left the US.  For an hour and a half we went to Italy, and it was a divine daytrip!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

O Foods Contest for Ovarian Cancer Month

Olive all'Ascolana is an Oh-so-good O Food

September is national Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I'm getting both my blogs involved to participate in the recipe contest hosted by Michelle of Bleeding Espresso and Sara of Ms. Adventures in Italy, initiated to draw attention to the disease and its symptoms.  The gist of the contest is to highlight a food that begins or ends in O, while talking about what is commonly perceived as an uncomfortable topic.  For contest rules and information on how you can get involved, hop over to one of their lovely websites.  See the end of this post for important information on this disease.

My contribution to the cause?

The Original Olive all'Ascolana (pronounced oh-LEE-vay) - The Original Stuffed Olives from Ascoli Piceno

Unless you're a newcomer to this blog, you know that I lived in the beautiful city of Ascoli Piceno for three years, and only left by force, wailing and weeping.  It is a place that is very, very special to me, a place I call home, a place which I now know intimately. 

That also goes for the regional food!  The local specialty of Ascoli Piceno is a tasty little critter: gigantic olives that are stuffed with meat and deep-fried. Even Bryan loves them, and he normally does not eat olives!  (Give a guy deep-fried meat and he'll eat anything!)  Around the Piceno, no party or antipasto plate is complete without them.

It is said that stuffed and fried olives have been around this area for two millenia, but they became commonly popular in the last few centuries because it was a practical (and delicious!) way to use up scraps of meat and cheese.

The local olive variety, found only in this part of the country, is called the tenera ascolana. It is a behemoth as far as olives are concerned, that are very 'meaty'.  Local tradition dictates that the olives be pitted by hand a spirale, in a spiral around the pit, which is hand-cramping business, let me tell you. Special curved olive-pitting knives are sold in the local cutlery shops for this time-consuming task.  (I willingly admit that I buy pre-pitted olives, as do many other Ascolani apparently, because they are widely available in town.)

The meats selected always include pork and chicken; from that base other "scelte" are added according to taste. Indeed, each person I know in Ascoli Piceno makes their stuffed olives slightly differently. Some add a bit of beef or veal to the mix; others insist it must have some prosciutto. I've run across a few that include mortadella, and one man who used pancetta (which was a little too fatty for me, perhaps a contridiction considering these things are fried!).  As for the cheese, most use grana padano, but local, aged pecorino is popular, too. Odori (spices) vary, as well; some cooks add celery and carrot to the pot; some like nutmeg, while others say it overpowers the flavor.

I've seen little arguments break out over the "correct" way to make olive all'ascolana, with everyone always referring back to the authoritative, "Well, that is the way my grandmother made them!" to settle the matter. Since this was typical cucina povera, whatever was at hand was what they used, which is why everyone's nonna makes it her own way!

I recently posted the detailed instructions for making Original Olive all'Ascolana on my cooking blog, La Cucina, so I'm not going to repeat it here.  (It was feeling lonely and wanted to get in on the fun, too.)  I adapted recipes from two trusted born-and-bred Ascolane: my friend, Linda, and my former landlady, Dorina.  Both learned by watching and helping their grandmothers and mothers, so it doesn't get more authentic than that, folks!  Both were thrilled that I wanted to learn how to make them and willingly gave them their time-honored recipes.  I fiddled with them to get the quantity down to a more manageable level, and convert the measurements to American standards, but otherwise these are the Official, Original Olive recipes they gave me.

 But wait, there's more!

I'm not just going to link you over to a wonderful, regional recipe that will become a family favorite. Oh, no!

I'm going to let you in on a secret...

The best places in Ascoli Piceno to enjoy the famous olive all'ascolana.

Not all are worthy! As tempting and appealing as it may be to buy a paper cone full of olives from the stall vendor in Piazza Arringo...don't! They are industrially-produced and quite inferior to the home-made, real-deal olive. They are also usually not fresh-from-the-fryer, and believe me, a luke-warm, soggy olive is not what you're after.

So where should you go to get a real taste of this local delicacy?  (When ordering, remember that they are pronounced oh-LEE-vay.)

-Caffe Meletti. The historic caffe in Piazza del Popolo serves hand-made olive along with your lunch or aperitivo. Don't worry that they are not on the menu; order them anyway and a plate of fresh, hot olives will appear as if by magic. Order a glass of Rosso Piceno or Offida Pecorino and prepare to swoon.

-Ristorante Il Grottino. This family-run restaurant in Piazza Ventidio Basso is a hole-in-the-wall (almost literally) with great local fare...and some of the best olive in town. Get just the olives and a plate of pasta, washed down with some house wine, and you'll probably be pretty full.

-Cantina dell'Arte is an airy, good-natured place across the little alley from the hotel of the same name (different owners). We love their food and their service...and of course, their olive all'ascolana. They also have a small, cloistered patio for outdoor dining.

-Pasta all'Uova on via del Trivio. If you *must* stroll while munching your olives, go see Paola and Antonella at the fresh pasta shop. They make their olives by hand and sell them from their small prepared foods case daily. Closed Monday.  (Tell them Valeria says 'ciao'!)

Now...back to the main reason for this post - Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month:

From the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund:

  • Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death from gynecologic cancers in the United States and is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among U.S. women; a woman’s lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is 1 in 67.
  • The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and subtle, making it difficult to diagnose, but include bloating, pelvic and/or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; and urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency).
  • There is no effective screening test for ovarian cancer but there are tests which can detect ovarian cancer when patients are at high risk or have early symptoms.
  • In spite of this, patients are usually diagnosed in advanced stages and only 45% survive longer than five years. Only 19% of cases are caught before the cancer has spread beyond the ovary to the pelvic region.
  • When ovarian cancer is detected and treated early on, the five-year survival rate is greater than 92%.
Want to get involved? Join the cause and the contest! You can also donate to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund through FirstGiving!

Thanks to Michelle and Sara for their hard work in putting this contest - and more importantly - helping bring this issue to the forefront!