30 June 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: If You Can Make it There

SARONNO, Italy - The date to mark on your calendar is August 31, 2010. The place: New York. The event: Eataly, New York is opening at 200 Fifth Avenue, between 23rd and 24th Street in downtown Manhattan. It’s no small deal. Oscar Farinetti and his partners have invested over 25 million dollars in the project. No one is worried about their investment, however, as Farinetti is the guy who conceived and developed the now very successful idea of Eataly.

Oscar Farinetti on 5th Ave. NYC in front of entrance to Eataly
Within the 5,000 square meters of sprawling store space you’ll be able to buy the best food Italy has to offer. You’ll find Piedmontese beef raised under the watchful eye of veterinarian Sergio Capaldo. Capaldo hovers over his herds like an Italian mamma, making sure they are always well fed, comfortable and happy, three elements Italians believe makes for better tasting meat.

Super Star Pastry Chef Luca Monersino

You’ll also find fresh fish, specialty cold meats like San Daniele ham from Parma, loads of vegetables, all types of bread, artisan pastas and rice from Italy’s rice belt, honest to goodness Parmesan from Parma and other wonderful Italian cheeses, creamy, delicious gelato, a dazzling array of chocolate from the Master chocolate makers of Torino, and a pastry shop managed by Luca Montersino, the ex Executive Director of the Etoile Institute of Culinary Arts, and the youngest superstar on the Italian pastry planet.

To go along with your pastries you can sip coffee at the Lavazza coffee bar. And if you need something more substantial you’ll find food counters scattered throughout the shop where you can rest your feet and restore your spirit.  But that’s not all. There will be no less than six restaurants, and the restaurant on the top floor is part of the famous Mario Batali chain of restaurants which includes Babba and Del Posto, both in New York City. Also on the top floor you’ll find a fully stocked wine cellar and a birreria where you will be able to buy not only beer made by Matterino (Teo) Musso, Italy’s premier artisan beer maker, but specialty beers from around the world. And did I mention the bookstore? That’s in there somewhere too.

When Only the Best Will Do - Choose Italian

I’m happy that Italian food is enjoying such success outside of Italy. For one thing it lets people taste genuine Italian food products instead of Parmesan cheese made in Wisconsin, or horrors of all horrors, Spanish and Tunisian olive oil sold as “Made in Italy”.

The Wonderful World of Eataly in Torino

And once you’ve tasted the real thing, and I'm not just talking Italian olive oil, you’ll understand why I could easily move bed into Eataly in Torino and live out the rest of my days eating my way up and down the aisles and gleefully writing the food page of this blog.

First Torino, now New York, what I want to know is what's wrong with Milan? I know this is not a major center for haute cuisine, but still and all we do cook and eat. Okay, I admit it. I’m jealous. I want a big, impressive, massive Eataly of my own and I have the ideal spot, right here in little old Saronno. Farinetti, call me.

27 June 2010

LIFE: The Cleans

SARONNO, Italy - There’s something going on over at the Cleans. Something odd. It’s almost 8 AM and Mr. Clean has not come out on his balcony to start sweeping and cleaning. And he didn’t pull his blankets and pillows off his bed and carefully arrange them on the freshly cleaned balcony railing to air either. He didn’t even sweep the floor in his bedroom or make coffee.

Now l wouldn’t want you to think I’m some kind of stalker, spying on my neighbors, so let me explain: my morning routine usually starts with a cup of coffee out on my balcony. As I sit enjoying the morning and planning my day from my 5th floor vantage point, I can’t help but see the Clean’s apartment, which is on the first floor of the apartment building across the street. It’s like a theater performance. First the taparelle slowly wind upward, like a stage curtain, then Mr. Clean pops out and the cleaning starts. Except for today.

The Cleans have a set routine. The tapparelle in Mrs. Clean’s bedroom go up just about the time Mr. Clean is back in the kitchen making coffee, after having cleaned the balcony and setting his bedding out to air. The first thing on Mrs. Clean’s mind is to strip her bed and drape her bed linens out on the sill of her bedroom window, which she has already wiped down. However their morning cleaning routine doesn’t begin in earnest until the bed linens have had enough air and are brought back in and the beds are made.

As soon as that is done Mrs. Clean shakes out the throw rugs and puts them out on the balcony to air, and then she starts to clean the bathroom in earnest. She buffs and polishes everything, including the bathroom window and the inside and outside of the aluminum window frame as well. She’s very keen to keep things clean and shiny.

But today none of that happened. Something isn’t quite right. I’m worried because there was no steady buzz of the vacuum this morning, and that is disturbing. Normally I can see Mr. Clean in the living room, often still in his pajamas, diligently sucking up any and all bits of dust in every nook and cranny that he may have missed on the first sweep through.

Mr. Clean is like a kamikaze dust pilot, spotting his target, zooming in and poof, that dust ball is history. No wonder all the dust comes over here to hide out in my place. And usually, while Mr. Clean is attacking dust in the living room, Mrs. Clean is in the kitchen scrubbing and polishing the counter top and sink. Then she cleans the floor. Again.

They work as a team, cleaning and polishing, vacuuming and scrubbing and I’m so happy they found each other. It truly is a match made in heaven. Which is why I’m concerned.

Now my neighbor in the back, Mrs. Mean, is another story. She used to be just as aggressive a cleaner as the Cleans, but all that changed because of an incident that occurred when I first moved into this building. She has never forgiven me for it and she hasn’t spoken to me in years.

What happened was I hadn’t been in this apartment very long when one day I was in my office working on an article, and out of the corner of my eye I spot an elderly woman on her hands and knees keeling on the windowsill, outside of her bedroom window. My first frightening thought was that she was going to jump. I stood up and went out on my balcony to see if what I think I saw I really saw, and I must have let out a gasp because she looked up and saw me standing on my balcony with my hand over my mouth and terror in my eyes.

You have to know that even though I say I live on the fifth floor, it is really the sixth floor since what we call the first floor in the USA is called the ground floor here, and they consider the second floor the first floor. Anyway it is long way down.

Then I realized she was trying to clean the inside of the deep flower wells that run along the front of our windows and as she scrambled to get back inside her window, I went back inside my apartment too. I happened to mention the incident to one of her sons a few weeks later and he obviously said something to his mother. She never got out on the window sill again, at least as far as I know. And she hasn’t spoken to me since either, like it’s my fault that she’s a clean nut.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for neat and clean, it’s just that my neighbors seem to take the concept to whole ‘nuther level. Someone told me once that the Italian kitchen cabinet manufacturers have to put dozens of coats of varnish on the cabinet doors because the Italian women scrub the bejeebers out of them and have been known to scrub the doors down to the bare wood.

I don’t remember my neighbors in Genoa or Milan being quite so fanatical about cleaning, but then again it may just have been that I was too involved in my work to bother looking out the window. It's possible. But here in Saronno my neighbor’s cleaning habits have become part of my routine too. So while I don’t know what is going on over at the Cleans, I hope by tomorrow everything will be back to normal and they will be out there sweeping and washing and dusting and wiping and making everything right in their world - and mine too.

24 June 2010


Picking lemons on the Amalfi Coast

SARONNO, Italy - It’s summer in Saronno. There is plenty of sunshine and the trees in park cool the soft breezes that pass through my apartment windows and balconies. Life is easy. On my kitchen table there’s a big basket stacked with lemons that I bought at the market this week. Some are smooth, bright yellow ovals, the picture perfect type from Sicily, while others are twice as big and knobby with thick mottled yellow skins typical of the lemons from the Amalfi Coast. They are called Sfusato Almafitano.

The origin of lemon cultivation on the Amalfi Coast has been lost in the annals of time, but most certainly lemons were one of the treasures of the Republic of Amalfi before the year 1,000. In its heyday the Republic traded textiles and precious stones with the countries of the Middle East, and it has been verified that one of the things they imported were small, yellow fruits called lemoncello de India. The local farmers began to cross pollinate the lemoncello de India with the bitter oranges that grew in the area. Over time, centuries actually, this cross pollination resulted in the Sfusato of Amalfi sitting in the basket on my kitchen table today.

The Italians believe whole heartily in the health benefits of lemons. In addition to being a rich source of vitamin C, they believe fresh lemons help combat stress, stimulate the immune system and are a cure for the common cold. They may be right.
The Amalfi Coast
The Sfusati grow on the steep terraced hills along the Tyrrhenaian Sea from Positano to Vietri sul Mare, a territory of no more than 700 acres. With their exceptional aroma and flavor, they are widely used in the local cuisine. The house specialties at Ristorante Donna Rosa in Positano include an antipasto of raw artichokes with lemon, caramelle of fresh pasta filled with lobster and lemon, and ravioli with lemon and ricotta.

And it’s not just the lemon juice and pulp that is used. At Albergo Ristorante Bacco in Furore, they still follow the ancient tradition of cooking food in lemon leaves. Some of the dishes they offer are grilled smoked provola wrapped in lemon leaves, rabbit roasted in lemon leaves and home-made tagliolini in lemon sauce. But other than being a principle ingredient in the kitchen, Sfusato Almafitano are the basis of that delicious, sweet liqueur, limoncello that is enjoyed after dinner during the warm summer months.

Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast

In surfing the web this morning I found this video of Miami chef John DiRicco making limoncello in his kitchen. I liked his straight forward approach and thought you might like it too. My only point of contention with Chef DiRicco is that here in Italy small glasses of limoncello are sipped and savored after dinner, not thrown back as he does on the video but, to each his own.

12-16 lemons, preferably organic and unwaxed
1 bottle Everclear alcohol (or good grade vodka)
1 bottle of water (use the Everclear bottle)
1-1 ½ cups sugar

It takes about 30 to 45 minutes to do the initial preparation (mainly peeling the lemons and shaving out the bitter white pith.) You can also do the prep work gradually, doing two lemons at a time and tossing them in the alcohol, until all of the lemons are done. The peels should ferment a minimum of three weeks.The more of the white lemon pith that you leave, the more bitter the limoncello will taste.

The type of sugar affects the color of the limoncello. For John’s “limoncello naturale,” use a darker raw cane sugar.

If you can’t get a hold of Everclear, you can use ½ Grey Goose vodka and ½ Absolut. For a poor man’s version, strain cheaper vodka though your Brita pitcher 3 or 4 times.

Store your limoncello in the freezer.

It should be completely liquid. If it’s slushy, you used too much water.

And here’s a recipe for Lemon Risotto with Sautéed Shrimp I found at: cooksrecipes.com

Lemon Risotto with Shrimp


1/4 cup, divided use2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon peel
1 1/2 cups uncooked Arborio rice or other short-grain white rice
4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 teaspoons vegetable base or instant bouillon granules
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
8 ounces medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in medium saucepan. Add oil, onion and lemon peel; cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until tender. Stir in rice; cook for 1 minute. Stir in water, wine, lemon juice, bouillon and pepper. Cover; cook gently over medium-low heat for 30 to 35 minutes. Stir in cheese; stirring occasionally.
2. Melt remaining butter in medium skillet. Cook shrimp over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until pink. Serve shrimp over risotto; sprinkle with Gremolata.
3. For Gremolata: Combine 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic,
4. 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh parsley and 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel in small bowl.

Makes 4 servings.
Buon appetito.

18 June 2010

LIFE: The Happy Couple

SARONNO, Italy - Andrea and his girlfriend are going to move in together. He bought an apartment almost a year ago, but for reasons I don’t really understand the deal isn’t going to close until sometime next month. In the meantime he has been halfheartedly shopping for furniture and attending to all the last minute details.

I don’t know how much input his girlfriend has had in choosing the furnishings, but I don’t think she’s had very much. He told me once that she wanted to furnish the apartment with antiques but he was leaning more towards less permanent furnishings, aka cheap stuff. Not too cheap, but not investment furniture either. He said he had asked his mother and his aunt to shop around for him and come up with some decorating ideas, and from the way he said it I understood that was the way it was going to be. There was one point, however, that the girlfriend was insisting on. She wants a clothes dryer.

“I don’t see the need for it,” he said to me. “My mother and my grandmother never had a clothes dryer and they got along just fine. You wash your clothes, you hang them up, the next day they are dry. And if you hang them out on the balcony they may even dry the same day. Beside, where are we going to put it? The apartment isn’t that big. There is space for a washing machine, but a clothes dryer? I don’t think so.”

I think the problem is cultural. Andrea’s girlfriend isn’t Italian. Where she comes from people need clothes dryers because it rains a lot and the winters are long and harsh. Another part of the problem is that Andrea does not think of this apartment as his “forever” apartment. That is also the reason why he does not want to invest in “forever” furniture. He knows it is only temporary, and unfortunately I don’t think the girlfriend does.

Andrea’s brother also bought an apartment recently, but he did buy a “forever” apartment, which loosely translated means an apartment with two bedrooms, one for him and his girlfriend, and another for any future children they may have.

The last time I saw Andrea I asked him if the dryer issue had been resolved and he said yes. He had given in and it would be part of their new life together. So that’s one for the girlfriend. But how she’s going to feel living in an apartment decorated by Andrea’s mother and his aunt, well that’s another question, and not one I’m going even going to try to get near.
The idea that Italians don’t embrace clothes dryers in quite the same way as Americans do has come up before. The most recent discussion took place when my Best Friend was here. She just didn’t get the Italians resistance to such a fundamental part of life. And no amount of me spouting eco-explanations or cultural differences could dissuade her from her pro-dryer stand.

It wasn’t as if I was asking her to abandon her dryer and drape her clothes on a rack when she's at home, all I was saying was this is a different country and they do things differently here. Last week I found out how that all translated when, in a casual conversation, she told me that she had been asked to speak at her local elementary school again this year as part of Grandparents day. Last year she was a big hit with her talk on what it was like growing up with 10 brothers and sisters. This year she talked about her trip to Italy. Part of what she told the eager 9 year olds was that everyone in Italy lives in a condominium and that Italians don’t have dryers because they don’t have the electricity for it. They don’t have 220

Like the question about how Andrea’s girlfriend is going to like living in an apartment decorated by his mother and aunt, I’m not going to get near my BF’s version of the dryer story either, especially since we spent half a day shopping for a new hair curler for her because her hair curler, which runs on 110, would not work here without a converter as we only have 220. I confess, I’m as confused as I have ever been, or maybe even just a little bit more.

16 June 2010


Venice, Rialto Bridge

VENICE, Italy - With dawn’s first light breaking over the Venetian lagoon, the fish merchants of the Rialto market are already at work on their displays of fresh fish and seafood culled that morning from just beyond the Venetian lagoon. The fish market, called La Pescaria, is not very big, about thirty or so fishmongers and their helpers. They stand under canvas canopies supported by age-old colonnades. What you see today may not be that old, but seafood has been sold in this spot for more than 500 years.

The Rialto market has always been much more than just a fish and food market. In the past it was the major trading point between the Byzantine Empire and the Venetian Empire. Its location, near the Rialto Bridge is particularly important as the bridge, which connects the district of San Polo with the district of San Marco across the Grand Canal, was the only way to cross the Canal on foot for hundreds of years.

And for hundreds of years, the fishmongers have stacked, iced and priced the prawns, scampi, squid, baby octopus and fish of every size and color. Today they head for the closest bar before the chefs of Osteria Da Fiore, Hotel Albergo Cipriani and other posh restaurants and hotels start making the rounds in search of their piatto del giorno. And right on their heels are the local housewives, who are just as critical about freshness and taste as the chefs.

If they are lucky they will find granseole today. Granseole are small crabs, about as big as a man’s hand, that are found in the rich vast tidal basins of the marshes around the island of Murano. While crabs are good to eat at any time, during the spring and autumn something happens to them that makes them even more delicious: the young male crabs shed their shells in order to grow larger ones. During this change, the muta, fishermen catch the crabs and put them in a special tank called vieri. They are held there for about a day, just long enough for them to be soft enough to eat, shell and all. At that point they are no longer called granseole but moleche, soft shell crabs, and they are quickly carried off to the Rialto fish market to be sold.

There are two good ways to eat them: the first is fried. My first encounter with fried soft shelled crabs was in Bookbinder’s in Philadelphia. A friend of mine, Ken Klein, convinced me to try them. I confess I was a little squeamish at the beginning, but by the end of the meal I was licking my fingers just like everyone else around the table.

The easiest way to cook them is to coat them with flour and fry them in oil. I think Bookbinders coated them with breadcrumbs, but it was a long time ago and I may be wrong. Mostly I remember how delicious they were.

Another way to cook soft shell crabs is to stuff them, or rather, let them stuff themselves. Put the live crabs in a bowl of beaten eggs, salt and grated parmesan cheese and let them sit and take in this mix for a few hours. When they have eaten their fill, take them out, coat them with flour and fry them in hot oil. They may not look particularly appetizing, but they truly are. The texture is soft and creamy, the taste a cross between crab, oyster and lobster and all good things from the sea.

13 June 2010

ON THE ROAD: Lost in Venice

This is another in the series of monthly travel articles inspired by a 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 except for this month which features Venice, a city whose track most definitely has been beaten.

VENICE, Italy – If you have even visited Venice you know first-hand that finding your way around is difficult. Even the locals get lost and scratch their heads at the confusion. But the reasons why the city is the way it is are simple: it’s the illogical way the city is numbered. They use a system based on a centuries old concept of the civic number, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Venice, Grand Canal
Let me back up and start with how the city is organized. There are 118 islands that make up central Venice divided into six wards known as sestieri. Within each ward, buildings, parts of buildings and in some cases even walls and boarded up windows are numbered in ascending order. In the smallest ward, Santa Croce, the numbers run from one to 2359, in Castello, the largest, from one to 6828.

Because everything is numbered in sequence, if you are looking for Number 73 Calle Porta, in Santa Croce, the building could very well be across the street from building number 624. It depends on how long the street is. To add to the confusion, if you are looking for a business most of them have two addresses: the street address and the post office address. For example, the building at Castello 5138 and the one at Calle Lunga S. Maria Formosa 5138 is actually the same Venetian mask shop.

Venice, High Water on the Grand Canal

In addition to sequential numbering and two addresses many of the city’s three thousand streets have the same name. For example there are at least fifteen Calle del Spezier and twenty-three Calli del Magazeri. Adding the name of the sestieri might be a good idea, like Calle del Forno 1752, sestieri of Canaregio. Except that within the sestieri of Canaregio there are nine separate Calle del Forno, each one as independent as a sassy three-year-old, not to mention fourteen separate Calle Del Spezieri, and thirty-one Calle Della Chiesa.

During the 12th century the Great Council of Venice decided to impose a property tax and divided the city into the six wards we see today, but a fixed numbering system was never established. When city managers wanted to take a census, they would simply assign temporary numbers to the buildings. You can still see traces of these numbers, in the form of Roman numerals, carved on many doorframes throughout the city.

Venice, No. 2566 Calle ?

It wasn't until 1801, four years after Venice fell under the rule of Napoleon, that the city was mapped and the names of canals, streets and alleys were stenciled on building walls and at street corners. The French organized the city on the basis of two numerical progressions, one for each side of the Grand Canal, and the numbers were written on the buildings in black. Each ward was then assigned a separate progressive numbering system with no regard to street names. That system was consolidated in 1841 and at that time it was decided that the numbers would be written in red with a black border.

Venice, Is this Really 1552?

You can still see those numbers on many of the buildings. In fact it is not unusual to see buildings that have all three: Roman numerals, black numbers with black borders and red numbers with black borders. You will also see three or four different numbers painted on a blank wall or above a bricked over door. Those numbers represent buildings that have been torn down or buildings that have been consolidated into two or more larger structures. It was much easier to paint numbers on a wall than renumber the entire neighborhood.

Venice, No 2822. Is this the place?

Armed with an enlarged photocopy of a map of the ward of Santa Croce, a friend of mine decided to test the French system. On paper the ward looks like a rectangle and initially she thought it would be a fairly straight forward challenge. Here’s her story.

She started with number 900, which begins midway along Fondamenta Rio Marin (a fondamenta is the wide sidewalk along a canal, a rio is an internal canal). The numbers 900, 901/a and /b were followed by 901/c, 902 and 903 which she found after a right turn onto the Calle dei Squartai. At the end of the street, the numbers crossed the calle, backtracked down along the opposite side and returned to the fondamenta where they continued. For no apparent reason number 913 came before 912.

Venice. This Way To the Train Station

She said the numbers continued in more or less a straight line until Campo Santo, the smallest of the two church yards of the Church of San Simeon. At this point the numbers went around the church yard and then down a nameless street which opened onto the larger church yard, Campo San Simeon. From there the numbers continued around that church yard until they reached the Hotel ai Due Fanali, which has number 946 on the front door and 949 on the back door. Number 947 is the right-hand window of the hotel lobby and she said she never did find 948. While number 950 is a real building, numbers 951 to 956 are simply stenciled on a wall. A dead end. At that point she gave up. I would have too.

Venice, Bridge of Sighs

But not all is lost.The city father’s understand the dilemma and the city is well marked. And if you do get lost, well half the fun of Venice is wandering through the church yards and over bridges, finding yourself in a maze and finding your way out again, isn’t it?

10 June 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Back of the Box

SARONNO, Italy - Even before the idea for this blog was fully developed, I knew I wanted the Auntie Pasta page to be about food, but not about recipes. But since then I have included some recipes on this blog, and in going through my collection of recipes the day, I found there were others that I would like to share with you as well.

What got me thinking about recipes was the review of the new summer cookbooks in the Sunday New York Times last week, including one that claims to teach you what your grandmother never taught you. Grandmothers seem to play an important part in the cooking lives of a lot of people, me for one.

My Grandmother was a very good cook but I never saw her open a cookbook, in fact I don’t think there were any cookbooks in her house. She just seemed to know what to do. She, like most women of her generation, had learned to cook by watching and doing what she was told when she was a kid growing up in Italy.

Preparing food was serious business in Italy at the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t a lot of it and there was no messing around in the kitchen. She carried that philosophy with her to the New World, and when she told me to watch the pot of boiling snails on the stove and make sure none of them escaped, you’d better believe my five year old eyes were glued to that pot lid.

By the time I was given that responsibility I had eaten, and helped prepare all types of greens, tripe and snails, rabbit and venison, rolled meatballs, cut fresh pasta into strips of fettucine, chopped parsley and knew the difference between regular mint and the mintuccia that Aunt Mary sent from Italy. I was a cook in training and didn't know it.

Sometimes it was difficult not to start playing with the gooey mess that water and flour make before it becomes pasta dough, or pressing ground meat around my ten little fingers and playing an imaginary hamburger piano. It wouldn’t take much to keep me in line though; a look would usually do the trick. That was the culinary discipline part of my training.

As a young bride I would often call my mother and ask her for recipes. She was not a patient person and her instructions were short and to the point. Sometimes I would get recipes from my aunts, scribbled on scraps of paper with vague proportions and approximate instructions. They were my mentors, and even though I was young and had a lot to learn, they treated me as an equal, cooks talking to another cook.

In those days before Gourmet (unfortunately now defunct) and Food and Wine, before Julia Child made culinary history with her French Chef television series, and long, long before the advent of celebrity chefs, that is how we all learned to cook. A certain amount of knowledge was always assumed and the key points of a dish were often all you needed, i.e. clean and boil artichokes before you season them and put them in the oven to bake - a small, but crucial detail that results in being able to eat them rather than throw them away, as I did on my first solo flight into the wonderful world of artichokes.

I use quite a few recipes I find on the back of boxes of pasta and packages of things here in Italy but I’ve hesitated to include them in this blog because the instructions are often vague and the measurements approximate. But I’m wrong. You are cooks and if we speak cook to cook, I think it will work out. With that in mind, here is a Sicilian fish recipe that uses frozen codfish, but you can use any firm, white fish, fresh or frozen.

Fiori di Merluzzo di Capperi (Filets of Cod with Capers)

Defrost the fish. Chop a bunch of parsley and two garlic cloves. In a frying pan heat 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil and when it is barely hot, add half of the chopped parsley, garlic and the fish. Season with salt and pepper. When the fish filets have cooked on one side, turn them over. Add ½ glass of dry white wine and when it has evaporated add a can of chopped tomatoes. Let the fish and tomatoes cook for about 15 minutes and then add the remaining parsley and garlic, a pinch of dried oregano and two teaspoons of capers. Cook for an additional 5 minutes. The recipe suggests serving the fish with mashed or boiled potatoes but I prefer serving it over white rice.

Two suggestions: One, use capers that have been preserved in brine, not in salt; and I found that if you fry a sliced onion in the olive oil before you add the parsley, garlic and fish, it gives the dish another layer of flavor.

If you try this recipe I would appreciate knowing how it worked and what problems you had, if any. You can write to me at thisitalianlife@yahoo.com. Buon Appetito.

05 June 2010

LIFE: Most Livable City in Italy? Really?

SARONNO, Italy - The Italians are mad. Il Sole 24 Ore, the country’s leading financial newspaper, recently published its annual list of the 100 most livable cities in Italy and their number one pick was Trieste. What a shock. Trieste sits on the border between Italy and Slovenia and is probably the least Italian city in all of Italy. Last year it was number five on the list and irate readers wanted to know how it managed to move up five slots in just one year. Actually what they wanted to know is why it was even considered in the first place.

Piazza Unita' D'Italia, Trieste

One reader, complaining about the editor’s choice, asked how it was possible for Trieste to be the most livable city in Italy when the Triestini have the highest percentage of suicides in all of Italy. And, wrote another reader, to add insult to injury, they don’t even speak Italian. They speak a variation of the Venetian dialect in the city and just one kilometer outside of the city they speak Slovene.

I can’t argue with that, but in all fairness Trieste is very nice. I was there once, a long time ago back in my travelin’ days. We took the train from Venice to Trieste on a whim. It’s about a two hour ride, and what I remember most was that the train was practically empty. Of course there was a war going on not too far away from there at the time but still, you wouldn’t think that would drop the tourism rate to zero.

Rotonda Panzera, Trieste
The city is elegant, the café’s are beautiful, especially those around the port, but truthfully I didn’t feel like I was in an Italian city. What was missing was that Italian frisson, that special, elusive something is that makes me so happy to get back to Italy after a weekend in Lugano, Switzerland. And I’m not saying that Lugano isn’t nice, it is, and they also speak Italian, maybe not better than but almost better than the Triestini. The truth is that in spite of its Roman heritage, Trieste wasn’t part of Italy until 1954. Up until then it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is where other readers thought it should have stayed.

Perhaps the readers of Il Sole didn’t realize the survey wasn’t the usual “best city to live in” kind of survey that measures school quality and parks, but rather a snapshot of the most eco-friendly city in Italy which only makes sense when you know that the survey was done in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment. What was measured was the quality of the air and the number of days the cities sustained acceptable pollution levels.

Arch of Ricardo, Roman Gate 33BC, Trieste
It's a wonder Milan is on the list at all but it somehow managed to jump nine points from last year’s list and come in fifth beating out Rome which was eighteenth on the list after having dropped five points. The majority of the top ten cities were in the central-northern part of Italy, except for Bari. Here’s the list:

1. Trieste
2. Florence
3. Parma
4. Trento
5. Milan
6. Venice
7. Reggio Emilia
8. Padova
9. Bari
10. Modena

Because of the number of angry emails the editors received they decided to print a small editorial that said that the end of the year classification is really just a pastime they print for the amusement of their readers. They know that every year the small towns walk away with all the high marks while the big cities like Milan, Rome and Turin, which are in a constant state of change and flux trying to better themselves, end up on the bottom of the list. It’s normal, they said. Look at the New York Times. When the Times editors tried to put together a list of their own, New York came out as the least happy city in America.

Fountain of Neptune, Trieste

That was as much a surprise to the New York editors as Il Sole's list was to the Italians. But if nothing else at least now I know why Italians shrug their shoulders so much.

03 June 2010


SARONNO, Italy - The other day my favorite young Italian TV chef Mario Bacherini started talking about one of Italy’s culinary superheros, Pellegrino Artusi. Artusi wasn’t a chef, he was a silk merchant who didn’t have any connection with the food industry at all other than he loved to eat. He gained his superhero status by being the first to recognize that the everyday food Italian mamas and grandmas prepared for their families was one of Italy’s greatest treasures. After he retired from the silk business he spent several years traveling and collecting their vague cooking instructions and suggestions and turned them into recipes anyone could follow.

While Artusi's recipes are still a far cry from the detailed Gourmet and Food and Wine recipes that most of us know and love, he did a good enough job that even the most inexperienced of cooks can use his book. It’s called La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene. A translated version, The Art of Eating Well, is published by Random House.

Casa Artusi

At the time, the idea that home cooking was of any value, let alone national value, wasn’t particularly widespread and no publisher was interested in taking on the cookbook project. After many frustrating attempts to get the book published, in the end he published it himself.

What I love most about the book is the window it gives us into Italian life in the late 1800’s, which was about the time my grandparents immigrated to the United States. In reading his recipes I better understand what my Grandmother went though just to put a meal together.

One bit of advice I particularly liked was this: When you buy a wild duck at the market, pry open its beak to look at its tongue. If it’s quite dry, you know the animal’s not freshly killed, and then you should sniff it to be sure it doesn’t smell.

In this age of shrink wrapped skinless animal parts we sometimes forget where our food actually comes from. The day Bacherini was talking about Artusi he was chopping cocks combs into little bits for a classic Piedmontese dish and saying that if an animal has to die so we can live, the least we can do is not to waste any part of it. It made me think that he should see, or maybe he shouldn’t see, the reaction some of my visitors have had seeing whole prosciuttos hanging from racks at the delicatessen, or the skinned lamb heads and shiny pink pig’s feet in the display counter at my local butcher.

But Artusi’s book is not just about buying meat on the hoof, so to speak. Some of the cooking advice he doles out is just as valid today as it was back then. For example: if you want to make broth start cooking your meat in cold water and keep the water at the lowest simmer. If you want good boiled meat bring the water to a rolling boil and add the meat.

Cooking Demo at the Casa Artusi Cooking School

Artusi was born in Forlimpopoli, a small town in the province of Emilia Romagna and every summer the town hosts a Festa Artusiana. This year the festa will take place from 19 to 27 June. In addition to the cooking contests and the crowning of the best male and female cooks, the town’s restaurants will serve menus based on the 790 recipes found in Artusi book. While you are there visit the newly built Casa Artusi cultural center/food museum/restaurant/and cooking school. It sounds like a foodies dream to me.

For more information:
COMUNE DI FORLIMPOPOLI Ufficio Cultura Comune di Forlimpopoli tel. 0543/749234-5-6 e-mail:info@festartusiana.itinfo@pellegrinoartusi.it CASA ARTUSI Tel.0543/743138 - cell 349/8401818 http://www.casartusi.it/info@casartusi.it http://www.festartusiana.it/, http://www.pellegrinoartusi.it/