30 June 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: Farmer's Market Saronno

SARONNO, Italy - There was a good crowd at Saronno’s newest street market last Saturday. Unlike the weekly street market, which sells everything from produce to meat and fish, shoes and underwear, and the bi-monthly street market where you can buy antiques, paintings by local artists, regional products like olive oil from Liguria and crusty bread from Puglia, and keep the kids happy with the kiddie rides, the Mercato Contadino only sells food and plants.  
 Saronno's newest market
I like farmer’s markets.  I like that sense of community you get talking to the people who produce the food  you are going to put on your table. It’s comforting to me, part of my personal history.

My mother’s parent’s had a farm with chickens and cows and all the other storybook farm animals, and my father always had a large garden. He grew everything from sweet corn and string beans to broccoli and beets. Every afternoon he would go through the garden and pick whatever was ripe on the vine and that would end up on our dinner table that night.  
The market is a success
That’s the feeling I had walking through the farmer’s market on Saturday. It was as if my father had gone through the garden and picked what was ripe that morning and brought it to Saronno. 

On offer were patty pan and yellow squash, red cabbage, potatoes, peas and green beans, zucchini and zucchini flowers. Crispy green lettuce and garlic, blueberries, raspberries and gooseberries, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid. 
 The Cheesemaker, Matteo Moretto  (photo from LeCamosciate website
The stalls selling goat cheese were the most interesting to me. With the paltry selection of goat milk products offered by our local supermarkets, I was amazed to see, in addition to the large variety of soft cheeses,  goat’s milk yogurt, mozzarella and ricotta. 
Gianni and Tiiana Moretto, the Cheesemaker's parents
There were two cheese stalls that I found particularly interesting. The first was LeCamosciate, a small goat farm in the area of Lake Como. The cheesemaker is Matteo Moretto, a young agricultural expert who specializes in organic farming.  With a helping hand from his parents, Gianni and Tiziana, he produces a surprising variety of goat’s milk cheeses using just the milk that comes from the goats he raises on their farm. Their web site is: http://www.ilformaggiodicapra.com/

 Cheesemaker of Pian del Lares
  The second stall was that of L'azienda agricola "Pian del Lares, located near Lake Maggiore. This is a large operation with cows and pigs, in addition to goats, and they also produce a large variety of goat milk cheeses in addition to other products including sausages of various types. 
 Sausage and Cheese from Pian del Lares
The longest line was at the market stall selling apricots and peaches. Like most fruit and produce for sale in Italy, when it hits the market it is ready to eat. With husbands and kids standing nearby to carry off the bounty, housewives were buying in bulk, which here in Saronno means a flat of 18 peaches and 4 lbs of apricots. The second longest line was at the stall selling zucchini flowers. They too were being sold by the flat. 

 See You in July
It’s a new initiative so for now the farmers are only here twice a month. But I’m hoping the market will be a success and that there are enough people in Saronno interested in buying farm fresh products that it will eventually become a weekly event.

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26 June 2011

LIFE: Precious

SARONNO, Italy – I met Precious in the train station when I was on my way home from a doctor’s appointment in the nearby town of Busto Arsizio. I first saw her when we both got on the wrong bus and ended up sharing a 30 minute bus tour of the hinterlands of Busto.

Saronno train statio
We didn’t talk on the bus. It was raining and I was damp and tired and all I wanted to do was get to the LeNord train station and go home. I didn’t know she was going to Saronno too until she sat down next to me and we started making small talk, you know, the way people do who happen to be next to each other in waiting rooms.

She told me her name was Precious and she was from Nigeria. She was surprised that I was American and said so. I was the first American she had ever met, she said. About four sentences later she suddenly turned serious and said to me, “do you believe in Jesus.” As she said that, she pulled a small bible out of her handbag and held it in her hand.

She caught me by surprise and I didn’t know what to say. I knew if I said yes, she would roll into a discussion about the wonderfulness of Jesus and religion and how we have to venerate Him. Or even worse, she would start reading to me from the bible, or wanting me to pray with her. On the other hand, if I said no, she might take the hint and let the conversation take a lighter note, like what films in English were playing in Milan that week.

 Waiting for the train

I realize now, of course, that it would not have mattered which road I took, she wasn’t going to let me get away that easily. But at the time, I was convinced a strong stand would put an end to her interrogation. So I took a deep breath and said, “No, I don’t.”

The girl was horrified. She took a deep breath and said, “How old are you?” 

I told her. Obviously I was, in her opinion, close enough to my expiration date that she felt compelled to save me, and so the onslaught began. With bible in hand and a most serious and concerned face, she recounted the horrors that were in store for me. Did I really want to spend eternity burning in the pits of hell? And didn’t I see all the glories of the afterlife that awaited me in the house of the Lord, if only I would believe in Him.

The train station in Busto Arsizio didn’t seem to be the place to discuss such a heavy subject as the pros and cons of my impending encounter with the afterlife, so I did my best to change the subject. To move her off the Jesus track and onto a lighter, more suitable discussion for a brief encounter – the weather for example.

Via Roma, Saronno
When we got on the train for Saronno I sat down next to a young Italian woman and Precious sat across from me. As I wracked my brain trying to think of some way to distract her, the young Italian woman, hearing Precious and I speak English, joined the conversation. Precious immediately turned her focus to her.

“Do you believe in Jesus,” she asked the Italian woman.

I’m coming from Marrakesh, the Italian replied, “where I met the most beautiful Frenchman. He’s a singer. He’s making concerts traveling around in North Africa. Do you think there is such a thing as love at first sight?”

Eureka! That was it! All I had to do was start another conversation. So I did. With the Italian. Now if Precious would just put her bible back in her purse, and join in we could have a nice conversation, but she didn’t. She just sat there and clutched her bible.

I was sorry that I couldn’t engage her on some other subject . I would have liked to known about her as a person, her life, why she was in Italy, how she was getting along. I could tell by the seriousness in which she talked about her relationship with God, and her obvious concern for me, that she was a wonderful person, a daughter any mother would be proud to have.

Saronno Rules
I also understand how difficult it is for Africans immigrants to have any kind of contact, other than the most superficial with Italians. It was difficult for me when I first came to Italy and I have the advantage in that until I open my mouth everyone assumes I am Italian.

But while I felt bad for her, the thought of future conversations that most certainly would center on my impending demise and the penalties I would suffer for my lack of belief, hardened my heart.

And then we got off the train.

There are two exits to the Saronno train station. I was turning right to go home, and she was turning left to go to a religious service, but before we parted she said to me, “will you’ll come to my wedding mama?”
A Nigerian Wedding
For years I had bristled at the African vendors calling me “mama”. “I’m not your mama,” I’d reply to their attempts to get me to buy whatever they were selling. But in that moment, standing in the sottopassagio of the Saronno train station, I realized that for Africans the title “mama” is the equivalent of “signora” in Italian. It’s a sign of respect. I also realized how much I don’t know about the Africans I pass every day on my daily to and fro along the streets of Saronno.

I grew up surrounded by immigrants on both sides of my family, and lived their immigration experience with my own decision to move to Italy. But there is a big difference between immigrating to a multi-cultural country like the United States that was built on the backs of immigrants like my grandparents, and a mono-culture like Italy.

There are no Italian J.P. Morgans, Andrew Carnegies or Cornelius Vanderbilts building railroads or steel plants or digging for oil. There are mostly small family run businesses doing their best to survive the global crisis and any additional competition from non-Italians is suspect. The role of Italy’s immigrants still needs to be defined. In the meantime, people like Precious are breaking new ground, and I wish her well.

23 June 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: Black is Back

SARONNO, Italy - Spaghetti with squid ink sauce is a culinary extravaganza that you will find in the most humble of trattorias and the most chic – and expensive - restaurants from Venice to Palermo.  

 Pasta with Squid Ink Sauce
There is a drawback however. You have to have a lot of confidence to eat this dish in public. The intensely black ink turns your teeth a ghoulish black color that really puts a damper on table conversation. And if that is not embarrassing enough, the delicious flavor is so addictive it keeps you slurping away at the spaghetti until you have devoured every strand. 

I’m not talking here about the black colored spaghetti that you often see in gourmet food shops. That’s sissy stuff. I’m talking about the real deal, spaghetti dressed with a sauce made from the ink extracted from squid caught in the Mediterranean Sea.  

If you order this dish in a restaurant, you can tell immediately which one it is. If it is colored spaghetti, the spaghetti itself will be jet black, otherwise it’s the sauce that’s black.

Pasta colored with Squid Ink
In Andrea Camilleri’s popular crime novels, Sicilian police Inspector Salvo Montalbano will stop in his tracks for a good meal, especially if it is that exquisiteness, spaghetti in squid ink prepared by his boss’ wife. In fact, he will do just about anything to appease the cranky Superintendent in order not to jeopardize an invitation to their table.

The dish affects a lot of people that way. My love affair with spaghetti al nero di sepia goes back a long way, at least more than twenty years. It was one of my first food discoveries when I moved to Italy and started to shop at the open air fish markets in Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo. 

Sorry Squid, You would Never Win a Fish Beauty Contest
 You will find packages of black squid ink, also called cuttlefish ink, in the refrigerated section of Italian specialty shops, or ask your fish monger. In Italy it is sold in packages of 4 individual packets of 4 grams each.  
Here are two recipes from the back of the package of squid ink that I bought: one for spaghetti and the other for risotto. Italian recipes tend to be quite general and assume you have a basic knowledge of how things culinary work, I've added a little additional info in parentheses to clarify some points, but since I am so bad at converting metric measurements to US measurements, found a web site you might find useful: http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/cooking-conversions/gram-conversions-general.aspx

Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia
(serves 4)
Finely chop an onion and two cloves of garlic and fry them in a little (extra-virgin) olive oil. (until they become soft and translucent). Add 300 grams of squid, either rings or cut into pieces. Cook the squid with the onion and garlic for a minute or two, then add a glass of white wine and 8 grams of squid ink (two packets) and continue to cook until the squid is tender (about 15 minutes). 

In the meantime, cook your spaghetti al dente. When it is cooked, drain it and add it to the sauce and squid. Let it all cook together for a couple of minutes. Serve very hot.
Risotto al Nero di Seppia
(Serves 4)
Finely chop an onion and two cloves of garlic and fry them in a little (extra-virgin) olive oil. (until they become soft and translucent). Add 300 grams of squid, either rings or cut into pieces. Cook the squid with the onion and garlic for a minute or two, then add a glass of white wine and 8 grams of squid ink (two packets).   

After about 5 minutes add 5 handfuls of rice (Aborio or Canaroli are both good for risotto), and cook on a low flame for about 15 minutes. Add fish broth (as needed) and a pinch of hot red pepper or black pepper. Serve very hot. 

You can also make these dishes adding fresh, rough chopped tomatoes to the onions and garlic, and at the end put in a handful of chopped parsley. Whatever way you chose what you will create is an deliciously intense culinary potion worthy of a medieval sorceress (or sorcerer).

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19 June 2011

LIFE: Back to Lugano, One More Time

 Dinner on the terrace of Villa Sassa
SARONNO, Italy –  In a few more weeks my friends in Lugano are going to be heading home back to Pittsburgh, so  I decided to visit them one more time before they leave. I was hoping we would go back to restaurant I wrote about last month, http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.com/2011/05/life-lovely-lugano.html, but unfortunately when I got to Lugano I found that  the weather was just about as bad there as it was in Saronno, rain, rain and more rain. It was obvious that another meal at the Antico Ristorante del Porto was not in my future. 

In between storms we managed to walk into the center of town and do some shopping. I was happy to find a linen blouse and a couple of pairs of slacks. Out timing was fairly good, except for Thursday when it decided to pour just as we decided to head home.

 19th Century Villa Sassa
That night I was all for ordering in a pizza and staying in their cozy apartment, but I was overruled. “Come on,” they said, “we’re going to the Villa Sassa, it’s just up the hill.”
The city of Lugano is built like a Roman coliseum: the lake is the arena and the seats, or in this case the streets which surround the lake, fan upward like a massive bowl. Except for the city center, which is flat, you are always  going up or down a hill. 

I was expecting the Villa Sassa to be a neighborhood restaurant, a trattoria or pizzaria, instead it turned out to be a massive complex set on 16,000 square meters of land overlooking the town of Lugano and the lake. The property is anchored by a restored ninetieth century villa, the original Villa Sassa, plus an elegant four star hotel, a residence with 70 apartments, a spa and a wellness center and two restaurants - a bar restaurant and a more formal restaurant. 
 The grounds of the Villa Sassa
It was raining when we got there, but it was a warm evening and we decided to eat out on the terrace of the bar restaurant anyway and enjoy the misty views of the mountains and the lake.  

The bar restaurant is informal and perfect for when you are not in the mood for a full three course meal. Since we were not particularly hungry, we decided to just have a first course and we all wanted pasta. Mr. T and I opted for lasagna, while Mrs. T ordered spaghetti Bolognese. 

The lasagna noodles were perfectly cooked and the light b├ęchamel sauce had just the right hint of  nutmeg. Since moving to Italy I find I prefer b├ęchamel sauce in lasagna, because it is smoother and more delicate than ricotta cheese. As Mrs. T was making ummmy sounds as she ate her spaghetti, I have to believe hers was very good as well.
The crooked streets of old Lugano

I’m going to miss them when they leave. It's a pity they are not going to be around this summer as they are going to miss the all the classical and jazz concerts in the piazza. But I know they’ll be back in a few months. Mr. T has a business in Lugano and wild horses can’t keep him away too long.

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15 June 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: Zucchini Flowers

SARONNO, Italy - A good friend of mine is coming for a visit this summer, which makes me very happy. Besides the fact that I enjoy his company, he likes to eat and isn’t afraid to try something new. It’s the perfect opportunity for me to try out some new recipes that I’ve been looking at for a few months now. I’ll also make some old favorites like fried zucchini flowers. 
 Zucchini Flowers on the Vine
The delicate flavor of the zucchini flowers goes well with many foods – or as they say in Italian, si sposa bene with fish, seafood, meat, poultry and rabbit. It also goes well with most vegetables. 

There are two ways of making them: one is to dip the flowers in a light batter and deep fry them in oil, or you can simply dip them first in a beaten egg that has been cut with a little bit of water, and then in flour and fry them. The batter actually works the best as it’s lighter than the egg and flour dip.
 In the Market
Zucchini flowers are great added to a frittata or used as part of a filling for ravioli and cannelloni, or even incorporated into gnocchi. They work well in a quiche, in a casserole, in a cream of zucchini soup and make a plain risotto elegant and delicious. But the best way to eat them is fried. 

It is important that the flowers be fresh, and you can tell if they are by looking at the color. It should be bright and intense, and the petal should be firm and fleshy with no sign of dryness. Be sure to handle them with care so the petals don’t break. 
 Once you try one ....
Cut off the excess stem and remove any thorny bits around the sides. Open the flower gently and remove the stamen, checking to make sure there are no tiny insects inside. Then wipe the petals with a damp cloth or rinse them under slowly running water, rinsing the inside of the flower as well. Refrigerate them.
Make the batter. Truth be known Italian mamas just use plain water and flour, no beer, no fizz, no eggs or anything else. Whisk the flour and water together, it should have the texture of heavy cream, add a little salt and put it in the fridge for an hour. 

Crisp and Delicious

Put about ¾ of an inch of oil in a deep frying pan and turn on the heat. Test the temperature with a drop of batter, which should sizzle and start to brown. You’ll have to turn the heat down at this point to maintain the right temperature.

You can cut the flowers so they lay flat, dip them in the batter and fry them, or you can keep them whole and slide a piece of anchovy in the center. My experience has been that stuffing them with ricotta or mozzarella only makes them mushy, so I don’t do that.
It's a little crowded

It’s best to only fry three or four at a time so you don't lower the temperature of the oil, and only turn them once. When they are golden brown on both sides, lift them out and put them on paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with a little salt and eat them right away.

There are many recipes for zucchini flowers on the internet, most more complicated than they need be. Here’s a classic version by Marcella Hazen that was published in the Pittsburgh Gazette, one of my favorite newspapers. Click here to see my travel article on Genova that they published a few years ago. http://www.post-gazette.com/travel/20030810genoa0810p3.asp

Marcella Hazan Zucchini Blossom Fans
12 to 14 zucchini blossoms
1 cup water
2/3 cup flour, about
vegetable oil, enough to come 3/4 inch up the sides of a small skillet

Use the blossoms on the day you buy them. Keep them loosely wrapped in damp paper towels. Wash the blossoms rapidly under cold running water and dry them gently on paper towels. Check for insects and remove the pistil from the center of the flowers before using. If the stems are very long, cut them down to 1 inch in length. Cut the base of the blossom on one side and open the flower flat, without dividing it.

To make the batter, put one cup of water in a soup plate and gradually add the flour, sifting it through a sieve and constantly beating the mixture with a fork until all the flour has been added. The batter should have the consistency of heavy cream.

Heat the oil over high heat. When it is very hot, dip the blossoms quickly in and out of the batter and slip them into the skillet. When they are golden brown on one side, turn them and cook them to golden brown on the other side. Transfer to paper towels to drain, sprinkle with salt and serve promptly while still hot. Serves 4.

Do you have any secret cooking tips you'd like to share? Send them in. Your comments are always welcomed.  Buon Appetito

12 June 2011

Life: Just Say "I Do"

SARONNO, Italy - While today’s fashion industry is dominated by Italian designers – Armani, Versace, Valentino, Prada and Gucci to name just a few, a little more than 50 years ago Italian designers were completely overshadowed by the French.

Much of the credit for the transformation has to be given to the Fontana sisters, Zoe, Micol and Giovanna, a trio of dressmaking sisters from Parma. Their first fashion show took place in Florence on 12 February 1951, and in which they showed with Emilio Pucci and four other designers. It was Italy's first official fashion show.  

 Linda Christian
When movie stars Linda Christian and Tyrone Power were married in Rome in 1949, her gown was made by the Fontana sisters, Zoe, Micol and Giovanna, at the small  atelier in Rome. The Fontana sisters went on to become one of the most important fashion houses in Italy.

Audrey Hepburn 1st wedding dress

In 1954 British born film star Audrey Hepburn chose this Fontana design for her marriage to James Hanson. Unfortunately for him, Hepburn met movie star Mel Ferrer two weeks before the wedding and James Hanson was left standing at the altar. Hepburn told the Fontana sisters to give her wedding dress to the "most beautiful bride you can find." The gown was eventually sold for $23,000 at an auction in London.
 Margaret Truman in Rome

The wedding dress became a signature piece for Sorelle Fontana. Most notably the sisters designed wedding dresses for Princess Maria Pia of the House of Savoy and for Margaret Truman, daughter of the President of the United States of America, the latter who also commissioned a special trousseau for the occasion

Elizabeth Taylor being fitted  by the Fontana Sisters

The link with Hollywood continued and insured the Fontana sisters publicity. They went on to design for Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, all of whom at some time admired themselves in the famous three-panelled mirror in the Fontana atelier fitting room.  
 Marella Agnelli of the House of Fiat
The publicity paid off. Italian and international celebraties began flocking to Rome for the over-the-top gowns the trio of dressmakers were designing.
Ava Gardner at "Contessa" premier
In 1953 they began designing costumes for Ava Gardner's role in The Barefoot Contessa. Gardner wore one of their more elaborate  designs in the “casino” scene. Gardner loved their dresses so much she wore one to the premier of “The Barefoot Contessa” in 1954. 

The Fontana Sisters
To mark Micol's 90th birthday, the Capitoline Museum in Rome held a retrospective of Sorelle Fontana's work with dresses on show made from 1949 to 1991. Although Giovanna appeared with her sister, wearing her trademark large glasses and immaculately coiffed hair, it was Micol who gave the interviews, saying that "life begins at 90".
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