29 December 2009

Buon Anno a Tutti

SARONNO, Italy - New Year’s Eve always conjures up memories of my first New Year’s Eve in Milan. I hadn’t lived in the city very long, having recently moved from the swaying palm trees and blue Mediterranean Sea of the Riviera to the industrial north. My new apartment was in a densely populated part of town, a well kept working class neighborhood.

At the stroke of midnight rockets started flying off the balconies of the apartment buildings on my street. With fireworks whistling through the air before exploding, first from one side and then the other, it sounded like we were under attack. Everyone seemed to be competing with everyone else as to who could launch the biggest bang, and of course they were all out on their balconies drinking Spumante and yelling and cheering as the fireworks sailed through the air and exploded.

A friend of mine had come over for dinner, a single American in Milan like me, and while we were fascinated with the spectacle before us, I kept pulling her back into the apartment because I was afraid that one of the rockets was going to hit us.

Instead what was hit was another balcony in my building, on the floor below me. The apartment was closed up tight as the young couple who lived there were away spending the holidays with their families. Whatever they had left out on their balcony, probably newspapers, had caught on fire.

I remember screaming ‘fuoco’, ‘fuoco’, which is the word for fire but not the right word for that kind of fire, and waving my arms in the air at the people who lived in the apartment above the one that was on fire. They very neighborly waved back and raised their glasses of Spumante* and probably called out Happy New Year, but all I could hear was the whistling and exploding fireworks.

I kept shouting and shaking my head no and waving my arms and pointing to the balcony below them and finally they looked over and saw the flames. They froze. It was like the film had stopped. They ran back into their apartment and got some bottles of mineral water and leaning over their balcony they began trying to pour the water on the flames. At that point the flames were pretty high so they had to run in and out of their apartment dozens of times to refill those plastic 2 liter bottles. They did eventually manage to put the fire out without the help of the fire department. Linda and I let out a collective sigh of relief and went back in, poured ourselves a big glass of Scotch and just sat there, stunned.

So far this week the Carabineri have confiscated 50 tons of illegal fireworks, mostly made in China. The daily talk shows talk on ad nauseum about the dangers of playing around with the illegal poppers and rockets, and show photos of those who have lost hands and eyes, and even died but the warnings fall on deaf ears.

So once again the headlines on January 1, 2010 will be the number of accidents and deaths involving illegal fireworks, and the only thing that will have changed is the date.

Photos: Sparkling Spumante wine; View from my Milan balcony

26 December 2009

When The Weather Outside is Frightful

SARONNO, Italy - It snowed in Saronno last week and the town was paralyzed. It's not that we don't have snow plows, we do, even if they remind me of toy Tonka trucks. And they do clean some of the streets some of the time, but in general the snow policy is to ignore it. It will all melt in a day or two anyway, so why stress about it.

The storm dropped about 4 or 5 inches of snow, which may be an all time record. A few of my neighbors were doing their best to clean off their cars, but this isn’t an area that has a lot of experience with snow storms so they don’t have a lot to work with. From my balcony I watched the woman across the street trying to clean her car off with a plastic dust pan. Some of the men were using brooms, which as a snow removal tool is probably better than the dust pan, but their technique left a lot to be desired. Call me judgmental if you want, but I grew up in upstate New York, close to where the U.S. Army does its Arctic training, so if there is anything I know about, it’s snow.

A few years back, after another not particularly heavy snow storm, the city of Milan hired a few North Africans to clean off the sidewalks. They were working in groups of four and five and it was obvious they had never tackled this kind of problem before. Dressed in traditional hooded djellabas and armed with Italian twig brooms, the kind witches ride, they were fluffing the snow this way and that, everywhere but off the sidewalk. This year 800 soldiers were brought in to do the job.

And speaking of Milan, after last week's storm all hell broke loose. Commuters at Milan’s Central train station waiting to board the train for Lecco got fed up with all of the delays and stormed the train. And passengers waiting for a train to Puglia became so frustrated a scuffle broke out and the police had to be called in.

In another incident eight hundred passengers on a train coming into Milan from the hinterland were held up for six hours due to a break in an electrical line. With no electricity the train’s heating system couldn’t function and emergency medical crews had to intervene.

Even the newly launched much publicized high speed train the Freccia Rossa, the Red Arrow, was brought to its knees by the weather and had to be towed into the Parma train station by an old diesel engine. The three hundred passengers on-board sat on the track in the middle of nowhere with little or no heat for four hours until they were rescued.

The situation was so bad the train engineers wrote an open letter of apology to the public in which they said they were embarrassed by the offensive and insensitive behavior of the train company management toward passengers. In uncharacteristic bluntness the engineers said that the FFS – Ferrovie dello Stato, the State run train company is full of executives and managers who have chosen to simply obey the government’s directives even when the objectives are wrong and sometimes dangerous. They even pointed a finger directly at the CEO of the FFS, Mauro Moretti, saying that instead of apologizing to the public and removing the people responsible for the problem he chose to attack everyone including the passengers, the newspapers and the train engineers.

Traveling by train has always been one of the best ways to get around Italy but it has become less of a pleasure and more of a chore these past few years. When I wrote for the New York fashion newspaper Women’s Wear Daily, many of the shows I covered were not in Milan. I often traveled to Florence and Bologna and beyond and I witnessed the gradual decline in quality and service. My hope for 2010 is that the train engineers get their wish. In the meantime, the beat goes on.

Photo: 19th century painting of Milan’s Porta Ticinese under the snow by Anonimo.

20 December 2009

Neapolitan Christmas

SARONNO, Italy - Nativity scenes, depicting the birth of Christ, have been around for more than 2,000 years. St. Francis is said to have created the first when he used figurines to honor the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day in 1223.

In the beginning nativity figurines were simple, handmade wooden statues of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, and Three Wise Men presenting gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were placed against a painted background of a stable in Bethlehem. But as time passed the crèche became more and more elaborate and the plain wooden figures gave way to elaborately dressed figurines made from terra-cotta. But Nativity figurines didn’t develop into a true art form until Neapolitan sculptors began making them.

The traditional figurines are still made by a handful of Neapolitan artisans using traditional methods developed in Naples hundreds of years ago. About twelve years ago, when I was the Associate Editor of an English language magazine in Milan, I interviewed Signora Clementia Colella, one of the few women in Naples producing hand-made nativity figurines. I wanted to interview her again for this article and tried to locate her earlier this week, but I wasn’t successful.

During our last interview she explained that the figurines she makes are the traditional type with terracotta heads, shoulders, arms and legs. She said the terracotta pieces are fired in a kiln near her workshop and aged using an old technique of covering the pieces with wax and baking them in an extremely hot oven. The baking process produces the lovely aged patina that adds to the character of the figurines.

After they are aged, beautiful glass eyes are put in place and the heads are painted. The completed heads are then connected to wire forms which are then stuffed with various types of material and wadding to create the figurine body. At this point the arms and legs are attached and the figurine is ready to be dressed. It’s labor intensive work.

Signora Colella told me that it was during the 1600’s that the art of making terracotta nativity figurines spread from Naples to the rest of Europe. The French still favor traditional Neapolitan figurines and at the time of our last interview, French boutiques and specialty shops in Paris, and other parts of France, were selling those made by Signora Colella.

If you are in going to be in New York City during the holidays, there is a Neapolitan Baroque crèche, flanked by 18th century Neapolitan angels and cherubs, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from November 23, 2009 through January 6, 2010.

14 December 2009

Auntie Pasta's Favorite Pasta

SARONNO, Italy - The undisputed star of the Italian Christmas table is tortellini in brodo. And if it isn't tortellini, it will surely be another type of filled pasta. The three most popular are cappelletti, tortellini and ravioli, and each one has specific characteristics.

Cappelletti, (little hats) are named after a type of padded Medieval hat that wrapped around the wear’s head. This type of pasta is very popular in the region of Emilia Romagna, but…. the cappelletti of Reggio Emilia are generally filled with meat while those from Romagna are most often filled with cheese, traditionally three different types of cheese.

Ravioli have another story. Some say the name comes from rabiola, a Medieval word for turnip, which was used as filling during the Middle Ages. Others claim that the name ravioli more likely came from the Raviolo family, a family of restaurateurs, who emigrated from Gavi in the province of Piedmonte, to Genova sometime during the 13th century. They were the first to record a recipe for this type of pasta.

Tortellini are similar to cappelletti but the pasta is thinner and instead of being named after a hat, they are said to be named after the shape of Venus’ bellybutton. It is generally believed that tortellini are the direct descendents of the most ancient form of filled pasta, and given the fact that there are so many references to tortellini in Italian literature, in 1974 the Confraternita’ del Tortellino decided to register the original recipe with the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna, just in case someone else got the bright idea of claiming tortellini as their own.

Tortellini and cappelletti are most often served in a clear broth, while ravioli, unless they are filled with meat, are served with melted butter and sage and a little grated parmesan cheese.

There was a time when you only saw filled pasta during the holidays, but today you can find them all year round. You can buy fresh pasta in most grocery stores but the best comes from small speciality shops. The one in Saronno is interesting because the pasta making machine is in the window. You can watch as the owners crank out noodles and sheets of pasta that will later be used for lasagna or cut into squares for one of the many filled pasta shapes.

Here in northern Italy we consume about 66% of the total production of commercially made filled pasta, while in the center of the country that number drops to 22% and it drops even lower, 12%, in the south. Filled pastas make up 50% of all the pasta produced in Italy and 70% of all the fresh pasta produced. That’s a lotta pasta.

Photos: (1)Tortellini in brood (2 Nimble Fingers

10 December 2009

City of Lights - Turin

TURIN, Italy – When people say the Turinese have their noses in the air, it’s true. But there’s a reason for it. It’s Christmas and at Christmas the sky above the city becomes a canvas where artists create a dazzling collection of twinkling sculptures. Strings of lights are transformed into planetary creations, comets seem to flash across the sky, at first bright and then dim, and celestial spheres create light shows before our very eyes.

In the large piazza in front of the Porta Nuova train station figures of tall wise men in oriental costumes announce the birth of Christ. Figures of children dance in celebration, illuminated by the thousands of lights that decorate the trees behind them. And in the center of it all, the Holy Family.

It's a pleasure to walk around Turin at any time of the year. The city is beautiful and has a strong sense of style. Stately baroque buildings house world class museums, an elaborate royal palace anchors the city center, and turn-of-the-century cafes rival those of Vienna.

Not one to rest on its architectural laurels, Turin is home to industrial design houses like Pininfarina and Italdesign Giugiaro, companies that became world famous designing Fiat, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo sports cars. Style is part of the fabric of this city.

Turin’s Egyptian museum has the best collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo. The city is also the keeper of the Holy Shroud. While the Shroud is rarely on display, there is a museum in the crypt of the S.S. Sudario church which documents the history of the Shroud.

Through the center runs the Via Roma, the city’s main shopping street. And there are still more shops on the long pedestrian only Via Garibaldi, and under the arcades of the Via Po. Two Italian department stores, Coin and Rinascente, are on Via Lagrange, and on the side streets there are many small specialty shops selling a little bit of this and that, including jewelry, fabrics and baking equipment.

Turin also has a number of world class cafes. With delightful 18th century gilded baroque interiors, they rival the cafes of Vienna. But in Turin the barmen are movie star handsome and dressed for a Hollywood opening in stiff white shirts and black bow ties.

If you are visiting in the winter, order a bicerin, a cold weather specialty, and watch them mix thick, rich hot chocolate with a shot of espresso coffee and top it with a layer of frothy cream, and do it faster than you can say delizioso.

Now, you’d think great museums, good shopping, fabulous cafes and easily the best cuisine in Italy would be enough for any city, but the best is yet to come. Turin is a chocolate lovers paradise. According to a popular guide to top European chocolate makers, there are more master chocolatiers in Turin than in all of Belgium and France combined. The two most coveted are Peyrano Fabbrica di Cioccolato, and Tourinto di Gobino.

Chocolate making is such a serious business here there is even an annual citywide chocolate festival called ChocolaTò, which is held every spring. With more than one hundred stands and kiosks set up around town, you can eat chocolate from morning ‘till night. City restaurants prepare special chocolate based menus, and chocolate shops, pastry shops and bars are decorated with eye-popping assortments of chocolate goodies. There are also chocolate tastings, chocolate seminars, chocolate displays, and chocolate competitions. It’s enough to make a girl’s head spin.

Photos: Christmas nativity, Wise men, handsome barman, Bicerin for Two

Buon Natale

SARONNO, Italy - The first Christmas I spent in Italy was in Rome. I was studying Italian and living in an apartment near the Spanish Steps. Throughout the city, shops and streets were decorated like sparkling jewels and even though it wasn’t cold and there was no snow, the feeling of Christmas was in the air.

In Piazza Mignanelli, the small piazza next to the Spanish Steps, there was a tall statue of the Virgin Mary with a low fence around it. Under the statue there were many presents, all wrapped in colorful Christmas paper.

On the afternoon of December 8th, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, Pope John Paul II made an appearance in the piazza. With him were the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, the Mayor and a large contingency of firemen. And a lot of people. After the blessing, the firemen placed a wreath of flowers on the head of the statue of the Virgin Mary. The gifts were collected and I suppose distributed to the city’s poor, or given to Catholic charities. I only spoke a few words of Italian at the time, so it wasn’t as if I understood what was happening. But what was obvious was that the Pope’s visit and the distribution of gifts was a long standing Roman tradition.

In the Piazza Navona the Christmas market was in full swing. All around the oval piazza there were stands selling Christmas trinkets and toys and cakes and candy, including traditional Torrone and the dreaded black lumps of candy coal that the Befana puts in the stockings of naughty boys and girls on January 6th. There were things for grown-ups too, but it was the sound of kids laughing and squealing with joy that filled the air during that Roman Christmas.

During the Christmas holidays families go from church to church to see the nativity scenes. What I loved the most in Rome was watching parents and grandparents squat down in front of a nativity scene, and in a whisper, explain to the kids the real meaning of Christmas. Sometimes it would be an older brother or sister doing the explaining, and once the little ones understood what they were looking at, they quickly became nativity connoisseurs, comparing the nativity in front of them with others they had seen.

Christmas in Italy is a religious holiday, spent with family and friends, warm and comforting in the knowledge that you are with those who mean the most to you. It isn’t customary to send Christmas cards, people telephone instead and every conversation starts with Auguri, and ends with Buone Feste. And I wish the same to all of you. Auguri, Buone Feste and Merry Christmas.

Photo: Adorazione dei Pastori by Giovan Gerolamo Savoldo

05 December 2009

Auntie Pasta's Brasato al Barolo

 Brasato al Barolo

SARONNO, Italy - There’s an Italian cooking program on television that I like to watch called Classic Italian cooking. The chef, Mario Bacherini, is a young guy who really knows his stuff. From his name I think he comes from Naples, but I may wrong. Sometimes he says things like “this is my mother’s recipe for pesto, ciao mama,” so maybe he is from Liguria. I may be reading too much into it. His mother could be from anywhere and just make a good pesto sauce.

Italian food differs greatly from region to region and where someone comes from plays a big part in the way they cook. If they come from an area near the sea, they probably are good with fish dishes; if they are from the mountains you can expect to see more game and polenta and dumpling like things, and if they are from southern Italy whatever they are cooking is probably going to have tomatoes in it or on it. Which is fine by me. It’s all fine by me. I’ve yet to find an Italian dish that I won’t eat – well, that may be a slight exaggeration; there are a few things that will clamp my jaws shut but that’s another story for another day.

For me, cooking in Italy is a dream come true, if I’m cooking Italian food. Whatever the little food devil gives me a hankering for, I can usually find it in the market. And if I can’t find it in the supermarket then most certainly I will find it at the outdoor food market that we have in Saronno every Wednesday. That formula works as long as I don’t hanker for anything that isn’t in season, that is.

Right now there are tons of artichokes, eggplant, peppers, green beans, fennel and several dark greens like catalogna and bietole in the shops. There is also cauliflower, both white and green and another green spikey thing called Roman broccoli, that looks weird and tastes like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. And if I go to the fruttivendolo, aka the greengrocer, I can also find fat porcini mushrooms.

Today I am starting a brasato in Barolo, or beef in red wine. I’m following Mario’s recipe rather than Julia Child’s Boef Bourguignon, because I don’t have bacon or mushrooms which are called for in the French recipe. Regular bacon as we know it is difficult to find. I can buy pancetta, Italian bacon, which is sold chopped up in cubes or by the slice, and while technically it is smoked bacon, it really isn’t the same.

In the Italian version of beef in red wine, I have to marinate the beef in the refrigerator overnight. The marinade is made up of red wine, celery, onions, carrots, a couple of whole cloves, and a bay leaf. Maybe a clove of garlic could go in there too, but I can do that when I cook it.

Tomorrow I will take the meat out of the marinade, pat it dry, brown it in a large pot, put the vegetables back in the pot, add the marinade and cook it on top of the stove for about an hour, or until it is tender. After 15 hours in a bath of red wine, I don’t think it will take much cooking to get the meat to the fork tender stage.

Brasato in Barolo is a recipe from the Piedmont region, which is in the northern part of Italy, on the side close to France. There’s a great food culture in Piedmont, it’s where the Slow Food Movement was born, and the main city, Torino, has some of the best restaurants and food purveyors in Italy. It is also a large wine producing area.

So the lunch menu at Auntie Pasta’s tomorrow is going to be brasato al Barolo with polenta, and for desert pears poached in white wine.

LIFE: Amanda Knox

 Putting on a Happy Face?
PERUGIA, Italy - The Amanda Knox trial ran non-stop on cable TV in Italy this week as the judges moved closer to making a decision as to whether or not this young American girl is guilty of murdering her British roommate. Then the final sentence: Guilty. The Italians think it is right. She acts guilty, they say.

The day before the sentencing I watched a nervous Amanda address the judges, telling them she isn’t as calm and cheerful as she pretends to be. In fact she is very nervous. Her cheerful attitude throughout the trial, and her bizarre behavior in court were merely her way of trying to stay positive, and not an indication of her disregard for the seriousness of the situation.

I believe her. What I can’t believe is how a bright young woman didn’t figure out at the beginning of the trial that her carefree behavior was not appropriate. I’m not making a judgment on her guilt or innocence, what I’m talking about is perception.

Anyone who has spent time in Italy will tell you that the Italians are not the pasta twirling wine swigging jolly good fellows we often see on American TV. They are serious people and react to bad situations in a serious way.

Several months ago, when an earthquake brought down a town in central Italy, the survivors were seen collapsing in sorrow. Their homes were gone, their children buried under piles of rubble, and the survivors openly sobbed with grief. But when a similar disaster hit America, people were seen smiling and laughing and saying, oh well yes, it is terrible but we’ll survive, we’ll just start over again. This putting on a happy face type of behavior is totally confusing to the Italians. What are they laughing about, they ask me. It’s a disaster. They’ve lost their homes, they’ve lost everything, they should be crying.

What the Italians don’t understand is that giving in to adversity just isn’t the American way. We are pioneers, survivors and like that old song says, we pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off and start all over again.

But that isn’t the Italian way and Amanda was on trial in Italy. The legal system is different here. It is based on Roman law, not English law, and simply put you are considered guilty until you prove yourself innocent. The burden of proof is on you. It wasn’t up to the court to prove Amanda guilty; it was up to Amanda to prove she is innocent.

So what kind of impression did Amanda think she was making when she was turning cartwheels in court and laughing and smiling. Surely she knew she was faced with the high probability of being found guilty. That alone would have a sobering effect on anyone. And now, faced with 26 years in prison, she’s asking why no one believed her?

Some twenty years ago, when I first moved to Italy, someone said to me: “Signora, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to stop smiling so much.” That little gem of wisdom struck a chord with me and turned out to be the best advice I ever got. It’s too bad someone didn’t give Amanda that same advice. It may at least garnered her some sympathy with the Italian public, and in a country where perception is king, that would have been good.

02 December 2009

AUNTIE PASTA: Me and Waverly Root

COLONNATA, Italy - “After the richness of the food in the region of Lucca and the north central Garfagnana,” wrote food guru Waverly Root in his food bible, The Food of Italy, “Massa-Carrara is a sad come down. It has little history, gastronomic or otherwise, except that of marble”.

Dear Mr. Root, if you don’t mind my saying so, you were searching in the wrong direction. If you had looked up you would have seen Colonnata, a tiny borgo in the heart of Italy’s marble quarries, just seven short kilometers above the Tuscan town of Carrara. Colonnata is famous for two things: the first is marble, the creamy white marble that artists like Michaelangelo have coveted for centuries; and the second is lardo, a creamy white gastronomic treasure and darling of sophisticated culinary circles. Not lard, which is strutto in Italian, but lardo, pork back fat, seasoned with sea salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, cloves and other spices.

For the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that up to now I had successfully managed to avoid eating the stuff. I didn’t like anything about it, not the idea, or even the sound of it. So when my friends Sandy and Ray, suggested going to Colonnata for lunch, I confess my stomach lurched.

“Trust me,” said Sandy, picking up the phone to make a reservation at the Trattoria Locandapuana, “you’re going to love this place”.

Late the next morning, we leave their old farmhouse just outside of Lucca and head for Carrara and the Tuscan coast. From the highway the rugged peaks of the Apuan Alps that frame Colonnata glistened in the sunshine, large sections of their façade cut away revealing the sparkling white stone underneath. As we get closer to Carrara, tall orange cranes and other pieces of heavy equipment parked along the edges of the deep quarries come into focus.

From Carrara, it only takes another 15 minutes to drive up the winding mountain road to Colonnata, and as we walk into the small vine covered trattoria, I can feel my throat closing up. It was just about 1’o’clock, lunchtime in Italy, and the restaurant was crowded. I looked around the room. There was only one vacant table and it had our name on it.

As an appetizer Sandy ordered lardo with quince mostarda, a sweet and spicy marmalade, Ray settled on lardo with a mostarda of figs and juniper berries. There was no getting away from it. Everything on the menu, except for desert was, in some way or another, made, flavored or wrapped in lardo. With beads of sweat popping out on my forehead I ordered crostini, toasted bread rounds topped with lardo, anchovies, tomatoes and thyme, hoping the strong flavor of the anchovies and thyme would overpower the flavor of the lardo.

Ray and Sandy insist on sharing the appetizers when they arrived, and as our dishes passed around the table mine came back to me with their unwelcomed choices and one lone crostini.

With my knees pressed together in anticipation of eating something foul, I bite into the crostini. It was warm. I swallowed fast. I tasted nothing.

As I watched Sandy and Ray eating their appetizers with obvious gusto, I decided I was being ridiculous. I cut a tiny piece of one of the pale, thin lardo slices on the plate in front of me, put it on a bit of rustic bread, covered it with a dab of quince mostarda, popped it in my mouth. The lardo was not greasy or chewy as I had feared, but savory and silky and filled my mouth with a flash of rich flavor. The quince mostarda, which I also had my doubts about, added a contrasting touch of sweetness. I tried another piece of lardo, this time with a little fig and juniper berry mostarda, then another, and another, and before I knew it my plate was empty.

“There are many elements that go into creating that melt in your mouth taste, starting with the spices,” explained Dario Galimberti, who with wife Carla, run the popular trattoria.
“Every family in Colonnata, including Carla’s, has its own secret recipe for the salt and spice mix they use.”

“More than two thousand years ago, the Romans established a colony in Colonnata and the marble their slaves pulled from these mountains was used to build the Coliseum and other monumental buildings throughout the Roman Empire,” he says, “and the lardo that was produced back then nourished centurions and slaves alike.”

The curing techniques used today are pretty much the same as those used in the days of the Romans. The process starts when the fresh lardo is layered in special marble casks, called conche (con-kay), which are made at the Canaloni quarries up the road. But before the lardo is put in, the bottom and sides of the conche must be rubbed with the salt and spice mixture and a layer of spices placed on the bottom of the cask. Then a layer of lardo is added, alternating each additional layer with the salt and spices. The procedure is repeated until all the conche are filled. Finally the casks are sealed with a slab of heavy marble and placed in the cold, dark quarry caves to wait for nature to take its course. 

“The humidity in the caves, along with the sea breezes and the cool mountain air that circulates around the porous marble casks, add to the flavor of the lardo,” says Galimberti, “much the same way that a wine’s bouquet is influenced by where the grapes are grown.”

There isn’t a restaurant, bar or Mom and Pop store in Colonnata that doesn’t sell lardo, all of it “produzione proprio”, homemade. Locals from Massa-Carrara, and Italians vacationing in Forte dei Marmi, and other resorts along the Italian Riviera, make regular gastronomic pilgrimages to Colonnata. It’s a centuries old tradition.

And when the quarries are running quarry workers, covered with marble dust, come and sit on marble benches pulled up to marble tables outside of the restaurants. They sit next to suit and tie managers and marble buyers from around the world, and they are all here for the same thing: the lardo. Even Michelangelo would take the time to enjoy a meal or two of lardo when he journeyed to these marble mountains in the mid 1500’s to select the stones for his masterpieces, including the David and the Pieta’.

Certainly my next encounter with lardo will be much less traumatic, but no less enjoyable. I don’t know when that will be but, whenever it is, you can be sure I will be thinking of you, Mr. Root.
Yours truly,
Auntie Pasta

Via Comunale 1, Colonnata - Carrara
Tel/Fax: 0585 768017 Reservations necessary
Closed Sunday evenings and all day Monday
And from December 24 to February 1.

29 November 2009

Greetings from Saronno

SARONNO, Italy - It wasn’t until someone asked me where they could buy postcards of Saronno that I realized there are no postcards of Saronno. There aren’t any stickers that say I heart Saronno, or Go Saronno soccer banners either. And as far as I know absolutely nothing ever happened here that anyone would want to know about. I also realized that is what I like the most about this place.

Saronno is an old, unpretentious market town that has been around since the days of the Romans. If the name rings a bell, it’s probably because of Amaretto di Saronno liqueur and Lazzaroni cookies, which both come from here.
 Otherwise absolutely nothing of any importance ever happened here, no one famous was ever born here or even visited here, not even Cecilia Gallerani and she was the Countess of Saronno.

“Who?” said my neighbor. “There was a Countess of Saronno?”

“They would know who she is if you showed them a picture of The Lady with Ermine," said her husband who clams to know about these things. "That is what Leonardo daVinci named the portrait he painted of her in 1490,” he says. “Saronno was a gift to Cecilia from her lover, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He is the one who lived in the castle and the one who started construction on the Basilica of Milan. Actually the Duke gave Saronno to their son Caesar, who was born in 1491,” he continues, “the same year the Duke married Beatrice d’Este.”

“The Duke and Cecilia had a baby and then he married another woman? And what about Cecilia?” I ask, “what happened to her?”

“Nothing,” says my neighbor. “The Duke eventually married her off to his best friend and moved them into a palazzo just outside of Milan. The Duke and Cecilia continued to see each other, even after she was married, but then he got involved with another woman, Lucrezia Crivelli, and that was that.”

“His poor wife,” I say. “So what year was that?”

“Around 1492,” he says. “A few years later the Duke was defeated by the French and for the next couple of years Saronno and Milan, and the rest of his Dukedom was under French control. But then the Duke formed an alliance with the Pope, and with the help of the Pope’s army and Swiss, German and Spanish mercenaries he was able to recapture his Dukedom. Then the bubonic plague hit.”

“Didn’t anything nice ever happen here?” I ask.

“Not that I know of,” he says. “Actually, most of the old people you see in Saronno now weren’t born here, they came from Milan during World War II, like me. I was only a little kid but I remember it very well. It was the summer of 1942, the year I was suppose to start school that the British began bombing Italy. By the autumn of that year, they had dropped more than 1,600 tons of explosives on northern Italy. Milan was in shambles: block after block of apartment buildings and businesses were reduced to smoking piles of rubble, the roads and bridges were totally destroyed. It was terrible. We lived in constant fear. We had no food. I remember my mother standing in long lines clutching the coupons that we were given for our daily ration of flour, sugar and other essentials. That’s how we lived, on those rations. My brothers and I often went to bed hungry. Sometimes at night my mother would pull us out of bed and with the wail of air raid sirens in our ears, she would rush us into the basement of our building. Everyone in the building would be down there and we would huddle around a short-wave radio listening to Radio London and the Voice of America, praying for the news that the Americans had landed. When that happened, we moved out here, to Saronno because my mother knew they would be fighting in the streets of Milan, and that’s exactly what happened.”

After that conversation I began looking at my neighbors differently. I even felt more kindly toward Father Franco and his cackling chickens. Feeling guilty I decided that maybe the chickens were not such a big deal after all, and then I realized that I hadn’t heard them for a couple of days. They were gone.

“Don’t worry about it,” said my neighbor. “It wasn’t you. There’s a town ordinance that doesn’t allow farm animals to be kept in residential areas. It just takes a while for things to happen here.”

Maybe it’s just as well. It sounds to me like enough has happened here already.