30 October 2011

LIFE: Disaster a Cinqueterra

SARONNO, Italy - It broke my heart to see the scenes of the disastrous mud slides that hit Liguria and parts of Tuscany this weekend. Here are some of the photos from this morning's Corriere della Sera, starting with how Vernazza, one of the Cinqueterra, used to look Photos from Ansa. Photos are of other towns that were Nuf' said.  

Vernnazza -a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



Vernnazza today.
I've been trying to find information on how to donate to the victims of this disaster, but I'm not coming up with anything. If anyone finds something, would you please send it to me and I'll post it. In the meantime I'll keep looking.

LIFE: Bag It

SARONNO, Italy- There is something in the collective personality of the Italians that rebels when non-Italians try to push them into conformity. Not that they are anti-conformists, absolutely not. It’s more the idea of the proposed conformity coming from stranieri that raises their hackles.
Italian Grocery Store
For example, about a year ago the Environmental Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo announced a ban on plastic bags. Plastic bags as we knew them would no longer be used. They were to be replaced by biodegradable bags that would not pollute the environment. 

While everyone was in agreement that the environment should be protected it was the idea of having to change our lifestyle and even worse, align ourselves to the rest of Europe that brought protests.
Part of the Daily Ritual, A Stop at the Fruttivendolo
“We are not prepared to face such a cultural change,” said Giampaolo Pagnini, a lawyer from Florence. ‘We should take it slowly, because we do not have the cultural background to know how to deal with this. If it took us forever to adapt to wearing seat belts when that law came into effect.”  Antonella d’Antoni, a bank employee in Rome agreed. “This is the same and it will take time.”

The government spent a great deal of our taxpayer money on an ad campaign touting the change, but even months after the ban was announced there were people who were unaware of it. The new law allowed shops to use up their supply of old plastic bags, but they were not allowed to charge for them.  But life in the grocery lane went on as usual.
Even the Horse Meat Butcher Has to Conform
"I do not agree with the banning of plastic shopping bags," says Luigi Taragni, a pediatrician from Rieti. "I think they are preferable and much better than paper ones or nondegradable ones, which are more difficult to handle, hold less, break more easily and cost more. I'll adapt to this decision, just like I was forced to adapt to rubbish recycling, but I am not sure I agree with these limited measures." Some, such as Stefano Germani from Rome, fear this is just going to turn into a new business: "All this is about is increasing the cost of new degradable bags that consumers will be forced to purchase if they do not want to face fines."

Women who go to the shops on a daily basis say there is only one solution and everyone will have to get used to it. "We have to change our habits. We need to bring our own bags from home every time we go shopping. It's a change of mentality that is needed," says Daniela Lo Castro, a housewife from Milan and the mother of three boys.

The Daily Hassle
A spokesperson from Italy’s Environmental League agreed. “While there is no doubt in my mind that a change in mentality is needed and change always takes some time, it is also true that our children will learn not to use plastic bags because these will no longer be available. Consequently, a benefit to their environment not in the short-term but certainly in the long-term will be assured.”

So now the degradable bags have been in use for close to a year and their fan base remains relatively small. The bags really are flimsy and tear very easily creating a problem in a country where women walk to the store and carry their groceries home. It has happened to me. In fact it happened the other day. I wasn’t twenty feet from the grocery store when someone said to me, “Signora, your groceries are starting to fall out of the bag.” 

Nonna's Grocery Sack
Sure enough, something I bought had poked a hole in the bag and with every step I took it was getting bigger and bigger. If I hadn’t gone back and gotten another bag I would have found myself trying to carry a bag of frozen peas and a cauliflower and cans of tuna and everything else home in my arms. 

But there is a solution, but it not to go forward toward the new technology, but backwards toward the old and start carrying cloth groceries bags just like my Grandmother did. I guess we’ve come full circle on that issue.

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26 October 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: A Toast to Toast

SARONNO, Italy - For many years, toast or tost, was a real luxury for many Italian families. I’m not talking toasted puffy white bread here, I’m talking Italian toast, a crispy, delicious, melt in your mouth ham and cheese treat that is slow grilled on a special sandwich grilling machine. What made it a luxury was not the ham and cheese or even the bread, it was the cost of the grilling machine.  
Italian Toast kinda looks like this but more smooshed down
If you have traveled in Italy you know that Italians are fond of grilling all kinds of sandwiches, even those with lettuce in them. It takes a little getting used to, but then what doesn’t. And if you tell them you don’t want your sandwich grilled, they look at you like you just ordered a leg of lamb - raw.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Italian toast kind of went out of fashion and sandwiches with mushy fillings made with mayonnaise and disgusting things floating in oil were in vogue. But I’m happy to say that toast is making a comeback. For breakfast or for lunch or even a midnight snack, the humble toast, the classic bread, ham and cheese kind of toast, has regained its rightful place in the Italian Culinary Hall of Fame. 
Ham, Important Ingredient No. 1
You won’t find toast on any restaurant menu, where you will find them is in most Italian bars. One of the best toasts I’ve ever had was at the gelateria/bar directly across from the Sforza Castle in Milan. I was surprised at just how good it was as the gelateria/bar is very popular with tourists and any place popular with tourists is usually best avoided. But you know, every once in a while those wily Italians surprise me. 
Then there's the cheese - Fontina
Toast is the perfect snack when you are stuck in a train station with not enough time to actually go somewhere and eat. It’s the perfect solution to calm your growling stomach. It’s fairly quick, it’s easy to eat and inexpensive.

Just ask any Italian chef worth his Michelin stars and he’ll tell you that while it seems to be an easy thing to make, if you use the wrong raw materials, the toast, as they say in the good old U.S.A. is toast. 
 Chef Massimo Camia
To understand how a good toast sandwich can excite the palate all you have to do is listen to Chef Massimo Camia, top chef the Barolo Ristorante in Turin. “For me, toast is a unique pleasure, a treat to eat when I take a few minutes to relax in a corner of the kitchen after having worked like a mad man cranking out dishes made with truffles, foie gras and the like. Just give me a very simple toast sandwich made with San Giovanni ham, fontina cheese and that crispy, crispy bread that only comes from a nice, slow cooking on the grill.

Actually the truth is chefs rarely eat what they cook. I know when I worked as a cook at the Hotel Syracuse, or even at the trendy Scratch Daniel’s, when I got home all I wanted was a cup of tea and  toast – in this case plain old American toast made with mushy white bread. There was something about being surrounded for eight hours by all that gourmet food, all that tasting and stirring and flipping and poking and smelling that just makes you want to crawl into a corner and much on a piece of dry toast.
An Italian panino grill
So if you ever wondered why so many famous of the famous chefs you see on TV are skinny, now you know. Who can eat after being surrounded by lobster and steak all day. It really is a turn off. So because I know that this is true, I’ve decided to cook more and see if I can’t lose a few pounds. Who knows, I just might be on to something here.

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23 October 2011

LIFE: Throw Away the Key

SARONNO, Italy - Just when I thought I had heard just about all I ever wanted to hear about women in the Italian prison system thanks to Amanda Knox, I hear that Patrizia Reggiani, has once again turned down the Court’s offer of parole.   It seems one of the conditions is that she has to get a J.O.B. 
 Patrizia Reggiani
She nixed that idea right off, telling  the judge that she has never worked a day in her life and she has no intentions of starting now. Reggiani, you may remember, is currently serving a  29 year sentence for hiring a hit man to kill her husband Maurizio Gucci, of the famous Gucci fashion family.

It’s all too delicious to be true. So Reggiani, who once said she would rather cry in the back of a Rolls Royce than be happy on a bicycle, will stay in Milan’s San Vittore prison where she spends her time taking care of her plants and caring for her pet ferret, and going to visit her mother every week.  

Maurizio Gucci
Life in San Vittore prison is not exactly like the lifestyle she enjoyed when she was Mrs. Gucci, but then again her life as Mrs. Gucci ended in 1985 when Mr. Gucci packed an overnight bag, and told her  he was leaving for an important business trip and then sent a doctor friend armed with a bottle of Valium to tell her he was never coming back. 

Patrizia ended up with a huge settlement, including  the eighteenth century penthouse on one of Milan’s toniest streets.  But she couldn't let go.  Even though they were separated they continued to fight and argue – especially about the children – and over the years Patrizia developed an obsessive hatred for her ex-husband. She told people Maurizio had the personality of a seat cushion that took the shape of the last person who sat on it. 
The Way They Were
But the straw that broke her back was when Maurizio fell in love with another woman, Paola Franchi, tall, slim, blonde, and announced his plans to re-marry. Mr. Gucci was on his way to a new life, or so he thought, and that was his undoing.  Over the years Patrizia had often talked about how much she wanted to see Maurizio dead, she made no bones about it and even went so far as to challenge her lawyer and her low-life friends to find someone to do the deed. Those around her were never quite sure if she was serious or not. 

Apparently she was. On  March 27, 1995, a Sicilian thug named Benedetto Ceraulo waited for Maurizio Gucci to enter the building where his office was located, and before he had time to cross the lobby to get to the elevator Ceraulo fired four shots into his body and then finished him off with a shot to the head.  
Gucci Boutique, Via Montenapoleone, Milano
When the story hit the news, everyone was in a state of shock.  It was a made-for-TV movie running in real time.  It had everything:  fabulous wealth, love and hate, greed and jealousy, all set against a background of  soft handmade leather bags and the glamour of Milanese society.   

A few months later police knocked on the door of Patrizia’s penthouse and arrested the 49 year old for the murder of her former husband. At her trial she claimed Maurizio was shot so that Benedetto Ceraulo, the Sicilian hit man could blackmail her. But everyone knew that Patrizia Reggiani had begun keeping strange company, including Guiseppina Auriemma, a former boutique owner who claimed to be a psychic, and the night porter of a cheap hotel in Milan who was a friend of Benedetto Ceraulo , the man who pulled the trigger.
Guiseppina Auriemma
As guards escorted a stricken Patrizia back to her cell after the final verdict was read, she was quoted as saying: ''Evidently, they didn't believe me.''  
The judge  sentenced Patrizia to a total of 29 years in jail. Her co-conspirators were also convicted. The hit man was given a life sentence while the psychic, who first contacted the killers, was given 25 years.  The two other accomplices also got heavy sentences.
Patrizia Reggiani and her daughers at the funeral
But that was then and this is now, and now she’d rather stay in jail than get out and get a job. Maybe that should be her punishment – instead of tending to her plants and wiling away the hours in the company of her pet ferret, she should spend 8 hours a day on her feet serving snooty socialites at the Gucci Boutique on Corso Montenapoleone in Milan. 

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19 October 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: Sounds Fishy to Me

SARONNO, Italy – The other day I discovered a great little restaurant  right here in Saronno. It’s called LaPerla. The name has come up in casual conversation more than once and it has been on my 'To Do' list for quite a while, but somehow I’ve never gotten around to it. Then on Sunday some friends called and suggested we have lunch there.
La Perla Ristorante, Saronno, Italy
LaPerla is run by two brothers, Emilio and Massimo Conte, who are from the small southern town of San Martino d’Agri in Lucania (Basilicata).  The Conte brothers started working in restaurants in Milan about 30 years ago and are now up to their eyeballs in the restaurant business. In addition to LaPerla they manage two pizza parlors and another restaurant, Roppongi, in Saronno. But from what I hear, LaPerla is the best of the bunch.
The menu had several seasonal offerings that were very tempting, porcini mushrooms for example, and puntarella salad. I ordered baccala with potatoes, something I really love but never make because it's too much work. But if you have the time and the inclination you can try the recipe below, it’s not the exactly the same dish they serve at LaPerla, but close. 
 The LaPerla Family
My grandmother used to cook stoccafisso, which is the dried version of baccala, although I can’t remember what she did with it. She may have cooked it in a tomato sauce. What's fixed in my brain is the sight of those stiff, gray fish propped up in the kitchen sink softening under cold running water.  
When I moved to the Genova Nervi there was a small store on the main street that sold baccala and stoccafisso and they always had those same wood like fish sitting and softening in marble sinks in their front window. 
 Before the Makeover
When I moved to the Genova Nervi there was a small store on the main street that sold baccala and stoccafisso and they always had those same wood like fish sitting and softening in marble sinks in their front window.

Even though baccala and stoccafisso come from the same fish, cod, the difference is in the way they are preserved. Baccala is cut and salted while stoccafisso is salted and then hung up to dry. 
  After the Makeover
I was a little surprised when I saw baccala on the LaPerla menu as it isn’t a common ingredient in Northern Italian cooking, but that was before I learned that the Conte brothers are from the south. Actually I thought they were Genovese because of the way the baccala' was served. It seems to me that the fish was poached in milk or broth and then served with slices of boiled potatoes with a drizzle of olive oil and a little parsley. Less always seems to be more in great Italian dishes. 

You can try poaching a piece of baccala’, which is what I’m going to do, or try the recipe below for baccala’ with potatoes and olives. It calls for baccala', not stoccofisso, potatoes, an onion, a little olive oil, olives, a little flour, fish stock (or fish bouillon) and bay leaves.   

You can try poaching a piece of baccala’, which is what I’m going to do, or try the recipe below for baccala’ with potatoes and olives. It calls for baccala', not stoccofisso, potatoes, an onion, a little olive oil, olives, a little flour, fish stock (or fish bouillon) and bay leaves. 

First you have to rinse the cod well to remove the excess salt and then put the fish to soak in cold water for at least two days, changing the water every 6-8 hours. Drain well and cut into squares. Remove all bones (you may have to use tweezers).

Flour the fish (1). In a low, wide pan fry the chopped onions in a little olive oil; (2) add the floured codfish; (3) and let brown on both sides, about 20 minutes on low heat.
While the fish is cooking, peel and slice the potatoes. In another pan, large enough to hold the fish and the potatoes, heat 3 ladles of broth (4) the slices of potatoes; (5) cover the pan; (6) let simmer. 

Put the browned fish in the same pot as the cooked potatoes(7), add the bay leaves (8) the black olives (9) a little salt. Let cook for another 15-20 minutes, adding broth if necessary.  This type of cooking is called “in umido” and the fish and potatoes should be served with a little of the cooking juice. Serve immediately.

16 October 2011

LIFE: In Love with Leonardo

SARONNO, Italy – In the center of Milan, in the small piazza between the Galleria and the  La Scala opera house, there’s a statue of Leonardo da Vinci. He is standing tall, surrounded by his pupils. The piazza, aptly named Piazza della Scala, is usually crowded with tourists, sitting on the bench that circles the statue, resting their weary feet. I doubt if many of them pay much attention to it , after all, Milan is full of statues.
Leonardo da Vinci in Piazza Della Scala, Milan
Yet Leonardo was one of the most important people to ever live here. He  is probably best known as an artist,  just say his name and the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper come to mind.  But I think if we could ask him to define himself, I think he would say he that he was an engineer.  

Like most engineers, Leonardo was driven by an unrelenting curiosity and an insatiable hunger for knowledge. He was an innovative thinker whose vision of the world held unlimited possibilities. From his fertile mind came concepts in engineering, mathematics, and science, many of which were centuries ahead of their time. If da Vinci was alive and working today, his accomplishments would be astounding, to say the least.
 Leonard da Vinci
But his life was far from easy. In 1482 he left Florence for Milan leaving behind a largely unfinished painting entitled  “The Adoration of the Magi”. He had been commissioned to paint this work for the main altar of the San Donato a Scopeto monastery, just outside of Florence. But a few months into the work, when the monks proposed a complicated and unjust payment scheme, he packed up his paint brushes, pulled out his suitcase and came to Milan.

While the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, kept Leonardo busy painting and sculpting and designing elaborate court festivals, he also put him to work designing weapons, buildings and machinery. From 1485 to 1490, Leonardo produced a number of designs for advanced weapons, including a tank, a helicopter and other war vehicles, various combat devices, and a submarine. Also during this period, he produced his first anatomical studies, cutting up corpses whenever he could get his hands on one. His Milan workshop was a veritable beehive of activity, buzzing with apprentices and students.
Drawing for Helicopter
Even though he was a great artist and architect, Leonardo’s primary interests lay in research and invention. He spent most of his time studying science, either by going out into nature and observing things or by locking himself away in his workshop cutting up bodies or pondering universal truths. He would start an artistic project but then loose interest and during his 17 years in Milan, he only completed six works, including "The Last Supper" and "The Virgin on the Rocks".  He left dozens of paintings and projects unfinished or unrealized.
Between 1490 and 1495 he developed the habit of recording his studies in meticulously illustrated notebooks. His work covered four main themes: painting, architecture, the elements of mechanics, and human anatomy. These studies and sketches were collected into various codices and manuscripts, which are now much sought after by museums and individuals like Bill Gates who paid $30 million for Leonardo’s Codex Leicester a few years ago.
Mirror Writing
Another Codex, the Codice Atlantico, is owned by the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, one of Milan’s art galleries.  It is  the largest collection of Leonardo’s  notes and drawings in existence. It includes pages made during all stages of his artistic life from 1476 when he was 26 years old right up until he died in 1519.

It is well known than Leonard had a very unusual style of writing.  He developed a special kind of shorthand and also using mirror writing which starts at the right hand side of a line and moves toward the left, for most of his notes.   If you look at a page from his notes, the writing seems totally illegible  but by holding the page up to a mirror, a few words begin to emerge. Exactly why he used this  particular style is not quite clear; it is possible that he was left handed and  wrote from right to left in order not to smudge the wet ink,  or maybe he wanted to keep his ideas, some of which were contrary to the principles of the Catholic Church, a secret.
Mirror Writing
But there is another curious feature of his notes. Even when they continue for a whole page there doesn’t seem to be any variation in the lightness or heaviness of the ink, which is very strange since the writing instrument of the day was the quill pen. Most pages written using a quill pen have blots and spots of ink on them, caused by the quill pen catching on the paper. 

When you write with a quill, you have to continually dip your pen into the ink, and as the ink is used up, your writing becomes fainter and fainter until you dip the pen into the ink again.  Apparently Leonard wasn’t at all satisfied with the quality of writing produced using quill pens and so he invented a better pen, a type of fountain pen that had a reservoir of ink just like the fountain pens of today - 300 years ahead of anyone else.  But given the fact that it was invented by Leonardo da Vinci, it gets lost in the myriad of spectacular inventions that he is responsible for.
Codice Atlantico
If you want to be amazed by the genius of the man, take a couple of hours out of your sightseeing time and head for either the Ambrosian Library or the Museo della Scienza e dell Techologia Leonardo da Vinci.  I would suggest the Museo della Scienza over the Ambrosian Library for two reasons: one is if you are traveling with kids they will be fascinated by the models of Leonardo’s war machines; and second, you have to make reservations at the Ambrosian Library and its’ Leonardo exhibit is pretty much devoted to the Codex Atlantico.

And yes, like the title says, I am in love with Leonardo – especially the way his brain worked.

Ambrosian library www.ambrosiana.it
Piazza Pio XI, 2, Milan - Tele: 02 806921
Via San Vittore, 21, Milan - Tele: 02 485 551