17 October 2010


SARONNO, Italy - Because of continuing health problems this blog, which I love writing, has to be temporarily suspended. With a little bit of luck I’ll be back in December with more tales of Mrs. Clean and Mrs. Mean and an update on how Aldo and Carla are doing as well as adventures and travels through Italy. My alter ego, Auntie Pasta, will also be back with her views and news on Italian food.

The problem is that the rheumatoid arthritis, that has plagued every bone in my body for the past few years, has found a new playground – my eyes. Is that not bizarre? My eyes, however, are not as cooperative as my bones and they did not responding to conventional treatment. What that means is that I now have to be subjected to further tortures, and there is no guarantee the further tortures are going to solve the problem either. But, either way, I have to drastically reduce the amount of time I spend on the computer, at least for the time being.

Thanks so much for your support, it is much appreciated and I look forward to “seeing” you all again in a few weeks.

Phyllis Macchioni

11 October 2010

AUNTI PASTA: Shhh, It’s Ossobuco Time

Ossobucco alla Milanese
SARONNO, Italy - You should never say the word ossobuco, or l’ òs büüs in Milanese dialect, out loud in Milan. Just the name of this slow braised veal shank is enough to bring the strongest of the strong Milanese to tears. Mention that you paired it with risotto Milanese, that is risotto with saffron and parmigiano cheese, and you’ll have them on their knees.

The Makings of a Good Soffrito

Few dishes affect the ever-so-busy, ever-so-chic Milanese like this one does. And yet it is a simple dish to make. The traditional recipe calls for veal shanks, patiently braised in white wine and broth, with the addition of a battuta of celery, carrots, onion and parsley and served with Risotto alla Milanese. It is one of the few “piatti unici”, or one dish meals in Italian cooking.

Veal Shanks

It takes a couple of hours to prepare ossobuco but the results are worth it. The veal shanks, which should be at least two inches thick, are first dipped in flour, and then browned in a rather heavy pot or deep frying pan. If the shanks are very large, one per person should be enough, otherwise two, or even three will do if they are very small.

You can find dozens of recipes for ossobuco on the internet so I won’t publish one here, but I will tell you that the wine, a couple of fresh tomatoes or a small can of peeled tomatoes, a cup or two of beef broth, a soffritto of onions, celery and carrots paired with the veal shanks creates the most delicious sauce. It even goes well even with mashed potatoes, but don’t tell anybody I said that. If you decide to take the traditional route and make risotto as a side dish, you might want to reduce the amount of parmigiano cheese you normally would use in the risotto.

Makings of Gremolada

For many Milanese the best part of the dish is the marrow. There is a special long-handled spoon called an esattore that they use to dig it out of the bone. But don’t despair if you are a marrow fan but don’t happen to have an esattore on hand. A demitasse or baby spoon works just as well. In Milan the act of scooping the marrow out of the bone is called riscuotere le tasse or tax collecting, maybe because of the determined way marrow eaters try to get every little bit of marrow out of the bone. Actually one of the secrets of making a really good risotto is to mix in a spoonful of bone marrow in with the rice before you start adding broth.

The Winning Combination: Ossobuco with Risotto Milanese

The most traditional way to serve ossobuco is with a simple condiment called gremolada. It is made with parsley, garlic, a little lemon zest and half a canned anchovy all finely chopped together. If you intend to eat the bone marrow add the gremolada to the center of the shank bones just before serving the dish. Otherwise you can add a little to the sauce. Either way it adds a certain zing to the dish, or as the Italians would say, si sposa bene con ossobuco.

10 October 2010

LIFE: Il Giorno di Colombo

SARONNO, Italy - "God Bless America", my grandmother used to say. My grandfather used to say something else. She was thrilled to be in America, and he, well that's another story. My grandparents were just two of the two million Italians who immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 1900’s.

My Grandparents when they were still just dreaming of America

My grandmother was fiercely proud of her heritage. She loved Italy, she loved the food, the weather, the closeness of her family. She just didn't want to live there, and mostly she did not want to raise her children there. She was not alone.

Between 1870 and 1920, almost 5 million Italians boarded steamships for America. Only Germany matched that exodus - one of the largest immigrations in modern history. Whole towns in Southern Italy, and some of the poorest areas of the Veneto and Tuscany, were emptied as people jumped at the opportunity for a better life. And yes, maybe even riches. In all fairness my Grandmother and her family were not starving, it was just that she saw America's open immigration policy as a once in a lifetime opportunity not only for her children but for herself and my Grandfather as well.

The town they left behind - Piansano

My Grandfather was a furniture maker, but in the impoverished province of Lazio, there was little money for furniture. To supplement the family income he had turned to making wine barrels and was managing to make ends meet, but barely.

And then one day a stranger came to town with an offer my Grandmother couldn’t refuse. The stranger was an agent. His job was to travel throughout Italy spreading an golden image of America, rich and generous, democratic and open, a country with endless possibilities for success. And best of all the company the agent worked for would take care of the paperwork. It was an irresistible combination: the agents were salesmen true and the product they were selling was good.

 Piansano: The cars may be newer but not much else has changed

So my Grandmother made a plan. My Grandfather, and her brother Joe would go to America first. They would get jobs – which according to the agent there were plenty of -  earn money, buy a house and then send second class steamer tickets for her, my father and my Aunt Louise, who was just a baby. My Grandmother wanted to go to America but not in steerage. I don’t know how much resistance there was to her idea, all I know is that on Feb 18. 1913 my Grandfather, and his brother-in-law Joe Bronzetti, were walking around in that land called America.

There were millions of immigrants

As soon as they stepped off the boat they were offered work. The Pennsylvania Railroad was being built and the railroad company needed men to help lay railroad tracks. So my Grandfather and Uncle Joe signed on. The company offered to provide food and inexpensive shelter along the way, the cost of which would be deducted from their pay. When the project was completed they would get the money they had earned, less their expenses.

You probably already know the end of the story. When the project was completed, there was no money, the paymaster had left town and taken the payroll with him. My Grandfather and Joe had heard from other Italians they had met while working on the railroad that some families from the province of Lazio had settled  in upstate New York, in a town called Siracusa.  It was their only hope. Stranded in a foreign country and unable to speak English, the two men began walking from Reading Pennsylvania to Syracuse, New York. To survive the journey they were forced to beg for food and shelter along the way.

What they longed to see

Newspaper articles published in that period claimed that Italian immigrants, especially those from Southern Italy, seem to beg for the pure pleasure of begging. Obviously they never met my Grandfather and Joe. When my Grandfather and Jot got to Syracuse they both found work, got settled and bought a house. Uncle Joe went on to own a string of bars in Syracuse, and I doubt there is an old timer in Syracuse who doesn’t recall with nostalgia hanging out in Joe’s Bar and Grill on Lodi Street, including yours truly. On April 14, 1915 my Grandmother, my father and my Aunt Louise, who will celebrate her 100th birthday on Nov. 1 boarded a ship bound for America.

 In few other countries in the world have the Italians had as much success as those who went to America. The children and grandchildren of the factory workers, masons, laborers , and waiters who landed on Ellis Island in the early 1900;s have gone on to become accountants, lawyers, doctors, engineers and managers, and yes even journalists. They have opened shops and restaurants. They have become business owners and politicians. With their sweat and tears they built America. They are the embodiment of the American dream.

Many Italians settled in New York's Lower East Side

The first Italians immigrants in America had to jump through a lot of hoops in order to survive. Many were embarrassed to be Italian and changed their name to make their lives easier. When I was growing up we lived next to the Bond family. Their name wasn't really Bond, it was Bonacci. And my cousin Jimmy;s favorite story is about his friend Mario who changed the name of his auto mechanic shop to sound more American. Instead of calling it Mario Bianco's, he renamed it Mario White's. My cousin still shakes his head over that one.

What brought on this wave of nostalgia is the Columbus Day celebrations that will take place across America tomorrow. On October 11 thousands of us, the descendants of all of those who sacrificed and suffered to get to America, will celebrate Columbus' discovery. It's an important day for Italian-Americans, because with this celebration, Italian-Americans can rediscover their pride in being Italian and they have a lot to be proud of.

Still happy after all these years

There are now between 25-50 million Italians in America. Four million just in the metropolitan New York area, 8 million in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. According to a recent study by the Angelli Foundation, the average income of Italians in America is 25% higher than that of the average American. Imagine that. The population of beggars has become 25% richer than the average American. Not bad.

On a trip back to the United States a few summers ago, I spoke with a number of Italian-Americans. Many of them have never visited Italy and they were very interested in hearing about life in Italy today. In talking to them I heard a curiosity about the land their families left nearly a hundred years ago. It was nice. It was also a major factor in deciding to write this blog. Happy Columbus Day.

07 October 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Sign of the Season: Figs

SARONNO, Italy - It’s October. The summer is over and the weighty watermelons that filled markets of Saronno during those warm months have been replaced with brimming baskets of plump, ripe figs. Figs have been around for ages, remember what was in Adam and Eve’s closet, and they are an integral part of Italian culture. According to Roman myth the wolf that nurtured the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, rested under a fig tree. Even back there were about 29 varieties of figs.

 Statue of Romulus and Remus in Rome
 While fig trees (fichi) grow all through Italy, figs seem to have originated in western Asia. From there they spread to the Middle East and then to Greece, Tunisia, Spain, and of course Italy. In the ruins of a prehistoric village near Jericho in the West Bank, scientists found the remains of figs that they say appear to be the earliest known cultivated fruit crop, grown as the first domesticated food production almost 12,000 years ago.

Figs are one of the healthiest and most nutritious fruits you can eat. They are particularly rich in fiber and minerals, such as calcium, iron and magnesium. And during times of famine, of which there have been many over the long course of history, figs have saved entire populations. So it's not surprising that here in the Old World, the fig tree represents blessing and bounty.

 Figs on a Plate
There are many varieties of figs on the market. Mostly they differ in their color, from green to red to bluish purple, with an inner pulp that can range from a very light orange to a violet red. The types of fresh figs I see in my local market are either green or dark, bluish purple. For most of my life I thought the green ones were just the dark ones that were not ripe yet. But now I know that isn’t true. I’ve tried them both while there are those who rave about one type of another, I don’t seem much difference in them, other than the green ones have a slightly thicker skin.

Signora Carmella, my local fruttivendolo, told me that the best figs are plump and very soft. She said that while there may be a small opening at the bottom of the fig nothing should be oozing out. She also said that figs are very perishable and spoil rather quickly so it’s best to buy them no more than a day or two before you plan to eat them.

Fig Tree So Pretty
One of the most popular ways to eat fresh figs is to wrap them with a savory prosciutto. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and salty. Another way of eating them is with a tangy cheese like pecorino or parmigiano. They are also good with creamier types of cheese, like marscapone. It’s easy to make.

Simply wipe them with a clean kitchen towel and cut off the stems. Slice the figs in half or in quarters and arrange them in a circle around a plate. If you want you can put a dollop of mascarpone in the middle and drizzle a little honey over them. The only secret to eating figs is they have to be ripe.

 Hmmm, So Good
Another easy recipe is an Insalata di rucola, prosciutto, fichi, e Parmigiano Reggiano (Arugula salad with figs, prosciutto and parmigiano).

After you clean, wash and dry your arugula, spread it evenly on a flat plate. Sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Arrange three or four ripe figs, which have been cut into quarters, skin side down over the arugula. Add thin slices of prosciutto crudo, (Parma or San Daniele), and top with slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

A Tisket a Tasket, Figs in the Basket
Figs are only in our market place for a short period of time, and so while I’m not exactly ready for fall yet I think I’m going to put them on this week’s shopping list anyway. I think they will make the perfect desert for next Sunday’s dinner.

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

03 October 2010

ON THE ROAD: The Vatican

This is another in a 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 interesting. This month it's Rome.

Papal Coat of Arms


There is a brick wall that divides Rome from Vatican City. It is called the Bastions of Michelangelo after Michelangelo Buonarroti, the reluctant painter of the Sistine Chapel. It could have been named after any of the other artists who worked for the Vatican, artists like Raphael, Caravaggio, even Fra Angelico, but as any visitor to the Vatican will tell you, it is the name Michelangelo that you hear over and over again.

Vatican City rests on Vaticanus Mons, Vatican Hill. While we consider the Vatican a sacred place (it is the burial place of St. Peter), and the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, it was a sacred area long before the Vatican was built. In fact, two thousand years ago, long before the arrival of Christianity, if you were standing in front of the Bastions of Michelangelo, you would have been in the Etruscan town of Vaticum. And during the days of the great Roman Empire, this part of Rome was known as ager vaticanus. It is from these names that the Vatican gets its name.
Overview of the Vatican

The Vatican City-State is the smallest state in the world, just 110 acres all within the confines of these walls. The Vatican state has its own postal system, armed guards, mini-train station and the Vatican radio station, KPOP. While we may consider it an amazing place, for historians it is only a fraction of the vast Italian territory that the Papal States ruled for centuries. That all changed in the late 1800s when the seeds of democracy started to take hold in Italy. Even though the pope was under a great deal of pressure to give up his territory to the newly unified Italian state, he refused. For years the fate of the Vatican territory was in limbo. But in 1929, Pope Pius XI and the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty and the autonomy of the Holy See within the Republic of Italy was established.

Follow the Red Brick Wall

If you look along the middle of the brick wall, you will see the Vatican coat of arms. Each figure on it symbolizes an important part of the church: the crossed keys represent the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus gave to Peter, the first Pope. The keys are displayed on a shield, joined by an embroidered stole, a symbol of the Papacy. Above the keys, is the three-tiered Papal tiara. When popes are crowned, the tiara is placed on their heads and the following words are spoken:
The Papal Tiara

Accipe thiaram tribus coronis ornatam, et scias te esse Patrem Principum et Regum, Rectorem Orbis, in terra Vicarium Salvatoris Nostri Jesu Christi, cui est honor et gloria in sæcula sæculorum.” “Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns and know that thou art Father of Princes and Kings, Ruler of the World, Vicar of Our Savior Jesus Christ on earth, to him be the honor and glory forever and ever.”

Though people often talk about the Papal Tiara as if there was only one, in reality, there were many. Some of the early priceless papal tiaras were destroyed, dismantled or seized by invaders or destroyed by the popes themselves. But while most popes were content to be crowned Father of Princes & Kings and Rulers of the world, in 1978 John Paul I refused the honor. His successor, the first Polish pope, John Paul II also declined a coronation opting instead for a Papal Inauguration Mass. The current pope, Benedict XVI also chose a Papal Inauguration Mass in 2005 to the disappointment of some conservative Catholics who were hoping he would reinstate the traditional use of the papal tiara.

No church has so magnificent an approach as St. Peter's As you move across the Vatican Square you are enfolded in the lofty embrace of Bernini's colonnade, marble pillars that are meant to welcome us into the spiritual experience of the basilica itself. One hundred and forty saints stand atop; visible assurance of the power of faith to transform mankind and signaling, by their mute presence that we are moving onto sacred ground. Here, underneath the altar of the church, Saint Peter is buried, the only person from the Gospels whose grave we can still venerate. He has lain here from the earliest centuries, hidden until the 4" century when the Church was secure enough, under the Roman ruler Constantine, to begin to build what we now call "Old St. Peter's".

Twelve hundred years later, even though that church was too small and falling apart, there was a scandalized outcry when the Pope Julius II, (Michelangelo's adversary and friend), ordered it to be pulled down and a new basilica built. He had great architects like Bramante and Michelangelo to advise him and subsequent Popes fo the Church you see today took over a hundred years to build.

Basically the design is Michelangelo's. He originally wanted the church to have the shape of a Greek cross, with equal aisles, rather than a Roman cross with a long, central aisle. And his wonderful dome is not exactly as he had planned it either.

The first thing we see when we enter is an enormous atrium, the size of many a parish church. There are five bronze gates and the furthest gate to the right is the "Holy Door", which is only opened for Jubilees. The first gate on the Ieft is one of the rare modern works in the basilica. Pope John XXIII asked the Italian sculptor, Manzù, to create what is known as the Door of Death, which sounds eerie but is, in fact, extremely beautiful and inspiring. We must all die, and here we are asked to contemplate the death of Jesus and its consequence: the assumption of Mary, our representative.

Manzù shows that death is not an end. Vines must be pruned for grapes to grow, sheaves of wheat must be stripped to make bread: from these "deaths" comes life for others. And then we see contrasts. Abel dies by violence, St Joseph in peace¸ Peter is beheaded but Pope John himself died lost in prayer. All these various deaths represent various doors to God

One of the Massive Bronze Doors

Next to it, the second gate has a wonderful title - the Door of Good and Evil - and again it shows Pope John and his successor, Paul VI. The fourth door, Crocetti’s Door of the Sacraments shows the seven Sacraments and an angel. The oldest door is the one in the middle. It is made of bronze and it was rescued from the Old Saint Peter's church. It was made in the beginning of the fifteenth century and shows Jesus and his mother at the top. In the center panels are St. Peter and St. Paul in prayer with Pope Eugenius IV, who commissioned this door, and at the bottom you see Peter crucified, upside down as he requested, and Paul beheaded. Right above this door is Bernini's bas-relief of Christ entrusting the Church to Peter.

If you step inside you are in the largest basilica in the world. Before your eyes stretches six hundred and fourteen feet of nave, rising to a height that could encompass a fifteen story building. You would think the effect would be over powering, but the building is so perfectly balanced that it is only when you start to move around it that you realize just how big it is.

Down the center there are marks that show where other great cathedrals would end if placed inside this one. St. Paul's in London; St. Patrick's in New York would both be swallowed up. The intent is not to boast about the size of the Vatican but to show how all cathedrals are "within" St. Peter's, encompassed by its strength. The focal point in any church is the altar. It is the most dominant object within this huge expanse. The actual altar, the Pope's altar where only he may say Mass, is a simple block of marble with St. Peter's tomb directly beneath in the crypt. But what catches your eye is the enormous baldachin. It was designed by Bernini and Borromini, who were both young men when they created this bronze masterwork. It is the largest and heaviest work ill bronze ever made.

Bernini's Baldachin
Yet it does not look heavy. Bernini's twisted, barley-sugar columns are in honor of Solomon's Temple and they spiral upwards with that combination of dignity and vitality characteristic of this great sculptor. Borrormini worked out the mathematics of it and added the gracious and elegant swirls of the volutes that rise to the top in quiet jubilation.

Gilt angels stand around the playful cherubs, protecting the tomb of the apostle. From the back of the church the perfect proportions of the baldachin make it hard to believe that it is 95 feet high. Within its columns is framed what is called the "altar of the throne", another colossal work by Bernini, so splendidly gilded that it looks like gold. Its purpose was to hold up what was thought to be the throne or papal chair of St. Peter. Within the bronze is a throne of wood, inlaid with ivory, but this is a medieval work crafted centuries later.

Michaelangelo's Pieta
There is also a work of art not originally made for St. Peter’s. Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Michaelangelo was 23 years old when he made this carving. It is so powerful that most visitors stand in front of it in awed silence. It is a poetic working of Mary holding the Jesus on her lap. Like all mothers, she knows her son is a grown man but also, still, sees him, as her child. Michelangelo lost his own mother when he was six and it could be that "mother", to him, always represented as someone young and pretty. Above the Pieta is a splendid little dome: the only dome in the basilica not ornamented with mosaic.

Part Two Next Month.

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