Category Archives: Italy

MORNING GRIND

Red ones are impossible to find
Photo credit: asouthernmomtreasures.blogspot.com

What I have come to collectively consider “my morning gestures” are more of a morning routine. Sleepwalking down the driveway, dogs in tow, to retrieve the paper; filling the little terrors’ bowls in front of their eager eyes; switching the cell phone on and, finally, putting the kettle on the stove. While waiting for the water to boil, I will reach for my precious African beans, drop exactly two tablespoons in the coffee grinder and apply pressure for exactly twelve seconds. Twelve, short seconds. Then the bird will hiss and my one and only addiction will be tamed, the same way and at the same time as in millions of other kitchens all over the country.

Coffee made an appearance early in my life. A few teaspoons of it were added to my milk at the age of 8. As soon as I was able to cook some basic stove top snacks, age 12, I “invented” coffee sabayon, a delicacy that would power long afternoons of homework. Nowadays, child protection services would probably have a word with my mother and cite her for child endangerment.

I have always been a morning person but not a social one. Happy to get up before the sun does, try not to speak to me for the first thirty minutes, unless the world is coming to an end and I should be informed. To avoid my parents and my sister, as a teen-ager I would set the alarm way earlier than necessary so I could sit in my mother’s large, yellow kitchen, skinny legs dangling from the chair and a cup of milk and coffee (or, more elegantly, a cafe au lait) in front of me. I learnt to be really quiet while assembling the mocha machine and even opening the front door to retrieve the paper was done inaudibly. That’s how much I didn’t want to see anyone.

Little Italian coffee machine

The espresso was kept in a large tin jar, with a tiny spoon buried in the velvety ground beans. We always bought the coffee already ground and I don’t think I ever saw the coffee grinder that sat on one of the counters being used. I loved that object that would look so quaint and anachronistic next to my 12 seconds whiz. It looked like a red wooden box, the paint chipped in places, topped with a large metal handle one had to turn to get the grinding process going. I can’t quite remember where the beans entered but I did love the tiny drawer that collected them, with a small, round wooden button to open it. My imagination was stirred countless times, as if the grinder contained a world of its own, with tiny coffee people living in it. I always opened that drawer expecting to find something precious while it was just an old, utilitarian object my mother couldn’t part with.

But part she did, long before I started looking for it as an adult when, as a chef, I loved collecting antique or just old kitchen gadgets. I even got mildly irritated when my mother told me she had disposed of it when she moved to smaller quarters and had no use for a coffee grinder nobody in their right mind would still use. Being her daughter, I inherited  her practical ability of letting go of what no longer has a purpose. The upside is a house where junk does not accumulate but also slightly empty of such small memories. Funny that, as a child who firmly believed that all objects had a life of their own, I grew up to be a woman who so easily condemns them to death. I hope they don’t resent me from the other side.

 

 

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THE THORN BIRDS – Take two

Hot priests

A few years ago, the Roman Catholic Church, in what I can only assume was an effort to revamp their stodgy image, asked for volunteers amidst their priests to sit for a photo shoot that would culminate in the release of a calendar featuring “hot priests”. That’s not exactly what it’s called but, judging from the photos of attractive or ruddy young priests in their cassocks, that’s exactly what it is.

I saw the calendar hanging from a newsstand in Venice on my first day there and, since then, I noticed it on sale pretty much everywhere. I sat on the photo and the thought for  a while, needing some time to contextualize it.

In the wake of a devastating scandal that has spanned half a dozen countries and finally pulled the curtain on what everyone assumed was happening, is it wise to portray those who have vowed to lead a life of faith, assistance to the needy, poverty and, not least, celibacy as pin-ups? Exactly, who is the ideal customer? Who will be hanging hot, sexy priests on their walls? Teen-age girls who never read “The Thorn Birds” but find the ultimate taboo attractive? Young boys (the calendar is featured on a number of gay sites)? Housewives  that find solace in telenovelas and unobtainable objects of desire?

Shouldn’t the Roman Catholic Church aim its modernization at accepting the use of contraceptives? Or divorce? Or to finally end that vow of chastity that was notably broken by Cardinals and Popes over the centuries and has led to the unfolding recent scandals?

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JUST ANOTHER CHURCH

Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto

It seems I am destined to end my vacations in little known churches, having a heart to heart with a painting, a saint or just myself. (My last day in Venice last year)

Many months ago I read of a Caravaggio inside the Basilica of Sant’Agostino in Rome, not often visited apparently, and sometimes hard to find in the most popular guide books. Caravaggio paintings are a dime a dozen in Rome, all spectacular as to be expected, but to be able to see just one, hanging where it was intended to be from its inception, is a special privilege.

This particular Basilica is behind Piazza Navona, across from the laboratory of a wood master, whose unaffordable but exquisite works are all jumbled on top of each other in the limited space. The outside of the church is under repair and the inside, as predicted, was rather empty. The Madonna of Loreto is just to the left of the entrance. A few cents will light it up, as it’s customary in most Italian churches, affording the view of those details only Caravaggio was able to conjure: the Madonna bare feet, the fat baby cradled in her arm as if she were a nurse, the petitioners in humble clothes (most likely the couple who commissioned the painting), the overall light that is so typical of Rome, still shining just outside.

To respect the house of God, refrain from spitting or bringing dogs….not quite a masterpiece

Further down the church, other unexpected masterpieces await: a Raffaello, a Bernini and even Saint Monica’s tomb. From the little story next to her grave it is hard to understand why this Monica merited sainthood, other than she was a devoted wife – come to think of it, that is possibly quite enough. Next to the altar, a simple wicker basket is brimming with little handwritten notes, small and big wishes from parishioners and faithful the world over. This particular unbeliever would like to add her wish, you never know, just in case but, as it so happens, I don’t have either pen or paper on me. I send a mental message to Monica, letting her know that, if she sends me a sign, I promise I will perform a pilgrimage to the same spot, a year from now. She either can’t hear me or she saw through my godless life. In any case, I am still waiting.

Saint Monica would most likely listen to her

The caretaker, busy watering the plants and not much else, is eager to talk and tell me all about this Basilica, in his Albanian accent.

When I step out again in the glare of the afternoon, Piazza Navona beckons and I just can’t resist it. Despite the tourists crowding around the fountains, the policemen on the fancy motorbikes and the taxi drivers smoking, leaning against their cars, it’s impossible not to conjure images of the Dolce Vita. Or whatever version of it is possible to incarnate here, right now.

I am not as sad as I usually am at the end of a vacation. In many ways, there is a Dolce Vita waiting for me at home.

 

 

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PAPPARDELLE WITH PROSCIUTTO AND PEAS

Pappardelle with prosciutto and peas

My world-famous mother has travelled back to Los Angeles with me. To me, personally, this means coming home to an extremely clean house, laundry sorted, ironed and organized, dogs brushed and über happy to have company most of the day and food. Lots of food. For others passing through my house, it also means being fed whether they like it or not. Somehow, my idea of cereal for dinner is such anathema to my mother, that she has to convince me every single night that whatever alternative she has cooked up, has to be better. Well, it is but that is not the point – by the end of her two month stay, at this rate, I will have ballooned into oversized proportions.

But you try to fight with an Italian mother intent on feeding her child! Last night, it was pappardelle with prosciutto and peas, a dish I hadn’t had in probably 20 years and forgotten how delicious it is. If you happen to have an Italian mother lying around, insist of freshly made pasta, otherwise, store-bought pappardelle will have to do.

RECIPE – yields 4 portions

1/4 #  prosciutto cut into small cubes

3/4 #  pappardelle

3/4 C  tomato sauce (possibly home-made)

1/4  onion, finely chopped

1C  peas, fresh or frozen

1 T olive oil, mildly flavoured

Salt and pepper to taste

1 T Butter

  1. Remove about 1 T of fat from the prosciutto and set aside. Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onion and the prosciutto fat and cook on medium until the onion is translucent and the fat has melted.
  2. Add peas and cook for about three minutes, then add the tomato sauce and mix until everything is combined. Add salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. In the meantime, cook the pappardelle in salted, boiling water. Drain.
  4. Re-heat the sauce, add the prosciutto and the pappardelle and mix together on the stove (you want to add the prosciutto at the end to keep it tender but, should you prefer it crispy, add it with the peas).
  5. Remove from heat and add the butter. Mix until melted and serve immediately.

 

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AN (HALF) AMERICAN IN ROME and places to eat

Welcome to Rome where everything is grand

There is an air in Rome that could exist only in Rome. Once you land here, there is  no mistaking the place for anywhere else. I can’t quite put my finger on it and I am certain it has nothing to do with the soft colours of the buildings, the chaotic traffic, the tourists walking around with their noses in the air, or the landmarks one has seen many times over, even without having set a foot in the city. It’s the smell in the air, a mixture of reeds from the Tiber and the sun hitting the stone pavement; the debonair allure of Romans; the crowds spilling out of every cafe and the Vespas constantly threatening one’s life. It’s spectacular. I used to take Rome for granted, often commuting from Milan for the day, cursing the proverbial slowness of Romans and their wait and see attitude. But, when you are vacationing, it can be charming.

If you ask for directions, they will invariably be spotty and approximate – everything is approximate here: from the time you agree to meet, the price of an item, the bus arrival, the way cars are parked. To be able to live here, one has to learn to live with approximation and be happy with it.

For some bizarre reason only newscasters can explain or, maybe because it’s Summer and the news cycle is slow, they have taken to name heat waves here, the way they name hurricanes in the States. As the taxi driver who took my friend Sue and I from the train station to our wonderful apartment in Via del Governo Vecchio, it’s July in Italy, it’s always been hot and, until now, we never needed advice on how much water to drink, to stay out of the sun between noon and 3 pm and all the other common sense crap that the news is constantly feeding us. It’s Summer, it’s hot, drink water and go with the sweat.

While on the subject of keeping cool, a word of advice to my American compatriots, ladies in particular . When you think that packing Bermuda shorts is a good idea that will keep you cool and comfortable, please, look in the mirror and think again. What is it with American women of any age traipsing around in Bermuda shorts? Unless they are tailored by Celine and you look like Ines de la Fressange, chances are you will look hideous in them. If you have a slight belly, they will accentuate it; if they are cut above the knee, you better have perfect knees; if they are knee-length, they will shorten your legs and, unless your butt is as perky as Naomi Campbell’s, no favours in that department either. The same comfort and coolness can be achieved with a nice, wide or pleated cotton skirt – trust me.

Please forgo shorts and Bermudas

I realize that, being Italian, I put far too much emphasis on how I look no matter where I am but, just because we are on vacation and not likely to bump into our neighbours or friends, it  is not a good reason to look subpar. Which brings me to clothes in Rome. Surprisingly, apparel has always been cheaper in Rome than in most places in Italy. Right now, with Summer sales going on, the city is irresistible. So irresistible that a pair of Prada shoes found their way back to my apartment, together with a Max Mara dress – and now, even if those items were on sale, my shopping budget has come to a screeching halt. If you still have money in your pockets, take advantage, especially of the Italian stores in Rione Monti or, for more upscale offerings, around Via Condotti and Via del Babbuino. I came  across a lovely store, filled with fabulous print dresses and handmade jewellery – Officine in via della Stelletta 21.

If it’s your first time in Rome, by all means go see all the sights that have made this city  world-wide famous. But beware – especially in the Summer, the crowds are unbearable. At Trevi Fountain, the tourists were three rows deep. By the Spanish steps, throngs of organized groups were milling around but I understand, it has to be done, if your time is limited.

Eating well is usually reasonably easy to do but here are some tourist-free suggestions from my sister who lives here and whose boyfriend is a true Roman. For instance, every website mentions Baffetto, an old and famous trattoria and pizzeria right outside our apartment. I am told the food is good but the lines need to be seen to be believed. While seemingly every tourist is queuing out there, Romans will go to Francesco in Piazza del Fico, where it’s also packed but the service is extra speedy, the pizza paper-thin, the way Romans make it, and where you will sit at an outside table and will enjoy a great meal. Pastas are also noteworthy. Before pizza, stop for an aperitif at Osteria del Fico just round the corner. Both places are very close to Piazza Navona

Roman flatbread at Eataly

As I live and breathe food, I did forgo a tour of the catacombs for a tour of Eataly in the  Ostiense neighbourhood. If you have seen the NY counterpart, this is even bigger: three stories filled to the brim with artisanal products and drinks, from beer to lemonade, chocolate to prosciutto. The three floors also features a number of restaurants ranging from piadina to fish to panini -you name it. In the land where farmer’s markets still abound, butcher shops and greengrocer’s can actually be found, I am not sure why Italians would go for an American-type experience but, probably because Eataly is so un-Italian, I found it exhilarating and I could have bought everything. The sheep’s ricotta I bought was indeed delicious, as were the cold cuts and the fresh bread For locations and pics

 

A rectangle of pizza at Pizzeria Leonina

If you find yourself in Rione Monti, a charming neighbourhood that looks livable and has a number of pretty stores and an adorable square, stop for a slice (or, rather, a rectangle) at Pizzeria Leonina (Via Leonina 84 – metro Cavour). The place is a hole in the wall but the pizza is fresh and tasty, comes in a variety of wonderful toppings featuring very many vegetables and it’s served either to go or on a wooden board that you can take to a tiny counter and sit on a stool while munching in the heat.

Finally, I am not sure if the ice cream tasted so good at Gelateria Frigidarium right outside our apartment because it was so close to home but the sabayon was spectacular and the lines pretty long. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. The chef- owner is eager to let you try different flavours, especially the more exotic ones like ginger, and is very proud of his product.For address and information in Italian

 

 

 

 

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ROMAN HOLIDAY

The eternal city

The flock of seagulls that have taken residence upon one of the roofs just outside my bedroom window, must have made a pact not to let me sleep past 8 am. They tell each other stories in a loud and guttural dialect and, when I fling the shutters open, there they are, having breakfast, perched upon the red tiles. Every single morning.

When I traipse down the stairs to get paper and croissants, the “portiere”, a haughty concierge from Sri Lanka, lectures me on how to sort the trash if I want to avoid getting a 1,300 euro fine and, when suddenly the electricity disappears and I have to find the breakers in the basement, he doesn’t even think of walking down the stairs with me but, rather, pushes me into the darkness with the promise of a light switch somewhere.

Despite the seagulls and the concierge’s antics, I would still rather rent than be confined to a hotel room. In truth, the apartment is beautiful, in a gorgeous and central part of Rome, a stone’s throw from Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori where a charming farmer’s market takes place every day, albeit a very expensive one. The tiny wild strawberries and the ripe and juicy cherries are too enticing to resist.

It’s interesting the concierge puts so much emphasis on how to sort the recycling when, a couple of blocks down the street, I see a woman amassing garbage on a street corner willy-nilly. That is Rome and Italy for you – I walk around Eataly, the huge steel and glass food emporium filled to the brim with artisanal products and produce and, right outside, on the way to the metro station, the pavements are broken, the smell of urine in the underpass overwhelming and none of the escalators leading to the stations are working. On the other hand, the train arrives on time, it’s pleasantly air-conditioned and efficient. Unfortunately, the only two metro lines that serve the city only cover a portion of this metropolis, leaving the rest to deal with gridlock traffic and buses. Too hot to figure out bus routes and wait for them.

The Eataly behemoth puts New York’s to shame

Unlike Venetians, usually very calm and pleasant, Romans can be a hit or miss. The newsagent is grumpy, the coffee shop lady barely says a word when I place my order but the woman running the shoe shop runs herself crazy trying to find the right size of ballet flats Sue is looking for and, coming up empty, she points to a store nearby and asks us to let us know how it goes. Again, this duality seems to be the trademark of a city that has been somewhat functioning for over 2,000 years. Corruption at government level still abounds but the populace goes about their business as best they can.

Now that I am here, I think nothing of stumbling across ruins every which way and I barely glance at the Colosseum surrounded by a multitude of tourists, too busy looking for a taxi to get ourselves and our groceries out of the intense heat. I have a tactic to deal with both heat and jet lag – I pretend they are not there, a mistress of denial, and I just let myself sweat away, pausing now and then to enter air-conditioned stores. Standing in front of the Carrefour’s dairy case for a few minutes is a life saver (where we also discover a very pleasant, all natural fruit drink we feel compelled to buy).

Castel S. Angelo, Papal residence

It is easy to see the charm of a city that inspired such movies as Roman Holidays, with the hapless American girl invariably swept up by some good-looking Italian on a Vespa. The cliché endures but the reality is a bit more complicated than that. If you look closely, or just read the hysterical papers, it’s not so hard to spot the recession that is hitting the country and that is bound to get worse. A helpful man who owns one of the many beautiful clothing stores we visit, tells us he will be closing his business soon as he can’t even break even. He thinks he will branch out in the tourist industry and is fatalistic about his choices, in a way this city and this country have mastered since their inception. We will just do what we will have to do. But I am afraid the consequences will be harsher to deal with this time. Despite the 40% and 50% sales all over town, most of the stores are empty. Smaller boutiques and moms and pops stores are destined to disappear.

The city, though, remains eternal. Some of the sights Cleopatra saw upon her triumphal entrance with Caesar’s son in tow are still there for us to see. The same combative spirit of defiance mixed with a wish for a good life also endures. And it seems that, for now, it will have to do.

 

 

 

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THANK GOD FOR ITALIAN MEN (and other unusual things to do in Venice)

Just another bridge – ducking required when passing on a boat

The construction workers had been busy around the hole in the ground for a few days, just next to the bridge I walked over, first thing in the morning, sleep still in my eyes, to reach Bar Nico for hot croissants. Two days before my birthday, upon my passing, one of them whispered “Sei bellissima”. With uncombed hair, yoga pants and not a stitch of make-up, I strongly doubted his assertion about my beauty and I kept on walking. On my way back, croissants and newspaper secured under my arm, the same worker, undeterred, asked me if I could stop for a minute. I don’t, I am sure he uses the same lines on half  the women who walk by, thereby delaying the filling of the hole in the ground, but I chuckle internally because this stranger, a good 20 years younger than me, gave me the gift of an uplifting  compliment on the eve of a distracting and slightly traumatic birthday.

And so, here I am, with half a century behind me and an improbable 50 more years ahead. If anything could soften the blow, I knew that Venice could. Maybe Stefano, the genial host of Osteria Mascaron where I spent a pre-birthday dinner (I am known to stretch celebrations for days before and after) is right: Venetians are kind people because they live so intimately with and along the water and because having to walk everywhere robs you of any aggression. Venetians are indeed a patient lot, always eager to answer questions, give directions, unfazed by the throngs of tourists who stop abruptly, trip getting on and off boats and generally impede basic daily activities.

I am celebrating this milestone, this clarion call to change what doesn’t work anymore and to keep forever what stood the test of time, with some of the people I love most in the world, in one of the most mysterious and enchanting locales in the world. The light is not as bright as in California but it is softer, warmer. The full moon hanging over the island of Giudecca looks more playful than the one over my canyon, bathing rows of pretty houses rather than chaparral and coyotes. Maybe this light is the reason I am contemplating a possible move over here, some time in the future: it will be kinder on wrinkles. Or maybe because this is a place acutely aware of its past and, as we grow older, so are we.

The biggest surprise of turning 50, an age that, in my 20’s, was synonymous with demure two-piece suits, strings of pearls and bridge parties, has been the amount of energy I still have and the need for change, as if a different chapter were opening. I haven’t felt this exhilarated in years. Now, if I could only hold on to this feeling for the next 10 years…

Here are a few suggestions of unusual things to do in Venice, places to go or eat, that you won’t find in guide books. Some require a boat, that can be rented but it might be easier to befriend a Venetian – they are all equipped with boats the way we are with cars.

For Art Lovers: Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Ok, you will find this in guide books but it might not be at the top of your list. It should be. This sort of trade union of the past commissioned Tintoretto to decorate their building – all I can say is “breathtaking” View some images here

For Book Lovers: Libreria Toletta is a maze of a bookstore  with different rooms dedicated to different subjects. The staff is very knowledgeable and will help you picking books on Venice in very many different languages – Sacca de la Toletta 1213, a stone’s throw from the Accademia Museum

The welcoming cat taking a break

Libreria Acqua Alta is an extremely fun place. Strictly used books arranged in piles, inside bath tubs or in a real gondola in the middle of the largest room. A cat sort of welcomes you outside while the owner, Gigi, will chat you up and offer you free books for a date (if you are a woman). Small English language section but prints and other fun items are for sale. Calle Longa S. M.Formosa 5176 (near Campo S. M Formosa in Castello)

For Food Lovers: Osteria al Mascaron is a Venetian mainstay. Reservations are recommended. The food is incredible. Try the polenta with squid ink for a real Venetian experience. Osteria Mascaron

Caffe ai Frari – an ancient Cafe that serves cold cuts, sandwiches and salads at lunch. Service is slow but the place is so charming, devoid of tourists and the prosciutto from the nearby Dolomites so delicious that is worth the wait – just off Campo dei Frari in S. Polo

Bar ai Tedeschi – on the tiny island of Sant’Erasmo there is a modest bar on the beach that serves the best spaghetti with clams I tasted the whole vacation. You can also swim. But a boat to get there is required.

Trattoria Le Vignole – on the Vignole Island, this can be reached with a vaporetto and I promise there will not be a tourist in sight (other than the ones who read this blog). You order fish at counter and then you eat in the large garden right on the water. Delicious!

Pasticceria Tonolo – for your sweet tooth. Go early in the morning and get a doughnut or, as we call them in Italian, krapfen. Well worth the inches around your waist – Calle de San Pantaleon, near Campo Santa Margherita

Full moon over Giudecca

For the Romantic in you: Take a walk along the Zattere embankment all the way to Santa Maria della Salute church. Enchanting. You will see the moon rise of Giudecca island, sit on the steps of a beautiful church while staring at San Marco, the water lapping around you. It’s what I always do on my last night in Venice.

La Fenice Theatre. Possibly the most beautiful baroque theatre in the world, it burnt down a number of years ago and was painstakingly reconstructed in every minimal detail. Get a couple of tickets for any of the operas or ballets – your jaw will drop when you walk in. You can also visit it during the day with a guided tour but experiencing a performance is way more chic!

If you happen to befriend a Venetian, ask them to take you swimming in Bacan. They will explain and, hopefully, take you

 

 

 

 

 

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