30 May 2010

LIFE: Milan's Last Supper

MILAN, Italy - When I asked my Best Friend what she liked most about her first trip to Italy, she said Milan. Milan? That was a surprise. After my carefully calculated tour of the Italy’s lake region which involved massive coordination of train, boat and funicular time tables, she liked Milan? We were only there for half a day and only managed to see the Galleria and the Duomo. I do remember asking her if she wanted to see the Last Supper, which is one of the city's treasures, and she said no. She wasn’t the first to turn down the offer. I’ve had that reaction from others and it always surprises me.

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper

Maybe there are so many reproductions of the painting out there that people forget that the original, painted by Leonardo da Vinci over 500 years ago, is at the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery. It recently underwent the most intense restorations of any work of art on record.

The city of Milan wanted the restoration completed for the 500th anniversary of the painting, but the years passed, and the scaffolding stayed in place as the restorers worked flake by flake, millimeter by millimeter, fragment after fragment.

But then again the painting was never really about speed anyway, was it.

When Leonardo was working on it, he had more than one unfriendly discussion with the Friars of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie over his apparent lack of urgency to complete the project. They were becoming exasperated with his slowness. They complained that Leonardo would stand in front of the painting for hours, make a few brush strokes, and then leave for the day. It was true. Leonardo was taking his time. In fact it is precisely because he wanted to take his time that all the trouble began. Leonardo knew that if he used normal fresco techniques he would have to work quickly, and that was not his game plan. So he experimented and reworked an old Roman and Greek technique that would give him more time and allow him to work at his own pace.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

With true fresco, a layer of wet plaster is applied to a surface and before it dries the artist must apply the color. The color then penetrates the plaster and becomes part of it, and together they become an indestructible substance. The wet plaster layer is called la giornata, meaning the day, because that's all the time you have to work with it. Instead, what Leonardo did was put two layers of a dry plaster preparation on the wall, and he used the wall the same way a painter uses a canvas.

If he made a mistake, although it's hard to think of Leonardo making mistakes, all he had to do was slap on another layer of plaster and start over again. This technique gave him enough time; days, months and even years, to retouch, correct and modify portions of the painting he wasn't satisfied with. The problem was that the technique he used requires a number of special conditions, the most important of which is a dry wall, and the wall on which Leonardo painted the Last Supper was anything but dry, even today. In the winter moisture laden winds blow down on Milan from the snow-covered Alps, and in the summer water condenses on the wall because there is a river directly beneath the monastery. Not the best of conditions for a painting, to say the least.

Detail: Head of Christ

Cracks actually started to appear on the surface of the painting about ten years after it was finished. No doubt the culprit was the humidity, but the vapors from the kettles of boiling broth and splattering fat and grease from roasts turning on the open fire, played their part as well. The room was after all, the Friars kitchen and dining room. In addition to the cooking that went on, smoky torches were lit during the evenings and dark days of winter, so as the cracks appeared they quickly filled with soot and dust.

By the 1660's and 1700's, visitors saw a painting that had almost disappeared, a painting reduced to obscure shreds. And as if it's pitiful condition was not humiliating enough, when the French occupied Milan, Napoleon's troops used the monastery as a stable, and whiled away the hours throwing bricks at the painting, that is when their horses were not tied to it. There were also several attempts to repaint it, and even one attempt to remove it from the wall and cart it off to France.

Then came a series of restorations, one more damaging than the other. The painting was scraped, peeled, waxed, oiled, glued and destroyed. At one point restorers were reattaching Leonard's paint droppings with a mixture of glue and oil. At the end of the eighteenth century, art restorer Luigi Mazza decided to take all the glue and oil off. While he was definitely on the right track, in the process he also took off a great deal of what remained of Leonardo's paint.

And as if that wasn't damage enough, the building was completely destroyed by a bombduring the Second World War Newspapers of the day ran scandalous photos of the wall exposed to the elements, held up only by sacks of sand. The fact that the wall was standing at all would have been called a miracle in the Middle Ages, and maybe it was.

Today the painting is protected. Special dust-absorbing carpets and dust-filtering pipes have been installed to keep it safe from the elemnts. Reservations are necessary and visitors are only allowed inside in groups of 25 and only for 15 minutes. But it is 15 minutes in the presence of genius. If you are in town, and you can get a reservation, I highly recommend it. You’ll never look at a reproduction of the Last Supper in the same way again.

27 May 2010


SARONNO, Italy - Ask anyone south of Milan or north of Como where Saronno is, you’ll probably be greeted with a blank stare. Ask if they have ever eaten Amaretti DiSaronno, or spiked their coffee with Amaretto di Saronno, and everything changes.

While the word amaretto (singular) and amaretti (plural) are the diminutive of “amaro” or bitter, and mean “a little bitter”, both Amaretto DiSaronno and Amaretti diSaronno are sweet.

Amaretto DiSaronno is an almond flavored liqueur which was first made in 1525. There is a lovely little story behind the origin of this special liqueur, the story of a romance between a painter, Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonardo daVinci, who was hired to paint a series of frescos in Saronno’s most famous monument, the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Miracles, and a local girl he hired as his model.

The story is that out of gratitude and affection she wanted to give him a gift and created a liqueur by steeping apricot kernels in brandy. The Amaretto DiSaronno sold today is made from the original recipe and imported by Bacardi. The only difference is it is now sold in a glass bottle made by a Venetian craftsman from the island of Murano.

I confess I am not a big Amaretto fan but it is good if you are making Tiramisu and on ice cream. And on one of the web sites I saw a suggestion to add it to pancake batter. Might be worth a try. Here are a few Amaretto drink recipes you might want to try:

1 part Amaretto liqueur
1 part Cognac
Pour ingredients over ice into an old fashioned glass and stir gently.

1 part Amaretto liqueur
1 part Scotch
Pour ingredients over ice into an old fashioned glass and stir gently.

1 part Amaretto liqueur
1 part Vodka
Pour ingredients over ice into an old fashioned glass and stir gently.

2 oz Amaretto
1 oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz Simple Syrup
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake vigorously, and strain into a sour glass.

Amaretti di Saronno cookies are a lot younger than Amaretto di Saronno, by about 200 years. They were first made commercially in the 1700’s by the Lazzaroni family of Saronno, but they too have a story.

It seems the Cardinal of Milan was scheduled to visit Saronno. As it was a very special occasion for the town, two young lovers decided to make a special cookie in his honor. They baked up a light biscotti confection from sugar, egg whites and apricot kernels. The apricot kernels gave the cookies a slightly bitter taste, which earned them the name “amaretti”. The cookies that the Lazzaroni family make today are made from the same three ingredients and still have the beautiful crunchy-chewy texture the original cookies had. They are the only cookies that can be called diSaronno.

Lazzaroni recently opened a couple of retail shops in Saronno, one of them is on the other side of the piazza in front of my apartment building. I like the shop because it carries their full line of cookies, which are very good.
They also carry local artiginale food products I never see in the regular grocery stores. One product I buy is a dense cake similar to an American fruit cake, but with bigger chunks of fruit. It’s not overly sweet and tastes great with that first cup of coffee in the morning.

23 May 2010

LIFE: It's About Time

SARONNO, Italy - Before I actually moved to Italy permanently, I lived in Rome for a short time. I had decided to get serious about learning to speak Italian and figured living here and taking a course at a language school would do it.

Largo Carlo Goldoni, Rome

Through the school I found a room in an apartment in the center of town that was owned by a rather odd old woman.But that's another story for another time. The school was out on the Via Nomentana, about a half hour bus ride from the Via delle Vite where I lived. It was wonderful living in the heart of Rome, and I loved every minute of it. The only real problem I had, besides trying to conjugate Italian verbs, was that for some reason I just couldn't get into the rhythm of Italian life. I kept running out of money. By the time I would get back into town from a grueling morning session with those nasty verbs, most of the banks were closed.

Via delle Vite, Rome

With my stomach growling I would wander the streets trying to find one that was open so I could change dollars into lire – remember this was pre-Euro, pre-ATM days, and buy something to eat. Anything. I wasn't always successful. Most of the time I would put together what change I had and try to make the best of it. This is when I developed my love for those fried Sicilian rice balls called arrancine, although in Rome they are actually called suppli.
And I don't even want to think about how meals I ate at the Delfino Self-Service Cafeteria, (aka cheap and filling) which if I remember correctly is at the end of the Via del Corso. Actually, if I'm going to be truthful, my inability to pick up the rhythm of Italian life was more than just about making it to the bank on time. No matter what I tried to do, it seemed like it was the wrong time to do it. But I learned. I learned the hard way, but I learned.

One of the things that amazed me was just how many people were out walking the streets of Rome in the late afternoon. One minute the city would be almost empty and the next minute it would be throbbing with life. It was as if someone had rung a bell that signaled it was time to leave the house. And it’s still true, even here in Saronno.

Via Condotti, Rome

But like I said, I learned. Now, when friends and family come to visit they seem impressed that I know what time it is without having to look at my watch. They can't figure it out, but it's really very simple. If we have been walking around for a while and the foot traffic on the street is starting to thin, it is noon and time to head home. If it is the middle of the afternoon and the bars and cafes are filling up with customers, it is 5PM and time for an apperitvo. There's no mystery to it at all, just years of observation and conditioning.

Piazza di Spagna, Rome

Italians seem to know everything about time: the best time to eat, the best time to sleep, the best time to plant seeds, the best time to harvest, even the best time to have sex. You think I'm kidding? I'm not. Not long ago Italy's major newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, published a schedule of how you should organize your day. Of course this being Italy the day does not start with Wheaties, but with . . .

7 AM - As soon as you wake up you find yourself in the ideal condition to make love because your testosterone level (the hormone that stimulates our sex drive) is at its highest peak. This is true for both men and women.

8:30 AM - Time for breakfast and also the best time to take vitamins. This is when our metabolism is at its highest peak and there is less chance of what you eat turning into unwanted fat. Besides, if you take A, D and E at night there is a probability that they will disturb your sleep.

9AM - If you are going to have a flu shot, or another type of injection, this is the best time of day to do it. This is the hour when your adrenaline level is at its highest, which means you can tolerate pain better at 9AM than at 9PM.

10-12 Noon - Your brain is now working at full speed. Your attention span and creativity levels are at their highest. It's the best time to work.

12 - 1PM - Time for lunch. No getting around it. Lunch is important not only from a nutritional point of view, but also to maintain your body's digestive rhythm.

1-2 PM - Your attention level has dropped, maybe from eating all that pasta, and according to the medical community the best thing to do is take a nap. Napping, they say, is good for you.

3-5 PM - Your muscle tone is at its peak during this period, so this is the best time of day to hit the gym or take a walk.

4-6 PM - If you are a student and can't hit the gym, then hit the books, especially if you have math homework to do. It seems that at this hour your brain is more prepared to deal with concepts and logic.

6-8 PM - Ahh, time for an aperitivo and dinner. This is the time of day when your liver is the most disposed to digest alcohol. It is also the best time of day for a facial masque because your skin is more receptive to creams and lotions.

10-11 PM - Spend this hour relaxing before going to bed. Take a warm bath or drink a cup of chamomile tea, both put your body in the mood to sleep.

11 PM -7 AM – Make with the zzzzzzzzzzzz’s. Buona notte.

20 May 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Chi Chi Cicheti

VENICE, Italy - One of the Venice’s best-kept secret are the homey little wine bars called bacari. For the most part, the rustic bars are hidden away in the warren of calli and alleys that run from posh Saint Marks’s square to the working class neighborhoods of Santa Croce and Castello. You can buy wine by the glass and snack on cicheti, the Venetian version of Spanish tapas or Chinese dim sum, and the Venetians have been doing just that since the days Venice ruled the seas. They are the culinary oases the locals head for when they get hungry.

Streets of Venice

Cicheti vary from bar to bar, and from season to season, and you buy them by the piece or portion. Tasty offerings may include tender braised baby octopus, fresh sardines, cleaned and stuffed with a savory filling, silvery anchovies that have been marinated in lemon juice, all culled that morning from just beyond the Venetian lagoon. In the spring and early summer, delicate zucchini flowers, still attached to miniature green zucchini, are transported across the bay from the vegetable farms on the island of San Erasmos. The zucchini, and their flowers are dipped in an air light batter and flash fried in hot oil. As the languid days of summer pass and the weather cools, white cannelloni beans, marinated with onions and olive oil, and lemony artichoke hearts may make an appearance. Spicy slices of tongue, savory strips of tripe, little meatballs, bits of cooked salami, purchased from the Rialto market vendors, may make it to the bacari counter as well.

Hungry Gondoliers

Cicheti are served at room temperature and each bacari owner prides himself on having at least one cicheto that he does better than anyone else. Al Portego is known for tuna cakes, Alla Vedova for peppery meatballs, and at Da Pino there are two seafood specialties; boiled cuttlefish eggs drizzled with olive oil and parsley, and whipped cod made creamy by the addition of olive oil and milk.

Cozy bacari

Most bacari are small and cozy. The tables are ricety, the marble floors old and worn, and over your heard you'll probably see battered wood beams that run across the ceiling. Locals stand at the bar, order a cichetto or two and an ombretta, a small glass of local wine, or a bicherino, a small glass of beer. After catching up on the latest gossip, they move on to another bacaro and start all over again. The custom of going from one bacaro to another is called un giro di ombre, and it is a long-standing Venetian pastime.


Some bacari offer more substantial fare making them a favorite with the working crowd. The young gondoliers sitting next to me at Osteria al Diavolo l’Aquasanta, ordered the house specialty, a portion of boneless boiled calf’s head, which they devoured with gusto before heading back to another afternoon of transporting starry-eyed tourists through the watery Venetian streets.

Mmm, mmm good.

Venetian sailors may have picked up the cicheti habit while opening trade routes in the Middle East where the ritual of serving guests many dishes with each person eating a little from each, is part of an ancient Muslim custom of showing hospitality to strangers. Sinister minded historians suggest the custom was introduced in the courts of Constantinople (Istanbul) to prevent Ottoman potentates from being poisoned; others think it was simply a convenient way of sharing what the host had to offer. Either way, this centuries old tradition continues still in Venice.

Happy Barcari owner

Most bacari open around 9 AM and close around 8:30 PM or later if they also serve meals. It is a savory, satisfying and convivial way to enjoy lunch, especially for the gastronomically curious.

Expect to pay about one euro ($1.20) for most cichetti selections. An ombretto of local wine or a bicherino of beer, cost about the same. Most bacari close around 8:30, unless they serve meals. Look for signs that say Cicheti Venexiani, that means it’s the real deal.

16 May 2010

ON THE ROAD: Ferrari Land

MARANELLO, Italy - Ignoring the long line of cars and trucks backing up along the busy road, the police officer standing under the traffic light in front of the gates of the Ferrari factory holds up a white gloved hand, blows her whistle and energetically waves Robertino, friend and photographer, and I into the Ferrari compound.
Entrance to Ferrari
The Ferrari factory is in Maranello, a small town in the center of Italy. The town is completely Ferrari mad. Ferrari flags fly from apartment balconies and from behind motorbikes. The Ferrari prancing horse decal is pasted on every store, bar and restaurant window, and sometimes even on awnings.

This is Ferrari world headquarters, the hometown of Ferrari S.p.A and the Scuderia Ferrari Formula One racing team. This is where the cars are built and the racing and automotive business is managed. With the Ferrari 550 Maranello and the Ferrari 575 Maranello, Enzo Ferrari put Maranello on the map.

That Ferrari’s are not ordinary cars is obvious the minute we walk into the factory. Robertino is estatic and starts setting up his photo equipment. I can see the Public Relations Director is getting nervous and he calls for an assistant to keep an eye on Robertino as he feels the need to concentrate on what automotive secret I might be looking to uncover as he tours me around the facility.

It’s a singular experience. The factory isn’t open to the public and unless you bought a Ferrari recently or have one on order you can’t get in. I doubt NASA’s security system is this tight. Prototype car bodies are covered with large tarps to keep them hidden from spying eyes, and some sections, like the space age research and development center and the large wind tunnel, are completely off limits to visitors.
Feerrari Production Line  
 In spite of Ferrari’s never ending quest for speed, no one here seems to be in a hurry: not the mechanics or assemblers or the seamstresses who sit and calmly hand sew the leather interiors. I guess with the 2012 Ferrari F458 selling at $230,000  and the starting price of $330.580 for the 2012 Ferrari 599, they can afford to take things con calma.

Dressed in Ferrari red smocks and white gloves, the workers quietly go about their business, careful to never touch any part of the car with an ungloved hand. It’s a family affair, sons work next to fathers and uncles, daughters next to mothers. The cars in production on have already been sold and carry identification papers from the day the first bolt is put into place to the day it is delivered to the customer – a six to nine month wait is normal, it can take much longer.

One of the Dream Makers  
After the factory tour the PR Director walks Robertino and I back to our car and gives us directions to the Ferrari Museum, the Galleria Ferrari. As the compound gate slowly starts to swing open we can see that the traffic light has turned green for us. A nanosecond later the policewomen’s whistle blows, her white gloved hand shoots up in the air, and cars screech to a halt as she waves us out and on to the road. For one small moment in time, Robertino and I, journalist and photographer, are treated like the King and Queen of Jordon, the Sultan and Sultana of Dubai, and all the other rich Ferrari customers. It’s nice.

Galleria Ferrari is just five minutes away. It’s a big building full of Ferrari memorabilia. One entire floor is dedicated to the racing cars driven by Gilles Villeneuve, Froilan Gonzales, Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher and other Ferrari greats. And if you ever wondered what Ferrari model Ferrari Eric Clapton, Miles Davis, Mick Jagger, Placido Domingo, and Robbie Williams owned, well they are all here too.

Ferrari 'boys'
Experimental models are displayed on the upper floor, including the 550 Barchetta Pininfarina and the F50, along with previous F1 racing cars, engines, F1-type gearshift paddles and other technological innovations developed by Ferrari engineers.

And for those who get the urge to jump behind the wheel of a F1 there are driving simulators just waiting for you to slide into the seat and listen for those magic words: Gentlemen, start your engines. I could hardly get Robertino out of there. It was only because we had an appointment to tour Enzo Ferrari’s house at the F1 test track that I managed to pull him away.

Ferrari House in Fiorano
The test track is just a few miles out of Maranello in the town of Fiorano. We knew that the cars were running that day because as soon as we turned down the road to the track entrance we could hear that tantalizing whine of the F1 motors. That whine draws fans like safety pins to a magnet and about one hundred of them were lined up with their noses pressed against the fence hoping to get a glimpse of their favorite F1 driver.

When the drivers are working they stay at the Ferrari house which is on the same property as the track. After a day of whizzing around at break neck speeds, drivers, engineers and managers sit and watch the tapes of on the large screen TV in the living area and analyze their performances.

Right next to the living room there is a big conference room where Enzo Ferrari held court. He would sit at the head of the long wooden table like a Renaissance prince, looking out at his drivers through the dark sun glasses he always wore. The walls of the conference room are lined with photos of F1 cars, while the display cases below hold a large collection of miniature F1 cars. All Ferrari red of course. The bedrooms are upstairs. And what was hanging on the closet door in one of the bedrooms? Michael Schumacher’s racing suit ready for the champion to jump into and win another F1 race.

 Enzo Ferrari's Office - the Ferrari Situation Room
In 1898, when Enzo Ferrari was born, people were riding around in horse drawn carriages. Henry Ford had just resigned from the Detroit Edison company to concentrate on developing the automobile. When Ferrari died in 1988, at the age of 90, the world had been turned upside down; man had traveled to the moon and back, and everyone and his brother had a car.

Enzo Ferrari 
In his lifetime the cars Ferrari built won more than 5,000 races throughout the world and 25 world titles. The story of Enzo Ferrari and the history of auto racing are intertwined for he, more than anyone else, including Bugatti, Bently, Rolls and Royce made auto racing what it is today and in Ferrari Land they never forget it.

13 May 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Color Me Green

SARONNO, Italy - Agretti, also called barba di frate, is a spring vegetable I didn't know existed until I moved to Saronno. They are slightly odd looking, a little like dark green sea grass with pink roots. Agretti never struck me as being particularly appetizing but after passing them up for the past couple of years, my curiosity got the best of me. After all they are green, I’m in Italy, and one of the things the Italians do best is cook green things.

Asparagus, peas, fava and agretti - It's Springtime in Italy
My first idea was to just put them in a frying pan and sauté them with a little olive oil and garlic, the classic Italian treatment. But then I remembered my dreadful experience with the artichokes that never cooked, and decided it might be a good idea to boil the agretti first. After I cut off the roots, I cleaned them and put them in a pot with a little water and brought them to a boil. I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take so I just kept testing them until they felt “cooked”.

Then I drained them and put them in a sauté pan with a little rosemary oil, a couple of medium size cloves of garlic, and for good measure I threw in a small chili pepper. A little salt, a grind or two of pepper and then - the moment of truth. I don't know what I expected but they were sweet, tender, flavorful and delicious. It was such a relief after my disastrous experience with zuccotto last week.
Trolling the internet for more information and other recipes using agretti I learned that they grow throughout the Mediterranean and in North Africa. They used to be grown in northern Italy, up near Venice, but now the bulk of the crop is produced in Spain, where they are called barrilla, and Sicily. Like a lot of Italian food they are sold under different names in different parts of Italy. Even here in Saronno they are sold as barba di frate, barba di cappuccino and agretti, depending on who is selling them. In other part of the country they are called barba del negus, bacicci, soda, ruscano, riscolo, lischi, finocchi di mare and they are also sold by the name of the town or area where they grow. 

Agretti Quiche

It was surprising how many recipes I found for this vegetable. Apparently it is a popular dish in England too, but there they cook the greens in butter rather than olive oil and most of the recipes called for the addition of chopped onion. I wanted to try the English version too, so for dinner I made a frittata with the agretti I had left over from lunch. What I found was that the butter changed the delicate flavor of the greens and actually overpowered them, which in my experience is totally against every written and unwritten rule of Italian cooking.
Agretti with Ravioli
In all fairness to the Brits, even some of the Italian recipes seemed a bit heavy handed. One of the Italian recipes called for sautéing them like I did in olive oil and garlic, but with an anchovy and no chili pepper. Another recipe for agretti with trenette added cubes of boiled ham and a scallion to the sautéed greens, and another suggested chopped pancetta instead of boiled ham. There were also recipes for agretti with tofu, agretti with meatballs, agretti quiche, agretti with ricotta, with goat’s cheese, with octopus and with sea urchins. I’m sure all the recipes are good, but I think I'll just stick to simple agretti with olive oil and garlic, at least for now. 
Agretti in the Market
I don't know if this vegetable is sold outside of Europe, but if you ever see it in your local market pick it up and give it a try. If you like greens, I'm sure you’ll like it. Buon Appetito!

09 May 2010

LIFE: I Can See Clearly Now

SARONNO, Italy - I friend of mine broke his glasses the other day. He had them in his pocket and sat on them. It's not the first time it's happened and it really put him in a bind. The problem is he’s nearsighted. To see anything he has to practically be on top of it which can be a problem when you have to get right in someone's face to know if you should say hello or not. He said women are particularly sensitive to this type of greeting.

Call the Fire Department
If I remember right, I think my seventh grade science teacher said that Benjamin Franklin invented eyeglasses, but she was wrong. Unfortunately nobody really knows the name of the guy who did. Some experts claim that eyeglasses were invented during the late 1200’s in Pisa by either Alessandro della Spina or Salvino Armato. It’s not clear. Others claim that Armato had absolutely nothing to do with inventing eyeglasses, it was him purely a public relations stunt his family initiated to give the guy some credibility.

In 1289, an Italian writer, Sandro di Popozo, published a Treatise on the Conduct of the Family. In it he states that eyeglasses "have recently been invented for the benefit of poor aged people whose sight has become weak.” Then he went on to say that he had the good fortune to be an early eyeglass wearer. "I am so debilitated by age that without them I would no longer be able to read or write."

Unfortunately Popozo never mentions the inventor by name. A second reference was made by an Italian friar, Giordano di Rivalto. In a sermon he preached in Florence one February morning in 1306 he said: "It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eye-glasses, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has." Maybe he sat on his glasses too.

The Friar went on to say that he had met the man who first invented and created glasses, and that he had talked to him. So how come he didn’t give us his name either? It all sounds very fishy to me. It's obvious whoever did invent “disks for the eyes” didn't realize the potential moneymaker they had on their hands. In the right place, and with the right advertising copy, it could have been a bigger marketing opportunity than the hula-hoop. But no. Glasses had the misfortune to be invented in Italy where the general thinking is if you have to advertise your product, it obviously isn't any good.

Early spectacles

By the mid-fourteenth century, Italians were calling eye disks "lentils" and for more than two hundred years eyeglasses were know as "glass lentils." It's also where the word lens comes from. One of the early problems with eyeglasses was how to keep them on. Holding two glass lentils up to your eyes would be fine if you didn't need your hands for other things like opening a door, for example. The first solution was a leather strap that tied behind the head. Variations on that theme were small circles of cord that fitted over each ear. Still others just let the spectacles slide down their nose until it came to rest against the bulbous end. My neighbor’s husband still wears his just that way. Of course he has to tilt his head way back to see anything, but life is made up of sacrifices - large and small, isn’t it?

Ancient spectacles

In the early years eyeglasses were a major status symbol, something like the two big T's of today, telefoninos and tattoos. But by the nineteenth century, when glasses became relatively inexpensive and common, wearing them became decidedly unfashionable. Women didn't want to be caught dead in them. Remember "men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses"? Glasses were only worn in private and only used in public when absolutely necessary.

The same fate should happen to the other two big T's. Unlike earlier versions that were super heavy, today, thanks to space-age materials, eyeglasses are relatively lightweight. In the beginning, frames made of bone, real tortoiseshell or ivory were so heavy that they gave people headaches. Plus the lenses were made of heavy glass, adding to the problem. So for many years people could choose between having a headache and being able to see, or being blind as a bat and no pain.
Leonardo da Vinci

Of course if everyone had listened to Leonardo da Vinci back in the sixteenth century, all these problems would have been resolved. In his Codex on the Eye he described an optical method for correcting poor vision by placing the eye against a short, water-filled tube sealed at the end with a flat lens. The water came in contact with the eyeball and refracted light rays much the way a curved lens does. Da Vinci's use of water as the best surface to touch the eye is copied today in the high water content of soft contact lenses.

Da Vinci, with his 100 percent liquid lens, was right in recognizing the psychological problem people would have with sticking something in their eye. Well none of this has really solved my friend’s problem. He will just have to wait until next week when his new glasses will be ready. Hopefully someone will be able to go with him to pick them up. I wouldn’t want him to get lost and end up wandering around streets of Saronno all alone.


06 May 2010


SARONNO, Italy - I’ve been obsessed all week with the idea of making a zuccotto. I’ve got company coming for dinner next week and I thought it might be a good dessert to make since I can make it ahead of time and freeze it. I started looking for a recipe on Monday - and that’s when things got complicated.

Zuccotto with sponge cake

It seems there are as many variations of zuccotto as there are stars in the sky. Every town in Italy seems to have it’s own version. There’s the Tuscan zuccotto, the Sienese zuccotto, the Florentine zuccotto, the Neapolitan zuccotto, the chocolate zuccutto, cherry zuccotto, ricotta zuccotto, ice cream zuccotto, whipped cream zuccotto, zuccotto triffle and even baby zuccotto. There were so many recipes from so many people I was beginning to think I was the only person in the world who had never tackled this Italian speciality.

In non-technical, non-cookbook terms a zuccotto is a molded cake filled with both chocolate and vanilla filling. Now the cake part can be either cut up sponge cake or ladyfingers that have been brushed or dipped, depending on the recipe, in a variety of liqueurs or flavorings. The cake part is used to line a dome like bowl or mold which is then filled with…. and here you have your choice of ingredients. Then the whole business is put into the freezer for at least 3 hours, unmolded upside down on a plate and decorated – or maybe not.

While the word zucca actually means pumpkin in Italian, it is used in other ways as well. For example you might call someone a zuccone or pumpkinhead if you though they were not particularly bright. But in the case of this cake the name probably comes from it's resemblance to the domed, metal helmets 15th century soldiers wore to protect their heads (zucca) when they went into battle. Or the name may have come from the skull cap priests wear to cover their “zucca”. Both sound reasonable and very Italian. It all made sense and I was happy until I came across some recipes for Sicilian Cassata that sounded very much like the recipes for zuccotto.

Sicilian Cassata

From the recipes it seems cassata and zuccotto are very similar in construction and ingredients. Two major differences are a cassata isn't shaped in the form of a dome, which zuccotto is, and secondly it is covered with marzipan and heavily decorated, which zuccotto is not. But I must resist the temptation to digress as the ingredients for zuccotto are on the kitchen table waiting for me.

Here is the zuccotto recipe I used. It’s a compilation of the many recipes I found on the internet.

Line a bowl (approx. 9-inches wide by 4-1/2 -inches deep) with plastic wrap. Allow several inches of the wrap to hang over the sides of the bowl.Lightly brush each of the ladyfingers with liqueur (I used rum because I had some in the house) as you add them to the bowl, placing them sugared side outwards. Fill the bottom and any gaps with liqueur-soaked trimmings so that the lining is completely solid. The tops of the ladyfingers should be even with the rim of the bowl. Chill for 30 minutes.

I used whipped cream for the filling, it seemed the easiest choice. I whipped one pint of cream with some powdered sugar and vanilla and divided it into two bowls. In one bowl I added candied citron and bits of shaved chocolate. In the second bowl of whipped cream I added cocoa powder (bitter) and chopped pistachios. It looked disgusting. I put the whipped cream with citron and chocolate bits in the bowl first, then I put the chocolate whipped cream on top of it. I closed the plastic wrap around it, put it in the freezer and crossed my fingers.

Three hours later I took it out of the freezer and unmolded it on a serving dish. The minute I did I knew I was in trouble. The cake part, because it had been soaked in rum, was still mushy. It makes sense: alcohol does not freeze. I let it sit out for about half an hour, technically it is a semi-freddo, and then because I was dying of curiosity I cut a wedge and put it on a plate.

Zuccotto with cherries

It looked okay but the first bite of the crust confirmed my worst fear. The taste of alcohol was overpowering. I should have brushed the ladyfingers with rum, not soaked them. Then I tasted the filling. That was actually better than I expected and when I put the two together, the rummy cake and the filling, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, but….it wasn’t really bad.

I don’t know if I’ll make it again next week for my guests, but if I do I think I’ll try the sponge cake instead of the ladyfingers, and most certainly I will use a lot less rum. If any of you have ever made zuccotto, your suggestions to better zuccotto making would be greatly appreciated.

02 May 2010

LIFE: Journeys Through a Cloud (of Ash)

SARONNO, Italy - The stories of Italians trying to get back to Italy during the recent volcanic ash incident are just starting to come in. The one I heard last night was from Nadia who was in New York when the volcano in Iceland began to erupt. She said a friend in Italy phoned her to tell her that the Milan airport had just closed and that her flight back to Italy scheduled for the next morning was probably cancelled. So instead of seeing the sites of New York as she planned to do, Nadia and her travel partner hot footed it over to Newark airport to see what was going on.

“There were a lot of people there, just milling around as news of the closing of one European airport after another started to come in. At first they told us that there was no problem with our flight, but then, half an hour later, they announced that the Milan Malpensa Airport was indeed closed and our flight cancelled.”

Without wasting any time Nadia and her friend checked to see what flights to Europe were available and managed to find a couple of tickets to Spain: one to Madrid and another to Barcelona. They took them. Nadia chose Madrid.

But once she was in Madrid the severity of the problem began to sink in. Her plan was to find a flight from Madrid to Milan’s Linate airport, which is used by many of the smaller airline companies for inter-European flights. Unfortunately the ash cloud had worsen and even little Linate was closed. Her next choice was to try and book a seat on one of the high speed trains that run from Madrid to Milan, but again she was turned away. The trains were booked to the max and no seats were available.

It was at that point that her travel mate called from Barcelona and said she, along with some other Italians, had rented a car and if Nadia could get herself from Madrid to Barcelona by 3 that afternoon, she could be back in Milan before midnight. She was able to get a ticket on a Madrid-Barcelona train and arrived in plenty of time to meet up with the group.

Fabrizio, who was in England that weekend also opted to take the train back to Milan. His adventure began in idyllic Oxford where he took the train to London and from London to Paris with the hope of booking a seat on a train to Milan. But by then all of the European transport systems were in tilt and there were no seats available on any train going in any direction. He had to wait for two days before he could leave.

”But it wasn’t so bad,” he said with a smile, “after all if you have to be stuck in a city what better city to be stuck in than Paris?” The down side was that the train he ended up taking was the train that went to Zurich, Switzerland before it went to Milan, making what is normally a 5 hour ride a 10 hour odyssey.

But it was Andrea who had the most difficult journey. He was in Singapore when the ash cloud began to rise and his route home via Bangkok and Rome was long and torturous.

“I finally managed to get from Singapore to Bangkok where I spent another 2 days waiting for a flight to Rome,” he said. “I thought I'd be able to pick up a flight to Milan from there but when I got to Rome I found a real mess at the airport,” he said. “There were people everywhere and no one seemed to know what to do next. I took one look at the crowd and moved as fast as I could to book a seat on the first train north. “I was lucky to get a seat on the FrecciaRossa, the high speed train,” he said, “and after traveling for almost a week through three different countries, I was never so happy to see Saronno.”

In every story I’ve heard so far the trains have helped save the day. Which brings me to this: my American relatives and friends, without exception, find train travel in Italy confusing. This is especially true if the train ride is only the beginning of their journey. Any combination of train plus subway or train plus tram or boat seems overly complicated, and I guess compared to driving yourself to where you want to go, it is.

And maybe it's because I've lived in the center of cities for the past 30 years and haven't had a car that I've gotten used to moving around on public tranport. But I really believe that once you get the hang of it, it's really a lot more fun to sit back, relax and let someone else do the driving.

Photos: Some of the wonderful places you can get to by train: Rome, Bari, Florence, Torino, Genoa, Lecce, Siracusa and Saronno of course.

Any travel in Italy stories you'd like to share? Send them to me at thisitalianlife@yahoo.com and I'll put them in a future blog.