29 September 2011


SARONNO, Italy - If you are a fan of Top Chef, I don’t have to tell you who’s photos on the blog this week – of course – it is Fabio Viviani. There have been quite a few Italian-Americans on the program since it started a few years ago, but Viviani is the only “from Italy” Italian to appear on the show. And therein lies the story. 
Fabio Viviani
While Fabiani did a pretty good job of holding his own in Season 5, there were a couple of episodes where he was completely clueless – the breakfast challenge and the episode where he had to make a hamburger for Jimmy Fallon. 

For those of you who have traveled in Italy, I’m sure you understand why Fabiani fumbled on these two challenges. First of all there is no breakfast as we know it in Italy. I remember traveling from Paris to Venice on the Orient Express with my kids and arriving in Venice early in the morning. They wanted food – I wanted food – maybe a couple of eggs, some cereal, pancakes, some sort of substance, but time after time we were disappointed.  So when I saw “toast” on a café menu, I jumped on it. What we got were flat as a pancake grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. 

 Grilled Ham and Cheese Breakfast
I’ve since learned that breakfast in Italy means a croissant and a cappuccino. One of each. Even when faced with other choices, the default menu is always the same. One time I was in Bologna covering a shoe fair with my favorite photographer. We had driven down from Milan that morning and by the time we got there, Davide was starving. 

As usual, our first stop was the Press Office to pick up a Press kit. As is pretty normal at these events, they had set up a bar and put out a good selection of things to eat. (Just as an aside, a bar in Italy is not a “saloon” but a place where you can have a cup of coffee or a soft drink or even a hard drink if that’s what you want. They also sell sandwiches and snacks and sometimes even hot food.) 

 Chef Fabio
But back to my story. I remember saying to Davide that there were little salami sandwiches and a nice selection of cheeses and breads, but he just shook his head and said he was really hungry and wanted a sweet, flaky, airy, croissant. So much for Italian breakfast.

So when it came to the Top Chef breakfast challenge, Fabio Fabiani made some kind of a smoothie, instead of the steak and eggs and French toast the other contestants whipped up – and ended up on the bottom.

Shopping at Whole Foods with Richard Blais
It was the same with the midnight snack for the kids at the Museum of Natural History. Once again Chef Fabio was clueless and told the judges that in Italy, a midnight snack is a bowl of pasta or a couple of slices of pizza. How true, but it put Fabio on the bottom again.

But perhaps the biggest challenge was when he had to make a hamburger for Jimmy Fallon’s birthday. Fabio thought he was going to knock this one out of the park as he mixed beef and pork and I don’t remember what else into a lump of cooked meat that looked more like a mini-meat loaf than an American hamburger. 

I get it. I know all about Italian hamburgers, starting with the number one premise of “don’t ever order one.”  Instead of a light, fluffy burger that oozes juice when you bite into it, what you get is a pressed piece of meat that has been cooked to within an inch of its life. They are a little like McDonald burgers, but even more compact.
 Fabiani Strikes Again
There used to be a bar in Saronno that called itself New York Café, and there were quite a few American-like choices on their menu. When it first opened, I was all excited, a place to get a real New York hamburger right here in downtown Saronno? Could it be true?

Turned out it wasn’t – true that is – and they have since closed. Somehow American food just does not translate into Italian. Nor does Chinese, or any other kind of food. It’s just the way it is. Fortunately Italian food in Italy is delicious –  it’s the water or something, and so they don’t  need to cook anything else.

25 September 2011

LIFE: Journey to Puglia

SARONNO, Italy - Most writers keep journals and I am no exception. This is an excerpt from my journal on my one and only train trip to Puglia. My destination was Bari and Lecce, but in this segment I’m not there yet. These are random notes, scribbled over the course of the journey. 

The Adriatic Coast
I left Saronno at 5AM.  I’m going to Puglia today. On the train. It’s going to take 10 hours, but I want to take the train because I’ve never traveled along the Adriatic coast and I’m curious to see what it’s like.

It’s 11:45. We are somewhere between Ancona and Pescara, passing a town called Guilanuova. It’s all new construction here. Most of the time the train follows the sea and as usual the shoreline is gummed up with either bathing establishments, i bagni , but not this stretch – just open fields to the sea – then a tacky campground with a huge pool.

Oh man, ugly motel under construction. No idea where we are. Train’s a little shaky. Sea is divided; close to shore it looks gray, but further out its deep blue. In the distance a ship. Nice grove of umbrella pines diminished by rows of campers. Outside staircases seem to be popular here, look like they’ve been super glued to the outside of the buildings. Another nice grove of umbrella pines – seems to go on and on and on. Now open sea, sandy beaches. 

Out the right hand side window, steep hills topped with occasional fortress structures. There is an old man sitting across from me who is very attractive. That’s what I like about the south. Southern Bells, Sauce of the South, with a wife who must have heart trouble because she was breathing like a racehorse at the end of the Kentucky Derby when they got on the train in – Bologna - maybe.
  Cruising the Adriatic
The old man is deaf. Nothing worse than a conversation between two deaf people, a whole lot of eh? Eh? EH?. We’ve gone through a few tunnels now, glimpses of the sea through the open arches. It’s not the Mediterranean. I guess that’s why Crayola chose Mediterranean blue and not Adriatic blue. 

We are going through Ortona. Looks like an industrial port, sailboats tied up out on the dock. There seem to be a lot of power boats for sale. Another tunnel. This time a long one and when we come out of it the sea has disappeared from view – replaced by grape vines growing on the hill sides – and yet another tunnel. This a long one too. And another.  
Pescara, italy
Tuscany it ain’t, although there are steep hills, planted with vertical rows of grapes. Another tunnel. The guy across from me is making a career out of reading the newspaper. He is reading EVERY word – talk about getting your money’s worth. More grape vines, this time on the sea side.

Whizzing along in this high speed train I feel like I’m traveling to the end of the world, but its only Termaoli. You can see how vulnerable Italy is as we go along the open coastline at 100 MPH. No wonder they were always under attack. Lots of soft underbelly.

Now an ugly town on top of a hill. This whole area lacks character. Sweet Dreams hotel in Campmarino – somehow I doubt it.

Only 1PM, is it possible there are still two hours to go? One hour to Foggia according to the woman sitting across from me. Both husband and wife have phones. She calls the son, the father calls the daughter.  The son is sick and she has called him at least 3 times with advice – eat light, stay in bed. She is at least 80, so even with a conservative guess, the son is must be 40, if not 50. 

San Marino, Italy
I can almost picture her young. Now her cheeks are sunken, her face a web of wrinkles, hooded eyes, hook nose, a look from another time. Her hair is colored a no color if that is possible. He has a full face, those half closed eyes I love, white hair,

Where are we now?  Chieti? 2 more hours to go, this time confirmed by the conductor. The town we are passing is Chieti Serracapriola. There is a little bit of breeze here, I can see the leaves moving on the tree. It looks like New Jersey. There is not a soul in sight. Oh, I forgot, it’s 1 o’clock, lunch time.  
The Adriatic Coast
 Next town is Ripalta, the sign is bigger than the town. We’ve seem to have lost the sea. Now on what used to the sea side there are undulating hills of green, planted fields and I keep thinking I see a town/city in the distance, but it must be a mirage.  We’ve come inland because the next stop is Foggia – then we will head back towards the sea. There is a city in the distance on the sea side. It wasn’t a mirage after all. It’s windy here. Sento di avere fatto un salto su la luna, as they say: I feel like I’ve landed on the moon.

Another stop in the middle of nowhere. Pink house out the window reminds me of The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Another house has a large terrace set over a car port. There are a lot of electrical towers and industrial buildings. Now a small stand of olive trees, a patch of grape vines, on the other side, more of the same.
 Train Station San Severino
S. Severo first sign of civilization – lots of graffiti and the old woman is calling her son again!  Senti Paolo, hai mangiato? Listen Paulie, did you eat something? Her husband keeps on reading, probably thinking for Christ’s sake, he’s forty years old, he can handle a cold.

Miles of fields, grapes mostly, interspersed with fields of green. Here and there a house or small concrete building. The isolation is unsettling to me. But you do, or I do anyway, get a sense of distance. 

Milano- Bari
If I were the King of Italy I’d knock down all these ugly towns and say, there you go, now try it again. Even the buildings under construction are ugly. Another town in the distance. Train is going too fast now to read any signs. This car is practically empty and very quiet. I think there are only 4 of us. The other 1st class cars were jam packed, but this one never was. I feel like I’m in Sicily. Where the hell are we? This place definitely gets the ugly prize. (To be continued).

18 September 2011

LIFE: This Riviera Life

RAPALLO, Italy - Truth be told, I'm finding it hard to leave this Riviera life, so I'm taking another week off.

 Rapallo, Italy
I loved living on the Riviera, it was my first home in Italy and I'm seriously thinking about moving back.
Rapallo, Italy
This looks like a good place to write, a very good place. 

See you next week.