28 March 2010

LIFE: Fi Fai Fo Fun

SARONNO, ITALY - FAI, (Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano) is an Italian organization set up in 1975 to help protect some of Italy’s national artistic and historic heritage. It is a non-profit organization and operates much like American’s National Trust for Historic Preservation and Great Britain’s National Trust Foundation.

Like its sister organizations FAI (pronounced FYE) not only provides much needed financial support for the maintenance and restoration of historical sites and works of art, but it also conducts awareness campaigns to try and raise the level of public sensitivity to the historic and architectural value of Italy's many treasures.

With more than one hundred thousand historic churches, fifty thousand historic centers, three thousand museums that contain more than forty thousand works of art, six thousand libraries and literally thousands of archeological sites, Italy's historic heritage is one of the most important in the world.

But how can you not shake your head in frustration at the pitiful condition of some of the beautiful old buildings here in Italy? Or curse when you find visiting hours severely restricted or no longer valid at the museum you wanted to visit? The question is always the same. Why don’t the Italians do something about this? How can they allow historic properties sit and deteriorate and the treasures in them to collect dust? At the very least, can’t they clean these buildings up?

Unfortunately the answer is that because of budget constraints, only 0.25% of Italy's annual budget is allotted for the maintenance and restoration of the country’s artistic and historic patrimony. That’s why many museums are closed or partly closed, archeological sites are abandoned and important monuments are left to crumble in clouds of smog and public indifference. Italy is overwhelmed. There is just so much, too much, to do.

A few years ago the Italian Prime Minister introduced a bill setting up two private companies to manage the state’s assets and properties. In theory, works of art and historical monuments, including the Colosseum in Rome, can now be sold off to the highest bidder.
When Vittorio Sgarbi, the then under-secretary in the Ministry of Culture, heard about it he put up such a fuss the directors of 50 museums and galleries, including the National Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum, the Louvre, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Prado, wrote to the Italian government calling on it to put public interest before profit. And while the government has repeatedly denied it does not want to sell Italy's monuments, there is no provision in the Bill to protect national treasures.

In the meantime FAI continues to sponsor special events to raise money for care and preservation of historical venues under its patronage. As part of their annual Spring Open House this year, FAI will open the doors to 590 sites throughout Italy and allow the public to visit historic castles, palazzi, churches, monasteries and private gardens that they would otherwise not have an opportunity to see. 

This year the Palazzo Chigi in Rome, the Bank of Italy in Florence, Palazzo Grimaldi della Meridiana Palazzo in Genoa, the Baptistery of the Cathedral of St. Anthony in Padova, and the Castle of Massino in Piedmont are on the list.

The one I want to see is the Palazzo Grimaldi della Meridiana in Genoa. It’s a splendid 16th century palazzo, right at the end of one of the most beautiful streets in the world, the Via Garibaldi. During the years I lived in Genoa, the Meridiana was just another grime covered palazzo, part of a long list of grime covered Genovese palazzi. And while many Genovese palazzi got face lifts and make-overs for the Colombus Celebration in 1992, the Meridiana wasn’t one of them.

Then a couple of months ago when I was in Genoa for the Rolli Days, I saw that it was being renovated. It was almost completely covered in scaffolding except for the space where the large sundial, the Meridiana, used to be. 

The palazzo was built by Gerolamo Grimaldi, who became a Cardinal in the Catholic Church after his wife died in 1527. The Grimaldi family, originally called Grimaldo, originated in Genoa and dates back to the days of the Crusades. It was, and is, a family of wealth and power and the family tree includes Cardinals, Archbishops, Doges of Genoa, Ambassadors to the King of France, and many princes of Monaco including Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Grace Kelly’s husband.

I read in the Genoa newspaper that one of the works of art they found in the palazzo was a 15th century statue of St. Michael the Archangel that they think came from one the oldest churches in Genoa. I wonder what else they will find. 

Like a lot of palazzi here in Italy the Meridiana isn't a private residence anymore. Instead the space is used for goverment offices. The Grimaldi have another palazzo in Genoa that I suspect is even more sumptuous than the Meridiana. I wonder if that one will ever be opened for a FAI Day. I love going through the old palazzi in Genoa. Forget the Texas wealth of Dynasty and Dallas, remember those programs? The Meridiana, and the other palazzi on the street were built during a period of history the world called the Century of the Genovese. For more information the FAI website is
http://www.giornatafai.it/ (in Italian). You'll find a complete list of this spring's sites.

Photos: (1) Castello Masino, Piedmont, (2) Ceiling Baptistry Cathedral of St. Anthony, Padua, (3) Palazzo Chigi, Rome, (4) The "before" photo of Palazzo Grimaldi della Meridiana, all managed by FAI.

25 March 2010

AUNT PASTA: - Oil Change

SARONNO, Italy - It’s time to prune my little herb garden and I'm going to use the trimming to make a couple of bottles of flavored oil. I bought the oil last week, extra virgin olive oil from Liguria, which I like for flavored oil because it is light. You can use other oils, peanut or sunflower, but oilve oil is the most pure and does the best job of capturing the flavor of the herbs. You can use almost any combination of herbs, it just depends on what flavor you are looking for and the type of food you want to use the oil on. The method is always the same.

An Italian cookbook I picked up a few years ago called ‘Cooking with Aromatic Herbs’ suggests that after you’ve decided on the flavor you want, cut your herbs into small springs and wash them carefully. If you are using more than one herb, tie them together with a piece of kitchen string. Push the herb bundle into a clean, dry bottle and cover it with oil. If you use the oil daily, keep refilling the bottle with oil as the oil level goes down. If you don’t use the oil often, it’s best to only make a half a liter because after a while the herbs tend to break down. They recommend the following herb combinations for one liter of olive oil.
For fish, grilled or roasted meat: sprigs of sage, rosemary and black peppercorns.
For spaghetti: 2 cloves of garlic, 4 small hot red peppers and a small spring of rosemary.
For white meat (turkey, chicken, pork): thyme, marjoram and white peppercorns
For pizza: 2 springs of oregano, a scallion, 2 small hot red peppers
For red meat and game: 2 bay leaves, 3 black peppercorns and 3 white peppercorns.

While ‘Cooking with Aromatic Herbs’ recommends tying the herbs together and keeping the peppercorns, garlic and hot pepper whole, I find that chopping the herbs and breaking up the garlic and peppercorns releases more flavor. And I tend to use more herbs and spices than they do. I’ve also found that making two bottles of flavored oil at a time works better than adding fresh oil to a bottle. It takes at least a week for the oil to infuse with the flavor of the herbs and, in my opinion, if you add fresh oil on top of your flavored oil, it dilutes the flavor.

My favorite combination is rosemary, garlic, black peppercorns and hot red pepper. For a liter of olive oil I use three or four long sprigs of fresh rosemary, at least 5 inches long; one or two garlic cloves; a pinch of salt; about a teaspoon of black peppercorns; and depending on how hot they are, one or two little red peppers.

I start by washing, drying and then stripping the rosemary leaves from the branches. Then I chop the leaves into very, very small bits and set them aside. I peel the garlic and chop and mash it with the side of a large knife. Then I add a pinch of salt and start to pulverize the garlic and salt together with my knife blade until it is mushy and completely broken down. The salt creates enough friction on the garlic to reduce it to pulp, and releases more flavor in the process.

The black peppercorns get broken up using my meat pounder. I just put them between some kitchen paper, fold it up and pound away. They just need to be in pieces, they don’t need to be pulverized or have any particular size or texture. The last step is the red hot pepperoncini. If they are really hot, I just make a small slice in the side of the pepperoncino and leave it like that. What I want is for the oil to penetrate inside the pepperoncino as the heat is all in the seeds. If they are not particularly hot, just cut them along the side so they are half open.

Then put everything in a clean bottle, fill it with olive oil, put the top on it and put it in your cupboard for at least a week. Chopped bits of rosemary may not look as pretty as entire sprigs but they do give the oil a more intense flavor.

For me, rosemary and pepper oil is the best for everyday use. I put it in and on everything including salad. The only problem I have is keeping enough of it around. A friend of mine is coming to visit the week after Easter so this weekend I’m going to make a couple bottles of oil to have on hand while she is here, and enough so she can take a bottle home if she wants to.

If you try any of the ‘Cooking with Aromatic Herb’ combinations, or my recipe, let me know what you think.
Photos: (1) flavored oils; (2) bunch of sage; (3) garlic

21 March 2010

LIFE: Snap Shot

SARONNO, Italy - On Tuesday Tatiana brought me a copy of the catalog for an exhibit of photographs by Uliano Lucas that will be featured in a gallery in Bari starting next week. Uliano Lucus is her father. He's a well known Italian photojournalist and the collection of black and white photos in the exhibit are some of the photos he has taken in Puglia over the past 30 years.

We have that connection, Tatiana and I. She knows I love photographs, especially black and white photographs, and the first time she came to my apartment she was delighted to see photographs hanging on my walls.
“Just like in the movies,” she said. 

Italians watch so many American movies their brains are full of American images they have never seen in person. So when they come face to face with the real deal, there is a flash of recognition. 

Italians don’t hang photographs on their walls, not unless they are photographs of their wedding or their children. Even then those photographs are usually confined to the hallways or entryways of their apartments. They prefer paintings. Landscapes are good but portraits of relatives are better. And the more the merrier. Of everything. 

The first time I saw this apartment the previous tenants were still living here. There was so much big heavy furniture and so many paintings and family portraits hanging on the walls that I didn’t even realize the woodwork and doors were painted lavender, and as for the second bathroom, well I discovered that after I moved in.

For the Italians my decorating style is a bit too sparse. Too minimalistic. And horrors of horrors, I don’t have drapes on my living room or dining room windows, or on any windows for that matter. I don’t even pull the tapperelle down at night. Don’t I know the gypsies are watching and waiting for just the right moment to scale the building and rob me? Apparently not. 

Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini spent a few years in Washington, DC and writes about his experiences in a book called ‘An Italian in America’. He talks about not being able to relax in the living room of his rented house in Georgetown because there were no tapperelle to pull down. Actually there were no blinds or shutters even worthy of the name, and the curtains, sheer and gossamer, were only there for decoration. People could actually walk by, look in the windows and see him sitting on the sofa watching TV. 

Roba da matti, as they say. It’s just crazy. Not that he ever saw anyone actually looking in his windows but, well you know, it’s the idea of the thing. And as for being able to sleep without the total black out and prison-like atmosphere those vertical slats of the tapperelle covering the windows provides, well he never did adjust. 

There are always adjustments to be made when you live in a foreign country, don’t get me started on that one, but truth be known after twenty years my list is shrinking. However, I had to promise Tatiana that her father’s photographs would not end up on my walls, torn from the catalog and hung in some springtime redecorating frenzy.

Lucas' Puglia photographs are particularly interesting to me. I’ve only been to Puglia once, to Bari and Lecce, and I loved everything about it. Maybe because I had such a different idea of what I would find. One of my first Italian teachers was from Bari and she always talked about the city as if it was a mile and half from hell. For years I carried around the idea that Bari was dirty and dangerous, a place to avoid at all costs. And then I went there to work on a project for the Italian Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It was nothing at all like the city she described. And as for Lecce, what I found was a city of extraordinary architecture and beauty that completely blew me away. 

Looking at the photographs in Uliano Lucas' catalog brought back those memories, and while it will be difficult not frame them, a promise is a promise. And I promised.

Photos: (1) Catalog cover; (2,3) A couple of photos I especially like from the catalog.

18 March 2010

AUNTIE PASTA - Festa Siciliana

SARONNO, ITALY - There was a Sicilian festa in Saronno last weekend. For some reason I never seem to know when these special events are going to happen, although by the number of people who were in town that day, it was obvious I was in the minority. It was just by chance that I went into the center to pick up a few things from the soap store and found the Via Roma lined with colorful stands selling everything Sicilian from bread and olive oil to wine, arancine and oranges to brightly painted ceramics and Sicilian puppets.

At the beginning of Via Roma, up near the pink church of San Francesco, a bandstand had been set up and a group of young kids were singing their little hearts out. It’s moments like these, when I find myself unexpectedly caught up in the essence of this Italian life, that I am the happiest. 

It was obvious that the delight I felt turning the corner and finding Sicily was being felt by everyone on the street. There is no denying it, there really is something special about Sicily, something in the intensity of the colors that flash hot and cold against the blue sea, the blue sky and the green trees. Yellow lemons, blush tinged blood oranges, pale green prickly pears called fichi d’India, deep purple eggplant, passionately red tomatoes and chili peppers all play their part in the Sicilian kaleidoscope of flavors and love. Sapore and Amore. And it was not lost on the Saronnese. 

The crowd was at the bread stand. Stacked up on one side were the largest loaves of bread I had ever seen in my life. They were, without exaggeration, five feet long and two feet wide. I would have liked to have seen the oven they came out of. Next to the giants lay torpedo shaped regular size breads made with olives that had been schiacciato, or crushed, and stacked next to them were regular loaves of bread studded with whole green olives. 

I ended up buying two large hunks of the big bread and half a loaf of the whole olive bread. How could I not? They were still warm from the oven. When I got home I saw that the girl who waited on me had ripped off the crustier pointed end of the olive bread, giving me only the tender middle. That was nice of her. 

The arancine at the next stand caught my eye, but I resisted. Arancine and I go back a long way, back to the days when I was in Rome studying Italian and having a hard time adjusting to the rhythm of Roman life. The problem was by the time I got back to the center of Rome where I lived from the Via Nomentana where the language school was, the banks were closed. Dare I say it was before ATM’s were introduced to Italy? That wouldn’t happen for another ten years. As a result I was chronically short of money, which greatly affected my eating habits. Per fortuna there were a couple of bars in my neighborhood where I could pick up a panino or an arancine or two. 

Arancine are rice balls that are stuffed with meat, flavored with saffron, coated with a light, crispy batter and deep fried. The recipe for arancine, along with the art of deep frying food and pastries, was brought to Sicily in the tenth century by the Arabs when the Kalbid ruled the island. Their Italian name comes from the word for orange - arancia, which are typical of western Sicily. The ones I saw yesterday were conical, which indicates they were made by people from eastern Sicily, specifically from the area around Catania. 

I walked down a little further and found a stand selling olives. There were cracked green olives with flecks of hot red pepper, whole green olives, shriveled up black olives shiny with oil and regular black olives. Above the stand the owner had hung half a dozen or so Sicilian puppets. I’m not sure if they were for sale or just decoration.

Another stand was selling Sicilian sweets. Lots of cannoli and honey and nut filled pastries called mustazzola, fried pastries called pignuccata and those delicate rice finger cookies known as zippuli were being sold next to mounds of pale cream colored torrone studded with almonds.

It was all so beautiful to see. For one mad moment I wanted to be Dorothy and start singing somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. After a week of heavy cloud cover and unseasonably cold weather it was as if the skies had opened up and a little piece of heaven had come down to give us gray soaked Northerners a little reminder of what wonderfulness lies less than an hour (by plane) south of us. Sicily.

Photos: (1) Ceramic plate with symbol of Sicily, the Trinacria; (2) stand loaves of bread about half the size as those I found in Saronno; (3) Arrancini; (4) tray of cannoli.

14 March 2010

ON THE ROAD - Mantua

This is the third in a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a recent New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track which, for me, makes them all the more interesting.

MANTUA, Italy –Almost twenty years ago, just before I left Philadelphia to live in Italy full time, I bought myself a good size black leather travel bag. The plan was to get settled in my new country and then spend weekends checking out the little Italian towns I always passed on my way to somewhere else. I had traveled to Italy often enough to know there were a lot of them, but there always seemed to be too many other things to do and see.
 Gonzaga Ducal Palace

I’ve slipped those soft leather straps over my shoulder many, many times since then, but never got around to Mantua. I remember reading somewhere that in the 1400’s Mantua was a dark and dank city infested with vermin, wolves and vultures, that travelers slept on flea ridden straw mattresses, shared their beds with strangers and the disease of the day was the bubonic plague. I sincerely hoped the town had changed since then, and say so to the woman sitting across from me on the train.

"I think you'll find things have improved," she says. “It’s actually very pretty. There are three small lakes that wrap around the town like a Renaissance moat, giving it a very romantic atmosphere. And it has one of the best preserved medieval towns in northern Italy. In fact the last time a new building went up in Mantua's historic center was back in 1561 when it was ruled by the Gonzaga family."

Oh yes, the Gonzaga family. They are what Mantua is, and always has been, about. They were one of the richest and most powerful families in Italy's history, and in this small provincial town, which today has about 65,000 inhabitants, they created a dynasty so powerful it rivaled their more famous city state neighbors, Venice and Milan.

After I check into the hotel, look at the mattress and assure myself there are no strangers lurking in the closet, I go to meet Toni Lodigiani, the Associate Director of the Mantua Tourist Bureau. He walks me over to the Ducal Palace, and as we cross the three interlinking squares of the old city, Piazzas Sordello, Broletto and delle Erbe he tells me about the Gonzaga family.

“They were shrewd and cunning soldiers of fortune, commoners who fought their way to power. They took control of Mantua in 1328, and held it with an iron fist for 400 years, buying themselves a royal title along the way,” he says.

At the Palace, what I find is a series of palazzi, dating from different periods, that have been hobbled together. It’s massive. With more than five hundred rooms and fifteen courtyards it is second in size only to the Vatican in Rome. Once inside it takes close to an hour to make my way through the maze of rooms, secret gardens and courtyards that are open to the public. From the Room of Cupid and Psyche, to the Room of the Moors, to the Room of the Mirrors, each is decorated with ornate, detailed frescos dedicated to the power and glory of the Gonzaga family.

 Detail Camera degli Sposi

During the dangerous and turbulent days of the Renaissance, strong political alliances could mean the difference between survival and surrender. The Gonzaga not only survived but they flourished through their military shrewdness and by marrying their sons to the daughters of allies and potential enemies. The women, bartered and bargained for, were used like brood hens to produce heirs for the mutual benefit of the families. For the Gonzaga there was also a serious need to introduce new blood lines as genetic defects due to excessive inter-breeding was starting to produce odd looking children.

The boys, though deformed, were generally tolerated but the girls were sent off to live out their lives in a cloistered nunnery. The painting of a young girl in elegant court dress, her face completely covered with black hair found hidden in a private Gonzaga gallery was no doubt the treasured remembrance of the girl’s mother who knew her daughter would be lost to her forever.

In 1463, when a youthful Federico Gonzaga decided to marry, his father, Ludovico, the Marquis of Mantua, hired artist Andrea Mantegna to decorate the Camera degli Sposi, or Bridal Chamber. On the walls of the small room Mantegna pictured the Duke and his wife Barbara surrounded by their children, members of their court, their servants, their dogs and their horses. With extraordinary beauty and sensitivity the artist reproduced a slice of life in the Renaissance court of Mantua. The fresco became one of Mantegna’s most famous works. 

 Portrait by Lavinia Fontana
of Young Gonzaga Girl   

 Lunch time in Mantua
During the dangerous and turbulent days of the Renaissance, strong political alliances could mean the difference between survival and surrender. The Gonzaga survived, and flourished, not only through their military shrewdness, but by marrying their sons to the daughters of allies and potential enemies. The women, bartered and bargained for, were used like brood hens to produce heirs for the mutual benefit of the families. For the Gonzaga there was also a serious need to introduce new blood lines as genetic defects due to excessive inter-breeding was starting to produce odd looking children.

The boys, though deformed, were generally tolerated but the girls were sent off to live out their lives in a cloistered nunnery. The painting of a young girl in elegant court dress, her face completely covered with black hair found hidden in a private Gonzaga gallery was no doubt the treasured remembrance of the girl’s mother who knew her daughter would be lost to her forever.

Over the next few centuries the Gongaza family put together what was to become one of Europe's most extraordinary collections of art and art objects, amassing more than 2,000 paintings and nearly 20,000 objets d'art. The collection included Correggio, Mantegna, Giulio Romano, Tintoretto, Titian; and family portraits by Titian and Rubens.

There are rumors of an impending train strike which means I may have to leave earlier than planned so I walk over to the Palazzo Te to see what else the rulers of Mantua had on their minds besides collecting art and making war.

The sun is high in the sky and prickly, so I stop at the small café in the park near the Te. It’s crowded with elegantly dressed young mothers in Dolce and Gabbana chatting and spoon feeding gelato to their cooing round-faced babies. At this hour there are no other women my age in the café, or even in the park, making me fair game for every bike riding Romeo cruising by. Safe in the knowledge that their Signoras are at home cleaning the kitchen after lunch, they feel free to stare and flash their toothless smiles. What I can’t figure out is how they can pedal along the narrow park paths and ogle me without running headlong into the trees.

The entrance to the Palazzo Te is crowded with stacks of tables and chairs ready for an event scheduled for later that evening. These days the Te is used for corporate meetings and special banquets, but back in 1525 when Federico II called the architect and artist Guilio Romano to the Ducal palace, he had another idea for the space.

Federico, (who would be granted the title of Duke just five years later), asked Romano to convert what was an abandoned stable on the outskirts of town into a summer retreat, a hideaway where he could entertain his mistress, Isabella Boschetti. What Romano gave him was the greatest of all Mannerist villas, the Te.

The Duke and Romano sat and planned the frescoes that would decorate his new palace. Federico explained that his interests ran to women and good times, and Romano listened. His fresco of the drunken Bacchus (the Roman god of wine) frolicking with plump nudes and exotic animals in a celebration of sex, food and wine in the Hall of Psyche, says it all. Federico was delighted.

Far from the spying eyes at the Ducal palace, Federico felt free. At last he could indulge in his vices and transgressions, which he happily did until he died at the age of forty, crippled by what the Italians called the French disease, and what the French called the Italian disease, syphilis.

The threatened train strike becomes a reality and I have to leave. The people at the hotel understand, train strikes are a way of life here. They shake my hand and say they hope I at least enjoyed the little time I had, and to come back soon.

I go up to my room to pack and as I glance out of the hotel window I realize the narrow street below leads to the oldest building in Mantua, the 11th century Rotunda of San Lorenzo. The past is such a vibrant part of the present here and being able to slip back hundreds of years just by turning a corner fascinates me. The Mantovani may prop their bikes against the old wall of the Ducal palace without giving a thought to the centuries of violence and bloodshed that took place on the very ground beneath their feet, but I find it difficult to take the historic treasure that is Mantua for granted.

The sky was darkening as I boarded the train. I watched as the shadowy gray sky outside the train window deepened to charcoal and then black. Mantua was much more than I expected and I hope it stays just the way it is, a simple paese with all the charm of the Italy I fell in love with all those many years ago when the scruffy old black leather bag sitting on the seat next to me was still new.

11 March 2010


SARONNO, Italy - The balcony off of my kitchen serves double duty as my herb garden and storage area. The herb garden is made up of two rather large rosemary plants, two pots of marjoram, one of sage, one oregano, another of thyme and one large pot of a wild Roman mint called mintuccia that is used to flavor artichokes.

The mintuccia plant came from a nursery in Tuscany. It is one of the things that keeps me connected to my Italian roots. My Grandmother used to get bundles of it from her sister Mary in Italy, but of course that was back in the day when you could send stuff like that through the mail. Even now, just the smell of it takes me back to when I was five years old leaning with both elbows on the kitchen table watching my Grandmother cook.

That side of the apartment gets the sun in the morning, so it’s a great place for my herbs. I love being able to go out there and get what I need when I need it. The thyme plant may have to be replaced this year, but for the others, they manage to survive year after year, always giving me enough herbs to cook with even through the winter. I use a lot of rosemary. I use it with all kinds of meats and sauces and to make bruciolo. I don’t know the English translation for bruciolo, but what it is, besides an ingenious idea, is a sprig of rosemary stuck into a clove of garlic.

I learned about bruciolo from an Italian chef, Roberto Donna. Chef Donna, originally from the Piedmont region of Italy, now lives in Washington, D.C. where he owns a number of exclusive restaurants including Galileo on 21st Street. He has won a ton of culinary awards, including the coveted Restaurateur of the Year, The Chefs of America Award, One of the Ten Best Chefs in America and the Fine Dining Hall of Fame.

Here’s what he says about bruciolo in his cookbook ‘Cooking in Piedmont’. “I like to use bruciolo…. because it gives a good, fresh aroma of garlic and rosemary to the food without overpowering the dish.”

He recommends using a spring of fresh rosemary, no more than 5 inches long and blanching it in boiling water for 30 seconds. Blanching the rosemary keeps the leaves from falling off during cooking. Be sure to insert the rosemary into the garlic at the heart of the clove.

When you are cooking, place the bruciolo in the olive oil or butter when the fat is still cool. That way the garlic and rosemary will release their full aroma without searing or burning. 
When the garlic is golden brown in color, you can remove it from the pan or leave it in. By cooking the garlic and rosemary side by side you get the best of both flavors, and you will be surprised by the flavor it leaves in the dish, good, sweet and not too strong. 

Next Week: How to make flavored oils

07 March 2010

LIFE - Stamp This

SARONNO, Italy - How well I remember the day I crossed the “foreigner” threshold and finally felt “Italian”. No longer the Americana or Italo-Americana, but 100% full fledged Italian. My country, my people. For better and for worse. From this day forward.

It happened a few months after I moved to Milan from Genoa where I had lived for six years on a splendid street of palm trees, blood red bougainvillea and orange trees so heavy with oranges they would fall and splat onto the sidewalk making walking a challenge. My Genoa apartment was in a small borgo called Nervi, and as apartments go it wasn’t so great. But what didn’t have in terms of space, the weather, the flowers, the blue Mediterranean Sea and glorious sea walk at the end of my street more than made up for it.

My Milan apartment, chosen more for location than aesthetics. It was ten minutes from the center of Milan, near a subway line, grocery stores and the post office. The nearness of the post office was important because back in the mid 1990’s, the internet was not fully integrated into the Italian way of life. There were no Italian internet servers so I was using an American based internet service and Compuserve for my emails, and paying a $20 per hour premium for the dial-up service to the Italian government to do so.

The transformation from Americana to Italiana came the day I walked into my local post office with an armload of letters to the U.S.A. – an article I wanted to sell. 
The line for stamps was long and it was hot, and as I stood there, shifting from foot to foot I tried to calculate how much longer it was going to take for me to buy stamps and mail my letters. With twenty people in front of me, each one taking five or six minutes to complete their business, well, it was going to take a while.

I resigned myself to the wait. I made a mental list of groceries I wanted to buy on my way home, I bounced around ideas for future articles, and wiping the sweat from my brow, I seriously wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake leaving the Italian Riviera. 

When I finally got up to the Stamp window the harried clerk frowned, looked at my armful of letters and said in a sharp voice – “Cosa voi?”. “What do you want?”

I was stunned by her rudeness. I remember standing there just looking at her.

“What do I want?” I asked. “What do I want?” I said again, my voice getting louder? “Where am I? Isn’t this the Post Office? Isn’t this the line to buy stamps? Are these not letters in my hand? You tell me. What do I want?”

With my voice ringing out across the small post office, she backed down. “Calma, calma,” she said.

Calma?” I yelled in Italian pushing my letters to her side of the counter. “I am not calma. And I am not going to be calma any time soon.”

Who knows what happened to that other person, that nice person that used to be me, the one who was so worried about not coming across as an “ugly” American. She was gone. In her place was this new person who was not about to put up with rude behavior from anyone, in any country. Not on a day as hot as this.

As I walked out of the Post Office, my mission completed, an older woman, who was still standing in line, looked over at me and whispered, brava. I nodded toward her, acknowledging her compliment. The transformation was complete.

Photos: (1) Typical Italian Post Office, (2) Italian stamp, (3) old post card

Next week: ON THE ROAD - Mantua

04 March 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: The Besto Pesto

SARONNO, Italy - You won’t believe who won the last Pesto World Championship in Genoa. Out of a field of more than 100 chefs, most of whom were born in Liguria, a 25 year old Korean-American cook named Danny Bowien was crowned the winner. Danny works at San Francisco’s Farina Restaurant and his secret weapon was that the restaurant’s executive chef, Paolo Laboa, whose family is Genovese, taught him how to make pesto. Not just any pesto but the secret Laboa family pesto recipe that had been handed down from generation to generation of Laboa women, starting with the chef’s great-grandmother.

And now, as I write this, 100 chefs from around the world, professional and amateur, are polishing their marble mortar bowls getting ready to compete in the third Pesto World Championship that will be held in Genoa on March 20, 2010.

Competitors, young and old, will have 40 minutes to prepare their recipes, all using the same ingredients and the same technique, i.e. pounding the bejeebers out of it. Pounding is what pesto is all about. Even it's name comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound, which perfectly describes the basic pesto making technique.

Since all the competitors are all using the same ingredients you’d think they would all come up with the same taste, but the truth is most pesto makers claim to have “secret” techniques, so technically no two cups of pesto are ever the same. And there is a difference. Some pestos do taste better than others. I always thought it was the oil and the quality of the cheese used, but if everyone is using the same ingredients, it must be some other kind of basil voodoo.

If you’re thinking what’s the big deal, how hard can it be to throw everything in the blender and press pulse, read on. Here’s the official competition recipe. 
World Cup Pesto Recipe

 4 bunches of fresh PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) Genovese basil
30 grams of pine nuts (2 tablespoons)
445-460 grams of Parmesan cheese,(a little less than 2 cups to – 2 full cups)
20-40 grams Fiore Sardo cheese (Pecorino Sardo) (4+ teaspoons – 3 tablespoons))
1-2 garlic cloves from Vassalico (Imperia)
10 grams coarse salt (Kosher salt) (2 teasp.)
60-80 cc PDO extra-virgin olive oil from the Italian Riviera (4.2 tablespoons– 5 1/2 tablespoons).

Preparation:Marble mortar and wooden pestle are the traditional tools used to make pesto.
Wash the basil leaves in cold water and dry them in a kitchen towel, but do not rub them.
In a mortar, finely crush the garlic cloves and pine nuts until they are smooth. Add a few grains of salt and the non-pressed basil leaves. Then pound the mixture using a light circular motion of the pestle against the sides of the mortar.

When a bright green liquid starts to ooze from the basil leaves, add the Parmesan cheese and the Fiore Sardinian cheese.

Pour in a thin layer of PDO extra-virgin olive oil from Liguria, which blends the ingredients without overpowering them.

Work as quickly as possible to avoid oxidation of the leaves.

It's best to use your pesto right away but you can keep it in the refrigerator for a few days if you float a little oil on top of it, or put it in the freezer. I freeze mine in small cups and just defrost what I’m going to use, and just as a by-the-way, it is better to let it defrost at room temperature than zap it in the microwave.

Photos: Courtesy of Associazione Palatifini www.pestochampionship.it