29 July 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Fantastic Farinata

SARONNO, ITALY - It’s these long and lazy hot days of summer that set me dreaming of the Italian Riviera. I long for those bygone days when we would set off from Genoa Nervi for Santa Margherita Ligure to eat heaping plates of fried fish, or Recco for focaccia al’ formaggio, focaccia with cheese. And sometimes we would head for Savona, on the other side of Genoa, for my favorite, the delicious and totally irresistible farinata, the poorest of all poor man’s food.

Freshly Baked Farinata

In the narrow carruggi of Genoa’s historic center there are any number of hole in the wall farinata shops. Along with farinata they also sell stuffed vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes that have been hollowed out and filled with flavored bread crumbs. They may also sell French fries and other things but to tell you the truth I never really paid attention to what other things they had, my focus was always on the farinata.

Farinata is nothing more than chick pea flour, water, olive oil and salt, mixed together into a loose batter and baked on a round pizza pan in a very hot oven. After it is cooked, it is roughly sliced into pieces, piled high on plates and…. devoured.

There is regular yellow farinata, made with traditional chick pea flour, and white farinata. I don’t know what the white farinata is made of, and I’m not all that interested in finding out. The only thing I really want to know how fast can they bring me a plate of the stuff. 

I must confess however, it was not love at first taste. I lived in Genoa for quite a few years not really giving much thought to the bevy of farinata shops I passed every day. It wasn’t until the day Tracy and Daniele got married in Savona that I became a farinata fanatic.
Savona City Hall

My conversion to farinata almost didn’t happen. The day of their wedding a horrific storm came in off the sea and brought Savona to its knees. The wedding ceremony, which had taken place in the City Hall, went off as planned but because the streets of the city had turned into rivers, we were stranded there. It was late afternoon before the rain stopped, but once it did it didn’t take long for the roads to become passable once again. The reception was on.

The trattoria was at the end of a long and winding road up on the top of a hill high above Savona. There were many slippery patches and a few times I thought we were going to slide right off the road into the ditch. But the problems of the day were soon forgotten for when we got to our destination the tantalizing odor of freshly baked farinata greeted us at the door.

It is such a simple dish, just chickpea flour, water and olive oil baked in a thin pancake and eaten with your hands but it is the one thing I crave when I’m sitting at home in land bound Milan.

Legend has it farinata was created in 1284 on board a Genovese ship on its way home after winning a sea battle against Pisa. They hit a severe thunderstorm and several barrels of olive oil and sacks of chickpea flour tipped over and got mixed together with the salty water from the sea, making a gummy batter.

The Genovese, who have duly earned their reputation for frugalness, scooped up what they could and when the sun came out they put the bowls of batter out on the deck to dry. Then they gave the bowls of dried batter to the crew to eat. It didn’t taste bad but when the ship arrived back in its home port, someone got the idea of baking the batter in an oven.

From those humble beginnings to today, farinata has managed to keep it’s position at the top of the list of really good things to eat in Liguria, along with pesto and trofie and all the other delicacies of la cucina povera.

25 July 2010

LIFE: Re-Entry Blues

SARONNO, Italy - Fawco is the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas, a worldwide organization whose purpose is to provide an environment for Americans and other English speaking women living abroad to meet. The alumni division is called Fausa and it helps Fawco members re-adjust to life in the USA after living abroad.

The lure of the Amalfi Coast

One of Fausa’s missions is to help bridge the re-entry gap back into the American way of life by maintaining connections with other returned Fawco members who have shared an expatriate life. Going home is not as easy as you may think.
What is true is that after surviving an out-of-USA experience you see the world through different eyes, and as Pam Perraud, Fawco’s NGO Director and UN representative writes, “repatriation shock is real and often more painful than ‘culture shock’ was in moving to a foreign country. It has been defined as the shock in realizing that nothing at home is the same as before.”

Easy Living in Rome

“You may find that your newfound skills don’t carry much weight,” wrote one expat who lived in England for several years. “Friends give you a blow by blow of five years of marital discord and vacations to the Jersey shore, but don’t seem to be able to sustain more than a few minutes interest in where you have been. Things have changed while you were gone and you wonder if you are an old timer or a newcomer. I wanted to take out an ad in the American Women’s Club Newsletter warning everyone to STAY WHERE THEY ARE,” she went on to say.

A Favorite Cafe in Milan's Galleria

Another article, written by a woman who lived in Germany for two and a half years, pointed out that for many of us, when we think about going home we think:
- Finally I will really understand what’s going on.
- I can’t wait to do business where people are efficient and courteous.
- Everything works better in the USA.
- People will be interested in hearing what I’ve been through – both good and bad.
- If I could adjust to life and work overseas, surely I’ll be able to handle this so-called repatriation adjustment.

“Sometimes,” she write, “these things are true and sometimes they are not.”
For better or worse we change. No matter what the quality of the overseas experience, we are affected by it. We return a different person than when we left.

Wow! It Really Does Lean

An article written by Helen Bachman cites several cases in which people, after having returned to America, moved back overseas. One woman, who had lived in Paris, was quoted as saying: “I felt the shock of my life. I couldn’t fit in or find a niche for myself and the American lifestyle I thought I missed so much didn’t seem to suit me anymore.”
Once you have returned to the States a move back overseas is sometimes hard to explain to family and friends. Often even the expat doesn’t realize that what they may consider a return for an undefined period of time may end up being a lifetime.
Ravello, A little bit of Heaven on Earth

But what is gained by living in another country goes far beyond the telling of tales of moonlight trips down the Grand Canal and espressos sipped in sidewalk cafes. Just being challenged on a daily basis, solving problems and dealing with issues you never even thought about before strengthens you. Even if you crawl home and collapse in a heap, the next time out you are stronger and wiser.

The confidence you acquire in learning another language, to shop in kilos instead of pounds, in overcoming cultural barriers and just going from point A to point B without getting lost is something that is yours forever.

So why is it so hard for some to go back to the US? I think it’s the very things we all complain about that we miss the most: the unexpected – the satisfaction of resolving and overcoming yet another bureaucratic folderol, the sense of accomplishment that comes from making it through another day.

Everyone Falls in Love with Florence

In other words home is predicable, safe and do I dare say it - boring. I can hear expats here in Italy hooting – oh, for a safe, predicable, boring day. But even they have to admit no matter what the quality of their overseas experience is they are affected by it.

I know that when I moved to Italy I had no idea how long I would be here. The plan was to stay until I didn’t want to be here anymore. Has that happened? Am I tired of living abroad? Well no, not yet, but you see I’ve only been here 20 years and there are still some days when I feel as though I’m just getting the hang of it. But who knows, things can change. Let me get back to you in, say… 2025?

22 July 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: The Island Caper

SARONNO, Italy - As I cook my way through this hot month of July, I realize I’ve gone through yet another jar of capers. While I don’t use very many of the little green buds during the winter, once the weather turns warm they seem to be just the thing to add to fish dishes, pasta and rice salads and other hot weather food.

Salina Island

Caper bushes grow wild all over Italy. I’ve seen them sprouting out of ancient stone walls in Tuscany, but they grow best on the rocky terrain found on the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. Both Pantelleria and Salina are famous for their capers, but it’s only Salina that celebrates this little bitter bud with a three day Capers in Bloom Festival in June, La Festa del Cappero in Fiori.

The caper festival takes place all over the small 16 square mile island, squeezed in between the islands two extinct volcanoes. For about $6 you get a paper plate, a plastic glass and a selection of the best food the island has to offer.

Caper buds are harvested from the end of May through August. Picking starts in the cool of the morning, usually about 5 AM, in order to avoid the hot summer sun. The collected buds are taken to a warehouse where they are spread out on sheets of burlap and separated by size. Then they are packed between layers of coarse salt, where they “cured” for about a month, before they are bottled.

Harvesting Capers

Capers eaten on their own are not particularly good, actually they have very little flavor. But after they are cured, they develop that sharp, peppery mustard like taste that adds zip and zing to a lot of dishes.

If you have never cooked with capers I would suggest buying the ones packed in brine instead of those packed in salt. While they may not be Mr. Gourmet’s first choice the ones packed in salt are too salty for me no matter how long, or how diligently, I rinse them. The ones packed in brine just need to be drained, so they are easier to use. Once you open the jar, keep them in the refrigerator and make sure they are covered with the brine (or salt), otherwise they will dry out.

You’ll probably find two sizes of capers in your supermarket: small and smaller. They are both good. I recently heard that in some supermarkets you can also buy large capers still attached to their stalks. They may look more “gourmet” but truth be known the smaller ones, minus stalks, are better both in flavor and how they look in a finished dish.

Salted CapersWhile capers may not be on the top of everyone’s shopping list they have been used in Mediterranean cooking for thousands of years, going back to the days of the Roman Empire. Roman culinary expert Marcus Gavius Apicus (25 BC), who served under the Emperor Augustus, wrote about them in his cookbook. It would be difficult to duplicate his recipes however, as it is not easy to find peacocks and other Roman delicacies in the supermarket these days.

I did find, however, a very good web site written by Alberto Calascione. There is no profile so I don't know anything about him, but it is obvious that he is an Sicilian-American who is very much into his Italian roots, and very much into the food of that region. His recipes are easy to follow, true to the ingredients of Sicily and the islands, and they are written using American measurements.

So I thank you Signor Calascione for your dedication to the traditions and food of Sicily and for permission to link with your site. We are all the richer for it. His web site is: http://www.lacucinaeoliana.com/viaggio.html

18 July 2010

LIFE: Aldo and Carla

SARONNO, Italy - Aldo and Carla live in the apartment above the Cleans. (See 'The Cleans.' June 27 post) I know their names because Aldo used to be an active cyclist, and every Sunday his cycling buddies would gather under his apartment building and call up to him to come down.

“Hey, Aldo,” they would yell. “Vieni giu.”

Saronno, Italy

Aldo, who looks to be about 70 years old, would come out on his balcony, wave and yell back, “arrivo.” Then Carla would come out and as the guys shouted up “Ciao Carla,” she would wave back at them, ask about their wives and kids, and basically kill time until Aldo got his stuff together and made an appearance in the small piazza downstairs.

It's Not Aldo But You Get the Idea

Aldo would come out of the building dressed in his cycling gear: protective helmet, Lycra shirt and knee length cycling shorts and sporty gloves, his spiked cycling shoes clicking on the pavement as he wheeled his bike out on to the street. Then they would all get on their bikes, say their final farewells to Carla and head off to who know where for a morning of Tour di Saronno, which is similar to the Tour de France, but just slightly.

Then the unimaginable happened. Aldo had a stroke. The vital, vibrant old man was gone. In his place was a feeble old person who barely resembled the healthy, active Aldo of the past.

He didn't leave the house anymore. Sometimes Carla would help him out to the balcony, but he didn’t stay there very long. His bathrobe replaced his Lycra cycling gear, his feet now in slippers instead of the noisy spiked biking shoes. His buddies didn’t come by any more, his world shrunk and his spirit along with it.

Aldo and the Boys? Unfortunately no.

A year passed, and Aldo reappeared. A little shaky, his one good hand gripping the handle of a cane. Not in great shape, but at least he was no longer house bound. He and Carla started going out for an apperitivo in the late afternoons. She would hold on to his weak arm, keeping him steady. He would clump alongside her, setting his cane down with force as if to say, I’m may be down, but I’m not out.

Neighbors would greet them on the street, smiling and happy to see him. Wives would discreetly inquire about his health while the husbands would pat him on the back as if to say, “bravo, Aldo, you made it.”

He even started driving again. He was never gone for very long, but even a quick ride around the block must have given him a tremendous sense of freedom recovered. Even I, his silent, invisible fan, was rooting for him.

It took about a week before I realized that I hadn’t seen Aldo for a while. I knew he wasn’t dead because here in Saronno, as in all of Italy, when someone dies funeral parlors hang gray banners on the apartment building doors with the name of the deceased on them. So if he wasn’t dead, where was he?

A Street in Saronno
Then I noticed that there was another person in the apartment, a woman. She was there early in the morning, drinking coffee on the balcony, and late at night, having a smoke before going to bed. She was either a relative or someone Carla had brought in to help with Aldo.

Then one afternoon I saw her wheeling Aldo down the street in a wheelchair. He was yelling something at her and she was yelling back, which meant she wasn’t hired help and not any kind of a distant relative, but more likely his daughter. She would take him out in the wheelchair every couple of days, and every time she did they would argue.

Another street in Saronno

It wasn’t until I saw her helping him into the apartment building that I noticed that there was a large soft cast on his bad leg. It seems the reason he hadn’t been out was because he had somehow further disabled his already disabled leg. That also meant he could not drive. Now she was doing all the driving. Bad news.

But now that woman, whoever she was, isn't there anymore. Aldo came out by himself this morning, the cast is still on his leg but he managed to open the door to his car and get in. He started the motor and slowly backed out of his parking place. Then Carla came out on the balcony to watch him, her hand over her mouth.
He slowly pulled away from the building and turned the corner. About 10 minutes later he was back. He parked the car, got out and hobbled into the building. I was so happy I almost cried. All I could think of was bravo Aldo, don’t give up. And you know, I don’t think he will.

15 July 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: You Say Tomato, I say. . .

SARONNO, Italy - What’s this? Italian pasta without tomato sauce? Unthinkable. Pizza without tomatoes? A downright tragedy. Fresh mozzarella without fat slices of juicy red tomatoes? Call the Food Police! Tomatoes are the supreme Queen of la buona cucina italiana. Chop them, dice them, mash them, grill them, boiled and stuff them, even roast them, add them to just about anything and everything, they will make everything delicious.


It’s impossible to imagine life in this land of pasta and pizza without them. The market stalls are piled high with round ones, and long ones, fat ones and skinny ones but truth be known, up until the middle of the 1500’s Italians had never heard of a tomato, let alone seen one. And even when they did, they were not impressed. The plants were pretty but that was about it, you certainly wouldn’t want to eat the little fruits that grew on them, especially since everyone knew they were poisonous.

The first tomatoes the Italians saw were yellow and they called them pomi d’oro, golden apples. The red tomatoes we know today came later, some say via Morocco, and they were called pomo d’Moro, apples of the Moors. And as things do, pomi d’oro and pomo d’Moro eventually morphed into pomodori.

Here in Italy there are many kinds of tomatoes to choose from, it all depends on what you want to do with them. For salads the Italian’s first choice are Cuore di Bue, Oxheart tomatoes. These tomatoes have a rather strange heart shape and look like they have been pre-portioned, like a cheesecake.

Pachino and Cuore di Bue

My personal salad favorite is a small tomato called Camone that grows in Sardinia. It has a really good flavor, even when it’s green which is how the Italians like their salad tomatoes. Perini tomatoes are what you get when you buy canned tomatoes, unless it says something different on the label. Then there are cherry tomatoes, Pachino are a type of cherry tomato grown in the area in and around Siracusa, Sicily. Costoluto and Tondo Liscio are two other types of cherry tomatoes and come from the same area.

The most popular type of tomato sold in Italy is called the Ramato. Ramato tomatoes are smooth and round and grow in bunches like cherry tomatoes, but they are much bigger. They are the Swiss Army knife of the Italian tomato world, the one size fits all for sauces and salads.

San Marzano Tomatoes

But the star of the tomato show, and you know there has to be a star, are the tomatoes of San Marzano. As far as I know San Marzano tomatoes are the only tomatoes to have a DOP denominazione di origine protetta, or Protected Geographical Status, which ensures us that the product originates in a specific region. For San Marzano tomatoes that region is the province of Naples, Salerno and Avellino. Just take a look at this short video and you’ll see just how revered this little tomato is. 

According to food guru Giuliano Bugialli, http://www.bugialli.com/, it was the Florentines who first discovered you could eat tomatoes with no dire consequences, but then again he credits the Florentines with everything from civilizing the French to developing the art of carving fruit. And wouldn’t you know it, now that I’m in Italy, Bugialli is three blocks from where I lived in Philadelphia. Giuliano, where were you when I needed you?

But enough of this food talk, let’s get down to the real benefits of eating tomatoes. Researchers at the University of Manchester in Great Britain found that volunteers who ate helpings of ordinary tomato paste over a 12-week period developed skin that was less likely to burn in the sun. Also, scientists think it is the antioxidant lycopene, which gives tomatoes their color, that neutralizes harmful molecules produced in skin exposed to the sun's ultra-violet rays. Damage inflicted by the free radical molecules on skin structures and DNA can lead to premature ageing and skin cancer.

A diet rich in tomatoes can significantly boost the level of pro-collagen in the skin and by increasing those levels there is the potential reversal of the skin ageing process. Now I ask you, is that good news or is that good news.
So to keep you all looking young and healthy, here’s a recipe for one of my favorite summertime soups, Pappa al Pomodoro. It’s from the second edition of Giuliano Bugialli’s The Fine Art of Italian Cooking.

Pappa al Pomodoro
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup olive oil
Pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1 pound very ripe fresh tomatoes, or 1 pound canned tomatoes, preferably Imported Italian, drained and seeded
1 pound Tuscan bread, white or dark, several days old
3 cups hot chicken or meat broth – homemade is best
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 basil leaves, fresh or preserved in salt

Chop the garlic coarsely, then place in a stockpot, preferably terracotta, along with ¼ cup of the olive oil and the pepper flakes. Saute’ very gently for 10-12 minutes. If fresh tomatoes are used, blanch them in salted boiling water, then cut them into 3 or 4 pieces, remove the seeds, then add to the pot.

Simmer for 15 minutes. Cut the bread into small pieces and add to the pot, along with the broth, slat, black pepper and whole basil leaves.

Stir very well and simmer for 15 minutes longer, then remove from heat, cover and let rest for 1 to 2 hours.

When ready to serve, stir very well to break up all the bread pieces and place in individual soup bowls.

At the table sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the remaining oil on each serving and grind some fresh black pepper into each bowl.

Note: Though considered a soup, the consistency of papa is not liquid at all. It may be eaten lukewarm or cold, or reheated and served hot the following day. It

Do not add any grated cheese.

11 July 2010

ON THE ROAD: Notable Noto

This is another in what has become a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a recent New York Times article on 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.

NOTO, SICILY – There is something about Sicily that makes me break out in adjective-itis. Words like fanciful, fantastic and extraordinary seem to pop up out of nowhere and take up residence in almost every sentence I write about the place.

Noto City Gate

Take Noto for example. Strictly speaking it’s just another small town on a island full of small towns, but unlike my adjective heavy sentences that are forgotten as soon as they are read, there is something about the place that sneaks in and takes up residence in your soul.

It may have something to do with all those baroque nymphs, mermaids, lions, trolls and other mythical creatures that look down at you as you walk along the streets.

Piazza Duomo

Or it may be the way the town glows in the late afternoon as the sun slowly sets in the west, reflecting off of the soft limestone buildings. I don’t know. My only consolation is that I’m not alone in my unabashed admiration for things Sicilian, and Noto in particular. It seems to affect everyone who comes here.

“Go to Noto,” wrote the Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino, “it is a place where if one happens to come in, he is trapped and happy and never goes away.”
Bufalino was right. The danger is real.

Via Corrado Nicolaci

The day I got there the town artists were on their hands in knees on Via Corrado Nicolaci, putting down the outlines for the various sections of a brilliant tableau of flowers that would soon decorate the street. Via Nicolaci is one of the prettiest streets in town, rising gently toward the Church of Montevergine. Elegant baroque buildings line the street, and under the ornate balconies artists were working off patterns that resemble the canvases in paint-by-number kits.

The town was preparing for the annual spring celebration called the Infiorata, a week long affair celebrated with concerts, handicraft fairs, parades and special events.

The Baroque balconies of Noto
The Noto we see today is a relatively new town, at least new by Italian standards. The original town, Noto Antica, is about ten miles away, up on one of the nearby hills. In 1693 Noto Antica was completely destroyed by an earthquake, and rather than rebuild on the damaged site, the survivors decided to try their luck elsewhere. That makes Noto Nuovo only a little over 300 years old.
Earthquakes are a problem in this part in Sicily. In 1990, a minor earthquake caused a wing of Noto’s Jesuit College building to collapse, and a few months later cornices from building facades began to tumble to the ground. But the most tragic event of all happened in 1996 when the roof of the 18th century Cathedral of St. Nicholas fell into the nave, leaving a gaping hole and exposing the treasures within to the elements.

Noto Cathedral

I remember standing in the Cathedral shortly after it happened, looking up at the lions, winged horses, allegorical putti, bizarre Hellenic demons and grotesque stone masks that make up the interior. Pained faces frozen in time and space staring out at me through eerie, hollow eyes, as if to say, do something.

The roof is repaired now but it took more than ten years of plowing through bureaucratic paperwork and complicated maneuvers through the world of Italian and Sicilian politics. In the meantime, as the roof waited, Noto was added to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites.

Noto City Hall

Noto today is what it has always been: an eighteenth century country town standing on the slope of a hill in the southeastern corner of Sicily, about thirty miles from Siracusa. The town may be new, but its DNA is pure Noto Antica, whose historic tentacles reach deep into the past.
By the 8th century, when Sicily was controlled by the Arabs, Noto Antica was the administrative center of the Noto Valley, one of the three provinces created by the Arab governors. The Arabs introduced lemons and oranges to Sicily, and with them the complex irrigation system these new crops needed. The Arabs also introduced sugar, sukkar in Arabic, and almonds, which they used to make marzipan. They candied fruits and put them in cannoli, thought to have been invented by the women of a harem in Caltanissetta.

Rice, saffron and many fruits and vegetables owe their place in Italian gastronomy to the Arab traders and invaders. The list is long and not complete but anise, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, pistachio, spinach and watermelon come to mind. The most obvious dish with Arab ancestry is couscous - called cuscusu in Sicily, but Sicilian food today is truly a compilation of many intertwined bits, and that may be why it is varied and so good.

The Greeks brought olives, black and green, the Romans brought chickpeas, fava beans, lentils and even some forms of pasta. From cold northern shores the Normans brought in dried codfish and bacalĂ , now an island staple. The Spanish are responsible for pan di Spagna, a type of sponge cake used to make cassata. And what’s a calzone if not a giant empanada?In Noto you don’t need Greek temples or Byzantine artifacts to feel its history, just walk into any restaurant or trattoria. It’s all there. Thirty centuries of history. And along with it a unique style of baroque that is only found in Noto. It’s the reason Unesco put the town on it’s coveted list of World Heritage sites.

08 July 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Lunch with George

SARONNO, Italy –There is a delicious stillness that settles on Saronno in the summer. Life is easy. People move a little slower, you see fewer cars on the streets and a lot more bicycles. In the cool of the evening couples go out for a walk, and stop for an ice cream. There is always lines at the gelelaterias and at the outdoor movies, where you can sit under the stars, eat your ice cream and catch any breeze that happens to pass your way.

What Saronno isn't in the summer is a place that encourages long sojourns in the kitchen. But to paraphrase my Grandmother, heat or no heat, you still have to eat. So before my friend George disappears on vacation, I invited him over for lunch. And he’s coming. Tomorrow.

Tortino Tatin

Because it is so hot I decided to put together a menu that doesn't require any last minute cooking. Instead of the usual first course of pasta, I thought I would make a Tortino Tatin of summer vegetables. Basically a it’s a pie crust filled with slices of tomato, zucchini and eggplant on a pie crust. Sometimes I put strips of mild cheese on top of the vegetables and pop it under the broiler until the cheese melts, but it’s too hot to even think about doing that.

The main course will be grilled chicken which I can do on top of the stove first thing in the morning and serve at room temperature with wedges of lemon. I’ll cut a whole chicken down the back and open it up so it lays flat on the grill. It won’t require any type of oil so it’s not only quick and easy, it’s low-cal too. To boost the flavor a little I’ll cut some fresh rosemary and slide it up under the skin on the chicken breast. That’s all it should need.

Rice Salad

To go with the chicken I’m leaning toward rice salad because I can cook the rice this morning and put the salad together later today or even tomorrow. Then all I have to do is chop the celery, cucumbers and tomatoes, defrost a handful of frozen peas, if I have any boiled ham left over from today’s lunch I’ll add some of that along with a few capers, a teaspoon of green peppercorns, some dried marjoram and a little fennel seed.

To make the Tortino you’ll need an eggplant, a large, ripe tomato and a medium size zucchini. Wash and cut the eggplant into slices, put it in a colander and sprinkle it with kosher salt. Let it sit for about an hour so the eggplant loses some of its moisture. Then rinse the eggplant slices under running water and dry them.

Heat about one tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and lightly cook the eggplant slices and sliced zucchini. Line a pie plate with pie crust dough and layer the eggplant and zucchini slices, alternating with the slices of tomato. Sprinkle with fresh thyme. Bake in a moderate oven (350°F) for about 25 minutes. You can serve it immediately or let it cool and serve it at room temperature, which is what I am going to do. I’ll put the slices of mozzarella on it just before I serve it.

Frosty pitchers of ice cold lemonade
Desert will be a simple lemon sorbetto and maybe slices of watermelon. Lemon sorbetto is easy to make but buying it in the grocery store is even easier – and just as good. If the watermelon turns out to be too much to carry, I’ll pick up some nut cookies at the Lazaroni store across the street. They are very good and will be perfect with the lemon sorbetto.

And a frosty pitcher of lemonade should be just the right thing to go along with this summery lunch, don't you think?

04 July 2010

LIFE: This Italian Life

SARONNO, Italy - As I sat on my balcony this week with my feet up, sipping lemonade, I started thinking about the things I love about living in Italy. I realized it wasn’t one big thing that captured my heart, but many little things. If you think about it, it’s never the big things that draw people to something. I mean did you ever hear anyone say they pulled up stakes and moved here because of the Coliseum in Rome, or that they simply couldn’t bear to live another day without the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Me neither.

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Maybe it started when I lived in Rome. Every Saturday I would leave my apartment on the Via della Vite, cross Via del Tritone and go up Via della Stamperia to a small street market near the Trevi Fountain. At a certain point I would be greeted by a John Hamm look alike who would smile and bow ever so slightly and say: “Buon Giorno Contessa.” With no real language skills I would stammer something back and continue on my way, but I ask you, who would not want to start their day like that?

I love the way Italians live with their art.

Oh this, yes, well yes it is a 16th century bla bla bla.” And then the conversation about where to go for pizza continues for there are many incredible masterpieces stuck here, there and everywhere that are a normal part of everyday life.

A Green Grocer in Puglia
I love my green grocer when she tells someone looking for zucchini in January to come back in April. Of course you can find zucchini in January but zucchini grown who knows where and tasting like who knows what.

I love the fact that Italian orthopedic surgeons go to Africa every year and perform hundreds of operations on little African kids, free of charge and they don’t tell anybody about it. I love that there are still church missions in this world staffed by Italians giving their all in the name of humanity.

I love the way hospital patients drift down to the hospital bar in their pj’s for a coffee or a grappa and a smoke. I love the fact that hospitals want your friends and relatives to be with you and help you when you are sick. After all, what are friends and relatives for?

Friends Forever
And speaking of friends, the day my friends Tracy and Daniele got married in Savona there was a wicked storm and the road to the restaurant where the reception was to be held was closed. That meant no reception and that would never do. We talked the barman into opening the bar in the Savona City Hall, selling us some champagne, giving us glasses and throwing in some nibbles. Instant party. Try that in NYC.

I love the shiny brass name plates on the buildings. You rarely see names scribbled on scraps of paper stuck between two pieces of plastic to indicate this month’s occupant is….

I love the absolute differences between the sexes. I love the way Italian men look at women – even if it is a little unnerving at times. I love the way Italian women start talking faster and pull, ever so slightly on their husband’s arm whenever a pretty girl walks by. He can look, but why make it easy for him.

One Way to Keep His Attention
I love the bars, the big bars, the little mom and pop bars, especially the old historic bars in the center of most cities. To sit and have a coffee in the CafĂ©’ San Carlo in Torino, or Covo in Milan is to be part of the drama being played out in those places at that time.

I love the sense of history that seeps through your shoes as walk down the streets. Quarto dei Mille? Oh, it’s called that because that is where Garibaldi set off for Sicily with his band of one thousand Red Shirts in his drive to unify Italy.

I love the names of the streets. Via Gabriele D’Annunzio, Vicolo Simon Boccanegra, Piazza Camillo di Cavour. It’s like walking around in a history book. Piazza Savonarola? Oh yeah, he’s the 15th Dominican friar and prophet of doom that they burned after they hung him back in 1498.”

I love the fact that Italians make up the rules as they go along. I remember forgetting my passport on a trip up to Switzerland and reporting it to the Italian police when they came on board the train in the border town of Chiasso. “Signora,” they said, “you are leaving Italy, that is a problem for the Swiss border guards.”

Don't Worry, Be Happy
“Yes,” I said, “but on Sunday, when I have to come back? I have to go to work on Monday.”

“Ah, Signora, you worry too much. Just sit down, be calm and pretend we never had this conversation.”

So I did. I continued up to Switzerland, had a great time with my friends, came back into Italy, no passport, no hassle, no problem.

Yes there have been problems over the years, mostly having to do with trying to get a work visa, but there was never any doubt in my mind that I had made the right choice. I knew from the beginning I was in the right place, and while this isn’t a new list, it is still all true.

A version of this article was published in The Informer Magazine, No. 103.