Category Archives: Italy

TRAVELLING TO ITALY AND STAYING CONNECTED – PART II

With a vet bill that will take months to pay off and a recovering dog that delayed my anticipated trip home, I was left with the minor nightmare or major nuisance of having to change a lot more than just my plane fare. As I pointed out in Part I of this post, I took advantage of the internet to get a leg on a number of tedious purchases that would have required standing in line in the impossible heat wave that is enveloping both Bologna and Venice.

Trying to make changes or get refunds once again pointed out the good and bad of my native country. So, should any of this ever happen to you, here is what you can expect.

I had purchased a weekly vaporetto pass and wi-fi connection from veniceconnected.com which I was still intent on using but on different dates. What had started as the easiest website to navigate when buying these services turned into an incomprehensible portal when trying to figure out if and how I could make changes. Eventually I realized I could open a ticket with a help desk and, 24 hours later, Lucia answered saying that she had changed my wi-fi usage dates and Marta let me know that I could use my travel pass at any time, up to a year, from the date of purchase. Mind you, none of this was self-explanatory when navigating the site but major brownie points to the Venetians – I suppose they have good business practice in their veins.

On the other hand, if you do want a refund, you are completely out of luck.

trenitalia.it, the website of the national railway system, could not retrieve my confirmation number when I tried to change my ticket. I then asked for a refund and same answer – NOT FOUND. An extremely stubborn and gracious Italian friend, bent on fighting the system, called the 800 number of my behalf. It turns out there are different tiers of tickets these days, much like plane fares: super economy – hard to book because limited and very, very cheap, which clearly state that no refunds are available; economy – which is what I have – that can be changed but only at a train station and with no refund; regular ones, that give you more flexibility. I probably didn’t read the fine print but why couldn’t they state that when I was trying to retrieve my booking? I still recommend travelling by train – in a country where not many things work as they should, trains tend to arrive surprisingly on time and, if your high-speed one is over 30 minutes late, you are entitled to a partial or full refund, pro-rated according to the lateness. All you have to do is to go a ticket counter when you get off the train.

So far so (somewhat) good. That leaves my horrific experience with Alitalia. Frankly, they should just dispense with the whole national airline and let the damned thing go. After changing my outbound reservation for $270 (somehow a sick dog didn’t qualify as a family member, a point I would be happy to argue), I never received the confirmation I was told to expect within 24 hours. 72 hours later I call them again – and I am opening an aside, every phone call requires an average of 10 to 15 minutes wait, listening to some horrid and not very soothing flamenco music – and I am told my credit card was denied.

“Were you planning on letting me know? You have my e-mail address and phone number”

“Well, it’s the week-end” the call center employee ostensibly called Nico replies, while his name is probably Vikram and he is sitting in Bangalore, not terribly caring about my plight. “Call your credit card and let them know to expect these charges”.

Photo – aresexpert.com

Not a fan of credit card companies, the bank nonetheless answers the phone in 30 seconds and lets me know that no charges were put through and much less declined. It figures. After 3 more phone calls to Alitalia, different employees in Bangalore, the constant mention of some mythical back office that is handling my case, this morning I finally received my new ticket.

It all sums up Italy: at times convoluted but functioning, at times bureaucratic and maddening, and often inept and requiring patience and knowledge at how to navigate it. All things I tend to forget in super consumer friendly USA.

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TRAVELLING TO ITALY AND STAYING CONNECTED

How did we survive without cell phones and laptops and i-Pads and all the gadgetry that keeps up connected, a mere 15 to 20 years ago? On vacation, I used to unplug, call home once or twice in the space of three weeks to let my mom know I was alive and I didn’t care one bit about what was going on in the world, much less what was happening at work or in my family or friends’ lives. Now, here I am, getting ready to travel with my i-Pad, my laptop and phone, buying additional data, discounted minutes and the likes. Right or wrong, I adapted to this lifestyle and I would venture to say that it’s not all bad. Instead of packing the customary half a dozen books, they are all downloaded on my i-Pad with just one paperback in case the power runs out. I won’t come home to a pile of unread New York Times or New Yorkers because they will be right there, with me.

In the process of organizing my upcoming trip to Italy, I uncovered a few helpful sites that will make my stay easier. I am Italian so navigating Italy is not something I have to think about but I discovered there was so much I could do from my sofa in Los Angeles that would save me time at the other end.

So, if you happen to travel to Italy, Venice and Rome in particular, here are a few tips.

VENICE

I feel like Venice has become my home away from home. I rent the same apartment in the same neighbourhood away from the tourist fare, I have my trusted supermarket, my fish monger and greengrocer where I shop, yoga classes I might attend and a vaporetto pass. But even for a native, Venice can be rather daunting. There is so much to do (besides the obvious sightseeing if you have never been there). It’s also a college town with a lot of cultural events taking place at any given time. Figuring out what takes place when and where is a different matter. A wonderful website managed by the City government makes the job easier. You can buy museum tickets/passes, search by type of event or date and everything is there: movies, plays, concerts, exhibitions, I even found a Tai chi class inside the Guggenheim museum I would have never otherwise come across.

On veniceconnected.com I was able to buy wi-fi for the week I will be there, for 20 euros. You enter the dates you want, pay and you will receive instructions on how to activate it when you get there. So goodbye little “cartoleria” where I used to buy wi-fi from.

Best of all, you can buy a vaporetto pass (or airport transfer) as well, avoiding the daunting lines that will greet you once you step out of the train station. Click, pay and print and validate it on your first trip.

Even if you are not going anywhere near Venice, hop on the site anyway and check out the camera that gives you views of any corner of Venice in real time.

For more in-depth information on Venice, check out my posts in the travel section Random Venice Post

ROME AND BOLOGNA

In Rome, staying connected is even easier. The entire city center (a very vast area) is covered by free wi-fi provided by the City of Rome. All you have to do is hook up to it and, if you are visiting, chances are you are staying somewhere central.

Bologna’s city center is also equipped with wi-fi but you have to register. Just go to the Public Internet office in Piazza Maggiore (right next to the pharmacy) and let them know you want to open an account. They will set you up and provide you with a login name and password which you can use on your own laptop or at any of the computers in their office. Totally, absolutely free. And valid for the rest of your life.

TRAIN TRAVEL

If you are seeing more than one place, chances are you will be travelling by train. Unless you are renting a car and good luck to you being on the road with any of us Italians. Train tracks crisscross the entire boot and trains will take you even to the remotest places. You can plan your trip and your fares on www.trenitalia.com. High speed trains are more expensive but they will get you there, well, fast but all other kind of cheaper options are available if you have time. You can purchase your ticket on-line (either by opening an account or registering as a guest) and the ticket will be e-mailed to you or else a code sent to your cell phone (has to be an Italian one). When the ticket collector comes by, all you have to do is hand him your phone. And you will have avoided long lines at the ticket counters, travel agency fees or trying to explain in your broken Italian where the heck you want to go – everybody is very nice and helpful but not always English-speaking.

Now that my travel plans have changed, I am left figuring out how to change all the handy-dandy tickets, passes etc that I have already purchased. Will let you know how easy that is or if begging on the phone in Italian is required.

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PASTATELLE FROM PUGLIA (or sweet ravioli)

 

My version of pastatelle


As proud as I am of the cuisine of my native country, I can’t claim it has a remarkable pastry tradition. Most of it is derived from France and what is original is steeped in “cucina povera” – basic ingredients mixed together to create simple sweets. The only exception is Sicily, with its moorish influences, and abundant use of almond paste and citrus.

Italian sweets are therefore rustic but, on occasion, I revel in the pleasure of enjoying simple flavors, in confections that could be straight out of any Italian grandma’s kitchen.

Recently I was asked to contribute a dessert from Puglia to a restaurant’s monthly dinner focussing on a different region each month. I can’t say I know much about sweets from Puglia but an extensive search yielded some interesting results, especially when it comes to desserts that celebrate Easter.

In the end, we picked “pastatelle” which, in Emilia, we call “raviole”. The dough differs significantly as in the Pugliese version there are no eggs or butter, just simple flour and vegetable oil. According to tradition, in Emilia we stick to plum jelly while in Puglia they favour cherry, fig and walnut.

You will find that the dough will be very oily when handling it, but also very supple and, when baked, it will retain a good amount of moisture. These “cookies” keep for several days in an airtight container.

RECIPE – Yields about 12/14

500 g AP Flour (1 pound)

180 g Vegetable Oil (mild tasting, such as canola or corn) 6.4 oz

5 Tbs Sugar

5 Tbs Brandy (the original recipe calls for pure alcohol but I used cherry brandy)

1 ts Salt

100 ml Water ( just over 1/4 cup)

200 g Cherry or Fig Jam (5.5 oz)

50 g Walnuts, chopped (2 oz)

1 Egg

 

  1. Mix the flour, salt, brandy and vegetable oil in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, on low-speed. With the mixer running, start adding the water in a steady stream and mix just until the dough comes together: it should be slightly sticky but not crumbly.
  2. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  3. In the meantime, mix the jam with the chopped walnuts.
  4. Roll the dough to about 1/8” on a lightly floured surface and, using a 6” round (10 cm) cookie cutter, cut as many disks as you can. You can re-roll the dough scraps once.
  5. Place about 1/2 teaspoon of jelly in the center of the disk, fold each cookie in a half-moon shape, pressing gently with your fingers to seal and then with the tines of a fork.
  6. Place on a cookie sheet. Mix one egg with a teaspoon of water and brush the top of the cookies. Sprinkle some Demerara sugar (or regular sugar) and bake at 350F (180C) for about 20 minutes or until pale golden.

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MY BEST WISHES STARBUCKS

What my first few Summers in London, in my teenage years, taught me was that I had landed in a coffee wasteland. At least, coffee as I intended it.

I believe it was Italians who introduced the idea of coffee shops to the world. In a country where an 8-year-old routinely adding espresso to her milk is not frowned upon, we take our coffee very seriously, treasuring old mocha machines, arguing over which beans are better and patronizing coffee shops where our favourite brands are served.

Curiously, for such coffee obsessed people, we tend to consume our espresso in one or two gulps, standing at the counter, and our cappuccino is strictly limited to breakfast, with or without a croissant, but also rigorously standing. Until the age of 15, I assumed the rest of the world abided by the same coffee rules, until I found myself in London and had to start appreciating the healing properties of tea.

The coffee landscape has dramatically changed since those days, with coffee poised to take over tea consumption even in countries where tea always ruled, like India.  Such transformation, in large part, and certainly in this country (another coffee wasteland until a couple of decades ago) was instigated and helped along by the mighty Starbucks which, for a long time, was the coffee chain to imitate.

As a coffee snob, I always abhorred Starbucks, their silly lingo and, above all, their trademark roast that leaves a burnt and unpleasant aftertaste on your tongue. Apparently, I am not alone – after polling many would be customers who wouldn’t drink Starbucks coffee for just that reason, the company introduced a “blonde” blend that is supposed to be gentler on the palate.

I am wondering if it might have something to do with Starbucks’ expansion in Europe. Quietly, the green mermaid is making its appearance in Italy, in main cities like Rome, Milan and Venice which, with a heavy foreign tourist presence, might keep the chain afloat and even profitable. But will Italians go for it? A Venti decaf macchiato with a shot of hazelnut? Not quite sure. Have we fallen in love so much with everything American to settle for inferior coffee too? We wholeheartedly embraced fast food so the gulf between what we once favoured and what we have become might not be that wide any longer.

One thing is for sure. I do hope their food offerings will be better quality than what is currently sold in their American outlets: stony muffins and scones, dreadful croissants and unremarkable coffee cakes. It will take a while for Italians to open up to the concept of lingering over coffee or sipping extra-large sizes of cappuccinos but I pray that, once the novelty wears out, we just go back to our trusted baristas and to sipping espresso the way its meant to: in one big gulp.

 

 

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GREY STONES AND CORNISH HENS

It might not be so random that I ended up working with food. My memory’s associations are often of Proustian proportions.Take Cornish hen, my favourite fowl. No matter how hard I try, how loved and well fed and left to roam the Cornish hens I buy are, I cannot replicate the ones my mother’s aunt used to make on those Sundays my whole family would trek to visit. Once I reached teenage-hood, I came to dread those Sunday lunches in the country, at the long and medieval looking table where relatives I could not keep straight would assemble for Aunt Anna’s Cornish hens and roasted potatoes.

Aunt Anna, a diminutive woman with faded blonde hair perpetually tied in a chignon and piercing blue eyes, had a baritone voice acquired after years of smoking and unbelievable cooking skills. Her tiny frame had borne 6 children, from two different marriages, who were all second cousins of mine and, being a few years older, always looked worldly and inimitable. My mother’s family comes from a long progeny of land owners, a lot of it lost to cover gambling debts or philosophy studies, depending on whose turn it was to manage the assets. Whatever was left belonged to Aunt Anna’s and her children, some of whom went to flourish cultivating mainly fruit trees.

Aunt Anna’s house was far from a farm though – a low, rather dark two-storey building in the main square of Finale Emilia, one of the small towns in the rich Padania Plain, it was filled with antiques, silver and, my favourite, a grand piano she still played. And that extra long mahogany table that ran the whole length of the dining room.

Out in the country, there existed an old farmhouse, uninhabited for decades, that retained an allure of dignity and hauteur – rather than the usual square red brick construction so ubiquitous in those lands, this particular house was built in grey stone, had a turret at the top and a large garden where the Bougainvillea still flowered. My mother spent part of the war years in it, and many Summers after, and Aunt Anna witnessed the killing of her father in law among those same walls.

The old fireplace in the kitchen

A few years ago, her eldest daughter, after a long career in the fashion industry in glitzy Milan and a series of personal adversities, decided to reopen the farmhouse, restore it and set up camp in it. It was a slow labor of love which started with a heating system that could see her through the frigid winters and recently ended with a new roof.

It was that new roof that came tumbling down at 4.05 am on Sunday morning, when the area was struck by a powerful earthquake. After fleeing the house, unharmed, my cousin didn’t think to turn off  gas and electricity and, a few temblors later, a short-circuit started a fire that destroyed most of the building and everything that hadn’t broken to begin with.

Mourning the loss of a house is a lot better than mourning the loss of life. Still, when I heard, I walked to my office where a framed drawing of that house is hanging on the wall: the Bougainvillea in early bloom, the turret lending a patrician air to an otherwise modest construction. Next to the drawing is the genealogical tree of my mother’s family, that my cousin had commissioned so that her daughter could keep the complicated family branches straight, all the way back to the 1600’s.

Maybe it will be rebuilt or maybe the land will be finally sold and a part of our family history will be laid to rest. It’s early days for such decisions. But when I look at that drawing, I picture my mom, maybe 7 years old and dark pigtails, running in the yard, before life became a tangle of happiness and loss. Some places have evocative powers, nearly as much as Cornish hens.

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ANNAROSA’S SALSA VERDE

Back to my mother. Incredibly, there are still recipes I haven’t had in years that just pop into my mind and start a craving. My father used to love salsa verde, especially with what we call “bollito”, a mixture of boiled meats ranging from chicken to beef tongue. I would’t go near either of them: one was was too lifelike for my taste and the other too green.

Many countries have different variations of salsa verde, mostly parsley based, like the Argentinian chimichurri. I am not sure of the origins of my mother’s recipe but, the moment I remembered it, even though I wasn’t a fan as a kid, I had to have. An intercontinental phone call later, I had the list of ingredients, some of them unexpected.

I served it with fish but it goes well with anything from beef to….boiled tongue.

Start with a bunch of parsley

RECIPE – serves 3 to 4

1 bunch Parsley

1/4 c Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 T Capers

1 T Roasted Pepper, chopped (although I substituted with a fresh jalapeno for some kick)

2 to 3 Sweet and sour Italian onions in a jar – as I couldn’t find them, I caramelized a small, sweet onion

1 Boiled egg

1T Lemon juice

Salt and Pepper

 

My adorable green mixer

  1. Put all the ingredients in a blender or mixer and chop. Now, my mother much prefers to reach the same result with a good knife and a cutting board – she says the mixer makes the sauce too smooth but I felt on a lazy side and I would use any excuse to use my adorable green mixer.

    The egg was the unexpected ingredient

  2. Taste and add salt and pepper and more oil if needed.
  3. Transfer to a bowl and add the lemon juice.

All done

 

 

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GHOST OF THE EASTER BUNNY

My relationship with meat has always been tenuous at best, as recounted by my mother who never tires of reminding me she had to puree beef into mashed potatoes when I was five to trick me into eating it. The relationship definitely soured when I was served my pet bunny one Summer – in truth, the farmer by our  country house from whom we purchased fresh eggs and chickens (dead ones) had given us a live rabbit that I got to enjoy for a few days, until he disappeared. Only to make a grand entrance on one of the serving platters, the ones decorated with wild roses I was so fond of.

It took me a while to connect the roasted rabbit surrounded by olives to the live bunny who had been running in the yard but, once I made the leap, no one dared deny the evidence. I have stayed away from rabbits, bunnies and most meat ever since.

Easter is a holiday I tend to forget. Wishes come from my friends and relatives in Italy, where Easter and Christmas are equal opportunity celebrations, no matter what faith (or lack of) you might happen to be. It’s pointless to say you don’t believe, or you are Jewish – just wish a Merry Christmas or Happy Easter back to avoid blank stares or being accused of being a Grinch.

The chocolate Easter bunnies that will be popping up everywhere on Sunday are not a traditional mainstay on my former shores. We have THE Easter egg. And I am not talking about Cadbury eggs type of confectionery or painted boiled eggs. Hell no – children (and adults) exchange hollow chocolate eggs that can vary in size from a few inches to the length of a 3-year-old child. What they all have in common is a surprise in the center: a small toy, a piece of jewellery and, for the most refined, the eggs can be made to order and filled with a gift of your choice. A diamond ring for example. They come wrapped in colorful paper and tulles, and the store-bought ones have little cards identifying whether the gift is for a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter, in the end they are all tschockes that will be forgotten in a matter of hours (not the diamond ring). What is thrilling is getting to the end of Easter lunch, having avoided lamb with mint sauce, and unwrapping the massive egg, then opening the debate on how best to crack the egg with minimum spillage of good chocolate. Now you have a glimpse of when and where my chocolate addiction was  born.

I still have a miniature china tea set that came from one such egg – it’s becoming, if not an antique, a vintage piece as I cannot remember the last time I cracked an Easter egg. I do miss the egg cracking ritual but I will have to make do with biting a bunny ear. A rigorously chocolate one.

HAPPY EASTER!

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TORTA DELLA NONNA (Grandmother’s Tart)

 

Individual size torta della nonna

Tuscan cuisine is a celebration of peasant food and the “poor man’s ingredients” (aside from the beef steak, with a Chianina cut of beef as precious as gold). It’s become popular in this country, over time, as the appreciation for seasonal ingredients has grown hand in hand with their availability. Pappa al Pomodoro is an ode to stale bread, ripe tomatoes and good olive oil. All kinds of soups that are to be found in the Tuscan cookbook feature pulses, grains and whatever vegetables are in season. A Ribollita is made with humble vegetables and cannellini beans and delicious in its simplicity.

 

Tuscan desserts are also not very exciting, at least not in the creamy, rich, fussy way we think of desserts. My favourite are Schiacciata all’Uva (a sort of grapes flatbread) and biscotti (known as cantucci) which have gone to conquer the world –  Tuscan cantucci are actually extremely plain, seasoned with just fennel seeds and almonds and made to be dipped in sweet wine.

 

There is another dessert, somewhat ubiquitous in Italy, called Torta della Nonna (Grandmother’s cake) that originated in Tuscany and quickly spread to the rest of the peninsula. An absolute crowd pleaser: two layers of pate sucree with a filling of pastry cream, dotted with pine nuts. And if you are a pie maker, it’s a great alternative to the usual pies in your repertory. The Neapolitan version of this dish is even better – no pine nuts but fresh Morello cherries folded into the pastry cream.

 

RECIPE

 

Pastry cream, cooked very thick and cooled in the refrigerator for a few hours. For pastry cream recipe, click here

Two 9″ disks of pate sucree, rolled to about 1/4″ of an inch For pate sucree recipe, click here

1/4 cup of pine nuts

Powder sugar

1. Fit the first disk of pate sucree in a 9″ fluted pie plate.

2. Pour the cooled pastry cream inside. Cover with the second disk of pate sucree and crimp the edges, sealing them well.

3. Brush a little bit of milk or egg wash on the top of the tart and scatter the pine nuts to cover. If you are feeling creative, you can create pretty patterns.

4. Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes or until the dough looks golden.

5. Let cool and dust with powder sugar before serving.

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PIAZZA GRANDE

There are monuments or landmarks that come to represent a city – think Big Ben in London or the Tour Eiffel in Paris. And then there are people so closely associated with a city they become the embodiment of it.

My birth city, Bologna, is known for its two leaning towers, for its red roofs and for the oldest university in the world (and for its food). The main medieval square is wide and open, framed by porticos, an unfinished cathedral and a pretty palace. It’s the heart of the city, whether you sit on the church steps or at one of the fancy cafes and watch the world go by, the groups of old men huddled in their coats to talk about sports and politics and the tourists with their noses in the air.

Some of the most personal images of Piazza Maggiore came in a song by Lucio Dalla, a famous singer songwriter who, despite his success, chose to keep on living and working in the warmth of his native Bologna. Lucio died yesterday and, among the many songs I browsed on You Tube to feel closer to home, I am choosing to post the one about the Piazza I grew up in, the one I said goodbye to the night before leaving for good, the one that is always there, immutable in its medieval beauty, whenever I choose to go back.

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SNOW DAYS

Snow in Bologna

Snow days announced themselves by their utter silence. Tucked under the covers, the familiar traffic hum that would greet my waking, the cars going around the square where I lived, would be eerily absent. I would crawl to the window, hoping not to see any buses skulking around, a sure sign that school was out of the question.Then I would bundle up, don after ski boots and enjoy the crackle of the white powder under my feet, before it had a chance to turn brown and muddy.

These days, I live the experience of snow vicariously. Even if it flurried for about ten minutes five years ago, I am pretty sure that doesn’t count. In Bologna, though, where I come from, at this point they have had enough of the snow, that fell, pretty much uninterrupted, for two weeks. With most of Europe in the grip of snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures, I feel more and more guilty  about the unprecedented warm winter California has been enjoying. For the first time in years, though, I wish I could experience the surprise of waking up and instantly knowing I was snowed in.

Photo courtesy of Bruno Barbiroli

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