29 March 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: In Buon Campagna

SARONNO, Italy – One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited in Italy is the Amalfi Coast in the Campania region of Italy. The volcanic soil under Mount Vesuvius nourishes the rich variety of vegetables like zucchini and eggplant that are grown there, along with the internationally recognized Castellammare Violet artichoke and San Marzano tomatoes.    
Castel Dell'Ovo, Naples
Today’s recipe is zucchini a scapece, a typical dish of the area. No, I’m not going to bore you with a lot of nit picky facts that I seem to find so fascinating, but you might be interested in knowing that the term scapce comes from the Spanish escabeche, a method of cooking and preserving food brought to Spain by the Muslims in the Middle Ages. The Spanish then brought it to Naples when they ruled the Kingdom of Naples during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Sometimes trying to unravel who brought what food/cooking method/ etc. to Italy is a little like trying to follow the breadcrumb trail left by Hansel and Gretel in the woods. But so far, it seems the Muslims have done more to enrich Italian cuisine than either the French or Austrians. Maybe, because the Muslims were primarily in the south and they had more to work with: better weather and better soil.
 The Bounty of Campania
That's not to say northern Italy didn't have its share of foreign culinary influences. Here in Milan, the occupation of both France and Austria are still felt with the two most popular dishes: costoletta alla Milanese, which is wiener schnitzel (Viennese schnitzel), and cassoulet, a rich, slow-cooked casserole of meat and white beans popular in France. Cassoulet is spelled differently in Milanese dialect but close enough so you'll recognize it if you see it on the menu in Milan.


150 ml red wine vinegar
150 ml water
Garlic – one or two cloves
Fresh mint – a few springs
Salt – Q.B.*
Zucchini – 1 kilo
Olive oil – Q.B. for frying
*Q.B. – as needed

Wash and trim the zucchini (1), then cut into disks (2). Put the zucchini in a colander, sprinkle with sale (3), then let them sit for a couple of hours. 

(in the sink or in a bowl) to drain the excess liquid (4). After a couple of hours rinse then under running water (5) and dry them with a paper towel (6).

Fry the zucchini in olive oil (no cheating here) (7), making sure the temperature is not too high. You don’t want them to burn before they are cooked. When they are lightly browned drain them on paper towels to remove the excess oil (8). Layer the fried zucchini in a casserole dish, adding salt, pepper and pieces of mint leaves to each layer (9).   

Put the wine vinegar in a pan, add the sliced garlic cloves and bring it to a boil. Boil for about 10 minutes (10), then add 2 or 3 tablespoons of the oil the zucchini were cooked in (11) and the pour the boiling vinegar mix over the zucchini (12). Cover with film wrap and let it sit for at least 24 hours before serving. 

How vinegary this dish is depends on the type of vinegar you use. If you prefer a less acidy taste, you can dilute the vinegar with water until you get the taste you want. If you want a more vinegary taste you can add more, or a different type of vinegar.

This method of preparing vegetables is very similar to “al carpione” of Piedmont and “al saor” of the Veneto. Now how that happened is another story altogether, but that will have to wait for another time.

25 March 2012

LIFE: Roman(ing) Around

SARONNO, Italy - The entrance to my apartment building on Via delle Vite in Rome was through a small green door that had been cut into a larger dark green door. You see doors like this in a lot of  apartment buildings all throughout Italy. The small door is for people, but the big door was for the horse drawn carriages. 
Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna
I always wanted a key to one of those doors, I wanted to be able to enter the inner courtyard and climb the steps to what I imagined would be a fabulous Italian apartment. So for me, the key in my pocket that opened the door to the building on Via delle Vite was a dream come true. 

The apartment wasn’t mine, it belonged to an old woman named Niola. I was in Rome studying Italian at the Dante Alighieri School, and she rented rooms to students. Another girl also rented a room in the apartment, but since I didn’t speak Italian, and she didn’t speak English, the only thing I knew about her was that she was from Argentina. I found it strange that she called Signora Niola, just Niola, which was actually her last name, but now I know that it's not that uncommon to address people just by their last names. I still think it's odd though.   
Trevi Fountain
The apartment was large. It had at least four bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen, and a long balcony all across the front of it. You could access the balcony from all of the rooms on the front side of the apartment, including the kitchen. Niola kept most of the rooms locked so my space, and that of the Argentinean girl, was limited to the kitchen, the dining room and our bedrooms. While I would have liked to have had full run of the apartment, Niola’s restrictions didn’t diminish my joy at living in the center of Rome. I was around the corner from the Piazza di Spagna and Via Condotti, and the Trevi Fountain was just a short walk away.  

I did my grocery shopping here and there and where ever I could find a shop open. Sometimes that would be the posh rosticceria on the Via Condotti, but most of the time I shopped at a small open farmer’s market up the street from the Fontana di Trevi. It was just across the busy Via del Tritone and up Via della Stamperia.
A Quick Coffee at the Caffe Greco, Via Condotti
On the corner of the street there was a small bar, and every time I walked passed on my way to the market, there would be this guy standing outside, dressed in a suit, who would take off his hat and bow and say to me, “buon giorno Contessa.”  I would smile, and nod my head and say hello. It was like a fairy tale, the stuff dreams are made of. 

The market, now we’re talking outdoor market, was just a collection of small producers, like the guy with a couple of goats who made cheese and the lady I bought eggs from. You could buy one egg, or two eggs or however many eggs you wanted, but you had to bring your own container. If you didn’t have a container she would wrap each egg in old newspaper for you. 
My Most Favorite Place in the World, the Piazza della Rotonda
In those days my Italian life was pretty confusing and sometimes intimidating. What intimidated me the most was the SIP office. SIP was the national telephone company and they had an office on the Via del Tritone. It was a large room with dozens of telephone booths, called cabine, and a cashier. What you had to do was to wait in line until you got to the cashier, tell her where you wanted to call, and she would tell you what booth to go into. After you made your call you had to go back and pay for the time of the call. 

You could not, as I found out one day, make more than one call at a time. But who knew? I don’t remember who I was calling but their line was busy, so I thought, well, as long as I’m here I’ll call my father and say hello. That was a big mistake. The next thing I heard was a booming voice paging the ‘Signora in cabina tre’ instructing her to immediately hang up the phone and come to the cashier’s desk. Cabina tre? That was me. What did I do? I was so embarrassed. 
Turns out, we were only allowed to make one phone call at a time. Line busy. Too bad. You lose your turn. 
Largo Argentina
Changing money wasn't exactly high on my list of favorite things to do either. I think I had traveler’s checks at the time, all I know is I had to go to the bank, show them my passport and sign my name about twenty times before I could get any lira. But, oh, the thrill of getting those large wads of colorful lira worth thousands and thousands, stacks of 20,000 lira bills. I felt so rich, I was rich. Sort of.

Unfortunately, because my school was not in the center of town, by the time I got back from classes the banks were usually closed. They may have opened again for 20 minutes or so later in the afternoon like they do now, but I didn’t have the language skills to figure it out. Days would go by when all I ate mozzarella and tomatoes because I didn’t have any money and in desperation I would often have to take a day off from school just to get to the bank. 
Campo di Fiori
When I did have money, I would eat at the Il Delfino Self Service Restaurant, an always open cafeteria across from Piazza Argentina. Again because I got back to the center of Rome so late, most of the restaurants would be closed and unless I wanted a panino or a slice of pizza, my choices were slim. So the Delfino was perfect.  Besides I couldn’t really read menus and I was usually starving at that point, so it was also the easiest place to go. It’s still there. If you are ever in Rome and find yourself in Piazza Argentina, stop in and tell them I said hello.

It was a wonderful time. Rome was spectacular, another world that I was fortunate enough to be part of and I loved everything about it. I loved exploring the streets and wandering here and there discovering the things that people have been discovering about Rome since the days of the Romans. I used to think how much nicer it would have been if I had been able to communicate better, but maybe that was part of the charm. Now so many of my experiences in Rome are just a normal part of my life, but it’s still wonderful, just different.

And just because I finally figured out how to do this, here's a walking tour of Rome I found especially for my Aunt Florence, because I think she will like it. It's part of a tour taken by some Japanese tourists and narrated by Dennis Callan. It's a little off beat but he does cover some nice sites.

22 March 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Once Upon a Time There Was a Small Village

SARONNO, Italy - Here’s some good news. The President of the Republic of Italy was in Vernazza, over the weekend, to witness the changes that have taken place since the disastrous storm last October. The last time he was here, the town was buried under a river of mud 14 feet deep (4 meters) and people in his group were telling him, “the village pharmacy was here, the tobacco shop was over there and next to that a restaurant, and so on and so on, but all he could actually see was mud.  
 Vernazza, Italy
Gone were all of the places everyone had seen a thousand times in the photos and postcards sent by enchanted visitors as they marveled at this wonder of this village wedged between the sea and the sky. Even the underpass that once went to the train station was gone, the only reminder was a crooked blue Stazione sign pointing the way.

But that’s all changed. It’s not perfect yet, but the residents of Vernazza have been digging themselves out and on Monday, under a bright blue spring sky, Piazza Marconi was once again crowded with people sitting and having a drink by the sea. The old folks were out too, sitting on the village benches enjoying the warm spring sun and talking about the this and that of everyday life in the Cinque Terre.
Lunch in the Sun
And, as I said before, the President of the Republic was in town too. Officially he was there to attend a conference on protecting resources in an emergency, but I suspect he really wanted to see for himself what the people of Vernazza, and the many volunteers who came down to help, have done. One thing they didn’t do was wait around for the government’s help. They stepped up, got to work and made it happen.

I found a charming video of Vernazza on You Tube and if you’ve never been to Vernazza you'll get a good idea of what it's all about. Of course you won’t get to eat focaccia or smell the sea, or feel the warm breeze coming off of the water, but, you'll have to go there for those extras.  By the way, the church was built in 1310, just to give you a sense of the place, and because I know you are wondering, the total population is 974.The music in the video is coming from Piazza Marconi.

No, I haven't forgotten that it’s Thursday and it’s supposed to be Auntie Pasta’s turn to talk, so here’s an easy pesto recipe I found on the internet.

Fresh Basil Pesto Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
  • 3 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Special equipment needed: A food processor Descrizione: https://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=elisecom&l=ur2&o=1


1 Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, pulse a few times in a food processor. (If you are using walnuts instead of pine nuts and they are not already chopped, pulse them a few times first, before adding the basil.) Add the garlic, pulse a few times more.
2 Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Yield: Makes 1 cup. (enough for four portions)

Of course if you are like me and you don't own a food processor, you can also use a mortar and pestle, no reason why you can't And what do you think about making some pesto, cooking your pasta and eating it while you watch the video. Sounds like a good idea to me. You'll have to eat fast though. 

18 March 2012

LIFE: Song of the South - Lecce

SARONNO, Italy - In Lecce, the ornate buildings in the historic center seem to be sculpted of velvet and sprinkled with gold. They give the old town a golden glow, even on cloudy days. The secret of that glow is in the stone, a particular limestone only found in the Pugliese town of Lecce, several kilometers inland from the Adriatic Sea. The stone is the element that binds together the various periods of history and architectural styles you see in Lecce, ranging from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, right up to the nineteenth-century.
It seems to be another magnificently curlicued and putti decorated building around every corner. You would think your eye would tire of the endless parade of the exaggerated Baroque designs that Lecce presents, but the perfect proportion of the old town gives you just enough space from one elaborately carved church or building to another to make each new discovery as breathtaking as the last. I have never seen anything quite like it, and I don’t think there is anything like it anywhere else in Italy.
Along the streets of Lecce
The secret is in the stone. It is unlike any other, soft and almost paste like when first pulled from the quarry, and then as it is exposed to the air, it slowly begins to harden and turn a rich golden color,  and holds firm to the decorations that have been cut into it. It’s almost like magic.

It was in the early 1600’s that Italy began to take on a new look. Symmetry was out, decoration was in. There were two Renaissance architects who were primarily responsible for the change - Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini - and they were both in Rome. Bernini’s decorations were elaborate and beautiful. Borromini’s decorations were so embroidered and over-the-top that many considered him mad. It was an impression that would linger long after his death. But it was precisely because of Borromini, and his perceived madness, that the works he created during this period was called Baroque, for in those days baroque meant abnormal. 
 Church of Santa Croce, Lecce
But it was anything but abnormal for brothers DGuiseppe and Antonio Zimbalo, local sculptors and architects working in Lecce. It was as if this new style developed by Bernini and Borromini had been invented just for them. the Church of Santa Croce in Lecce’s Jewish quarter, is Antonio Zimbalo’s most over the top design. The church took more than 150 years to complete, and at least five other architects had a hand in its creation.  Zimbalo worked his magic on the top half of the façade centering it with a rose window encircled with winged angel heads, acanthus leaves and rosettes. Then he moved on to dragons and cherubs, griffons and lions, saints and sinners and pot-bellied mermaids. It’s almost more than the eye can take in, and the brain can process.
Duomo of Lecce
Just a short distance from Piazza Oronzo, the town’s main piazza, large porticos lead to into the Piazza del Duomo, and the Basilica. It’s another Zimbalo brother masterpiece, this time Guiseppe Zimbalo. It is difficult to appreciate the impact the Basilica had when it was first built as the city was configured  differently now than it was then. What that means is that the first ornate   ornate façade you see as you walk into the piazza is not the church entrance, but the exit. There is another equally ornate façade along the right hand side of the church, and that is where the entrance is. The interior of the Basilica is also a cornucopia of baroque ornamentation, but perhaps the most unusual of all the decorations are the large statues made of papier mâché.

Papier Mache Artisans at Work
The art of papier mâché was brought to Naples from the Far East, and it migrated south to Lecce in the 17th century. It didn’t take long for Lecce to rival Naples as the papier mâché capital of Italy and  it is still a thriving business. Life-size saints, crucifixions of all sizes, and crèches for churches are created here and shipped around the world. You can easily spend an entire afternoon watching the masters at work at the many workshops scattered throughout the historic center.

One of the most popular saints made is a life like figure of St. Oronzo, Lecce’s patron saint. It’s a fascinating process that starts with wet sheets of paper are wrapped around a featureless wire and straw mannequin. There seems to be little hope that a recognizable figure will ever emerge from the mass, but then, with a red hot iron, the maestro begins to burn details into the mannequin’s head and body. With every pass he makes, licks of flames and billows of smoke shoot skyward. The mannequin is soon blackened from head to toe. The next morning the charred figure of yesterday now has several coats of paint, and from the charred and blackened mass stands a life-like figure of St. Oronzo, a tall mitre on his head and dainty slippers on his feet.
 Saint Oronzo, Patron Saint of Lecce
In Piazza Saint Oronzo, a much larger statue of Oronzo stands high on a column looking down at the city he loved, his hand held high in an eternal blessing. It was carved in 1666 to  thank  the Saint for having saved the town from the plague that had swept through Lecce ten years earlier. The tall marble column the statue sits on is even older than the statue. It was brought from another Apulian town, Brindisi where, along with another column of the same size, once marked the end of the ancient Roman Appian Way.
Roman Amphitheater
In the same piazza as the statute of St. Oronzo there is a Roman amphitheater from the 1st century BC, which was discovered quite by accident in the late 1920’s when Lecce was cleaning up after an massive earthquake. And just a few blocks away,  a Roman theatre that was built during the time of Caesar Augustus was uncovered from the rubble as well. Twelve flights of steps have been excavated, enough to hold up to 5,000 spectators, but there is every reason to believe there were more. The area where the orchestra sat still has the original floor of large slabs of stone which end with three big steps reserved for the city officials to sit on. And in the apron of the stage, the groove where the curtain slid back and forth, is still visible. 

The historic center is closed to traffic, and few drive there except for the brave residents who expertly maneuver their Fiats and Smart cars through the crowds of tour groups and gawking tourists like me. Even though the old town is built on a medieval circular plan it is easy to find your way. If you get lost, the Tourist Police will put you back on the right track. But you probably won’t need them. There are well placed signs on just about every corner, that keep you going in the right direction.
Rolling Produce Stand
The shops close in the early afternoon and open again around 4:30 PM, the hour of the passeggiata. It’s the part of the day when the whole town turns out for an afternoon stroll and the clean and quiet streets come alive and jugglers and musicians materialize out of nowhere, to vie for your attention.   As the noisy metal grates are raised, colorful storefronts suddenly appear  and soon young and old are strolling hand in hand, the staccato sound of Italian as it’s spoken in the south, fills the air.    

The day I was there, there were several groups of school kids, probably 9 or 10 years old, being led around town by their teachers and parents who had volunteered to chaperone. I ran into one group in the church of Santa Croce. Their teacher told me they were from a small town near Bari and I commented on how well behaved they were, and how they actually seemed interested in the particulars of the church. She looked at me and said, “why wouldn’t they be interested? This is their heritage, this is about them, this is them.” 
 Well now, that's true, isn't it.

14 March 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Song of the South

SARONNO, Italy – On Sunday I’m planning to post an article on Lecce, a fantastic city in the region of Puglia. The article came out of an assignment for the Italian Ministry of Culture that took me on a 10 hour train ride to Bari and Lecce. I had never been to Puglia before and the only things I had ever heard about it were not good. As I’ve written in other posts, Bari was the number one bugaboo city that I had been warned about and it turned out to be one fantastic place that completely captured my heart. 
 Tiella Barese
 Lecce was also a surprise. It is a city of jaw dropping beauty with a complexity of architecture I had never seen before.  But more about that on Sunday. Today is food day. 

What charmed the pants off of me in Bari were the women sitting out in front of their houses making orrechietti by hand. Young and old, big and small, they sat around ricky tables rolling and cutting and forming the little ears of pasta with a quick flick of their thumbs.  When they finished, they would lay the orrechietti on kitchen towels, and put them out to dry in the sun. 

Pugliese food was a complete surprise. Since it was in April, restaurants were offering a spring puree of fresh fava beans with a side of chicory fried in a little fragrant Pugliese olive oil and garlic. Other local favorites are tajeddha (layered potatoes, rice, and mussels), ciceri e tria (boiled and crisp-fried pasta with chickpeas) and pezzetti di cavallo (stewed horse meat in tomato sauce.  

Today’s recipe is called Tiella Barese, it’s a version of tajeddha, layered potatoes, rice, and mussels.   I’ll tell you right now, there are as many versions of this as there are stars in the sky, and every family believes with all their heart that theirs is the one and only original and best recipe. 
Tiella Barese


Hot water                    500 ml
Garlic                          2 heads
Red onions                  2
Mussels                       500 grams
Olive Oil                     5 tablespoons
Potatoes                      500 grams
Pecorino                      70 grams – grated
Cherry Tomatoes         500 grams
Parsley                         30 grams
Aborio Rice                 250 grams

Start by cleaning the mussels. Once they are clean, put them in a frying pan with high sides (1), add some water and a little white wine, cover them and let them cook until they open. Drain them, reserving the liquid,  (2) take off the upper part of the shell and put them in another pan (3).  
Clean the cherry tomatoes and cut them into quarters (4). Peel the potatoes and slice them very thin (5), and then put them in a bowl of cold water and set aside. Thinly slice the red onions (6) and  

Finely chop the parsely and garlic, and mix them together with 2 spoons of olive oil (7). Grease a baking dish with a high border, and put the sliced onions on the bottom of it (8). Sprinkle them with the garlic parsley mixture (9). 
 Place the cherry tomatoes on top of the onions, garlic, parsely (10), and half of the pecorino cheese (11). Then add a layer of potato slices, fanning them out around the dish (12).  

Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper (13-14) and then cover the potatoes with a layer of rice, evenly distributing them over the top (15).   

Then add the layer of mussels (16-17), and another layer of cherry tomatoes (18) and the rest of the pecorino cheese.  
The potatoes are the last layer (19). Then add the liquid from the mussels and enough water to make a total of 500 ml (20). Heat the oven to 190 degrees C (375 degrees F). Cook in a hot oven for 50/60 minutes. After the first 40 minutes you can lower the temperature to 180 degrees C (365/370 degrees F). Cover the dish with a sheet of aluminum foil and let it cook for another 20 minutes or so.Let it cool at room temperature for about 10 minutes and serve.

The Tiella Barese, like Spanish paella, gets its name from the dish it's cooked in. A tiella, or tieed, in Barsese dialect means baking dish. The beauty of this dish is that it utilizes ingredients typical of the area, tomatoes, potatoes and mussels. A layer of sliced zucchini can also be added to the mix, I would put them under the tomatoes.

11 March 2012

LIFE: Your Life in Their Hands

SARONNO, Italy - Milanese fortunetellers are furious with the city of Milan. I’m not talking about fraudulent fortune tellers (see This Italian Life Blog Life” Mother and Daughter, Together Again (in Jail) posted Jan. 15, 2012), and other slickeroos of that ilk who ply their trade in the middle of the night on local TV stations. I’m talking about  Tarot card readers, palm readers, psychics and astrologers who have a license to sell their services from wobbly card tables set up along the pedestrian only streets between the Duomo and the Brera District in center city Milan.  
A Taro Card Reader at Work
What they are upset about is the increase in “permit” fees they have to pay the city in order to use the city’s streets as their place of business. The fee is known as the ‘use of city land tax’.  According to Marcello Basile, President of the Fortunetellers of Brera, fortunetellers already pay between 600 to 7,200 euros a year to the city just to not be hassled by the city police, and now the City wants to raise the daily rate from 3 euros a day to 21 euros a day. 

The increase has created quite a stir, not only among the fortune tellers and astrologers, but also among the street artists, like those guys you see wearing gold robes and Egyptian pharaoh masks who stand along the streets as stiff as if they really have been dead for the past 3,000 years. Unlike the portrait painters that you find under the porticoes across the street from Milan’s Duomo, the fortune tellers etc. do not charge a fixed rate, but must depend on the generosity of their clients. And that is the crux of the problem according to Signor Basile. He says it’s unthinkable for the city to place him and the other street “entertainers” in the same category as the portrait painters. 
Human Angel
Unfortunately, the increase has already been put into effect, and no one from City Hall has been willing or able to come up with a satisfactory solution. So Signor Basile is determined to fight on. The fortune tellers, astrologers, psychics and palm readers got together and decided on an emergency line of defense policy. 

“What we are going to do,” said Signor Basile, “is express our outrage in a demonstration in front of City Hall. In addition, we will try to organize all of the people who work in jobs that involve the use of  city land, for example: truck drivers, food vendors and other vendors, like those who sell lottery tickets, souvenirs and flags and maps of the city. Anyone who uses city land to promote their business. All these categories are affected by the new regulation that imposes this exaggerated increase in fees.”  
Working the Street in Milan's Brera Area
It may be regulations like these that keep many of Italy’s “maghi” underground, away from the prying eyes of the Fiscal Police and the Italian tax system. There was a recent case in Chiavari, a small resort town in Liguria, where a mother and daughter were being investigated for fraud and extortion. According to the indictment, the two “maghi” took advantage of a woman from Chiavari who was determined to regain her husband at any cost. 

The victim of the fraud reported the two women to the police saying she had paid tens of thousands of euros for magic potions and secret love rituals before discovering she was being deceived. The attorney for the two “maghi” denied any wrongdoing and said that the searches conducted by the Fiscal Police failed to turn up any evidence of fraud – other than the money the victim paid them. 
"I Can Cure All Your Ills- Just Send Money"
The Fiscal Police are now looking for other victims in the Chiavari area who may have been fleeced by the two women but so far they have not been successful. However in the Sampierdarena section of Genoa, another case has come to light of a woman known only as Chiara, has been consulting a “mago” for a problem she has been having with a competitor. In other words, the competitor is doing much better financially than she is, and she was looking for a way to reverse those roles. 

The psychic or “mago” she consulted, this time a man, performed several “voodoo” type rituals, a waving of hands, a crossing of photos all the while chanting secret mystical passages and giving her such sage advice as to “follow her instincts.” After a few weeks and a few thousand euros later the woman realized she wasn’t getting the result she wanted and complained to the police. The psychic was brought up on charges of fraud and is currently awaiting sentencing. 
The Divine Otelmo
Talking about being brought up on charges, my all time favorite “mago” has to be Marco Amieto Belelli, better known as the Divino Otelmo. He, along with Vanna Marchi, were my introduction to the Italian world of wizards and psychics back in the early 90's. The guy was a phenomenon. He used to rail against the Catholic Church for their anti-gay policy and at a certain point he started his own church, the Church of the Living and managed to attract over 20,000 followers. He also founded a political party, made a CD of 15 songs, one of which was entitled Prendi la Fortuna (Get Lucky), wrote books, had a program on Spanish TV and generally speaking, did quite well for himself. 

The last I heard he had been found guilty of defamation of character and aggravated assault by the Court of Calgari (Sardegna), for attacking a TV producer who portrayed him as a failed magician in a made for TV film. That was in 2005, and two years later the charge was reversed and dropped.
"Now Let Me See...."
I guess it’s human nature to look for a silver bullet to cure all your ills, enact your revenges, make your husband fall in love with you again, or not, and all the other maladies of humanness, but when you finally realize you’ve been had, how do they find the courage to go to the police? It’s not like it’s a secret that these people are shysters, now is it?

08 March 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Over the Moon in Lunigiana

SARONNO, Italy - The Lunigiana is a strange kind of place that even many Italians have never heard of. It’s like an insiders secret, located in the provinces of La Spezia and Massa Carrara, It’s half in Liguria and half in Tuscany, going from the Apennine mountains to the Magra River.
The Lunigiana, A Well Kept Secret
The story is that before the territory was settled by the Romans, the Etruscan lived here. No news there, most of the towns, particularly in that area got their start exactly the same way. The story is – and you know how these stories are, often more fiction than fact – that the borders reflect the medieval diocese of Luni, which no longer exists. It is really was part of Luini, then Lunigiana was once the most important urban center on the northern Tuscan coast.
The Moon, The Bear and the ???
It is said that the area was called Luini because the people who lived there worshiped the moon. Luni is close enough to luna which in Italian is the word for moon, so it could be true. To add fuel to that fire, the symbol of modern day Lunigiana is a crescent moon held in the paw of a bear.
 Stele in Piagnar Castle Museum
Along with traces of both Roman and Medieval settlements, there are wondrously interesting stele, late pre-historic and Bronze Age stone statues which have been found in large numbers in this area.    
More Stele
From time immemorial, the ‘panigaccio’ and ‘testarolo’ have been a simple and low cost dishes eaten in the entire territory of Lunigiana and the Garfagnana. Panigaccio and testarolo are not the same thing as I initially wrote and now stand corrected by Andrea. He told me that panigaccio are a little like foccacia while testaroli are cooked like crepes, then cut into diamond shapes or strips and served like pasta. That part I knew because I've cooked, and made, testaroli, it was the panigaccio that confused me. He said that he used to eat panigaccio topped with a little cheese or ham. Nice to know and I stand corrected.  
Testaroli with Pesto
The recipe for testaroli is simple. Equal parts whole wheat or buckwheat flour and water, (buckwheat is best and white flour is not recommended) mixed to a consistency of heavy cream. Two cups of flour should be enough for four people. The cooking technique is basically the same as cooking crepe, with one small addition. Before you start to cook the batter, take a half of a peeled potato or half of a peeled onion, stab it with a fork, dip it in extra virgin olive oil and run it over the hot oil before you add the batter. Do this before you cook each one. These crepes are not quite as thin as French crepes so they take a few seconds longer to cook.
A Stack of Panigaccio
I prefer to use a large frying pan rather than a crepe size pan since I’m only going to cut them up anyway it’s easier to make a couple of big ones than a bunch of small ones. When the testaroli are cooked, lay them out on a clean dishtowel to cool. They don’t keep well but you can roll them up in cooking paper and freeze them to use another time, or cut them into wide short strips or diamond shapes and drop them in a pot of salted boiling water for a few seconds. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, drain them, put them in a dish and top with pesto and a little grated parmigiano reggiano cheese. Eat immediately. 

Where is this place, anyway?
On this map, the Lunigiana is the small yellow part between La Spezia and Massa Carrara. The first time I saw testaroli was in Parma, in an old shop that sold a little bit of pasta, a few cans of tomatoes, a couple of bottles of wine and some kind of a large, brown pancake. The shop owner seemed a bit perplexed when I asked him what they were, I guess he never had anyone ask him that before. At any rate, he said, they were testaroli and to cook them you just cut them up any old way, and boil them for a few minutes, drain them and top them with pesto. So I did. Once again it was love at first taste. 

Simple dishes like testaroli really speak to the heart of Italian cuisine.Many of the dishes Italians prepare in this day and age of high speed trains and the internet, were developed centuries ago. They are the thread that connects the Italy of today with the Italy of yesterday, and that is one of the reasons why, for me, Italy is so special.
And can I add one small rant regarding pesto? American Chef Michael Chiarello suggests adding a pinch of vitamin C powder (ascorbic acid) to your pesto to keep it from discoloring. He adds ascorbic acid to his pesto because his pesto is made so far in advance of serving there is a danger of it discoloring. But if you are making pesto at home there is absolutely no need for it.